18 April, 2024


A Tribute To Prof A Jeyaratnam Wilson

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

This tribute is not only from me but also from a friend of mine who had associated Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson, even more than me, for over two and a half decades very closely even living in his home in Fredericton, Canada, for few years. I am writing this not only as a tribute to this great man and an undisputed silent humanist, Wilson, but also to show how some of the hidden stories of Sinhala Tamil relations could bring certain sanity to the otherwise poisoned atmosphere in Sri Lanka and promote reconciliation and harmony among different communities.

When Kumar Samarasinghe came to Sydney to visit his sister, Mallika Gunewardena, with his family I invited them for a simple dinner with some other friends. Kumar and Shamali came with two daughters we have never seen before. I never realised, however, that we were in the midst of a celebrity, a reputed teenage novelist from New Jersey, USA, who had completed three popular novels by the age of just fifteen according to NBC News. Kumar didn’t speak about it except a brief mention and neither did she show-off and I only came to know after Googling her name Sara Samarasinghe and came across www.teenauthorsite.com   She is still a college student and has published few other novels all of them have become extremely popular. This is another story which would also show the merit of bringing up our children broadminded beyond ethnic divide and taking up the opportunities open to them beyond our restricted horizons.

I was the first Sri Lankan Master’s student in Political Science, or for that matter any other field, at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in 1974 when Prof Wilson was the Chair of that Department. He recommended me for a Canadian Teaching/Research Assistantship and I was fortunate to get it. After me was late Ambalavanar Sivarajah who also became a Professor of Political Science at the University of Peradeniya. I met Kumar somewhere in 1975 when he was sponsored by his brother-in-law, Dhanapala Gunewardena, an Engineer from CEB who came on a Canadian fellowship to Frederickton Electricity Board with two others. Even for Kumar’s initial arrival in Canada, I believe Prof Wilson helped him.

Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson

For those who are not familiar with the name or at least a short profile of this great man; Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson was the first Professor (Chair) of Political Science at the University of Peradeniya in 1969. He was son-in law of late SJV Chelvanayakam, the founder of the Federal Party or Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). Having taught since 1952 at the University of Ceylon, he moved to the University of New Brunswick, Canada, in 1972 and held the Chair until 1994. In respect of his qualifications, he obtained BA Honours from the University of Ceylon and PhD from the University of London. When he was awarded a second doctorate, a DSc by the University of London in 1975, I was in his Department. He was a prolific writer and has written over eight books and over 100 journal articles.

Early 1970s were extremely difficult times for anybody to go abroad and take up studies, undergraduate or postgraduate. I remember obtaining only three pounds as foreign exchange to cross several continents and reach Canada as my first visit abroad. Although Kumar came from a well to do entrepreneurial family in Matara, the owners of the Samarasinghe Motors, his parents were not allowed to remit money as they wished to support Kumar’s education at the University of New Brunswick like many parents do today, legally or illegally. Kumar had to work hard part time, juggling with his studies at the same time. This is where Prof Wilson had stepped in very generously according to what Kumar revealed to me during his recent visit. In reciprocity, Kumar’s father also was hospitable and generous whenever Wilson visited Sri Lanka during 1977-1983. Kumar was reading for Bachelors in Electrical Engineering at UNB.

Of course I had known the generosity and good will of Prof Wilson and also Mrs Susili Wilson, the daughter of late SJV Chelvanayakam. They have three children, two daughters and a son, yet he was a father figure to me and according to what Kumar revealed it was the same with him throughout years until his rather early death in 2000.

It is on record that Wilson helped the drafting of the controversial 1978 Constitution and used to travel very often to Sri Lanka until July 1983 trying to be a mediator between the Government and the TULF in bringing a reasonable settlement to the contentious issues of the ethnic conflict. As far as I could personally recollect, he was very much interested in cooperation between the Sinhala and Tamil political parties and power sharing both at the centre and the provincial level between the two communities. He also had the interests of the Muslim community firmly in mind.

It was this effort that became finally ruined during July 1983, almost a pogrom against the Tamils, and he was in Colombo when the riots erupted. He was sent to the airport by President Jayewardene well before a hurriedly arranged flight back to Canada and he wrote to me relating the experience from the airport and also saying that he will never come back to Sri Lanka. And he never did. He had to wait long gruelling hours at the airport.

