Looking Back: An Item in Cyril Mathew’s Dossier

by Sachi Sri Kantha, January 29, 2024

35 years have passed since Caludewage Cyril Mathew (1912-1989), popularly known as Cyril Mathew was called to his Maker. A nasty Tamil-baiting politician made a big splash in November 1978 with the infamous ‘Mosquito question’ in a university entrance zoology exam paper to trap the Tamil university academics as aiding the Tamil students in their entrance exam to the universities in Sri Lanka. This episode has now vanished in the memories of contemporary Sri Lankans. But it received a paragraph entry in W.I. Siriweera’s summary of political events between 1977 and 1979, entitled ‘Recent developments in Sinhala-Tamil relations’ (Asian Survey, Sept 1980, 20: 903-913).

Cyril Mathew (1912-1989)

Here are some questions. Why did Cyril Mathew indulge in this sort of accusation? Was he doing it alone to assume a larger role among the then UNP politicians? Or was he set up by his powerful pal – J.R. Jayewardene? Who among the university academics abetted him in this adventure, in his posturing role as the Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs? And what valid qualifications did have Mathew for administering a Ministry tagged ‘Scientific Affairs’?

Now, I provide the following document, which appeared in the Colombo Tribune weekly, dated Dec 9, 1978, for digital preservation. At that time, I was a temporary Assistant Lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Peradeniya – having joined the Department of Biochemistry in March 1978. But, as the topic raised by Cyril Mathew was about zoology, my specialty at the University of Colombo, and the Tamil academic targeted by Minister Mathew was my then mentor Dr. Mano Sabaratnam (about whom I had contributed an eulogy previously to this site. https://sangam.org/professor-mano-sabaratnam-1931-2014/), I took the up.

What I omitted in my eulogy to Prof. Sabaratnam, I write here after 10 years. Simply, I couldn’t stay silent. I wrote my opinion on the ‘News conference’ held by Minister Mathew at his residence and sent it by post to the Editor of Tribune. And I made a request that, if the Editor uses my opinion, not to identify my name openly. This request was made because within the next two months I was to face a permanency interview at the University of Peradeniya and I didn’t wish to be identified and targeted. Eventually, I was NOT selected for that permanent position. That’s a different story!

Here are my translated diary entries written in Nov 14, 1978, and Dec 8, 1978.

Nov 14, 1978 Tue: I sent a private letter to Amarasingham, the editor of Tribune, expressing my opinion on the news items about Cyril Mathew’s Press Conference that had appeared in yesterday’s Daily News and Daily Mirror, but not in Sun. I sent a copy of the same to M. Sivasithamparam MP, too.

Dec 8, 1978 Fri: This week’s Tribune issue carried ‘Fireworks of Mathew’ commentary. It also included my contribution, without identifying me by name. I had requested such. My views are hidden under the tag ‘A Tribune reader’.

Now 45 years later, it’s time for me to claim that I was the one identified as ‘A Tribune reader’ by editor S.P. Amarasingham.

The Mathew Fireworks

by Pertinax [Tribune, Colombo, Dec 9, 1978, pp. 19-23]

Minister Cyril Mathew, who has recently acquired a special kind of notoriety by tilting at Tamil Windmills with a Sinhala Lance of doubtful quality in the style and manner of Don Quizote of old, launched a new war, this time in the field of education, in the garden of fellow Minister Nissanka Wijeeratne. He was assisted not by one dutiful Pancho, but had three Panchos, to carry the ministerial armour and helmet. In fact, it looked as if the three Panchos had inveigled the Don Quixotic minister to launch this new war.

It is necessary to place on record the manner in which the battle was joined. The Daily News on Monday, November 13 had a front page lead entitled, 4000 TAMIL STUDENTS GIVEN HIGH MARKS – INDUSTRIES MINISTER. The report read: ‘The main purpose in spotlighting the discrepancies found in the marking of Tamil GCE (AL) papers was not intended to create communal dissention as alleged by certain TULF MPs but to bring to book the crime committed against a vast number of pupils who sat the examination. Mr Cyril Mathew, Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs, told a Press Conference on Friday. At the 1977 GCE (AL) Examination about 4000 Tamil students were given high marks due to overmarking of their papers by some Tamil examiners, Mr Mathew said. Professor P.P.G.L. Siriwardene, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Lanka, Professor J.K.P. Ariyaratne, Professor of Chemistry of the Vidyalakara Campus and Professor Susantha de Silva were associated with the Minister at the Press Conference. Mr Mathew produced at the Press Conference, the relevant Tamil answer scripts which showed these over-markings and invited the Pressmen to have a close look at them. Professor Siriwardene answering a question said that “where University places were concerned, every single mark counted and one mark could easily displace the positions of at least 50 students. The Professor said these discrepancies in the Tamil answer scripts had been detected at the re-scrutiny stage in an answer, which had to be given with diagrams. These scripts had been picked at random and re-scrutiny was generally done by One Chief Examiner and two Assistant Examiners.”

