18 October, 2017

An Appreciation Of Professor Ranjith Amarasinghe

By Laksiri Fernando

I was sad to hear the passing away of Professor (Emeritus) Ranjith Amarasinghe, University of Peradeniya, a teacher and a friend, on Sunday the 27th. This sadness is shared by many of our friends and former colleagues who informed me of the sorrowful demise by email, Professors Gamini Samaranayake and Kalinga Tudor Silva in particular. Ranjith was ill only for a short while and then suddenly vanished from our presence. Even I was not aware of his illness. He will be intimately missed by his wife, Mallika, and two sons, Samanga and Dhanusha and Samanga’s family.

Personal Dedication

Professor Ranjith Amarasinghe

Professor Ranjith Amarasinghe

Prof. Ranjith was not a mere academic but a social activist without personal ambition. He performed his tasks whether as an academic or a social activist as if he was bound to do that duty by destiny. This is what I have seen in him mostly throughout my association with him since I first came to know him as one of my university teachers in political science in 1965 at the University of Peradeniya. He was a dedicated teacher. After my graduation we were friends and served in the same staff before I left for Geneva in 1984. I and my wife, Winitha, were privileged to have his and Mallika’s hospitality at their home at Sarasavi Uyana (University Gardens) many a time when we were visiting Sri Lanka between 1984 and 1997. It is the same quality of dedication to family and friends that we have seen in him. He was a good cook, and I relished to taste his home brewed Lovi (Flacourtia inermis) wine.

After returning back to Sri Lanka in 1997 my last close association with him was until 2005 as members of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Peace Negotiations and Constitutional Reform. Early 2005 I left again for two years on sabbatical and also disillusioned with the lack of progress on the peace front. He nevertheless dedicatedly continued until the end of the year. Thereafter, he was a founder and a Director along with Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne of the Institute for Constitutional Studies until his passing away this week. If he were living any longer he would have taken a prominent role in the ongoing movement for the abolition of the presidential system, I have no doubt.

Ranjith was a brilliant and a dedicated teacher not only for me but for many of the political scientists that the University of Peradeniya has produced. Many of them are professors today on their own right. His political science teachers were only one or two and the names of Professor A. Jeyeratnam Wislon and Dr. K. H. Jayasinghe naturally come to my mind. Professor Wiswa Warnapala as far as I know was his senior contemporary. However, his successors or students were many, rather a long list to mention even the illustrious ones by name. Those days, as there was no separate degree in political science and as it was a part of economics degree he was not only teaching for government students but also for economics students as well. Many of them or the batch that entered Peradeniya in 1964 who are celebrating the 50th Anniversary this year in September might be saddened to hear his demise. Among his economics teachers were many giants like Professors H. A. de S. Gunasekara, Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, F. R. Jayasuriya and Tony Rajaratnam. Professor Hewavitharana might be very sad to hear Ranjith’s demise.

Academic Achievements

To his academic credit, Ranjith obtained BA (Ceylon), B. Phil (York) and PhD (London) before venturing into broader areas of studies, research and social engagement. He could not be considered a politically neutral or an apolitical person. He was neither a political activist. His PhD thesis at the University of London was on “Trotskyism in Ceylon,” studying the ‘development, ideology and political role’ of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) between 1935 and 1964.

This he converted into a popular and updated book published by the Social Scientists Association (1998 and 2000) titled rather in the reverse order or more appropriately as “Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka.” After G. J. Lerski’s “Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon” (1968) this was the most extensive study on the development of the LSSP and invariably of the Left party politics in the country. If Lerski traced the origins, Ranjith elaborated the development. Taking the LSSP joining a coalition government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1964 as a decisive departure, which some called a great betrayal, he examined the transformation of initial revolutionary idealism into regular parliamentary politics. Apart from joining a ‘bourgeoisie’ government, he showed that the LSSP’s politics was marked by a parliamentary orientation almost from the beginning influenced by British Fabianism and also Trotskyism. However, he has also traced the militant history of the party against colonialism and war, and after independence, in trade unionism and particularly during the Hartal of 1953.

Then what has happened is the de-radicalization of a Marxist party under the influence of parliamentary politics that Robert Tucker discussed (The De-radicalization of Marxist Movements, 1967). It is interesting to note that a similar trajectory has been applied by two young researchers, Shathasiri Abeywarna and GDRUU Abeyrathne, whom I don’t know personally, to discuss the transformation of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into parliamentary politics recently. Interestingly, their work resonates Ranjith’s work and even titled as “Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of the JVP.”