Kumar has never been a political animal. He comes from a strong ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ (not fundamentalist) family from the Deep South. As far as I am aware it was by accident that Prof Wilson came to know Kumar and his family but that accident was good enough for him to keep an agreeable relationship with the whole family. When Wilson came to Colombo he often used to go to Matara and visited Kumar’s family. Wilson enjoyed speaking in his broken but precise Sinhala during these visits. One of his interests was to know the culture and living in the Deep South and took much interest in knowing the rituals of Bali Thovil, according to Kumar.

It was during these visits to Sri Lanka that he has asked Kumar to look after his house at Colonial Heights, Frederickton, as his own children had been away from home for their studies. Perhaps Wilson was following a tradition from Peradeniya (I mean the University of Peradeniya) where many teachers when they were away or on sabbatical asked the most favourite students to stay and look after their homes. Both parties benefitted in the bargain and my teachers as well as I have done the same.

But the difference had been that even after returning from Sri Lanka he has asked Kumar to stay at home if he wished without any rent or payment. It is during this time that Kumar has come to know Mrs Wilson very closely, an exemplary mother figure and a fine lady. Perhaps they were missing a youngster at home, whether Sinhala or Tamil did not matter to them very much. Kumar had moved to New Jersey in 1981, but continued his contacts with the Wilsons.

Mrs Wilson has always been a gracious woman. I recollect her generosity and care when my wife, Winitha, and the two year old son, Ravi, moved to Frederickton to join me in 1975. Without her help, their settlement would have been extremely difficult in that extremely cold country as they arrived at the height of the winter. I also recollect her when I went for Chelvanayakam’s funeral in Jaffna in April 1977 after my return. It was extremely a political funeral and Mrs Wilson just arrived and was feeling lost in the melee of thousands of people coming to pay homage. When she saw us she was delighted and wanted us to be with her and wanting me to take photographs of her dead father. She could have asked anybody else to do the favour but opted for my help. Why? It was our trusting association for some time whatever the views we were holding on political or other matters.

It was well known that I was strongly opposing the Presidential System and the 1978 Constitution in 1978 that my teacher Prof Wilson opted to support and in fact helped to draft. There were of course times that I became disillusioned about his complicity with the whole project of JRJ and he himself became disillusioned according to the letters I received later. During 1977 and 1983, I have met him several times during his visits and on few occasions he came home at Peradeniya. But our human relations were the same.

There were a number of events and moments that we were close. Kumar expressed the same feeling when he met me the other day. Our different ethnic identities never deter our relations, as teacher-student or elder-youngster. Perhaps we were more mindful and careful to recognize and respect each other given our ethnic differences. This is something I wish to emphasize in this short appreciation. I do have some insightful letters that he has written to me on politics and other matters which I might relate at a future appropriate occasion.

It is heartening to note that he indirectly called me son on several occasions. This was also the feeling of Kumar Samarasinghe. Once he wrote to me saying

They say that when a man grows old and is stricken with illness, the children whom he regards as his favourites come closer to his mind as the days go by. Well, you belong to this category and thought of you as well as visions of you have been in my mind for the last several months.”

Prof Wilson died peacefully in his sleep of a heart failure on 31 May 2000 at the age of 72. For those who wish to know the books that he has written, the following is an incomplete list.

  • Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947-1973 (1974, Macmillan)
  • Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: the Ceylon General Election of May 1970 (1975, Cambridge University Press)
  • The Gaullist System in Asia (1980, Macmillan)
  • The States of South Asia: Problems of National Integration : Essays in honour of W.H. Morris-Jones (1982, Hurst)
  • The Break-up of Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict (1988, Hurst)
  • S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977: a Political Biography (1994, University of Hawaii Press)
  • Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the 19th and 20th Centuries (2000, Hurst)
  • The Post-Colonial States of South Asia: Democracy, Development and Identity (2001, Palgrave)
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Latest comments

  • 0

    What a wonderful heart-warming relationship this has been!Where can I find these books authored by Prof. AJW?

