Kilinochchi then and lessons learnt away from the blackboard

By S. Kotalawala

It was the 25th of May 1972, the day following Vesak when I left for Jaffna to take up my first appointment as an uncertificated teacher of English at the Kilinochchi Sinhala Vidyalaya on the basic salary of Rs. 220 a month.

During this period Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar came under the purview of the Regional Director of Education, Jaffna and the post was held by Vijitha Abeyesekera. Next to him was the chief education officer K. Kanagasabhapathi. Kilinochchi was then an education circuit in which the circuit education officer was T. Rasalingam who was later elected to Parliament from the Uduppidy electorate.
When I first stepped down at the Jaffna railway station I heard that a railway compartment had been set on fire as a symbol of protest against the declaration of Sri Lanka as a Democratic Republic.

Some similar sporadic incidents followed, like the threat to the Sinhala Vidyalaya that it would be burnt down and the felling of high-rise pylons carrying the high-tension line to the North. These incidents were suspected to have been triggered by some unknown rebel groups. The vast stretch of thick jungle from Murugandi to Kilinochchi was covered with Palu, Veera, Velon and Teak trees. The Northern railway line ran parallel with the A-9 road with the stretch of jungle between them.

It was a common sight before dusk to see herds of wild jumbos crossing the A-9 road to reach the Iranamadu tank for their usual dip in the water.

The school was housed in a 60''x20'' building with a small room attached to it which served as the principal’s abode and the school store room. In addition to the principal there were three teachers including myself. The student number on roll not exceeding 60 comprised mainly Sinhalese, Tamils and a few Muslims. Twelve acres of jungle had been allocated for the Kilinochchi Sinhala Vidyalaya which was later acquired for the zonal education office. The school was headed by Ven. Gonapeenuwela Sumanasara Thera who later lived permanently in Kilinochchi until it was captured by the armed forces.
Kilinochchi being predominantly an agricultural area with a harsh and arid climate had been categorized as extremely difficult for Sinhala schools and difficult for Tamil schools. During the '71 - '75 period, in keeping with the then government's policy on promoting agriculture and strict adherence to austerity, transport of rice had been banned within the country. The little rice that was brought into the North by secret and illegal means was sold as high as Rs. 10 a measure (seru) in the open market. For government servants like us it was beyond affordable limits and bread was considered a luxury food item as permits had to be obtained to buy it. The bakery business was predominantly owned by Sinhalese mostly from down South who led a dignified life in the North.

During this period the school staff had risen to about 10 teachers. Due to my acquaintance with many Tamils I acquired a fair knowledge of the language. I had to represent the principal at principals' meetings conducted solely in Tamil, all correspondence between the circuit education office and the school were done in Tamil, whereas circulars issued by the central government to the circuit education office were in Sinhala. In such cases, I had to translate the Sinhala circulars into English as a result of which a close relationship developed between the circuit education officers and myself. As the administration of Sinhala schools by Tamil education officers who were not conversant in Sinhala seemed impractical and unreasonable a Sinhalese education officer was appointed to the Jaffna Regional Education Office to monitor and look into matters pertaining to Sinhala schools.

There was a congenial environment in the area for Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to live in harmony. In the school environment too, there was a peaceful atmosphere with both Sinhalese and Tamils speaking both languages equally and well. I knew of a certain Tamil family living close to the school where the four children spoke Sinhala among themselves while speaking Tamil with their parents, who didn't know any Sinhala.

Once during the latter part of 1974, when Mr. Manikkawasagar, the Regional Director of Education Jaffna, visited the school, seeing the log entries made by other education officers in English he instructed the then principal not to allow any visitor or officer to write log entries in any language other than Sinhala.

He was such an adherent to the official language policy that as a prelude to his instruction, he dictated his entry so that the principal could write it on a sheet of paper and then transcribed it himself in the log book in his rough bold handwriting.

The unsophisticated and simple lifestyle of the Jaffna people is worthy of mention. The bicycle was the most common mode of transport for many public servants. Of the government servants I knew of at that time, only Mr. Yoganathan, District Revenue Officer (D.R.O), and Mr. Suntheralingam, the Kilinochchi Magistrate used their own vehicles for personal use. T. Anandasangari, M.P. for Kilinochchi could be frequently seen walking leisurely in the town dressed in a shirt and vetti not guarded or flanked by personal bodyguards or armed forces personnel like in the present.

Many principals and teachers speaking flawless and perfect English used to come to schools barefoot, dressed in national costume or shirt with vetti.

In spite of their simplicity and deep attachment to the religion, persons of high caste in the Hindu society were particular about the caste of others. Especially the Indian labourers who were employed in chillie cultivations were meted out disparaging treatment. Such was the situation in the pre 1983 era.

Despite the incidents beginning from 1958 there was a peaceful atmosphere until 1983. But in the incidents that followed July ’83 many human lives, houses and property were destroyed. Sinhalese in the north who had thriving businesses and those who were permanently resident were compelled to flee for safety with whatever belongings they could carry with them.

Now the time is opportune for all of us to look back and think with a new vision disregarding the recent unpleasant past. In this context, politicians like Mr. Anandasangari who have a correct vision of the problem can play a vital role in bringing about lasting peace to the country. At the same time there are moves to reconstruct the northern railway stations and railway in collaboration with the people from the south to strengthen the bond between the two major ethnic groups.

May this article be an eye-opener to thousands of those, especially Tamils who have had their education in the Sinhala medium in schools in the North to come forward to build a Sri Lanka where our next generation can live in peace and harmony.

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