Stifled hotbed

Few celebrated the birth of the University of Jaffna in 1974, when it came into existence as a campus affiliated to the University of Sri Lanka. The demand for a Tamil university had been put forward by the Federal Party as far back as 1953, at a time when Tamils were beginning to feel nervous about the growing communal polarisation. Thereafter emerged the Tamil University Movement, which purchased land in Trincomalee for the proposed university – land that till today remains unused and under constant threat of encroachment. Yet from the very beginning, the Tamil political left had deep reservations about such moves, which came from a nationalist mindset that further isolated the Tamils, precluding alliances with progressive sections of the Sinhalese.

Though not evident during the 1950s and 1960s, events of the 1970s precipitated an explosion in Tamil nationalist feeling while also exposing the weak underbelly of an isolationist Tamil nationalism. Partly owing to discrimination in government employment, Tamil students, particularly in Jaffna, had to work extra hard at gaining entry to universities. The preponderance of Tamil admissions to prestigious degree courses in 1970 had led the newly elected left-backed government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike to introduce a policy of 'standardisation' of marks on a linguistic basis. This was aimed at bringing down the number of Tamils, with subsequent schemes likewise enacted to bring down the Tamil entrants drastically.

The result was the radicalisation of Tamil students, giving fillip to separatist demands and militant mobilisation. In introducing the first republican constitution, Sirimavo Bandaranaike's government – with the backing of the parliamentary left, which during the 1950s had supported equal rights for Tamils – ignored the concerns of elected Tamils regarding constitutional safeguards of their rights. The Tamils were thus left out in the cold. Earlier, the two dominant Tamil parties – the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and the Federal Party (FP) – had jousted for Tamil votes, each asserting that it would better use its bargaining power to negotiate with the Sinhalese-dominated major parties, which usually formed the government, in order to get a share of power. During the late 1960s, there was also a contest between these two parties about the character of a university in the Tamil-dominated areas. The Tamil Congress demanded a Hindu university in Jaffna, while and the Federal Party pushed for a secular university in Trincomalee. The central government used the disagreement as an excuse to avoid a decision.

On the political front, both Tamil parties would from time to time form alliances with whichever Sinhalese party was forming the government. With both major parties focused on putting each other down, competing frequently on who would better keep the minorities in their place, the Tamil electorate began to lose hopes of getting its share of meaningful power. Yet the possibility of Tamil parties being able to play a role at least in the formation of the government kept them in hope. The 1970 elections, in which the United Front – a coalition consisting of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka – government was elected with an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats, shattered further hope of a 'kingmaker' role for the Tamil parties.

During this time, Tamils in the left parties – the Federal Party (FP) and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) – rapidly lost credibility among their populace. They had been urged by the government to pacify the Tamil youth through mere talk without offering real concessions. In turn, they enjoyed state power in Sirimavo Bandaranaike's government, which was indifferent to the Tamils voters (and which were anyway wiped out during the 1977 elections). A section of the left forces that was critical of the Parliamentary left and pursued the revolutionary path, accepting its inability to build a revolutionary national movement in an ethnically polarised environment, argued for mass mobilisation of the Tamil people – to fight against state oppression, discarding the reactionary separatist slogans.

It was amidst this vacuum that Jaffna University was created by a cash-strapped government trying to increase the number of universities with minimum financial outlay. The University was started by taking over the premises of two educational institutions in Jaffna. Meanwhile, the political vacuum in the Tamil fold was increasingly filled by the militant youth. The LTTE made its debut in 1975 by killing Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah, an ally of Bandaranaike. Duraiappah had been branded as a 'traitor' by the Federal Party. Abandoned by the left and blinded by the invective of bankrupt nationalists, the course was set for the LTTE to swallow its radical forebears.

Initial potential
Whatever the background to the formation of the university campus in Jaffna, two different views were prevalent at that time among the Tamils in approaching the issue. On the one side were the Tamil nationalists, who felt the formation of the university was a ploy and looked upon it with suspicion. There was also resentment over the taking-over of a government and an old private tertiary institution in Jaffna for this purpose, in the absence of real investment. When Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike visited Jaffna to inaugurate the campus, she was greeted with a black-flag protest organised by the Tamil parties.

