Sri Lanka: A Coup at University of Jaffna Council

Why is the UNP taking this huge risk in sidelining the ITAK? Why is it appointing Councilors from Wigneswaran’s list while fully ignoring the ITAK list? Does the government know that they have effectively handed over the university to TMP extremists?

by Our Special Correspondent

Appointing University Councils 

( April 26, 2018, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) Each University is run by its Council. The Council has internal ex officio members (VC, Deans, Senate Reps, et al.) and the number of such internal members plus one appointed by the University Grants Commission.  These external members therefore have the majority vote.

The UGC has set criteria for whom it puts on the Council. These are, i) should possess a bachelor’s degree or professional qualification, ii) be of high caliber and have rendered distinguished service in educational, professional, commercial, industrial, scientific or administrative spheres for at least 10 years in a senior capacity; and iii) demonstrate interest in higher education and possess a commendable grasp on policies, issues and challenges of the higher education sector.

In theory, that is. In practice, however, if one external member is a stooge of the VC’s, the majority goes to the internal bloc. We have seen trained teachers, sooth-sayers and other nobodies put on Councils because they knew someone. Getting on to the Council is a way of credentialing because if a nobody gets on the Council, it is presumed that he is a somebody.

External Members of Councils are appointed on three-year terms. The University of Jaffna is one of the smaller universities with 7000 students, but it has one of the largest Councils, a lot bigger than mighty Peradeniya’s – almost double. This is by Jaffna Council’s manipulation by proliferating faculties to reward more people. Its Council of 29 members (14 internal, 15 external), had the external members’ appointments just expiring on 20 April said a Council member whose term expired. Jaffna was abuzz as people ran helter-skelter to be appointed to these prized 15 vacancies.

The Reality

Although Council appointment is nominally by the UGC, the practice has been for the Minister to come up with a list. The Minister would put together a list of names (often after a discussion with the UGC chairman or other UGC nominee). They would look into addressing every constituency, having accountants, lawyers, women, Christians etc.  Recommendations from local MPs and the opposition were also sought.  The Minister’s list is the final list, consisting mainly of the Minister’s choices plus some others accepted by the Minister.

The UGC would appoint those on the Minister’s list as if it is their decision. When queried as to why the charade of the UGC making appointments when they were really the Minister’s, a former UGC Chairman responded “We are one team and work cooperatively.”  The system generally worked.

Meddling with the Process

The earliest meddling came during the last UNP period (when Mr. Kabir Hashim was Minister of Higher Education). A Protestant Bishop and a highly qualified Roman Catholic priest (and later bishop), both with doctorates, were Council members. The case was made for Hindu religious leaders (although the two Christians were not there as clergy) and we got a Hindu priest and an astrologer, both unlettered. Having little knowledge of English, they could not participate at Council meetings, so they came bare-bodied to Council, read palms at Council meetings without charge for Council colleagues, and left after marking attendance. The Council had been made a joke.

The ground, firm until then, had been shaken. When President Mahinda Rajapakse came, the few remaining standards went out of the window said a Council member of that time. Now many had never even studied at a university let along graduate.  Protestants lost their representatives. The entire Council was made up by Douglas Devananda whose list was rubber stamped by the Minister. The Council now went to Devananda to ask how they should vote on every issue. Every Council meeting was preceded by a Pre-Council meeting at Srithar Theatre, private property which was forcibly occupied by Devananda and served as his office. Devananda was effectively a one-man council and VC. Even laborers nominated by him were appointed by the nominal VC without advertisement.

Revolution of 2015

With the revolution of 2015 came new opportunity for improvement. Devananda lost control except for the people he had already installed. Using the change, the new council of 2015 had only one non-graduate. Seven of the 15 were highly credentialed ITAK nominees accepted by the Minister, as admitted by ITAK Secretary General Mavai Senathirajah when academics complained about the parlous state of the university. He claimed that the university was running well after the ITAK had appointed seven good people. He did not reveal that the VC installed by Devananda last was his relation and he had intervened to save her when other VCs were axed by the new government in 2015. Jaffna which needed the most cleaning up lost the opportunity.

The seven ITAK councilors out of 29 could do little. With the other 8 vacancies going to serve other constituencies and with Douglas Devananda’s remnants including VC still on board as internal members, the Council functioned without effect wrote a Council member in trying to explain why there was no change in governance style. He said that the careful internal-plus-one formula was thwarted when two externally appointed persons were seen to be the VC’s stooges. Academic appointments, so critical to good governance, continued therefore to be in brazen violation of circulars.