Below this report was a second headline with equal prominence. DISCREPANCIES IN GSQ TAMIL SCRIPTS MARKING, and the report read: “Discrepancies have been suspected in the marking of Tamil answer scripts in the 1977 General Science Qualifying Examination of the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Sri Lanka. A high percentage of ‘A’ passes in the Tamil medium indicates discrepancies. Forty five Sinhala students sat this examination and their results indicated that there were only two ‘A’ passes, thirty five ‘B’ passes and eight ‘C’ passes. Whereas in the Tamil medium where only 12 students sat, ten of them had got ‘A’ passes and two ‘B’ passes. In the Jaffna campus, the results of the General Science Qualifying Examination revealed there were only 1st and 2nd class passes, and not a single third class. This high percentage of ‘A’passes in the Tamil medium indicate discrepancies and this matter will be inquired into, said Professor P.P.G.L. Siriwardene, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Lanka at a Press Conference on Friday. It is accepted that a large population of Sinhala children are clamouring for a higher education and this is the same in the Tamil areas. Discrepancies of this nature have a fatal effect on the Sinhala children because their population is great, the Professor said. Professor Siriwardene said at the press conference standardization did not seem a fool-proof method, since discrepancies such as over-marking, could take place. Therefore, he said the best method would be to divide the students according to their media, standardize according to subjects and allot places in the university in relation to the population percentage of the races. This method would ensure proper representation of the different races and would protect students against cheating, he said.”

The Daily Mirror, also of November 13 had a front page splash entitled FULL SCALE PROBE INTO MARKING OF TAMIL MEDIUM SCRIPTS: MATHEW. The report (byline B.C. Perera) read: The Government would institute full scale investigations into the discrepancies noted in the marking of Tamil medium GCE (AL) science answer scripts of April 1978. This was said by Mr Cyril Mathew, Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs at a Press Conference on Friday night at his residence in Colombo. Mr Mathew said the investigations may even cover a longer period because there was proof of favouritism by some Tamil medium examiners over a number of years. Associated with the Minister were Prof P.P.G.L. Siriwardene, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Lanka, Prof. J.K.P. Ariyaratne and Prof. S de Silva. Showing pressmen several marked Sinhala and Tamil answer scripts of the GCE (AL) Zoology paper, the Minister said one question was the drawing of a series of diagrams showing the stages of the life of the mosquito. According to the instructions to all examiners no marks at all were to be given out of 25 marks allotted for the question, if even one of the stages of the life of the mosquito was not drawn. Several marked Sinhala answer scripts selected at random showed that no marks had been given when one of the stages of the growth of the mosquito had not been drawn. But in six of the Tamil answer scripts, which had passed through at least four examiners, marks had been given even for three drawings. This the Minister maintained, appeared to be a regular feature in the marking of papers in respect of Tamil medium students. This was very unfair by the other students. Mr Mathew said that “if favouritism could be shown in drawings one could only imagine how written answer scripts had been corrected. The Minister then pointed out several glaring discrepancies that had occurred at the General Science Qualifying Examination in Botany of the Peradeniya Campus in the Tamil medium. He said he had received information that a recently concluded degree examination the results of which had been sent to the Universities Senate approval there was only first and second class passes. There had been no failures. This must be the first time in the world that students had achieved such results at an examination. Mr Mathew added that firm and fool-proof methods are now contemplated by the Government to arrest these discrepancies.”

Strangely enough, not one of the Sun-Davasa group of newspapers carried any report about this press conference. The Virakesari of Tuesday 14th carried a report of this press conference, but it was obviously pirated from the Lake House and Times newspapers. It looks very much as if the government media alone, i.e., the Lake House and the Times were invited for the Press Conference – if there was a conference at all. We shall revert to this later.

