Friday, August 9, 2013

Jaffna College - Reflections on the History of the College 2013

Reflections On The History Of Jaffna College

Filed under: Colombo Telegraph,Opinion | 

4 Responses to Reflections On The History Of Jaffna College

  1. Hopefully these good memories of those good days will prompt a few of us to try to recreate them.

    S.R.H. Hoole - August 6, 2013
    6:43 am
  2. Silan must be congratulated for this paper on Jaffna College helping us to reminisce on Jaffna College. His father the Rev. Kadirgamar was chaplain in the late fifties. his brothers Alagan, Rajan the one time principal and the other who became a priest whose name I cannot remember now, made singular contributions to the society in Jaffna. Alagan was secretary to the central YMCA in Colombo. His reference to S V Balasingham the brilliant teacher of history is very refreshing. Silan has perhaps missed out on the fact that the Morning Star that Lyman Kulathungam was editor of for 42 years was the first English weekly in Sri Lanka. jayahanthan

    S. jayahanthan - August 6, 2013
    5:12 pm
    • The Morning Star was bilingual and may claim to be the first Tamil newspaper or first bilingual newspaper but not the first English newspaper. The Morning Star started in 1841.
      Technically the first newspaper was the Government Gazette, Ceylon, first out in 1802. On the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission in 1833 other newspapers were started. Then the Colombo Journal was begun by Governor Barnes. The Observer was the first independent newspaper and was begun I believe in 1834.

      Correct-the-Record - August 7, 2013
      11:56 pm
  3. Thank you for this very informative article ! I learnt a lot from this, my grandfather went here many years ago.
    Hopefully we will rise again to even greater heights.

    Dev - August 6, 2013
    5:59 pm

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ben Bavinck

Ben Bavinck

Bandung,  25 February, 1924
Amsterdam, 11 August 2011

A tribute delivered at the St.Pauls Church, Milagiriya, Colombo on Tuesday, August 16, 2011 (day of the funeral)
Colombo Branch of the Jaffna College Alumni Association

Silan Kadirgamar

Our thoughts at this time are very much with the members of his family. Those of us who were teachers and students during Ben’s period at Jaffna College do remember his children – a lively bunch of kids making the best of it in that rural setting that is Vaddukoddai and in that exceptionally homely campus that was Jaffna College.
Ben Bavinck was, teacher, colleague, a committed Christian activist, a social worker and friend.

 Ben came to Jaffna College in its heyday as a missionary -teacher. A period in which Jaffna College reached heights of excellence in the academic field, sports, literary associations, residential life and the liberal ethos that was pervasive in the College Community. I place stress on the word Community – for we were a closely knit community with a significant multi-ethnic and international component. At one stage we had several Sinhalese students, an occasional Muslim, and students of Ceylon Tamil descent from Malaysia and Singapore and once we had two students from far away Uganda. This was partly because we had an Undergraduate Department preparing students for the external exams of the University of London.

The College having been founded by American missionaries, naturally the American presence on the teaching staff and extra-curricular activities was strong. Few people today are aware that we had Pastor Sussbach, a German Jew who had sought exile from fascist Germany and on a later date a Japanese -American couple – the daughter of the famous Japanese Christian leader Kagawa. In addition at one time 20 per cent of the teaching staff was from South India - mostly from Kerala.

It was into this setting that a 30 year old young man from Holland arrived in 1954. I have vivid memories of the day he arrived. He was mobbed by the younger students in the College as he playfully interacted with them. At that time I little realized that this was to be the beginning of a long and intimate relationship with the people of Jaffna – a relationship that lasted a good fifty-five years covering three generations. I am inclined to believe that his latter day commitments were shaped by the experience of living among the people of Jaffna at a crucial period in our history.  His theological awareness based on the Servant hood of the Master influenced his practice which in turn further sharpened his theoretical and theological understanding of society and mission.
The choice that Ben made to learn TAMIL was to stand him in good stead in subsequent years. He may not have achieved what he eventually did if he had not made this vital decision as linguistic nationalism took over and we became a monolingual society. He became a vital link and bridge-builder among the various communities in the divisive times that we have been through. This is testified to in the diaries he maintained.

