Removal of the Vice Chancellor of University of Jaffna and politicization of higher Education | Sunday Observer

Removal of the Vice Chancellor of University of Jaffna and politicization of higher Education

15 September, 2019

By Dr. N. Sivapalan, Dr. S. Arivalzahan, Dr. P. Iyngaran, Dr. N. Ramaruban, M. Thiruvarangan and Dr. Rajan Hoole

When the decision to sack Professor Ratnam Vigneswaran from the post of Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna surfaced in the public domain in May this year, many academics and well-wishers of the University were shocked by this unprecedented development. Prior to the announcement, the former Vice Chancellor was not even called for an inquiry by the University Grants Commission or any of the authorities responsible for higher education in the country. The letter announcing his removal did not explain why he was sacked from his position. The President’s decision to sack the Vice Chancellor of a university without even the courtesy of an explanation owed to a person who holds high office as a leader in the field of education demeans and demoralizes practitioners of education. It places under threat junior-level academics and other employees of the public university system who have looked upon universities as places that nurture and respect freedom of expression.

Even before the announcement of the appointment of Competent Authority, some academic and non-academic staff of the University of Jaffna said that Professor Vigneswaran’s removal owed to abuse of power on his part or the administrative malpractices that took place under his watch. Others opined that the participation of Professor Vigneswaran in events like the unveiling of a new Pongu Thamil memorial plaque in place of the one that was put up nearly 20 years ago and his failure to stop the installation, inside the main campus, of a memorial structure commemorating the tragic end of the war in Mullivaikal in 2009 were the reasons for his removal. Some even claimed that the decision to sack the Vice Chancellor was made at a previous meeting of the National Security Council.

At a meeting with the Minister of City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education, a delegation from the Federation of the University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) pointed out that “the procedure followed in removing the VC of Jaffna University [went beyond the powers of the UGC in the Universities Act].” The Minister, in reply, had said that “the entire process was purely based on national security and based on clear evidence received”. A recent affidavit by Professor Mohan de Silva, Chairman of the University Grants Commission to the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, suggests that Professor Vigneswaran’s removal from the post of Vice Chancellor had nothing to do with abuse of power or corruption on his part but was a politically motivated, authoritarian decision reeking of majoritarianism made at the instigation of the military. This decision, which has not been discussed adequately in public forums or by the academic community in the country, has serious ramifications for the University of Jaffna and grave implications for the entire public university system in Sri Lanka at whose heart lies the principle of academic freedom.

Militarization of higher education

The response given by the Minister of Higher Education to the FUTA delegation and the affidavit submitted by the Chairman of the University Grants Commission are startling testimonies to the entrenched militarization and surveillance of academic spaces in the northern and eastern regions of the country. It is unambiguous from the affidavit that the University Grants Commission and/or its Chairman receive information regarding activities that take place at University of Jaffna and Eastern University of Sri Lanka from the top-brass of the country’s military apparatus like the Directorate of Military Intelligence of the Sri Lankan Army and the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army and that reports submitted by these officers are discussed at meetings of the University Grants Commission. The Chairman of the University Grants Commission has declined to make some these reports accessible to Prof Vigneswaran who is a petitioner in a Supreme Court case challenging his removal from the post of Vice Chancellor where the Chairman of the University Grants Commission is named a respondent. The Chairman claims that these documents contain “sensitive and classified information”. This kind of nexus between the University Grants Commission, the Ministry of Higher Education and the military in removing a sitting Vice Chancellor without any explanation is deeply alarming and an academic movement cutting across ethnic and regional boundaries is necessary to preserve the space available at universities for protest, dissent and democratic action.

