Dr A M A AZEEZ, BIRTH CENTENARY ORATION
POST- COLONIAL IDENTITY DILEMMA OF THE MUSLIMS OF SRI LANKA
By Rauff Hakeem, LLM, MP, Minister of Justice
October 4, 2011
DR A M A Azeez Foundation
47/2, Fredrica Road, Colombo 6
Visionaries, it is said, are builders of new dawns with their insights and boldness. In the field of education in Sri Lanka, although several have made their mark as leading educationists, only a rare few were privileged to emerge as visionaries-ones who brightened up the lives of others with their insights.
Aboobakkar Mohammed Abdul Azeez, born in Vannar Ponnai, Jaffna on the 4th of October 1911, whose birth centenary is commemorated today, was an eminent scholar, and a great humanist. Above all, he was a devout Muslim who was totally dedicated to the wellbeing of his people and their future in Sri Lanka. He epitomized the multicultural values of Sri Lanka. To read his writings and speeches today is to read a retrospective indictment of the generations of leaders of all communities who followed him.
I make this statement not as an indictment of our leaders of independent Sri Lanka, but as an expression of the deep sense of anguish I felt when I started to read A M A Azeez. His aspirations for his community and, his vision of a multi-cultural and tri lingual nation were rooted in his abiding love of our island home. He had a clear vision. He foresaw the perils of post-independence pit falls on the path ahead. His towering intellect made him a comfortable cosmopolitan in a pluralist society which the devoutness of his faith strengthened.
My predecessor in office, the Late Honourable Sir Lalitha Rajapakse who followed Dr A M A Azeez after he delivered his maiden speech in the Senate on the 25th February, 1953 has this to say:
“The speech was not only elegant but was also full of fresh ideas. One knows that the Hon. Muslim Senator was, until recent times, a brilliant star in our administrative firmament and that he answered the call of his community and the country. He made a bold sacrifice, which very few people had made before to espouse the cause of education and culture. It is a great pleasure to have him in our midst. His maiden speech, which was not only couched in beautiful language but was also replete with fresh ideas, is a foretaste of what is to come. I feel sure that this honourable House is the richer by his presence. The Hon. Senator’s speech was both illuminating and incisive. Let us only hope – and I say it in all sincerity- that my Hon Friend will make more contributions to debate in this House in times ahead.”
These comments by Sir Lalitha Rajapakse were certainly not meant to flatter the unflappable Dr A M A Azeez. Reading through, ‘A collection of speeches’ made on the subject of education, leaves me in no doubt that not only was he an orator par excellence, but he was also a man of vision and a courageous one at that.
The subject that has been assigned to me today is “Post-Colonial Identity Dilemma of Sri Lankan Muslims”. Although I concurred with the Azeez Foundation on the topic at the time, I feel, having read his collection of speeches and writings that it would be more meaningful if I restricted myself to the context of the identity dilemma in Muslim education rather than deal with the whole dimension of political identity.
I consider it a great privilege to have been invited by the A M A Azeez Foundation to deliver the oration on the occasion of the birth centenary which falls today. Dr Azeez himself had a similar honour bestowed upon him by the Moors Islamic Cultural Home on the occasion of the birth centenary of the late I L M Abdul Azeez on the 27th of October 1967.
Quoting from Dr Azeez’s own address on that occasion, I am inclined to take the same approach to reflect upon the life and times of Dr Azeez and the impact of his incisive and intellectually accurate observations and predictions on succeeding events. He said:
“The current controversies that engaged his contemporaries, and co-religionists, controversies some of them born of jealousy, some characterized by acrimony, some of both, some fruitless and of no value and yet some pregnant with consequences of far reaching import, all of them have alike receded into history.”
And today we who live at this distant date are possessed of the hindsight that would enable us to deal with the events of his life and his period, detachedly and objectively, to separate the wheat for the chaff, to distinguish the essentials from the non-essentials. We are therefore, in a position to appraise justly the role of Abdul Azeez in the history of modern Ceylon.
Dr Azeez commenced his early education at the Allaipichchai Madrasa followed by the Mohammediya Mixed School where he studied in the Tamil Medium until Standard 3, and then continued in English. From there he entered the Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and later Jaffna Hindu College, where one of his illustrious classmates was the late C Vanniasingham. He graduated from the Jaffna Hindu College to enter the University College (in Colombo). He graduated in 1933 with Honours in History and won a scholarship to follow a postgraduate course in History at the University of Cambridge. Before he could complete his postgraduate studies, he learnt of his success at the Ceylon Civil Service Examination. He returned to Ceylon to become the first ever Muslim to enter the Ceylon Civil Service.