It is also only fair to mention that Minister Mathew had raised this red-herring in Parliament when the new Universities Bill was debated on November 7.  For the record, extracts from the Lobby Notes by Ajit Samaranayake in the Ceylon Observer of November 8 under the heading TAMIL STUDENTS FAVOURED AT EXAMS, CLAIMS CYRIL MATHEW are published below:

“Industries Minister Mr Cyril Mathew dropped a bombshell alleging favouritism towards Tamil pre-university and university students on the part of Tamil university lecturers. Mr Mathew produced marking schemes and question papers, affidavits and memoranda to back up his charge of Tamil favouritism. He rattled off a long list of academics who had made the identical charge ranging from Prof. A.D.V. de S. Indraratne to the Vice Chancellor Prof. P.P.G.L. Siriwardene, himself. The Minister’s prize production was a diagram. Students of Zoology at the 1977 Advanced Level examination had been asked to draw the stages of life of a mosquito. Examiners had been specifically instructed that marks be given only if all the stages were drawn. But the Minister produced a Tamil answer script in which the student had scored 5 marks without giving the final stage. A similar answer script of a Sinhala student had been given nought. Mr Mathew’s charge was that Tamil university lecturers over-marked the scripts of students of their community, that they leaked out questions to Tamil students and that they were invited to and attended seminars at Tamil schools where they tackled certain examination questions which curiously enough cropped up in question papers at the next exam….

On the general charge of Tamil favouritism Mr Sivasithamparam on behalf of the TULF pointed out that a committee headed by Prof Perera had exonerated Tamil dons of this oft-repeated charge. But replying to the ministerial revelation later Kayts MP, Pandit K.P. Ratnam, said that he did not intend to defend at all whoever had overmarked the scripts. He, however, put the ball into the Government’s court by demanding why it did not act against such miscreants. He also volunteered to produce similar examples of overmarking in Sinhala Medium scripts if a committee of the House was appointed to go through all the scripts. So much for the sub-plot which the Industries Minister introduced into the main academic drama….”

What was said in Parliament is privileged and other Parliamentarians have already dealt with it and will no doubt deal with it in the future also. But important questions have arisen in regard to the ‘Press Conference’ reported in the Lake House and Times papers on November 13 which greatly concerns the credibility of the government media.

A Tribune reader has raised the following questions about this ‘Press Conference’: “The Daily Mirror reported that the Press Conference was held on Friday night at the Minister’s residence in Colombo i.e., on 10th November 1978. The questions I ask are: (1) Who gave the authority to Minister Mathew to summon a press conference on the topic of education, which is outside his concern? Even if we accept the fact that Minister of Education is out of the island, an acting Minister is there. And why the acting Minister was not present at the ‘conference’ which comes under his purview?

(2) Is it normal for a minister to hold a press conference at his residence, if not at his office at day time? Even if we accept that the topic was of urgent nature, then why the Saturday’s (11th Nov. 78) papers didn’t report this? If it was too late to go for print on Saturday, then why did the Sunday’s (12th Nov 78) papers miss it? Why was there an undue delay of two days for the conference to be reported? And why did Sun and Davasa (normally in the forefront of this type of reporting) not report this? Is it that reporters of these papers were not invited?

“From the way it had reported the story, it looks like Virakesari reporter had just copied the story which appeared on Monday’s Daily News and Daily Mirror. And this report does not say, when the news conference was held. And if it was held on Friday night, why was there an undue delay of 3 days for the Virakesari to report on it? It may be that, in order to accommodate Mr. M Sivasithamparam’s observation on the ‘Minister’s Conference’, Virakesari had to ‘educate its readers by publishing a report of the so-called Minister’s Conference pinching the story from other papers.

(3) “Those who were associated with the Minister at the Conference (according to the Daily Mirror and Daily News reports) were, Vice Chancellor P.P.G.L. Siriwardene, Prof. Ariyaratne and Prof S. de Silva. Let me ask this. The Minister was making a serious charge on a matter concerning Tamil lecturers. But not one of them was invited to be present. There are two Tamil Professors in Zoology (the test paper, the Minister had seen and quoted) – namely Prof. K.D. Arudpragasam (Colombo Campus) and Prof. V.K. Ganeshalingam (Jaffna Campus). Were these two summoned for this Conference? Or was the chief examiner in charge of the Tamil medium scripts summoned? If not, why? Even if these Tamil authorities were not summoned by the Minister, why did the press reporters not contact them to have a follow up or explanation? And mark you, there was a two-days gap before the story appeared in print? Was it not the duty of the Lake House and the Times to have got the views of the Tamil lecturers?

