THE DILEMMA OF SRI LANKAN MINORITIES BY PROF. K. SIVATHAMBY

TWENTY SEVENTH MARHOOM DR. A.M.A. AZEEZ ORATION – 2000

I am deeply obliged to the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez foundation for inviting me to deliver this memorial oration this year.

This invitation,  in my view, reaffirms my identity as an Old Zahirian, which the Zahira OBA quite often forgets – a feeling shared largely by a great number of non-Muslim Old Zahirians – my fellow students and my own students, and more importantly recognizes the fact of my association with Mr. Azeez during the time I taught at Zahira (1956 – 1961), but more importantly after that from 1961 to his death, with a break of about 2 – 3 years when I was a student at Birmingham (1967 September – 1970 March).

I had the privilege to be associated with him during those stormy days, when he had decided to run Zahira as a private Institution, and when he decided to resign from the principalship of Zahira.

Those were the stormy days in his life, when he had to face the accusation of many, some of whom he knew would oppose him, but some he never expected would do so.

That was the time when in spite of holding the Senatorship (he was a Senator from 1952 to 1963) he slowly began to concentrate on writing books, especially in Tamil.  “The West Reappraised” came in 1964, but before that his “Ilankayil Islam” had come.  I had worked very closely with him then.

His wife predeceased him and then he himself succumbed to the call of God Almighty in 1973.

As years passed, the Muslim world of Sri Lanka began to realize the loss and thanks to a group of dedicated students ranging from S.H.M. Jameel to A.M. Nahiya, his contributions were academically resuscitated . (I refer here to Jameel’s work for his P.G. Diploma in Education (1980’s) and Nahiya’s work (Azeezum Tamilum in 1991).  Events proved that, whatever vilification he suffered, his period at Zahira (1948 – 1961) was one during which Zahira flowered, it was a logical extension of the Jayah days, days when Zahira, in Azeez’s own terms was the radiating centre of Islam in Sri Lanka (Ceylon then).

Azeez was a great man, fighting with a sense of pragmatism to keep the name of Zahira unsullied.

Twenty seven years after his death, today, he stands vindicated, his role as a major Muslim educationist remains untarnished.

His work as Principal, Zahira College Colombo, as founder President of Young Mens Muslim Association, and, above all as the initiator of the Muslim Scholarship Fund, which had a great role in bringing forth a great number of Muslim intellectuals from M.M. Uvais onwards, who later rewrote the educational history of the Muslims, was phenomenal.

But may I as a literary historian of Tamil, add that, irrespective of the above mentioned achievements, his name will be remembered in the annals of Sri Lankan Tamil literature as a major essayist and contributor. His Misirin Vasiam is a landmark in that field opening to the Tamil reader the grandeur and glory of the Islamic world.

I would invite the Azeez Memorial Foundation to bring out reprints of his writings in both Tamil and English.

It is to his writings that I wish to go back, for one finds in them the clues to how “Sri Lanka” was evolving from “Ceylon”, and how a sense of ethnicity grew out of the nature of the “communal problem” the country faced.  His writings on Muslim education reveal the great educationist he was.  They also prove how he was basically correct in his prescriptions for the betterment of Muslim education.  Though temporarily neglected in the sixties were, by the late seventies and eighties it was fully realized that they were “very correct”.

Before I go further, I must refer to the very important three volumes of mimeographed copies, bringing together what he wrote during his principalship and what he spoke in the Senate, and what he wrote, especially in English, in the English press.  (Ceylon Daily News and Times of Ceylon).  The three volumes contain 75 pieces and constitute a rich source for writing not only the history of the Muslims of Ceylon but also the history of education.

During Azeez’s lifetime, I had the great fortune to receive the first two copies from him to do Tamil translation of some of them.  I knew the existence of the third volume when Ali Azeez loaned them to me to work on this lecture.

