Recalling Professor Hasbullah’s Educational Work

MA Nuhman, in Colombo Telegraph, 11 September 2019, where the title is “Remembering Professor S H Hasbullah”

Remembering my dear friend Hasbullah (11.09.1950–25.08.2018) is personally a very emotional, difficult and painful task for me. We were very close and intimate friends for nearly three decades.   Hasbullah’s untimely sudden death was a great loss to me. Even after one year of his demise my memories of him are fresh and heavy in my mind. It may take a long time for me to recover, for he made an impact on my life.  He was such a dynamic personality.

I first met him in 1991, might be in early January, at the University of Peradeniya. I was a displaced lecturer form the University of Jaffna, temporarily attached to the University of Peradeniya to teach the displaced Muslim students from the Jaffna University attached to Peradeniya. Hasbullah had just arrived from Norway, abruptly terminating his six months assignment in less than four months, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, because of the unexpected forcible eviction of the entire Muslim population from the Northern Province that included Hasbullah’s entire extended family members from Mannar district, his native place.

The mass displacement and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in October 1990 by the LTTE was a turning point in Hasbullah’s academic and personal life. He had to dedicate the rest of his academic career to the study of ethnic conflicts, the causes and consequences of displacement, the plight of refugees, land issues and the problems of resettlement, peace process and reconciliation. He was fully involved in these studies with a strong personal commitment for nearly 35 years.

Prof. Shahul Hasbullah

He himself organized seminars and workshops; he participated and presented papers at a number of national and international conferences. He organized his own research team and collaborated with various national and international research teams and institutions. He engaged in collaborative research with eminent international and national scholars like Jonathan Spencer, Jonathan Good Hand, Benedict Korf, Barrie M Morrison, Bark Klem, Oivin Fuglarud, Urs Geiser, Tudor Silva and Balasundaram Pillai.

He also had responsible memberships in various institutions like ICES, National Peace Council, National Suura Council, National Delimitation Commission and the Council of the University of Jaffna. He was one of the founder members of the Kandy Forum. He also had research and teaching assignments in various foreign universities like Norwegian   University of Science and Technology, University of British Columbia, Georgetown University of USA, University of Zurich and University of Edinburgh in the last three decades.

Because of his vast and broad engagements he had to travel extensively and exhaustively within and outside Sri Lanka. He was always out of home. Very rarely was he at home for a week at a stretch.   He neglected his health condition. He underwent a bypass surgery and he had the problem of stone in his gold-bladder. He was neglecting his doctor’s and friends’ advice and unwisely postponed surgery for that. His serious academic and social involvements didn’t allow him to change his life style and to rest. He had set himself too many tasks and goals.

Hasbullah had collected a large amount of data on various issues and he just had to sit and write papers based on the data. I advised him several times to stop running and to start writing. He agreed on principle but unfortunately he couldn’t do it in practice. He was busy as usual in his last few days travelling from Kandy to Colombo, Colombo to Mannar, Mannar to Puttalam and Puttalam to Kandy and again Kandy to Jaffna. He travelled to Jaffna in the afternoon on 24th of August last year. He had to attend the Council meeting at the University of Jaffna the following morning. While travelling to Jaffna he talked to some of his friends over the phone. He also had a long chat with Dr. Urs Geiser through the Skype regarding the book Negotiating Access to Land in Eastern Sri Lanka they had jointly written. He went to bed late in the night asking the care taker of the Gust house to wake him up by 7.30 in the morning. Unfortunately it was his last night in this world. He didn’t get up in the morning. He stopped breathing in that night or early in the morning. Hasbullah is no more. He left behind a legacy of dedication and hard work. His academic spirit and social activism will be an example to others. He will be with us for a long time to come, and will be remembered by future generations for his academic outputs and social activism.

Hasbullah’s academic contributions during the last three decades to the understanding of our ethnic and social issues are very important. One of his earliest works is the Report on the Loss of Movable and Immovable Assets of Muslims Evicted from the Northern Province in October 1990. It is a result of hard work by a team led by him. The report consists of 6 volumes of 523 pages, covering the losses of entire Muslim refugees from Northern Province. It is authentic documentation scientifically done by Hasbullah. Although it was submitted to the Parliament later, no remedies were done to the refugees. He was preserving this document for a long time and finally handed them over to the ICES Colombo to digitalize and preserve it as they agreed to do in collaboration with a University in Netherland. I hope this is in process.