The Ceylon Muslim League felicitated the rising star of the Ceylon Muslim Community at the Galle Face Hotel on the night of 13th April 1935. The Muslim leaders discovered that they were not merely hosting an ambitious young Civil Servant in the service of the Empire but rather a man with a great concern for his people. Apologizing profusely to his hosts Dr Azeez told his audience: “…the fact that I am the only Muslim in that service should at once make us ask ourselves the question why it is so and remind ourselves of the great backwardness of our community in the sphere of education.
To Dr Azeez, the Civil Service was not an end. It was a means to an end that was to find shape and substance in the years that followed. He viewed the subject of education not only of the Muslims but also of the other communities of colonial Ceylon with empathy. He also correctly read the direction of the trajectory of education in Post-Colonial Ceylon. Reading A M A Azeez on language, education and identity, I realized how brave he was in his solitary pursuit of his dream of a pluralist Sri Lanka through the simple expedient of a quality education to all communities.
When President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University his acceptance speech was on a remarkable subject. It was on Intellectuals in politics.
“It is my profound conviction that the world requires today, more than ever-enlightened, thoughtful politicians who are bold and broad-minded enough to consider those things that lie beyond the scope of their immediate influence…”
I hear the usual objection to this that a politician must be elected, and people vote for the person who thinks the way they do. So, a politician must, whether he likes it or not, be mainly an embodiment of the prevailing sentiment or of particular short-term interests.He cannot be a herald of unpopular truths or of something which may be in the interests of the future of humanity but which most of his electorate regard as a threat to their current pursuits.
Dr Azeez was not afraid to be the herald of unpopular truth. His interest was indeed the future of humanity. He was the unapologetic Iqbalian. Permit me to quote:
“The strength of the West is due to knowledge and science.
Her lamp is a light from this fire only.
Knowledge does not depend on the style of your garment.
And a turban is no obstacle to the acquisition of knowledge. “
“Arts and Sciences, O Lively and eager youth,
Require keen intellect not western clothes,
What is needed in this quest is Vision,
Nor this or that particular head dress!
If you have a subtle intellect and a discriminating mind
They would suffice to guarantee success. “
It is indeed ironical and in a sense though it may have been co-incidental that Marhoom Dr Azeez took over as Principal of Zahira College in 1948, the year of our independence. His 13 year tenure as its Principal was no doubt an epoch making period in raising that institution to great heights from where Dr T B Jayah had begun
Before I proceed further on the subject of Education in the context of post-colonial Identity dilemma, I must share with you some of the profound observations made by Dr Azeez on issues that still remain in the realm of controversy and debate. Post Sinhala-only legislation the following questions were raised: What should be the status of the Tamil Language in Sri Lanka? What should be the status of the English Language? What is the Muslim Identity? What is the Muslim Mother Tongue? This great Muslim Intellectual identified this issue with a clinical detachment that reminds us of the paradox of Plato. “Can Philosophers be Kings?
Participating in the debate on the address of thanks to the throne speech on 8th May, 1956 he said that his prayers and hopes were for a multi-lingual and multi- Religious State.
“We were at one time hoping that Ceylon would have two official languages, Tamil and Sinhalese, throughout the Island but unfortunately for us and of the Tamil language, the Sinhalese people, it is not merely the power seeking politicians as one would say, but the Sinhalese people by and large – it is my feeling and it is the considered view of many Muslims – have convinced themselves that parity of status cannot be obtained without parity of strength. They think, may be groundlessly, may be their fears are exaggerated, but I think they sincerely are of the belief that the Sinhalese language cannot survive if parity of status is granted to Tamil. I am not saying that this is the correct view, but I am saying it seems to me to be the sincerely held view”.
The post- colonial Sinhala affirmative politics to A M A Azeez was both incongruous and inevitable.
Dr Azeez’s passionate, lengthy and laborious arguments in the Senate when the Official Language Bill was debated, was a testimony to his courage and eloquence. Given the euphoria and the emotive sentiments roused in people with a host of Muslim leaders from the south taking the path of least resistance, Dr Azeez realized that the topic of Official Language could not be discussed without stepping on toes.
