A.M.A. Azeez was born on 4th October 1911 to a traditional elite family of Vannarpannai in Jaffna. He had his childhood and entire schooling in Jaffna. He attended leading Hindu schools and was a brilliant student. He passed away on 24th November 1973.
The legacy of Dr. Azeez, I sometimes think, is like an iceberg. What is visible is miniscule and the profound part is just submerged in history, which has to be carefully extricated through time consuming and methodical research. Quite often, when we revisit the life and times of Dr. Azeez, we remind ourselves of the mature and astute political leadership he practiced as a Senator, his profound contribution for the advancement of the education of Muslims and the active role he played in the upliftment and reform process of Muslim society. He was the first Muslim to be recruited to the very prestigious Ceylon Civil Service of the bygone era.
His speeches in Senate and other speeches are erudite and have all the hallmarks of a visionary, a true statesman and a patriot. His contribution in the field of Muslim education is there for all to see even today. The grandeur of Zahira College and the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund that he founded, continue to invigorate generations of Muslim youth to forge ahead in life and strengthen their role in Sri Lankan society. The YMMA movement he founded has energized the aspirations of many Muslim youth island wide, and this has over the years helped young Muslim men to play an honorable and dignified role in society.
The Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Commemoration Meeting and the Memorial Oration will be held on Tuesday, 28th November 2017 at 4.30 p.m. at the Mahaweli Centre Auditorium, 96, Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Colombo 7.
The grandeur of Zahira College and the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund that he founded, continue to invigorate generations of Muslim youth to forge ahead in life and strengthen their role in Sri Lankan society
There is another more profound facet to Dr. Azeez’s legacy which is quite often forgotten by many people. This is his outstanding achievement in introducing major agrarian reform in the Eastern Province, which has resulted over the years, in the Ampara district being elevated to the rank of a major rice bowl of Sri Lanka. As the architect of this ground breaking reform, he virtually opened the flood gates for economic prosperity of the people in the region where large numbers of Muslims live.
I was a student at Zahira College during the stewardship of Dr. Azeez. As he was my Principal, I had the rare opportunity of getting to know first hand the fine qualities of this refined gentleman. During my student days I also learned a lot about Dr. Azeez’s other accomplishments. I also moved very closely with Ali, the eldest son of Dr. Azeez. Ali has been my dear and close friend for over fifty years starting from our University days.
I discovered this quite accidentally when I was given a part time teaching assignment at the South Eastern University at Oluvil. My long journey by car usually took about 8 to 10 hours. The tail end of my travel was through predominantly Muslim areas like Maruthamunai, Kalmunai, Sainthamaruthu, Sammanthurai, Nintavur, Oluvil and beyond that Addalachenai, Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil.
These vast paddy lands extending over 100,000 hectares, irrigated by the plentiful waters of Senanayake Samudra at Inginiyagala, Ampara, has transformed the Ampara district into a granary of the Eastern Province. These lands are owned almost entirely by Muslims and large scale paddy production has been the source of financial empowerment of this Muslim community.
When the Japanese bombed the port of Colombo and its suburbs on Easter Sunday 5th April 1942, Dr. Azeez held the responsible post of Additional Landing Surveyor, H.M. Customs. The country was placed on a war footing by the Governor. The Southern region of the Batticaloa district was chosen as a key area to boost food production.
I would like to begin my narration of the pioneering efforts of Dr. Azeez by quoting from Jameel’s article,
“Civil Servant Azeez arrived in Kalmunai and assumed duties as Assistant Government Agent on 16th April 1942. It was the period of the Second World War and all foreign supply lines of rice and other foodstuff faced blockades by the Japanese. …. The Government of the day had to find ways and means of accelerating local food production ….. Azeez was specially selected by Hon. D.S. Senanayake and transferred at short notice with specific orders to produce more food especially rice“.