They are a mine of information and deserve to be preserved in the Archives and Libraries.  My two copies are, I hope, now at the library of the University of Jaffna to which I donated my collection, I know there are others like Mr. Jameel who has some copies of it.

I most earnestly request the Azeez Foundation to immediately take upon the task of bringing them out at least in Desk Top Print form, and ensure that they are put on floppies.  Also please see that micro films are made of them and copies given to major libraries.  I am not aware of any work done in this regard.  I will be the happiest person if something has already been done, if not please attend to it without delay.

The question, naturally arises why and how are they important  ?

These 75 pieces are mimeographed copies of his writings, speeches, reports and memoranda.  During the time he wrote them, he was Principal, Zahira College, Colombo.  Upto the 1960’s Principalship of Colombo Zahira, mattered a lot in the Muslim intellectual  world.  As I have mentioned in one of my articles, in the eyes of the average Muslim villager of Akkaraipattu or Atulugama, being a student at Zahira Colombo, during the Azeez days, was considered more important than even being a  University student.  (I have personal experience of it).  As Principal, Zahira, he wrote on all educational and cultural problems that concerned the Muslims of Sri Lanka.  And they were received with respect.  The greatness of Azeez was that, while being Principal at Zahira, he made himself an important educationist of the Islamic World – not only visiting Egypt and Pakistan, also by writing on the educational problems of the Muslims.

His writings in these three volumes, indicate how the various problems of the day, affected the Muslims.

This is very clearly brought out in his Senate speeches.  His interventions focus on how the various national problems affect the Sri Lankan Muslims.

The period of his Senatorship makes a crucial stage in the history of this country (1952 – 63). This was the period of Buddha Jayanthi, of the Sinhala only Act, the Special Provisions Act covering the use of Tamil, which had to be abrogated in 1959 by the author, the late Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

From the point of view of my talk this evening, I consider the following very important.

            No.    3            Name of our community – Moor or Muslim – October 1949. 

            No.    8            Muslims and the medium of Instruction – Ceylon Daily News – March 12, 1953. 

            No.    9            Hundred years of Muslim Education – Times of Ceylon – July 12, 1946. 

            No.    15           Education of our  children and Muslim Teachers – June 3, 1950. 

            No.    19           Ceylon Muslim and the Mother tongue – Ceylon Daily News – December 10, 1941. 

            No.    32           Problem of language in Ceylon – Royal Empire society – 1951. 

            No.    39           The status of the Tamil language – Senate – May 8, 1956. 

            No.    40           The official language  Bill – Senate July 3, 1956. 

            No.    44           Ceylon Muslims – their four citizenships and four languages – 1956. 

            No.    51           The state and the school in Ceylon – Rotary – March 1957. 

            No.    52           The language problem – Sunday Observer – June 23, 1957. 

            No.    61           Education and the government – Senate – September 11, 1958. 

            No.    68           The languages in the curriculum of the Muslims –YMMA – 1959.           

            No.    74           Problems of language policy – Senate

 These are quite important as regards. 

(a)       The special identity of the Muslims of Sri Lanka.

 (b)       Education of the Muslims.

 (c)       The view for equal opportunities for the minorities to develop their religion, culture and language.

I am not trying to make a microspic analysis of the problems, a lecture of this type demands I deal with the problems in general terms, but that doesn’t of course mean that I make unwarranted generalizations.

It is my aim to show how important are these writings when we look from hindsight in the process of the development we have had in this country (a) since he wrote them and (b) since he passed away.

Before I set out on that task it behoves me to indicate at least in outline terms what has happened over the years since these were written or the years since Dr. Azeez passed away.

As we stand in this inaugural year of the New Millennium (2000 AC) we find that in Sri Lanka much water, in fact more blood than water has flown under the bridge.  “Ethnicity” has now become an integral part of the political vocabulary, having displaced the less divisive term “Community”.  To me as a student of literature, seminars of this shift is very very significant.  The term “Community| (Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim communities of Sri Lanka) was more intimate.  It presumed a larger unit in which all these communities were “one”.  That is we were communities within Ceylon the one country.  But the term “ethnicity” has a different meaning.  It refers to, as what Oxford Concise Dictionary states, a social group having a common national or cultural tradition.  Ethnic minority is defined as group differentiated.