In my experience, the only way to avoid stepping on toes is to stand still. The character of Dr Azeez was such, that he was very embodiment of forward movement. He begins his speech on the official languages Bill in the Senate on the 3rd July, 1956 with this rejoinder to the Leader of the House, “the Hon’able Leader characterized this Bill as a ‘Simple Bill’. And quite a simple bill. I may say that in the history of legislatures past and present of the entire world, this is probably the shortest of bills ever introduced. But fraught with the gravest of consequences”.
There are three vital postulates from his speech that is worthy of note. Firstly, he argues that the abandonment of Tamil by Muslims of the south and central Ceylon would almost cut them off from the Muslims of the North and East. Then he goes on to argue that such a decision would deny them the benefit of the Islamic Tamil literature produced in South India and would make it difficult for the theological institutions in Ceylon to function effectively. Thirdly, he warned that the abandonment of Tamil would definitely destroy the solidarity of the Community and considerably weaken its political power.
He bemoaned the misfortune that there is an impression in the minds of some distinguished people that the Muslim Community is the least affected by the language problem. He was certainly a much relieved man when the then Government brought in the Tamil Language (Special) Provisions Bill which came to be enacted virtually conceding the disastrous sentimental folly of the original Official Language Bill. In a sense, the Government was atoning for its mistake, though somewhat belatedly. His persuasive arguments, I note, are always interspersed by very relevant quotations which lend weight to his points of view. In the course of his speech in the Senate on this occasion he quoted Prime Minister Nehru of India who warned against the communalism of the majority as reported in the ‘Morning Times’ on 12th May 1958:
“The communalism of the minority was dangerous, but it petered out sometime or other. But the communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority because it wears the garb of nationalism. We have this communalism ingrained in us, and it comes out quickly at the slightest provocation, and even decent people began to behave like barbarians when this communalism is roused in them”.
The next quotation he relies on, further garnishes his arguments on the official languages special provisions Bill is even relevant to the present times; he quotes the then Indian Minister of Scientific Research and Culture, Humayun Kabir on the subject of group identity at a seminar on National Unity versus Group Isolation as reported in the periodical Quest:
“Minorities are generally more sensitive about the retention of their separate character. Majorities do not generally insist on such retention, because they know that greater uniformity is likely to lead to the acceptance of their way of life by the minority rather than vice versa. This is one of the main reasons why religious minorities are so anxious to preserve their special traditions and characteristic culture even at the cost of estranging the majority. The same fear is behind the passion exhibited in recent times over the question of the languages of India. It is easy for the majority to press its own point of view under the guise of national interest and dismiss the fears of the minority groups as parochial. One may certainly argue that the larger national interests should always prevail over the interest of a section or group. Unfortunately, however the majority has often a tendency of identifying the national interest with its own interest. There need not be any dishonesty or hypocrisy in such identification, for it is a common human failing – in India and elsewhere – to regard one’s own point of view”.
On Tamil Language and Muslims he stated:
“We are now being called upon by the federalists to solve the problem by accepting the new and novel theory of the existence of a so-called Tamil-speaking nation in Ceylon-quite a different concept from the Tamil-speaking peoples of Ceylon. This theory of the Tamil-speaking nation is historically inaccurate and politically mischievous. It is historically inaccurate because there are at least two distinct Ceylonese communities whose language is Tamil, and they are the Tamils and the Muslims. While language and citizenship unite these two communities, both of them minorities, religion and culture separate them. And let me point out that religion and culture, culture associated with religion plays an important part, a much more important part in the life of the Muslim community than it does in the life of the Tamil community.”
On Tamil as a medium of instruction in schools he says, “Tamil has to be recognized as a medium of instruction throughout the Island because there are Tamil-speaking Muslims living scattered throughout the country. The federal solution is no solution to the Muslims who are Tamil-speaking and who inhabit South, Central and West Ceylon in addition to the North and the East. As a matter of fact, all the previous Governments for many years have been establishing Tamil schools for the Muslim children in those areas and there must be some provision made for them.”
What would be the litmus test to measure the Community’s progress in the post-independence period? To my mind if our middle class is disproportionately smaller than the share of Muslims in the total population that would indicate regression. Reading Azeez and reflecting on his prophetic comments made in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the main obstacles to upward mobility in the south and central Ceylon could be attributed to the decision by succeeding generations of parents to abandon educating their children in their mother tongue at least up to the primary level as strongly advocated by Dr Azeez. I would dare say that lack of courage among succeeding generation of Muslim Leaders to pointedly tackle this issue has virtually forced Tamil into the ghetto. This is more vividly noted in the urban centers of the south.
