Contribution of Zahira College to Sri Lankan society

Past and her role in the present and future

V. Anandasangaree

V. Anandasangaree

At the very beginning I wish to thank Janab Trizvii Marikkar the Principal of our Alma Mater for inviting me to be the Keynote Speaker of our College Founders’ Day. I think I have every right to say “Our College” and hope no one will dispute my claim, because I never felt otherwise. Whenever I pass Zahira College I never failed to bow down. It was Zahira College that moulded me as a man of character acceptable to the society, if you will permit me to say so. Zahira College is undoubtedly the Premier Educational Institution owned with pride by the Muslims of Sri Lanka, the third largest ethnic group. When there are several thousands among them who had contributed in several ways for the Welfare and progress of Zahira College and Zahira in turn had produced several persons who had brought a name and fame to it, I was wondering as to why and how I had been picked up to deliver the keynote address when in fact I have lost touch with Zahira and most of the Zahirians and also lost most of my contemporaries. This is one more reasons why I consider this event as a great honour bestowed on me. Today’s event is of much importance to the student of Zahira and to the Muslim Community as whole. It is important to me too since my name will go down in the History of Zahira as one who loved it dearly.

When the invitation to participate in this event came I was moved to tears. Although I was at Zahira for only two years, that was the most crucial period for me as a student. The teachers not only taught but also guided us. We learnt a lot from them. They also moulded us as honest and dutiful citizens.

The golden era of Tuan Brahanudeen Jayah came to an end on 22-08-1948 (exactly 66 years today) after 27years of undaunted service to his people and the country. During this period he took very bold and useful decisions. Due to his efforts new buildings came up, the standard of Educational improved several fold, a night school was started as an incentive to poor students. A mid-day rice meal was offered at 10 cents per head. Even after his election to Parliament, he ran the College for about one year till a fit and proper person was found to succeed him. It was a compelling need for the Board of Management to retain his services even though he had taken charge a multi-member constituency – Colombo Central with two others of different ethnic group. On 22-08-1948 he bid goodbye to Zahira with the satisfaction of having produced many leaders and reformers, thinkers and philosophers, legislators and national leaders. The credit for persuading Janab A.M.A. Azeez to accept the Principalship of Zahira should go to the outgoing Principal who was going to attend Parliaments with prospects of finding a place in the cabinet of the day.

Assumption of Office by Janab A.M.A. Azeez

Assumption of Office as Principal of Zahira College by Janab A.M.A. Azeez, brought several changes in the entire set up. Janab Azeez was a product of Jaffna Hindu College very much loved and respected by all at Hindu College for his amiable manners. As far as he was concerned, accepting the appointment as Principal was a big sacrifice. He was making for the betterment of his own community because a prestigious position he was giving up in the Ceylon Civil Service at that time was a rare opportunity no Muslim will easily agree to give up, that too in exchange for a Principal’s post. Above all, he had the distinction of being the first Muslim Civil Servant, a pride to his community. His decision was hard for anyone in his community to accept because he brought fame to his community as the first Civil Servant ever to be selected in his community. But the consolation they had was that he was going to take charge of Zahira College which as far as they were concerned was going to be their premier institution soon to become a cultural centre for the Muslims.

It was during his period that Zahira College which was exclusively serving Muslim students became an all community national school catering not only to Ceylon Muslims but also to Sinhalese, Tamils, South Indians resided in Ceylon and even foreign students. The most admirable feature in his administration was that many of the non-muslim students held position of leadership and responsibility.

The decision to make Zahira an all community National School opened the doors of Zahira to non-muslims, to the Tamils and Sinhalese in particular. The Tamil and Sinhalese owe a lot to Zahira which produced several Doctors, Engineers and Scholars. Professor K.Sivathamby. Mr. R. Sivagurunathan also known as Ratnanathan, Editor of Thinakaran, Janab H.M.P. Mohideen, editor of Thesabimani and many such others were products of Zahira. The Literary Association was given a free hand to invite and entertain guest speakers of the media who addressed the students. Kalgi editor Mr. Krishnamoorthy was one. Even D.M.K. leader had the opportunity to address us.

I remember with gratitude the services rendered by our Tamil Teachers Janab S.M. Kamaldeen. He did not miss a single opportunity that he considers as beneficial to the students. To quote one example there used to be an oratorical contest every year on the Hindu Saint Swami Vivekananda. Our Teacher a Muslim used to select some of us and train us. This is the spirit with which we worked with at Zahira. During my two years of Zahira I did not see or hear any one complaining about the fellow students. In spite of the multiple racial and religious groups communalism never raised its head. At this juncture I wish to quote a paragraph from a letter dated 15-12-2004 addressed to Madam Chandrika when she was the President of Sri Lanka. The relevant paragraph is given below.

