DISCRIMINATION IN EDUCATION IN
SRI LANKA IN THE PAST 50 YEARS
by Professor C Jeyaratnam Eliezer,
at a Symposium on the 'Plight of the Tamil Nation'
organised by the International Tamil Foundation, United Kingdom, in June 1997
Tamils Squeezed out of Higher
Hundred Tamils of 20th Century - Christi Jeyaratnam Eliezer]
Ceylon was my home for the first 40 years of my life from 1918 to 1959. During the final decade of these years, I was Professor of Mathematics, and for a period, Dean of Science at the University of Ceylon. I was one of the lucky ones of my generation of Ceylonese. I was taught by, and moved with, some outstanding academic liberals in Ceylon, Cambridge, Princeton and Chicago.
It was a time of vision. Advances in science and technology were transforming the world, especially Third World countries. One was filled with hope that Ceylon, when it attained Independence in 1948, would follow the way of development and advance in leaps and bounds. Certainly scientists and engineers got into this mindset. But political problems that emerged arrested any development.
II. History Teaching
At our regular Student Christian Movement meetings, people from various ethnic backgrounds were expressing alarm about threats to national unity. After one meeting, Rev. Celestine Fernando took me aside and suggested I read some of the horrible things Sinhala language newspapers were saying about us Tamils. I was surprised by the tone of hatred and deliberate inaccuracies in the reports. The logical step was to ask what did schools teach on these matters? I had imagined most educators would have concurred with Dr Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, that Cambridge educated friend of all communities and later curator of the Boston Museum, USA, who often quoted from a German work
(Ref 1) :
" Human culture is a unitary whole, and its separate cultures are the dialects of one and the same language of the spirit."
However, a new emphasis of Sinhalese Buddhist history encouraged racial superiority and a hatred for the non-Buddist. This view came from the Pali Chronicle, The Mahawansa, discovered by English civil servant George Turnour in a Buddhist monastery near Tangalle (in the south of Ceylon) in 1826. The book is believed to have been written by Buddist monks about 600 A.D and permeated by a strong religious bias. Some of the events it described were several centuries old. The book is a mixture of legend and history. It encouraged racial superiority and hatred of the non-Buddhist
Written history alone is insufficient for us to grasp the total elements in the life of a multiracial society. It has to be supplemented and corroborated by other sources such as oral traditions, epigraphy, inscriptions and archaeology
(Ref 3). In a paper read at a conference on the teaching of history (1957), Mr K Nesiah, a lecturer in education, said
" To represent history as mainly the story of war and conflict, or even as a series of political events, not merely makes history a divisive force but may be a gross distortion. It becomes fateful when unscientific racial groupings - e.g. 'Aryans and Dravidians, - are imported into the story. For example, to elevate the spells of fighting between military adventurers and their small armies in the early days of pioneering and colonization in Ceylon into racial and national wars and to give disproportionate place in history books to these is both bad education and bad history. On the other hand, giving due place to progress in social and cultural history makes a truer tale of human relationships as essentially one of peace and co-operation. Naturally emphasis on the cultural contribution of different groups will tend to bring them together today."
Sadly, the education provided in Ceylon did not follow this emphasis. It ignored the history and historical contributions of the people in the North and East. It did not promote racial harmony and understanding. It made it difficult for two nations who had lived as neighbours for centuries to evolve into one nation.
I expressed my concerns in my Prize Day address at Trinity College, Kandy. Many in the audience afterwards congratulated me. I particularly remember Mr. Aluwihare, the much respected Sinhalese Inspector General of police, warmly shook my hand and commented I had made an important analysis.
Some of the next day's newspapers gave a positive coverage. I remember one reporter commending my historical theme to his readers. However, before I could follow it up,
the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958 - when armed Sinhalese hoodlums attacked Tamil homes and persons - flared up. A year later I left the country for what I thought was a two-year assignment in Malaya. I was not to know I would never return except on occasional visits, as things continually worsened in Ceylon.
In 1969, Prof. Sarathchandra of the University of Ceylon led a delegation of eminent educators at a meeting with the Minister of Education to ask for a curriculum review to eradicate the inconsistencies, bias and lack of balance of history taught in schools. Nothing seemed to come out of it. In 1982, Mr. Nesiah again urged
" An inquiry, not less urgent into the books, especially the history text books, in use in schools. If the people of this country have to learn to live together in peace (whatever be the political settlement), the growing children should be freed from the prejudiced misinformation about their fellows in other parts of the country which books (and newspapers) are seeking to give. We would do well to enter into the mutual revision of history books which started with the call of Anatole France at the end of World War I, 'Burn the books which teach hatred, burn them all'."