In recent years he translated into English these diaries he maintained in his own language. He lived to see the publication and release OF TAMILS AND TIGERS – A journey through Sri Lanka’s war years, Part I: 1988-1994, the diaries of Ben Bavinck, edited by Maithreyi Rajeshkumar (Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee),Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, April 2011. This valuable publication in the old tradition of missionaries and officials in the public service will last the test of time. It will remain a lasting testimony to the man and his indefatigable commitment to the people of this country in one of the worst times in our history.
Another facet of his life and personality was his simple life style and adaptability to local conditions. In one sense he belonged to the missionary tradition of the nineteenth century of simple living and being one with the people. In this sense he had much in common with Sister Hutchins of Karuna Nilayam in Kilinochchi and Sister Elizabeth Baker of Navajeevanam in Paranthan – referred to by the village folk there as  “bicycle riding Baker Amma.”  Both were able to communicate in Tamil. He like them was among the last of LIFE TIME missionaries

His life style was simple and frugal- when in Colombo he always travelled by bus and in Jaffna in the war years on his bicycle. I observed the same when I met him once in Amsterdam, on another occasion in Chennai and when he visited us in Tokyo. He returned to work for the NCC in 1986. In Holland he was Associate Director of the World service Department of the Reformed Churches (Algamin Diaconal Bureau of Netherlands), a humanitarian social work agency. A friend from the WCC once remarked to me that Ben was very tight-fisted when it came to funding for social work and understandably so. He had strong commitment to stewardship in the use of funds, marked by his own life style – that funding must reach the poorest segments of society.  And he was deeply agitated and hurt by those who plundered and embezzled such funding.
He was aware that funds that come for humanitarian relief through churches is often donated not by the rich and affluent classes but by ordinary working people with a very limited income in the developed countries of the world. Many of the missionaries that I have known retired without wealth. Some had to work after returning to their homelands, after a life time of service here. They were relatively poor in the affluent west, having given the best years of their lives to us here.

Though as I have mentioned he belonged to the nineteenth century tradition in missionary work those of us who knew his thinking and intellectual bent know how much he belonged to the contemporary era in which live.

He was very close to and deeply influenced by the Rev. Dr. D.T.Niles, who was responsible for bringing him to Jaffna. Like D.T., Ben became a very ecumenical person. He was widely read both on theology, secular and contemporary issues. By interacting with people in all walks of life he developed insights regarding our problems in this country, especially on the long unresolved national question, justice to workers, environmental and other issues. He impelled us to look at things from the other point of view – always challenging. At the same time he never failed to encourage with a short note from Jaffna of from Amsterdam when one had taken a stand that he thought was right and just. He sent us a signal that we were on the same wave length. His own experiences of life under fascist rule and the negative impact of narrow and belligerent nationalism, made him abhor extreme nationalist posturing be it Tamil or Sinhalese.

After an evening of serious and heart rending discussions it was always a pleasure to end the day with his bubbling humour, and his apt and inimitable expressions in Tamil. He enjoyed Lankan food and our ways of life. Many of us here will miss the remarkable friendship and fellowship enjoyed with this long time friend. As we say farewell to Ben Conrad Bavinck we shall always acknowledge the indelible mark he made on our lives and in some cases for over half a century.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Lakshman Kadirgamar - A tribute - Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour Colombo, 20 August 2005

A Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of Lakshman Kadirgamar P.C. was held on the 20th August 2005 at the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour, Colombo 7. Members of Diplomatic Corps, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a very large circle of relatives, friends and members of the general public were present.

