by T. Vehkan
In an annual Prize Giving Day speech at Jaffna St. John’s College, Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole drew on “spirit of The Johnian” in laying out a humanitarian treatise of education. He called on the youth to be empowered by education, envisioning the humanity in all and be able to feel and cry for each other.
“Whether we will ever accomplish an egalitarian Sri Lanka where all can live happily and securely is in your hands, in the hands of you, the youth of our country. You must be empowered by education that aims to teach you your rights and responsibilities in the new world order. Our time, the age of my generation, is seeing the setting of the sun upon us. Tomorrow’s dawn would usher in your time when you lead us,” Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole said.
Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole, of Peredeniya University and member of (UGC), Sri Lanka University Grants Commission (UGC) was appointmented as the new Vice Chancellor (VC) of Jaffna University by Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse, on Thursday March 9.
Holder of DSc London degree – the Prof. has authored several books and articles in engineering. In the nature of a true academic, he has also authored seminal books and papers in the humanities and social sciences to match many an arts professor.
“You must ensure that you do not make the same mistakes that our generation made. Be aware – be warned – that you as our offspring are susceptible to the poisons of communalism, national hegemony and ethnic supremacy that overcame us and ruined our generation.
Prepare yourselves earnestly for your times that will soon be upon us. The key to that preparation is recognising the humanity in all of us and being able to feel and cry for each other.
The spirit of St. John’s must be to prepare the youth for this mission. St. John’s must break out of the typical parochialism of old-boy networks into the new order of multiculturalism. To paraphrase the British Minister for Overseas Development, the Johnian must be world class,” Prof Hoole said at the 2004 annual Prize Giving day of St. John’s College Jaffna.
TW news-features present the full text of Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole’s speech at Jaffna St John’s College for the readers, on hearing the announcement appointing him as the Vice Chancellor of Jaffna University:
The true Johnian Spirit
Full Text of Speech by Prof. S.Ratnajeevan H. Hoole at the St John’s
College, Jaffna – Prize Day, July 2004:
I wish to explore the Johnian spirit – especially what it ought to be. We find old boys of certain schools boasting in the newspapers that their school can be identified based on how they walk. Others take up time at public meetings in vain banter over their school against their rival school, as though the rest of us have nothing to do and are there to admire them.
That surely is not the Johnian spirit. A thoughtful theologian has argued that every organisation is evil because it defines those that are in and, as a corollary therefore, those that are out. That is, if we Johnians are a family, then is a non-Johnian who shares our values not a part of our family? I would like to project Johnians as belonging to a large extended family defined by an international culture of shared values, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism and liberalism.
In the Aims of Education as expressed in Article 29 (1) of the Child Rights Convention, the signatory states agree that the education of a child shall be directed to, inter alia,
a) the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedom b) the development of respect for civilisations different from his or her own c) the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origins; and It is a broad mandate.
I am sure that you are familiar with these rights. What I would like to do is focus on these since they advance a human rights ethos among and through you students who are the future adults and leaders of Sri Lanka. It is very important that you understand these freedoms in all their dimensions. For the wide applicability of these rights and freedoms, you must not only practice them but also demand them.
It is in demanding them that you ensure their availability. In my own public life, it is my experience that in the old order, we administrators tended to decide in favour of those in authority. We continue to do so and need to be pressured to change.
We rarely ask if the decision is reasonable and right; if it is justified. Usually – I can vouch for this from my experience at the highest levels of academe – we take an arbitrary decision and then minute the decision to give the appearance that it is carefully thought out. This is why many of our administrative decisions are over-turned by the courts. Many of us in turn view the courts as a nuisance that prevents us from doing what we want. Too often when we are caught by the courts doing wrong, we appeal and delay so that the changes demanded by the courts happen only after we have left office.
But you I hope will view the courts as friendly agencies acting in our interests, ensuring our rights when we are the underdog, and pushing us towards the right things when we are in authority.
Today, no authority is unlimited. Authority must be exercised as a trust with transparency and reason for the public good. As the new human rights culture takes root, we are increasingly aware of our obligations. But it is an uphill task. Remember that when we decide with reason instead of arbitrariness, it diminishes our powers. We lose the power to exercise patronage. Instead, we must now decide what is best for our organisation. That is, while our own powers are diminished by the rights-based culture, our organisation is enhanced by having the services of the best brains available and by having the best practices practised.
This brings us to some fundamental questions. Why should we enhance the human rights and freedom of others? What is the basis of these rights? What is their rationale?
At a simple level, there is a simple answer. Without a just system of human rights, it would be the law of the jungle. The strongest would take all the goodies and leave out the weak. It would be that abominable law of Nietzsche’s – might is right. We know instinctively that it is a bad thing when the mighty lord it over the meek.
But then, a more fundamental question arises, when we are the mighty living in a world of people whom we do not like, or whom we consider subhuman, why should we give up our rights and privileges?
