Orator C.Subramaniam Centenary Commemoration Lecture
Tamil Sangam, Colombo
7 December 2002
I consider it both a privilege and an honour to be able to deliver this lecture today. I am happy to share the platform with one time contemporaries and colleagues. ProfessorsThillainathan and Puvanarajan who were contemporaries (mid-1950s) in the PeradeniyaCampus, including those memorable days at Ramanathan Hall when a spirit of comradeship prevailed and warm friendships blossomed. In later years Prof.Sandrasegaram was a colleague in the University of Colombo and Mr.Sivanesachelvan was a colleague in my Jaffna University days. May I also greet the other speakers, Mr.Pathmanathan of the Skantha Old Students Association and Skantha principal Sivaji, an old student my school Jaffna College. Orator was a much loved and distinguished alumnus of the College. I am in good and homely company with many others who have been very close to Orator as we gather together here this evening to honor the memory of one of the outstanding sons of this country and of Jaffna in particular.
In my student days the name Orator was a well-known name and I count several friends among the Old Boys of Skantha. Though having seen him and heard him on some occasions my first meeting with him took place under rather unusual circumstances sometime in the early sixties. As a lecturer at Jaffna College I once accompanied the cricket team to Skantha. Orator and got his wife to prepare a substantial lunch for his good friend R.J.Thurairajah, the Physical Director at Jaffna college, and was deeply disappointed that his good friend for some reason was not present. He got hold of me young as I was and said, “Your father and I were friends. You will have to take Thurairajah’s place”. I hesitated. What was I going to talk about with this great educationist with it whom I had little in common. He grabbed me by the hand and took me home for lunch with a few others present. It was a kind of new experience for me. But that was his way of making friends with young and old.
I little realized at that time that several later my relationship with him was to become a very close one. When I got married I found that my wife Sakuntala and his daughter Gnana together with Handy Perinbanayagam’s daughter Selvi had been at Peradeniya together and were close friends. And with Puvanarajan who later became Orator’s son-in-law the bonds were firmly established. Among my treasured possessions are two long letters hand written by Orator (1990s) when I was in Tokyo, reflecting on men and matters.
Orator was Chairman of the Handy Perinbanayagam Commemoration Society that compiled and released the Handy Perinbanayagam volume at a very largely attended meeting in June 1980, in the Vembadi Girls’ College Hall. That was possibly the last time the surviving members of the Jaffna Youth Congress, all prominent and gigantic personalities in later life, gathered together in the evening of their lives. Senator Nadesan a former member of the JYC was the chief speaker. He was carried away by the contents of the book and the occasion. He spoke for ninety minutes and all the other speakers including Orator, Sabaratnam (retired principal of Jaffna Hindu College), the late Prof.Kailasapathi and myself had to cut short our speeches to a mere five minutes each.
Personal relationship apart my links with Orator were primarily bound by the work we did together with Messrs. Sabaratnam and A.S.Kanagaratnam (retired principal and teacher – Jaffna Hindu College) in putting together the Handy Perinbanayagam Commemoration Volume including the History of the Youth Congress which I authored – but would not have been able to complete without the help of these three gentlemen. And what an experience it was working with these men – their command of the English language – impeccable choice of word and phrase, their razor sharp minds, attention to details, their commitment to permanent values, their spirit of comradeship and bonhomie, geniality and pleasantness of manners. Their sense of humor and anecdotal reminiscences and their friendliness and humility in spending so much time with a younger person like me are memories that have enriched my life. I have often asked myself the question whether we will ever have men of that quality and genre in Jaffna for decades to come. These were qualities characteristic of the Youth Congress generation.
The Jaffna Youth Congress
That brings me to the main theme of my presentation today: Orator and the Jaffna Youth Congress. The above is a theme I have developed in writing the history of the JYC – a revised edition of which is due to be published in English, Tamil and possibly in Sinhalese sometime in the future. It was also a theme I dwelt in when I delivered the Handy Perinbanayagam Centenary Commemoration lecture in 1999. It is a theme that has considerable contemporary relevance going by the numerous requests I get for a copy of the book and explanations of what happened in Jaffna in the 1920s and 30s.