A disturbing trend is the continuation of intolerance towards any historical analysis that differed from the official version. Recently, a historian, Dr. Jane Russell, was arrested in Colombo and deported. Apparently, the results of her researches on ancient Sri Lankan history had not suited the powers that be.
III. Medium at University
After the 'Sinhala Only' bill was passed in 1956 I got involved in the question of the medium of instruction at the University. The Minister of Education, Mr. W Dahanayaka, sent a letter to the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Nicholas Attygalle that basically asked what the University proposed to do in the wake of the bill.
The Vice-Chancellor consulted the University senate, which passed on the letter to the different Faculties and Departments. After some months of discussion, the reports from the Faculties were sent to the Senate.
A few days before the Senate meeting to discuss these reports, I was in the Registrar's office when Father Peter Pillai, a Roman Catholic educator and also a member of the Senate, came in. He asked what was being done at the meeting. I replied that the Faculties' reports were up before the Senate, and these would be discussed then.
He said, " My dear fellow, you do not leave things like that. You should all get together and prepare some resolutions beforehand."
While we were talking, another Senate member, Prof B L T de Silva, came in. We asked him what he thought about the idea of resolutions. He thought it was a good idea. So we started drafting some resolutions, which would summarise the consensus view of all the Faculties. We decided to meet again. After that second meeting, at which a few others were also present, we finalised five resolutions. The meeting requested me to propose these at the Senate, and Mr. Julius De Lanerolle, of the Sinhalese Dictionary project, agreed to second them.
Briefly, the resolutions aimed to ask the University to make various preparations; that in two years' time, students taught in Sinhala and Tamil mediums will be sitting the University Entrance examinations, and there was a need to conduct the Entrance examinations in Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Noting that English would have been studied as a second language, English should continue as a medium of instruction at University with progressive change to Sinhala and Tamil, as and when departments report feasibility. The University would be assisted to improve their capacity in Sinhala and Tamil and prepare books, and staff and students be assisted to have a working knowledge of the official language.
The resolutions were discussed in Senate and approved with something like unanimity. So it was a shock when it went to Council. Mr. H V Perera, QC, started off: "The Senate and Professor Eliezer seem to have misunderstood the position."
He was among those hoping that English be continued indefinitely. But if a change had to be made, it had to be Sinhala only. Tamil did not come into it. The Chancellor, Mr. Dudley Senanayake and Mr. N
E Weerasooria, QC and others supported the view that Tamil should be a medium at University.
At one stage I asked, "what about students who come up through the Tamil medium?" There was no response.
Senator A M A Azeez, an educator at a Muslim college who was sitting next to me, reminded me that when the prime minister (Mr. S W R D Bandaranayake) introduced the Sinhala Only bill in Parliament, he had emphasized that it would only apply to the administration of Ceylon and not to education. Senator Azeez asked me to mention this to Council. I did so, adding that this meant that Sinhala and Tamil would become dual mediums at the University. Justice Keuneman agreed with this view. After some discussion, it was decided that the Prime Minister be asked if the Government's policy synchronized with my understanding of the matter.
The resultant meeting initiated by the Vice Chancellor was held in the Prime Minister's office in the city on January 14, 1957, a public holiday.
The Prime Minister began " Let me at the outset deal with a matter which has concerned the Council, before going on to details - the role of Tamil in the University."
He spotted a copy of Hansard, which I had placed on the top of my papers. He turned to me and asked. "Does that copy of Hansard contain my speech?" When I replied, "yes", he asked me to read the introduction.
The introduction clearly said that the Bill would apply to administration only, and would not affect the language of education.
Space prevents me from detailing the rest of the meeting. But, I will say that Prime Minister
Bandaranaike brilliantly summed up in five sentences or short paragraphs the steps the University had to take. They were similar to the five resolutions I had earlier proposed at the University Senate. I formed an admiration for the ability of the Prime Minister.
Forty years later, when I look back at the events, I am reminded at how the determined leadership of the Prime Minster thwarted attempts by the University Council to discriminate against Tamil.
