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The first modern Asian University

by Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole - DN Thu Mar 21, 2002

Today, we commemorate the continued servicing of the tertiary educational needs of Jaffna begun here as the Batticotta Seminary in 1823. This Vattukkottai Seminary is what was reorganized as Jaffna College from 1875 onwards. Contrary to our University Grants Commission's history of university education in this country, Batticotta was the first modern university-level institution in Sri Lanka and indeed all of Asia, a good half-century before Colombo Medical College.

The traditions begun by eminent men and women from the America-Ceylon Mission transplanted in Asia the high vision and traditions of the elite colleges and universities of New England from which they graduated. Some of them held faculty positions at those august institutions.

Batticotta was second to none. The standards were so great that two of your graduates simply sat Madras University's first BA examination and were its first two graduates! We are beholden to you, Lord Bishop and Directors, for the singular honour conferred upon us through your kind invitation. Thank you!

The heritage of giants

It is appropriate today to reflect on the Batticotta heritage. Those who came were giants by any standard, perhaps even a little mad by our standards. The Rev. Samuel Newell and his 19-year old wife were the first sent out by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission.

They arrived in Calcutta, the effective capital of British India, in 1813. It happened to be just after the Anglo-American war of 1812. The British East India Company authorities did not trust these missionaries and ordered them out. The Newells sailed to the Mauritius and their child, born on the way, died. Mrs. Newell also died in Mauritius. But Newell, defiantly fired by the call of the Gospel, was persistent. He landed in Galle and ended up in Jaffna. And so began the Batticotta enterprise.

The men and women they produced were also equally determined and had their unique character. We may not entirely agree with them, but one thing is for sure - they had singular determination and set out to do what they thought ought to be done. They were madmen of a sort and yet giants.

Today, who would go or allow a son or husband to go and serve, say, in the Vanni, let alone a distant land several months' journey away? When I returned from the US to work in the relative comforts of Colombo, there were many protestations from family and friends that I was being irresponsible. I was reminded that if I had plans like this, I shouldn't have got married.

We no longer produce individuals who would do as they think right. Where are the great men and women that Jaffna produced? Where are the C.W. Thamotherampillais, the Bishop Kulandrans, the Canon S.S. Somasundarams, the K. Pooranampillais, the K. Nesiahs, the Dr. Miss Thilliampalams and the Miss Hudson Paramasamies? We might not like all of them, but they were indeed giants who walked among us and enriched our heritage.

Globalisation and Countervailing Individual Rights

The absence of giants is created by our new twin heritage of this millennium. On the one hand, this is the era of standardization and globalisation. Diversity is gone and indeed misunderstood. Standardization, however useful, when applied to human beings to suit the needs of the global economy, is disastrous.

Those with signs of greatness and character are generally misfits, while those who would function like machines in the standard mould are valued. The staleness of uniformity has now become so pervasive that even haircuts and clothes are standardised and change like clockwork from season to season.

Countervailing against this we have the other half of this era's twin heritage, individual rights. It celebrates diversity. The New York Times has described it as the most important political legacy of the last century. It is this countervailing force of these rights enshrined in international covenants that tempers the forces of standardisation. It is but fitting that the two should go together.

As to which force will be dominant - the force of personal rights that gives us the right to be who we are or that of globalisation that makes us all a factory product - is yet to be seen.

Contradictory Positions

The battle between globalisation and individual rights fought one way by a collective at one level might well be fought the other way by the same collective at another. Consider the Protestant Church.

There is the imperative for us Protestants to be moulded into one united Protestant Church with a standard theology (whether we subscribe to it or not) leaving out all our unique beliefs. If we refuse we are branded as uncooperative, troublesome, individualistic and even selfish. The South Indian United Church, now the CSI, was the first to fall afoul of this new ideology.

But in Sri Lanka, the brutal plan to steam-roll us Protestants into one Church, as I see it, is now held back, ironically, by the CSI and the Tamil desire for preserving individual character. The dynamics of this process is still improperly understood as southern Churchmen think such a malformed marriage is upon us.

The Tamil desire for identity countervails against the Sri Lankan Church's desire for standardization. It is correct that no Tamil Church with its own identity, independence, connections and institutions, should vote to be subsumed by a Sri Lankan Church in which it will be a nobody.

Ironically again, the same dichotomy is played out within the Tamil community. As we resist standardization from outside asserting our individuality, we impose standardisation within. Even as we assert our individuality as a Tamil Church, we have gone the other way by allowing our minds to be moulded into one standardized political ideology.

We regard as disloyal and marginalize those who do not subscribe to this over-arching and all-embracing philosophy. The CSI also, under a past administration, has demanded this standardization and been dismissive of those who refused to comply. The battle for standardisation against individuality is therefore inconsistent.

Standardisation: Our Gregarious Instinct

Here in Sri Lanka, and more so in Jaffna, standardization seems to be ascendant. There is, sadly, no room for great men with character. Some call it Asian Values - really an excuse for barbarism. We need all to be moulded and this imperative plays on our gregarious instinct to belong.

