Hoole Speaks Of Tamil Insecurities
By Udara Soysa
“Overseas Tamil hardliners will talk human rights and self-determination and occupy moral high ground unless the government truly addresses the alienation of the Tamils”
- Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole
President Mahinda Rajapakse appointed Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna in March 2006. However, due to pressures exerted by the pro-LTTE paramilitary group, ‘People’s Uprising Force,’ Dr. Hoole was forced to take special leave and leave the country. Currently, he is a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he teaches engineering and computer science at graduate level. He is widely respected among moderates as a critic of both Sinhalese and Tamil extremism.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Leader, Dr. Hoole recounted how “the government squandered an opportunity when General Ratwatte rode a horse to humiliate Tamils after retaking Jaffna in 1995,” He added, “signs of the same now, are worrisome. Much has been said of the symbols of the Sinhalese sprouting up in the North-East like mushrooms. There is nothing wrong with that so long as it is by a natural spontaneous process. But if it is being driven by the government? Any Tamil would feel insecure.”
Q: How do you see the plight of Jaffna University?
A: Jaffna University’s plight is similar to that of the other universities in Sri Lanka – the flight of talented individuals leaving the university bereft of leadership. In the sense of Tamil areas having suffered from the war, Jaffna’s problems are indeed more acute. As the last of the Tamils trained in the South reach retirement age at Jaffna, working and negotiating with the UGC and the ministry will be increasingly difficult and the latter will begin unilaterally deciding what is good for Jaffna.
A concomitant problem is also the problem of English. Whatever ideological position we may take, English fluency – mastery – is key to success in the academic world. Nearly all academics who have done well are those who can, beyond coming up with good theories and ideas, also communicate and sell them to their peers and to archival journals. As administrators, they must be able to legally justify their positions through correct, well-argued memos and minutes. I have seen rather poorly drafted selection committee minutes that will make the university lose when challenged, even if their decision is correct.
The following extract from a charge sheet issued by the VC of a leading Southern university shows how important English is in administration too and that the problem is not in Jaffna alone: “The council has directed me to call for explanations from you having committed the following acts of misconduct.” Neither the VC nor his support staff knew they were accusing themselves of misconduct.
Do we give up and function in the mother-tongue, thereby losing touch with the wider world and writing papers that no one else will read and engage us in a discussion? Or do we pretend to be functioning in English with wrong minutes and marking exams where we are not quite sure what the student meant? The late K. Pooranampillai, as Hartley College’s Principal, by personally teaching English in the lower forms and giving it his full attention, has produced a generation of persons from non-English speaking families who have gone on to be great scientists. Later as my principal at St. John’s after his retirement from Hartley, he came to my A/L class thrice when a teacher was absent and did things I still find useful. One person like Pooranampillai can accomplish much.
Q: How do you see the plight of higher/university level education among Tamil youth in both the North and the East?
A: Challenging. What distinguishes the North-East is the devastation of the war and the uncertainties as to what awaits the Tamil people. After so many civilians killed, Tamils question their relationship to the Sri Lankan state. At the same time, there are opportunities too. The return of multi-party politics, the absence of fighting and the free transport to and from the North-East hold the hope of returnees who can contribute. After all, East or West, home is best.
Q: How do you view the culture in the North-East after the end of the war?
A: As for political culture, on the positive side, parties that did well, the TNA, the EPDP and the TMVP, have all been working for devolution through the democratic process. Purists point to the TNA’s and some TNA and other MPs’ dark pasts and demand an open apology. But I feel we must give them the space to complete the process of transformation they have begun without losing face. After all, they have been chosen by the Tamil people.
As for social culture, we lost it long ago when we supported political murder. The National Peace Council’s recent press release on conditions in Jaffna gives me pause.
Q: What are some critical observations you see here?
A: Some hardliners who cannot stomach the emergence of moderates in the recent general elections, say the turnout in the North-East was poor and the results are not reflective of the will of the people. To them I respond in two ways. First, the turnout was good if you consider that tens of thousands of absentees like me are still on the electoral register. And two, the turnout of the 31,000 that is boasted about by the same entities for the elections to the so-called Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam in Canada, is paltry in comparison. These same entities, for example the Ilankai Tamil Sangam of New York in a recent editorial on behalf of the Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA, argue that the election of the TNA is an endorsement of separatist politics. Certainly not. Remember that all the extremists imposed on the TNA were denied nominations on the FP ticket.
What the Tamils have endorsed is federalism. All, Messieurs Sampanthar, Douglas and Pillaiyan, have publicly stated so and work within the system. The extremists who were denied nomination by the TNA and contested separately, were roundly rejected by the Tamil people.
Q: What are some recommendations to improve the lives of North Eastern Tamils?
A: The Tamil people are resilient. You can see how well they have done in the West even when they came with nothing – and I mean nothing, often no money and no qualifications. They are innovative, cohesive and intrepid. To do equally well in Sri Lanka they must be in control of their lives and responsible for decisions that affect their lives as they are in the West. This means devolving power to the North-East. As the Indian Supreme Court said in a different context, to treat unequal people equally is to treat them unequally. Minorities and the majority are simply not equal. The minorities need a system that makes them comfortable, feeling that they are in charge of their own future. The majority needs no such hand-holding. Minorities need their culture to be protected. They need not to feel threatened if they are to endorse the state.
Q: What are some positive and negative developments in the current context?
A: On the positive side, I see the engagement of the TNA with the government in discussions, however preliminary, as very positive. The journalist Tissanayagam has been pardoned. That too is positive (although the man has written some horrid, hate-filled, untruthful things about me – The Sunday Leader, 12 March 2000). On the negative side, the press and the AG’s seem to be losing their independence. Commissions appear not to be for finding out or recommending anything. Minorities, to feel part of the state, must have confidence in the rule of law.
The Tamil Diaspora too is yet to reform. In the Tamil Sangam editorial referred to, it is argued that Tamils need not write about our own atrocities because “the abuses of the LTTE are well documented and are available from the Sri Lankan Government.” To see how facetious this is, ask whether the Sri Lankan Government and the UN need not look into the killing of civilians and the charges of genocide because the Ilankai Tamil Sangam has documented them.
The overseas Tamils were behind the suffering of the people in the Vanni for decades. They will talk human rights and self-determination and occupy the moral high ground unless the government truly addresses the alienation of the Tamils.