A plea for Nethmi

In truth, Nethmi Lavanya Yogendra should have attained fame when the Year 5 scholarship results for 2007 were released late last year. Nethmi was placed second in the Colombo District after securing 190 marks at the scholarship exam held in August last year.

Instead, the little 10-year old seems fated to become a household name because the government has denied her access into Vishaka Vidyalaya on grounds of nothing more than her ethnicity. Nethmi Yogendra is a Tamil. And a Buddhist. Her father, also a Tamil Buddhist, schooled at Ananda College Colombo. During her short life as a student at President’s College, Nawala, Nethmi has studied in the Sinhalese medium.

Like Royal College and Ananda College are the preferred choice for boys, Vishaka Vidyalaya is one of the leading girls’ schools in Colombo, much sought after by scholarship winners from around the island, in particular because of its exacting education standards. Like free education, the Year V scholarship examination is one of the greatest gifts the state of Sri Lanka bestows upon its children, enabling the brightest students from the most remote corners of the island access to the very best schools in the country, based on their performance at the competitive examination held each year.

Little Nethmi would have entertained the same hope when she applied to Vishaka after her excellent performance at the exam. School authorities accepted her application since she had obtained well over the required pass mark, and the little girl’s parents had already paid the facility fees. In fact, everything looked set for Nethmi to continue her promising academic career, before the hefty arm of the State stepped in to stop her in her tracks.

Education Minister Susil Premajayanth claims that he prevented Nethmi from entering Vishaka ‘for her own good.’ Her ethnicity would have caused her much worse problems, he declares. At least he is talking about it. The rest of the government is allegedly in the dark.

Quite apart from being a despicable act of discrimination on the part of the State and the very obvious fundamental rights questions the ‘barring’ raises, the students and teachers of Vishaka Vidyalaya ought to be righteously indignant about the ludicrous assumption the Minister of Education appears to have made on their behalf. To assume that the school made up primarily of Sinhalese Buddhists would reject this little girl of another ethnicity, who has won her rightful place there, is to insult every student and teacher at Vishaka. The school not only has a quota for students of different religions and ethnicities, but accepted Nethmi Yogendra’s application without hesitation. Which brings the question down to who has more interest in keeping Nethmi out of Vishaka – the school authorities or the incumbent administration?

It is bad enough that the best schools in the capital are not open to the Tamil community because they lack a Tamil medium. Students in the Tamil medium who have passed their scholarship exam will never have a place at Vishaka, Ananda or a myriad of other ‘national’ or ‘leading’ schools in the city. But to bar Nethmi, a girl who has studied in the Sinhalese medium, practises Buddhism, and has won her rightful place at any one of the good schools in Colombo hands down, on grounds that she would not be able to integrate, is not only absurd, it is shameful. It speaks of a government and state machinery that is adamant to believe the worst about the Sinhalese people, and worse yet, one that is prepared to do grave injustice to Tamil citizens based on nothing more that this pathetic assumption.

No two words about it - the prevailing state of things is a damning indictment on the government. For a government that already has a poor track record about its treatment of the minority communities, this latest school fiasco is a suicidal move. It would appear in this case that the government is imposing its own anti-minority stance on Vishaka Vidyalaya.

The exclusion of Nethmi is more than just about keeping one child out of a school. One would think that decades of ethnic strife, one bloody and horrific ethnic riot, and the war we have all suffered for more than 20 years would have taught Sri Lankan governments something by now. Stirring the ethnic cauldron again, after Sri Lankans- Sinhalese Tamil, Muslim and Burgher have suffered a collective destiny of conflict that has left us all reeling, is akin to setting the soul of this nation afire once more. As a people, we have risen above such petty differences, even if our governments have not. Given a chance, we have no doubt that Nethmi’s little schoolmates, and her teachers would have embraced her entry into their school. They might have seen her as a gifted and willing student, deserving of her place in that revered institute of learning. It is a tragedy that the government of Sri Lanka sees her only as a Tamil.