The resulting unity is intellectually costly. Consider having to light a lamp to Muruhan's cockerel at a function. When we are suddenly called out of the blues to come up and light the lamp, it takes character to say 'No thanks'. It takes even greater character to resist as we are persistently asked over the public address system to come up and privately persuaded that it is a national symbol and nothing religious.

Besides to our character, the damage to our intellect as this myth is swallowed is obvious. Similarly, in a university when selection committees are manipulated to have a friend promoted, it takes a lot to object. For friendships will be lost. When an engineering faculty has more faith in the stars than its designs and has foundation-laying at an auspicious 6 AM, it takes courage to assert the values of the profession and refuse to go.

Funny it was when a Minister for Christian Affairs, caught in the company of his party men on TV, allowed magical thread to be tied on his wrist for his protection by a monk. To do as friends do, reinforces friendships. Being in the standard mould is the easy way out. To not do as they do, rocks friendships. To stand up and be different takes sound character.

Our instinctive gregariousness is played off against individuality. We are asked not to think so that intellectually contradictory ideas can be accepted. True it is nice to be one with everyone. But it is a bigger disaster if we need to stop thinking to be one with everyone and every idea.

Faith with Reason

To be human we need to be thinkers first. That is what Batticotta emphasized. The Rt. Rev. Dr. S. Jebanesan's demonstrates this with Dr. D. Young, in his book titled "The Bible Trembled: Vain Debates". The last century was a time of intellectual revival.

Whether people believed this or that, they believed with reason. Their book, a master-piece, shows how folk, simple folk, took trouble to justify their views. Some went the way of the Mission and others against it, but they all accepted the new logic of faith with reason that was transplanted by the Mission.

Jaffna had been transformed by Batticotta and other like-minded institutions into an intellectual powerhouse. As the late Bishop Sabapathy Kulandran once remarked, "Jaffna in the last century was the best place to live".

Intellectual Death

We have failed in allowing our intellectual underpinnings to die, even though it lingers on through the Technical and the Agricultural Institutes.

Jaffna as a region, I think, is in its intellectual death-throes. We are politically standardised. By working in Tamil, we remove our works from outside scrutiny, thereby making them suspect.

Our two once premier universities show to a far greater degree the intellectual and organizational disintegration that other Sri Lankan universities exhibit. This is particularly true in the area of culture. Instead of accentuating and celebrating diversity, we serve a religious ideology of one kind through our theses and thereby

Diminish our culture.

A simple example is dance. While true Tamil culture has dances of various forms, we celebrate Bharatha Natyam as the truly Tamil form. Accepting this culturally dominant view involves intellectual somersaulting in trying to ignore the contributions of the Andhras and the Sanskritic textual basis of the dance. Most damagingly it has suppressed other forms of dance by robbing peripheral Tamil peoples - yes peoples - of any respectability. When we elevate one form, the resulting uniformity robs us of our cultural diversity and our intellect.

Reviving the Batticotta Dream

We need to revive the Batticotta dream. We need to create giants who would resist standardization and be who they are. We need to revive undergraduate programmes that celebrate dissent and encourage individuality. It requires teachers brought up in the liberal mould. This in turn requires making the Church an attractive employer.

Introspectively, it means asking ourselves as the Church this question: Given a job in the state sector and a similar job under the Church, which one would we choose? I think it is true to say that most of us would prefer the state. Now why is that? Are we less reliable as employers? Is our management style more authoritative, erratic and capricious?

The experience in Colombo of the newest evangelical collegiate institution where students are arbitrarily dismissed and staff forced to resign, is not encouraging. Is our justice evenhanded or do we always support "our guy"? We as a Church must resolve these matters if Batticotta is to be revived and restored to its former height and glory through better staffing.

Given the importance of good staff and the seriousness of the shortage, perhaps, in the intellectual effervescence of the founders, let me ask a revolutionary question: Can Jaffna College serve better by expanding outside the peninsula? In the present context, Colombo offers better staff, and greater stability and independence. The people of the South also - be they Tamil or Sinhalese - are human and have legitimate needs. Studying with other peoples than just with Tamils, is a part of the broadening educational experience.

World Bank experts tell us that unless 8% of the key 18-22 age group are in tertiary education, we have no chance of reaching NIC status. Our figure is 5.1% (with 2.2% in first degree programmes); that for Malaysia 10.6% and the US 81.1% (38.1% in first degree programmes). How do we jack up our figures? Our national universities have failed their students and are only feathered nests for the staff. Government alone therefore cannot do it. As a Church we are called to do our bit for the nation.

The ABCFM/ACM expanded out of Boston and Williamstown to come to us. Is there any reason why Jaffna College must remain in Jaffna? Whatever you decide, remember there are many well-wishers and friends who will help you in any way they can. Let us relive that dream of Mission and create giants to walk among us. A diverse world is a more beautiful world. Thank you.

(Chief Guest's Address on Institutes Day, 5 February, 2002).