Hon. Senanayake had confessed that he selected a Muslim from the Civil Service, who would have the co-operation of the Muslims and Tamils. What he did not say but had in his mind, was that Dr. Azeez was a Tamil scholar, fluent speaker in Tamil and was well respected by the Tamil community. He went to Kalmunai within ten days and set up the Emergency Kachcheri.
The land mass brought under Dr. Azeez’s jurisdiction was vast, it stretched from Paddiruppu in the north to Kumana in the south, the entire Ampara district. As a dedicated civil servant, Dr. Azeez went into action almost immediately and placed the entire mission on, what can be termed, a war footing.
Within a month of his arrival at Kalmunai, the new AGA convened a meeting and got into action without wasting precious time. Without even a proper office, this meeting was held at the Kalmunai Rest House. It was a marathon session which lasted almost 10 hours and many decisions were taken without much argument.
It was resolved and action was immediately initiated to distribute large extents of state land, most of which was barren waste or just jungle, for clearance and cultivation. In the first phase of this operation more than 12,000 acres were distributed to be brought under the plough. As a result only Muslims in the surrounding areas responded to his call and were the first beneficiaries of the land allocation. The Muslim farmers did not let down their benefactor, Dr. Azeez. With a lot of help, both financial, technical and plenty of supervised guidance from the AGA, they toiled hard and gradually brought more barren, jungle and fallow land under the plough. Like the proverbial snowball, this process set in motion the organic expansion of the paddy revolution in the Eastern Province.
It was also resolved at the meeting, that cash grants be made for jungle clearance and land preparation and to release seed paddy for the next cultivation season. Small tanks and irrigation channels which had been abandoned for years, were rehabilitated. The AGA meticulously planned and developed all related critical infra structure to successfully achieve the goal of increased food production.
He also set up goat farms in Nintavur, Thirukovil and Malwatta and poultry farms in Maruthamunai, Sainthamaruthu and Palamunai and provided farmers with financial assistance and technical advice. He also established a model agriculture farm to provide technical knowhow and planting material for all agricultural endeavours in the region.
As pragmatic administrator, a week after this meeting, action commenced on all fronts. Lands were distributed, money was released and a 475 acre model farm with a labour force of 1,000 started taking shape in Nintavur.
Such was the meticulous planning of Dr. Azeez. The newly cultivated paddy fields brought forth bountiful harvests at a time of war when the country was plagued with food shortages. Ampara district had now entered the fast lane in paddy production and had also earned the well deserved reputation of the granary of the East. An overwhelmed Hon. D.S. Senanayake, as the Minister of Agriculture, applauded AGA Azeez on the great achievement and expressed his gratitude for helping to avert starvation and famine in the country.
To celebrate the successful food production drive AGA Azeez organized a harvest festival at the model farm in 1943. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the country. The chief guest was Hon. D.S. Senanayake. The Minister wanted to showcase the success of his trusted civil servant AGA Azeez and the people of Kalmunai.
This was the time of the colonial administration, and the head of government of the country was the British Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott. Impressed by the performance of AGA Azeez, the Governor sent a personal hand written note to AGA Azeez congratulating him and the farmers of Kalmunai for the rich harvest.
The road map to agrarian prosperity in the Ampara district, resolutely chartered by AGA Azeez, was now firmly in place. A few years later when the Inginiyagala reservoir was commissioned under the Gal Oya scheme, the paddy fields in the Ampara district blossomed beyond expectations when copious quantities of water became available to farming communities. The extent of land under paddy cultivation increased exponentially and this region now produces over 62% of paddy grown in the Eastern Province, with approximately 100,000 Hectares of land under the plough.
The pioneering endeavour and the yeoman service rendered by Dr. Azeez to make all this happen, must remain etched in the annals of history, as one of the finest contributions made by this legendary administrator, to the people of the Ampara district and to the country. An exemplary technocrat Civil Servant, who was deeply committed to his official duties blended with a great love for his country.
(A.I. Marikkar hails from Negombo and was a student at Zahira College during the Azeez era. He graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1965 and was a leading banker in Sri Lanka and overseas. He is an authority and a consultant in Islamic Banking)