Related to this documentation he also collected Family Information of the Muslim Refugees, Ousted from Northern Province in October 1990, that consists of 24 volumes of information of 9025 refugee families. Hasbullah also collected a large number of testimonies of personal experiences of refugees which are still in manuscript form and have to be edited and published. These three documents are highly valuable to the understanding of the plight of the Northern Muslim refugees and they will be the essential data for any further studies on the subject.

Hasbullah also planned to bring out 7 volumes on the general topic of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and the Forcibly Evicted Muslims of Northern Province on regional basis. He was able to publish only three volumes in Tamil on Mullaitheevu, Musali and Manthai – Naanaaddaan Muslims in the late 1990s. He almost finalized the volume on Jaffna Muslims in 2017 but it is not published yet. I hope the Kandy Forum will publish it soon.

Hasbullah has published two other very important books on Northern Muslim refugees in English. The first one is Muslim Refugees: The Forgotten People in Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict published in 2001. This book provides a brief but a comprehensive account of the historical background and the plight of the refugees. The second one is Denying the Right to Return: Resettlement in Musali South and the Wilpattu Controversy, published in 2015. This is an important book that throws some light on the ethnically fabricated Wilpattu controversy. Hasbullah with his profound knowledge on the subject initiated an in-depth academic study on the history of Musali South and the issues and problems of the displaced and the returnees in collaboration with the people concerned. Hasbullah’s aim in this book is to document the concerns of the people, raise awareness among the authorities, politician and general public on what has happened and what needs to be done and to find an amicable and lasting solution to the problem of the displaced Musali people. However, his message has fallen on the deaf ears of the government and of extremists.

Two other books Hasbullah co-authored are very significant for an understanding of the ethnic conflict in the North and East in Sri Lanka. The first book Hasbullah jointly wrote with Balasundarampillai and Kalinga Tudor Silva on Addressing Root Causes of the Conflict: Land Problems in North-East Sri Lanka, published in 2005. The project was commissioned by UNHCR and Foundation of Coexistence, Colombo. As the title suggests one of the root causes of the conflict in the country is the land and land related issues and the book focusses on three districts, namely, Ampara, Mannar and Jaffna. This study was conducted during the war time immediately after the cease fire agreement signed by the government and the LTTE. This book provides us some important information and insights on the ethnic conflict and land issues in three of the war torn districts.

The other book that Hasbullah collaboratively wrote with his colleagues Jonathan Spencer, Jonathan Goodhand, Bart Klem, Benedikt Korf and Kalinge Tudor Silva is Checkpoint, Temple, Church and Mosque: A Collaborative Ethnography of war and Peace, published in 2015. This is a result of a collaborative research done in the Ampara and Batticaloa districts of Eastern Sri Lanka on the complexity of ethnicity, religion, politics, land, war and peace making. This is a book on acute social conflicts that we must read to understand the conflicts that surrounded us.

Another important book that Hasbullah co-authored with Urs Geiser from the University of Zurich, Switzerland is Negotiating Access to Land in Eastern Sri Lanka: Social Mobilization of Livelihood Concerns and Everyday Encounters with an Ambiguous State. This is published by the ICES and  was launched at ICES in Kandy and Colombo on 4th and 6th of September respectively. The writing part of this book was almost finished before Hasbullah passed away last year. But during the last one year Dr. Geiser personally undertook all the responsibilities to finalize editing and publish the book. On behalf of the Hasbullah’s friends and family I must thank Dr. Geiser for his great job.

This book is based on extensive field work carried out in two DS Divisions and demonstrates the problem clearly and lucidly. It is a theoretical and empirical analysis of the subject. In the first three chapters of the book including the Introduction, the authors present their research questions, theoretical outlook and the detailed descriptions of the two DS Divisions (Akkaraippattu and Alayadivempu) where they have done extensive field work. In the next five chapters they present detailed empirical studies of five major issues of demarcating and re-demarcating various administrative boundaries, new problems that arise due to such re-demarcations, land issues related to Gal Oya scheme and the disputes between cattle owners and paddy cultivators over Wddamadu area.

The authors were working in the area for a long time and they have firsthand information and experience and it is evident in their empirical analysis. In the final chapter the authors discuss their findings carefully and they have realized the ‘complexity of land related issues’ in the region and I think it is applicable to the country at large too. Those who want to understand the land disputes in Sri Lanka in their broader socio political and historical background must read this book.

Apart from these and some other books, Hasbullah published a large number of articles in journals, contributed chapters in books, presented papers in seminars, submitted a number of reports to various organizations. Thus his academic contributions are very rich and socially committed. Hasbullah was a rare kind of academic who seriously engaged in research and social activism. He had a lot of future plans but unfortunately we lost him. His untimely death is a great loss to his friends, his community and the nation.

MA Nuhman

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