One can infer from the affidavit that Professor Vigneswaran was removed from the Vice Chancellor’s position for participating in an event called Thamil Amutham where a reconstructed Pongu Thamil Memorial Monument carrying Tamil nationalist proclamations was unveiled and for not taking any action to remove the Mullivaikal memorial monument from the Main Campus. The original Pongu Thamil Monument has been standing in the same place for almost 20 years under the Vice Chancellorship of several persons. Professor Vigneswaran only participated in the unveiling of a reconstructed plaque. The original can still be seen by the side of the reconstructed one. It appears from the affidavit that the process to sack Professor Vigneswaran was triggered by the military and its intelligence unit and a section of the media. Point 10 of the UGC Chairman’s affidavit implies that Professor Vigneswaran allowed space for the propagation of the activities of the LTTE inside the University of Jaffna. The same accusation was made against Eastern University of Sri Lanka as well.

Those who have known Professor Vigneswaran are aware that he never actively participated in activities organized by the LTTE even when the Movement was in its heyday. Like many academics in the North, he has been sympathetic to the Tamil community’s struggle for political rights. Even Prof Rajaratnam Kumaravadivel who presently serves on the University Grants Commission and Prof Kathirkamanathan Kandasamy who was appointed as Competent Authority presumably at the recommendation of the University Grants Commission following the removal of Prof Vigneswaran were both signatories to a memorandum issued in 2011 which affirms the foundational principles of Tamil nationalism:

These were the nationhood of the Tamils, their right to self-determination and the framing of the North and East regions of Sri Lanka as the Tamil homeland. These same affirmations endorsed by Profs. Kumaravadivel and Kandasamy are those that feature prominently in the Pongu Thamil Monument which was unveiled by Prof Vigneswaran in 2018.

Professor Vigneswaran also worked closely with academics in the South as Chairperson of the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association (JUTA). It was during his tenure as Chairperson of the JUTA that the Federation of the University Teachers’ Associations organized a public meeting in Jaffna demanding the government to take robust measures to strengthen and develop the higher education sector of the country. The following year he served as the Vice Chairperson of the FUTA.

In 2016, two days before Professor Vigneswaran assumed duties as Dean of the Faculty of Science, there was a clash between a section of the Tamil students and a section of the Sinhala students over the performance of Kandyan dance at an event held in the Faculty. Upon assuming duties as Dean, Professor Vigneswaran organized a workshop on reconciliation and cultural diversity with the support of the National Peace Council to create an atmosphere of goodwill among the students. His proactive leadership role in assuaging the tensions between the two groups and enabling an environment where the students could pursue their academic activities without ethnic animosity should be put on record.

After becoming the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna, Vigneswaran attended almost all events organized by the academic community of the University to which he was invited. He did this with a view to administering the University smoothly without any conflicts. He was perhaps the first sitting Vice Chancellor to attend the annual commemoration event for those who died during the last stages of the war in 2009. Many students and staff of the University and the larger community appreciated his presence at this memorial event. He attended the Thamil Amutham event in 2018 as it was organized by the students of the University of Jaffna. He, however, refrained from attending the Great Heroes’ Day events commemorating slain LTTE cadres when he was the Vice Chancellor. Even if one may, for ideological reasons, question the participation of Vigneswaran in some of these events, it is not the UGC or the military’s prerogative to decide what events a Vice Chancellor can be permitted to attend or what political views a Vice Chancellor can be permitted to hold. It is a threat to his freedom as an individual academic and head of an academic institution.

Politics of memorialization at the University of Jaffna

While the war-torn society that is still coming to terms with the traumatic experiences of past violence and awaits an appropriate solution to the national question, memorialization, it cannot be denied, is an important and cathartic political and social activity. At the University of Jaffna, memorialization has been a contested issue riddled with contradictions, absences and exclusions. Although the LTTE martyrs are commemorated annually by the students and staff of the University, no memorialization events for militants of the other Tamil armed movements take place. Whereas the end of the war in Mullivaikal is observed annually, the academic community has organized no event so far to mark the eviction of the Muslims from the North by the LTTE. The organizers of the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Event in 2014 were denied space inside the university to organize an event to remember the life and work of this eminent academic and human rights activist gunned down by the Tigers. Her portrait is still excluded from the Senior Common Room of the Faculty of Arts where the portraits of most deceased dons who served the University of Jaffna are on display. Although one should interrogate these exclusions and absences around memorialization at the University of Jaffna, banning memorial events organized by the students and the academic community by using the authority vested in the Vice Chancellor will only aggravate the collective trauma of the community and may even push the students to resort to actions that are harmful to both themselves and larger society. The memorialization event organized by the students to commemorate the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks indicates that the undergraduates of the University of Jaffna are concerned about issues of national significance as well.

