For the two years which ended in November 1989, the university had attempted, and to a remarkable extent succeeded, in confronting the activities of the IPKF and the LTTE which were directed against the people - particularly their human rights violations. While the IPKF regarded the university with a mixture of anger and respect, the LTTE as an alleged liberation group, had little excuse to confront the university openly. Nevertheless it watched the university closely, dropping hints of its resentment. The university continued to stand up for the rights of the students, even those with LTTE sympathies. Soon after the IPKF announced its cease-fire in preparation for withdrawal on 20th September 1989, Dr.Rajani Thiranagama, a prominent human rights activist in the university, was assassinated, signalling by this act of terror, a new and menacing challenge to the university.
It was partly with a view to meeting this challenge that the university organised a peace march on 21st November 1989 focussing on the plight of the young who were being forced or cajoled into arms by the two opposing sides. The LTTE which denied killing Dr.Thiranagama, sent some armed men to the university who inspected the slogans to be carried on the march and demanded that the march should call for a withdrawal of the IPKF. This was rejected by the students as being against the spirit of the march as well as a meaningless provocation. The pressure continued until the eve of the march. Thanks in part to the presence of international delegates, the students won the round and the march went ahead as planned. The student leaders had good reason to fear the worst. In July, the previous year, Vimalaeswaran, a student leader who had once challenged the LTTE over the disappearance of a student in 1986, was murdered by the LTTE [UTHR (J) Report No.1].
In December 1989, Anton Winsles, a provenly conscientious student leader, was elected president of the university students' union (USU). Winsles, as a one time LTTE helper, had close contacts in the LTTE, but was uncompromisingly independent. The next crisis came as the IPKF withdrew and the LTTE demanded that the student union vacate the room assigned to it, which before October 1987 was used by the Maru Malarchikalagam (MMK) - a defunct cultural organisation captured by the LTTE about 1986. When the students resisted, the LTTE importuned a senior don, and even dropped hints that a death sentence which was once passed on him had been held in abeyance.
The MMK became defunct following the IPKF offensive of 1987. Finding LTTE literature in its room, the IPKF had proceeded to ransack the university administration and the arts faculty offices, thinking that the university was an LTTE complex. Instead of facing the question of whether as a liberation group it had then used the university responsibly, the LTTE accused the university of having destroyed the MMK. It is essential to note that during the IPKF operation, the LTTE used university buildings to fire at the IPKF and left before the IPKF reached the premises. The IPKF's retaliation damaged the buildings, and roofs were virtually non existent in certain buildings. It was the rainy season and almost all the university documents were wet and they would have become unusable. But because of the staff's initiative, university people were able to enter the university and safeguard the valuables including the documents of the MMK! The university could have summoned a meeting of the Co-ordinating Committee of Staff, Students and Employees (CC) to issue a statement refuting this allegation. The CC was an institution formed in early 1989 along with the mood of democratisation, and was very successful until the time of the peace march. It had increasingly come under attack from senior persons who felt that their power without accountability was being challenged. The Vice Chancellor was under strong pressure to dissolve the CC. The LTTE's allegation, made with an intimidatory thrust, went unchallenged. Once more, as during the fast of 1986, the burden of carrying the autonomy of the university fell on the student leadership.
Following the outbreak of war in June 1990, the student leaders followed an old tradition in collecting materials for the refugees pouring into Mullaitivu. The LTTE maintained that relief could be distributed only in its name. Although the students had to consent to the LTTE, which now monopolised fuel, transporting these materials, they annoyed the LTTE by distributing them without naming any authority. About this time the LTTE issued a call for the NGOs to support the struggle for Tamil self-determination led by the LTTE. The USU issued a balanced statement in English critical of both sides and sent it to the press. Following this, some persons from the LTTE's ROOTE, confronted the students who had drafted the resolution. A doctored version of the resolution was published in the press.