Others, even among progressive Tamil voices, felt that even if the campus was created for cynical political intentions, as an institution it had to be respected. Thus, they supported efforts to achieve the university's potential. However, any form of engagement with the government was portrayed by the Tamil nationalist press as treachery. A campaign of hate was mounted against individuals who had supported the establishment of the university. On the political front, the very Tamil parties fomenting hatred were forced to deal with the central government. The rhetoric of separatist politics, and its ideological impact versus the real necessity of engagement with the government, eventually gave the LTTE the pretext to justify its assassination of many of the Tamil leaders, using the same arguments of treachery the latter once promoted.

The ethnic polarisation continued to undermine various institutions. Parliamentary representation, which was geared towards harnessing votes through ethnic political mobilization, also steadily eroded any foundation for building a broader Sri Lankan national consciousness. Many of the political initiatives from emerging 'nationalist' forces in the south had a mix of anti-imperialist and narrow Sinhalese nationalist aspects. The Tamil polity for its part viewed every endeavour – such as nationalising the British bases, nationalising the schools and bringing in the republican constitution – as steps towards creating insecurity for the Tamils. Although that was true to some extent with regards to particular initiatives, the Tamil intelligentsia had failed to appreciate the historic nature of these actions; they also missed out on opportunities for the Tamils to engage with the southern progressive forces in combating Sinhalese nationalism.

At the time of its foundation in 1974, despite the political polarisation, the University of Jaffna had a pluralistic environment. On the campus there existed the possibility of dialogue and debate to reconnect with peoples from other communities in order to engage in broader political struggles. The Sinhalese south had also seen its first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency, which had been crushed brutally. The university had the possibility of evolving as the crucible of a political discourse that took into account the need for all communities to enjoy equal rights and live as a united nation.

The members of the first batch of Sinhalese students who came to Jaffna were rather cautious, and tried to understand the feelings of the Tamils. There was some serious engagement among several student leaders. But at the same time, the Tamil Eelam demand – which began to take root in Tamil areas after what was known as the 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution, which pushed for a separate Tamil state and which was adopted by the Tamil nationalist parties – vitiated the atmosphere in the fledgling politics of the university. Instead of engaging with the progressive Sinhalese students, Eelam politics led to an exacerbation of the polarisation in the student body. Every attempt to arrest this tendency by progressive elements, not only in Jaffna University but in all other universities as well, failed miserably.

The watershed of '83
The first real blow came with the 1977 state-instigated communal violence against the Tamils. The polarised environment in the Jaffna University had provided an opportunity for the Sinhalese nationalist students who were keen to move to universities in the south to spread rumours about their insecurity in the north. Consequently, the Sinhalese students in Jaffna were moved to other universities. The progressive-minded academics of all communities, along with the university's head, K Kailasapathy, were keen that Jaffna University maintain its multiethnic character. But the separatist politics of the Tamil nationalists and the authoritarian outlook of the ruling Sinhalese party – the United National Party (UNP) under J R Jayewardene, which was instrumental in fomenting the 1977 violence to punish the Tamils for voting overwhelmingly for the separatist Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) – together polarised the environment beyond repair. Thus ended the multiethnic character of Jaffna University. The Muslim students, who were also Tamil-speaking, were chased out by the LTTE, along with the large Muslim community in Jaffna that was forcibly expelled in 1990.

In May 1983, as a run-up to the major planned communal violence two months later, a section of the Sinhalese students affiliated to the ruling UNP was used to attack Tamil students at Peradeniya University near Kandy. Those students were subsequently forced to return home. The University of Jaffna then became the venue of demonstrations by these displaced students, demanding facilities to pursue engineering and agriculture degrees in Jaffna itself. This was the first time the Tamil students demanded alternatives to universities in the south, which were significantly better equipped.

While many of these displaced students went back eventually to Peradeniya, a notable number among them joined various militant groups after the July 1983 violence, when India, in an ill-fated move, offered training to Tamil militants. The militants, although dominated by the Tamil nationalist outlook, were eventually exposed to other liberation struggles around the world and to revolutionary movements in India. This broadening slowly created some openings among the younger generation towards encompassing social-reform issues in their struggle. But the narrow nationalist movements (such as the LTTE) criticised their peers. They also came down hard on the Tamil parliamentary leaders – not for the latter's ideological stance but for their focus on getting into Parliament in Colombo rather than fighting for a separate state.

