Friday, October 29, 2010

Looking Back Twenty-Five Years Later – Society and Education in Jaffna- Santasilan Kadirgamar

Paper read at Seminar held in Chennai December 19-11, 2004, Centre for Security Analysis.

Published in CONFLICT RESOLUTION and PEACE BUILDING in SRI LANKA, Edited by V.R.Raghavan and Karl Fischer, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Limited, New Delhi, 2005


Looking Back Twenty-Five Years Later – Society and Education in Jaffna

         Santasilan Kadirgamar


“Somehow or other I feel that I am going to a different place in going to Jaffna .” (Gandhi in his farewell speech in Colombo, 1927.) “ Having come to Jaffna I do not feel that I am in Ceylon , but I feel that I am in a bit of India . Neither your faces nor your language is foreign to me. Though I cannot identify everyone of you by your features I know that I have met many of you in India itself.” (At his very first meeting in Jaffna .)

“We went to Jaffna in the far north by train and received a tumultuous welcome. Jaffna is the centre of the Tamil and aggressive youth leagues. We had a heavy programme, motored all over the neighbourhood, and had a dip in the sea and swam towards India – she was only 16 miles across.” (Nehru writing to his sister Krishna Nehru Hutheesing about his visit to Jaffna, May 1931.)

“How should the story of Ceylon begin but by fixing its limits, first in place and then in time? … If Ceylon is not in Milton ’s phrase ‘ India ’s utmost isle’, it is yet an Indian isle. Indeed, it is necessary to think of it as many other islands separated from the continents to which they once belonged. England and Japan come at once to mind. They instruct us how dangerous it is in recounting their stories to isolate island from the continent or to force them irretrievably together.” (Prof.E.F.C.Ludowyk, “The Story of Ceylon” 1962, in his prologue titled search for a clue.)


The primary focus of this paper is on the dimensions of human security that is a pre-condition for peace in its fullest sense. The underlying assumption is that by focusing on education, which lays the foundation for human security, a major contribution can be made for the achievement of a lasting peace. It is attempted here to give a brief outline of the development of education in Jaffna and the impact it had on society. Reminiscences of what it was like before the armed conflict of the last two decades are included. In the last twenty-five years, society and culture have changed. The highly developed schools system and the education imparted was the bedrock on which society and culture flourished in the Jaffna that we knew. That educational system was a legacy of growth that took place in Jaffna over a century and a half. It placed the Tamil Diaspora where it is now. Jaffna , for a district of it size, without doubt occupied an envious place in Afro-Asia for its achievements in education.

One factor, an often forgotten one that led to this advancement is the long association that the people of Jaffna had with India , more so than the rest of Lanka. This is due to geographical proximity and ties of language and religion, which made it natural for people to travel to India frequently on pilgrimages, for trade and from the nineteenth century for education.


To strike a personal note one recalls the first visit by the writer to Chennai (then Madras ) fifty-one years ago in December 1953. It is a good example of the ties that bound us together. The occasion was the Boys’ camp of the YMCAs of India, Pakistan , Burma , and Ceylon . The delegation from Ceylon consisting of about forty boys included Tamils and Sinhalese, though mostly from Jaffna . Two hundred and fifty of us lived together for ten days at the YMCA campus in Saidapet. The Governor of Madras State Sri Prakash who greeted every one of us graced the opening ceremonies of the camp. All we had to do was to obtain a temporary passport called an Emergency Certificate at the Jaffna Kachcheri and purchase a ticket at the Jaffna railway station all the way to Madras . We took the train to Talaimannar, crossed over by ferry to Rameshwaram, and reached Madras in a pleasant and memorable journey that lasted about thirty-six hours, and gave us our first exposure to the vast expanse in territory and the diversity of India . We had no problems in changing the few Ceylon rupees we carried to Indian rupees. Imagine having a gathering of youth like that today and travel between Lanka and India with such ease, inexpensive and without any hassle as we did then.