The names of those who participated are:

The service was led by the Ven Crishantha Mendis, Archdeacon of Colombo.
Opening Thevaram: Mrs.Jeevanam Watson (niece)
Opening Prayer: The Rev.Sathiaseelan K.Kadirgamar (cousin)
Tributes:  Mr. Silan Kadirgamar (cousin) and Mr Ragi Kadirgamar (son).
Lessons: Mr Ragi Kadirgamar (son) and Mr. Keira Perera (grandson).
Sermon: The Rt. Revd Duleep de Chickera (Bishop of Colombo)
Intercessions: Ms Ajitha Kadirgamar Perera (daughter).
Closing Prayer: H E Monsignor Mario Zenari (Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See).
Choir: Directed by Mr. Mano Chanmugam


Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of
Lakshman Kadirgamar P.C.
Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour
Colombo 7
20 August 2005

A Tribute

Santasilan Kadirgamar

I have been requested to say a few words on behalf of the family. I have followed the career of Lakshman from the time my family returned from Malaysia in 1946, after the Second World War and consider it a great privilege to be given this opportunity at this service, which in our tradition is a service of thanksgiving and a celebration of life.

In the many exchanges of letters in the last few days I had this piece from my eldest brother in Toronto who has vivid memories of the Kadirgamar home “Lalitha” at Queen’s Road, where Lakshman grew and was nurtured.

“A splendid era,” he writes “one of which we were all proud of and relished being associated with has gone.” And he adds, “I cannot forget my early childhood days in the 1930s visiting the home of uncle and aunty. Lakshman was a little boy of three or four with lovely locks of long curly hair.” 

I wish to dwell on two facets missed in the flood of tributes we have read since the tragic assassination. Lakshman’s personality and values were to a great extent shaped and influenced by his distinguished father, outstanding brothers and sister. He was the youngest in a family of five brothers and one sister. Few are aware that he lost his mother Parimalam nee Mather at the tender age of eight, and the task of taking care of him fell very much on his sister Easwary Richards. The second facet relates to the Lakshman we knew before he entered parliamentary politics. Born, bred, educated and having lived the greater part of my life in Jaffna, a visit to the Kadirgamar home at Queen’s Road was an occasion looked forward to. In the first of my visits in the mid-50s the room allotted to me was Lakshman’s. He was away in the UK. There I had my first exposure to his mini-library – a collection of books that made a permanent impression on me, revealing the man, the ideas and the values that shaped his life.

In the tributes that have been paid to him I have noted two comments relevant to what I have to say today. Silva the eminent lawyer and his close friend used the phrase “to the manner born – an icon to be treasured for generations.” Professor of Archaeology Sudarshan Seneviratne, on TV stressed the exceptional manner in which he engaged people in discussions. I know what Sudarshan was exactly talking about having had the privilege of indulging in long discussions with him, an opportunity rare and far between that I looked forward to. These interactions ceased after he entered parliamentary politics and assumed office. I have had similar frank discussions over the years with two of his brothers Sam and Rajan. The three of them shared qualities that in the context of the tributes pouring in today, I perceive as attributes that ran in the family. These were qualities of openness and intellectual honesty, an uncompromising commitment to principles and in the context of challenges faced in their lives the demonstration of immense courage.  

Lakshman’s father Sam J.C.Kadirgamar was a well-known figure in the public life of this country in the first half of the 20th century. He gave his time to many causes. He was president of the Law Society and a much-respected member of the Board of Directors of the Colombo YMCA for nearly four decades, and President for a period. When the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India and this one time congregational church adopted episcopacy, he was called upon to donate the bishop’s throne made of pure Palmyra wood, which to this day adorns the altar of the Vaddukoddai Cathedral in which two of Lakshman’s uncles later served as pastors.

He had obviously great ambitions for his sons, which did not work out the way he willed. The spacious Queen’s Road house was built in anticipation that the boys will enter the then University College. As it turned out Lakshman went to Trinity College and became the single member of the family entering the Faculty of Law in the neighbouring campus.  His brothers Sam, Bhai and Rajan, independent minded as they were, were attracted to the security forces during the Second World War. Later Sam took to the legal profession and became a distinguished Q.C. The brothers Bhai and Rajan remained in the services, the former seeking early retirement having reached the rank of Major and Rajan reached the rank of Rear Admiral at a relatively young age, much loved and revered by many who served under his command. A fourth brother Mana died young under tragic circumstances in a motor accident.

