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Teachers

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Two Sundays ago I wrote in this column about the beheading of French history teacher Samuel Paty, 47, by a Chechen Muslim terrorist. President Emmanuel Macron’s stand is appreciated. He paid sincere tribute to the murdered teacher and vowed to take action against dissidents. At a private ceremony in the Sorbonne University on October 21, President Macron bestowed the country’s highest honour on the family of Samuel Paty. “Paty was a quiet hero,” a visibly moved Macron said in a 15-minute speech. “He was the victim of stupidity, of lies, of confusion, of a hatred of what, in our deepest essence, we are … On Friday, he became the face of the Republic.”

Teachers of long ago

The murder of Paty left indelible marks in my mind though so far removed from France and having no connection nor having seen the Hebdo cartoons that provoked the brutal killing. Pity for Paty brought up mental pictures of some teachers down the years.

I had my entire schooling in a Methodist Missionary school in Kandy. I had the good fortune of having the Irish principal of the school even visit our home. She conducted assembly for the entire school on one day of the week. Remembered clearly is the huge cake she cut when the school celebrated its 60th year – Diamond Jubilee – in the presence of all classes and teachers. She was excellent as a disciplinarian but was more a woman with heart when families suffered deaths like when my father died when I was five years old, having just entered school.

Our teachers, without exception, were excellent. Ethel Wijewardena of the Baby Class was all soft heart, while Miss Sim of Std 2 was stern, strict and feared. Each of the teachers in the higher classes, we recognized had foibles but they were all dedicated; very fair to all students. Some of them stressed more good behaviour than studies. Miss Eva Perera did not go beyond Chapter 2 of a bio of Tagore when I was in Form II since she invariably diverted to the importance of home upbringing, so much so that I wondered whether poor widowed Mother was giving me a good home background! Little did I appreciate her struggle to bring up three older sisters (target of censure by evil conservative aunts) and continue our paid-for education.

Those were the days of modesty. Thus our Sinhala teacher, Miss Paranagama, avoided two stanzas in our text guttila kavya in Form II. Girls more fluent in Sinhala asked her why and we joined the chorus; anything for diversion. We were asked to do the stanzas ourselves and found they described graphically the female body. Miss Olga Wijewardena, so attractive, so upright, so innovative in being a class teacher that she had us form a ‘Help Others’ club in Form IV. During an English Lit class when we were going through Shakespeare’s great tragedy Macbeth, she once got me to take the part of Lady Macbeth while she read Macbeth’s part. I ballooned myself with pride as the best reader until I came to the line: “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”. It dawned on me why the choosing of a co-reader for that particular lesson. Inadequate and inappropriate since the reader, still a surf board was in the envious stage of being confined to vests while some in class had advanced to Maidenform.

Unfortunately teachers who taught the subject Sinhala were generally not liked much. They were forced to be stricter since we miserably lacked interest. Our opinion was justified as regards our SSC Sinhala teacher. Twice a week we had to read Sinhala newspapers while she did her home accounts and then read a British woman’s magazine. What we did behind the raised newspapers I leave you to imagine. She had a standard mark for each child’s essay which came back after correction with not a single red mark, except the expected mark on 10. Mine was 2 ½. Taking up a challenge, I wrote her first name, which we laughed at, twice within the week’s essay. When returning the exercise books she called me to the front of the class. Shivered violently. I was given one mark more – 3 ½. Not a single red mark on the essay. She chased an extra obstreperous girl around the class room with the girl hoisting a chair in defense!

 

Teachers of yesteryear

I know what I am writing about first hand as I was a teacher a while ago. Our teachers, on the whole, tread carefully in their often multiracial and multi religious schools. If they err it is through personal aberrations or plain unfairness and greed. The last two traits are exhibited when they can benefit by giving a student special attention or when some gain is to be made, even a year-end gift. I knew a teacher in a prestigious Colombo school where gifts to teachers were forbidden and only flowers allowed, who used to announce to her class her birthday was approaching and closer to the date would with her “Good morning, children” mention the date. What else could the scared fifth graders do but coax surreptitious gifts from parents?

Recently, I kept coaxing a hardworking, decent three wheeler driver to report to the Child Protection Society his six-year old boy’s class teacher who was obviously sadistic. She once caned the boy for talking to the next child in class while she was teaching, on his face and drew a bloody welt just below his eye. The next time she injured his ear. Complaints to the principal had him saying the matter would be looked into but the eye of supervision was always blind when it came to this teacher with some political influence. Before I took it upon myself to save the kid further psychological damage, he was transferred to another class and became a good student.

 

Teachers in government schools

They range in commitment and concern, both superficial and psychological, like the colours of the visible spectrum from red to violet and all shades between. Before I go to the bad I will mention one co-teacher in a Maha Vidyalaya beyond Galle in which I taught soon after marriage, He was in immaculate white cloth and shervani shirt; knew only a smattering of English but as both a gentleman and dedicated teacher he was excellent. I still cite him as the most genteel, polite and cultured man it was my good fortune to know.

In contrast were teachers who concentrated more on the leave they were entitled to and taking it than teaching or concern for their class children. One teacher teaching English to Grade four kids would get them to stand in a circle outside the staff room and recite ‘Row row row your boat gently down the stream/Merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream’ which they did in diverse styles of pronunciation until the end of the period with her inside the staff room, chatting and munching tidbits! I too got infected with a small bug of laziness, completely obliterated when I joined a private Christian school in Colombo.

In schools, like in government, there is a trickle-down effect, of the bad mostly. Often the good has to be instilled by a strict Principal. Then it is conscientious preparation of lessons with notes written; helping the school in its main aim of encouraging the children and helping them develop all-round personalities. Casual leave taking was completely frowned on and justified since teachers are usually off early and weekends and long holidays punctuate the school year. In such disciplined schools, commitment to the job is inevitable, and more significantly, the teaching and supervising co-curricular activities enjoyed.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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