Lanka-NesiahOne of the unsung heroes of our country is the late A M A Azeez, one-time Civil Servant and later Principal of Zahira College, whose birth anniversary fell this week. In referring to an individual from a minority community, it is sadly common to refer to him by his ethnic or religious affiliation. Azeez was truly a national figure. A brilliant student, he graduated in History from the University College and won the Government Arts Scholarship and proceeded to St Catherine’s Cambridge for post-graduate studies. But within a term there, he was selected to the Ceylon Civil Service. He opted for the CCS in preference to what would have been a brilliant academic career. He was the first person from his community to be selected to the Ceylon Civil Service.

As a Civil Servant he was posted to Batticaloa. There he made two contacts which were to influence his life. He struck up a life-long friendship with Swami Vipulananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, a world-renowned scholar. (Incidentally, Swami Vipulananda is probably the only Sri Lankan whose portrait is featured in a foreign postage stamp. This was in a stamp issued by Germany at the time of a Orientalist’s Conference held there in the thirties at which the Swami was a leading speaker.) Azeez and Swami Vipulananda, it is said, used to have long conversations. The other influence on Azeez’s life was the realization of the plight of the Eastern Muslim villager who was neglected and marginalized. Azeez was able to empower them by providing education and livelihood (mainly farming) support. He served in Batticaloa for less than two years but he did much for the people of southern Batticaloa – for people of all communities. They loved him and to this day, there is an area in the Kalmunai division referred to by locals as Azeez Thurai Kandam.

In 1948, T B Jayah was the Principal of Zahira College. Soon after the first general Election, the then Prime Minister invited Jayah to join his Cabinet. Jayah had to find a successor and he chose Azeez. His family were dead against his leaving a promising career in the Civil Service but Azeez consulted his friend Swami Vipulananda and accepted the offer. It can be said without any contradiction that he took Zahira to great heights. Students from all communities and from all parts of the country sought admission and from a near zero, by the time he left, Zahira was sending 15 and 16 students to all faculties of the University. Zahira shone in all areas – academically, in sports and in other extra-curricular activities, especially cadetting. Many Zahirians recall the many times that he entertained his students at his home ‘Meadow Sweet’ in Barnes Place.

He was a erudite scholar in both English and Tamil. His Prize Day speeches were carefully crafted gems. In the early fifties, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Jayah, joined the UNP and was appointed to the Senate. He resigned from the UNP when they adopted "Sinhala Only" in 1955.

Azeez co-founded the Muslim Educational Scholarship Fund purely because he saw that the Muslim community was at that time educationally backward. He urged the Muslims not give up Tamil as their mother tongue because that would separate the North East Muslims from the rest of the Muslims. His words were prophetic and it required Ashraff and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to emerge many years later to re-unite the Muslims.

We remember Azeez as a true nationalist. There was nothing parochial about him. He was a person of utter integrity who believed in pluralism and a united Lanka. He was a true patriot.

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