The Sunday Leader

Dr. A.M.A. Azeez – He Placed Service Before Self

by Rajindra C. Ratnapuli, C.Eng

Dr A.M.A Azeez

I am privileged to write the commemorative article on late Dr. A. M. A. Azeez to mark his 37th death anniversary on November 24, 2010. This article is a way of expressing my gratitude to this outstanding Sri Lankan who made a difference to the quality of life of so many of his fellow countrymen, especially the underprivileged minority Muslim community.
I write as an old Zahirian, and as one among many others who had benefited immensely from the school’s educational system back in the 1950s when Dr. Azeez was Principal.

In this article I have presented some high points of his life in order that we may reflect upon some of his unique personal qualities and achievements, which I believe can be of great inspirational value.

Dr. Azeez was born to an upper middle class family in Jaffna in 1911 and died 62 years later in Colombo. In this short time frame he managed to squeeze in an impressive curriculum and an enviable career full of accomplishments and successes as an academic, administrator and educator.

As a child Dr. Azeez was brought up within the Islamic faith. His religious convictions had a significant influence on shaping his adult life. He was an ardent believer in discipline, generosity and community service which are three of the key precepts of Islam. Throughout his life he had maintained a personal character and integrity that were beyond question, and as a family man he was considered to be a faithful husband and a model father. He was married to Ummu Kuluthum (grand-daughter of M.I. Mohamed Alie J.P., the first Persian Vice-Consul in Ceylon) and had three children, sons Ali and Iqbal and daughter Marina.

Dr. Azeez had his early schooling at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and later at Jaffna Hindu College which at the time were well respected Hindu schools. At school he excelled in studies and specialised in Tamil literature and culture. From today’s perspective it might appear strange how a Muslim student could have realised his academic dreams in Hindu faith based schools. At this point I may draw a parallel with my own experience when I as a Buddhist could study at Zahira College, Colombo without ever feeling a stranger amongst the majority Muslims. That was in the 1950s. I am not too sure if we can relive such situations anywhere today with all the anti-religious and ethnic rhetoric that is floating around us.

In 1933 Dr. Azeez graduated from the University of London with an Honours Degree in History. This won him the Government Scholarship to Cambridge University, England to do post-graduate studies but he opted to become a member of the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service. That was in 1935 when Sri Lanka was still under British Colonial rule. He became the first Muslim to join the Ceylon Civil Service. That was a great personal achievement for Dr. Azeez and a morale booster to the country’s minority Muslim community. Two of the key projects he handled in the Civil Service are worth mentioning here.

As Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Health he was responsible for bringing under control the great malaria epidemic that hit the Kandy District at the time. It was considered to be a success story in crisis management. Perhaps the most demanding tasks he had to face on the job arose in the early 1940s when he was Assistant Government Agent in Kalmunai, Eastern Province. The country at the time was facing the prospect of a food shortage due to the ongoing Second World War. Within two years of dedicated effort Dr. Azeez had managed to restructure the entire food production and supply chain in the region with amazing results. He had effectively converted the district into the granary of the East.

This, according to some reports was perhaps the most important contribution he made to the country as a whole. In the midst of all the good work, he had his disappointing moments too. He was struck by the social deprivation and backwardness of his Muslim brethren living in the Eastern Province. They were people who had been thrown into the margins of society and caught in a no-win cycle of poverty and lack of education, sort of a catch 22 situation.

Still in Kalmunai Dr. Azeez had made friends with two inspiring intellectuals from the region, Swami Vipulananda and Abdul Cader Lebbe. The first was a Hindu teacher and scholar and the second an author and poet. Both were strong opinion formers and social reformers. They were convinced that the much needed social and economic reforms in the country could be brought about only through education. Their ideas had a profound influence on Dr. Azeez’s outlook to work and life. This led him to his master vision which was to establish a free and fair democratic society in the country and to upgrade the quality of life of the underdeveloped Muslim community.

In 1948 Dr. Azeez retired prematurely from the Civil Service to assume the post of Principal, Zahira College, Colombo to succeed Dr. T.B. Jayah who was appointed as a minister in the first cabinet of independent Ceylon. This gave Dr. Azeez the best opportunity of improving the education of the Muslims which was his vision. His decision shocked the Muslim community as they never expected a Civil Servant to sacrifice a bright career to take up the cause of Muslim education. This was an eye-opener to the rich community of the value of education. He took office at Zahira with great enthusiasm and high hopes of realising his mission. His mission was to transform Zahira College into a Centre of Excellence in Education and Muslim Studies and Culture. A few years later in 1952 he was appointed as a Senator in the House of Parliament.

I joined Zahira College in 1952  having completed my secondary schooling at S. Thomas’ Preparatory School, Kollupitiya. We were a lower middle class family living in Kollupitiya. My mother was a devout Buddhist and very conservative while my father was unpredictable. As a youth I devoted part of my spare time to neighbourhood community work and was also involved in small time local government politics.