Several Jaffna families have had close relations with India . A fifth generation ancestor of mine the Rev. Francis Ashbury was a member of a team led by the American Missionary Rev. Daniel Poor from Jaffna that came to Madurai and founded the American Mission there. Another was the eminent Tamil scholar C.W.Thamotherampillai whose portrait has an honoured place in the library of the University of Madras . He together with Harold Viswanathapillai was among the first graduates of the University of Madras in the 1850s. They were both initially educated at the Batticotta Seminary (Vaddukoddai) in Jaffna . They established a tradition that continues to this day – young men and much later women who had reached College education levels came to Indian colleges for their undergraduate education. The writer's father studied at the Theological College in Bangalore and spent months at Santiniketan and Gandhi’s Ashram. He, like some others of his generation from Jaffna , participated in the early non-violent protests of 1921 including the discarding of western attire and the famous bonfire of western clothes and the adoption of khaddar. Three of the writer’s brothers and one sister had their College education in Chennai, Calcutta and Bangalore . Many Jaffna families, Hindu and Christian, can claim such intimate connections. One may acknowledge that we are where we are today educationally in fair measure is partly due to this Indian connection.  

The Nineteenth Century Background

Modern education in Jaffna begins with the founding of the Batticotta Seminary in1823 by the American Ceylon Mission. The first girls’ boarding school in Asia was founded in Uduvil in 1824. The Batticotta Seminary soon evolved into a center for higher education and laid the foundations for the advancement of education in the peninsula. Officials of the British Colonial administration have testified to the quality of education imparted.

The Colebrook Commission Report of 1931 with reference to the Batticotta Seminary stated, “ The students have some creditable proficiency in mathematics and in other branches of useful knowledge affording the most satisfactory proofs of the capacity of the natives and their disposition to avail themselves of the opportunities of improvement afforded to them. The American missionaries fully impressed with the importance of rendering the English language as the general medium of instruction and of the inestimable value of this acquirement in itself to the people.”

Sir Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary after his visit to the Seminary wrote, “The course of education is so comprehensive as to extend over a period of eight years of study.  … The knowledge exhibited by the pupils was astonishing; and he went on to say that it was no exaggeration to say that, “in the course of instruction and in the system of communicating it the collegiate institution of Batticotta is entitled to rank with many European Universities.”

Equal importance was given to the study of Tamil together with English. Sanskrit was included in the course of studies provided.

After a brief period when the Seminary was closed, the institution was revived and named Jaffna College in 1872. Secondary schools in Ceylon under the British were inappropriately called colleges. The Anglican Church through the Church Missionary Society and the Methodist Church in Ceylon had also established several such schools. Jaffna College was the only one that imparted collegiate education. It was affiliated at different times to the Calcutta and Madras Universities . Young men from the college went to India for further education. When Affiliation with Indian Universities ended the College prepared students for the inter-Arts exams of the University of London . This became a reality in the 1920s, by which time the first University College was also established in Colombo .

The nineteenth century witnessed the birth of the Hindu revivalist movement led by Arumuga Navalar. He challenged the hegemony in education established by the Christian missions and their proselytizing activities. This in turn led to the founding of the Hindu Board for Education and the gradual founding of several Hindu schools including the Jaffna Hindu College .

Growing levels in English literacy were reflected in the founding of the first provincial weeklies in the Island . The Morning Star(Uthayathaarakai in Tamil), a Christian weekly founded in 1848 was the second newspaper in the country. The Hindu Organ (Inthusaasanam) and the Catholic Guardian began publication later in the nineteenth century. The Morning Star and the Hindu Organ were bilingual. Significant in the light of the Island ’s contemporary history was the publication from 1862 of a secular weekly aptly named the “Ceylon Patriot”.

The level of instruction imparted was regarded as adequate for the British Colonial administration to recruit young men from Jaffna as clerks in its administrative services in the Federated Malay States (now Malaysia ). Migrations to Malaya began in the 1860s. Some went to Burma as well. The Malayan clerical and administrative services were predominantly manned by Jaffna Tamils, from Penang in the north to Singapore in the south. This lasted until the Asia-Pacific war broke out in 1941. This history of migrations and the role played by the products of Jaffna schools in the administrative service, the professions such as law, medicine and teaching have been well documented in “One Hundred Years of Ceylonese in Malaya and Singapore” by S.Durai Raja Singam. The Jaffna educated youth were bilingual unlike their counterparts in from the prestigious schools in Colombo . This was due to the educational policies adopted by school authorities. At a symposium in 1919 the Rev. G.G.Brown of Jaffna College stated, “ create a sentiment in the country which will make a student feel ashamed to be able to speak and to write in English which he cannot do equally well in Tamil.”


