Chemistry in the time of civil conflict

I’m just back from the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka,  where I had the privilege to deliver a lecture in honour of Professor Sivapathasuntharam Mageswaran, founder of the Chemistry Department at the University. Both UoH and the University of Jaffna were set up around the same time- both children of the mid 1970’s but with very different trajectories… Within a decade, the UoJ was in a battleground- a very real one, with the kind of attrition that is any administrator’s nightmare. Faculty and students left in droves, alternately displaced by one side or the other. Many buildings were destroyed. More than that.

Through two decades or more, Professor Mageswaran steered his Department – that was for much of the time just about three persons- through many battles. Any visitor to Jaffna will be struck by the presence of so much detritus of the civil war, the wastage of three decades of civil conflict, the rebuilding of such a large fraction of the city, reclaiming it, from the debris of war as much as from the ravages of time: Nature conquers what she can, and fast, as the image on the left, from Keerimalai, testifies…

One casualty was his own health: at the age of 56, he was struck down, but not before the department he had formed was firmly rooted. Today, it seems healthy, with about a dozen teachers, a firm plan of starting a Ph D programme soon, and a future that has promise. But the memories of the difficult days stay. My hosts there live, for instance, with a daily reminder of the war that was. In the house that they rebuilt, they left the one wall with bullet and shrapnel holes intact. And those days are indeed never very far away- an old machine gun and unexploded grenade was found in the tailor’s shop opposite their home only last week- clearly left over from twenty or more years ago, but still… It was impossible not to be impressed by the dedication of the University staff. Like most people in the peninsula, the University was caught in the middle of all the violence, but the resilience that they showed in finding the strength to keep going, to continue to teach and educate (especially when it was not clear what horror the next minute might well bring) is commendable.

India is both near and far. A short distance across the Palk Strait, but the ferry service has stopped, so it really does take a journey. The Sri Lankan undergraduate programmes are largely of four years duration, so there is a mismatch of sorts. Given the fact that our own system is evolving, this may be less of an issue than it seems, but it is odd that we do not have closer academic links as well.

Especially given our shared history- everywhere one goes, one is never far from a stupa. As  it happens, I was also there on the Poson Poya, the full moon day in June, anniversary of when Mihinda and Sanghamitra brought Buddhism to this country. The crowds at Mihintale and Anuradhapura- especially around the Sri Maha Bodhi, the tree that they planted in 288 BCE- are yet another aspect of the old and near connection. But more is needed, especially from the viewpoint of Universities. And the more is in collaborations, exchanges and  academic sharing of expertise, given our historical, geographical and cultural proximity.

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