  • 0

    Dr. Laksiri Fernando’s appreciation of the late Professor A. J. Wilson is a wonderful tribute to one of the outstanding scholars that Peradeniya produced in its early decades. As Dr. Fernando describes, Professor Wilson experienced firsthand some of the unfortunate consequences of Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife. I want to write for the record a small incident that I experienced involving Professor Wilson that shows his caliber and sense of fairness as a teacher. In 1968 as a freshly recruited assistant lecturer in the Department of Economics at Peradeniya I served as an examiner in Government for the GCE (AL) as did almost all the other assistant lecturers in the my Department. (At that time Economics was not available as a recognized subject for the AL. AL candidates who sat for Government could opt for Economics in the University.). Professor Wilson, who served as the Controlling Chief Examiner, was responsible for setting the examination question paper as well as for grading. Those of us who were serving as examiners for the first time in our lives were quite excited to have that opportunity. After grading papers several of us informally compared the grades that we had given. We noticed that the Sinhala medium grades, on balance, were quite significantly lower than those that the Tamil medium candidates had scored. From the early 1960s the science stream usually attracted most of the brighter kids in school. It was also known that while schools in Tamil areas, especially in the north, generally had facilities to study science, very many Sinhala medium schools, especially in rural areas, did not have that facility compelling children to study arts subjects. Thus, there was no particular reason for Tamil medium grades in Government to be significantly superior to Sinhala medium grades. Those of us who did the informal comparison agreed that we should bring this to the notice of Professor Wilson and I was entrusted with the task. Professor Wilson listened to what we had to say, and called for a random sample of graded papers. He found that there was a discrepancy in marking although nobody could be blamed for it because there was no standardized marking scheme at that time. He adjusted the grades to be fair by all.

  • 0

    Dr Fernando,

    It was a nice gesture but my friend it is too little too late. It is no point lamenting now when the bird has flown.
    I am now full of confidence that we Tamils have turned the corner and if you need proof just read the outcome of Mrs.Pillai”s tour and the latest Stament from the TNA Supremo.
    We can certainly exchange our views in a light hearted way after we have seperated from each others Clutches. It is like a battered wife finally having a roof over her head free from domestic violence day in day out.

  • 1

    One can find any number of personal/private tales of this nature. But the public figure called AJ Wilson is a different case.

    Can Laksiri or SWR de Samare answer/clarify the following?

    1. Did Wilson support Sinhala/Tamil university education? Tamils could go to Madras univ for Tamil medium edu anyway. What support Wilson gave to ID de S Weerawardena and FR Jayasuriya to teach in Sinhala at university?
    2. How come Susi Chelva spoke good Sinhala but her father did not allow Tamils to learn it?
    3. Who stopped Tamil class for Sinhala students at Peradeniya in 1963?
    4. Did Wilson not know that JRJ bahubootha constitution was a death trap for Sinhala Buddhists and poor Christians?
    5. Are children of Wilson supporters of Eelam?

    • 0


      Let me answer your question as a general public.

      1) Did Wilson support Sinhla/Tamil Education. Boy I dont know what you mean think again and aske the question in an Understandable form. As for the second part he was not mandated to determine the decisons you are referring. In any case the Tamils who went to Tamilnadu would have learnt in the medium of instruction at the Time. Obviously if they were doing a Degree in Tamil in what language did you expect them to learn?
      2) Again you are missing the point Susis was a personal choice and what relevance has that to the Tamil public in general. It was SWRD who thought along the lines you are suggesting which started the first race riots.
      3) The answer to this given above.
      4) Dont be a fool mate we Tamils cannot set death traps for you lot in a civilsied manner as you are capable of doing it yourself. Dont bring us in to this.
      5) Finally are children of supporters of Eelam. You are joikng are you not. If you want an answer why dont you ask them if you know there whereabouts but answering on their behalf I WOULD SAY A BIG YES if they are True Tamils.

    • 0

      If Wijeyawickrema can find ‘any number of personal/private tales of this nature’ then that is important for the purpose of I am talking about. But at the same time he argues that the ‘public figure called AJ Wilson is different.’

      Wijeyawickrema has raised 5 questions for us to answer and all five are his personal views or contentions and nothing to do with Prof Wilson’s public profile. He asks very pompously “Did Wilson support Sinhala/Tamil university education?” My short and frank answer is “I don’t know.” I was not associating him during that time to know personally. But at the same time why does Wijeyawickrema assume that AJ Wilson should have supported Sinhala/Tamil university education? His other questions are the same and not worth answering.