Ethnic minority is defined as “group differentiated from the main population to community by racial or cultural background.  That is an ethnic group cannot cohese into “one”.  The division or the sense of division is a permanent one.  It is a fact of linguistic history in both Tamil and Sinhala.  We had no word for this prior to the 80’s and that we had to “coin” to face the reality – “jana vargika” in Srihala and “inkkulumam” in Tamil.  There is an overtone of “species” here and the implications are terrifying.

Political polarizations have taken place on ethnic lines.  The TULF, the EPDP, the Sihala Urumaya, the SLMC etc.

Muslims, who did not have a political party of their own as an ethnic group had one in 1982.  The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress starting as it did, not from the central and the Western parts of the country from which the political leadership of the Muslims came largely upto the 60’s of the 20th Century, but from the east where there is a firm land/territory base.  And the rise of this party within 20 years has enabled the assertion of the Muslim presence in area (Puttalam and Wanni|) hitherto not emphasized much and has emerged as a decisive political force in government formation.

Sri Lanka Tamil nationalism has become a reality, on the one had bringing together Tamils irrespective of regional variation which were considered important earlier (Batticalo, Trincomalee and Vanni now collapsing the difference between Indian Tamil and Sri Lanka Tamils) and on the other doing irreparable damage to the concept of Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka by forcefully evicting the Muslims in 1990.

Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism had revealed its positive and negative sides.

The passage of 44 years since the passing of the Official Languages Act in 1956 has shown that it was not merely a change in the  language and administrative but a definitive change in the control of the administrative machinery from which the minorities have been virtually thrown out from all positions of influence and power.  This control of the administrative machinery by a Sinhala beauracacy which having come through an educational medium which sought to highlight the differences between the Tamil and the Sinhalese on racial lines, has played a major role in the alienation of the non Sinhala speaking people from the administrative set up.

This is felt very conspicuously in two main areas.

(1)       The implementation of the Official Languages Act, especially the use of Tamil by Tamil and Muslims.
(2)       The administration of Tamil medium education.

Tamil medium education has come under severe strain.  Thanks to the foresight of the Late Baduideen Mahmud in having created a category of Muslim schools, the penetration of the official languages in the Muslim schools had been less than in the case of Tamil schools where in some cases Sinhala Principals are in charge of Hindu Tamil Schools.

More important than this discrimination is the gradual drying up of the equal opportunities for the development of Tamil medium education.

There was above the experience of certain Muslim schools going over to the sinhala medium but with the potential threat of some of the schools having to lose their Muslim character, a silent but sure shift back to the Tamil medium.

There is today, let us accept, ethnic distrust and political polarizations.

We have already had in 1987 – 90 a Peace Keeping Force from India and a third party mediation has become essential.

Such is the situation in which the reading or re-reading of Azeez’s speeches makes a profound impact.

I must interrupt at this stage to mention a great development in the field of literary studies.  Since 1960’s, specially the 70’s there has arisen in literary theory, a group of writings on what in overall terms be described as “reader response” theories.

According to these theories, the “texts” of writings get their meaning from those who read them and how they read them.  In other worlds the meaning of a text is invested by the reader.

This has led to the concept of “multiple readings”.

So when I say reading the text of late Mr. Azeez, I must say they are specially my readings, readings done in the context of my own background academic, experiential and of course, existential.

Attempting to read into texts problems which were not there during that time may be considered inexcusable.

But what is important to be noted here is that a reading of what late Dr.  Azeez has said about the potentialities of the Sinhala Only act and the measures that are essential for the upkeep of the Muslim education in Sri Lanka are of crucial importance today.