The Twentieth Century - to the1960s

The rapid expansion of schools took place from the 1920s. The arrival of teachers from South India , Kerala in particular, made a major contribution to the advances made in the teaching of the sciences. Kerala was becoming the most literate state in India with graduates seeking employment abroad. A teaching position in Ceylon was an attractive proposition for teachers from India . In the1940s one Ceylon rupee was equivalent to two Indian rupees. The ease with which the Malayalam speaking teachers spoke Tamil, their cultural adaptability, and the simple and frugal life style and living conditions prevalent in Jaffna made it a welcome area for employment. Most returned after retirement. Some families stayed on adopting Ceylonese citizenship, and unwillingly left when the law and order situation deteriorated in the 1980s. Most of these teachers were Christians, though several found employment in Hindu schools as well. At Jaffna College in 1940 ten percent and by the 1950s 20 per cent of the secondary school teachers were from South India . In addition, several local teachers were graduates of Indian Universities. The policy of Ceylonisation enforced by the government in 1964 necessitated the remaining Indian teachers to leave at short notice, ending a remarkable period in Jaffna ’s educational development.

A further rapid expansion of schools took place in the period after independence in 1948. There was a need for more schools island wide keeping pace with the rapid increase in population. In addition the free and compulsory education policy implemented in the early 1940s was having its effects as more and more students sought secondary education. The end of the Asia-Pacific War saw a large influx of Tamil students from Malaysia and Singapore . By1950 in some of the leading Jaffna schools returnees from Malaysia constituted over twenty-five per cent of the total number. The parents, and in some cases the grandparents of these students had been products of Jaffna schools. They sent their children back knowing that what Ceylon , and Jaffna in particular, could offer Malaysia and Singapore could not in the early post-war years.

In the sphere of tertiary education, the University College had been founded in Colombo in 1922 preparing students for the external degree examinations of the University of London . At Jaffna College , some students were already sitting for the Inter-arts exam of the University of London . The University College paved the way for the founding of the University of Ceylon in 1944. Plans were laid for a fully residential university, which became a reality in the early 1950s.

It is noteworthy that Jaffna kept pace with these advances in education centered in Colombo and Peradeniya. The Undergraduate Department of Jaffna College was founded in 1947 providing courses for the Inter-Arts and Inter-Science exams. This was soon replaced by courses for the General Certificate in Education (Advanced Level) exams leading to the B.A., B.Sc, and sometime later B.Sc. Economics degree external examinations of the University of London . Several lecturers from South India once again made possible this initiative in higher education. Though small in size and numbers, the quality of education once again was high. When decolonization took place in Africa several of the first generation expatriate teachers from Asia to some of these countries were from Jaffna , including graduates from Jaffna College . They went to Ghana , Nigeria , Sierra Leone , Ethiopia , and eventually the southern African countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe . Students from southern Lanka , Malaysia , and Singapore constituted a fair percentage of students receiving education in Jaffna schools, and some came to Jaffna College for their undergraduate education. At one time in the 1960s, there were two students from Uganda as well.

The one and only University of Ceylon graduates were being absorbed into the administrative services of the state and the private sector. Entrance to the one and only University was extremely competitive. The opening of the Palaly airport for civilian flights in the 1950s made direct flights from Jaffna to Madras and Trichy possible. This in turn led to more students from Jaffna entering Colleges in South India . These graduates provided the teaching staff for several schools in Jaffna . 

These developments in education bore results that led some commentators among the majority Sinhalese community to express opinions about the over-development of education in Jaffna . Such perceptions came as it was realised that the Tamils were having more than their share in ratio to their population in the professions especially in Medicine, Engineering and the highly qualified personnel in the Sciences. This in turn led to mass hysteria that led to the infamous so-called standardization initiated in 1971 that resulted in blatantly discriminatory policies in admissions to the Faculties of Medicine, Engineering, and the Sciences.