The debate in the Council and the advance information about the meeting with the Prime Minister led to interviews with the Times of Ceylon newspaper. There were photographs of Mr. Dudley Senanayake and Sir Nicholas Attygalle on one side insisting on Sinhala only, and Senator Azeez and myself standing up for Sinhala and Tamil. After the story was published, a Buddhist dignitary commented, "Eliezer is trying to destroy the Sinhalese!"
Another incident, which may not have been related to the above, took place in the Mathematics Department. Students working towards the 'Honours' degree became close friends with the staff as we worked closely in our specialized field of study. They knew they could walk into our offices if they had a problem. A student, now a Professor of Mathematics, said to me, " Sir I was very shocked last night when my father asked me, " Is it true that the Tamil professor is cruel to all Sinhalese students?" The son had told his father that the Professor and his staff treated all students as though they were their own children. So the father then said, " What are all the Sinhala papers going on about then?"
IV. University Entrance and Standardisation
The establishment of the Ceylon University college in 1921 in Colombo, and affiliated to the University of London, was a landmark in the history of education in Ceylon. It prepared students for the external degree of B.A and B.Sc of the University of London.
Admission to the University College was based on the performance of the students in the Cambridge Senior or London Matriculation examinations. In those days there was no distinction between Tamil and Sinhalese students. Admission was on merit alone, and competition was not very keen in the early days.
The notion of a University was not foreign to the Tamil community of Ceylon, particularly to students from Tamil capital of Jaffna in the North. As early as 1823, American missionaries had set up the Batticotta Seminary there. It created what Bishop Kulendran proudly described as " A tremendous intellectual upsurge, the like of which has never been seen in the country before or after." The eminent British historian Sir Emerson Tennent judged the Seminary equal in rank with many an European university.
It produced some internationally renowned scholars, the most acclaimed being C.W Thamotharamapillai, High Court Judge in Madras and Regent in the Indian state of Puthokotai in 1892. Sadly, the seminary closed after a few decades when the Mission Board could not find funds for its continuation.
When the University College founded in Colombo in 1921 by the British, it was expected it would become a university in a few years. It took twenty. During that time, competition for places got keener. The two-year HSC classes were introduced, with university taking responsibility for conducting the HSC examinations and basing on its results admission into the University. Despite more Universities being created, they could not cope with a greater demand for places.
Tamil students took many places, especially in Science, Medicine and Engineering. They came from a tradition of learning, serviced by first-rate schools set up by various religious missions and boards. Not surprisingly, those from the Jaffna peninsula (which had a high concentration of population) were greater in proportion to its geographical size.
The Tamil students received two serious blows. The Sinhala Only act of 1956 made it difficult for them to secure employment. A policy of standardisation made it much more difficult to get admission to a university. In the original form in 1971, discrimination was on the basis of language and the region the student came from. The system that has prevailed since 1977 is as follows: 30% are filled on island-wide merit; 55% by allocation to revenue districts in proportion to their population, and filled within each district on merit; 15% are given to districts deemed educationally underprivileged. How this operated against Tamil students can bee seen from the following quotation
" Students in the North (almost certainly Tamils) and those in Colombo (two-thirds Sinhalese and one-third Tamils) continue to suffer serious discriminations. In 1983/4, 530 students who had the necessary grades for admission to the Faculties of Medicine, Science and Engineering were excluded, to accommodate 519 who had lesser marks. Of the excluded students, over 50% were Tamils."
Such discrimination contradicts U.N policy.
Article 26.1 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
"Every one has the right to education - higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."
Similar provisions are contained in the Covenant On Civil And Political Rights, and the Covenant on Economic, Social And Cultural Rights.
Article 2 (2) of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination permits "Affirmative Action" under certain circumstances where a disadvantaged minority group may be helped. Such action, however, shall not be continued after the objectives have been achieved.
Those who support standardization in modern day Sri Lanka argue it was introduced to correct past inequalities and to bring about a balance. Clearly, this process of " balancing" has gone too far and must be terminated.
I end this section by quoting from the
report by the International
Commission of Jurists in 1981:
" The Government should re-examine its policies on university admission with a view to basing admissions on merit rather than on racial grounds. Tamil and Sinhalese young people alike will then have equal rights to university education on the basis of capacity rather than on race. One of the major points of tension among Tamil youth has been the implicit racial quota imposed under present university admission policies which have barred many competent persons from pursuing higher education."