Take for instance the catchment area of students around this – pardon me for saying this – erstwhile center of excellence for Muslim education – Zahira College. The clamour to get our children into Sinhala medium schools has grown to inestimable proportions in the mistaken belief that it would ensure upward social mobility.
The Four Citizenships of A M A Azeez was a brilliant exposition of the Muslim dilemma of the period of conflict and the post conflict phase of our history.
“It is our conviction that we best serve Sri Lanka not by the abandonment of our culture but by its preservation and promotion, aiming at unity in diversity – political unity in the midst of cultural diversity.” Quoting from a report of a Prize Distribution day at Zahira College, Colombo, he warmed to his theme of unity in diversity. “We are not unmindful of the value of political unity. We believe with Sir Richard Livingstone that” ‘Men are born to four citizenships. They should be able to live as good members of their family, of their community, of their nation, and of the whole human society’. And that ‘many of the world’s troubles can be traced to a failure in one or other of these citizenships – to our never mastering the area of living with others, in the family, in the community, in the nation, in international relations’. We also realize that these four citizenships must co-exist and that the transgression of one of these loyalties must necessarily involve the transgression of the other three. While an Englishman in the United kingdom or an American of Anglo-Saxon descent in the United States could exercise his rights and discharge his duties inherent in these four citizenships through the medium of one single language, namely English, and without the necessity of his having to acquire a knowledge of any other language, we, the Muslims of Ceylon, are in an entirely different and extremely difficult position. To fulfill adequately the obligations cast on us by these four citizenships, we should of necessity acquire a knowledge of four different languages with four different scripts – the four languages concerned being Tamil, Arabic, Sinhalese and English, each of them with a different background of religion and history. In the case of the Ceylonese Malay-Muslims, the problem is further complicated by the presence of still another language-Malay.’’
The farsighted scholar statesman anticipated other Muslim leaders of Asia of recent times. If he did not refer to the age of fiber optics and the information highways of an interconnected world he did come very close to it. On the need to retain English as a language taught in Schools he had no hesitation to be brutally honest. “My own sincere belief is that the total abandonment of English in Ceylon or even the relegation of it to a minor place is altogether undesirable. Our true interests demand bilingualism with English as one of the languages.” He pointed out in a lecture to the Royal Empire Society in 1951 “If English is going to be the medium at the University, English cannot be abandoned as the medium in Secondary Education”. Reading the thoughts of Dr Azeez expressed in 1951 we can understand why BPAs in the first decade of the twenty first century are located in Bangalore and not in Colombo.
English of course was the tongue of the colonial rulers. You may even concede that it was the language that was spoken by both master and slave. Many of the objections against English as the language of education and administration were valid in the colony. It was then an imposition. A M A Azeez was a universalist who had no inhibition to arrive at what he thought was the correct and in the best interest of independent Sri Lanka. This made him ask the rhetorical question “What is the place occupied by the English language in the world of today and whether Ceylon can progress without English?
A M A Azeez was the first Sri Lankan Educationist who framed the question of the language of the departing British in the post- colonial psyche and our inability to come to terms with the realities of the global markets that emerged at the turn of the last century.
With a remarkable premonition, A M A Azeez referred to the report of the Radhakrishnan Commission of India, which pointed out that English is not merely the language of the Englishmen but also of the British Isles, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was taught as a second language in practically all European countries including the USSR and was widely used in Asia.
Mahathir Mohamed says “…. We do not become European simply because we wear a coat and a tie, speak English and practice democracy instead of feudalism. We have to learn the language of international communication, and the language of telecommunications, of computers, of the internet. Learning in English language will reinforce the spirit of nationalism when it is used to bring about development and progress for the country….True nationalism means doing everything possible for the country, even if it means learning the English language.”
Consider the world as it is today. The number of speakers of English is estimated to be over one billion. According to Wikipedia (2006), the top ten English speaking nations are India (350 million), the United Stated of America (251 million), the Peoples Republic of China (250 million), the United Kingdom (60 million), the Philippines (43 million), Germany (36 million), Canada (25 million), Australia (17 million), Pakistan (17 million) and France (16 million). These figures show that the so called native English speakers are far outnumbered by those whom I would call Geo English speakers.
