By Lionel Bopage –
I met comrade H A Seneviratne during the main trial of the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) held in 1972. He was one of the junior attorneys who worked alongside comrade Bala Tampoe, the principal lawyer. Tampoe was a well-known veteran leftist, the founder of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU) and a brilliant criminal lawyer. His team appeared on behalf of some of us who were still committed to exposing the state’s hypocrisy, and its pre-1971 suppression and terror. This repressive process against the JVP ultimately culminated in the insurrection of April 1971. Comrades Tampoe, Seneviratne and others dedicated their lives to protecting and upholding the democratic rights of working people, particularly trade union members.
A group of progressive activists including Bala and his team pioneered the protection of the human and democratic rights of JVP activists, who were held in detention at the time. Bala and his team were also members of the Fourth International holding Trotskyite political positions. They originated from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (the LSSP). They ultimately joined together to form the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) and were active in the CMU. What I found in all of them was a shared concern for humanity. As bright legal professionals they could have joined the ruling elite, and enjoyed all the interests, rewards, and privileges that it would entail.
Instead, they all became political activists, first and foremost due to their overriding concern for the oppressed. Among the trade union leaders, it was rare to find people like them, who earned respect both locally and internationally. They dedicated their lives to working people without personal or political gain. It is a pity that Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly devoid of people who work in such a self-less manner. Seneviratne and his fellow comrades believed in collective prosperity and fundamental freedoms. As humanists we have a lot to learn from their life experiences, particularly at a time when the world is driven in the opposite direction forcing society to forget humanity, but to put self-preservation first and foremost.
We all approached life as humanists, but with shades of sectarianism dominating in our political outlooks and activities. This was dependent on which political tendencies we belonged to, irrespective of the outcomes we realised as a result of our political activities. I remember Bala and H A teasing us during the trial and afterwards saying we were ‘Little Lenins’. When Comrade Rohana Wijeweera and I visited the CMU Head office in Kollupitiya, Colombo, we only met Bala and the CMU staff. We thanked Bala, his legal team and the CMU for consistently supporting us while in prison.
Comrade Seneviratne was calm and gentlemanly, despite his learned background. Unfortunately, comrades Bala and H A parted their ways later, after we were sentenced for waging war against the Queen’s Government in Ceylon. From what we heard from Bala, they had differences in prioritising trade union work. The last time I met him was in 2017, where we spoke about his literary and pro-feminist political activities.
As the decades pass, I cannot recall everything Comrade H A contributed to and accomplished during his life time. However, I can say that he was an incredibly charming person with a simple lifestyle. I have heard that his talents and interests extended beyond politics and human rights. I can recall trying to visit him at his home in Nawinna, Maharagama, but was unable to see him. Comrade Seneviratne was said to suffer from memory loss and did not wish to see anyone. Since then, I haven’t been able to get in touch with him.
Comrade H A Seneviratne’s passing will leave a gap that others will find difficult to fill in. I take this opportunity to pay my fraternal respect to him and politically honour him. My deepest sympathies are with his family, relatives, friends and comrades.