By Lionel Bopage –
Comrade Sarath Justin Fernando and I met as students of the Engineering Faculty in Peradeniya campus in the late 1960s. Justin as we came to know him was from a very well-known leftist family from Kegalle. Together we were involved in university students’ issues and activities both independently and through ‘Socialist Society’, which was a student’s association affiliated at the time with the Peking wing of the Communist Party headed by comrade Shanmugathasan.
With the uprising of April 1971, comrade Justin was taken into custody and his family property in Kegalle was set on fire by the security forces and their goons. When we were held in Magazine prison in Borella, we spend some time together in one of the prison wards. He had political differences with the JVP as he had his pro-Maoist ideological views, orientated more towards organising the peasantry of Sri Lanka, which was about 70 percent of its population. He was also devoted to his religious views with his compassionate attitude towards the people who are subjected to suppression and exploitation. It took a long time for me to convince him to join the activities organised by the 1969 Engineering Batch of the Peradeniya campus. I understand he was extremely happy in associating himself with those activities later on.
While in prison our political journeys diverged. Despite this, we have remained friends and used to meet every now and then when I visited Sri Lanka. He had devoted his whole life for achieving socialism by organising the peasantry through the extremely good work done by the movement he founded ‘Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform’ (MONLAR). I personally know that through this organisation many progressive activities had been supported. The anti-capitalist and anti-neo-liberal policy platform presented by MONLAR under comrade Justin’s leadership had been widely discussed in global alternative gatherings such as World Economic Forum. Though he retired from his work as founder and leader of this movement, I know in heart and soul he was still involved with the progress of this organisation. Currently the organisation and till his untimely death Justin have been involved in agitating against perceived actions of the government to turn the country’s traditional agricultural practices to one more conducive of transnational agri-business.
I met him last in July this year when I was in Sri Lanka to attend my mother’s funeral, at a family and friends gathering organised in Rambukkana by our friend Dr Raja Wijetunga. It was a great and happy occasion where comrade Justin and his wife sang together for a while. Though he was unwell, he discussed his plans for future including publishing his memoirs. He wrote to me wishing me on my last birthday, but it was so sad to hear his passing away a short time afterwards.
I have really appreciated the positions he and his organisation took when the people of Sri Lanka were faced with crucial situations, be it the national question, neo-liberal exploitation, or destruction of natural environment. As a Sri Lankan left intellectual and activist what he did for the progress of the people of Sri Lanka will never be forgotten. The major lesson I take from his life is that there are many schools of socialist thought on addressing the socio-political and economic issues faced by the society and that all these schools need to work together in achieving our goals, rather than fighting and destroying each other and ultimately the socialist camp itself.
On a personal, he is also one of my brother in laws and I farewell comrade Justin both politically and personally. He will be missed both as a friend and a comrade whose life was devoted to making Sri Lanka a more democratic and egalitarian nation.