By Rajan Philips –
Professor Kumar David will be turning 80 later this week, on July 29. He is most familiar to readers of the Sunday Island as one of its regular columnists – trenchant, funny, irreverent, provocative, but always well informed and substantial. Most readers also know that Kumar David is a great deal more than a weekly columnist. More than occasionally, he has donned his academic cap as a Professor of Electrical Engineering to wade into Sri Lanka’s power and energy sector and its recurrent crises. At least on one occasion he turned his column into a public lecture to his former students at the national Electricity Board, reminding them of what he taught them at Peradeniya about electricity pricing and asking what on earth they were doing as practicing Engineers in determining consumer electricity tariffs to suit misguided government policy. Often, he uses his space to popularize science in the manner of a dedicated teacher bringing his students up to date with recent advances in science and technology, and revisiting old debates with the enthusiasm of yore but with new information and nuances.
As an Electrical Engineer, Kumar David has scaled the mountain height both in the world of academia and in the power supply and transmission industry. He graduated with First Class Honours in Electrical Engineering from the University of Ceylon in 1963. He was a Commonwealth Scholar for three years (1966-1969) at the Imperial College of Science & Technology, University of London, completing his PhD and DIC in 1969.
He is a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and the USA, receiving citations for his contributions to the restructuring of the electricity supply industry and transmission development, which has been his main research area in recent decades. In Sri Lanka, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Ceylon Electricity Board when he was 29. He has been an industry consultant in Asian and African countries. He has held visiting professorships and research positions in universities in the US and Sweden.
He taught at Peradeniya for over ten years until 1980, in Zimbabwe for three years (1980-1983), and from 1983 for over 25 years in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he retired as Dean, Faculty of Engineering. He was the first non-European to become Dean of Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, which is a centre of excellence for students from China and other neighbouring countries. Kumar David has navigated the rites of passage for generations of students in Sri Lanka, Africa and many Asian countries obtaining their undergraduate and graduate degrees in Engineering.
A Lifelong Sama Samajist
For all his extended sojourns overseas, Kumar David never totally left the country, and certainly not its politics. He remains a Sri Lankan citizen, he is not a (dual) citizen of any other country, and he carries only a Sri Lankan passport. When he began his weekly writings in the Sunday Island 15 years ago, he was beginning his retirement as Dean of Engineering in Hong Kong. To strike a nostalgic note, Kumar David and I belong to a group of Sri Lankans who would be happy to be identified as students of the Hector Abhyavardhana school of political writing. Other and more illustrious members of the group include Tissa Vitarana, Vijaya Kumar, Shantha de Alwis, Chris Rodrigo, Sumanasiri Liyanage, Jayampathy Wickremaratne, Jayantha Somasundaram, and the late Ajith Samaranayake.
Hector, an accomplished Marxist intellectual and LSSP theoretician, never wrote for the mainstream media. First in India (1945-1960) and later in Sri Lanka, he published his own political journals. We wrote for Hector in Sri Lanka. Our foray into mainstream media is a relatively recent development. Interestingly, if not coincidentally, Tissa Vitarana, Kumar David, and yours truly appear practically every week in the Sunday Island. Our political angles are different, but as Bala Tampoe said while appearing on the same platform, in Kandy, with his erstwhile mentor Dr. Colvin R de Silva, soon after Colvin became a United Front Government Minister in 1970, “Our positions may be different, but our priorities should remain the same.”
Kumar David, S. Balakrishnan and I might be the only people alive of the core group that included Fr. Paul Caspersz, Bala Tampoe, Upali Cooray, Jayaratne Maliyagoda, Prins Rajasooriya, Yohan Devananda, and Regi Siriwardena, who launched the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) in 1979. Silan Kadirgamar spearheaded the MIRJE Branch in Jaffna. MIRJE fact finding missions visited Jaffna and documented human rights violations during the 1979 Emergency and the burning of the Public Library in 1981. It is pathetic to see now spurious narratives being bandied to falsify the unfalsifiable truth about the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Be that as it may.
