A.M.A. Azeez was born on October 4, 1911 to a traditional elite family of Vannarpannai in Jaffna. He had his childhood and entire schooling in Jaffna. He attended leading Hindu schools and was a brilliant student. He passed away on November 24, 1973. The legacy of Dr. Azeez, I sometimes think, is like an iceberg. [...]

Sunday Times 2

A.M.A. Azeez’s agricultural revolution in the east


A.M.A. Azeez was born on October 4, 1911 to a traditional elite family of Vannarpannai in Jaffna. He had his childhood and entire schooling in Jaffna. He attended leading Hindu schools and was a brilliant student. He passed away on November 24, 1973.

The legacy of Dr. Azeez, I sometimes think, is like an iceberg. What is visible is miniscule and the profound part is just submerged in history, which has to be carefully extricated through time-consuming and methodical research. Quite often, when we revisit the life and times of Dr. Azeez, we remind ourselves of the mature and astute political leadership he practised as a Senator, his profound contribution for the advancement of the education of Muslims and the active role he played in the upliftment and reform process of Muslim society. Overreaching all these achievements is his distinction of being the first Muslim to be recruited to the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service of the bygone era.

A.M.A. Azeez: His efforts helped turn the Ampara district into a rice bowl of Sri Lanka

His Senate and other speeches were erudite and had the hallmarks of a visionary, a true statesman and a patriot. The mere reading of his speeches and writings are an inspiration to readers, with his forward-looking thoughts transcending time. His contribution to Muslim education is visible even today. The grandeur and splendour of Zahira College and the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund that he founded continue to invigorate generations of Muslim youth to forge ahead in life and strengthen their role in Sri Lankan society. The YMMA movement he founded has energised the aspirations of many Muslim youth islandwide.

There is another more profound facet to Dr. Azeez’s legacy which is quite often forgotten by many people. This is his outstanding achievement in introducing major agrarian reforms in the Eastern Province. These reforms had turned the Ampara district into a major rice bowl of Sri Lanka. As the architect of these ground-breaking reforms, he virtually opened the flood gates for economic prosperity of the people in the region.

I was a student at Zahira College during the stewardship of Dr. Azeez. I had the rare opportunity of getting to know firsthand the fine qualities of this refined gentleman, my principal. During my student days I also learned a lot about Dr. Azeez’s other accomplishments. I also moved very closely with Ali, the eldest son of Dr. Azeez. Ali has been my dear and close friend for over fifty years starting from our university days. Despite all my close links with the Azeez family, I was never alerted to the role Dr. Azeez played in the economic upliftment of Muslims in the Eastern Province.

I discovered this quite accidentally when I was given a part-time teaching assignment at the South Eastern University at Oluvil, 400 kilometres from Mount Lavinia where I live. My long journey by car usually took about 8 to 10 hours. The tail end of my travel was through predominantly Muslim areas like Maruthamunai, Kalmunai, Sainthamaruthu, Sammanthurai, Nintavur, Oluvil and beyond that Addalachenai, Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil.

As I entered Maruthamunai, I would always see the glorious sight of vast expanses of paddy fields stretching from the main Pottuvil road up to and beyond the horizon. This carpet of verdant green paddy fields encircles the predominantly Muslim areas, bringing enormous prosperity to the people of the region.

Economic empowerment
These vast paddy lands extending over 100,000 hectacres, irrigated by the plentiful waters of Senanayake Samudraya at Inginiyagala, have transformed the Ampara district into a granary of the Eastern Province. These lands are owned almost entirely by Muslims and large scale paddy production has been the source of financial empowerment of this Muslim community. Whenever we reflect on matters concerning food security of the nation, we must remember with gratitude the remarkable contribution made by these people, who year after year have helped to feed the nation and eradicate famine and extreme poverty from our country. The Muslims of this area enjoy robust and strong cash flows and the prosperity they enjoy is externally visible. Home and motor car ownership is broad based, the ubiquitous motorcycle has invaded the precincts of nearly every household in the region and people generally enjoy a high quality of life.

Several good schools in the region have sent large numbers of students to universities and the Ampara district continues to produce significant numbers of professionals including engineers, university lecturers, accountants, administrative officers, doctors, teachers, erudite ulemas and an army of highly entrepreneur businessmen.

This road to prosperity obviously has been the result of the dedication, tenacity and sweat of these hardworking people. At the very early stages of this agrarian revolution, there was also an important catalyst who planned, energised and put together the vital ingredients of development. The role of this catalyst is what many of us have forgotten. My contemporary at school and at University, the Late S.H.M. Jameel, highlighted in his excellent and well researched article in 2007 titled “Contribution to Eastern Development 65 years ago”, this catalyst of change, who was none other than the illustrious Dr. A.M.A. Azeez.

When the Japanese bombed the port of Colombo and its suburbs on Easter Sunday, April 5 1942, Dr. Azeez held the responsible post of Additional Landing Surveyor, H.M. Customs. The country was placed on a war footing by the Governor. The Southern region of the Batticaloa district was chosen as a key area to boost food production.

I quote from Jameel’s article,
“Civil Servant Azeez arrived in Kalmunai and assumed duties as Assistant Government Agent on April 16, 1942. It was the period of the Second World War and all foreign supply lines of rice and other foodstuff faced blockades by the Japanese. …. The Government of the day had to find ways and means of accelerating local food production….. Azeez was specially selected by Hon. D.S. Senanayake and transferred at short notice with specific orders to produce more food especially rice.”