A word about the ancestry of the Kadirgamar family and roots that go deep into the past both on the paternal and maternal side would be in place. These reach back into the history of Jaffna but are first documented with the arrival of the American Mission in Ceylon with the founding of the Batticotta Seminary in 1823, now Jaffna College in Vaddukoddai, and the Uduvil Girls School the following year.  The Rev. Francis Asbury, a fifth generation ancestor, was among the first converts. He accompanied the Rev. Dr. Daniel Poor, the American principal of the Batticotta Seminary in establishing the first Congregational Mission in Pasumalai, Madurai in the 1830s, which in turn led to the establishment of the American College. It may be noted that one of Lakshman’s uncles studied briefly at Tagore’s Santiniketan and spent time at Gandhi’s Ashram.

This established a tradition leading to the family members having a long and intimate relationship with India, which Lakshman carried forward in a remarkable way into the political realm and the public life of India.

His paternal grandfather was, a first generation convert, who hailed from Pt. Pedro – from an orthodox Hindu family that is known to have been associated with the building of the Sivan Temple in Pt. Pedro. Karthigeyan Christian Kadirgamar did not give up this very Hindu name when he was baptized. My uncle once told me that we have given a great deal of trouble to the world in adopting this family name. A name, which I have noted, that none of my many good Sinhalese friends can either spell or pronounce correctly. Grandfather K.C.Kadirgamar was an interpreter Mudaliyar in the Supreme Court of those days, sowing the seeds for a career in the legal profession in which father and two sons excelled.

Robert Ashbury, the son of Francis Ashbury and a great-grandfather was among the first natives appointed to the Faculty of Jaffna College when it replaced the Batticotta Seminary. He was one of the founders of the Jaffna College Miscellany and the Alumni Association in 1879. He also published two books in English. One was on Education and the other on Poetry. Ashbury and his cousin Strong took over the American Ceylon Mission Press when the mission did not have the resources to run the press and publish the bilingual weekly “The Morning Star”, founded in 1848. Robert Asbury edited the paper until it was handed back to the mission.

On his maternal side Lakshman was the grandson of Edward Mather, who in turn belonged to the well-known family that engaged in business and commerce and in subsequent years in the professions and the Christian ministry.

The legal profession, the Christian ministry including its service organizations such as the YMCA, teaching and the armed services have been four strands in which several members of the extended family excelled. Lakshman served on the legal committee of the YMCA for several years and I was told only yesterday that he was a life member of the Bible society. He broke new ground and was the first in the family’s long history to enter the hazardous, risky and controversial arena of politics in contemporary Lanka – a subject on which I need not dwell except for a brief comment at the end of this tribute.

Many of my own recollections of Lakshman have been covered by the extra-ordinary media coverage his death brought to him. In one of his interviews he revealed that he had received tons of abuse in his mail. This last week he has received tons of adulation and appreciation from people from all walks of life. One recalls his being among the four athletes carrying the torch on Independence day in 1948, his breaking the public schools record in the hurdles thereby becoming a role model for his Jaffna cousins at Jaffna College and St.John’s who excelled in the same event.

A little known fact is that Lakshman could have lost his life in a plane crash in Greece in the early 80s. He was the last to leave the plane and had to jump off the emergency exit and was bed-ridden for three months.

Though Colombo based he had demonstrated an interest in Jaffna in his early years. As private secretary to Justice Gratien he accompanied him to Jaffna in the 1950s and participated in the annual student dinners at Jaffna College. Soon after his return from Oxford in 1960 he gave top priority in visiting Jaffna for two largely attended lectures. The first, under the auspices of the Undergraduates Union of Jaffna College was on the “The Rule of Law.” The second was at the Jaffna YMCA interestingly titled “From Plato to Srimavo.”
In his own quiet way and known only among very intimate circles he helped many a person in need in material terms, for educational purposes and in some cases to settle abroad. Unassuming and self-effacing he was a gentleman to the core. 

