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Senator A.M.A. Azeez — an introspective analysis

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by C. Narayanasuwami

Remembering Senator Azeez on his 110th birthday- 4th October 2021- brings memories of a great Muslim visionary. He was a great intellectual, an able administrator, an erudite scholar and an accomplished educationist whose multiple services to the nation and to the Muslim community in particular, are well documented. His life provides stimulating examples of challenges and successes in varied areas of human development. I will have occasion to refer to his notable achievements in the subsequent paragraphs. Before doing so I must refer to the beautiful story of how I came into contact with him and how he became an ardent sponsor and supporter of my educational journey.

My association with Senator Azeez deserves to be written in gold. I was 16-years old when I first came to know him. I studied at Jaffna Hindu College (JHC) where I did my primary and secondary schooling. Senator Azeez too was an old boy of this College. He was born in the same village as mine – Vannarponnai, Jaffna – the citadel of Arumuga Navalar, the beacon of Saivaism. Being a resident of Vannarponnai, his knowledge and understanding of the teachings of Arumuga Navalar were unbelievably high so as to enable him to pontificate on the teachings of this great saint at popular seminars. It is here he imbibed his excellent knowledge of Jaffna Tamil customs and key insights into Tamil cultural mores and traditions. Being a Jaffna Muslim of impeccable background and character it obviously came naturally to him.

Senator Azeez was educated at two reputed Hindu schools, Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and Jaffna Hindu College, where he proved to be a brilliant student. He was proud of these schools and with the guidance and training received under distinguished teachers he excelled in Tamil and Hinduism. He had this to say about his days at Vaidyeshwara, “I now feel thrice-blessed that I did go to Vidyalayam and nowhere else. My period of stay, February 1921 to June 1923, though pretty short quantitatively was extremely long qualitatively. It was at Vidyalayam that I became first aquainted with the devotional hymns of exquisite beauty and exceeding piety for which Tamil is so famed through the ages and throughout the world”.

He entered the University College in 1929. He was an Exhibitioner in History and graduated with Honours in History from the University of London in 1933. On being awarded the Government Arts Scholarship, he went to Cambridge but returned after a term on his success at the Ceylon Civil Service examination – the first Muslim recruit to the Civil Service.

My mother passed away in 1948 and my father who was everything to me then wanted me to join the Jaffna Hindu College Hostel after my Senior School Certificate (SSC) results to pursue Higher School Certificate (HSC) studies – this was largely aimed at weaning me away from grieving and depressing thoughts at home. Being the only son he wanted me to pursue my higher studies without interruption. Soon after I joined the JHC hostel I was elected as the secretary of the HSC Hostel Union because of my long connections with the school from 1943.

In that capacity I invited Senator Azeez as the Chief Guest for our annual hostel union dinner in 1952. It has been the practice of the HSC hostel union to invite distinguished old boys of JHC to officiate as chief guests. It is interesting that I was able to find a copy of the invitation for the dinner in one of my personal folders safely locked away with cherished documents pertinent to my educational and professional career – I discovered this by chance when searching for documents after I received a request from Ali Azeez, the illustrious son of a great father, to write about my association with Senator Azeez.

Senator Azeez readily agreed and came and conquered! After the ceremonial speeches and address by the Chief Guest he called me to a side and asked whether I have relations in Colombo and if so why I should not join Zahira College to continue my HSC studies. Taken aback at this sudden and unexpected proposition I told him that my father would not be happy to be separated from his only son. He insisted that he would like to speak to my father and asked me to arrange a meeting with him. I agreed and introduced my father to him. He spoke to him in excellent Tamil and told him to send me to Zahira to complete the second year of HSC from where he thought I would be able to enter the university.

My father was taken aback but finally agreed because he was unable to resist his request. This brought me to Colombo Zahira College where I did my HSC and entered Peradeniya university as a direct entrant; during those days there was a two-tier entry procedure for university admission-students who did well were granted direct entry without going through a viva voce and those who performed at medium level were subjected to a viva voce process. Senator Azeez was extremely pleased at my performance and made special mention of it at the school assembly.

I completed my degree in 1959 and went to pay my respects to Senator Azeez. He asked me to join the College as a teacher. I told him that I would be sitting for the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) Examination and may require some free time. His response was amazing – he said that it would be great and encouraged me to teach while preparing for the examination. In March 1960 I was selected as one of the eight successful CCS candidates. It is difficult to express in words the satisfaction and happiness that Senator Azeez displayed on hearing his college student’s achievement. He organised a special school assembly and congratulated me in the presence of all his staff and the entire student community. It is rarely that you find such a dedicated, adorable and affectionate humanist and educationist.

I have often wondered how fortunate I was in having known and associated with such a wonderful human being who displayed so much empathy, kindness and love. I am reminded of the great philosopher, scholar and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell who said, “The most valuable things in life are not measured in monetary terms. The really important things are not houses and lands, stocks and bonds, automobiles and real estate, but friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith”. Among others, Senator Azeez believed in cultivating good friendships and fostering love and trust among all communities in Sri Lanka.