We might even argue that those under our feet are better off under our loving care as the high-caste argue and justify their lordship over the low-caste. The world of reason would give an answer as to why we should voluntarily give up our arbitrary powers.
It is based on the old adage “The elephant has its moment and the cat too has its.” That is we are not always guaranteed our present positions of might and one day will be superseded by someone else.
Therefore it is far better to set up a system where we will be all right when bad times fall on us and we become the underdog. These are good reasons for human rights. They are in a sense based on self-interest – to ensure a system for ourselves that would respect our rights whether we are up or down – ensure our rights in good times and in bad times.
Be that as it may, this reason may not always convince the powerful who tend to be boisterous. They cannot imagine the day when they are bereft of their present power. In their absolute power, they cannot imagine that day when they might be overtaken by those who today are under them. And in general, arguments based on self-interest do not always carry moral conviction.
These reasons, though good, are not enough.
So we need more to justify human rights. We can appeal to religion to support human rights. But I do not think that a religious reason can have universal appeal in a multi-religious society as ours. Although many argue to the contrary, I think they make the common mistake of saying goody-goody stuff without conviction; without reason. Indeed I can even argue against human rights using religion. I can argue that the Baghavad Geeta’s claim that suffering and happiness are illusions excuses the imposition of pain and suffering on peoples. As Krishna argued, those who were killed were not wronged. So the violation of rights is all right.
I assert my view, unconventional though it might be, that religion in a multi- religious society cannot form a common basis for rights. Any attempt to use religion as a common basis would be counter-productive as the example showed and lead to more division. We need a culturally neutral basis.
Others have argued that the basis of rights is the common good. But what the common good is, is debatable. Indeed there is no common good when 2 persons debate over one’s right to play loud music and the other’s right to quietness for reflection and relaxation. Still others have argued that the rights of the majority should form the basis. Indeed, minorities will reject this outright.
Even if Sri Lanka were a homogeneous society, this would pose problems. The coal power plant in Norachcholai will provide the maximum good for the majority by providing cheap electricity for all Sri Lankans. But those in the locality of Norachcholai would appear to have higher rights when their health is affected even though they too will receive cheap electricity.
My wife and I, in the International Journal of Engineering Education, have argued for social consensus as reflected in human rights legislation and conventions, as a religiously neutral basis for human rights. Even though this cannot be a universal basis when there is no social consensus, in Sri Lanka we are moving towards such a consensus on human rights.
Keeping in mind that the rights of all Sri Lankans to cheap electricity are counterpoised against the rights of the residents of Norachcholai, we have proposed in our paper the concept of a hierarchy of rights.
For example, the right to life of the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, anyone would concede, supercedes the right to vacations with pay in the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. When the two are in conflict, the right to life must prevail.
The hope then is that judicial decisions will in time establish this hierarchy.
When our paper was reviewed prior to publication, an anonymous reviewer objected to judges determining which right of any two is the higher.
These objections have some merit. For in the Sri Lankan situation, one in the North-East could argue that a judge sitting in Colombo, in all probability a Sinhalese, cannot set hierarchies for rights. So even our thesis of social consensus and judicial determinations establishing a basis for human rights, has its weaknesses and flaws. Be that as it may, human rights certainly have the benefit of being the only thing on which all Sri Lankans are agreed and our established commitment to them has been a means of stopping the war.
What I would like to advance now is the idea of empathy – the ability to identify with others’ emotions – as a basis from the heart and a means of promoting rights.
I am sure that many of us would agree that when we hear of thousands dying in an earthquake somewhere, we receive the news blandly, even as entertainment. But when we see on TV, a
mother crying at the site of the earthquake, we feel a tinge of emotion. It is because the pictures have established empathy.
We feel the humanity in the victim. We vicariously feel the crying mother’s pain. That new empathy is brought about through familiarity. The picture of the suffering mother allows us to feel pain vicariously. For we feel we are in her shoes.
And importantly, when the mother or the dead child resembles someone we know, the pain is even greater. When our own child or brother is of the same age as the dead child, the pain is more acute. Thus familiarity with the sufferer, a connexion to the one suffering – this is my thesis – establishes a right to human rights based on our appreciation of the pain that would result when rights are denied.
Let me turn to a Sri Lankan example that we can feel. A Tamil hears of a Muslim baby in the East having its head smashed against a wall or of Sinhalese pilgrims being gunned down in Anuradhapura. For many Tamils, it will be simply news.
Then we hear of the Air Force dropping a bomb on a Church in Araly where Tamil refugees are gathered or Tamils being burnt in Colombo. We feel the hurt and certainly a lot more than when we heard of the Muslim baby or the Anuradhapura pilgrim; even as presumably Sinhalese and Muslims would feel much more pain than Tamils feel when they hear of the pilgrims and the baby respectively.