In the 1950s Zahira College enjoyed a high ranking in the league of leading schools of Colombo. I found the school system very affordable and liberal. I adapted to the school environment very quickly and made a large circle of friends. The school had a multicultural diversity of students and teachers in keeping with Dr. Azeez’s open minded management philosophy. A strong point of the system was its highly motivated and dedicated teaching staff.

The most enjoyable place in the school was the classroom. The classes were very informal and participative, and the student-teacher relationship was extremely cordial. There were even moments of laughter and innocent acts of mischief during the class, which were all taken up in a sporting spirit. Academically however, I did not come out as a brilliant performer at the time; most likely I was an above average student.  In sports I was more of a cheer leader. I was a strong cricket fan and played soft ball cricket.

One of the major school events that drew my attention was the annual science exhibition in which I had participated several times. I am deeply indebted to my science teachers Mr. Natesan, Mr. Selvanayagem, Mr. Ghaffoor, Mr. Balasubramanium and Mr. De Mel. It was comforting to find the Principal and teachers taking a personal interest in the students’ welfare and progress. I remember the time when Dr. Azeez and Mr. De Mel personally took the trouble to coach me for the university entrance interview.

Dr. Azeez’s 13 year tenure as Principal (1948-1961), came to be known as the Golden Era of Zahira. During this period the school reached peak performance at a national level in studies, sports and cultural activities. It excelled in cricket, soccer and rugby as well as track and field events. The school had also earned a reputation for cadetting, scouting, target shooting and interschool quiz competitions and debating. Over 100 Zahirians had entered university during this period. I entered the Science Faculty of University of Ceylon in 1956 together with 12 others. They became great achievers and exemplary citizens who had done well in life. Among them were well known university dons, leading professionals and administrators as well as high ranking officers in the armed forces, the navy and the air force.

As a person Dr. Azeez was well liked by the students and staff. His charismatic personality and ability to connect with people won him a large number of friends. He had a portly figure and had always carried a slight smile on his face. Dr. Azeez was well known for his oratorical eloquence, in both English and Tamil. We as students had the privilege of listening to him at the weekly school assembly. His speeches were powerful and thought provoking and often carried a message with an ethical slant.

Unfortunately, despite all his efforts and much to his disappointment, his mission to upgrade Zahira College to a Muslim University status failed to materialise. His dream however resurfaced 12 years after his retirement from Zahira College, and turned into reality in 1973 with the inauguration of the Jamiah Naleemiah in Beruwela. That was the closest he could get to fulfilling his mission. Two other earlier initiatives of his have given continued support to the Muslim youth. He founded The Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund in 1945 to help financially needy students to pursue higher studies. In 1950 he inaugurated The All Ceylon Young Men’s Muslim Association aimed at providing social assistance to the youth.

As a Senator he had been a strong defender of the rights and welfare of the under-developed. He had no political agenda for himself, and had always stayed away from irresponsible and opportunistic politics. He opposed the Sinhala Only Bill introduced by the newly elected Mahajana Eksath Peramuna in 1956. He thought the bill would divide the country into ethnic factions and damage the growth and integration of the Tamil speaking Muslim communities. In his brilliant speech in the Senate he made a last minute passionate plea on behalf of the minorities. However, when the bill was eventually passed in the House of Parliament with the support of the United National Party, Dr. Azeez honourably resigned from the UNP. He then took an independent stand until his resignation from the Senate in 1963 on his appointment to the Public Service Commission.

Dr. Azeez was often referred to as a walking encyclopedia because of his profound knowledge in a wide range of disciplines, especially history, politics, Tamil language and culture as well as Islamic studies and Muslim culture. Some of his beliefs and thoughts on these subjects have been vividly expounded in the many articles and books he published over the years, in the English and Tamil languages.

Dr. Azeez’s deep sense of citizenship and services rendered to the country were duly recognised and acknowledged by the people and the government. He was awarded the title of Member of the British Empire in 1951. In 1986 the government issued a stamp in his honour as a National Hero. The University of Jaffna awarded him a posthumous Doctorate of Letters at its first convocation in 1980. He won global acclaim when he was listed as one of the 100 Great Muslim Leaders of the 20th Century, by the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, India.

Dr. Azeez’s successes did not come by accident. Rather they came through self-motivation, high self-esteem, sincerity and enthusiasm. His simple and ethical lifestyle gave him credibility. His life was driven by an acute sense of social consciousness; he looked beyond himself. Dr. Azeez died on November 24,1973, and that marked the end of another chapter in the 20th century history of Sri Lanka. But he will be remembered forever as a gentleman who had always placed service before self.

(Rajindra Clement Ratnapuli was a student of Zahira College, Colombo during the Azeez era. He entered the University of Ceylon in 1956 and graduated in Physics (Honours) in 1960. He obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Metallurgical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1966. He is a Chartered Engineer, Member of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and Associate of the Institution of Works Managers (UK). He is also a Member of the Brazilian Institute of Metals. He worked in the Ceylon Steel Corporation, British Steel Corporation and then joined the Brazilian Steel Industry in 1980. After retirement in 2002 he was a lecturer at Unileste University, Brazil and was a leading Consultant in his field. He has published several papers and holds two Patents. He now lives in Canada)

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