By Rajan Philips –
The best manifestation of Sri Lankan progressivism these days is limited to the occasions of memorial lectures and birth centenary commemorations of the leaders of the old Left Parties who dominated the island’s politics during the middle two quarters of the twentieth century. There have been two centenary celebrations so far this year, first for Doric de Souza and more recently for Bernard Soysa. We must also add to the list the birth centenary of the UNP stalwart, M.D. Banda, for reason that will soon become clear.
There were in fact two Commemoration Lectures for Bernard. The first was in Sinhala by Prof. Sarath Wijesuria on “Not Sharing Power for the Sake of Power,” and the second in English by Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran on “Brother Bernard and the National Question.” I have not seen the text of or any report on Prof. Wijesuriya’s speech, but Wigneswaran’s speech, which he delivered in English obviously to reach a broader non-Tamil audience even though he was invited to speak in Tamil, has been widely reported and commented upon. I would like to offer a few comments of my own on his speech, but, first, a few homages to the ‘centenarians’. For “now is the time to praise great men” (Arma Virumque Cano), as Fr. Paul Caspersz said, quoting Virgil, while inaugurating the Heector (Abhayavardhana) felicitation symposium fifteen years ago.
Doric de Souza, like Pieter Keuneman, epitomized the finest era in Sri Lankan politics – when someone who did not belong to any of the island’s primordial ethnic or religious groups could become and be accepted as a frontline political leader. But the era eventually ended when the irrepressible Doric, whom Hector Abhayavardhana considered “the most rounded example of a Marxist intellectual in our country”, had to finally put himself in his place and out of the many political forums he once dominated because, as Hector ruefully noted, “he (Doric) suffered from one major political disadvantage – he did not belong to the Sinhala community.”
The “full dimensions of this disadvantage”, Hector went on to say, were not apparent while the British rule lasted, when Doric was the underground hero of the LSSP’s heroic years (1935-47), but they became a “genuine obstacle” after independence. Not just Doric, even the LSSP and the Left as a whole suffered from this political disadvantage – in that their politics was not communal politics. But despite that ‘disadvantage’ the Left leaders who belonged to the Sinhala community strove unto the last to make Sri Lanka belong to all Sri Lankans. And Bernard was the last of the old Left parliamentarians and the only one to return to parliament, and to Kotte, after the 1977 electoral debacle.
Doric was for many years a Senator, but for all his working life he was an academic and a hugely respected Lecturer in the English Department. Stories about his wit and wisecracks still go around. Some of them were recalled in the recent centennial tributes by his admiring former students. The most touching of them was by Sumangalika Dharmadasa, daughter of M.D.Banda and a student of Doric and one of his early recruits to the English Sub-Department. Sometime later Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa wrote a beautiful centennial tribute to M.D. Banda, one of the more accomplished UNP Ministers of all time. As a reader I was moved by these accounts of our common humanity reaching across political chasms. One would also be saddened by today’s contrasts – the dog-eat-dog politics (due apologies to dog lovers) and the crassness that is public life.
Bernard Soysa and Hector Abhayavardhana were Sri Lanka’s most accomplished university dropouts, leaving the university halfway through their studies to join the LSSP’s freedom struggle. In time, they would both become sought after invitees to academic forums. In the 1950s, long before my student time at Peradeniya, Prof. S. Arasaratnam (Arasa), the Historian, was a highly rated lecturer in history and his lectures on the Russian Revolution were known to attract students from all disciplines who would fill the large ‘B’ Room in the Arts Faculty. I have heard these stories and I came to know Arasa years later; so, I asked Sidney Wanasinghe, the LSSP Editor and Publisher, and a student of both Doric and Arasa: “How good a lecturer was Arasa?” “What are you talking?” Sidney replied, “Arasa was like Bernard!”
Bernard was superbly bilingual and a gifted speaker in both Sinhala and English. I believe his first major, if not the maiden, speech in parliament was entirely in Sinhala and appropriately on the Sinhala only legislation of June 1956. In English, Bernard was the master of what we now call ‘informational eloquence’ (in contrast to rhetorical eloquence – the forte of SWRD, GGP, Colvin, and of course Barak Obama who easily blends pulpit cadence and political rhetoric), the best exemplar of which in today’s world is Bill Clinton. It is the ability to render difficult concepts in simple words, endlessly weave otherwise boring facts and figures and all manner of statistics along with wit and anecdotes into fluent speeches, and keep any audience spellbound.