      I entered the university in 1964 as a Sinhalese medium student. When I was reading for the special degree in Economics with major in Government at Peradeniya he often used to come to our class (of four students) invited by Dr KH Jayasinghe and involved in discussions with us in both English and Sinhalese. He didn’t have any discrimination for Sinhalese medium students. That I know for sure.

      I very clearly remember when a discussion was held somewhere in January 1967 about JRJ’s speech at the Ceylon Association of Advancement of Science a month before where JRJ for the first time proposed a presidential system for Ceylon/Sri Lanka. We were given copies of the speech by KHJ, a roneoed paper of A5 size. AJW was more or less in favor of the system and I was critical on the basis of its possible implications for democracy. I don’t think he was in support of the presidential system as a ‘death trap to Sinhala/Buddhists’ or the ‘poor Christians’ as Wijeyawickrema claims.

      What is clear from Wijeyawickrema’s questioning are his personal prejudices and ethnic/religious biases. If this Wijeyawickrema is the same Wijeyawickrema that I have known from the Sama Samaja movement it is a great pity. I may be mistaken. It is not usual for the educated people to question personal matters when an appreciation is written in memory of any person, let alone a renowned academic. I question the ethics of Wijeyawickrema’s stance with a heavy heart. What has gone wrong in Sri Lanka?

  • 1


    Vidyamali’s husband, K.C. (who got a second upper in political science) were in my batch. I was never attached to any political party.

    After 7 years of trying to serve the motherland I swam against the current. I am now supporting Bodu Bala Sena.

    Since 1931 rich Christians controlled Sri Lanka and even today this is the case.

    Stanley Tambiah helping Gananatha Obey, HL senevi or CRdeSilva are not different from your example of AJW.

    It is unfortunate that you act like a moving target. AJW cannot be a saint just like Nicholas Attygalle or FR Jayasuriya were no saints. You must be able to stomach both good and bad of your favorites.

    AJW did bad by Sri Lanka with his bahoobootha work with JRJ and by supporting SJVC in Tamil separatists agenda. This cannot be whitewashed.

    By the way where is KC (Fernando or Perera) now?

    • 0


      By your self admission we now know that BBS enjoys the support of
      Doctor, Proctor , Cooly and Clerk from all sections of Sinhala Lanka.

    • 0


      While your comments are models of clarity I am a little confused byt he following:
      Stanley Tambiah helping Gananatha Obey, HL senevi or CRdeSilva are not different from your example of AJ

  • 0


    Which god refused open discussion demanded by BBS? Also we do not need any more temples, churches. mosques and kovils.

    • 0

      C. Wijeyawickrema

      “Also we do not need any more temples, churches. mosques and kovils.”

      Why not?

    • 0


      The more you talk the more people will know who yoy really are. For your information my friend God doesnt convey his message openly.
      BBS have not demanded open discussion but have waged a relious war in the name of God by attacking and destroying Temples and Mosques and I am sure it must be obvious to even a low grade person like you.

      You have given the game away my friend and what you are saying is quite clear and that is You dont need Hindu Temples , Churches Mosques and Kovils except Buddhist Vihares.
      You ought to clarify what you mean by Temples and I give you the opportunity to say We do not need any Buddhist Temples as opposed to Hindu Temples as Kovil means Temple.

  • 0

    Dr. Laksiri,

    Thanks for the tribute you made to our beloved teacher Prof.AJW. I entirely agree with your sentiments and views expressed. I was of the three who studied Government in Tamil medium under Prof in Peradeniya. Sadly, two others Sivarajah ( who became Professor in Political Science) and Swaminathan (Deputy Chief Secretary Planning –Northern Province) have passed away untimely. I was appointed as a temporary tutor in the Department in January 1970 and then moved to the Ministry of Planning in October 1970 along with C.Maliyadde and D.P. Adikari. Later Prof H A.De S Gunasekera became the Secretary of the Ministry.

