Jaffna University becomes flashpoint of tension
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Jaffna University or Yarlpanap Palgalaikkazhagham has become a
volatile flashpoint of tension in the on going conflict between security
personnel of the state and the younger generation of the district. While
"Intifada" type attacks continue to be directed against Police and armed
forces in the peninsula the University precincts and environs in
Thirunelvely became the battle ground for direct clashes. With even the
Vice - chancellor and members of the academic staff becoming victims the
university authorities have decided to close down the campus till January
2nd next year.
The Jaffna university has played a prominent role in the politics of the
region from its inception in 1974. Various undergraduate generations have
come and gone in the past. Each generation has had its own brand of
politics fashioned according to prevalent conditions.
In the late seventies the Jaffna university students played a pivotal role in
the emergence of the Tamil United Liberation Front and its 1977 electoral
victory on a platform seeking a mandate for Tamil eelam.Yet in the early
eighties , Jaffna undergraduates were in the forefront of those revolting
against the perceived betrayal of the TULF in accepting the compromise of
District Development Councils.
The late seventies and early eighties also saw the Jaffna campus being a
virtual safe house for some leading members of the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam. The LTTE then was in its embryonic stage of development.
The very same Jafna campus exploded in protests against LTTE
hegemonism in the mid - eighties over incidents like the Vijitharan killing,
Rajaharan abduction etc. this was when Jaffna was being controlled by
Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias "Col" Kittu. The late eighties saw the
Jaffna campus transforming once again into a clandestine support base for
the tigers during the Indian army occupation of Jaffna.
The nineties saw the Jaffna university developing pockets of resistance to
the tigers who were controlling all aspects of civilian life then in Jaffna.The
LTTE cracked down on a number of undergrads and young graduates in
an attempt to stifle all dissent and suppress all protest. It would have been
difficult to predict the future had that course of events continued.
There was however a dramatic reversal of the situation in 1995 when the
LTTE withdrew to the Wanni and the Sri Lankan army took over the Jaffna
district. Once again rebellion began within University ranks to the dominant
forces in power. The army presence was resented. Jaffna university
students played a crucial role in the Tamil resurgence movement and
staging of "pongu Thamizh" (Tamil upsurge) demonstrations.
Though Jaffna undergraduate politics has undergone different changes at
different times there have been three constant, underlying threads. Firstly
a fearless spirit of defiant opposition to the powerful forces dominating
Jaffna. Secondly an inherent consciousness of opposing or rebelling
against perceived oppression and injustice. Thirdly a consistent pattern of
being in the vanguard against threats or potential threats to the well -
being of the Tamil people. It is against this backdrop that one has to view
all "tensions" within and outside the Jaffna campus.
Two significant developments began after the election of Mahinda
Rajapakse as President and appointment of Sarath Fonsela as military
commander. One was the launching of a Palestine - style "Intifada" protest
campaign by Jaffna students against the intrusive presence of the armed
forces. The second was the escalation of the shadow war in Jaffna where a
series of grenade, handbomb and landmine attacks against Police and
military personnel in Jaffna. Though the LTTE did not play any overt role
the tigers were suspected of providing covert logistical and moral support
to the attacks and protests.
The landmine attacks on army patrols saw the security forces deploying
additional personnel in key roads, junctions and zones. The University and
its environs became strategically important. the university was seen as a
hotbed of intrige and revolt against the pervasive army presence. Besides
the administrative office of the International Tamil student federation was in
the vicinity. The International federation controlled by Tamil National
alliance Parliamentarian Selvakumar Gajendran alias "Kuthirai" Gajendran.
This organization is regarded as a tiger front and being the livewire behind
student and youth protests in Jaffna.
The increase of search posts, sentry posts and the deployment of
additional soldiers in the University zone led predictably to confrontation
and tension. With most soldiers being ypong men and the undergraduates
also being young men tempers got frayed on both sides. Undergraduates
resented this enhanced security intrusion into their daily life. There were
many arguments. The soldiers reacted with assaults and tearing up of
identity cards. Undergraduates began demonstrating. Kokkuvil technical
College students also began demonstrating.