Those who hold important administrative positions at universities located in conflict zones have to approach sensitive events associated with memorialization and democratic, non-violent political resistance carefully without alienating the students who organize them. At many universities in the South commemoration events are organized annually by the students to memorialize the JVP insurgents who took arms against the state. The state does not police these spaces in a stringent manner as it does at the University of Jaffna. Even the Northern Provincial Council organized commemoration events in the past for the ones who died during the final phases of the war. During the previous government, undergraduates of the University of Jaffna who commemorated the LTTE cadres who died during the militancy were assaulted by the military. Now, under the present dispensation, the Vice Chancellor of the University has been removed from his position in a humiliating manner for not clearing away a memorial monument constructed by the students. The UGC’s inability on both occasions to ensure academic freedom and a space free of interference by the military shows that it is just another arm of the Sinhala majoritarian apparatuses of the Sri Lankan state. By giving in to the chauvinistic pressures from the military, its intelligence division and certain sections of the media, the UGC and the Ministry of Higher Education have failed in their responsibilities to the only public university in the North and the communities that that university serves.

University of Jaffna has been a venue for Tamil nationalist activity since the late 1970s, though there was space within the University to articulate views critical of nationalism and the authoritarian activities of the Tamil militants till 1990 when the LTTE brought Jaffna peninsula under its control. Many Tamil nationalist mobilizations and events took place inside the University of Jaffna during the tenures of many of Professor Vigneswaran’s predecessors. A monument for the slain Tamil militants was constructed inside the Main Campus during the tenure of one of them. None of them were sacked from the post of Vice Chancellor. Why target Vigneswaran who has acted no differently?

A space seems to be opening up again within the University during the post-war years for self-introspection and frank conversations about the violence and exclusions done in the name of Tamil nationalism on Tamils and other communities, what self-determination and autonomy mean to the different ethnic, religious and cultural groups that inhabit the North and the contradictions and inequalities that appear along the lines of caste, class and gender in the region. For the academic community and the larger society to participate in these conversations and discussions on militarization, accountability for war crimes and other forms of oppression coming from the majoritarian state, and to contribute positively to discussions on inter-ethnic reconciliation and coexistence on fair and equitable terms, the University of Jaffna should remain a place free of authoritarianism.

When students and academics were being killed by all sides to the conflict in the late 1980s, in order to keep the universities functioning, Prof. Arjuna Aluvihare, the then Chairman of the UGC, had to assert the values of universities while avoiding naming who was a terrorist and who was not. Higher Education Minister A.C.S. Hameed understood this. Each party to the ongoing terror had its own narrative which it changed according to convenience.

In such a crisis-ridden polity without any stable values, how can the UGC punish people without due process, solely on untested allegations contained in Military Intelligence reports? In past instances of charges made against individuals by the Military or Police under the PTA, the courts have thrown these out as concocted or not sufficiently established. And Vice Chancellor Vigneswaran was denied the right of reply before an impartial tribunal. Is this the standard being set by leaders of our Higher Educational System?

Justice should be the cornerstone of the university system. The Universities Act does not permit any employee to be punished in the absence of proof endorsed by a recognized tribunal, certainly not Military Intelligence. We see today a great deal of polarization in the country and little hope of the return of sanity. The UGC and the Ministry of Higher Education functioning in the present manner is likely to herald a severe crisis in the nationwide university sector.

(N. Sivapalan, S. Arivalzahan, P. Iyngaran, N. Ramaruban and M. Thiruvarangan are academic staff attached to the University of Jaffna. Rajan Hoole is a retired academic from the University of Jaffna)