We are living in an age of religious fundamentalisms and religious bigotry that fuel senseless conflict. This can only be contained by meaningful dialogue among peoples of all faiths.  Lakshman was essentially an inter-faith person. Justice Weeramantry in today’s Island and Eymard de Silva Wijeyeratne in an earlier article have drawn attention to this. His theology, if I may say so, was explicitly stated in his Celestine Fernando memorial lecture in October 1992 before he became a minister. His religious convictions perceiving common values in the four great religions, has struck a responsive chord in me as among others, and I wish to affirm in the strongest terms have nothing to do with his assumption of office. As a student of Indian history I place him in the great tradition in Indian history from Asoka to Akbar, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Tagore and Gandhi - inclusive and not exclusive.

If there is anyway way in which his family and friends would like to perpetuate his memory, I plead that we give the highest priority to and carry forward his ideals in inter-faith dialogue in a world increasingly torn asunder in the name of religion, leading to far greater tragedies than we have already experienced in this country, the Indian sub-continent, West Asia and narrow de-humanising religious sectarianism that is fast emerging in the western world breathing oppression, violence and destruction. His lasting legacy is a commitment to pluralism and multi-culturalism.

He has carved for himself a permanent place, in the life of this country and the South Asian region, which will increasingly be seen in perspective as the years roll by. When the dust and heat has settled on the conflict that has torn this country apart, and it surely will someday sooner or later; and when we have our own truth and justice commission in the great South African tradition, when the perpetrators of violence and injustice have made their confessions and made peace across the ethnic divide, I hope and believe the people of this lovely island in the sun will jointly celebrate the life and work of Lakshman Kadirgamar. We pray that that day come soon.

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”

I conclude in the first prayer my father taught me and one that we heard at the state funeral last Monday, “Om Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi”, and in the opening words of a song immortalized by the great D.K.Pattamal in January 1948, and now sung beautifully by her grand daughter Nithyasree, which in English I would read “Let there be peace everywhere, Let spirituality triumph in the world, Let peace prevail in the universe.”
“Engum Shanthi Nilava Vendum, AthmaShakthi Oonga Vendum Ulahile, Engum Shanthi Nilava Vendum”.       

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Liberal tradition at Jaffna College

     The Liberal tradition at Jaffna College

Celebrating 185 Years of Education

Silan Kadirgamar

The Freedom to think and discuss

The Youth Congress, Jaffna, originally named the Students’ Congress. Jaffna, was born in the mid 1920s and had a great impact on Jaffna politics in the early 1930s. By 1920 under Gandhi’s leadership the Indian struggle for independence entered its militant phase. Students in India played an important role in the struggle. The political stirrings in India had their impact on Jaffna. The Gandhian movement in India captured the imagination of Jaffna’s youth. To many of these young men who were pioneers of the Youth Congress, "bliss it was in that dawn to be alive."

The impact of western ideas on the youth of Jaffna was another factor. Schools and colleges founded by American and other missionaries followed later by schools founded by Hindu patriots had a major influence in transmitting western liberal values, and democratic and nationalist ideas. The major centre for the flowering of these was of course Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai.

Jaffna College (1872) and its precursor the Batticotta Seminary (1823), unlike many a missionary institution and state school in Ceylon, had stressed the study of Tamil literature. Students from this college were amongst the first graduates of the Madras University in the 1850s. The products of this institution were not culturally divorced from the people of the Peninsula, in contrast to the English educated elite that emerged in the Western Province, and in Colombo in particular. The very ‘Indianness’ of the Gandhian movement struck responsive chords amongst the English educated in Jaffna both young and old.