In retrospect, the turning point in my life started with my shift to Zahira College leaving a reputed Hindu institution in Jaffna which had earned a name for high university admissions. This had kept me wondering why the events moved so fast in this direction and what the magnetic appeal that Senator Azeez had in converting me and my father to a life changing decision. To this day I cannot find an answer except to hypothesise that intellectual outlook, empathy and trust as stated by Bertrand Russell, as well as mesmerising approaches to human relationships, influence people, leaving an enduring impact on their lives.

My association with him continued till his death. His thirst for knowledge and interest and proficiency in both English and Tamil literature drew him closer to me. I had a special liking for him for his excellent knowledge of Jaffna Tamil customs and traditions. His spoken and written Tamil represented the pure Jaffna Tamil dialect which was the envy of even Tamil professors who considered him a scholar of high repute. His oratorical skills, whether in Tamil or English, attracted many followers. What was significant was his ability to articulate clearly and effectively his ideas and thoughts on important subjects in both English and Tamil.

I have had many discussions with him on selected subjects in both English and Tamil literature and Hinduism. Unbelievably his knowledge of Hinduism was thorough as he would recite Thiruvasagam like a Hindu. Late Sivagurunathan, (editor, Thinakaran), late Prof. Sivathamby (both past students of Zahira) and I used to visit his house at his request for various discourses and discussions on scholarly subjects. I vividly remember those days when he would meticulously argue his case for a certain position in literary criticism and expect all of us to agree with his stand. When we disagreed he would slowly mellow down and accept an agreed stand. While healthy debates went on, his lovely wife and children entertained us, not to mention the delicious ‘wattalappam’ served during Ramadan days! His scholarly approaches to analysing Islam, Arabic/Tamil religious literature and his contribution to Muslim culture were indeed exemplary.

Senator Azeez was a remarkable human being who sacrificed the power, glory and fame associated with the then Ceylon Civil Service for uplifting the cause of Muslim education – this is unparalleled in Sri Lankan history. Being the first Muslim civil servant he had before him a glorious future in the public service, but the call of duty to his community and more specifically, to their educational and cultural renaissance, propelled him to assume the leadership of Zahira College. This decision elevated him to the position of a community leader with intrinsic interest in uplifting their place in the larger multicultural society of Sri Lanka.

During the 13 years he served as Principal of Zahira, the College achieved significant elevation in educational standards and university admissions. One does not need additional proof to show his dedication and commitment to building up Zahira if one considers the circumstances under which he scouted for students of all communities based on their prospective educational accomplishments – my case is an example. He had the intuition, charisma and foresightedness to build a premier Muslim college which he in his later years wanted to transform into a cultural university-unfortunately this did not materialise due to petty jealousies and rivalry which always hinder progress in any society. Sir Razik Fareed, another great Muslim leader, had this to say, “I am personally aware that Azeez has done more for Zahira than any other single individual. He sacrificed his CCS job for the sake of the community and for the sake of Zahira”.

As Principal of Zahira, Senator Azeez’s leadership, following the successful tenure of Dr. T.B. Jayah, was unrivalled as he rode like a Colossus to make the College excel not only in education, but sports, including Rifle shooting, and other socio-cultural activities. The painstaking efforts he made to build a sound library was evident when I prepared for the university entrance and the CCS examinations. He built up a dedicated team of teachers and succeeded in sending over 150 students to the one and only university in Sri Lanka then. With such accomplishments it is no surprise that his period as principal was hailed as the golden era of Zahira.

Senator Azeez’s zeal for Muslim education took different paths. His multi-pronged attempts to lift the quality of education among Muslim children is borne out by the initiatives he took to establish the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund. The success achieved in building up this Fund for future generations, which is well documented, was a worthwhile and indispensable effort greatly appreciated by succeeding generations of Muslim children. He did not stop with this. He was instrumental in promoting and establishing Young Men’s Muslim Associations (YMMA) throughout the country.

Senator Azeez’s services were well recognised by the country, and even before the time of the first prime minister, D.S. Senanayake, he played a pivotal role in government’s development activities, including food production programs commenced during war times, public services and institution building. He was rewarded when he was nominated to the Senate where he served three terms and was subsequently appointed as a member of the Public Service Commission.

As a Tamil with no racial bias or cultural inhibitions, I am proud to state that Senator Azeez stood high and tall as a trusted statesman and an erudite scholar among all communities. While fostering education of the Muslims he encouraged the admission of children from other communities to Zahira. He was an enthusiastic sponsor, supporter and participant of Tamil and Muslim conferences to propagate the essence of key Tamil literary master pieces such as Thirukkural, Thiruvasagam, Kamabaramayanam, Purananuru and Silappadiharam, in the wide world of Tamil literature. His interest in Arabic-Tamil publications was somewhat unique as there were few in his time who had the knowledge and interest in this area. His interest in literary pursuits resulted in a number of publications which have been listed elsewhere.

Senator Azeez was a jewel of a human being. I dedicate this piece to a great scholar and humanist who served as a great mentor, trusted friend, a close guide, and a well-wisher for several years until his untimely death in 1973. Cherished memories of him will live forever in the hearts and minds of all who loved him unreservedly.

(C. Narayanasuwami was a student and later a teacher at Zahira College during the Azeez era. He entered the University of Ceylon from Zahira and graduated in 1959. In 1960 he joined the Ceylon Civil Service and later worked for the UN and the Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines in senior capacities. He retired as a director level professional of the Asian Development Bank in 1996).



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Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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