Hon. Senanayake had confessed that he selected a Muslim from the Civil Service, who would have the co-operation of the Muslims and Tamils. What he did not say but had in his mind, was that Dr. Azeez was a Tamil scholar, fluent speaker in Tamil and was well respected by the Tamil community. He went to Kalmunai within ten days and set up the Emergency Kachcheri.

The land mass brought under Dr. Azeez’s jurisdiction was vast; it stretched from Paddiruppu in the north to Kumana in the south, the entire Ampara district. As a dedicated civil servant, Dr. Azeez went into action almost immediately realising the urgency and importance of producing large amounts of food, he placed the entire mission on, what can be termed, a war footing.

Within a month of his arrival at Kalmunai, the new AGA convened a meeting and got into action without wasting time. Without even a proper office, this meeting was held at the Kalmunai rest house. It was a marathon session which lasted almost 10 hours and many landmark decisions were taken without much argument or debate.

It was resolved and action was immediately initiated to distribute large extents of state land, most of which was barren waste or just jungle, for clearance and cultivation. In the first phase of this operation, more than 12,000 acres were distributed to be brought under the plough. At that time there were no reliable arrangements for irrigated agriculture and human habitations in the area were few and spread thin on the ground, largely because of the jungle setting and desolate nature of the location. As a result only Muslims in the surrounding areas responded to his call and were the first beneficiaries of the land allocation. The Muslim farmers did not let down their benefactor, Dr. Azeez. With a lot of help, both financial, technical and plenty of supervised guidance from the AGA, they toiled hard and gradually brought more barren, jungle and fallow land under the plough. Like the proverbial snowball, this process set in motion the organic expansion of the paddy revolution in the Eastern Province.

It was also resolved at the meeting, that cash grants be made for jungle clearance and land preparation and to release seed paddy for the next cultivation season. Small tanks and irrigation channels which had been abandoned for years were rehabilitated. The AGA meticulously planned and developed related critical infrastructure to successfully achieve the goal of increased food production.

He also set up goat farms in Nintavur, Thirukovil and Malwatta and poultry farms in Maruthamunai, Sainthamaruthu and Palamunai and provided farmers with financial assistance and technical advice. He also established a model agriculture farm to provide technical knowhow and planting material for all agricultural endeavours in the region.

As pragmatic administrator, a week after this meeting, action commenced on all fronts. Lands were distributed, money was released and a 475 acre model farm with a labour force of 1,000 started taking shape in Nintavur.

Such was the meticulous planning of Dr. Azeez. His mission was a resounding success. The newly cultivated paddy fields brought forth bountiful harvests, and at a time of war when the country was plagued with food shortages, AGA Azeez’s food production drive was like welcome rain after a long and painful drought. An overwhelmed D.S. Senanayake, as the Minister of Agriculture, applauded Azeez on the great achievement and expressed his gratitude for helping to avert starvation and famine in the country.

Around the same time when Dr. Azeez was assigned the task of accelerating food production in the Eastern Province, D.S. Senanayake, picked on another eminent Civil Servant, C.P. de Silva and assigned him the similar task of increasing paddy cultivation in the Polonnaruwa district. Incidentally, Dr. Azeez and C.P. de Silva sat and passed the tough Civil Service exam together. Dr. Azeez was placed 2nd in the merit list with C.P. de. Silva being ranked 8th.

C.P. de.Silva restored the ancient glory of Polonnaruwa district by renovating the ancient tanks, rehabilitating irrigation channels and bringing thousands of acres of neglected jungle land under the plough for paddy cultivation. During the immediate post-war years, the rich harvest from these vast paddy lands was like God-given mercy, with food shortages being slowly relegated to the backwoods.

The people of the region benefited immensely from this new agricultural reawakening and profuse material prosperity came to them like in tidal waves. The grateful Sinhala people of Minneriya never forgot their benefactor C.P. de Silva. His name still reverberates in local folklore and he is reverently referred to even today as the “Minnery Deviyo” — the deity of Minneriya.

Apart from agriculture, Dr. Azeez established institutions for the educationally backward Muslims in the district, encouraged by Poet Abdul Cader Lebbe and Swami Vipulananda.God made some humans with major structural flaws, forgetfulness and ingratitude. The good that people do is either trivialised or quite often forgotten. This is the fate that has befallen Dr. A.M.A. Azeez’s legacy in the Ampara district. Dr. Azeez’s name is now unsung and unheard of in the predominantly Muslim areas of the Ampara district. Recorded history will perhaps be the only silent sentinel of the achievements of this fine gentleman, educationist, thoroughbred professional administrator and an Iconic Nation Builder.

The Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi has stated that “a community that fails to honour its heroes tends to lose its capacity to nurture heroes in its midst”.
(A.I. Marikar hails from Negombo and was a student at Zahira College during the Azeez era. He graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1965 and was a leading banker in Sri Lanka and overseas. He is an authority and a consultant in Islamic Banking)

Memorial oration
The Dr. A.M.A. Azeez commemoration meeting and the memorial oration will be held on Tuesday, 28th November 2017 at 4.30 pm at the Mahaweli Centre Auditorium, 96, Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Colombo 7.Dr. A.C.L. Ameer Ali of Murdoch University, Western Australia will deliver the Oration on the subject of ‘From Islamophobia to Westophobia: The Long Road to Islamist Radicalization.The Meeting will be jointly chaired by Khalid M. Farouk, President of the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez foundation and M.N.M. Naphiel, National President of the All Ceylon YMMA conference.

The Tamil book ‘Azeezum Thamilum’ written by A.M. Nahiya will be released on this occasion.
All are welcome to this public meeting.

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