    Although I could not work under Prof Wilson, I maintained a close relationship with him over a longer period. During his regular visits to meet one of his closest friends Prof and Secretary H A De S , I happened to meet him since we were in the Central Bank building. During one such visit he came to my office and asked me whether I would like to join the Department. But I could not accept it. Afterwards he had moved to Canada but somehow I managed to be in touch with him. Whenever he comes to Colombo, Jeganathan, who worked in Central Bank, and I never failed to meet him over a lunch or a dinner. The last meeting was prior to 1983 violence. I vividly remember him saying that he will never visit Sri Lanka being disgusted over the happenings in Sri Lanka. Being a victim of 1983 violence I had to move to India with my family and continued my contacts through letters .He always was very prompt in replying letters. His letters gave me lot of confidence in rebuilding my life. Once again my sincere thanks to Dr. Laksiri‘s appreciation which has given me an opportunity to share my experience with the great scholar.

    • 0

      Dear Mr Vamadevan,

      Thank you for your comments and tribute to Prof AJ Wilson. I think I vaguely remember you and sorry to hear that you were also a victim of 1983 violence and had to move to India with your family. The best tribute that we can extend to a good teacher is to follow his footsteps and write and express our views fearlessly and reasonably, whatever they might be. May I encourage you to write?


  • 0

    Dear Dr. Laksiri Fernando: Could you announce that the 1983 riots were the handywork of the UNP Goondas who happened to be Sinhalese. This was not a riot started by the ethnic Sinhalese against the ethnic Tamils, it was a riot by the UNP goondas of the JRJayawardene regime that gave a bad name to the Sinhalese. This incident is still being used by the separatist elements in the Tamil Diaspora in the West to bifurcate Sri Lanka the dream Prabhakaran could not fulfill. Most of the Sinhalese gave refuge to the innocent Tamils who were brutally harrassed by the UNP Goondas. My father kept two Tamil families in his Kandy house basement amidst the threat of the UNP (Sinhalese) Goondas.

    I hope Dr. Fernando will acknowledge what I have stated above. – DAYA GAMAGE

    • 0

      Dear Mr Daya Gamage,

      You are largely correct in saying that the 1983 riots against the Tamils were the ‘handy work of UNP goondas.’ There was considerable planning on their part to teach a lesson to the Tamils and/or the Tamil politicians. But in terms of the participants in the attacks there were other sections who were non-UNP extremist elements. Some ordinary people also participated because of their anti-Tamil sentiments and some others were just looters. Some security personnel participated because of the killing of 13 soldiers in revenge. But I have never found any evidence as to the JVP or the left participation as claimed by the then government.

      I however cannot agree with you that they ‘happened to be Sinhalese.’ When you say that “This was not a riot started by the ethnic Sinhalese against the ethnic Tamils” again it is not completely correct. It was definitely against the ‘ethnic Tamils.’ At the same time all the Sinhalese were not complicit or responsible. As you have stated, many Sinhalese came for the rescue of many Tamils including your father in Kandy even at grave risks. But we were not in a position to rescue them all and they suffered a lot. Tamil Diaspora in the West is still largely affected by this trauma. The changing the situation, if at all, might take a lot of painstaking work.

      As you say, I admit that there was a strong political element in the event/s. But there was an ethnic element as well. It was an ethno-political attack on the Tamils as Sri Lanka’s main conflict is ethno-political. As an ethno-political conflict, there is a Tamil side to it as well. Bifurcating Sri Lanka is not the solution in my view as well but for unity a lot more needs to be done. Of course this should come from both sides, but as people belonging to the majority we have a major responsibility in my view.

  • 0

    Wijayawickrama,Bodu Bala Sena (Balanan), Countrymen, Lend Me Your Ears

    “1. Did Wilson(Pandithanan) support Sinhala/Tamil university education? Tamils could go to Madras univ for Tamil medium edu anyway. What support Wilson gave to ID de S Weerawardena and FR Jayasuriya to teach in Sinhala at university?”

    Please refer/read Tissa Kariyawasam’s Vishwawidyalayeea Natya Wansaya 4 edition 2012 (ISBN 955-20-5441-9)pages 14-15.

    The countrymen will Pujathi Pujaneeyan.

  • 0

    Thanks Mr Weragoda,

    Your reference of Prof Tissa Kariyawasam very clearly shows it was not Prof AJ Wilson who opposed Swabhasha (Sinhala and Tamil) teaching at the University of Peradeniya, but some of our own Bamunas. It was guided by class considerations and not ethnic divide.


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