Kumar David has been a lifelong political activist. Indeed, a lifelong Sama Samajist. Inspired by the 1953 Hartal, he joined the LSSP Youth Movement at the age of 12. And 68 years on, he has not looked back, but marched on. He became a full Member of the LSSP as a first-year undergraduate in 1960, and functioned as Secretary of the LSSP University Local (Branch). He was one of the two youngest members (the other being Lal Wijeynayake, Lawyer and now of the NPP) at the historic 1964 Conference of the Party. It was a Special Conference held on June 6 and 7, to resolve the ‘coalition question.’ The majority resolution calling for an SLFP-LSSP government moved by NM Perera and 21 Central Committee Members prevailed.
Those who moved the defeated left-opposition resolution rejecting the SLFP-LSSP coalition, including stalwarts like Edmund Samarakoddy and Bala Tampoe, dramatically walked out of the conference and broke away from the Party. As the dust of the walkout drama settled, a devastated Kumar David had sunk to the floor below the stage, when a huge hand reaching from above tapped his head and a deep voice followed: “It’s not the end of the world, young man.” It was Colvin, who with Leslie Goonewardene and Bernard Soysa, had moved the “centrist resolution’ calling for a progressive SLFP-ULF government. That resolution was also defeated but they did not leave the Party.
In 1970, Kumar David was one of a triumvirate of young Sama Samajists who set up a secret internal left faction (Vaama Sama Samaja group) within the LSSP. The prime mover was Wickramabahu Karunaratne (Bahu), and the third member was Vasudeva Nanayakkara. All three were rising stars in the LSSP that had just won a massive electoral victory as a coalition partner of the United Front of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP. Kumar was 29 and Bahu 27, and both were young lecturers in Engineering at Peradeniya. Vasudeva was 31 and the film star face of the future LSSP. Vasudeva and Bahu were members of the LSSP Central Committee and Kumar David was on the Board of Directors of the (Ceylon) Electricity Board. The aim of the secret faction was to restore the LSSP to its pre-1964 roots through an internal struggle from within the Party, without leaving the Party. By 1977, however, all three were outside the LSSP and had launched the new Nava Sama Samaja Party.
1977 also marked the electoral decimation of the Sri Lankan Left, and decimation, as well, of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary system. The terms of politics changed with the new presidential system, the opening of the economy, and the violent eruption of the national question. The end of the internal war in 2009 precipitated new challenges while old problems have kept pressing for new solutions. The base fundamentals have not changed but new superstructural issues have emerged and become dominant. The old generation of leaders, the old Left leaders in particular, who dominated post-independence politics are now gone, and the new generation of politicians who are filling the vacuum are neither well-grounded in the institutions they have inherited, nor are they particularly well equipped to adapt to new changes occurring locally and globally.
It is this new 21st century situation that provides the context for Kumar David’s current political writings. Often, Kumar David disparages what is left of the Old Left as dead Left, and berates and cajoles the JVP to rise above its past follies and seize the current moment and provide a new progressive, secular and pluralistic alternative. He was perhaps the first commentator to call for a single-issue (abolish the presidency) common presidential candidate in 2014, and he was the only observer to raise the alarm even before the 2015 January election (much to the chagrin of many that Kumar was as usual rocking the boat) – that the common candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena was being opportunistically diluted too much to be able to fulfill its historic purpose and potential. Unfortunately, his critical foresight has been proved to be correct. And worse was to follow and has followed. The country that was supposed to recuperate under a new President after the 2019 presidential election, is now in the worst dystopic spiral ever – doubly bound by a global pandemic and government incompetence.
