An English class in Batticaloa

There has been so much interest about resettlement and rebuilding in the North that the East has been comparatively neglected. I had not been there for six months myself, which was sad for that was an area I had been in constantly from the eighties onward.

Way back then, I had persuaded the British Council to stage cultural events there, solo performances by Geraldine McEwan and Richard de Zoysa, and even an extraordinary Exhibition called ‘Painting the Town’ which allowed me to stay nearly a week at the Batticaloa Resthouse. Then there had been a period in which we implemented a project to supply furniture to schools, part of British aid after the signing of the Indo-Lankan Accord and what seemed peace. When the Tigers proved intransigent and began to fight, first with the Indian army and then against us, ODA (as DFID was then known) was persuaded to continue with the Project in select districts, which included Amparai. Those were days when British Council officials were more sympathetic about the country in which they served, a trait that sadly cannot be expected any more given career imperatives. But, to our relief, when the Project was reviewed, ODA declared that it had been one of the most efficiently implemented, not just here but generally speaking.

Then there were the Affiliated University Colleges, where I looked after Specialist and General English Courses in Trincomalee and in Amparai. Overlapping with this was the pre-University GELT course, when we had Centres in places as far off the beaten track as Mutur and Tirukkovil. Visiting the latter, I recall the laconic comment of the soldier at the checkpoint when I asked if I could go down the road to Tirukkovil.

‘You can go,’ he said, ‘Whether you can come back is another question.’

But I did, and got twice to Batticaloa too, though my driver refused to accompany me and I had to hire vans in Buttala. In Mutur he did stay, emboldened by the wonderful Dr Rajaratnman, Director of the Trincomalee Affiliated University College, who insisted that I spend a few days there to do English workshops. I visited some of the Mutur students in the evenings, in very simple huts, and realized how elated their parents felt that they might become English teachers.

During all those visits there was continuing tension. We heard gunfire in the night in Mutur, in Battiacaloa we were caught out when Richard wanted to go exploring at night, and had to stay immobile while a search operation took place. And even during the time of the Ceasefire Agreement, when I represented our Vice-Chancellor at a meeting in Batticaloa, it was clear, if only from the Tiger cadres freely displaying weapons and might in the streets, that this was merely a waiting game.

The tensions were still there when I visited in 2008 as Head of the Peace Secretariat, even though it was a year since the Tigers had been defeated militarily. Those were the days when a couple of pistol gangs emerged at intervals to do mass murder, and there were numerous checkpoints, while the TMVP camps were heavily guarded. The citizens’ groups that I met were worried about security, about restrictions on fishing, about delays and damage to goods they were sending to Colombo, because of restrictions on travel and stringent checks.

When I went in 2009, the situation was completely different. The concerns were now about education, and ensuring that the youngsters of the East could take advantage of the new opportunities that were being opened up. Though the Europeans had continued recalcitrant, to the extent of objecting to elections being held in the area, the Americans had broken ranks and provided much assistance to develop appropriate businesses. We were told then however that training in appropriate skills was limited, which is why we made an English for Employment course one of the principal projects of the Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures Project the Ministry implements.

This was done over all three Districts, in collaboration with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies and the Academy of English and Drams. Ten trainers from each District came to Colombo for training for a couple of weeks, and they have since rolled out the course to youngsters in each area. Sadly, given the level that was targeted, the trainers are all from the District capitals, but they have proved willing to go out to at least some of the other areas where there is a demand.

So we went to check on the training at Kalawanchikuddy, to Padirippu Maha Vidyalaya, which had been one of my GELT Centres, and where I had a Proustian moment in seeing the plethora of strange mottoes strung out on the walls. In Kattankudy a Tamil teacher was doing yeoman service with a group of Muslim girls, a scene that brought back memories of my previous visit to the town, when my Muslim students had insisted on taking me to the mosque where the Tigers had opened fire on people at prayer.

I had been struck then by the similarity to what had happened in 1981, when my students at Jaffna University had insisted on taking me to see the remains of the Jaffna Public Library, burnt during the Jayawardene government’s infamous attempt to browbeat the people of the North during the 1981 District Development Council election. But the people could not be browbeaten, as they showed in voting emphatically for the SLFP candidate in the 1982 Presidential election. Sadly, given that the 1982 referendum then put the lid on democracy, some of them had greater recourse to terrorism – and the wheel turned full circle with the vicious approach of the LTTE to Muslims, the massacre at Kattankudy, the attempt at ethnic cleansing in 1990.

I was reminded, watching the class at Kattankudy, of what three school principals in Mutur had told me when I visited the place in 2008. They each, Muslim and Sinhala and Tamil, ran a small school, each suffered from teacher shortages. They could not understand why they could not have a single school for all the children of the area, one that would require fewer teachers, and which could then be developed in a consolidated manner. All three noted that they would be in favour of English medium, because that would bring the students together even more effectively. But, while that would be difficult, except in perhaps one or two subjects, bringing the students together in the same school, even if in different streams, would do so much to limit the sense of alienation that has been built up over so many decades.

Kattankudy ten years ago reminded one graphically of the problem. Current initiatives however, in bringing people together, suggest how ready solutions are within our grasp.

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