Orator was among others a founding member of the Jaffna Youth Congress. His close friendship and shared ideals with Handy Perinbanayagam until the end made him virtually the deputy leader though there were no such official titles. He survived all his contemporaries to the ripe old age of 92 with the exception of Mr.Duraisingam of the Communist Party and long time resident in Hultsdorf, Colombo. He recently migrated to Africa. A teenager of that time who observed what happened and is still living is George Gnanamuthu.
Founded in 1924 as the Jaffna Students’ Congress (later renamed the Jaffna Youth Congress), this remained a potent force in the political and cultural life of the Tamils for over a decade. From the very beginning the Congress had an all-Island perspective, rose above parochialism of any sorts, was committed to national unity, political independence, and the social, cultural and economic betterment of the whole of Lanka. A conscious effort was made to embrace young people of all races, creeds and castes.
The aims of the congress were clearly laid down in the resolution passed at the very first sessions in 1924. It was resolved that members should work for the betterment of the motherland, that no distinction be made on religious or racial grounds, that annual sessions consist of representatives from all races and creeds, that no sectarian issues be raised, that members strive to remove the curse of untouchability, to cultivate the study of national literature, art and music and to develop and promote writings and publications in the national languages of fiction, history, biographies and works in the sciences. It was decided that following Gandhian practices to patronize as far as possible locally manufactured goods and eschew foreign products. Though no resolution was made on dress the above resolution implied the wearing of the national dress, preferably khaddar. Several members of the Youth Congress, Orator included, wore the national dress for the rest of their lives. The others did so as frequently as possible. Some of these men had discarded their western attire as students in the Gandhi led bonfire of western clothes in 1921.
The name change from Students’ Congress to Youth Congress took place at the 1930 sessions. In 1931 the JYC reached its zenith in moulding public opinion in Jaffna. The Youth Congress lasted well into the 1940s and several of its members never gave up the ideals the YC stood for to the end their lives. Orator’s life and service is a standing testimony to this character of the JYC.
Eminent scholars, educationists, writers and persons with cultural attainments delivered lectures at the annual session and meetings of the YC. These included prominent personalities from India such as Gandhi, Nehru, Rajaji, Satymurti, Kalayanasundra Mudaliyar and Kamladevi Chattopadyaya. At practically every session Sinhalese young men who were to become future political leaders graced the occasion with their presence and speeches. These included D.B.Jayatileke, P.de S.Kularatna, George E.de.Silva, E.W.Perera, Francis de Zoysa K.C., C.E.Corea, and S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake. Even J.R.Jeyawardene is known to have participated at one meeting. Leaders from other communities included T.B.Jayah and Peri Sundaram. In later year’s prominent leaders from the left movement such as Dr.N.M.Perera, Dr.Colvin R.de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Selina Perera and others appeared on the YC platform. Among Tamil participants were a galaxy of personalities too long to be included here. (See Handy Perinbanayagam Memorial Volume, 1980)
It was the YC that invited Gandhi to visit Ceylon in 1927. Indian High Commissioner Gopalakrishna Gandhi has in his book “Gandhi and Srilanka 1905-47” published this year has covered once again the momentous visit by Gandhi to Ceylon and Jaffna in particular.
The one-time members of the JYC were deeply influenced by events in India, which in the 1920s was leading Asia and Africa in the struggle against European imperialism? It was an exciting period in Asian history and the youth of that time were fired by ideals and had great visions for the future. It was the era of Gandhi and Nehru who in turn had imbibed the legacies of the Asokan tradition, the reform and revivalist movements associated with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. This is a tradition based on compassion and understanding among persons of all faiths, the pursuit of reality without narrow bigotry, inclusiveness as against exclusiveness, and we will do well to remind ourselves totally rejected the intolerance and violence that is endemic today in the name of community/nation.
The Youth Congress sought to be an essential part of this historic movement that had global dimensions. There took place a worldwide awakening of peoples who had lost their freedom leading to movements that shook the British Empire. For the young men of Jaffna “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.” Orator belonged to that idealistic generation of youth that left behind a legacy that we recall today. In their later years they held on to these ideals.
The YC was not a political party. It never aspired to become one. In fact the members of the YC had nothing but contempt for power politics involving bargains and deals leading to personal advancement. But they were deeply concerned and involved in politics as a movement.
They were a generation of leaders who made a vital contribution to the task of education, and the social and political life of not only Jaffna and the Tamils of this country but to the whole Island to which they rightfully belonged and served with dedication. They made a remarkable contribution to Jaffna’s intelligentsia and shaped the thinking of a whole generation of men. The indelible stamp of the Youth Congress was evident in the men of this generation and those who had come under its influence.
