Sri Lanka: From segregated education to secular education

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N. Sathiya Moorthy  28 May 2018

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe deserves kudos for even belatedly realising the need for ‘secular education,’ especially at the school-level. 

Though not termed as such, his two-year deadline for the proposed conversion from the present education scheme “based on language and religion” could mean that much water would have flown down that path, and watered down what could be watered down – if at all it could be taken forward at that stage in the Nation’s politico-electoral career.

“Religion and language will no longer be the criteria for setting up schools,” Premier Wickremesinghe was reported to have said, speaking at the National Education Diploma Award ceremony at ‘Temple Trees,’ recently. 

Even if his declaration had to wait for the Easter carnage a month ago, secularisation of school education is both a medium and long-term effort at securing the Nation, the people and the Sri Lankan State per se from the evil effects of what is now ‘secluded, segregated education’ of the present.
For a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual Nation, Sri Lanka has a near-unique school education system. Though the Tamil ethnic group comprises Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, and a common language, they often have separate schools, neighbourhoods. Also, it is not as if Islamic madrasas alone exist in the country, teaching religion. There exist with State patronage, blessings, and funding, Sinhala-Buddhist ‘Daham Pasals,’ for religious education for students from the majority community.


As religious groups, Hindus possibly have no equivalent to a Daham Pasala or madrasa, other than those that teach religious scriptures for interested children – or, children of interested parents. Often, these informal, non-mandatory classes are conducted on the premises of Hindu kovils on Sundays.


That the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, their State apparatus and Media should ‘nationalise,’ the universal English term ‘temple’ for a place of worship for non-Abrahamic faiths in South Asia, should go to show how much work Premier Wickremesinghe should do, to change mindsets, if he really meant it.


Face covers


Incidentally, the Government has banned face covers for (Muslim) women after the Easter Blasts, but chose to overlook the saffron worn by Buddhist monks. After all, the monk robe could be equally misused by miscreants. After all, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot dead by a Buddhist monk, though in that case it was not the colour of the attire, but of the ideology that made the distinction.


It’s like the ‘Sunday schools’ for Christian youth, which too are there in the country, as elsewhere. While the ‘Sunday school’ for Christian children is a social norm, it is not so with Hindu scripture classes in Sri Lanka, or wherever Sri Lankan Tamil-Hindus have migrated.


Given possibly the early dress code for Muslim girls, which of course is returning to the country, as to most of the world where it was not mandatory either under social practices or State laws, their schools in Sri Lanka too were/are separate and secluded, to an extent. But then, religious tags for Hindu and Christian schools has also come to stay. This is equally so in communities and regions where Tamil ethnicity, or Sinhala identity is otherwise supposed to be dominant.


Old boys’ network


The less said about Sri Lanka’s very own elite schools, or the schools where every parent – rich or poor, educated or otherwise – would want his own children to study. It is thus that the Sri Lankan educational system satisfied its own institutional ego, not by opening up new universities for higher education, but by re-naming secondary schools as ‘colleges.’


Therefore, for no fault of theirs, the annual ‘Battle of the Blues,’ a cricketing tourney between two ‘elite’ Colombo schools are fought as if the students were battling for national pride and honour. The height of such claims to collective pride is that the standard declaration that the ‘Battle of the Blues’ continued through the Second World War, and the decades-long ‘Eelam Wars,’ when alumni from across the world would time it and gather, in separate tents and enclosures, partying through the night and days, if not weeks.


It may have been a hand-me-down identity crisis for the pre-Independence ‘natives’ officers of the Armed Forces, whose officers may have done their military courses at Sandhurst and the rest, and identified with the British ways of life. But then, even those seen as ‘conservative colleges’ in the Nation’s urban milieu, supposed to be founded on religious principles seem to have only taught their wards selective nationalism and national pride of a majority/majoritarian view. Here again, birds of a kind have flocked together.


The problem with Premier Wickremesinghe’s current proposal is that it only encourages continued segregation of education, based on religious and linguistic identities – or, so it seems. According to Media reports, he recalled at the diploma ceremony how he and the late Education Minister Nissanka Wijeyeratne had ensured that ‘Pirivena’ education or Buddhist ‘Daham Pasal’ religious institutions were monitored by the Pirivena Board of the Education Ministry.


Post-blasts, Muslim Ministers and MPs now want or agreed to ‘madrasas’ being brought under a Muslim education regulation authority of whatever kind and name, again under the Education Ministry, the Premier said. It’s not going to be an easy task, understanding and organising a supervisory mechanism for the madrasas or any other form of religious education institutions in the country, but then the two-year deadline that Premier Wickremesinghe has given the Government could only dilute and destroy the very idea from within.