Squandered Opportunity

Terribly for the university, with the new government in 2015 came a new UGC whose appointing authority is the President who was not quite in synch with his Prime Minister. An official of FUTA blamed President Maithripala Sirisena for this new terrible UGC, terrible especially for Jaffna. Why so?

The other universities had been cleaned up but not Jaffna. Mohan de Silva was the new UGC Chairman. He had had little experience in university governance but, it is widely believed, he had obliged the President with some minor surgery to qualify as UGC Chairman. The Universities Act governing universities says that the object of the UGC is, among other things, the regulation of university administrations and their academic standards. When appointments are wrong and the unqualified and the second best are appointed to key positions, no academic standards can be sustained. It becomes the duty of the UGC then to intervene.

Quoting from the writings of Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole – a fierce critic of Mohan de Silva and what he calls the do-nothing Jaffna Council of second grade people hiring third grade people – although the Universities Act gives the UGC the power to do anything to accomplish its objects, de Silva read “university autonomy” into the Act. However, the Act does not mention the word autonomy even once. With this laissez faire attitude, de Silva has claimed that when universities act unlawfully, he has no power to do anything about it. Mohan de Silva thereby set the stage for total lawlessness in our universities, and Jaffna in particular.

Encouraged by de Silva, several illegal appointments had been made at Jaffna in contravention of Ordinances as detailed in a careful study by the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA).  When the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations, FUTA, took up JUSTA’s report with the UGC, de Silva had dismissed JUSTA as being personally against the VC, the then FUTA president has told JUSTA officials.

The University Services Appeals Board, the USAB, to which appeals are made in such cases, deliberately to advance autonomy perhaps, has been made dysfunctional by not quickly appointing a new Board when the old one expired, and then dissolving the new Board after a few months. Now the new new-USAB was appointed at long last, it was stymied by archaic procedural rules on meeting only once a week, and being unable to meet when academic staff are on strike. So the rot continues.

TMP’s New VC for Jaffna

With Douglas Devananda’s appointee as VC finishing her second and final three-year term in 2017, a new opportunity arose again for change. The ITAK, supporting the new government, had the alliance strained by the Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran developing his own political ambitions says senior academic Ratnam, adding

“Wigneswaran saw a return to militancy as a means of challenging the staid R. Sampanthan and becoming the new Tamil leader. The government backtracking on promises like the return of occupied lands and the release of political prisoners was his cue. He refused to campaign for ITAK candidates in the parliamentary elections. He breathed fire against the government and Sampanthan. He seemed to have stoked successfully the fires of ethnic discord among university youth.”

A new Thamil Makkal Peravai (TMP) was formed with Wigneswaran’s inspiration as an alternative to the ITAK. Kumar David describes its policies as an ideological throw back to LTTE-era Eelamist views. Kumaravadivel Guruparan, Head of the Department of Law at Jaffna, is one of the key TMP leaders and legal advisers.  He has complete freedom to violate rules at the university. A Council member says he has been appointed legal consultant to the university at Rs. 30,000 a month violating procedures in the Establishments Code for such appointments, such as giving the basis of the fee computation, list of duties, period of work, and interruption of internal work, among other things. The Council failed to address conflict of interest in his advising on cases filed by colleagues. He practices in court during office hours appearing for the TMP.

Guruparan’s father, Professor R. Kumaravadivel, had once been an unsuccessful VC candidate at Jaffna. He had even introduced and unveiled a monument to the dreaded Black Tigers on campus while he was Acting VC and trying to be VC. Yet, he was appointed to the UGC by the new government where he had access to de Silva and safeguards his son’s interest, alleges this Council member. Critics say that the ITAK did not understand universities after abandoning them to Devananda, and nominated Kumaravadivel just like it had nominated CV Wigneswaran.

A move was mounted by the TMP to make a supporter of theirs the new Vice Chancellor and use students in their radical political misadventures said the same Councilor. Jaffna academics and radical students in 2017 identified as their VC candidate one who as Dean had failed to stem the on-campus Sinhalese-Tamil riots that followed a dispute over whether the Sinhalese students should be allowed to stage their own dance at a function. Guruparan and the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association, say academic staff, campaigned heavily with the Council in 2017 to have their man elected VC. Their man became number 1 in the Council vote, well ahead of others. Strangely, the ITAK too no interest in keeping radical politics out of the university. It was left to Governor Reginald Cooray to alert the President.