In the 1930s the ideal set before the country by the Youth Congress and nationalists in the South was a free and united Lanka. The Youth Congress was fully committed to a Ceylonese nationalism. Hence when 1956 came it brought to the men who once belonged to the Youth Congress more than to anyone else in the country, a sense of defeat and disillusionment.
Orator and the 1930 Sessions
It is possible to sum up – Orator’s role and the ideals he stood for by extensive quotes from the speech he made at the annual sessions of the YC in 1930. This was the period when equal seating in schools had become a matter of major concern. The Peninsula was deeply divided between the conservatives who resisted children from the oppressed castes being seated on benches on an equal basis with the other children. The YC was firmly committed to justice to the minority Tamils. The issue was top on the agenda of the annual sessions if the YC in 1930. They were scheduled to be held at the Training Institute at Thirunelvely. Mr.Shivapathasundram much respected and revered by the Hindus of Jaffna for his profound knowledge of their scriptures and his deep devotion to the faith of his forbears, was persuaded not merely to join the Congress but to become its president.
Orator was Chairman of the Reception Committee, which in effect meant executive head of the YC for the year. In his address he dealt with three points: Cultural Renaissance, Untouchabiity and its related problem of Equal Seating in schools, and Youth and Politics.
In calling for the mother tongue to be given a prominent place in the school curriculum and its due place as the medium of instruction he had this to say:
Speaking as a teacher to fellow teachers, I would say that we are guilty of a heinous crime in willingly assisting and stunting their intellectual growth and rendering them more and more effeminate by putting a severe strain on their nervous energy. If there is a tendency in our students to look down upon everything Eastern, the fault lies not in them but in the education we are giving them. A system that is day-by-day sapping the lifeblood of our students
He demanded that the mother tongue be made compulsory for all public examinations, and that the standard of questions papers set for this examination be raised appreciably high.
Secondly, he rejected the efforts made by some Hindus to give a religious sanction to the caste system. It was first and foremost a question of social justice. He stressed that the removal of disabilities suffered by the oppressed classes was an essential condition for political unity – since efforts were being made by the leaders of the oppressed castes to seek the protection of the alien British bureaucracy. All talk about renaissance, freedom, spiritual rebirth and national heritage were futile.
And thirdly on behalf of the YC he claimed the right of young people to participate in politics especially in the cause of the country’s freedom.
If by politics is meant the game of adjustments and compromises, the play upon passions and prejudices, the art of having one eye upon the next elections and the other on the good graces of the government then the YC disdains to have anything to do with it … the YC was the only body in the north that firmly stood for the abolition of communal representations, and as such we are not at all interested in the number of seats the North gets in the new State Council. In an assembly of over sixty members, it does not matter whether the North gets three seats or six seats. Mutual trust and goodwill alone will lead to national unity and his cannot be realized while we are scrambling for seats. The fight is a common fight and cannot be sustained as long as one section of the country is coquetting with the government for its own ends.
In fact the men of the Congress had contempt for the politics of seeking elections to the legislative assembly and state council under British hegemony. In its choice of presidents the Congress took infinite care to exclude the mere politician.
Now seventy-two years later we hear these words “mutual trust and goodwill” repeatedly stressed from Colombo to the Vanni, Thailand and Norway. What may have this country been if only both the Tamils and Sinhalese had listened to such prophetic voices.
Principal, Skantha Varodaya College
Some twenty years later as Principal of Skanda he was able to put into practice some of the core ideals he stood for in his youthful days, especially in the sphere of education and social justice. According to A.S.Kanagaratnam, Skantha Varodaya, of all the colleges in Jaffna became a school of the people. I quote below comments made by three teachers who served in later years under Orator in Skantha.