The undergraduates in association with the secondary school student
consortioum called for a widespread hartal in Jaffna. One of the demands
was that security posts in the University area should be shut down and
deployed additional soldiers withdrawn. The protest demonstration created
much tension and a few incidents of stone - throwing . Soldiers fired in the
air. The situation did not deteriorate further at that point of time.
The prevailing "stand - off" situation underwent a drastic change on
account of the rape and murder incident at Pungudutheevu. A 20 year old
Tamil woman Eliyathamby Dharmini from the 7th ward area was sexually
violated, murdered and thrown into an abandoned well close to a navy
camp. It was widely alleged that she had been raped and murdered by
naval personnel. When protest demonstrations demanding justice were
held the navy responded with force tear gassing and beating up
demonstrators. A few were arrested. The Navy at Pungudutheevu also
prevented people from attending the funeral.
It was in this atmosphere that a group of undergraduates in three vehicles
started off from the campus at about 4 pm on Sunday Dec 18th to
Pungudutheevu . Gajendran MP also accompanied the u'grads. They were
stopped near the Parameshwara junction by soldiers who refused to let
them proceed further. The students refused to turn back and a heated
argument ensued. At this point of time stones were thrown at the soldiers
from a spot behind an ice cream parlour nearby.
The soldiers then began assaulting the students. they also fired at the Ice
cream parlor building. The students also retaliated and soon there was a
b=violent melee on. With more undergraduates streaming out from campus
precincts the soldiers began calling for reinforcements.Soon a large
contingent of soldiers in armoured cars, armoured personnel carriers,
jeeps, trucks and motor cycles arrived at the scene. Unarmed students
were brutally assaulted with clubs, rods, batons and rifle butts. Firing was
done towards the ground and in the air. The students retreated into the
campus. at least 25 ugrads were injured. The Ice cream parlour employee
was also severely injured.
The soldiers then took full control of the area outside campus. One
consequence of increased security deployment in the campus environs
was the "unofficial' sealing off of the one km stretch of the Jaffna - Palaly
road between Thirunelvely nd Kantharmadam junctions. No one was
travelled to go along the road stretch. As a result students and residents
were put to much hardship being unable to go out . People could not
return to their homes. A number of civilians were also assaulted.. Soldiers
also blocked all access roads to the campus area.
The International students federation office in thee vicinity was also
affected.Soldiers entered premises and wrecked the interior. The
"Godfather" Gajendran in typical tiger fashion was nowhere to be seen as
students bore the brunt of the attack. Army men also fired towards the
entrance of the university campus. Movement to and from the campus was
severely curtailed. It was almost as if the "university people " were under
Academics including vice - chancellor Dr. Mohanthas and many students
could not get out from campus. The Vice - Chancellor was on the phone
speaking to army authorities explaining the predicament. Finally at about 8
pm the soldiers began moving away from the campus environs and
Parameshwara junction to Aalady junction and Post Box junction. The
university students and staff moved out from campus at at about 9 pm.
On the following day TNA Parliamentarian Gajendran urged University
authorities and student representatives to go out in procession to protest
against the previous days assault and to submit a petition to the
Monitoring Mission at Nallur. The academic staff was initially reluctant but
Gajendran succeeded in "persuading" them to do so with all the "power" of
his arguments. Vice - Chancellor Dr, Mohanthas informed the SLMM and
army authorities of their intention. He informed them clearly that it was a
strictly non - violent exercise.
Over 2500 students and academic staff led by the vice - chancellor started
out in procession at 10. 45 am. Gajendran also participated. The
procession commenced from the campus precints toeards the
Parameshwara or uiniversity junction and then proceeded along Palaly
road. When it reached the Central nursing home junction the procession
was forced to stop because the road was blocked. A massive army
contingent including armoured cars and tanks with field artillery was
stationed there. The processionists were asked to turn back.
The Vice - Chancellor and senior academics went up to the officers and
informed them of their intentions. They pointed out that it was a non -
violent protest and that suppressing it through force could prove
counterproductive. The security men would have none of it and insisted
they turn back. The university people stood their ground and kept on
pleading that the army should allow them to proceed.
A group of soldiers then came forward menacingly and began firing on the
ground. Pieces of chipped tar and stones began flying about due to the
hail of gunfire. The academics including the Vice - Chancellor began lying
on the ground to protect themselves. The soldiers also began firing in the
air. The students at this point began chanting slogans against the army.