When the Presidential Constitution was inaugurated in 1978 he was strongly critical of the system not because that the 1972 Constitution was ideal, but because of the dangers associated with the executive power shifting from Parliament to an all-powerful Executive President. His views were very close to what Dr. N. M. Perera expressed in his “Critical Analysis” of that Constitution. However, when the 13th Amendment was inaugurated in 1987, Ranjith was at the forefront among other academics, professionals, artists who openly supported the provincial council system and devolution of power. He was very close to late Dr. Newton Gunasinghe and Dr. Kumari Jayawardena in the activities of the Social Scientists Association (SSA) and in the activities of the Workers and Peasants Institute (WPI) which Newton Gunasinghe founded in Kandy.

Other Work

Since this period he has written on many subjects, all of which I don’t have ready access or clear track, but he became more and more involved in researching on the issues of ethnic reconciliation, provincial council system, devolution of power and constitutional reforms. He was associated with the National Integration Program Unit (NIPU) of the Ministry of National Integration during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first term of office. It is no wonder why and how he thereafter became very close to Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne in this venture. He was closely behind and extremely supportive of President CBK’s devolution package in 1995 until it became a new Draft Constitution in August 2000 through negotiations with the opposition UNP. It was disheartening for him that it was not successful when it was proposed as a Bill in Parliament. At least those days, the Parliament retained the upper hand and not the President.

It was my observation that he was a supporter and even an advocate of a quasi-federal system for Sri Lanka. He considered a clear characterization of the state system as a unitary state in the constitution to be a major hindrance to a political resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. He was more inclined to its characterization as a ‘democratic republic consisting of state institutions of the center and of the regions/provinces.’ He also gave much emphasis in enhancing horizontal democratic institutions to the level of the grassroots and therefore interested in the enhancement of powers, functions and participation of the local government system.

Some of his publications on the subject of devolution and provincial council system includes “Devolution Experience in Sri Lanka, 1988-1998,” “Legislative Functions of Provincial Councils: Statute Making and Capacity Issues,” and “The Working of Provincial Councils: Centre/Province Relations.” In this respect he was very close to three other researchers, Professors N. Selvakkumaran, Tressie Leitan and A. M. Navaratna-Bandara.

Prof. Ranjith have had a vast international experience as a visiting scholar/professor particularly in the United States and Japan. He was a Japan Foundation Fellow. One of his rare publications was on “Enforcement of Environmental Law in Sri Lanka and Japan” (2002).” His demise might be crucially felt by the Department of Political Science and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya where he was Chair of Political Science (1998-2008) and the Dean of the Faculty (2003-2006). Outside the university confines he also served as a Consultant and a Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs during Minister DEW Gunasekera’s time and also served as the Director of the Peace Building Project.

Final Note

This personal appreciation is incomplete if I fail to conclude it with a comment on Prof. Ranjith’s family. I and my wife, Winitha, knew Mallika as a dedicated teacher at Hillwood College Kandy. We knew Samanga and Dhanusha, the two sons, when they were toddlers but not very much after they grew up, except Samanga briefly before he went overseas. I was delighted to learn through web searchers today that both have now grown up to carry forward the father’s mission perhaps in different forms. Samanga is already an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Bellevue University, USA, with his own publications clearly in line with his father. Dhanusha has taken a more socially engaged role in Sri Lanka, working as the Country Coordinator of the Education Lanka Foundation. In addition Dhanusha has his own research and publications. This is something perhaps Ranjith longed for. He was not a political activist, as I said before, but always had an inclination to render service to the society. “Education is not merely a passport for upward social mobility, it is primarily a social contract to serve the society.” He believed in this principle.

May he attain Nibbana.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    6

    Yes, we find persons such as Prof. RA who were sincere to their mission.

    But LSSP was a cancer in Sri Lankan politics. Its Bangaweva (destruction) talk and King Dutugemunu was a gadol modaya doctrine (fool of bricks) destroyed Sri Lanka just as the Sir John/Sir Oliver/Esmond Wilckremasingha/JRJ and R Premadasa UNP politics of UNP.

    The most strange thing I found with LSSP was that it was run by whiskey-drinking, non-Buddhist theoreticians like Doric de Souza using English, but not teaching English to workers who toiled foolishly acting as cat’s paws. There was a master-servant agency.

    Jayampathy is like a living example of that dying LSSP class.

    • 3
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      CW,

      Do you have to externalize your idiotic thoughts even while commenting on an obituary?

      RP

      • 1
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        Rajan,

        I do not think Prof RA would object to my comments about his philosophy if he were alive.

        Are you telling me that Laksiri was not taking about the value of his doctrine?

        Colombo Telegraph knows what to allow as comments and you are not the owner of CT.

        By the way, [Edited out]
        Wije

        • 1
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          C. Wijeyawickrema, LL.B., Ph.D.

