The way ahead

Professor Mahesan Nirmalan. Manchester Medical School & Manchester Royal Infirmary, University of Manchester, Manchester. UK. (JHC 1980 AL Batch)

The memories of Jaffna Hindu College, where I spent 6 years of my student life are still fresh in my mind. The stern discipline of Mr E Sabalingam, the piety of Mr P S Cumaraswamy – the two men who led the School during my time there; the academic rigor demanded by Mr Mariyadas – 8C class teacher, the sense of humour of Mr Visagarajah – our English teacher, the grit and the will to survive under adverse circumstances of Subadharan – our Cricket captain, the chocolate flavoured ‘ice palam’ sold under the ‘Alari’ trees outside Cumaraswamy hall, the oily ‘Vaiyppan and ‘Bonda’ sold at Nadarajah’s canteen, Hindu-Mahajana foot ball matches (which we always lost), the idiosyncrasies of ‘Pandithar’ Kanapathipillai, our art master- whom we fondly referred to as ‘Aarttar’ and of course the ‘Thevarams’ sung in the mornings and afternoons – proudly announcing the deep religious traditions that anchored the School to its core values are some of the most fond memories that I have held dear. My father (late Mr K Mahesan) who was both a past pupil and then a member of staff at JHC, ensured that my brothers and I were also products of this great Institution. Given these deep bonds I have had with JHC, it gives me great pleasure for having this opportunity to share some of my thoughts through JHC OBA Journal marking the 125th centenary celebrations in the UK…….it is truly a privilege.

The past 30 years have seen many changes in the School and in the broader Tamil society. A toxic ‘socio-cultural-political’ mind-set (on both sides of the ethnic divide) that refused to see the Tamil people as an integral component of a united Sri Lanka and the consequent perversion of two proud cultures – characterised by the loss of lives, maiming and mutilation of physical bodies, distortion of minds and mass migration of its people. Many of us stood paralysed and impotent as this dark era engulfed our land. We did not know how we should respond and hence we prayed, we organised meetings, we attended rallies, we shouted slogans, and above all we donated money to organisations that we thought could turn the tide. The purpose of this article is not to look back in order to find scapegoats or to apportion blame, but rather to make us look at the reality or the “யதார்த்தம்”that we inherited after 30 years of armed conflict so that we as a people may move forwards. Identifying, defining and acknowledging the existence of some of the burning issues faced by our Alma Mater and the broader Tamil community is the first step towards their eventual resolution. In order to provide a glimpse of this “யதார்த்தம்” in no uncertain terms, I reproduce sections (with minor modifications) from three publications that have appeared in the popular media in the recent past.

One month before the gruesome rape and murder of a Poonkuduthivu schoolgirl, Jaffna’s District Secretary in a report had urged the police to act fast to check the rising incidence of sexual abuse, exploitation and illicit sale of liquor and drugs in the district. Describing schoolchildren’s new found addiction to drugs and banned substances as a “well-planned strategy” aimed at disrupting the social fabric of the north, the report sent to Jaffna’s Deputy Inspector General highlights the alarming rate at which crime is rising in the peninsula….. Drawing the attention of the police to illegal liquor sales that “continue unabated” in many areas in the district, the report notes that schoolchildren under the influence of drugs and alcohol turn violent and are involved in crimes. (Sunday Times 31st May 2015)

Back in the day when the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ran a de-facto state in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, alcohol consumption was closely monitored, and sternly frowned upon. But after government forces destroyed the LTTE in 2009, ushering a new era, strict rules governing the brewing and sale of spirits have lost their muscle. Plagued by poverty, trauma and a lack of employment and recreational opportunities, civilians in the former war zone are increasingly turning to the bottle to drink their troubles away..…..…..One of the disturbing trends is the prevalence of female headed households that have begun to sell illicit liquor as an easy income-generation method….. (Inter Press Service June 8th 2015)