The soldiers however let loose a torrent of assaults.
The academics and others lying prostate on the ground were kicked,
ytampled and assaulted. This included the V- C. Bursts of gunfire were
now directed against the unarmed processionists too. The helpless
students and terrified academic staff began running for safety. Realising
that none of the processionists possessed firearms or grenades the
soldiers waded in courageously assaulting students and staff without
restraint. The procession was dispersed brutally with processionists
A senior lecturer Prinpanathan and five students received gunshot injuries
and were admitted to hospital. Perinpanathan was shot in the thigh.The
Arts Faculty Dean Prof. Sivachandran and 19 other students were
admitted to hospital for assault injuries. Around 100 others received minor
assault injuries and received medical treatment. This included the V- C,
some lecturers and Parliamentarian Gajendran. The encounter took about
The soldiers like a conquering army took control of the Palaly road stretch
for hours. Tanks and armoured cars were mounted in strategic points. It
was as if the army was expecting an armed invasion or issuing a challenge
for a fight. But there were no takers. After several hours of posturing the
bulk of soldiers withdrew no doubt very please about their performance.
The beleaguered army in Jaffna had scored a magnificient "victory" in
Jaffna unleashing violence on unarmed undergraduates and academic
staff and crushing a non - violent procession.
The following Tuesday saw the university students declaring a boycott of
lectures in protest against the previous day incidents. Nevertheless a large
number of u'grads were present in the campus precincts. some students
were standing near the main entrance on the road when a jeep with five
cops from the Kopay Police station drew up. The policemen tried to chase
students away. Infuriated students encircled the jeep and began thumping
on the vehicle. Soldiers from nearby Parameshwara junction and Kaladdy
junction hurried to the scene firing in the air. The students ran into the
campus while the Police jeep sped away.
A larger contingent of troops arrived shortly thereafter and entered the
campus in violation of accepted norms. They began firing tear gas
cannisters at the groups of students standing by. Firing also commenced.
Students began running inwards for safety. Soldiers went on the rampage
moving in all directions within the campus and assauled anyone they got
hold of. Two groups of soldiers took up positions near the Kailasapathy
auditorium and Library premises and fired volleys. After a while they went
outside the campus premises and continued firing. They challenged the
students to come out and fight.
Finally they went way leaving hundreds of empty cannisters and cartridges
behind as souveneirs for the students. A lecturer Manickavasagam
Ilampiraiyan and undergraduate Gowrisenthooran were assaulted and
taken away by the soldiers to the Parameshwara junction post.
Ilampiraiyan is the brother of Vavuniya district Judge M. Ilancheliyan. Some
academic staff members went to the army officers and requested the
release of the arrested persons. It was refused. Later both were handed
over to the Jaffna Police.
The boycott of classes by students continued. With the army entering
university premises the minor staff employees got frightened about their
safety . Their union had an emergency meeting and decided to stop work
till their security was ensured. The academic staff also followed suit.
Representations made by the Vice - Chancellor to the President,
UNiversity Grants Commission and Army commander met with no proper
response.Under the circumstances a decision was taken to shut the
university till Jan 2nd in the interests of the syudents and university staff
and employees. Efforts would be taken to procure effective guarantees of
safety during this interregnum.
Meanwhile undergraduates staged a meeting in a very emotional state. It
was resolved there that resistance to the army occupation should continue
in the coming days. It was also resolved that a "request" be made to the
LTTE to provide arms training to undergraduates. If there is a prompt
response by the tigers to this request the consequences could be very
bad indeed. The Jaffna university has about 6000 students. In a possible
future scenario at least 10% or 600 could get arms training and become
a peoplles force or civilian militia. Also at least 60 or 10% of these could
become full - fledged tigers.
The soldiers in Jaffna are not equipped or trained to handle the new
challenges arisising in the region. Using brute force is not the only way to
deal with this problem. But then neither Mahinda Rajapakse nor Sarath
Fonseka possess the mature wisdom to recognize this. Fonseka has
changed the military hierarchy in Jaffna. Responsible officers have been
replaced with" gung ho" type officers. With these men at the helm in the
periphery and the centre the future is going to be extremely bleak. The
armed forces have played right into the hands of the tigers through the
university fiasco.The consequences will prove tragically costly.