          You have dropped cow done (Gome) to the pot of milk.
          Please try to maintain the decorum of this August forum.
          Your comment is the biggest insult you can do to the intelligence of late Prof RA (even before his funeral)and all others.

          • 1
            1

            I have seen so many funerals at Kanaththa with LSSP comrades pushing the body to the gas burner, shouting saadukin pelenavun, dan ithin nagitiyav!! I hope RA ‘s funeral will be Buddhistic.

            What insult I made to him as a human being with a panchas kanda?

            cw

            • 0
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              You don’t belong to he group of readers in CT. Your place is in lankaweb – among the raciest and fanatics who praise you in your e mail loop.
              I reserve my comments on “human being with ……. kanda”
              Discussion closed.

  • 2
    2

    It is so nice to read of the intellectual giants that this country has produced.They were teachers who blazed a trail beyond academia in to the broad lands of humanity. Their human qualities cut across religious and social boundaries .I have personal experience of Prof K H Jayasinghe and Prof Wiswa Warnapala, who went out of their way to help students in their academic pursuits, which would only be rendered by many present academics only on payment.

    Incidentally it would be pertinent to ask why SL no longer produces intellectuals of similar calibre today.Perhaps,Prof Laksiri Fernando would be so kind to spare time and favor us with an explanation through these columns .

    Thank you Prof Fernando for this wonderful appreciation.

    Hans Morgantahu

  • 1
    1

    It is so nice to read of the intellectual giants that this country has produced.They were teachers who blazed a trail beyond academia in to the broad lands of humanity. Their human qualities cut across religious and social boundaries .I have personal experience of Prof K H Jayasinghe and Prof Wiswa Warnapala, who went out of their way to help students in their academic pursuits, which would only be rendered by many present academics only on payment.

    Incidentally it would be pertinent to ask why SL no longer produces intellectuals of similar calibre today.Perhaps,Prof Laksiri Fernando would be so kind to spare some time and favor us with an explanation through these columns .

    Thank you Prof Fernando for this wonderful appreciation.

    Hans Morganthau

  • 1
    1

    Thank you! Professor Laksiri Fernando for this appreciation of a dear friend.

    I felt very sad when I heard from Jayampathy about the demise of Professor Amarasinghe.

    I was shocked beyond belief because I met him very recently only on 6-7 June 2014 when I coordinated the workshop in Jaffna for the elected members of the Northern Provincial Council conducted by the Institute of Constitutional Studies.

    This may be his last appearance in a public forum. After the workshop he emailed me a couple of articles on devolution and now, this news.

    I had lengthy discussions with Professor on numerous occasions whenever I got an opportunity in Colombo ,Kandy, Dambulla, Trincomalee or Jaffna.

    At the workshops he presented his well researched facts methodologically, but calmly without much fanfare.

    I learnt a lot from him on various aspects of devolution.

    However I do not know much about his family or even Professional life.

    Now Thanks to Prof Laksiri, I have a complete picture – his personal as well as his professional life

  • 1
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    Into that pantheon of brilliant academics and great humanists I hasten to add the name of Prof. Kumari Jayawardena of the University of Colombo.This again is through personal experience .Surely others would have their own lists of such giants who collectively would constitute a Sri Lankan academics hall of fame.

    Hans Morganthau

  • 1
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    I have known Ranjit for over 48 years as a friend and colleague. He was a true gentleman, excellent academician,social and political activist, good friend, and above all a great human being.We miss him dearly. May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

  • 2
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    Thank you so much for informing the greatest academic giant’s demise.

    I felt very sad when i opened Colombo telegraph website about the demise of my ever great teacher on political communication and my head of the department for my undergraduate study and as well as a genuine political activist in the course of building democratic institution.

    Thank you very much Prof Laksiiri sir for your very thought provoking obituary notes.

  • 1
    1

    It is with sad memories I reflect the life and services of Professor Amarasinghe who has left us so soon. We were unaware (now been told being abroad) that he had the vicious disease in his lungs, next to his golden heart.

    I knew him as a simple person, friend, intellectual, dedicated disseminator of political science knowledge and a committed exponent of power sharing. His many writings and presentations on political science subjects will be certainly reference materials to present and future students on the subject, as well to politicians and lawyers.
    In addition to his teaching service at Peradeniya, his commitment to practicing political science theories was a marked difference in him from many university professors.
    If I remember right, I met him last at the book launch of Jayampathi Wickremaratne at the Sri Lanka Foundation a few months back and he was not showing any signs of a friend who was to leave us in a couple of months. I had the opportunity to work with him for the last time at the beginning of this year when we went to Jaffna on the invitation of the newly elected Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council Hon. CV Wigneswaran.
    His perfection in presenting his vast knowledge in simple terms with the Northern Provincial Councilors and Governor GA Chandrasiri when we met them did bear evidence of his capacity to deal with differing personalities on the same subject in motivating terms. Jayamapathi Wickremaratne and I with different background experiences could learn from his maturity and expertise gained, most probably with long teaching experience he enjoyed.
    We have lost a friend, educationist, committed devolutionist and intellectual.
    May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana.
    Austin Fernando

  • 2
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    Thank you very much for this appreciation. It is good to remember the great men we had to teach us.