Giving a breakdown of the consumption of beer and liquor items in Jaffna, before and after the war, the traders said that the consumption of beer was at 5, 55, 304 litres in 2002, “but has alarmingly swell to a mammoth 400,57, 000 in 2013″. “The foreign liquors consumed in Jaffna in 2003 was a mere 4000 litres. It stands at 61,134 litres in 2013. Local arrack consumed in 2003 was 307,380 litres but it shot up to 20, 18,400 litres in 2013. If this trend goes at this rate, our community will soon face irrecoverable setback in the very near future,” the Jaffna Traders Association said. (Colombo Mirror, October 20, 2014)

My recent conversations with principals of two leading schools in Jaffna confirm the accuracy of the above reports. Those of you who are familiar with the history of native Indians in the Americas and the Aboriginal people of Australia, will appreciate the existential threat posed by these challenges. My friends, there is no point in blaming the next man, the Colombo government, India, UN or the International community for this state of affairs as protracted civil war – usually in pursuit of some political utopia, in any setting always destroys the social structures that hold a society together. The breakdown of these social institutions and the value systems that hold the society together is bound to manifest in a variety of ways. Violent crime, alcoholism, addiction, rape, pornography, prostitution and the general break down of social order are merely the tip of an iceberg. Many examples of such destruction of the social fabric in the wake of prolonged strife can be found across the world in general and in the West Bank and Gaza in particular. These issues, most certainly, cannot be solved by simply pumping money into the system and in fact in many instances the Dollars, Pounds and Euros acquired simply through the ‘Undial system’ exacerbates and directly contributes to the above mentioned decadence.

What then is the way forwards? And what role can organisations such as the JHC OBA (UK) play in this process? Acknowledging the basic fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka are in integral component of the wider Sri Lankan society has to be, in my view, the starting point. The modern world is very much an integrated biological system and in such integrated systems the well being of the ‘Whole’ is bound to affect the well being of all components of that ‘Whole’. The extrapolation of this philosophy implies that the well being of Tamils in Sri Lanka is inextricably linked to the well being of all people in Sri Lanka and therefore those of us who are interested in the well being of our kith and kin in the North/East cannot ignore the well being of all Sri Lankans…….they are – by definition, linked and inseparable. On a similar token, suffering and pain, initially confined to any individual component of this ‘Whole’ is bound spread to engulf the ‘Whole’. The half-burnt, naked bodies that came floating down the Kelani river or were buried in the mass graves of Matale in the late 80s (up to 60,000 by some estimates) and my friends Venura, Kollure and Kulathunga who ‘never came back for dinner’ bear testimony to this phenomenon in our country’s recent history. This extension of suffering to involve the ‘Whole’ is not the result of diabolic conspiracies hatched by outside agencies, but rather an essential feature of all integrated biological systems. It is in the very nature of creation, it is ‘the way’, it is the ‘Tao’ and as such, altruism is most certainly in ones self interest. It is therefore in the interest of all of us – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and all other ethnic groups, that this basic truth is acknowledged and discussed more widely and there is a role that the JHC OBA can play in promoting this mindset amongst members of the Tamil diaspora.  The concept of life – despite all its apparent complexity and diversity, being part of an ‘Integrated Whole’ is one of the basic tenants of both the Buddhist and Vedantic Hindu Philosophies and the JHC-OBA is well positioned to propagate this world view amongst its members and the wider community.

What more can organisations such as the JHC-OBA do to help the communities back home to deal with the above scourge? Even a casual visitor to the North&East would recognise the total lack of cultural and other recreational activities to keep our youth gainfully employed and entertained. Cheap South Indian movies with highly dubious artistic and literary merit, screened in equally cheap cinemas in Jaffna and other surrounding towns, by and large, remain the only form of entertainment available to these boys and girls. Education is defined solely in terms of a path to success at the conventional examinations and as a conduit to higher professional degrees that then serve as passports for emigration.