At this time in the 1920s the Principal of Jaffna College was the American missionary the Rev. John Bicknell known for his liberal views of freedom of thought, speech and action. "In the 1920s," said Handy Perinbanayagam, "the movement in India had a tremendous effect upon the youth of Jaffna. Probably because of the comparative freedom that prevailed at Vaddukoddai, this impact was more acute at Jaffna College." In fact Handy Perinbanayagam specifically traces the remote beginnings of the Students Congress to the debating and literary societies at Jaffna College, especially the ‘Brotherhood’, which was the Senior Literary Association in 1918—1919 when Handy was a student.
The freedom to think and discuss at Jaffna College is illustrated by the kind of subjects debated at the meetings of the literary societies. Beginning with subjects like "Home rule should be granted to Ireland," and "Labouring men have a right to strike," the students of Jaffna College went on to debate as early as 1920 subjects like "Territorial representation is better than racial"; "The headman system should be abolished ", and "The Ceylonese should not send their representatives to the Legislative Council according to the new reform scheme". By 1921-22 they were debating such radical subjects bordering on the treasonable, such as: "Gandhi was justified in burning foreign clothes ". "Self-government should be granted to Ceylon": "The Principal should be a native", and "Students should wear the national costume ". In 1923 the students had debated, "Mahatma Gandhi in prison is more dangerous than Mahatma Gandhi out of prison." In these school-boy debates, as Handy was to comment later, no subject except sex and probably denial of God was taboo. Abolition of corporal punishment, co-education, national independence, the dowry system, the caste system were debated not only with the callow cocksureness of adolescence but with the seriousness of philosophers who believed that vital consequences would follow from their debates and decisions.
Teacher patrons who exercised influence and authority had the right to attend meetings.

The principal was the patron of the senior society, the Brotherhood. But the student chairman had the right to order and ask him to sit down. On one occasion the principal John Bicknell was indeed asked to sit down and he did so with a blushing face. The Jaffna College ethos at that time was one of freedom.

In 1919 a symposium was held on "An Up-To-Date Literature in Tamil". The Hon. Mr. K. Balasingam, the Rev. S. Gnanaprakasar, and Rev. G. G. Brown participated amongst others. Mr. Balasingam expressed the view that if Tamil was to become a progressive language it must become the language of government, and Fr. Gnanaprakasar stressed the need to educate our people to appreciate their own language. But the most radical proposal came from Rev. Brown who said, "Do not allow any boy to be promoted who fails to pass a worthy test in Tamil reading, grammar and composition. Create a sentiment in the country which will make a student feel ashamed to be able to speak and to write in English, while he cannot do equally well in Tamil." In the school curriculum in the teaching of history where European and British history enjoyed a monopoly changes were made whereby Ceylon history and Indian history were introduced in the lower forms in the early twenties.

There was among the teachers and students a growing commitment to certain specific aims such as national independence, the abolition of caste and the removal of social disabilities. In 1922 some of these young men at Jaffna College, formed themselves into the Servants of Lanka Society. It was more of a study group. in which, papers were read and discussed on the country’s problems and the remedies for its ills.
From Jaffna College, Handy Perinbanayagam went to the University College in Colombo."While we were at the Union Hostel", he later reminisced, " Our warden Mr. C. Suntheralingam’s dictum was that within the four walls of the hostel we could talk the most rabid treason with impunity. Something similar was the atmosphere at Jaffna College also in the Bicknell days. In our debating societies and the classroom we were free to give unbridled expression to our convictions. The radicalism that spread at Vaddukoddai grew in strength at Guildford Crescent under Suntheralingam’s patronage. His name at that time was one to conjure with.

The Founding of the Jaffna Youth Congress

In June 1924 Handy Perinbanayagam sat the B. A. examination and thereafter returned to teach at Jaffna College. He began work for the setting up of an organisation for national independence." During holidays and weekends Handy would meet like-minded friends. These included S. Kulandran, C. Subramaniam, S. Nadesan, S. U. Somasegaram, Swami Vipulananda, M. Balasundram, S. Durai Raja Singam, P. Nagalingam, A. E. Tamber, S. Subramaniam, V. Thillainathan, S. Rajanayagam, K Navaratnam, V. Muthucumaru, J. C. Amerasingham, S. S. Sivapragasam, J. W. A. Kadirgamar, A. M. K. Cumaraswamy, V. K. Nathan, S. J. Gunasagaram, K. Nesiah, Sam Sabapathy, S. C. Chithamparanathan and several others. Some of them were senior students in the colleges in Jaffna. An exploratory meeting was held at the then Y. M. C. A. Jaffna on first November 1924. From its very beginnings the Students’ Congress had an all-island perspective and was committed to national unity and independence for Ceylon.