As a result, the new VC picked by the President from the top three as provided by the Act, was Prof. R. Vigneswaran. Prof. Vigneswaran is quoted by the newspapers when queried how, as saying that Mr. Guruparan’s candidate, despite doing very well in the Council vote, was not appointed because the intelligence services had given an adverse report on him over the clashes among students.

TMP Rules the Roost

Now, except for the new VC, the TMP has almost complete mastery of the university and holds sway over both staff and student unions. Hotbeds of radical politics, these unions mount shop closures and street demonstrations at will. Just this month it organized a protest over Mullivaikal. Such protests have wide support because the government had steadfastly refused justice and closure to Tamils over the killings, says a regular feature writer, thereby tending to displace Sampanthan and make Wigneswran more attractive. The missing piece in complete control is the VC, R. Vigneswaran, who is already under pressure to make bad appointments for example.

For the TMP to have complete mastery over the university, the next VC must be a TMP man. To get this done, they need control over the Council. As the present external membership of the Council expired, many lobbied for nomination. The ITAK gave a list of 9 names, having been promised 9 says a person who was among the nine, but was asked to give 15 so that the government could choose. Others made nominations directly to the UGC Chairman, to Angajan Ramanathan, and, yes, Chief Minister Wignesawaran too.  The latter’s nominees were the TMP nominees.

Much like how political parties had to nominate women but had not been prepared with good candidates, Wigneswaran’s list contained some very poor candidates. It is said by a university academic on the Council that Wigneswaran’s list was assembled by Guruparan. The main qualification to be on the list was that they should be TMP men or Hindu leaders. Those on the TMP list included old Council members like Dr. Lakshman and Shanta Abimanasingham, PC who are highly active TMP activists. It favoured some allegedly without first degrees like Aru Thirumurugan with Hindu credentials over those with postgraduate degrees, etc.

The ITAK was confident that at least nine of their nominees would be appointed, said a lecturer on an ITAK Local Council. He flashed their list of 15 on his hand phone to many. This included Dr. Jeyakumaran the cancer specialist, and Prof. Tharmaratnam presently of the Council.  Bishop Daniel Thiagarajah, and former VCs Hoole and Balasundarampillai were also there. Dr. S. Sivanandarajah who has lobbied without success for years when sudden vacancies arose to be on the Council, was at the top of the list. He had been promised a place many times and repeatedly let down. This time he seemed sure because he was on 5 lists of recommendations including the VC’s, the ITAK’s, Angajan Ramanathan’s’s, Kabir Hashim’s and one other.

The new external appointees would have their names released on Thursday 19th after the UGC meeting. ITAK was confident and failed to keep its ears to the ground.

Almost Bungled Coup

Unbeknownst to most, a coup had been staged by de Silva and Kumaravadivel claimed a member of the UGC who also said that the two were huddled in a meeting for long before the actual UGC meeting on the 19th and before.  The President was away at CHOGM. Minister of Higher Education Kabir Hashim was resting after throat surgery. Mohan de Silva had planned to release the list on his own. He had slashed all names on the ITAK list and had put in those that Kumaravadivel had proposed. The UGC met and approved the proposed list. Even when a UGC member supported an ITAK nominee, it was ignored. Letters of offer were being typed on the 19th after the meeting.

Then a major mistake. TMP activists boasted – indeed gloated –  of their coup, giving the names of those who had been appointed and those whose nominations were rejected. Word reached ITAK.

Mr. MA Sumanthiran protested saying they had been promised 9 places, says a person on the ITAK list who had been eliminated. ITAK MP Sivamohan also intervened. They reportedly begged at least for two. There was no success with de Silva. The Minister and President were not available. Sri Lanka Guardian learns through a reporter researching the story that an appeal was made to the President’s Secretary Austin Fernando to put matters on hold until the Minister and President could be briefed. A Sinhalese MP who enquired said the matter would be finalized on Friday.