This was the final blow that broke the Tamil non-violent resistance movement functioning within democratic processes, and radicalized Tamil youth who in turn turned to armed struggle. It is a fallacy to talk of the over-development of education. Education is to be judged not in the number of professional elites schools produce but in the quality of human resources and persons made fit to live and work in harmony with others in society. In that fundamental sense the world is far from being educated, leave alone over-educated. Nor were there more schools than required. If the Sinhalese were not having their share in the professions, they had no one to blame other than their leaders who had enjoyed all the powers, benefits, and rewards of self-government from 1931. Jaffna developed not because of the state but due to a public commitment to education. The state only paid the salaries of the allotted minimum cadre of teachers. The land, the buildings, the laboratories, the libraries, the dormitories and playing fields were all acquired, developed and maintained primarily on funds raised by the principals, the staff, parents, and the alumni, in short the community. A substantial part of the funds came from the Tamil community, particularly some well-known philanthropists in Malaysia and Singapore , and some from Colombo and the rest of the island. The Christian missions no doubt brought in part of the resources. They did the same in the south as well. In addition, the school authorities in Jaffna had the wisdom to bring a large number of teachers from South India as mentioned above.

A point missed in the standardization debate is that it was the Jaffna Tamils rather than other sections of Tamils that gained from these educational developments. The plantation Tamils, and the Ceylon Tamils outside the Peninsula , in the Vanni, Mannar and Mullaitivu, and in the Eastern province did not have a developed educational system, and hence less entrants to the University and consequently in the professions. In Jaffna , the oppressed castes were largely left out of higher education. The standardization policy in some ways attempted to set the balance right district wise. Standardization did not amount to affirmative action based on caste or economic inequality. It was purely linguistically based. In ethnicising the allocations into Sinhalese and Tamil media in which students sat the examinations, the whole exercise was perceived by the Tamils island-wide, Colombo included, as an act of blatant communal discrimination. 

The Legacy of Jaffna Youth Congress

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the veteran Tamil leader dominated the political scene until 1930. He founded Parameshwara College (later acquired to found the University of Jaffna ) and the Ramanathan College for girls. The leadership in politics, society and culture in Jaffna was conservative in outlook. In social reform and political mobilization, little on the scale of what happened in India took place here. Issues related to caste, cultural revival, the restoration of the national languages and literature, and self-government were not on the agenda.

The Students’ Congress founded in 1924 attempted to focus on the above issues. Later renamed the Jaffna Youth Congress it became a force to be reckoned with in Jaffna from in the 1920s and 30s. It was deeply influenced by the Indian Independence movement and its leaders and was responding to the stirrings across the Palk Straits. Notable intellectuals from India were distinguished guests speakers at the annual sessions of the JYC. These included Satyamurthy, Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. Gandhi accepted the invitation by these youth and visited Ceylon in 1927. His program in Jaffna was hosted by the JYC and was a major event that made the JYC mature into a molder of public opinion. Nehru, holidaying in the country made a brief visit to Jaffna in 1931.

The JYC was in the forefront advocating social and cultural reform. Equal seating in schools and inter-dining with oppressed castes in the teeth of opposition and intimidation by dominant castes was launched by these youth. The revival of the Tamil language and literature was given importance. A place of honour was given to the Tamil language in a society where the English educated elites modeled their manners and customs imitating the west. Committed to a united Ceylon the nationalism of the Jaffna Youth Congress was anti-imperialist, and not narrow linguistic, religious nationalism. Linguistic and religious sectarianism was rejected from its very inception. The JYC called for a national system of education, the use of the mother tongue as the language of instruction, the inclusion of Ceylonese and Indian history in the curricula and was the first to advocate the teaching of Sinhalese to Tamil students as a third language and vice versa the teaching of Tamil to Sinhalese students. In later decades, these men became the live wires of the Northern Province Teachers’ Association, and the All Ceylon Union of Teachers. They were then able to implement these proposals. In several schools in Jaffna , Sinhalese was taught as a third language in the 1940s. This was abruptly brought to an end in June 1956 by these very same educationists when parliament enacted legislation to make Sinhalese the only official language. It was a painful decision made as part of the language resistance movement among the Tamils. Nineteen fifty-six brought disappointment and disillusion a whole generation of educationists shaped in the ideals of the JYC that had uncompromisingly stood for self-government and within the framework of a united Ceylon .