Many among those exposed to the progressive political and ideological discourse, began to argue for the need to establish links with the progressive sections in the south. They also criticised the parliamentary leadership's reactionary political past. Jaffna University became a forum where vibrant discussions began to take place. The state terror unleashed during the 1970s and early 1980s against the backdrop of repressive legislation, particularly the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), was already creating resentment among the population and further radicalising the youth. Yet the university remained a lively institution and, notwithstanding the state terror, there were serious discussions about the nature of the struggle and the path to be charted, taking into consideration the regional and global context.

The July 1983 violence and the Indian involvement in military training of the armed groups drastically changed the scenario. The rapid militarisation of the armed movements undermined any progress towards a mature political process and more meaningful liberation politics. The state actions on the one hand, and rapid militarisation of the movements on the other, drove the community and the university to suffer terror from several sources. The forward-looking progressive voices among the movements were marginalised, and a vicious cycle of violence, dominated by internecine and internal killings thrust the LTTE to the forefront as the torchbearer of narrow Tamil nationalism. Several of the students who had joined different groups of the militant movement from various universities were killed, some in internal purges. Many others were killed by the LTTE for having joined the wrong group. The university, which until the early 1980s had been a forum of open discussion among students and staff with diverse political views, was becoming a silent spectator.

By 1986, the LTTE had paralysed both the university and the larger community, and had wiped out alternative militant formations through crude brutality, creating public outrage. It then warned the Jaffna community, through loudspeakers, not to discuss or analyse their experience. The university students were not easily cowed down. In November 1986, the LTTE abducted a student named A Vijitharan over a personal grudge. The student leadership put on a show of defiance, despite enormous odds within and outside the university, and began a fast.

The general public, which had been watching with alarm the LTTE's repression, gathered at the university in large numbers. Eventually, the LTTE resorted to terror to break the ensuing protest, and the students were finally forced to negotiate a settlement on the LTTE's assurance that the student leaders would not be harmed. However the LTTE began hunting for those leaders once the protest ended. Of these, particular note should be made of a student leader named Vimaleswaran; he hid among local peasants for some time before eventually coming out to teach in 1988, as soon as the Indian Army was in control, on assurance from an LTTE representative that they would leave him alone. Shortly thereafter, he was shot dead as he emerged from a class.

Those who eventually were to set up the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) Jaffna – including this writer – were introduced to human-rights activism by several individuals, among them being Rajani Thiranagama, who had been active on many fronts. Eventually, we came together at the end of 1986. This was a period in which the Tamil community in Jaffna had been forced to undergo several phases of terror. From the mid-1970s, Jaffna Tamils had faced state terror, which although it created uncertainties and insecurity was still external in nature. This was followed by the arbitrary violence of various militant groups, centred on killings individuals as 'traitors' or state informants, leading to an anarchic environment. The next phase led to internecine violence between groups, resulting in the killings of hundreds within and between movements. This eventually allowed the LTTE to acquire its 'sole representative' status, having terrorised and decimated its rivals on the pretext that they were traitors, anti-social elements, or agents of India.

The terror of the LTTE, which we called 'internal terror', had an entirely different dynamism. Some of those who were fed up with internecine violence between groups even believed that the emergence of one group would prove to be a good thing. Yet they failed to see the political and social implications of the emerging totalitarian dispensation. People learned to live with this new situation but, in doing so they lost a good part of their souls – more atomised and now unable to trust anyone. The university, certainly, died as an institution. Unable to challenge the emerging political malignancy, it became subservient to the LTTE's politics purely as a means of survival. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan security forces used the weakening of the resistance of the armed groups, due to the LTTE's decimation of its rivals, and succeeded in taking control of most of the east and were on the verge of taking control of the north, with relative ease.

Rajani and I had just returned to the university after completing our PhDs in England. This was a time when the LTTE was not prepared to allow any questioning of its actions. Some of us in the university began to think about re-energising the institution towards opening up space for a real re-evaluation of what was happening around us. By the completion of the Vadamaratchi operation, in early June 1987, the government had succeeded in further weakening the LTTE, which was left holding on to the Valikamam area amidst widespread public dissension. The threat by the Sri Lankan security forces to capture the remaining area in the Jaffna Peninsula forced India, which was anxious to protect the foothold it had in Sri Lanka through its arming and training of the militant groups, to move towards pressuring the government to accept a deal in the form of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. The people thus initially experienced relief at the coming of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF), and then despair when the LTTE not unexpectedly began a vicious war against the IPKF.