By Friday 20th afternoon, the names came out:

Newly Appointed
  1. Prof. Jeyadeva Uyanoda
  2. Emeritus Prof. C. Sivayokanathan, Peradeniya Agriculture
  3. Rev. Jero Selvanayagam former Rector, St. Patrick’s
  4. Dr. T. Sathiyamoorthy, Director/Jaffna Teaching Hospital
  5. Mr. P. Eswarathasan, Administrative Service
  6. Mr. S. Vishnukanthan, a Colombo Lawyer
Existing Members Reappointed
  1. Mr. N. Vethanayahan, G.A/Jaffna
  2. Dr. Aru Thirumurugan (Honourary Jaffna doctorate)
  3. Mr. Mano Sekaram
  4. Prof. H.S. Hisbulla, Peradeniya Emeritus
  5. Dr. S. Sivasekaram, Peradenya Mech. Eng.
  6. Mr. V. Kanagasabapathy
  7. Dr. Puhupalan Lakshman, Jaffna Hospital
  8. Ms. Shantha Abimannasingam, PC
  9. Eng. D.K.P.U. Gunathillaka, CEB
Former Members Removed
  1. Prof. V. Tharmaratnam
  2. Prof. S.K. Sitrampalam
  3. Dr. N. Jeyakumaran
  4. Dr. Devanesan Nesiah
  5. Mr. S. Rangarajan
  6. Mr. M. Kanapathipillai
All those eliminated had in some way called for adherence to Circulars at Council meetings. It looks like Prof. Sitramapalm, a TMP man, would not be forgiven for asking for rules to be observed. A UGC  member claimed that de Silva produced a letter from the present VC saying he did not want Prof. Tharmaratnam (who is a stickler for rules) because he is an obstacle to smooth administration. Prof. Vigneswaran denies having ever written such a letter. Mr. Sumanthiran had insisted that Prof. Hoole and Dr. Jeyakumaran be appointed. With Prof. Hoole’s enmity with de Silva, that seems to have doomed Dr. jeyakumaran also. When enquired through the ministry why Dr. Jeyakumaran was removed, the answer was that he would disrupt Council meetings by joining Prof. Hoole.

Ultimately not one person from the ITAK list was there. Those newly on board were either people being cultivated by the TMP or at best neutral.

MP Sumanthiran had come to Jaffna for a meeting on Sunday (22nd) thinking the list was on hold. When he heard the news on Friday, he was livid. He phoned Minister Kabir Hashim but his calls were not answered. He planned to return to Colombo on Saturday, and was overheard saying “I asked for a Bishop. They put in an unheard of priest. We supported them. This is what we get. This has to be raised with the PM.” It is known he got a call through to the PM. Little else is known.

A political observer known to be sharp said, “This is the UNP’s autonomy project. However bad, they want to give the UGC a free hand. I am sure that is why the Minister did not answer Mr. Sumanthiran’s calls. It was deliberate. I am amazed that the government would allow the UGC Chairman to undermine its own ally, the ITAK. We voted against the no confidence motion. Sampanthan Aiyah said in Parliament that Ravi Karunanayake is a gentleman who voluntarily resigned. He took heat for that from Mr. Dinesh Gunawardena who sidled up to him and insulted him for that. Sumanthiran staved off a discussion on the bond-scam report until a Tamil translation is available – effectively stalled the discussion forever given its volume. I have not seen greater incompetency in a government in snubbing a critical ally whose vote may be needed again soon. Is it worth defending this government?”

An ITAK official said, “We Tamils are there as coolies, only to clean the hind-side of the UNP after they have done their dirty job. Mark my words. The UNP will give us nothing.”

Why is the UNP taking this huge risk in sidelining the ITAK? Why is it appointing Councilors from Wigneswaran’s list while fully ignoring the ITAK list? Does the government know that they have effectively handed over the university to TMP extremists?

These are the questions uppermost in the minds of Tamil intellectuals who were sympathetic to the ITAK but now wonder if their sympathies are misplaced. One of them, a Tamil Chartered Accountant in Colombo,said “The ITAK should have voted against the no confidence motion but never have made speeches exonerating Ravi Karunanayake nor undermining the bond-scam report. We should not do the UNP’s dirty work. They have enough people for that. Mr. Sampanthan holding on to the Leader of the Opposition post is unethical and scandalous. We have offended many Sinhalese. It is a great mistake to let them see us as working against the national interest.”

ITAK’s Hon. Mavai Senathirajah said, “Something has gone wrong. (Etho thavaru nadanthu vittathu). I do not know what?”

That certainly does not sound like the ITAK is controlling the rudder of Tamil politics, a social science professor quipped.


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