(4) “Daily Mirror reports says that, Minister ‘showing perssmen several marked Sinhala and Tamil answer scripts…” What is the range of this “several”? Was it in the region of tens, or hundreds or thousands? Why was it not said strictly? If the pressmen were so keen on accurate reporting, could they not have taken photographs or Photostats of alleged irregular marking in Tamil medium answer scripts, to authenticate the story? Why haven’t they done this? The Daily News headlined its story by saying “400 Tamil students given high marks”. What sort of sampling was taken? Who were present there, when these detections were made? Was this 4000 number pertaining only to the Zoology paper of Tamil medium where the detection was made? Or does this 4000 number encompass all the subjects in Tamil medium? Similarly has any check been made on the Sinhala medium scripts? If so, who made it?”

TULF spokesmen and the TULF press (such as there is) have protested against this Mathews onslaught assisted by Vice Chancellor Siriwardene and two other obvious hatchet men. But there has been a total silence in the government media – Lake House and Times – about these protests inspite of numerous memoranda (which has also reached Tribune and which we will publish in due course) by students and staff members of different campuses. Is this fair, correct or ethical journalism? Is this not slanting and distorting of news? Should those who have criticized and challenged the statements of Mathew and Siriwardene not be given an opportunity to state their case? Has the Government-owned media become so perverse?

The Communist Party fortnightly Forward of November 15, 1978 alone made a pertinent comment (the SLFP and LSSP have been silent on this matter so far). This is what the Forward said: “Why Mathew? That is the first thing that strikes one about Industries Minister Cyril Mathew’s statement in Parliament and later at a press conference at his residence on November 10th, regarding alleged overmarking of exam papers of Tamil medium students by Tamil medium examiners for the GCE (A Level) Science examination and for the 1977 General Science Qualifying Exam for entrance to the Peradeniya Campus of the University. Such matters, surely, come under the Minister of Education and Higher Education. Although the permanent Minister is temporarily out of Sri Lanka, the matters referred to go back to earlier times when he was among us. Dr Nissanka Wijeratne is also too ingrained an obscurantist and Sinhala-chauvinist to remain quiet over such a matter. But both he and his deputy Minister, who acts for him, have remained strangely and significantly, silent, even though, if there is any truth in the allegation, a major scandal has taken place in respect of institutions in their charge. Mr Mathew may also be the Minister of Scientific Affairs. But this cannot explain how examination papers, which should be kept in the security possession of educational authorities, came into his hands, to be exhibited to newspapers. Nor does it explain how the Vice Chancellor and some other Professors came to be associated with Mr Mathew in a press conference held in his private residence.

“If there has been any tampering with marks, it is a serious matter that no one can condone. Those responsible should certainly be identified and sternly dealt with. But from the statement of Mr Mathew himself, it seems obvious that the government has not yet investigated the allegations. For the Daily Mirror (13/11) quotes Mr Mathew as promising a ‘full-scale investigation’. If the matter is still to be investigated, why has Minister Mathew been so quick to rush to public conclusions, especially on matters for which he bears no Ministerial responsibility? After all a number of different conclusions can be reached if matters are fully investigated. It may be found that the allegations are false. Or that a genuine mistake has been made. Or that some personal or limited favouritism has taken place.

“Brushing all these possibilities aside, Minister Mathew suggests that there has been for several years, and not merely for these examinations, a systematic, organized and widespread conspiracy by examiners in the Tamil medium deliberately to inflate the marks of examinees in the same medium, so as to give them unjustified advantages vis-à-vis their Sinhala medium counterparts in selection for medical, science and engineering courses in the University. The allegation is not merely premature, but capable of stirring up racist antagonisms. Expecially when it is made before proper investigation and by a person in Mr Mathew’s position.

“The big question is why Mr Mathew should have chosen to raise this matter at this time, especially when the President whose close and trusted colleague Mr Mathew is, has just been regaling audiences in India with tales about how much he and his government want to be friends with the Tamils, and how much he has already done to solve their problems. Some think that Mr Mathew has been made a catspaw by chauvinist elements in and around the Ministry of Education, who are lobbying to have the decision to abolish mediawise standardization reversed. But while such pressures are undoubtedly there, Mr Mathew is no political baby and cannot easily be led by the nose. He is not only a red-baiter and crypto-fascist, but also the most racist-oriented Minister in the Cabinet. He led the campaign to keep Mr Thondaman out of the Cabinet and to oppose even the small concessions given to the Tamil language in the new Constitution. What people want to know is whether Mr Mathew’s latest shots are part of a pre-emptive volley, inspired by fears that there may be some truth that the TULF or parts thereof may soon be coming closer to the government. President Jayawardene’s indication in India that some TULF MPs want to join the government, and that he is giving thought to how the Constitutional obstacles can be overcome, must be giving Mr Mathew and his racist friends the creeps. What is most likely is that President Jayewardene’s sermons on national unity and Mr Mathew’s racist sallies are two sides of the same policy. After all, the President and Mr Mathew are too close political buddies to clash over a matter like this. Anyway, it is small wonder that Mr Amirthalingam, on his return from abroad a few days ago, re-affirmed the statement he made while abroad, that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka had been more secure during the seven years of the previous government than in the past year of the present government”.