The suicidal political culture cultivated by the LTTE was becoming increasingly evident, as was its reliance on terror to suppress any dissent and its reliance on pure militarism. We felt that not attempting to arrest the tendency would trap the community in a self-destructive course. On the other hand, the accepted wisdom was that challenging the politics of the LTTE would be suicidal; rational engagement with an irrational movement was meaningless. Rationality thus prompted many intellectuals to recognise the reality for what it was, to remain silent and seek one's individual escape as best as one could. The question for those with a greater sense of responsibility was: Whose survival was paramount, our own or that of the community? We believed that the only course open was to tell the whole truth and face the consequences. This is what led us to author The Broken Palmyra, frequently by candle light, after regular interviews with victims of violence.

Our common position, born of experience, was that it was meaningless to criticise the governments of Sri Lanka or India – even when it was legitimate – without questioning what happened among us and what we did as a people. When, in the middle of 1988, there was a call by a section of academics in the south to form the UTHR in response to the effects of the JVP insurgency, we found that we had been moving in the same direction. Several of the academics in the south too felt that they must challenge both the government and the JVP. We began issuing our reports under the name UTHR (J).

After just a few months, the national UTHR became paralysed when one section tried to push it in a pro-JVP, anti-IPKF direction. However in Jaffna, thanks to the political base we had, due to the wider involvements of Rajani and some others, we were able to withstand various pressures from the combatant parties. We took a strong stand against the politics and methods of the other actors on the scene. The Indian Army's presence, despite creating multiple sources of terror, by weakening the LTTE's ideological control of the university had given us space in which to take the risk and document human-rights violations by all parties. Within the university itself, a consultative committee made up of staff members, students and employees gave us collective strength to go into action whenever a member of the university was arrested by the Indian Army, or to resist the LTTE's attempts to manipulate the university by ordering frequent closures.

Inevitably, this centrism frustrated both the LTTE and the Indian Army. Slowly, our activities began to empower the university's students, which enabled them to challenge the LTTE's politics as well. Further, the armed groups aligned with the IPKF felt that our criticism of the IPKF's violations was counterproductive, given that it was used by pro-LTTE elements to campaign against India at the international level. While the LTTE's leadership tolerated the work of UTHR (J) during the IPKF period, it was clear that once they took control of Jaffna, no dissent would be tolerated – and that the university would be administered 'appropriate' doses of terror to beat it into submission.

Meanwhile, the Indian intervention had become increasingly messy. New Delhi had been overconfident about its ability to handle the LTTE, while the rebels and elements of the southern polity were intent that the Indo-Lanka Accord should fail. India had no viable strategy in place to deal with this vortex of deceit. Duplicity on the part of the Sri Lankan government, and pique and frustration on India's part, ensured the Indian Army's eventual pullout. Almost immediately after that pullout was announced, the LTTE killed Rajani. It began constructing prison complexes, built and filled with help from the Colombo government, with whom the LTTE had engineered a covert deal.

Even after Rajani was killed, the UTHR (J) continued to try to function physically in Jaffna. However, many of the active members were forced to become silent. The LTTE was then spearheading mass arrests in Jaffna of those who were allegedly associating with the IPKF, as well as others who might become active dissidents. Most of these were sent to torture camps, and UTHR (J) began documenting the reality in those camps. Meanwhile, the LTTE began fighting with the Sri Lankan forces in June 1990, just ten weeks after the Indian Army had withdrawn. It then began targeting the remaining dissidents with a new alacrity. Many who were helping members of UTHR (J) were arrested and kept in prison by the LTTE; two students who were close to us, Manoharan and Chelvi, were taken prisoner by the LTTE in early 1991 and killed in the prison camps. Yet even in exile we remained part of a wider, virtual political community of likeminded people – new friends, old friends and those with whom we had earlier differed.