    They stand in such marked contrast to the frauds, plagiarists and charlatans who succeeded them

  • 0
    2

    I have never met or personally known Prof. Ranjith Amarasinghe (RA), but I have greatly benefited from his major work on the LSSP, that Laksiri refers to in his thoughtful and comprehensive obituary. I browsed through the book before writing this brief note and found that the great Morris-Jones was RA’s thesis supervisor at the London University. That says something. My reading of RA’s thesis on the LSSP is that RA found that the LSSP was caught between two tendencies from its inception: one was revolutionary idealism and the other was pragmatic politics. At every turn before independence, according to RA, the first tendency prevailed over the second. It could be said that after independence the second tendency gradually took the upper hand culminating the 1964 Conference and split. The LSSP’s and Sri Lanka’s histories might have unfolded differently if the two tendencies had been able to strike a different balance during the anti-colonial struggle. In fairness to the extraordinarily great men and women who were active in the LSSP at that time, not only including but also because of non-Buddhists like Doric de Souza, the Party was pummelled by external events beyond their control. Sri Lanka was (and it still is) too small to internally cushion its pioneer revolutionists, many of whom also had talents that were too big for their small country. This is all water under the historical bridge.

    Of more living relevance is the publication “On Twenty Two Years of Devolution: An Evaluation of the Working of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka, of which the late Ranjith Amarasinghe was one of the principal authors, along with Asoka Gunawardena, Jayampathy Wickramaratne and Navaratna-Bandara. This book is a must read for those associated with Sri Lankan politics in whatever capacity. The book will remain relevant as long as Provincial Councils remain in Sri Lanka, and the biggest honour to Ranjith Amarasinghe would be to make the Provincial Councils system work at least to the extent that they are supposed to work.

    Rajan Philips

  • 1
    1

    University of Ceylon ( later University of Peradeniya)that Dep. of Economics was ideologically dominated by Trotskyist of LSSP politics, then most of majority so-called Dons belongs to Trotskyist politics that had been turn & join into SLFP or UNP regime in power by time to time; to be as an advisory capacity, or that having reactionaries positions of bureaucracy officials were closed to Ministers, PM and Presidents of SL.
    The writer also roots goes back to anti-Marxists of Trotskyism as irrational and outdated politics of reformist, then he was join govt.as capacity of adviser of various position under CBK. By and large Majority of Trotskyists Dons, are position hunter by birth of their line of Trotskyists’ scrounge of methodology.
    Dr Amarasinghe will attain Nibana!

  • 1
    0

    RA was an academic trained in the old tradition of scholarship – he had gone through the mill, unlike some recent “political scientists” who are found in the Universities of Sri lanka today, who do not even understand English.

    An interesting question that should be raised is why, and how, Trotskyists of recent times began to support strong devolution while Trotsky himlsef, or the NM, Colvin Merill Fdo generation in their “idealistic revolutionary” days rejected any such devolution what so ever.

    In fact, they looked for stronger integration to form a world government of workers, transcending caste, creed, race and nationality. They looked for integration of farms and work places into collectivized larger units. They looked for centralized planning to “optimally deploy and employ resources”.

    The main problem arose from the demographic composition of the trade unions, with a majority of the minority community running the unions like the GCSU etc.
    Also, the union workers, with a reliable monthly salary, were much more well-to-do than the rural villagers. But the “social scientists” stuck close to their books are continued to pontificate.

    Furthermore, it is interesting to see that our political scientists (left or right) failed miserably to understand how politics would evolve in Sri Lanka and South Asia after the end of 2nd world war. Even today, I they are relatively clueless (for good reasons), and the man in the street will give a better prediction of how things may evolve.

  • 1
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    To my eternal regret I never met him but I had flashes of his thinking from my young friend, his second son Dhanusha. Quite a few of my writings were triggered by this young man and him, I believe, acted as a gentle foil in the vein of his illustrious father. As I’ve expressed a few times to Dhanu, I would have liked to have met him and spoken to him and delved into his mind for he seems to acquired a wealth of insights in his lifetime. If this has taught me anything, it has taught me that I should never put off anything again.

    When my brother learned that Dhanu was Prof. Amarasinghe’s son, his eyes softened and he said “He is a quiet man”. Truly, “pirunu kale, diya nosale”

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