More than speaking, Bernard was a man of action, a revolutionary volunteer, whose life work was politics and helping people. For nearly two decades, he was a parliamentary fixture as the Chairman of Public Accounts Committee regardless of government changes. When he at long last became a cabinet minister in 1994, A.J. Wilson told me that Bernard Soysa should have been a cabinet minister in every government from 1947. Even in 1994, as was widely expected, Bernard should have been given the Finance portfolio. Instead, in one of her many blunders, President Kumaratunga kept Finance to herself and created the now dreadful presidential precedent.
Wigneswaran’s Speech: Rhetoric and Reality
Dr. Tissa Vitarana, Prof. Vijaya Kumar and the LSSP should be commended for organizing the two commemorative lectures and inviting Chief Minister Wigneswaran to speak at one of them on the National Question. It was a necessary political statement within the UPFA’s internal political universe – that is usually dominated by the political antics of the the JHU and Wimal Weerawansa. Inadvertently, perhaps, the arrangement also carried two symbolic significations. First, the two lectures were a reminder of the LSSP’s parity of status principle on the language question in 1956 that was also recalled in full measure by Justice Wigneswaran in his speech. Second, the two separate lectures signified the continuing political isolation of the Tamils as well as the Tamil speaking Muslims in the North and East. That was the central theme of Wigneswaran’s speech and no one is better qualified today than he to convey that message.
In my view, Wigneswaran’s qualifications as Chief Minister are not so much predicated on his judicial background or even his landslide electoral mandate, as they are on the immediate purpose of his office which is to bring redress to a population that is still struggling to recover from the horrors and devastations of the war. Redressing the war affected population and enabling the rebuilding of lives in their jurisdiction must be the singular priority of the Northern Provincial Council and its Chief Minister. No other Provincial Council or Chief Minister in the Island, including the Eastern Provincial Council and Chief Minister, has a comparable purpose as the Northern Provincial Council and its Chief Minister. What is more, no previous Tamil leader or Tamil political party has faced a comparable challenge. Indeed, no previous Tamil leader has been elected in a free and fair election to be in charge of a jurisdiction in Sri Lanka.
Seen in this light, did Wigneswarans’s message adequately convey the urgency of this purpose – the urgency of redressing the war affected people, nothing more, nothing less? Did his framing of the National Question in terms of the Tamil Nation reinforce or detract from the urgency of that purpose? There are four parts to Wigneswaran’s speech and his message. The first two assert that the Tamils are a Nation, and that it is the failure or refusal to recognize this fact, notwithstanding all the admonitions and alternative suggestions of the Left, that underpinned all acts of discrimination by the government against the Tamils, and eventually led to violent resistance and the demand for separation. The third part of the speech outlines the understanding between President Rajapaksa and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, based on their joint communique on May 26, 2009, after the end of the war. Wigneswaran extracts six action items from that understanding, which the President and the government were supposed to act upon. The fourth part of the speech demonstrates the widening gap between the President’s promise and the government’s performance in regard to every one of the six action items. My contention is that the politics of the first half of the speech unnecessarily detracts from the humanitarian urgency of its second half and invariably lets the government off the hook. I contend on both practical and moral grounds.