A new vibrancy
During the course of our work, as we discussed issues around wartime violations, we kept several questions foremost in our minds. We found inadequate the prevailing norms, which regarded human-rights violations only as violations by states, as they were vested with an obligation to safeguard the human rights of their citizens. Violations by non-state forces were termed abuses that were traditionally not the focus of human-rights organisations. For instance, when a militant movement solely relied on the oxygen of civilian deaths contrived by continuously provoking the brutality of the state forces to keep alive its politics and propaganda, is it meaningful to discuss violations of international norms in isolation from their political underpinnings? Equally, should a majoritarian state – one that resisted reform for over 60 years, unleashed several rounds of mob violence against minorities, and whose articulation eventually became inseparable from impunity and insecurity for its minority communities – be allowed to get away scot-free? Especially after brazenly violating its basic human-rights and humanitarian obligations towards its citizens in the name of fighting 'terrorism'?

Our reporting and activism involved not merely reporting violations of rights and violence, but also on the social, political and ideological framework of the violations, the dehumanisation of the people that made them fatalistically accept the violations. This culture was largely the work not of external violence by the state, but rather due to internal violence principally by the LTTE. For these same reasons, we were no less concerned about documenting violations by the state and its Sinhalese-centric ideological underpinnings, which had made violations against minorities the norm. We challenged this attitude as detrimental to all the people of the country and, as we have repeatedly seen, to the Sinhalese no less. We were also very clear about the abysmal character of Tamil nationalist politics, which constantly harped on Tamil victimhood to evade responsibility for the fate of its own people, leading to a nationalism gone mad. This not only failed the people, but also refused to engage in any rethinking. Even after the war, there is the very real danger of Tamil unwillingness to stand up to the state.

Likewise, following the defeat of the LTTE last May, the present regime has shown that it will continue to bank on the Sinhalese-chauvinist mindset as the means to power. But in the absence of any fresh air, Tamil political discourse continues in its dispirited fashion, without any serious re-evaluation. The recent election may have shown some fissures in the Sinhalese-nationalist camp; however, the reality is that the democratic and secular forces all over are very weak, including in the south, and are unable to play a role to chart a new healthier course.

Amidst all this, the University of Jaffna, like all universities in Sri Lanka, is facing a predicament that it has seen many times before. It is unable to play a constructive role in empowering the communities and building a cross-cultural discourse. It is unable to produce enlightened leaders for the revival of democracy, and building a multicultural and multiethnic society. In the early 1960s, university campuses showed remarkable vibrancy; but since then, the trend has been continuous degeneration on all fronts, with ethnic polarisation having taken its toll more than any other bane.

Despite all the negative trends, however, the potential still exists in Sri Lanka to build bridges between the communities, and to help cultivate a vibrant democracy. In this regard, universities should of course play the crucial role. Even within a totalitarian environment, our experience showed that when students were exposed to new ideas, they were prepared to become active and take up responsible leadership roles. UTHR (J) would not have emerged if there had been no such potential in Jaffna. It is important to note that although Jaffna society is caste-ridden and conservative in its outlook, it is also progressive. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi during the 1920s, Jaffna produced one of the most remarkable movements – the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC), far ahead of many progressive forces in the south. Further, many of the revolutionary leaders who came from the north have shown total dedication to their cause, and withstood the LTTE's terror.

Although currently Lankan politics evinces a trend towards an overarching narrow nationalism, the objective conditions are changing rapidly. If the democratic and secular progressive forces could realign themselves towards challenging the dominant ideologies – those that have long undermined finding a meaningful framework within which to manage conflicts arising from the Sri Lankan polity's ethnic-centredness – and work towards combating the culture of impunity instead of being subservient to the major parties, the process can be accelerated. Universities should once more become the centres for serious political discourse, holding forth a broader vision. And hopefully, Jaffna University can re-emerge as a multiethnic and multi-religious institution, to play a crucial historical role in combating the current reactionary political culture.

Where to start? For one, there should be an initiative towards mobilising the student community from various universities to work towards formulating a reconciliation process that takes into account the need to advance accountability for the past violations of all sides, and laying a foundation for a long-lasting democratic and just settlement. Universities have the capacity to organise forums through cultural activities, political engagement and truth-seeking mechanisms across ethnic and religious boundaries. If the work of the UTHR (J) could be used as a resource to support such an initiative, the sacrifices made by many over the decades would acquire greater meaning.

~ Kopalasingham Sritharan is a founding member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna),

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