Colombo Telegraph has come to know that the professor of Mathematics at the University of Jaffna who topped the VC’s election held recently has a questionable track record as academic administrator and public figure. Members of the University Council, as electors of Vice Chancellors, are obligated to search for and elect leaders with inclusive social vision for the highest administrative seat in the public university. If a candidate with a narrow social vision and proven history of sectarianism was able to secure the support of 17 out of the 23 Council members who cast their votes, it is a sad reflection of how these members appointed to the University Councils on the basis of their academic eminence, administrative experience and contribution to social progress evaluate the candidates, the political and ideological affiliations and preferences of the council members and their understanding of the role of the public university and its relationship to the marginalized segments of the country’s polity.
Jaffna University Council
We reliably learn that this professor of Mathematics, who received the highest number of votes, attempted to block the publication of an article that was scathing in its critique of casteism in Jaffna society two years ago. This well-researched article was written by an academic attached to the University of Peradeniya, for a felicitation volume for the Late Mr. Thangavadivel, a Left-wing activist who was involved in people’s struggles against caste discrimination in Jaffna and a well-known teacher at Udupiddy American Mission College. Both the writer of the article and the professor of Mathematics are alumni of Udupiddy American Mission College.
The article (click here to read the article), as it was submitted by the author for publication in the felicitation volume, appeared in a magazine called Aakkaaddi in 2015 with prefatory notes by the author about the attempts made by the said professor to block its publication. Academics and researchers who have contributed to academic conversations on caste and participated in public campaigns against caste-based discrimination wonder how this professor of Mathematics who tried to suppress freedom of expression in a public forum will ensure academic freedom at University of Jaffna, if he is appointed as the VC of the University by the President of the country. Some even questioned the wisdom and politics of the members of the University Council who voted for this professor of Mathematics in the VC’s election. They note that most members of the University Council are either deliberately blind to and complicit in practices of social exclusion that happen along lines of ethnicity, religion and caste in the University or out of touch with the realities on the ground.
The said professor of Mathematics also took efforts to move the university’s main entrance to face the Parameswaran temple inside the campus with a view to giving the University a Hindu character. Moreover, when he was the Dean of the Faculty of Science last year, he gave in to the demand made by the Tamil students to not include Kandyan Dancing in the procession held at the welcome event for the freshers though he initially supported the Sinhala students’ demand. When the Sinhala students defied this decision, and tried to perform Kandyan Dancing during the welcome procession, they were attacked by the Tamil students and the University was temporarily shut down. Colombo Telegraph reliably learns that some members of the Tamil People’s Council, a Tamil nationalist body that includes representatives of political parties and civil groups, actively campaigned for this professor’s victory. Even as the academic community in Jaffna is awaiting the appointment of the new Vice Chancellor, some newspapers in Jaffna have already declared that the UGC would soon announce the appointment of this professor as the University’s new Vice Chancellor and a letter in this regard had already been sent to the UGC by the President. He is also described as the next Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna at public events that he attends in the peninsula.
That the top administration of the University of Jaffna in the recent past was hostile to researchers who exposed casteism in Jaffna society and the caste biases of Tamil nationalist politics is evident in the way an applicant was treated by the former VC of the University when he faced an interview for a Lecturer position in Sociology. This promising scholar who had done work on casteism in Jaffna was denied the post of Lecturer (Probationary) in Sociology because the previous VC who also taught Sociology reportedly did not like the research findings presented by the scholar which demonstrated that caste-based discrimination and exploitation were rampant in the North. Recently, at the invitation of Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research and Jaffna Science Association, the researcher did a presentation on caste issues in the North at the University of Jaffna at a session on social justice in the North and East. But the screening of his documentary that had been scheduled for the weekend after the presentation at the University was abruptly cancelled because a section of the academic staff and administrators were unhappy with the presentation made by the scholar.
It should be noted that the present VC of the University of Jaffna tried to ban the launch of Palmyra Fallen, a book about the violence that the Tamil community faced from within and the outside during the civil war and after, by Rajan Hoole of the University of Teachers’ for Human Rights (Jaffna) who was at the time of the launch was a lecturer attached to the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Jaffna. The book which offers an incisive analysis of caste discrimination among the Tamils appears on the list of works cited by the scholar from Peradeniya in his paper on caste for the felicitation volume. Interestingly, the said professor of Mathematics, who reportedly told the author of the article on casteism that he had never read Rajan Hoole’s books because Hoole was known as an anti-LTTEist, was spotted at the launch which was also attended by several academics from the South and representatives of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA). The present VC also banned the launch of a book on the plight of the up-country Tamil people later because some politicians had been invited to the event.
For free education to be meaningful to the marginalized populations of our country, our schools and universities should nurture academic freedom, awareness of social justice, multi-culturalism and secularism not just in their academic endeavors but also in the day-to-day running of the institutions. While university councils should be autonomous and decisions made by the councils should be free of political interference, the councils and their members are obligated to ensure that these values are given the foremost place in the everyday life of the public university. When they are tasked with the responsibility of electing academic leaders for administrative positions, they should take every possible to step to ensure that people who have demonstrated commitment to these values get these positions.
Appointment of those who indulge themselves in sectarian politics will only lead to the deterioration of free education and our universities and schools will become places that feed competing nationalisms, religious chauvinisms and casteism. First by rejecting the application of an external candidate on spurious legal grounds and then by giving the highest number of votes to a polarizing academic, the majority of the members of the Jaffna University Council have made a mockery of democracy, university autonomy and inclusiveness. The previous Council of the University of Jaffna was remote-controlled by the EPDP and its leader. When a new group of Councilors were appointed by the UGC after the regime change in January 2015, many expected a positive change in the way the University was run. This was mainly because the public saw most UGC-appointed members of the Council as politically independent. However, their failure to address deep-rooted problems in recruitment and investigate charges of nepotism and favoritism in previous recruitments and later its decision to reject the application of an external candidate for the post of Vice Chancellor have made many who anticipated change feel disappointed and angry.
We offer below a translation from the prefatory notes by the author of the article on caste discrimination about the attempts made by the said professor of Mathematics, who polled the highest number of votes in the VC’s election, to block the publication of the article in the felicitation volume:
“A mathematics professor from Northern Sri Lanka tried every trick in the book to stop the publication of my article. The professor told me that this article would lead to others labelling me as someone who writes about caste. He also said he did not read Rajan Hoole’s books because Rajan Hoole was identified as anti-LTTE. The professor also told me that Varnashramadharma [the social classes and their responsibilities as mentioned in Brahmanical texts like Manusmriti] has an eternal life. He added that the article criticizes many people and that it would be better if I wrote from a religious perspective. The professor quoted Ramana Bhagavan [a Hindu sage] who had once said that one should not criticize those who are alive. Because of the illusion created by this professor about my essay, sections of my article were chopped off when preparations were made for the publication of the felicitation volume.”
There may be valid criticism of other candidates who ran for the office of the Vice Chancellor too; as aspirants for the post of Vice Chancellor, their role as intellectuals and public figures cannot escape public scrutiny. But what alarms many and why this case should be flagged is that a person who holds such retrograde, anti-intellectual views was able to gain the support of more than 70% of the University Council and become first in the contest.