The Intellectual and the Party
Kumar David was born on July 29, 1941, to Ceylon Tamil parents, Benedict and Amybelle David. Kumar credits his mother to have been the greatest influence in his life. He learnt his values from her – the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. His father was a Hulftsdorp Advocate who joined the Judicial Service, served in different parts of the island, and retired as Chief Magistrate Colombo. His maternal grandfather James Joseph was a District Judge, and his maternal uncle Andrew Joseph was a Sri Lankan and UN Diplomat, who retired as Deputy Director UNDP. Kumar’s paternal grandparents and maternal grandfather were Catholics, while his maternal grandmother was a strong Anglican. Kumar also traces his roots to Hinduism through his mother, whose paternal grandfather was a Hindu, who became a Catholic, changing his name from Murugesupillai to Joseph, to marry the young Catholic woman whom he besotted. Kumar’s Catholic forefathers were a well-established Catholic community in Jaffna town. They were benefactors of the local Church and custodians of Jaffna’s St. Mary’s Cathedral parish.
Kumar grew up in Colombo, living in Ratmalana and later in Thimbirigasaya. He went to school at St. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia. His university education in Engineering was also in Colombo, as the Engineering Faculty was then located in Colombo until its relocation to Peradeniya in 1964. Kumar’s fascination for Marxism and Left politics and his path to the LSSP were influenced by his stepfather, Lloyd de Silva, who his mother married in 1953. An LSSPer, Lloyd de Silva had a good library of Marxist texts, open to be devoured by someone young, curious and necessarily intelligent. Kumar also became introduced to almost all of the LSSP leaders. Colvin, Bernard and Hector were frequent visitors to their house. Kumar recalls the day after SWRD Bandaranaike’s election victory in 1956, when Colvin R de Silva walked into their house like a huge giant and booming out “Lloyd, tomorrow we are going to have a new government.”
Political organizations play a socializing role in facilitating shared responses to social situations. A revolutionary workers’ party is set up to play, in Leninist terms, a vanguard role and spearhead the cause of social revolution. The party invariably draws on two contradictory segments of society: the social elites from the upper echelons of society carrying the ‘political consciousness’, and dispossessed workers from the bottom drawers of society carrying the ‘psychological consciousness.’ The resulting fusion is what Georg Lukacs called the “imputed consciousness” of the political party. There is also a process of cultural transformation in which, as Hector once described, the worker “enlarges his vision and understanding and acquires the attributes of the highest contemporary human culture; and the elite member “liberates intelligence and knowledge from the vanity of mere intellectual prowess and mellows it with identification and belonging to society as a whole.”
The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, founded in December 1935, was Sri Lanka’s first political party. Its founding leaders, Philip Gunawardena, NM Perera, SA Wickremasinghe, Colvin R de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene – were all young men in their twenties and thirties. Almost all of them were drawn from the highest echelons of Sri Lankan society, but based more on their educational qualifications and accomplishments than by possession of property or any other form of wealth. They were the bearers of a new political consciousness not just for the nascent party but for an entire politically dormant country. For the psychological or experiential consciousness, they turned to the island’s “toiling masses.”
The inaugural manifesto of the Party identified the establishment of a socialist society as “the primary aim” of the Party, the prevailing imperialist rule as the biggest obstacle to political independence and socialist emancipation, and “the toiling masses” as the sole agency to carry out the struggle against imperialism. Thus, the LSSP was born as a bi-modal party, articulating a disciplined cadre component and a positively populist mass base. The founding of the LSSP lit a fire among the island’s intelligentsia and for at least three decades some of the brightest and the best in Sri Lanka were drawn to politics initially because of the LSSP, and later because of both the LSSP and the CP.
The recruitment, or the calling, certainly diminished and dried up presumably after 1964. But during the 1940s, 1950, and even a good part of the 1960s, young pre-university and university students in not insignificant numbers felt inspired to join either of the two Left parties. Kumar David answered his calling when he was twelve inspired by the 1953 Hartal. He was also drawn from the elitist segment of Sri Lankan society, but like many others of his ilk and thanks to the Party he joined, he was able to make a bonfire of inherited vanities and identify his many abilities and attributes with the society as a whole.
Politics without Power
Kumar David and those of his generation joined the LSSP or the CP when the two parties were at the height of their powers. But already in the 1940s, there were developments that would hamstring the Left in general, and the LSSP in particular, in the years after independence. From the very inception of the LSSP, the conservative social and political forces imposed a permanent electoral handicap on the Party by characterizing it as a low-caste, anti-religious, and pro-Indian Party. Another handicap, involving language, would be added after independence.