Emigration to Western capitals to join family members who emigrated a few years earlier remains the sole ambition of all students at either ends of the academic spectrum. Sadly, that is what we all – you and me included, did and is what our brothers and sisters who remain in Sri Lanka are also encouraged to achieve at any cost. But the bitter irony is that as long as we, the Tamils, define success in terms of migration to foreign capitals, the Tamil community left behind in Sri Lanka will continue to get marginalised within mainstream Sri Lankan society. Arresting this trend involves creating and supporting broader educational and entertainment facilities that are aimed at producing well rounded individuals who can interact with their counterparts in the rest of the country with confidence and on an equal footing. In practice, this means promoting Trilingualism and a broader curriculum with an emphasis on sports and other extra-curricular activities. Of course conventional education needs to be protected and promoted so that these boys and girls can continue to be high achievers at national examinations, but we also have to commit ourselves to help our schools to produce a generation of sports men and women who can compete successfully at Provincial, National and International arenas. If we can be creative in providing these opportunities, I have no doubt that these kids will deliver the goods. It is well within the capability of the JHC OBA(UK) and its sister/brother organisations representing many of the frontline Schools in the North and East to initiate and fund a suitable programme of activity aimed at producing these rounded men and women within a definitive time period. It must be seen as a priority by all of us. 

The importance of a comprehensive trilingual education whereby the future generations could acquire the ability to comprehend, speak, read and write Tamil, Sinhala and English….fluently cannot be overstated. It is abundantly clear that people who were lucky enough to have benefitted from an effective trilingual education (usually from Colombo, Kandy or other leading outstation schools) have been better equipped to reach their full potential than their counterparts, who were monolingual and could barely manage to communicate effectively in a second language. The challenge for organisations such as the JHC OBA is to provide the resources (and perhaps the mindset) whereby effective trilingual education is accessible to all students. Members of the OBA who do visit the School regularly must emphasise the fact that the pursuit of trilingual education does not – in any way, amount to being elitist, anti-Tamil or worse a betrayal of the Tamil culture. It is an undeniable fact that such a narrow mindset was actively nurtured amongst our people for short-term political gains and challenging this mindset must be seen as a priority. Failure to do so will be a historic and unpardonable mistake. There is very reliable, albeit anecdotal, evidence suggesting that the gulf in linguistic/communication skills between students attending schools in the North/East and their counterparts from other major cities in Sri Lanka has widened significantly during the past 30 years, and it is well within the means of the alumni to rectify the situation through coordinated action. As a starting point the JHC OBA could set up and fund a language centre which gives access to our own students (and perhaps students from some of the adjoining schools) to high quality Sinhala/English education.  

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka is at major crossroads at the end of a long and protracted civil war. As an integral component of the country, people living in the Northern and Eastern provinces face significant challenges that threaten their very existence as a proud and coherent community. In facing up to these challenges, the alumni of all the leading schools in the areas have a significant role to play. However, our contributions and actions in dealing with these challenges should be governed by a well thought out strategy rather than raw and primitive emotions or simply sending more money to put up new buildings and structures in memory of ‘this one’ or ‘that one’. The discussions that have been initiated by the current JHC-OBA (UK) earlier this year aimed at building capacity and skills amongst the students and staff at JHC is a welcome move in this direction. But these initial discussions must be followed up by swift action that will make a difference on the ground. In fact we have to collaborate with our counterparts from all other leading schools, so that a more concentrated effort can be launched across the entire peninsula aimed at promoting Trilingual education, drama, music, theatre, debating societies, chess clubs, sports and other wholesome extra curricular activities that nurture the mind and the body. Resolving the core issues however is conditional to members of all communities working towards a common and inclusive Sri Lankan identity where those of us from the North and East feel proud of our “Sri Lankan Tamil” heritage…….being equally proud of the two components – Sri Lankan and Tamil, that define this heritage. While singing “கோண மாமலை அமர்ந்தாரே” or “கேதீச்சரத்தானே” and thereby making claims to our links with the island nation from antiquity loud and clear, we should also be equally proud to have cohabited the island nation with another ancient culture which defined a unique identity for itself and the land based on the twin pillars of ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Buddhism’. It is this change in our mindset that will lead to true peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka and to all its people. It cannot be done in any other way.