Our failure to recognize the relevance of English that A M A Azeez illustrated with such clarity of purpose has made English the exclusive preserve of the affluent. In the world of education that A M A Azeez inhabited, the University at Cambridge was accessible from Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and Jaffna Hindu College. English was taught in colonial Ceylon. In the post- colonial context after six decades of independence the greatest tribute we can pay him today may be our reluctant admission that English in post -colonial Sri Lanka is a tool of neo- colonial linguistic imperialism.
Why do I say so? I say so because we have failed to domesticate English. It still retains the aura of privilege. It is not so in many other former British colonies. The process of domesticating English demands that the post- colonial practitioners adopt the language in the same manner that English has been shaped and sculpted to fit the environment it has been transplanted in as a first language, in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and as a second language in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and other Commonwealth countries.
What of the future? The visionary educationist in whose honour we are assembled here in this Institution he once adorned says: “There should be at the earliest opportunity one examination where the English medium will be enforced in respect of certain subjects and the Sinhalese or Tamil medium in respect of the rest of the subjects. By this method alone could we ensure equality of educational opportunity both to the city pupil as well as the pupil from backward areas? The claims of English so necessary on utilitarian grounds could thus be harmonized with the claims of Sinhalese or Tamil which is so essential on national grounds. For these reasons, bilingualism should become an essential feature of the New Society of Ceylon where every member will know English in addition to his national language, namely, Sinhalese or Tamil”.
“At this stage we shall have to ask ourselves the question, what is meant by bilingualism? What is the kind of knowledge of English that is required of every individual? And, whether those who are not seeking higher education should be required to possess this knowledge of English?”
Here again he provides an answer that seems to be more relevant to this day than in 1956. He is insistent that bilingualism is not equi-lingualism.
“A bilingualism that is good enough for a salesman is hardly sufficient for a teacher. He need not possess the ability to speak the second language fluently. In the second stage, he will be required in addition to converse intelligibly and fairly fluently in the second language. The accent may not be perfect and the idiom pure. He may not have the ability to write the second language but he will be able to read easy fiction and magazines. Here the second language begins to be an opportunity and new vistas are opened up and the life of the individual enriched. In the third stage, he will possess in addition the ability to write the second language correctly. He need not in writing the second language reach the height of literary excellence but whatever he writes must be free from grammatical and spelling errors and without gross violation of idiom. In the fourth stage, he should in addition possess a correct and convincing power of expression both in writing and speaking the two languages. In the fifth stage, he commands a greater facility and power in the use of both languages than 90% of the people who use either of these languages as their mother tongue. In the sixth stage, he will possess the unapproachable ideal of 100% perfection in both languages”.
A M A Azeez never cringed in resolving the eternal Muslim dilemma. He says “The views of the Muslims may not be quite pleasant either to the Sinhalese or the Tamils, but I am sure they will appreciate that by virtue of our history, by virtue of our geographical distribution, by virtue of the basis on which our community is built, and by virtue of the fact that we have been a minority community from the very beginning and we have been a minority community for the last 450 or 500 years not only from the point of view of numbers but also from the point of view of influence – we are bound to take a slightly different view from the other minorities, or the larger minority community.”
A M A Azeez was explicit in his declaration that as Muslims “We have a distinctive view”. Please bear with me and allow me to recall some great pearls of wisdom given to us by Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, who was the first Minister of Education of Independent India. I quote:
“It was India’s historic destiny that many human races, cultures, and religions should flow to her, and that many a caravan should find rest here… One of the last of these caravans was that of the followers of Islam. This came here and settled for good. In India everything bears the stamp of the joint endeavors of the Hindus and Muslims. Our languages were different, but we grew to use a common language. Our manners and customs were dissimilar, but they produced a new synthesis. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide us can break this unity.”
On this note I wish to conclude by saying that our own great Educationist and Humanist A M A Azeez lived out those words of the same essential humanism. He was the synthesis of the many caravans that reached our island. For him the modernity and the new sciences of his age and the cultural diversity of his environs provided a rich canvass for him to paint his inherited glorious Islamic traditions, To him the word of God was clear. “Those who seek knowledge are the inheritors of the Prophet” – Holy Quran.
Courtesy: Dr A M A Foundation, Colombo, Sri Lanka.