The high point of the Jaffna Youth Congress was the successful boycott of the first State Council elections under its leadership in Jaffna in 1931, on the ground that the reforms of 1931 had not gone far enough in the direction of self-government. Eventually the JYC was pushed out of the lime- light defeated by the forces communalism both Tamil and Sinhalese. Several members joined the all island left movement with the founding of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1935 and the later Communist Party.

The Jaffna Youth Congress had a lasting impact on society, culture and education. Their lasting legacy was a tradition of dissent as the forces of communalism gained ground. A generation of outstanding teachers and principals of schools came out of the JYC. Some of them are even today remembered by grateful alumni of the schools they developed for the valuable contribution they made to education. Good examples are the history of two schools: Kokuvil Hindu College under principal Handy Perinbanayagam, and Skanda Varodaya College under Orator C.Subramaniam.

Nationalization of Schools and the post 1961 period

The nationalization of schools was generally welcomed, except by the Christian managements. It opened up opportunities for appointments and promotions for members of the teaching profession overriding religious or caste identities. Several eminent teachers hitherto denied opportunities because of their radical political positions, especially Marxists, socialists, or agnostics were now able to take up positions as principals of schools. However, this vital change came at a time when political events marked by deteriorations in Sinhalese-Tamil relations aggravated the situation. A truly national system of education did not take shape. Administration became over-centralized. Increasingly appointments and transfers went by political favour, together with victimizations as governments changed at the end of every general election. Biased textbooks with distorted versions of history based on myths and legends were introduced. The effects though not felt immediately had long-term consequences. Political developments, however, did not immediately affect the internal life of schools. Jaffna students were orderly and politically docile. When the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP or Peoples Liberation Front) insurgency took place in the south in 1971 Jaffna was calm.

By 1960, the external reserves of the state had fallen and severe import and currency restriction were imposed. This in turn restricted travel abroad. Travel to India for education became cumbersome. One had to dabble in the unofficial currency market (better known as the black market) to travel to India .

The 1960s and 70s marked the gradual growth of Tamil nationalism. The Tamil political leadership was English educated and dominated by the Colombo based members of the legal profession. Standardization and the radicalization of youth coincided with the enactment of the first Republican Constitution in 1972 rejected by the Tamils. The name of the country was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in English, while the more traditional and time honoured Lanka became Sri Lanka in Sinhalese. In Tamil the name Ilankai was retained. It would have definitely helped restoration of some island-wide identity if the name Ceylon had been retained in English – a common phenomenon elsewhere, noteworthy examples being India and Japan . Resistance to the new constitution led to the arrest and prolonged detention of Tamil youth. Protests against the standardization issue sparked off student unrest in Jaffna . Frequent ‘hartals’ were called and students kept away from school. The calm and placid atmosphere that had marked the progress of education gradually ceased to exist. The unrest did not affect the remarkable results attained by Tamil youth in University entrance exams. What the schools could not do the ‘tutories’ did. A proliferation of ‘tutories’ surfaced. If there had been schools every mile in some parts of Jaffna, now there were ‘tutories’ every hundred yards in the towns with large concentrations of the population.

A landmark development was the establishment of the University of Jaffna in 1975. This was done in haste, and imposed on the people of Jaffna . The Federal party opposed the founding of this university. The party had decided that Trincomalee should be the capital of a future federal state and hence wanted a Tamil University there. The Parameswara College premises became the main campus .The Jaffna College campus and its library was vested in the state (later returned), alienating the powerful Christian minority. As the University expanded rapidly with three full-fledged faculties of Arts, Science and Medicine public opinion in Jaffna came to accept the accomplished reality. Initially the state mooted the idea of a bilingual university with Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim students and faculty. The experiment failed with the political violence of 1977 directed against the Tamils. Sinhalese students who went home refused to return. A fair number of Muslim students remained until the Muslims settled in Jaffna for generations were expelled from Jaffna in 1991 by the LTTE.