Handy Perinbanayagam set out the aims of the proposed Congress in a lengthy letter to the Daily News. He wrote of a new venture marshalling the forces of the students of this country, for solving the social, political, cultural, economic and political problems they faced and for the betterment of this land. He gave expression to the vision of a new Ceylon. Youth at this time, particularly in Jaffna were known for their docile acquiescence without question to the actions of their elders. This invitation to youth to form an organization for concerted action was by itself a radical venture in Jaffna in the 1920s. The movement was to embrace young people of all races, creeds and castes. This was a period when divisive forces were at work creating religious and racial animosity.
The first sessions of the Students Congress was held at the Ridgeway Hall, Jaffna in December 1924. About three hundred students together with recent graduates and undergraduates attended these inaugural sessions. The Morning Star reported that seating was in ‘national’ style on carpets and all present were in ‘national costume’.

Mr. J. V. Chelliah of Jaffna College was elected President of the Congress. In his presidential address he said that "all the greatest reforms effected in society were the work of young men. Jesus Christ when he started his mission had only just completed his twenties. Buddha’s renunciation took place when he was a very young man." He deplored the existence of communal jealousy between different communities in the island and appealed to them to make national unity one of their main planks of activity. He referred to the curse of untouchability and the evil effects of the dowry system and called on the youth to translate ideals into practical action. He emphasised the role of the youth in eradicating the social evils prevalent in the country."

Handy recalling J. V. Chelliah’s speech later said, " I remember the simile he had used to portray the unity he had in mind. It was the rainy season. The landscape from Vaddukoddai to Jaffna was for long stretches covered with paddy fields. To the passenger in the car the fields were like a spreading sea of emerald green but there were ridges marking boundaries. National unity was obvious. The differences however real should be played down".

Handy Perinbanayagam once related a memorable event in his life. He and Lyman Kulathungam were the first two students to pass the London Inter-Arts examination at Jaffna College. This was in 1922 when Jaffna College was celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Batticotta Seminary. The two successful students were to deliver orations at the Prize Day function, an honour that no student would forego. But Handy had made it known that he would go to the function in national dress. Principal Bicknell having heard about this, called young Handy and insisted that he should wear trousers and coat. The young idealist politely refused to do so. Bicknell then ruled that he would not have the honour of delivering the Prize Day oration. The honour went to Lyman Kulathungam. Handy later recalled that it was a painful incident to him. Bicknell had been like a foster father to him. Lyman Kulathungam, later vice-principal of the college, adopted  the national dress and wore it for the rest of his life.

Boycott of the King’s birthday celebrations

Developments in India continued to have their impact on the students in Jaffna. It was the practice every year to celebrate the King’s birthday. In Jaffna the main event was an inter-school sports meet. The students of Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, made a sudden decision not to participate in the sports meet and celebrations in June 1930.
The idea of a boycott of the celebrations occurred to some of the younger teachers at the college. Bonney Kanagathungam, A. S. Kanagaratnam and C. J. Eliyathamby were among those who canvassed support for a boycott among the athletes who responded favourably. In a country where there was hardly any kind of action against British rule, the students of Jaffna College at that time took legitimate pride in an action of this nature that had political overtones. There is no doubt that the students had been influenced by the activities of the Students’ Congress. The students spontaneously decided that so long as Mahatma Gandhi was in gaol and the ‘ mother country’’ was in travail for her Independence it was not possible for the people of Jaffna to partake of the festivities in honour of the King.


Published in:

The Souvenir of the Jaffna College Alumni Association (Colombo Branch), 2007, commemorating the 185th Anniversary of the Batticotta Seminary (1823) and its successor Jaffna College (1872).

The extract is from HANDY PERINBANAYAGAM: A  MEMORIAL VOLUME: first published in Jaffna in 1980, The Thirumakal Press, Chunnakam. Revised edition March 2012, Kumaran Printers, Colombo.

Published in the Sunday Island 7 September 2008