Or think of routine death due to natural causes. We cry when the deceased is a close one. Indeed we cry even when the deceased is close to someone close to us and we see that someone close to us crying. But we rarely cry when we know the deceased less.
What makes the difference? It is identification with the deceased. It is recognition of the humanity of the sufferer. It is familiarity. We feel that what happened to the victim, happened to us. We easily feel ourselves in the victim’s shoes.
This then I think is the clue to resolving the dilemma posed by the justification of human rights. The basis certainly is emotive: We must be able to feel and cry for each other. If we can justify the other as human just like we are then we cannot deny a better qualified member of the other community a job to give it to a member of our community.
As a clerk at the pensions office, we would not callously ignore a pensioner who is appealing over a delayed pension if we were familiar with the person.
If we recognised the humanity in the other as just like ours, we cannot kill a member of the other community or callously stand by as a member of the other community is killed. We cannot riot and burn in Colombo. We cannot kill innocent pilgrims. We cannot rape women. We cannot smash babies’ heads on walls. We would feel revolted by such action instead of being divided as we presently are, as some of us justify these actions and other decry them.
At a less shocking level, we will never deny a woman a job she badly wants and is qualified for, by dismissing her as a person with no right to aspirations outside of bringing up children. We would never delay pensions or watch as the public waits in lines while we have extended lunch breaks.
We would not react with anger when a snide comment is made about our ethnic community while we laugh when a caste-aspersion is made by a member of our caste on someone of lower standing. We would not be angered by ethnic jokes against us while laughing at ethnic jokes about others. Even though we may hold dearly to our religious faith, we would not dismiss the right of another to worship according to his choice. We would not argue that people have a right to change to our religion but not the right to change from our religion.
These positions need our ability to recognise the humanity in all of us. To empathise with the others. This explains article 29 of the CRC: the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups, and persons of indigenous origins.
How then do we make people feel for those outside their communities? I firmly believe that there are two key ways of making us recognise the humanity in each other.
Education and mixing with each other on a substantive basis are the key. But sometimes gatherings to promote multiculturalism can be an exercise in tokenism at great cost in rupee terms.
The government is famous for flying students from Jaffna into Colombo for a match or something like that. It is a nice event that can make for a nice project report. But it fails to achieve its objects. As the Ombudsman, Justice R. B. Ranaraja has observed the government can easily arrange at no cost for Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese to study in the same school instead of having so many separate schools for them.
My own daughters, three of them, were privileged to study at Methodist College Colombo. All communities study there. Music, English and religion (when it is Christianity which is common to
Sinhalese and Tamils) are taught together in the English medium. They get to know each other intimately. When something happens to one, the others feel. I doubt that any one MC girl will support a member of another community being massacred.
Unfortunately, except for the schools in multiethnic towns like Kandy and Colombo, mixing so as to be able to empathise with each other is not a real option. For the others, the ability to empathise must be built up through the curriculum. The curriculum must be more liberal and less technical.
We must move away from technical education to liberal studies. We must move away from ethnic stereotypes. When school texts misrepresent Tamils and Sinhalese as being from different races, students must be sufficiently informed to be able to ask the right questions in class.
When textbooks and the NEC reports identify Christians as being alien to this land, there must be informed people to ask the right questions. When school textbooks speak of Sinhalese
accomplishments in writing and irrigation as if South Indians did not know of them, informed public opinion must be able to resist this stereotyping. So also when Buddhist accomplishments are assumed to be non-Tamil despite a well- established rich Tamil Buddhist heritage of several
I firmly believe that although we as a nation are sorely divided and badly wounded, the human rights regime that is growing upon us has pulled us back from the brink. We are now in a
self-correcting mode although dark forces are still at work and we have faced several setbacks. To ensure continued success education must be tailored to meet the new rights based mode.
Whether we will ever accomplish an egalitarian Sri Lanka where all can live happily and securely is in your hands, in the hands of you, the youth of our country. You must be empowered by
education that aims to teach you your rights and responsibilities in the new world order. Our time, the age of my generation, is seeing the setting of the sun upon us. Tomorrow’s dawn would usher in your time when you lead us.
You must ensure that you do not make the same mistakes that our generation made. Be aware – be warned – that you as our offspring are susceptible to the poisons of communalism, national hegemony and ethnic supremacy that overcame us and ruined our generation.
Prepare yourselves earnestly for your times that will soon be upon us. The key to that preparation is recognising the humanity in all of us and being able to feel and cry for each other.
The spirit of St. John’s must be to prepare the youth for this mission. St. John’s must break out of the typical parochialism of old-boy networks into the new order of multiculturalism. To paraphrase the British Minister for Overseas Development, the Johnian must be world class.
And for that the Johnian must be world aware. A world aware Johnian would empathise with all and have an extended family of persons of shared values.I wish you God Speed as your generation takes over the rudder of State from us to steer us to that egalitarian land, a land where the sun will never set on human rights.