[This article marks the unveiling of the book to celebrate the life of Lal Wijenayake, politician, trader unionist and social activist, to be held at Kandy Dharmaraja College Auditorium on April 30]
Lal Wijenayake is a person who is committed to fostering the noble qualities in life and living according to those cherished values. I met him in the 80s when I was studying at the Kandy Dharmaraja College, where he laid the foundation of his life as a future social activist and a lawyer. Those days, he was a father figure to us, full of kindness and concern for us, becoming a beacon to mould our lives in our young years. Looking back as a middle-aged man now, I do not doubt that Lal Wijenayake was instrumental in inspiring me and shaping my career path. If I have achieved any success in my life, the credit should go to this great man. He is one of a handful of noble, philanthropic middle-class men I have met in his generation.
I am fortunate to continuously associate with him for forty years, no matter where I lived. I can say without any doubt that he was the inspiration behind my political ideals and my decision-making prowess. The brand of his politics was forged on a solid footing with clear-sighted, unadulterated ideas without succumbing to selfish, narrow political agendas.
During the last forty years, I have met a wide range of lay and religious leaders with different cultural, social and political backgrounds, but by looking back, I can say, without any doubt, that Lal Wijenayake was ahead of most of them.
Kandy has today become a chaotic, decayed city, but forty years ago, it was the centre of cultural and political reawakening, embellishing its prestige as a repository of historical and cultural values enriching our national consciousness. Lal figured prominently in this area’s past social and political upheavals to turn the city into a cultural and political capital.
We used to accompany him on his daily walks around the lake and the nearby streets, listening to his discussions appealing to our young minds. While on our rounds, I have seen how people from many walks of life respected and adored him. Two years ago, I took a walk with him passing our familiar haunts. We finally reached Harsichandra newspaper agent from where he bought his daily newspapers. He looked around dejectedly, asking: “Do you see the destruction caused to our beloved Kandy city now?”
Lal can list and describe with names and dates the destruction caused to this ancient city by the so-called representatives who went to the parliament on people’s votes in the name of democracy.
He dedicated his life to cultivating a political philosophy without deviating from his cherished ideals. He witnessed changes caused by bankrupt politics, but he did not want to remain a passive observer. He devoted his strength, money and his time to change the existing political stalemate.
He studied at the Kandy Dharmaraja College and entered the University of Peradeniya. He was a member of the first science faculty students’ union. Later he launched the mathematic faculty students council, becoming its first secretary. He also headed the Peradeniya Students’ Council as president, launching his struggle to win students’ rights against emerging state repression. As the head of the students’ council, Lal had to deal with prominent personalities like vice-chancellor Sir Nicholas Attygalle. Later, Lal served as a member of the university senate.
After graduating from the university, he worked as a teacher for some time. Later he studied law and became a lawyer in 1969. His first court appearance was as a junior lawyer assisting lawyer S. Nadesan who defended the young men accused of launching the revolution in 1971 in the trial before the Criminal Justice Commission . Lal also functioned as a legal consultant for several principal suspects in the case.
Later he represented the farmers and won their legal battle after the UNP government attempted to charge a water tax from the Mahaweli cultivators to comply with the World Bank’s advice. Based on the arguments forwarded by Lal in this case, the attempts by the government to charge a water tax in other areas were also defeated.
He appeared for the poor people who faced eviction from the lands granted to them under the Land Reform Commission. The move by the 1977 UNP government to reclaim the lands was solidly defeated by Lal appearing for the affected party.
These are a few examples of how Lal used his legal knowledge to fight for the common person’s rights. He had been an active member of the Lanka Sama Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) from his student days. He held memberships in the Central Committee and Politburo and functioned as the party’s treasurer.
Lal is a well-read, knowledgeable man who writes articles about the present political situation to English and Sinhala newspapers and magazines.
He is an avid collector of art with an extensive collection of paintings by prominent Sri Lankan artists. He was a close friend of renowned Sri Lankan painter George Keyt and looked after him till his death. The last work of Keyt has pride of place among the paintings covering the walls in Lal’s residence.
He is a gracious host who invites friends to his house to have a good time and discuss subjects like politics and culture, sharing his vast knowledge. Before I wrote this article, we talked on the phone about Prof. Sarath Amunugama’s autobiography, “Kandy Man”.
