Feature Article

Jaffna university alumni association formed in London

[TamilNet, Sunday, 20 March 2011, 07:07 GMT]
Perceiving the need for a non-political, civil society organisation, the old students of the University of Jaffna, on Saturday, formed an alumni association in London. Around 45 graduates attended the inaugural step initiated by the first batch of the students of the University. An ad hoc committee of 15 members was formed with Mr. K. Sivaraja, Mr. S. Jeyaraja and Mr. K. Sivanandan as president, vice-president and secretary respectively. The gathering decided to make the association global and to hold the first general meeting in September. UK based lawyer Mr. Srikanthalingam has been assigned with the task of drafting a constitution. The association is open to all old students of the university from any part of the island, the organizers said.

Sivaraja and Jeyaraja were the first president and vice-president of the Science Faculty Union when the university was started in 1974 and Sivananadan was also a student of the first batch.

The gathering of old students on Saturday remembered with thanks the innovative academic leadership provided by the founder president of the university, Professor K. Kailasapathy and the founder deans of the Arts and Science faculties, Professors, K. Indrapala and P. Kanagasabapathy.

One of the attendees remembered Prof. Indrapala coming on a bicycle to the university in the initial years. When the students were teasing about the lack of facilities at the university, he got down from the bicycle and patiently explained to them that the spirit of a university is not in the buildings and facilities. Tagore’s Santhi Niketan was started under a tree, he told them.

Western-modelled university level education was introduced in Jaffna in the 19th century, especially with the founding of Jaffna College at Vaddukkoaddai and the medical institute of Green at Maanippaay.

The American Mission education in those days was an alternative to the European colonial model of education and Jaffna had the advantage of receiving it first.

When the British started the first three universities of India at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1858, the first graduates of the University of Madras were from Jaffna and they already had their preliminary university level studies at the Jaffna College. Decades before the medical college of Colombo, Jaffna had a medical institute and those who qualified from there were appointed as doctors even in the Straits Settlements (today’s Malaysia and Singapore). Students trained in engineering and surveying at the Jaffna College were laying railway lines in the Straits Settlements.

But a university for Jaffna was denied for long both by the British and by the regimes in Colombo.

The University of Jaffna, then known as the Jaffna campus of the University of Sri Lanka, was started in October 1974 amidst much controversy.

That was the time when the Tamils of the island were vociferously opposing the 1972 constitution that constitutionally confirmed Sri Lanka a Sinhala-Buddhist republic. Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayagam representing KKS electorate resigned his seat in the parliament, challenging Colombo to conduct a by-election to see the verdict of Tamils on the issue.

But, Colombo was delaying the by-election. Rather than addressing the fundamentals, it was just engaged in roping in Tamils through Tamil leftists, collaborators and through petty concessions.

Already there was unrest among Tamil youth, especially in Jaffna, over the adverse effect of ‘standardization’ introduced by Colombo in the university admissions.

In the meantime, in 1974 January, the Fourth International Tamil Research Conference was conducted in Jaffna. Colombo was unhappy about conducting it in Jaffna. It tried its best to have the conference in Colombo for its political advantage. But the organizers headed by Professor S. Vithiananthan (later, Vice-Chancellor, University of Jaffna) were firm in having it in Jaffna. Unprecedented public enthusiasm was shown towards the conference that was attended by international delegates, including many from Tamil Nadu.

But the conference also became the first occasion to witness the naked state terrorism of Colombo in Jaffna. On the last day of the conference, when the hall became overcrowded and speeches were held in the esplanade outside the hall and when thousands were peacefully listening to an interesting academic speech by a Muslim scholar from Tamil Nadu, on a flimsy pretext of roadblock, a police party that came from the fort of Jaffna fired at the crowd and killed nine people.

It was against such a backdrop the University of Jaffna was declared open by the then SL prime minister, Srimao Bandaranayake. No wonder the inauguration was widely viewed as a political move to diffuse the budding national liberation struggle of Eezham Tamils and there was also resentment over the way the university was started.

Some of the academics chosen for the university were among those who carefully avoided participation in the International Tamil Conference. Two heritage schools in Jaffna, the Jaffna College and the Parameswara College were taken over by the SL government to start the university hurriedly.

The Jaffna College was long running undergraduate courses for external degrees. A few students who were studying there and another 114 students whose admissions to other universities were delayed became the first batch of students in the Arts and Science faculties of the Jaffna University.

In the initial years there were also Sinhala students. At that time, no Tamil student could become a student union president in any of the university in the island, because of the numbers as well as the ethnic divide. The only possibility was in the Jaffna University. But even then, the University of Jaffna made a Sinhala student as the first president of the student union. Those who were in the university administration, used all their personal influence to persuade the Tamil students not to contest, citing that it would harm the efforts they were undertaking to build up the university.

But soon no one could prevent the University of Jaffna becoming a centre for the frontiers of all shades of the nationalist polity of Eezham Tamils, as well as other shades of liberation ideas.

In the days of ‘experimenting’ with District Councils, Mr. A. Amirthalingam found it difficult to enter the university and once when he came a student snatched away the pistol of his bodyguard, which was later returned.

The subsequent decades were precarious for the university community. But whether contribution to the cause of Eezham Tamils or resistance to all forms of oppression, the university always demonstrated its capacity through whatever space that was available.

Apart from politics, the socio-economic and cultural contribution of more than 30 batches of the students of the university, inside the island and in the world across, is yet to be assessed comprehensively. One has to look at with a larger perspective in assessing the contributions and in envisaging the future course of this university, as from its very inception the university couldn’t be separated from the cause that was obsessing its nation.

The cause is felt more than ever today. No university worthy of its name could be separated from the aspirations of its people, unless Multinational Corporatism is allowed to erode the foundations of community education as it has done so in the so-called developed countries, imperceptibly making the universities subservient and declining.

It is indeed now time for the alumni of the university to rise up to the occasion to serve the academic cause of its nation in an independent way, to present the case of the nation globally and to contribute to the university as well as to the academic community at home.

No liberation struggle can be successful if a nation doesn’t have independent civil society movements that go beyond petty politics of sectarianism.


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