History indeed was in the making when he threw open the gates of Skantha Varodaya to the children of the so-called “depressed” classes, and in so doing he was putting into effect what he was preaching in the days of the YC” (S.Rajasingam)
He was more than a teacher. In him we see the zeal of a social reformer and spirit of the patriot a true Nationalist. A fair number of student from Sinhalese homes were given admission by him to Skanda. In the person of Rev.Gunaratne Thero, our principal appointed to the staff of Skantha “a true Sinhalese teacher” and in his own way the principal created a national atmosphere at Skantha.” (V.Ponnanbalam)
Mr.Subramaniam … fired with a vision and purpose… a man of guts and conviction … was a natural and spontaneous part of a voice of liberal thinking that blew across the peninsula during the 20s and 30s under the flag of the JYC.” (N.S.Kandiah)
When he became principal in 1944 he inherited a small village school with 291 pupils, 13 teachers, 15 classrooms and a small playground. When he retired in 1962, there were 2050 pupils, 220 of whom were residents, 61 teachers, 57classrooms, an extensive playing field, fully equipped laboratories for chemistry, physics, botany and zoology, a dormitory and other amenities of a modern school. Results in public examinations were and uniformly good every year. In 1961, 49 pupils entered the University of Ceylon, the highest number among Jaffna schools and third in the island that year. The school did well in sports too. The school was raised to super grade in 1957, along with Jaffna College and Jaffna Hindu College.
In the period of fifty years this school had send about 400 pupils to the University of Ceylon, most of whom were for faculties of medicine, engineering and science. In Orator’s own words:
Our neighbor, Mahajana College, had done likewise. The achievements of these two schools – village schools which started almost from scratch, fully prove that instead of using the pernicious principle of standardization for selection to the university, if the schools in backward rural areas had been well equipped and staffed with teachers, who worked conscientiously and gave of their best to pupils, the village boy and girls would have done as well or better than those in Colombo schools. (extracts from life and times of Orator C.Subramaniam, Birth Centenary Volume 2002, ed. S.Kanthaswamy)
A Legacy of the Youth Congress
The achievement of the youth congress lay in the cultural and educational fields and in the eradication of social disabilities. The elevation of the Tamil language to a place of honor happened in Jaffna as early as in the twenties. The practice of having lectures and meetings in Tamil on not merely subjects of interest but on secular and political matters as well, begin with the youth congress. The young men of Jaffna though English educated restored national customs, festivals and dress to a place of honor in the social life of the community
Above all out of the youth congers came a generation of teachers, principals, administrators and builders of schools. Their efforts in the mid- decades of this century made it possible for Jaffna to enjoy the pre-eminent position that it occupies in the sphere of education with schools that could be the pride of any nation. These men steered through the smooth transition from English to Tamil as the medium of instruction in the forties and fifties with minimum damage to standards, this having been one of the major reforms that the youth congress had advocated all along.
The influence of the youth congress persisted most through the Northern Province Teachers Association and the All Ceylon Union of Teachers. Here the one time members of the youth congress championed the campaign for free education, for a national system of schools and for Swabasha (mother tongue). Formidable opponents of the government’s control of teachers, these men did assert that education was the responsibility of the state, though not necessarily a monopoly of the state. They remained committed to the role that education could play in the social advance of the country. They remained a dedicated band of teachers nationalist to the core … they brought qualities of integrity and sincerity to the several public causes to which they gave of their time and talents.”(Santasilan Kadirgamar, the Jaffna Youth Congress, Handy Perinbanayagam: A Memorial Volume, Thirumagal Press, Chunnakam, 1980)
The Rights of Teachers
Orator was second to none in his commitment to the rights of teachers. As A.S.Kanagaratnam write:
It is sometimes embarrassing for a principal to get mixed up in trade union politics…but Mr.Subramaniam does not appear to have been ever afflicted by this process. To the very end of his career he held fast to his trade union principles, nor ever found it difficult to reconcile his administrative duties with his loyalty to his union. When the N.P.T.A took up the cause of teachers who were being squeezed out of some private schools during the early years of the takeover, Mr.Subramaniam was able to accommodate some of them in his staff, to the great relief of the union and certainly of the administration.” (A.S.Kanagaratnam in: A Garland of Tributes to Mr.C.Subramaniam on his 90th birthday, Toronto 1992).
I have distinct memories of the take-over of schools. At Jaffna College the liberal traditions of the YC were deeply rooted. Even here the first act of the Board of directors was to move out four teachers, all Hindus, as the College went private and non- fee levying in 1962. We teachers felt deeply betrayed. I had the honour jointly with a colleague of moving a resolution calling for their immediate reinstatement which was carried unanimously by the Round Table our equivalent of a trade union. Two teachers returned. Two refused having been deeply humiliated and opted to serve in government schools. The Board of Directors had no alternative but to bring them back. How myopic and lacking in social justice and compassion can a Board of Directors be?