The proscription (1940-1945) of the LSSP by the colonial government and the attendant expulsion (1940-1947) of NM Perera and Philip Gunawardena from the State Council precluded the Party from open political activity. In their four years in State Council NM and Philip, even without ministerial powers, laid the bedrock foundation for Sri Lanka’s social welfarism. The years of proscription and the expulsion were lost years for the LSSP, which could never be fully recuperated.
Even so, the LSSP resumed politics with a bang and independence arrived in 1948, earlier than anyone expected and accelerated by the 1947 strike. The 12 August 1953 Hartal was certainly the highest point of mass activity in Sri Lanka’s history. The Hartal which began with strike action by workers was soon overtaken by the protesting energy of the “toiling masses.” The Hartal enhanced the political muscle of the Left, but not its electoral fortunes. Its ultimate outcome was the defeat of the UNP government in 1956, and the election of the MEP-SLFP coalition under SWRD Bandaranaike that included the Philip Gunawardena (MEP) faction of the old LSSP.
The SLFP that reaped the rewards in 1956 had stood on the sidelines in 1953. It may not be widely known now, but the only other party in parliament to fully join the Left Parties in the Hartal was the Tamil Federal Party. As well, the victory of the MEP-SLFP coalition was ensured by the no-contest agreement it had with the LSSP and the CP to avoid inter-party vote splitting. In March 1960, the LSSP made an all-out but unsuccessful attempt to form a government on its own. The 1960 failure was the beginning of formal coalition politics that led to the formation of the United Front government in 1970.
The years and decades after 1953 and 1964 have seen recurrent questions and criticisms about the alleged failure of the two Left Parties to seize the apparently revolutionary opportunity that emerged at the height of the 1953 Hartal, and their drift to coalition politics after 1960. In his “Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics,” the late Ranjith Amerasinghe has provided a committedly scholarly assessment of the LSSP’s role both in 1953 and 1964, and locates them in a historical perspective while focusing on the Party’s “ideological and organizational adaptation to a Westminster–model parliamentary system.” But these weighty questions will perennially persist, even though in Sri Lanka’s current situation, when corrupt charlatanism is in the saddle and running (rather ruining) the country, it would be both a tragedy and a farce to raise them even esoterically.
As I noted at the outset, Bahu, Vasu and Kumar attempted to address these questions critically from within the LSSP beginning in 1970. The course of events after 1977 within Sri Lanka and outside have exposed the global forces that have been at play, and over which no Left Party anywhere in the world has been able to have any sway within the traditional revolutionary perspective that Left Parties have been functioning until then. Kumar David has consistently drawn attention to these global changes, principally the collapse of the socialist second world and its integration in the global market, and tried to redefine the terms of engagement for the Left in Sri Lanka. Kumar and Bahu have also been consistent in their criticisms of the LSSP leadership for the 1972 Constitution that was a total repudiation of everything that the LSSP stood for on the national question, in 1956, and dearly paid for.
In fairness, the two Left Parties and anyone and everyone ever associated with the Left in Sri Lanka have rallied to support the Thirteenth Amendment as a constitutional solution to the national question. In addition, the two founding leaders of the LSSP, NM and Colvin, have left behind a powerful legacy of opposition to the wholly abominable albatross created by the 1978 Constitution. It will not be an exaggeration to say that in his own way Kumar David has been carrying the same torch of opposition for nearly 15 years, and constantly reminding those in parliament that it is their business to operationalize this opposition in a practical way.
The LSSP has been a quintessentially opposition party, and it is this characteristic that has made the pursuit of politics worthwhile even when it does not lead to its ultimate consummation with power. At 80, Kumar David is possessed of the same passion for positive opposition as he was when he was 12, at the time of the Great Hartal. Over the years, he has scaled academic mountains, fought the good political fight, kept the socialist faith, but is not ready to call off the race. He deserves a break, at least, to celebrate his 80th birthday with his wife Rohini, son Amrit, his grandchildren, and his extended family. We wish him: Many Happy Returns!