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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Reminiscing on the Two Old Letters from Raveendranath
15 February 2008
On 22 February 2008, my friend Sivasubramaniam Raveendranath (born in 1951) would have marked 57 years, with his dear ones. Since his unfortunate and contemptible abduction in Colombo on December 15, 2006, evidence has piled up that he is not alive now. Whether he was alive on 22 February 2007 is also in doubt now. As such, I pen this eulogy to him with a heavy heart.
In the post-independent Sri Lanka, Raveendranath was the third vice chancellor of a university to lose his life violently. In 1989, the JVP’s violent-prone anarchists had assassinated Prof. Stanley Wijesundara (the then Vice Chancellor of Colombo University) and Prof. C. Patuwathavithana. Of these two Sinhalese academics, Prof. Wijesundara was my biochemistry professor during 1973-74 when I was an undergrad. I don’t know anything about the credentials of Prof. Patuwathavithana. The reason for me mentioning these two names will become evident towards the end of this eulogy. I became acquainted first with Raveendranath as a batch mate in our pre-university period, during 1970-71 at the Aquinas University College, Borella.
Two Letters in 1992
Like a bolt from the blue, on May 18, 1992, I received a letter from the Eastern University, Sri Lanka. It was dated 6.5.92 [i.e., 6 May 1992]. The sender was Dr. S. Raveeendranath, then holding the position of “Head/ Agronomy” at this university. At that time, I was affiliated to the Osaka Bioscience Institute. The main details of the letter were as follows:
I was not sure, about to which Professor Bala, Ravi was referring to. There was Prof. S. Balasubramaniam (botanist) at the University of Peradeniya. I was a student of this soft-spoken Professor and expert on the indigenous plants of Sri Lanka, during 1977-78. Then, there’s Prof. K. Balasubramaniam (hard-working biochemist, with the endearing moniker ‘Coconut Bala’, since he researched and published on the biochemistry of coconut sap and liquor!), who had been at the universities of Peradeniya, Colombo and later Jaffna. This Prof. Bala, known to my father, was a mentor to me as well. In those pre-internet days, obituary messages from the island got transmitted via post and took time for clarification as well. I sent a reply to Ravi, dated May 22, 1992. The main details were as follows:
To this letter of mine, Dr. Raveendranath responded promptly with a letter dated 09.06.1992 [i.e., 9 June 1992]. It reached Osaka on June 18, 1992. The main details were as follows:
I sent my reply to Raveendranath on June 20, 1992. The main details were as follows:
I felt sad that I couldn’t be of more help to find a suitable placing for Ravi in any of the universities in Japan. Then (as an exiled scientist holding a Sri Lankan passport), even my professional situation in Japan was rather tenuous. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear from Raveendranath after this for a long time. The reason was understandable. I came to know subsequently that Lady Luck had smiled at Ravi somewhat belatedly and he was one of the recipients of the Commonwealth academic staff fellowship which allowed him to spend his 1994-95 sabbatical year at the Natural Resource Institute in the United Kingdom.
Though we were not in touch via letters or phone calls, I had keenly followed the ascent of Ravi in the academic/administrative ranks to the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University and thereafter, until his abduction on December 15, 2006 in Colombo. I sympathized with his agony and ecstasy. I mildly surprised him when I talked to him on phone in November 2006, a couple of weeks before he was abducted. We also exchanged a couple of emails between that phone conversation and his abduction.
Spurious Concern from the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka
Last year, I was somewhat annoyed by the spurious concern exhibited by the fellow Sri Lankan academics belonging to the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL), the so-called “high level, non-governmental scientific body” of nearly 200-odd ranking academics of the island.
In its home page, I read the message of concern on the abduction of Raveendranath, that was filled with politically correct display of names, in addition to that of my friend.
First thing to note was that, Raveendranath was not an elected member of this Academy of political Poo-Bahs. Secondly, I noted that the poster models of “LTTE terrorism” (Rajani Thiranagama and Neelan Tiruchelvam) were tagged in this spurious message of concern for Raveendranath’s plight.
This selective recitation of Tamil names, at the expense of Raveendranath was somewhat nauseating to me. Inclusion of the names of Tamil victims at the hand of Sinhalese hooligans such as Dr. Somasunderam Rajasundaram (killed at the Welikade jail on July 27, 1983) and Dr. Kathamuthu Visvaranjan (killed near the Palaly Army base in May 1987) was equally nauseating to the Poo-Bahs of NASSL.
Thirdly, though I grant that Dr. Rajani Thiranagama and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam were academics of some standing, both never held the vice chancellor rank of a university; and, both were not even elected to the membership of this NASSL.
Fourthly, in that spurious message of concern on Raveendranath, no mention was made to the 1989 assassinations of Prof. S.Wijesundera and Prof. C. Patuwathavithana by the JVP ultra-anarchists.
An Institution Builder
As he himself had admitted in his 1992 letter, Ravi’s track record as a publishing scientist “is not an outstanding one”. But this certainly is not a proper reflection on the professional career of Ravi, which had been abruptly snuffed out by the anti-social elements flamboyantly promoted by the powerful ruling coterie.
When in 1992 Ravi confided in me that “You cannot expect anyone to do meaningful research under these circumstances.” I hardly doubted his sincere truth. What he stated is an open secret that gets published in Colombo dailies by practicing scientists, but under a cover name, for obvious reasons of rebuke and rebuff. Here is an excerpt from 2001, which I had saved in my files, contributed by a “Special Correspondent”, who began his complaint with a qualifier, “As a practicing scientist of over 35 years standing and nearing retirement, science is a serious matter for me.” There is no doubt that this ‘Special Correspondent’ was a Sinhalese. To quote, one paragraph,
When the political scums rule the roost, it is hardly of worth to speak about scientific progress. And there had been one or two ‘foreign-returned’ evangelists among the Tamil academics who back-scratched the political scums, to promote themselves as messiahs of higher education and after getting anointed themselves as vice chancellors, made a hasty return flight to their pleasure havens while wailing ‘death threats to family’. Compared to these joker-nonstarters, having selflessly devoted his 25-year career for the development of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka since 1981, Ravi’s track record as an institution builder is exemplary and tough to match by Tamil folks like us, who have spent a quarter century or more in relatively safe niches.
I check the names of academics listed under the one-page description for ‘Batticaloa University College’ in the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook 1983, vol.3. The information available in a one-page [page 2126] description –as “information compiled as at 19/10/82” – provides the names of following academics who planted the foundation stones for higher education in Eastern Eelam.
These 22 academics belonging to the two Faculties (Science and Agriculture) were in charge of the inaugural batch of 77 undergraduate students (57 men and 20 women), who were admitted in Oct. 1981.
Also of note was the fact that among the 22 academics, only four (S. Rajaratnam, U. Coomaraswamy, D.R.M. Walton and M. Sabaratnam) held professor ranks.
Of these four, I had the privilege of being the student of academics Uma Coomaraswamy and Mano Sabaratnam at the University of Colombo between 1972 and 1975. Among the 22 academics who were in the faculty roster of the Batticaloa University College in 1982, Ravi had the distinction of being the young academic who commenced his professional career as an Assistant Lecturer at the Batticaloa University College and ended his life as the Vice Chancellor of the same institution.
Long live the dreams of Sivasubramaniam Raveendranath.