“I am sure Your Excellency; you will consider me as one who has the capacity and the right to advice you on matters relating to the ethnic issue. I am keen to suggest to you some ways and means to end the crisis, which should receive your serious and immediate consideration. I know the feelings of Sinhalese, the Muslims and the Tamils in our country, since I had lived among them for many years. I had studied together with Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils, had been taught by Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil teachers and had also taught Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil students. Above all, Your Excellency apart from being a senior citizen in my early seventies and with about half a century of experience in Politics, at a free and fair election I polled over 36000 votes and came first out of the nine Members of Parliament elected to the Jaffna Electoral District in December 2001.”

I have many reasons for quoting this. It was the experience that I gained at Zahira the set up there and the atmosphere that prevailed at Zahira gave me the courage to write to her. During our time Zahira proved to be the centre of communal harmony. Zahira set a good example for other institutions. We had Janab A.M.A. Azeez as our Principal – a Muslim and a Sinhalese Mr. D.T. Wijeyeratne as Deputy Principal, our Vice Principal was Captain Tuwan Suhaib a Malay and a Tamil named Mr. Dorai as Head Master in charge of primary education.

Apart from this we had on our internal staff Muslims, Sinhalese, Tamils and Malays and the students were multi ethnic and multi-religions. The college was running smoothly without any problems.

What contribution Zahira College made to the Sri Lanka society in the past has been brought on to some extent. About the role in the present and future is difficult to say due to the prevailing adverse condition. It is a pity that the Sri Lankan Society had conveniently forgotten the contributions made by various ethnic groups.
Before I windup permit me to share with you some memorable incidents that are fresh in my memory:

  1. During our school days we used to travel by train from Hunupitiya. Trains used to be very crowded and at times we travel with one foot in the compartment and the other on the footboard. One day as the train entered the Kelanibridge the door which was kept opened hit the bridge and broke my friend’s head. I had to obtain permission from our Vice Principal to take him out for treatment. The Vice Principal shouted at me and said, “So you fellows have started travelling on the foot board”. He cooled down and gave me a note to Dr. M.C.M. Kaleels Nursing Home on 2nd Division Maradana between Technical College junction and Maradana junction. This is mentioned to make you know that Dr.M.C.M. Kaleel was Zahira’s family doctor. Maybe for these services the people would have in gratitude elected him to the seat Janab T.B. Jayah represented in Parliament.
  2. On Fridays it was compulsory for all students to attend the assembly in the Gaffoor Hall. We are expected to maintain silence. When the Principal recites the prayer we take our handkerchief and cover the head with it. What was special in this was that we got a glimpse of him without appointment only on Fridays at prayer and assembly.

Today Zahira has become a great institution with approximately 5000 children studying in all 3 medium comparing to the 35 students it started with and has steadily grown over the years increasing its numbers and has become a school of high demand with so many infrastructure facilities needed to cater to the student population. After Janab A.M.A. Azeez many more principals in the caliber of I.L.M. Mashoor, S.L.M. Shafie Marikar and many more down the line did contribute to help Zahira grow.

Zahira did undergo a lot of changes from being an assisted school, then a private school and later a Director Managed Government school and subsequently handed over for private management on a privy council decision. At present the Government does assist in paying the remuneration of certain categories of teachers.

Today the Board of Governors are governing the school having taken over the management from the Maradana Mosque since 1982 after the Act of Parliament. The Parents and Old Boys are supporting the College in a big way. There seems to be a well coordinated programme by all the Groups and societies towards the progress of the school. Number of new facilities have come up in the recent years, the Swimming Pool a major project by the OBA, DesamanyaFurkhan Building a multi storeyed classroom building complex which is an outright donation by another distinguished Old Boy Desamanya Prof. M.T.A. Furkhan.

The School started by the Founders Marhoom M.C. Siddi Lebbe, A.M. Wapichchi Marikar, Ahmed Orabi Pasha, I.L.M. Abdul Azeez, 122 years ago is still at its best with so many benefactors and supporters around at present.

Zahira has many members of other communities in its staff even today. It bears witness to the fact that Zahira has been, throughout its history, not only for Muslims but also to all the communities. With all due respect to my Alma Mater, I wish to state that Zahira has a very strong role to play in the present day context with regard to the development of Muslim Community in many fields and in strengthening social harmony. Many a Muslim youth should emerge from this institute, as educated professionals who should respect human values and who should have tolerance to listen and understand the feelings of people of other faiths. They should be nurtured, trained and coached to stand firm for justice.

Therefore there is no doubt the future is very bright with more and more students Passing out of the school will continue to hold positions in various fields and contribute their mite to the community and the country. It is these students who always will be loyal to their school and will give their generous support. It is my fervent hope that there will be more students from other communities who will mingle together and bring in the racial harmony.

Veerasingham Anandasangaree (Tamil: வீரசிங்கம் ஆனந்தசங்கரி) is a leading Sri Lankan Tamil politician, former Member of Parliament and leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front. He is commonly known as Sangaree. A vocal critic of violence committed by all sides.