Before we go on to set out and discuss the memorandum circulated by the Teaching Staff in the Jaffna Campus we think it best to first publish the Statement of the Peradeniya University Teachers Association on Examination Malpractices. It is dated November 21, 1978. The document is signed by Dr P.V.J. Jayasekera, President, and Dr. B. Gajameragedera, Secretary, and it reads: “The PUTA is perturbed to note that attempts are being made to mislead the general public regarding the conduct of a section of the examiners of the G.C.E. (AL) and University Examinations (General Science Qualifying, 1977). The statements made at a press conference by a Cabinet Minister and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Lanka which were reported in the national newspapers of the 13th of November, 1978 are particularly disturbing. The PUTA regretfully notes that these statements could only result in stirring up communal dissension rather than solving any problems that may exist regarding the examinations referred to at the press conference. The PUTA observers that no official inquiry has been held into any of the alleged examination offences or discrepancies referred to and hence considers it unfair for responsible officers of the University to issue public statements on such matters in a manner that: (i) brings this University and its examinations into disrepute; (ii) maligns one section of the examiners of the GCE (AL) and University examinations; and (iii) prejudices any possible official inquiry into the alleged offences. The results of the General Science Qualifying examination were released two months ago and the Vice Chancellor had sufficient time to hold an inquiry and take appropriate action before making public pronouncements. The PUTA urges the Hon Minister of Education and Higher Education and the University Authorities to initiate immediate and impartial inquiries into alleged offences regarding GCE (AL) and the General Science Qualifying Examinations respectively. Such inquiries should also cover possible shortcomings in the examination systems and recommend appropriate corrective measures. Any examiner found guilty should be duly punished.”

This statement, we are aware, was sent to all newspapers, including Lake House and Times with the following note: “We are sending herewith a statement of the Executive Committee of the PUTA on the alleged examinations malpractices which were given wide publicity in the national newspapers of 13th November 1978. We believe that this issue will have widespread repercussions in the country and earnestly hope that our views will receive your serious consideration.”

Why was this blacked out?



Though this particular case of Tamil baiting by an important political ally of the Sri Lankan president in late 1970s has passed into the dustbin of history, it also reveals why certain recent immigrants (of 19th century) to Sri Lanka from nearby India pretend to promote themselves as heroes of the majority community by a fake ethnic camouflage.

Cyril Mathew belongs to a minor caste among Sinhalese – wahumpura (hakuru) caste, identified as jaggory (i.e., sugar confection) makers by Richard Nyrop et al. in their Area Handbook for Ceylon (1971). Recent descriptions in the Wikipedia entries about this wahumpura caste offers unsubstantiated, exaggerated tall tales such as “confectioners of Sri Lanka’s past and functioned as the most honoured military reserve force for the sinhalese King. Their bravery highly admired by Sinhalese kings including the King Dutugamunu.” That’s funny! In my reading of Mahavamsa book, I have NOT come across such an appreciative reference to wahumpura caste by King Dutugemunu.

I recommend that there is material for a higher degree in either sociology or anthropology on this theme. How Sinhalese politicians of low castes whose ancestors imigrated from India in the 19th century (selected examples include Cyril Mathew, Charles Percival de Silva, K.M.P. Rajaratne and Ranasinghe Premadasa) spewed venom of anti-Tamil sentiments since 1950s, to rise in their own ranks. Among these, only Premadasa was able to reach the ‘crown’ of being the President of Sri Lanka in 1988. Charles Percival de Silva’s ambitions were toppled by the widow Srima of his leader Solomon Bandaranaike in July 1960. K.M.P. Rajaratne could only raise to the ranks of an MP from 1956 to 1965. At least Cyril Mathew was anointed as a Cabinet minister in 1977, only to be sacked by J.R. Jayewardene in 1984.


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  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    I need to insert a revision to the first sentence of the Coda section. The word inadvertently omitted by me was ‘descendants’. What I meant was ‘Why descendants of certain recent immigrants (19th century) to Sri Lanka from nearby India….’