From a practical standpoint, was the preface about the Tamil Nation in the first two parts of the speech necessary to emphasize the plight of the war affected people that was the focus of the second two parts of the speech? Is the attempt to mediate the two halves by suggesting that the Joint Communique implied recognition of the Tamil Nation and its acceptance by the international community, a convincing attempt? Is the definitional insistence on the Tamil Nation the best approach to exposing the unreliability of President Rajapaksa’s commitments and the intransigence of his government in regard to the six action items that Wigneswaran identified as follows:
- Working towards a lasting political solution;
- To proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment and begin broader dialogue;
- To expedite the necessary basic and civil infrastructure as well as means of livelihood necessary for IDPs to resume their normal lives;
- To resettle the bulk of IDPs;
- To promote and protect human rights and keep up with international human rights’ standards and Sri Lanka’s International obligations ;and
- To set up an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
Even working towards a lasting political solution need not begin with a definitional insistence on the Nation. The first two parts of Wigneswaran’s speech could have been delivered by any Tamil leader at any point in time before the war. That would have been a perfectly legitimate political exercise when life was normal and people were going about their routines in their normal ways. Is that rhetoric morally appropriate in the current situation when nothing is normal and everything is abnormal? Of the six action items, the two that must preoccupy the Chief Minister and his Provincial Council are items 3 and 4. There could be division of labour in regard to items 1 and 2, and items 5 and 6 are now the subject of a UNHRC resolution. There is no one else but Chief Minister Wigneswaran, who is mandated to carry the message and make a difference to life in the Northern Province. I quote from Wigneswaran’s speech his message in regard to the situation in the north:
“Even though our President undertook to expedite the necessary basic and civil infrastructure as well as means of livelihood necessary for IDPs to resume their normal lives at the earliest the lives of IDPs continues to be pathetic. No proper assessment of their needs and requirements let alone their numbers and identities have been prepared so far. No attempts have been made to undertake such research in a scientific manner. Ad hoc politically activated processes seem to be in place but do not seem to solve the problems of the IDPs in any significant manner.
“The other undertaking given by our President to the Secretary General of the United Nations was the resettlement of the bulk of IDPs. In Valigamam North on the North Western side of the Peninsula over six thousand acres of prime agricultural land has been taken over forcibly by the Army under the pretext of setting up a High Security Zone and is being cultivated by the Army. Palatial buildings are being put up to house top Army Officers as well as Political figures coming mainly from the South. The legal occupants entitled to reside in those six thousand acres are in about 32 or more welfare centres in other areas unable to go back to their lands. They have become a problem to the owners of lands and houses, where these IDPs presently reside. There are other areas in the Peninsula as well as the Vanni where the Army has taken control of large acreages of lands and are refusing to hand over them to the legitimate owners. The Army cultivates, does fishing, do trade and business and interfere in the daily lives of the people. In other words an Occupational Army has laid claim to the enemy’s land and properties. They have deprived the IDPs of their livelihood. There are nearly 150,000 soldiers stationed in the Northern Province. If anyone disbelieves this number he or she is most welcome to arrange for an International inquiry into that matter. There are very large Army Camps in the midst of thick jungles apart from the Army camps lining your way visibly wherever you travel in the Northern Province. In recent times they are making applications to vest agricultural lands taken over by them in the name of the Army. All these lands belong to our people. They are deprived into IDP hood while the Army lives a luxury life. So much for the resettlement of the IDPs.”
This is a powerful message, but it could have been and should have been made even more powerful without any detraction by the rhetoric of the Nation. In fact, the whole speech could have been an expansion of the two paragraphs I just quoted. We sure need more informational eloquence than rhetorical eloquence. A humble suggestion will not be out of place: Let us drop the IDP abbreviation in referring to people, and treat people as people and not as UN or government statistics. While the criticisms of the government are unexceptionable, there is also much that the Northern Provincial Council could do even in spite governmental road blocks. There are enough resources among the Tamils that could be mobilized to at least start the process of systematically locating and assessing the basic needs of people affected by the war. There are enough busybodies to indulge in the rhetoric (and counter-rhetoric) of Tamil Nation. But the Chief Minister must be pre-occupied with the needs of a people who cannot live by rhetoric alone.
Brother Bernard And The National Question by C.V. Wigneswaran
Wigneswaran’s ‘Two Nations’ & The State’s Two Blunders by Dayan Jayatilleka
Reading Against The Grain: Notes On Wigneswaran’s Speech On The National Question by Mahendran Thiruvarangan
Response To Mahendran Thiruvarangan On The CM’s Chinthana by Dayan Jayatilleka
Should Minorities Remain Minority Forever? A Response To Dayan Jayatilleka’s Response by Mahendran Thiruvarangan