Before going into individual aspects, I should not fail to highlight the fact that in all his speeches in the Senate one could detect “a sense of history” pervading throughout the speeches along with the insight of an administrator.  His discipline was history and he was for a long time a Civil Servant.  One could even say that it was this sense of history, deeply embedded within him that did not allow him to be a successful politician.  He was too much aware of the force of history and was wary about the directions those might take.

If needs no emphasis that late Dr. Azeez was very much concerned with the identity of the Muslim as a separate community within the Sri Lankan polity.  In his note on the choice between the terms “Moor” and “Muslims” he strongly argues for the term Muslim in these words “Let us not forget that in Independent Lanka with it’s ideas of political unity in the midst of cultural diversity, our community has a special contribution to make and to make that contribution is our duty and privilege.  That contribution cannot be made by us as Ceylon Moors, because as Ceylon Moors we have no language of our own, no literature of our own, and no ideas of our own.  We can make that contribution only as Ceylon Muslims, with our heritage of Islam which has enunciated principles of freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice and has practiced a kind of brotherhood which is a model to the world” (3).

Having taken the position very firmly he discusses the questions of the existentialist characteristics of the Muslims of Sri Lanka.

He does not want to dodge the questions of the language of the Muslims.

There are at least two distinct Ceylonese communities whose language is Tamil and they are the Tamils and the Muslims.  While language and citizenship unite these two communities, both of them minorities, religion and culture separate them. And let me point out that religion and culture apart, culture associated with religion plays an important part, a much more important part in the life of the Muslim community than it does in the life of the Tamil community (39p10)

It is in this context he is highly critical of the “Tamil speaking nation theory.  He calls it politically mischievous” (loc.cit)

In this same essay he says, rather en passant “it would be as true to say that these are three nations as these are two nations” meaning of course that if it comes to that the Muslims should be considered as a nation.

But he is so convinced of the idea of unity amidst diversity that he does not go beyond that.

While he rejects completely out of hand the theory of Tamil speaking nation, he sees no objection to the term “Tamil speaking peoples” and quite often uses it in his text.

“What do we mean by official recognition?  I am not saying I am going to exhaust all the aspects of these questions, but in Tamil speaking areas and in the matter of the medium of instruction for Tamil speaking people, there should be no compulsion of Sinhalese.  It does not end there.  There should be provision to see that a boy who pursues his education in Tamil as a medium of instruction is not unduly handicapped when it comes to appearing for public examination (39). 

As we read through his speeches and writings it is clear that his primary concern in the problems of the official language is from the point of view of an educationist.

I feel that some of them need highlighting.  One of the most penetrative observations he makes in the choice of the medium of instruction for Muslims run as follows.

“It is now long past the stage of experimentation and has assumed the character of an axiom among educationists that the education of a child should begin in its home language, and it may be stressed here that“ language is not a mere means of expression, language is an instrument of thinking.  It is more than that.  It is an instrument of feeling and that mans native speech is almost his shadow, inseparable from his personality.  In these circumstances the community is compelled at present to build its educational structures on the foundation of Tamil” (44).

It is quite interesting to note that in his speeches on the Official Language Bill he is critical of the bill, because it does not specify the position of Tamil. For him it has an educational significance.

“The official language cannot be dissociated from the medium of instruction from the medium of education, from the medium of administration, from the medium of local authority etc.  It is too vital a matter.  And as I said, the bill just covers one aspect of the matter and the rest are unwritten assurances in various shapes and forms,  some  on the floor of this house, some at the other places, some at public meetings. As far as we are concerned the medium of examination is vital” (Rp40).

Reading with hindsight of what has happened since the 60’s, we are now clear as to how the unequal position between two media have come about.  It says from the availability of teaching material to running certain courses only in Sinhala.

It is also now clear how over the years the Tamil medium has been hoisted with books translated from Sinhala.  The texts are first written in Sinhala with an average Sinhala student in view, and are then translated into Tamil, not taking into account sometimes even the idiom of the language (if the translation of the names given to the various directions as agni corner and  isana corner and translated so into Tamil).  In certain cases as Art, the syllabi have been structured in such a way that the cultural traditions of the Tamil medium student have not been taken care of at all.  (The syllabus for Art in G.C.E. O/L).