Qualified Tamil academics moved from Colombo and Peradeniya to take up positions in the Jaffna University . Eminent professors from abroad returned to teach in the Faculty of Medicine. The Science and Arts Faculties were able to maintain relatively high standards until the war intervened.

The 1977 to 1983 period was one of intense intellectual activities and discussions in the University of Jaffna . The National Question became the central issue. In this period, the South Asia Seminar was inaugurated while the students established a variety of societies noteworthy being the Marumalarchy Kalagam. Events moved fast with increasing acts of violence and violations of human rights, and the gradual erosion of democratic rights including the freedom of speech and discussion. Violence initiated by the state’s security forces had taken place in 1977, 1979 and in 1981right in the heart of the Tamil homeland. Most publicized was the burning down of the Jaffna Public Library with its 95,000 volumes and valuable collections. A culture of fear and bitterness enveloped Jaffna as the 1980s dawned. Numerous academics, journalists and human rights activists from the rest of the country and abroad visit Jaffna after 1979. The fundamental question of Sinhalese-Tamil relations became internationalized.

Period of War 1983 to 2002

The year nineteen eighty-three is generally regarded as a watershed in contemporary Lankan history. It is beyond the scope of this paper to go into the political issues that surfaced. In the light of changes in society and education a development with vital consequences was the migration abroad, India included, of the English educated class from Jaffna . Others moved temporarily to Colombo , which soon became permanent as travel to Jaffna became cumbersome and hazardous. Rail and bus transportation initially disrupted eventually ceased. A journey between Colombo and Jaffna that took six to eight hours by train or bus now became a journey by devious routes that took anything from twenty-four hours to two or three days.

The migrations were heightened in the early 1990s as prospects of a negotiated peace receded. By 1995-96, even those who had the resilience and determination to stay on finally left. Generational changes took place as the older generation educated in a milieu of excellence retired. The number of visitors to Jaffna diminished considerably, confined primarily to relief and social workers and related organizations.

Several schools were forced to close for specific periods or had to relocate. Irreplaceable have been the loss of school records and library collections. Private collections of books and photographic records preserved for decades were destroyed or lost. Even churches and temples were not spared. Cultural activities, school functions, sports and games were confined to the mornings and not in the afternoons and evenings as were customary in prewar years. This was due to the absence of electricity, transportation and frequent impositions of curfew. Streets were deserted long before twilight as a culture of fear took over. Aerial bombings and shelling became the order of the day. It was fast becoming a “war without mercy” demonstrated by the destruction that peaked with the decimation of Chavakachcheri (in 2000), the second largest town in Jaffna with three good schools and a vibrant traditional market.

It is a tribute the teachers, students and the community at large that the schools continued with their essential tasks. Jaffna schools continued to maintain their competitive level, supplemented by the flourishing ‘tutories’, in the university entrance examinations. It is only very recently that numbers entering universities begin to show a decline in the more prestigious faculties. A substantial drop has taken place in admissions to the Law College . Successes in other professional exams have diminished.

One of the adverse results of the war with long-term consequences is that the growth of the University of Jaffna into a center of excellence was deeply affected. It was expected that the Faculty of Medicine would have developed into one of the best in the country. The university functioned without interruption due to strong leadership provided by the late Prof. Thurairajah as Vice-Chancellor. Depleted staff and unfilled cadres affected the Medical and Science faculties in particular.

Most visible is the decline in English proficiency. It is no doubt the same island-wide, a heavy price paid for linguistic nationalism both among the Sinhalese and the Tamils. For a district like Jaffna , with its schools and that had sent thousands of competent professionals well versed in the English language to the rest of the island and abroad, this marked a major change in every facet of life. A great asset developed over a century and half has been lost, hopefully not for ever. Rebuilding that educational system committed to bilingualism if not trilingual and adapted to contemporary times is a daunting task. 