V. Education of Tamils in Estates
I make a brief note on this subject. The Tamil workers in the tea estates are a very under-privileged community. They descended from those brought from India by the British in the 19th century to work in the up-country plantations. They are often referred to as 'Indian Tamils', to distinguish them from the Sri Lankan Tamils who have lived in the North and East of the Island for thousands of years.
Through their labour, they have contributed enormously to national income. But they are severely deprived in matters of housing, health and education. Their position became worse
after they were deprived of their citizenship (despite many having been born in Ceylon) by the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, and of their franchise by the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act of 1949.
In the census, they constituted 5.8% of the population. They had earlier formed a much higher percentage, but many were forcibly repatriated to India. With more acquiring citizenship, they have the means to have their presence felt.
In the early years, the 'Indian Tamils' were educated in estate schools, founded and run by the Tamil Church Mission (TCM) with financial support from the British estate superintendents and Ceylonese Christians in the upcountry and Maritime Provinces. But with the changing political situation in the estates, and shrinking funds, the TCM has ceased to function and the schools have come under the responsibility of the Government. These schools have a long way to go before they enjoy the quality of education enjoyed by the rest of the country.
The Sinhala Only Act and the standardization for university admission brought a serious reduction in employment opportunities for Tamils. The quotation below reflects the trend
" The discrimination has been serious and progressive. For example, the unemployment rate (1980) among educated Sinhalese youths was 29% and among the Tamils 41%. Between 1977 and 1981, 9,965 vacancies in the Government clerical services (the forte of the Tamils) were filled by 9,326 (93.6%) Sinhalese and only 492 (4.9%) Tamils."
The statement is made that Tamils got preference in employment during British rule. This is not so. The British recruited people to help in the administration through public examinations, using index numbers. Examiners therefore were not aware whether the candidate was a Sinhalese or Tamil. The Tamils had educational advantages, which they used in securing employment.
That the so-called "balancing" through discrimination, had gone too far is proven in the '1984 Statistics' by a committee set up by the Sri Lankan Parliament. The percentage of Sinhalese in university populations, in recruitment to the work force, and in the total work force already exceeded the population figure of 75%. It is time that a more equitable system was devised. It is ludicrous that this generation of Tamil students should be penalised because their parents and grandparents did well in their days.
VII. The Burning of the Jaffna Public Library
Writing about past discriminations has been a depressing experience for me. The most shattering of all to a highly literate people as the Tamils was on the night of June 1, 1981, when the Jaffna Public Library was burned down by members of the predominantly Sinhalese Police force. About 100,000 priceless work-most of them irreplaceable- went up in flames. For Tamils, it was an act of destruction comparable to the Arabs' torching of the great library of Alexandria.
What greater act of discrimination against Tamils in education can there be? It cut the heartstring to the records of an ancient past. It denied access to valuable educational resources, not only to the thousands of school children who used the Library daily, but also to international scholars of Tamil research.
The architectural splendour of the building had been a source of pride for the people of the North, as much as for the passion with which its planner and his assistants built up such a magnificent collection.
The building has been left an empty shell. It was pleasing that the city fathers speedily arranged alternate housing for the children's section and for the periodical and newspaper sections.
The act of conflagrations also blurred the line for Tamils in the police force, as custodians of law and order and arsonists! There is no doubt that they had been directed by higher officials. Watching the building burn from the Government Rest House across the road, were two Government Ministers, Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Matthew, supposedly in Jaffna to oversee the district council elections. Let us hope that another library will soon be built, and may it be what a great library should be. According to Mr. Nesiah
" A city's public library is the eye of the city by which the citizens are able to behold the realness of their heritage, and behold the still greater greatness of their future."
1. Alfred Jeremias: "Handbuch der Altorientalschen Gerstekultur", Berlin 1929, p 508.
2. S Sivanayagam: " The Ethnic Crisis in Sri Lanka: A Historical Perspective". (1986)
3. D J Kanagaratnam: " Tamils And Cultural Pluralism in Ancient Sri Lanka".
4. K Nesiah: " Education and Human Rights In Sri Lanka" (1983) p 113.
5. Ibid, p 74
6. Brian Senewiratne: " Sri Lanka, A Synopsis Of the Racial Problem", p 3
7. K Nesiah: " Education And Human Rights in Sri Lanka ", p 197