Tamil-Sinhalese clash leads to indefinite closure of Jaffna University

COLOMBO: A violent clash between Tamil and Sinhalese students of Jaffna University last Saturday has led an indefinite closure of the university, the only institution of higher learning in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province.

Four Sinhalese students were injured, one of them seriously, when students belonging to the two communities attacked each other following a sharp difference of opinion over allowing Kandyan dancing in a function to welcome new entrants to the Science Faculty.

As per the time-honored tradition, the Tamils in the Science Faculty wanted to welcome freshers with “mela thaalam” (traditional nadaswaram and thavil music). But the Sinhalese students insisted that Kandayan dancing, which is performed in welcoming ceremonies among the Sinhalese in South Sri Lanka, be included.

While the Sinhalese students based their demand on the fact that they form a significant proportion of the student body in the Faculty, the Tamil students insisted that tradition must be followed, especially as Jaffna is a Tamil majority area.

Some Tamil students pointed out that in functions in the Sinhalese-majority areas of South Lanka, no culture other than Sinhalese-Buddhist culture is presented.

Therefore, it is not fair to demand that Kandyan dancing be included in a function in a Tamil area and in a predominantly Tamil university. The Tamil students further said that the demand to include Kandyan dancing was made barely a day before the event when the program had already been finalized.

On the day of the function, the Tamil students were infuriated when a group of Kandyan dancers arrived at the venue. Some Tamil students pushed the dancers, which touched off a mini riot in which four Sinhalese students were injured. A student who was injured seriously was evacuated to the Government General Hospital in Colombo. The Governor of the Northern Province, Reginold Cooray, visited the student in the hospital and assured stern action against those who indulged in violence.

The Vice Chancellor of the University, Dr.Vasanthy Arasaratnam, ordered the evacuation of all the Sinhalese students in the university to ensure their safety; appointed a three member inquiry committee and subsequently  closed the university indefinitely till a decision is taken on the committee’s report.

It is learnt that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) were consulted and both endorsed the VC’s decision. The TNA   issued a statement calling for calm and tolerance and appealed to the students not to disrupt the multi-ethnic character of the university.

Tamil sources in Jaffna told Express that trouble between the Tamil and Sinhalese students has been brewing for some time and Saturday’s incident was only a manifestation of an underlying ethnic tension.

A Jaffna-based senior journalist said that because of the language barrier, the Sinhalese students either stick to their own ethnic group or mingle with the predominantly Sinhalese army and police. And the Security Forces, who have traditionally been at odds with the Tamil students of Jaffna, could have instigated the Sinhalese students to make an issue of the inclusion of Kandyan dancing at the welcoming function.

The Vice Chancellor herself told a Colombo-based daily that some “outsiders” were behind the clash and that the university is trying to identify them.

Sources in Jaffna also said that the mushrooming of Buddha’s statues in Jaffna has been irritating the Tamils who feel that these statues, which have come up in  predominantly non-Buddhist  Tamil areas, are meant to show the dominance of the Sinhalese-Buddhists over the Tamils who are either Hindus or Christians.

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