Impact on Society and Culture

The impact of the war, and the resulting social changes, has its positive and negative dimensions. Sections of the oppressed and discriminated castes have move up the social ladder. They now occupy positions vacated by the dominant elites. Pattern of ownership of residential plots of land and houses have changed, especially in the city of Jaffna . Contractors, and owners of small businesses have emerged from these communities who retain strong ties with members of their families that had migrated. More important for a cast based society is the ownership of agricultural lands – especially paddy lands. In some cases, it is affirmed that effective possession has changed hands to caste communities excluded from such ownership for centuries. The ultimate test of social reform and advancement in a conservative society like Jaffna is land reform. The transfer of ownership to those who have cultivated such lands for generations is crucial. This fundamental question calls for empirical study and analysis.

In schools, the number of teachers and students from one-time poor and marginalized communities has increased. Children from displaced families and orphanages are increasingly seen attending several of the better schools. Even in the one-time conservative protestant churches, they now occupy positions as clergy and lay leaders.

The development of the Ramanathan Academy , and the Faculty of Fine Arts in the University of Jaffna are noteworthy. The revival art, music and drama have taken place with the sparse resources available. More publications appear in Tamil by Jaffna academics. Women, young girls in particular, have a certain degree of free movement, seen cycling to schools and work in a relatively crime free environment everywhere in the Peninsula . Life-style changes pressurized by the need to adapt to a war economy developing qualities of self-reliance and innovation have taken place. This has been one of the striking changes brought about by the war economy. This was vividly demonstrated in innovative uses of oil for vehicles. Most radical change is the end of the domination in every aspect of social and cultural life by the English-educated class. The dethronement of English as a symbol of superiority and privilege has taken place. A place of importance and honour to the Tamil language is evident in the public life of Jaffna .

On the other hand, we have seen the end of an era of a hundred and fifty years of educational development marked by bilingualism and commitment to excellence in education. It will be an uphill task for the products of the Jaffna educational system, with a few rare exceptions, to compete for educational advancement, scholarships, fellowships in prestigious universities abroad, and for jobs in the professions locally and internationally compared with the generation of the 1930s to the 70s. 

The social and cultural life of Jaffna was enriched by exposure to notable visitors from abroad. Visitors from India as mentioned above had included Gandhi and Nehru. Others, to name just a few distinguished personalities, include Kalyanasundra Mudaliyar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Rabindranath Tagore in the 1930s, and after independence President Rajendra Prasad, Vice-President Radhakrishnan in the 1950s, and Jaya Prakash Narayanan in the 1960s and Ravi Shankar as late as 1980. Numerous other visitors enriching the cultural life of the people included leading vocalists and musicians. M.S.Subbulakshmi gave a performance in Jaffna in 1946 and M.L.Vasanthakumari in the 1950s.

Prize Day and alumni functions often graced by well-known educators from India . Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, Vice-Chancellor of Madras University came in 1954. Notable educationists and public figures from Colombo and the South were frequent visitors to Jaffna for a variety of functions and occasions. In addition, distinguished western scholars, theologians, and Hindu religious savants visited Jaffna giving young and old an exposure to the rich educational and cultural attainments achieved globally. That tradition has been interrupted.

The British Council organized visits to Jaffna by well-known intellectuals who visited the island. The Alliance Francaise had a small center in Jaffna where French classes were conducted for the public. Regular visits by the British Council Drama troupe performing Shakespearean and other plays never missed Jaffna right into the 1970s. The visit of the Peradeniya University English Dramatic Society during the period of Prof. Ludowyk and subsequent years was one that was looked forward to by students and teachers. The last memorable visit from the south was the sixty-member multi-linguistic street drama group directed by Gamini Hathotuwegama in 1982. The play departing from tradition employed the innovative technique wherein each member of the cast spoke his or her lines in one of the three languages. Titled “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” the performances in Jaffna attracted much attention and drew rounds of applause, the theme itself being a satire on a prominent and powerful political personality. This play was banned in Colombo and elsewhere consequent to the performances in Jaffna .

