University links between the island's Tamils and south India began over 150 years ago, but were largely disrupted by Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-first policies after independence.
While Madras University welcomed students from across the world, it was a ‘double delight’ to open its doors to Sri Lankan Tamils, Dr. G Thiruvasagam told the visiting students’ inaugural session.
“The doors of the Madras University are always open to these students and they could use our services and infrastructure anytime and for workshops of a longer duration too,” he later told media.
In travelling to Madras, the students are rebuilding the long-standing scholarly links with the subcontinent.
C. W Thamotheram Pillai (1832-1901), a native of Jaffna, was one of the first students to graduate from the University of Madras after it was founded in 1857.
Pillai then pursued a career as a civil servant in India whilst also contributing immensely to Tamil literary studies by publishing and editing Tamil literary works.
Later, as the demand for higher education grew amongst the island’s Tamils, Jaffna Hindu College was recognised in 1894 by the University of Calcutta as an affiliated college, and was able to offer courses that would lead to an examination in the University’s Bachelor of Arts programme.
In 1896, two other Jaffna schools, Victoria College and Mahajana College, were similarly granted affiliation status.
However, the Sinhala-first policies pursued in Sri Lanka after independence sought - successfully - to sever the longstanding intellectual and cultural links between Jaffna and the subcontinent.
This isolation became well institutionalised in the 1970’s when the SLFP government of Srimavo Bandaranaike heavily censored and restricted the flow of Tamil films, music, popular culture and even saris from south India.
That government also tore up the British-supplied constitution and replaced it with today’s majoritarian constitution – changing the country’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka.
In an infamous episode in 1974 the Bandaranaike government insisted the World Tamil Conference being held for the first time in the island, be staged in Colombo, not Jaffna.
The organisers refused and the event began as planned in Jaffna. The government ordered riot police to storm the awards ceremony on the last day and in the encounter nine people were killed.