White threat


Torpedoed, it will be, going by the reported ‘white threat’ being held out by controversial Industry Minister Rishad Bathiudeen. At a Cabinet meeting where his removal from the Government was sought, on allegations that his aides and a brother were interrogated in connection with the ‘Easter Blasts,’ Minister Bathiudeen is reported to have offered to quit, but with the other four MPs belonging to his ACMC. A ‘white threat’ or blackmail it is, and nothing less.


What stands out in Bathiudeen’s case is his reported declaration that he was ready to quit – and with his four other MPs – if Premier Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena asked for the same. If these reports are accurate, then it would seem that neither of the Nation’s leaders have had the courage to ask him to carry out the threat, lest Premier Wickremesinghe’s UNP may lose parliamentary majority, especially before the all-important parliamentary polls, which are due by December.


Yet, even when the Government leaders are silent about the future and fate of Minister Bathiudeen and Eastern Province Governor, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, a personal choice of President Sirisena, the latter has freed controversial, firebrand, anti-Muslim Buddhist cleric, BBS Boss Gnanasara Thera. Even a week ago, when Sirisena granted presidential pardon for other prison inmates on the occasion of the Buddhist holy day of Vesak, his office clarified that Gnanasara Thera’s name did not figure in the list.


Leave aside education and dress code reforms for the Muslims, if this is what the Government has to say on Muslim-baiters when the community is shocked into silence post-blasts, then the Nation is just not heading for community amity. Instead, as in the case of ethnic amity, which was never ever achieved in full despite the minority Tamils voting in this President and Prime Minister, the discomfiture of the Muslims too cannot be discounted in the future.


Window dressing


What the Prime Minister now says is being attempted will only be window dressing of a kind, at best – not even window sales, where at least half of what is inside the store comes out on display. If serious, the Government should be considering measures like applying the ‘neighbourhood policy’ for admission to all schools across the country, where students from a one or two-kilometre radius alone would be allowed to join a ‘local school,’ independent of their religious, linguistic, and/or elitist identities.


Likewise, there may have to be a ‘mixed teacher’ posting policy, wherever it is not there. Thus, teachers from different religious, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds would be working together in the same school, again possibly within a topographical radius, wherever possible. The teachers and the taught thus would have imbibed regional variations and sub-regional preferences for terms and colloquialisms – but it may at least be too much to expect, especially, too soon.


In a Nation where the Sinhala majority take pride in not knowing the minorities’ Tamil language and resent not being proficient in alien English, and the Tamils love to hate Sinhala, too, as a language, but believe they alone have an inherited birthright to learn and know English, the Government will have to do more to make school education as secular as it is universal now. It has to go beyond religious education and separate boards for their supervision. There has to be universal, trilingual education, even if it takes years (but not decades) and there is a unified board for all schools in the country. If Daham Pasals and madrasas have to be there, well they can be overseen by separate boards, but they cannot be allowed to blind their students and the latter’s parents by combining computer education and the like with what essentially is fundamentalist teaching, be it of Buddhist or Islamic faith.


Missed opportunity


The Nation and the Government had the best opportunity to secularise school education when the LTTE war was won, and the  people were ready to eat out of the ruling Rajapaksas’ hand on anything that was on offer on every front. Like on other fronts, it was a missed opportunity for the Government to look at the post-war future, when the Sri Lankan State was becoming well aware of the prospects of religious extremism of the jihadist variety, replacing ethnic terrorism of the LTTE kind.


But for President Sirisena doing away with fifth grade national scholarship examinations, as they were truly discriminatory and inserted egos that need not be there at that young an age, the Government could have thought about immediate alternatives. Maybe, if not now, over a graduated scheme, leading up to the next few years, the fifth grade scholarship examination could have included examinations in all three languages in the country – English, Sinhala, and Tamil, for all students. That is not to be now, or so it would seem, but the Government can explore other avenues and possibilities, still.

The Nation’s Media can play its own small, but significant role in universalising school education. It can stop referring to the alumnus status of those that are either promoted in their jobs, be it the Government or the Armed Forces, which is all but a part of a career process, and might have had nothing to do with the school (‘college’) that they had gone to very long ago. The polity too can contribute, if they really want it, by stopping to fall back on the old boys’ network of the kind for personal growth and prosperity in their chosen field, which is otherwise competitive!

The article appeared in Ceylon Today on 28 May 2019

(The writer is a Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.

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