In Orator’s own words we have this narrative that reveals the secret of his success.
We wished to impart in Skantha as good an education as that in the big school to which the poor public in our area had no means to go. We appointed efficient, qualified teachers. At one time we did not have a physics teacher. I heard that one Durairajah at St.Johns College was a good physics teacher. I offered a special post to him and made him join us. He did excellent work but after some years, he lost his sight completely. I kept him for eight months longer, so that he might complete the ten years required for a pension. He proved a better teacher after he lost his sight and the public wanted him. I allowed him to continue in spite of petitions against my action. He retired long after I tired.
Courage and Love for Fellowmen
That kind of compassion and the courage one does not hear of these days, not even in private schools where degree of flexibility is possible and where the high principles of love and compassion proclaimed from pulpits are not translated into practice. The parlous state to which private colleges have been reduced in spite of all the foreign and private funds that are poured in a judgment on the shortsightedness on power obsessed boards and managements that know little of what education is all about and bring to it the values of the marketplace.
A.M.A Azeez, one time distinguished principal of Zahira College, Colombo and also for a period president of the Head Masters Conference had this to say about Orator.
During the period of nearly two decades when Orator guided the destinies of the college, there were greater changes in the educational field than there had been during the fifteen decades preceding … he solved these problems to the satisfaction of the pupils, staff, parents and posterity. He earned the ungrudging enthusiasm of every fellow principal. Thus did Orator dare, thus did he succeed. (see A Garland of Tributes)
The ethos of the school, “wrote Orator” had always been to help pupils from poor disadvantaged homes. But Kandiah Upathiyayar’s help did not extend to certain social groups like the minority Tamils who were denied admission to Hindu English schools in Jaffna. With the blessings of the founder and manager Skantha opened its doors to them. This was a courageous step in an area where people were obsessed with caste prejudices.
This is the kind of courage God gave me to serve Skantha wrote Orator in later years.
In commemorating Orator Subramaniam’s birth centenary there are lessons we can learn for our times, relevant and vital to all those concerned with education in this country, and in war torn Jaffna in particular. The days when Jaffna enjoyed pre-eminence in education have come to an end. And here I mean not just university entrance results but a values based education in its truest sense, sending out from our schools young men and women with a command of both the Tamil and English languages, and who have the courage to stand up for social and economic justice, and democratic and human rights. We need independent minded youth who are inspired by the tradition of dissent that was the hallmark of the JYC
It is not for me to give advice to principals and teachers of schools in Jaffna who have lived through this terrible war at tremendous personal cost and sacrifice. But if I may express the feelings of an older generation there are challenges to be faced, to restore the high educational standers that prevailed in Jaffna in the mid-decades of the twentieth century with an all round education that is free from the shackles of the tutory system. It can only be done by finding committed young people and training them as teachers and paying them well. The school is primarily a community of students, teachers, and parents and backed by the larger community. The less said about many, though not all, members of managements, board of directors and state bureaucrats the better. They strut around with inflated egos and have little to contribute. Political culture being what it is in this country we can expect little from the state. Private schools and their managements are no better. And the so called international schools have turned their back on the national languages and culture and are likely to produce a generation of youngsters that will only widen the gap between the haves and have-notes in this country. In our time, in our schools, when only the salaries were paid by the state, principals, teachers, the alumni and the community in partnership equipped the schools and persisted in retaining high standers. We have to go back to the traditions established in that era. Occasions like this when we commemorate the lives and achievements of great teachers and principals we have an opportunity to look back and draw inspiration for a vital task that has to be redone. Rebuild our schools and restore what Orator has rightly referred to as the ethos of our schools.
It would be appropriate to end this tribute with a comment from N.Sabaratnam a long time friend and associate of Orator Subramaniam. He wrote:
One of the poems particularly relevant to the state of the world in general and our society in particular is Abou Ben Adhen. An angel wrote down ‘The names of those who love the Lord’. Abou asked the angel whether his name was in the book of gold. “Nay not so”. Abou said ‘I pray, and then write me as one that loves his fellow man’. When the angel appeared again, Ben’s mane was topping the list.
As Sabaratnam asserts Orator was able to restore harmony in many a troubled situation because like Ben he loved his fellow men, this hero of a hundred fights. And in the words of Azeez quoted above we can say “Thus did Orator dare, thus did he succeed.”
'Thus he dared, thus did he succeed'