The ROOTE approached the USU and wanted it to pass a resolution accusing the government of Sri Lanka of genocide, calling upon the struggle led by the LTTE to be recognised internationally, and for all people to unite behind the LTTE and join the struggle. A hint was dropped that if the motion was not passed, the USU would be dissolved. By now many members of the student executive had fled as refugees either to India or to Colombo. It fell to Winsles to put this resolution to a general meeting. At the vote, the motion was defeated 145 to 115. The LTTE wanted it put to the vote a second time, and it was again defeated. Two days later Winsles was approached by the LTTE and was forced to issue the statement required by the LTTE. Having signed the statement, Winsles and his colleagues resigned from the USU.
It may be wondered what inspired the student body to defy the LTTE during these developments. One must keep in mind the opposing aims of the two sides. The LTTE had for years displayed persistent anger against the university, accusing it of not having helped them in any way. It scorned the university, and a key leader of the LTTE, obsessed with the university, is quoted as having said, "If the Sri Lankan airforce bombs the university, we would join them". The LTTE pursued a course of trying to forcibly identify the university with it. Equally, the students in particular, feared that if the army broke through into Jaffna, it would kill them. The LTTE on the other hand would, by past performance, like to see some students and staff killed for propaganda and mobilisation. In this acute dilemma, facing in particular the students, the authorities remained silent.
The LTTE was very angry with the student leaders and a high level of surveillance was kept up. In a meeting with the authorities Winsles told a small audience why they could not function under conditions created by the LTTE. This was repeated verbatim by a key LTTE leader. Winsles and other student leaders were repeatedly asked to come for military training. In having to flee Jaffna, Winsles and some of his colleagues joined a long line of well-motivated predecessors, who saw the unmasked face of a tendency, so appalling now as it was once attractive.
There was a feeling in the university of uncertainty and dissolution. The students received little guidance when the LTTE launched its long matured propaganda campaign, suggesting that everyone should join its fight, and that education beyond standard 8 was superfluous. The students began drifting away to their homes, to Colombo and to search for their families in the devastated East, after receiving strong hints, certainly not contradicted by the authorities, that the university will not be allowed to function for perhaps two years.
The staff and members of the administration were strongly canvassed to make token gestures towards the war effort. Some obliged for a variety of reasons, and were rewarded with favours, such as accessibility and immunity for their sons from restrictions placed on others. With the USU obliterated, the students came under the domination of the MMK which exerted itself as a parallel or even superior administration. Most prominent in the university was a student, who during the IPKF presence, had been charged with an examination offence. The charges had been dropped without calling the invigiators for an inquiry. Later he began appearing at the university in uniform in an official vehicle, when all others were cycle-bound-from the Vice-Chancellor downwards.
In September, a human rights activist on the staff had to go into hiding when LTTE squads went searching for him.
The LTTE for a variety of reasons found itself compelled to reverse its strictures on education. With the traditional obsession with educational qualifications in Jaffna and with pressure on the young to take to arms, the exodus from Jaffna reached serious levels. The pass system brought in by the LTTE and the enforced rigours of travel, did little to stem the exodus, though it made people delay plans, made them cough up gold sovereigns and made them more anxious. Further, all this combined to give expatriate Tamil opinion a jolt.
Suddenly the silent educational authorities went into action as though it had become everyone's patriotic duty to restart educational institutions. Staff and students who had gone out of Jaffna because of the war situation were summoned back to Jaffna.
If the LTTE was going to allow the university to function, there was, as just after the IPKF operation, a strong case to reopen the university if it could function as a self respecting institution, safeguarding the interests of the students and the community. The students resident in Jaffna were largely for reopening for three reasons. Being occupied would make it easier for them to resist being importuned for military service. There was an instinctive feeling that they would be safer if the university was functioning, whenever the Sri Lankan army came in. Thirdly, they were so disillusioned that they wanted to quickly finish their studies and go abroad.
