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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Peradeniya in 1961: End of the golden era?

The Island 08/07/2011

By Sena Thoradeniya

It is heartening to know that some dedicated students of the batch of 1961 of the then University of Ceylon Peradeniya have organised a re-union to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their intake, although celebrating 50 years is no fun when the entire university system is in turmoil. Nevertheless, this writer is proud to be a member of that unique batch. The year 1961 became unique for several reasons. Sinhala and Tamil became the medium of instruction of the majority of the students for the second year in succession in addition to conducting lectures and tutorial classes in English in the Arts and Oriental Studies Faculties. By this time, teething problems in switching to the Swabhasha Medium in 1960 have been satisfactorily solved. 1961 ‘deconstructed" Sir Ivor Jennings’ concept of the "Residential University." If one goes far back to the beginning and end of the "Battle of Sites" which lasted for more than a decade, the proponents of the university were in favour of a residential university.

Due to the opening of Maha Vidyalayas in the rural areas and providing more facilities to the existing Central Schools, the doors of higher education were opened to many. Nearly 3000 students sat the University Preliminary Examination in Arts, which was held in December 1960. Of this, approximately 1100 qualified to enter Arts, Oriental Studies and Law Faculties. With this the university administrators were saddled with many problems. They had to provide residential facilities to the Arts students as well as the Science students who were coming to Peradeniya for the first time in 1961 and the students of the Second Medical Faculty who were due to come to reside in Peradeniya in January 1962. The way the university authorities solved the first problem shattered the concept of the residential university. Nearly 400 students were taken as "internal" students while the remaining 700 were taken as "external" students. The term "external" was derogatory and a misnomer, because these students were provided with lectures, tutorials and library facilities. The university never repeated this mistake thereafter except in the following year where a few students were taken as "non-residential" for a short period. Although there were no clashes between the "internals" and the "externals" or any animosity between the two groups this formed the first major cleavage among the university community. University politics, protest meetings, demonstrations, marches, student strikes, "Upawasas" (as in 1963) and of course love affairs bounded the two groups in camaraderie.

Rather than constructing a narrative by a succession of loosely connected incidents which had occurred during 1961-1965, the writer wishes to look into some broad aspects such as economic, political and cultural to elaborate why this period has become important in the annals of the history of the University of Ceylon and its successor University of Peradeniya. Many of these are recorded in my literary creations (in Sinhala) such as "Udumbaragira" (a novel first published in 1994), "Peradeniya Istesama Ticket Dena" (a collection of short stories-1997), "Pora Meegon" (short stories – 2002) and "Negee Situwa Malbaeyini" (a collection of poetry- 2001). In my newest novel which is in print and yet untitled, Sir Ivor Jennings and Peradeniya itself are portrayed as two vital characters.

The hall fees paid by a student who was not entitled for a bursary was Rs. 310 for the first term followed by Rs. 240 for the other two terms respectively. There was no conspicuous change in the hall fees thereafter. The so-called external students were forced to find accommodation in the university campus itself (quarters of academic staff, non-academic staff and minor employees) or in the surrounding villages. After graduating in 1964 and 1965 both categories found equal opportunities in employment. Within a month after the final examination in 1964 the "generalists" were given teaching appointments by the Education Ministry. Appointment letters were delivered by the postman. Teaching was the first job of almost all those who have passed out.

The major political incident that occurred during this period was the special lecture given by Mr. Dudley Senanayake in October 1962 at the Arts Theatre under the auspices of the DEMSOC, (UNP led Democratic Society) and its aftermath. A young hard-core UNP lecturer did not allow the students to ask questions although Dudley was prepared to answer any question in his inimitable way. This led to a commotion. Thugs began assaulting university students from that evening. This writer was one of the first four students to be severely assaulted on that fateful day. At the time we were assaulted, Dr. Mrs. Ram Aluvihare, Warden of Sangamittha Hall, stopped her A 30 car and put all of us into it, thus saving our lives. We were taken to the Peradeniya Golf Club and we saw all the top ranking UNP leaders, including Dudley, seated there! Fortunately, the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya was not formed at that time. On the following day, the students went marching to the office of the young lecturer to ask him why he deprived students of a political discourse. The ensuing arguments resulted in manhandling the lecturer. Those who were identified were severely punished, some suspended indefinitely and the registration of some was cancelled, in other words expelled from the university. After a few months the punishments meted out to them were withdrawn. Of these later in their illustrious careers one became a President’s Counsel and another Judge of the Court of Appeal. This incident had far reaching repercussions; one was the relegating of the Arts Faculty from its dominant position.

The year 1963 marked the formation of the United Left Front which was followed by the massive May Day Rally and the Hartal Commemoration Rally in Colombo. Communists, Trotskyites and MEPers from Peradeniya participated in their thousands in these rallies. The following year, due to the ideological struggle in the world communist movement, the Communist Party of Ceylon was split into two factions. Similarly, the Trotskyites were divided into several splinter groups due to coalition politics. These changes were reflected in campus politics too.

Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon visited Peradeniya on 2 August 1962, his first and last visit after leaving Sri Lanka and addressed the students at the Arts Theatre. Ian Goonetileke, in the Introduction to "The Road to Peradeniya, An Autobiography" writes that "this singular visit of its founder Vice-Chancellor and moving spirit to Peradeniya receives no mention in the Twenty-First Annual Report of the Council of the University of Ceylon, 1962!" He adds, "Some memories are truly short, it would appear, and continue to be so, as academic concerns and intellectual freedom falter in the face of a withering partisan politics that has settled on every tree, and only chosen birds sing." (Page xvii)

Culturally, it was the heyday of Peradeniya Literature and Art. Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra‘s classic "Sinha Bahu" was staged for the first time in September 1961 at the Open Air Theatre followed by its critique by Gunadadsa Amerasekera in the Ceylon Daily News. The famous Singhaya, Mark Antony Fernando of the Arts Faculty and Suppa Devi, Malini De Silva of the Science Faculty were students who joined the university in 1961. A few others of the 1961 batch were in the chorus, while the late S. A. Manuratne played the Esraj. The late Bandula Jayawardena of the Buddhist Encyclopedia produced "Bera Handa", "Diyasena Nopemineema," "Bihiwanu Bosathaneni" and "Swarna Hansa". The late Vithianathan (later professor) of the Tamil Department produced "Karnanpore", (an episode from Mahabharata; not "Ravanesan" as some wrote) a play in the "Nattukuttu" tradition. DRAMSOC (Dramatic Society) continued with adaptations of its choice.

As some writers say, does this period mark the end of the so-called golden era of Peradeniya?