ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29

A public confession of some private sins

The year is drawing to a close and we will no doubt see various reviews of performance reported in the press - whether it be of the economy or of the regime or even of the highest in the land. In the Christian tradition, performance evaluation always involves confession. Since in fact I belong to that tradition, I crave the indulgence of readers to hear out my confession of some sins of omission as part of my own performance evaluation - I am afraid it is like washing my dirty linen in public.

I confess my apathy with regard to the abduction of Professor Raveendranath, a fellow academic who was Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University. I use the past tense because his post of Vice Chancellor was advertised recently, without any of us being any the wiser as to his own fate, after being kidnapped in the heart of Colombo just after the annual sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, last December.

Professor Raveendranath

Some time ago I heard that his salary was still being paid into his account, although his wife could not access it. Is this situation the same, I wonder? At any rate, despite my being a fairly senior academic in the Sri Lankan university system, and thus having access to many Vice Chancellors, I am afraid, all I did was to write an innocuous letter to the press regarding his abduction. I did not even attend the Bodhi Pooja organized by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors on his behalf. Is Professor Raveendranath on this side or that of the great divide? Wherever you are Professor, forgive me my apathy regarding your fate.

I confess my total inaction with regard to the killing of Dr Ponniah Makinan, chief examiner for the Advanced Level Mathematics paper in the Tamil medium, whose body was found on the Bambalapitiya beach, early October this year. He had travelled from Jaffna to Colombo in connection with the correction of answer scripts, but could not return home. The A Level examination is so important for us academics - it is the yardstick by which the best students are admitted to the groves of academe. All Dr Makinan got for participating in this process was a ticket to eternity. I notice also that he had been residing at some hotel during his stay in Colombo. Did that mean he had no family in Colombo? Could not the Department of Examinations give him official accommodation? He was a stranger in our midst, and instead of extending hospitality to him as is supposed to be our wont, we allowed him to be snatched away by sinister elements. And then, despite my being a fellow member of the academic community and therefore having recourse to protest his killing through the academic staff unions, I did nothing. Forgive me Dr Makinan - in the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, I did not speak for you.

I confess my culpability in the shameful treatment meted out to Dr Ziyad Mohamed, the former Director of the Tea Research Institute, who was first imprisoned and then served vacation of post in the middle of 2006 for his visiting Japan without prior ministerial approval - never mind the fact that he was instrumental through this visit in lifting the ban placed by Japan on Sri Lanka tea.

Before this dastardly event took place I served on two committees of senior scientists, under the auspices of both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC), to propose measures for alleviating conditions inimical to the pursuit of science in Sri Lanka. One of the measures strongly advocated by both committees, and indeed communicated to the Hon. Prof. Tissa Vitharana (Thank God for all his work with the APRC), was for short term overseas leave applications to be approved by governing bodies of scientific and academic institutions, rather than having to wend their way to the Prime Minister and back, while scientists wait on tenterhooks knowing not whether to commit the lesser evil of going prior to obtaining permission or the greater evil of not participating at events they have made commitments about. Needless to say our proposed measures were totally ignored - who cares about scientists anyway? Certainly not politicians who loathe independent thought and critical analysis nor administrators who delight in keeping us on tap and under their thumbs. If I had pushed our proposals a bit stronger or taken more personal interest, could you have escaped eating prison food, Dr Mohamed? Please forgive me; I could have done more.

While all this is going on, I feel that my greatest sin is to operate in a "business as usual" mode, even if that may contribute towards national development and the social mobility of the marginalized. Even writing an occasional confession like this is so hard. It is much more rewarding to write a research paper and enhance my CV in the process.

In the words of the Latin Mass, all I can do is to say Mea culpa, Mea culpa, Mea maxima culpa. I have however started wearing a black rubber wristband to remind myself that "all is not well in the state of Denmark" and that many of my countrymen (and women) of all religions, races and socio-economic backgrounds are suffering deprivation, degradation and death, while I live in relative ease and comfort. Priyan Dias

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