Before reopening, the authorities had to face some important questions. They had to face the fact that Muslim staff and students were physically prevented from being in Jaffna. A number of staff and students had left Jaffna because they could not function democratically or because they felt physically threatened by the LTTE. There were many who felt that the security situation was inimical to their presence. There was no let up in the bombing and shelling. A Sri Lankan military thrust appeared more imminent now than it had been earlier, when the university was closed all but in name. In reopening the university a clear statement of objectives and principles was needed. Students were being recalled from far away places in the East, where they had gone to join their traumatised families. No protest came from any quarters of the university against the treatment meted out to the Muslims and their fellow Muslims students. When few students from the Eastern province who were in Jaffna requested the university authorities to consider the plight of the other students from the Eastern province, senior officials and students from Jaffna had paid no attention to such pleas. The university had an obligation to give confidence to both these students and their families that it was taking steps concerning the students' security. It could have demanded from the LTTE that it should not do harm to students or staff. That the university being essential to the future of the Tamils, it should refrain from maintaining an armed presence in a given neighbourhood of the institution. Parallel to this it could have demanded from the government that no military operations should be conducted in this area. Such steps would have created a sense of solidarity and would have upheld the dignity and autonomy of the institution. These ideas too were not new, in view of previous dealings with the IPKF.
Again responsibility demanded that there being no normal situation, normal rules should not be applied. There was no question of forcing staff and students to report. A clear statement of objectives would have served as grounds for appeal, for everyone to co-operate in keeping the University open. This was what was done in the climate that prevailed in November 1987.
Nothing of this kind is known to have been done in the current situation. There was a deafening silence on the obligations of the institution towards its members. Instead the carrot and stick was used in a humiliating manner. A letter was reportedly handed over to the University Grants Commission asking for the staff not to be paid in Colombo. Pressure was also applied on the UGC not to entertain students requesting transfers to other universities.
The UGC was left with the thorny problem which an autonomous institution should have handled. What was to be done with the staff and students who had legitimate reasons not to go to Jaffna? There was also genuine concern in the UGC for the safety of the officials of the University of Jaffna. If they were acting under duress, a wrong move on the part of the UGC, it was felt, would place them in jeopardy. There was also a reluctance to interfere in the normal prerogatives of the university and be accused of conspiring to run down an institution of the Tamils. The UGC, long regarded as the interfering arm of the Sri Lankan state, appeared more concerned for the autonomy of the University of Jaffna than the university itself.
Once the university reopened there were few illusions about who was in charge. Staff members going to their designated lecture room sometimes found that the room had been commandeered. There were regular meetings with compulsory attendance where those like Yogi poured out their muddles. Communalists in the South would have drawn comfort from Yogi's reasons for acting against Muslims.
The climax of November was the observance of National Heroes Week in the university. Senior university persons spoke to the effect that not only should they commemorate the martyrs, but that one day they should all become martyrs. In the minds of the speakers it may have been a harmless piece of gimmickry dictated by fear -just as they knew that arming children was totally wrong, but pretended that in view of the exigencies of the `last battle', the issue did not exist. The impact of such rhetoric on students and their parents need not be elaborated on. Having come to the university expecting protection, they were being called to be martyrs to a cause they generally dreaded. The LTTE itself uses such speakers for propaganda value, but would never take them seriously. One speaker who said that they must all work 48 hours a day for the cause had already sent his son to Colombo. Another had already sent his wife and children to Britain and hoped to follow them, when the army moved in. One don even suggested to the students to remove Sri Lanka in the address they put in their dissertations and asked them to put just University of Jaffna, Jaffna. On the other hand, he confided to one of his colleagues, "If the army moves in, we will all become born again Sri Lankans." For the intellectuals it is a clever somersault. But for the young boys and girls who are giving their lives for a cause legitimised by this intellectual set, it is a tragedy.
Another university official speaking to students seeking transfers in Colombo, assured them that there was no problem and that everything was normal in Jaffna - something the Sri Lanka government would have been happy to have him tell foreign journalists, who have been maligning the government over its military policy.
One senior academic and administrator who had kept an independent mind, found himself occasionally provoked into subtle dissent. The LTTE wanted a high powered group of intellectuals to advise them on how to revive the economy. This academic told them, "There are a very large number of people and farmers thrown out of work between Jaffna and Palaly. They are the persons you must ask. We are hardly qualified to advise you". [Top]
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