The places where he argues that the question of official language should not come in the way of educational opportunity are significant (32).

He had argued very strongly for “not abandoning English”.  This again is something about which we have very poor memories.

The abandonment of English in the slate System has led to the rise of “international schools” which run English medium courses after the inauguration of the open economy. This has led to serious situations in which the Sinhala/Tamil Medium Art graduates are unemployable in the open economy sector and have very often to give way to youth from towns who are proficient in English.

In his speech on the Official Languages Bill he has not missed one point which virtually has been the hegemony driving force in post 60’s.

“Unfortunately for our country and the minorities this question (the language question) has been treated as if it were conflict between two races.  The forestage, status and race aspects have been highlighted to the detriment of other aspects. (40)

And that is exactly what happened.  The language issue, the subsequent standardization of marks led to youth militancy, and at that point “the language issue became an ethnic crisis”.

What have been expressed as tentative fears in 1956 by Dr. Azeez have now turned out to be historical trajectories.

“In the first place, before I say what our view is on the language question I would like to say what our view is on Education.  If it us found to be the only constitutional device available when all efforts have failed and all remedies have been denied to prevent the sure emasculation and the final extinction in Ceylon of the Tamil language, I can in those circumstances appreciate the federal principle and even subscribe to it”. (39)

In educational terms he argues the need for having four languages in the curriculum of the Muslim children. Arabic, Tamil, Sinhala and English.  He feels that Sinhala could be introduced at the level of Standard 6.

It is important to recall at this point the resolution adopted on 11th of December 1955 at the Joint Conference of the All Ceylon Muslim League and the All Ceylon Moors Association.

“That Sinhala be accepted as the only state language with official recognition being given to Tamil and English and provided that fundamental right of minorities in respect of religion, culture, language are incorporated in the Constitution” (52).

Reading Mr. Azeez’s writing, I came across a Memorandum signed by him along with a few other educationists (Marawilla Dharmaratha Thero, C. Coomaraswamy, Rev. Celistine Fernando, C.J. Oorlof, K. Nesiah) sent to the Prime Minister in October 1958.

“We are aware that the Official Language Act at present in the Statute Book and the manner in which it was passed have caused much sorrow and dissatisfaction to certain minority groups in this country, and we believe that as long as there is resentment in a substantial group, our unity as a nation is impelled” and they appealed for the following.

•Due recognition of Tamil language.
•Instruction and examination in mother tongue.
•A Tamil speaking person, if he so desires may transact business in his own language.
•Government publications to be in Sinhala and Tamil.
•Local bodies be given the right to determine the language and administration with the proviso that members may speak in Sinhala or Tamil and that ratepayers will be able to transact their business in either of the national languages. (52)
 

Later history has shown that these are exactly what the minorities wanted but had been first denied at political level and when forced due to circumstances, the politicians agreed but the beauracracy thwarted it.

This has been the dilemma of the Sri Lankan minorities – the Tamils and the Muslims.  The majoritarian attitude of governments denied minority rights and these led the minorities to make their demands clearly and unambiguously, and when these demands are made, the cry is heard “how can you ask for so much”.

The answer is a policy of too little too late that has made it imperative for the communities to state what in their promises, will not lead to an obliteration.

The point of the matter is that the minorities have not been given a change to feel that this is their country as much as it is that of their communities major or minor.

The dilemma of the minorities in Sri Lanka today is that their desire to maintain their linguist and religious cultural identities while being Sri Lankan is not only understood but misunderstood and misconstrued.

And in that process we are losing the wisdom of the predecessors who stood for a united country with a pluralistic base.  In that list of great men the name of Dr. A.M.A. Azeez, our late Principal shines luminously.

Let us salute his memory.

Leave a Reply