Sports exchanges were a common feature as teams from Jaffna regularly visited the south and vice versa. Some revival in this area is noticeable after the Cease Fire Agreement. Schools and   the University of Jaffna had organized annual tours to Anuradhapura , Mihintale, Dambulla and Sigiriya as an exposure program for students and undergraduates. Others went on all-island tours. A notable feature in the life of the whole country was how much Sinhalese in the south looked forward to a visit to Jaffna . Pilgrimages to Nainativu (Nagadeepa) were common. The Student Christian Movement periodically held its annual conference with close upon a hundred students coming from the south. These helped establish common bonds and lasting friendships. These ended with the escalation of violence in and after 1983.

Numerous seminars and discussions used to take place in the Jaffna Public Library auditorium, Trimmer Hall, school halls and at the Christa Seva Ashram under the auspices of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society with participants from the south and abroad. These gatherings were a vital part of the valuable intellectual climate that prevailed in Jaffna from the early decades of the twentieth century. The Jaffna University South Asia Seminar seized every opportunity to invite scholars, diplomats, and others visiting the country to Jaffna . Lectures and discussions on a variety of subjects were organised. Visitors had a ready and competent audience. Sinhalese politicians, especially from the left, trade unionists and social workers from the rest of the island were warmly received. Even as the country drifted towards tensions and conflict, there was openness and a vibrant intellectual tradition that was sustained. These activities have considerably diminished. Some attempts to restore this tradition are evident after the cessation of hostilities.

Book culture island-wide is dead. It may be a worldwide phenomenon with the advent of the TV, Video, DVD, and the Internet. Apparently, it is not quite so yet in the USA , UK , India and Japan . Two well-known bookstores that had a fair selection of books in the English language through which one could order books closed years ago in Jaffna . With the destruction of the public library the determined few of an older generation who still refused to leave regret the non-availability contemporary books, journals and periodicals and the world’s leading English dailies including those from India several of which were at one time available in Jaffna . Earlier generations referred to above were well read in the humanities and kept themselves well informed on world affairs. The two leading libraries in Jaffna now are that of the University of Jaffna and the Jaffna College library. There is an urgent need to modernize and equip these libraries and establish more such libraries. Archival materials of historical value have been lost through the destruction referred to above. If these two valuable libraries happened to be destroyed through the resumption of war, the community would lose irretrievable material. An urgent task is to microfilm and preserve all valuable documents and books in Jaffna , elsewhere in the country and through appropriate linkages established with reputable libraries abroad. These are some of the challenges faced

The above narrative may sound nostalgic as we take this trip down memory lane. It is a sentiment shared by many of our generation. For a person whose parents made the conscious and firm decision that we should be educated in Jaffna rather than in Malaya in 1946, one cannot help but feel a sense of loss of things of permanent valuable. The changes that have taken place mark the end of an era. We had concentrated within this territory of hardly a thousand square miles an educational system comparable to the best in Asia and perhaps the world in spite of limited resources. A memorable civilization and culture flourished here.

Today tremendous advances have been made in Malaysia , Singapore , and Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries in the field of education. The vastness of India defies comparison. The culture and civilization that thrived in Jaffna is now commemorated by hundreds of Alumni and village and town community groups in the Tamil Diaspora worldwide. Education has been referred to as Jaffna ’s main industry. Looked at in terms of human resources it certainly was our path to a better life and development.

War or peace, naturals disasters and times of calamity or times of normalcy the essential task of education must go on. One should add health care as well. Here one emphasizes education in its fullest sense and not mere instruction. The schools in Jaffna were the centre and focus of community life. Education was the very ethos of our society. The development of education and the priority given to it is without doubt essential in the search for and the achievement of a genuine and lasting peace.


The writer left Jaffna in July 1983 on one year’s sabbatical leave from the University of Jaffna. He left Colombo for Japan on the morning of July 23, a date that was to change the fate and destiny of the country and hundreds of thousands of its people for generations to come. He visited Jaffna after nineteen years when travel to Jaffna under conditions of peace became possible with the Cease Fire Agreement of February 2002.


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