When a journalist questioned Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez why he did not write about Che Guevara, the celebrated writer said to write about Che’s life needed a million papers and thousands of years. I don’t need such a lot of papers to write about Lal. Still, as a silent observer of his services and his significant influence on our culture, society and politics, I can write a book about him running into at least a thousand pages.
Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, who is busy with his distinguished literary career, has spent his time and energy writing a volume about Lal with help from several well-known scholars keeping it a well-guarded secret from Lal. The team mainly undertook to write about this great man to appreciate his services to our society.
When some of Lal’s contemporaries and former allies got stranded in the political wilderness, it is heartening to note how a book to honour the passionate social activist is unveiled to celebrate his 80th birthday.
The defeats suffered by his political camp did not sour Lal’s enthusiasm. The adverse events and infamous betrayals did not discourage him. He believes in his struggle to bring social justice to everyone, still retaining the energy of his younger years.
When we were drawn into politics in the 70s, the difference between the Left and Right was clearly demarcated. Though the mixed politics of that decade disappointed us, the old left gave us the ability to have hopes of a greater future. The past happenings proved us that the politics of the right were incapable of fighting for people’s rights. At least, that was what some veterans of the left believed at that time. But Lal was different. He pointed to us the good qualities of right-wing politicians like Dudley Senanayake, M. D. Banda and Bandaranaike. He even highlighted genuine traits of Sir John Kotelawela, illustrating examples from Lal’s personal experience with him. I believe that Lal could have acquired such conciliatory attitudes from his association with the leaders of the old left, particularly Dr. N.M. Perera.
Sri Lanka firmly believed in a parliamentary system based on people’s ballot. This system which was very much alive before the 1977 era, could produce selfless, service-oriented politicians belonging to both Left and Right camps. Lal drew his inspiration from such politicians, and his politics were based on reality, integrity and profound awareness far ahead of the slogan-shouting politicians.
One of the most important characteristics that Lal cultivated in me was the ability and capacity to move freely with the upper social crust that included scholars and consummate professionals. We were in the habit of visiting Lal’s office after school. He invited us for tea, perhaps knowing that we were starving the whole morning. Some days he accompanied us to the upscale hotels like Queens, Old Empire and City Mission or the cafe in the Kandy lawyer’s office complex along with his lawyer friends. During these visits, we had the unique opportunity of meeting the senior lawyers and many other professionals who discussed their ideas, sharing their experience and knowledge in various aspects. They always listened to us patiently despite our big age differences preparing to accommodate our ideas and suggestions. Listening and respecting the views expressed by others is one of the most important characteristics of solid leftist politicians. I observed this noble quality in Lal too.
I hailed from a village family with reasonable means and was fortunate to enrolled in an elite college. The association with Lal was responsible for developing my character to a greater degree and my ability to move with various social classes with confidence and courage resulted from his guidance.
Looking at Lal, who was born in 1941 and evaluating his massive contribution in firm control of his vision and commitments to serve the people is important to the future generation.
Lal joined the LSSP, the oldest political of the nation, during its golden years. He pursued LSSP politics during the college days and later in the university. His political life was enriched with the association of great leftist leaders and their vision and the philosophy of his beloved party, thus becoming a man with the great qualities of a perfect politician.
He recently spoke to me on the telephone and asked me whether I could send him the copy of Dr. Sarachchandra’s Sinhabahu, in which the late playwright autographed the book with a special poem dedicated to his daughter Sunethra. I knew about Lal’s busy schedule these days, and I asked him why he was in such a hurry. “This is the poem I love very much. Unfortunately, I have lost my copy, and that’s why I am asking you,” he said. After that, he talked to me about his close relationship with Prof. Sarachchandra and how writer Gunadasa Amarasekara appreciated the particular poem.
Lal Wijenayake’s felicitation volume includes articles written by several writers who knew his immense contribution to society, culture and politics. The articles cover Lal’s past experiences, his contributions to the community, how the people in the next generation would see him, how modern politics has fallen from grace, and various other subjects. It can indeed be described as a gift to the present generation about an exemplary citizen who lives by his principles and values close to his heart.
Lal Wijenayake and several others who live in Kandy, which is the second capital of Sri Lanka, are responsible for introducing a modern outlook replacing the feudal social structure. Though the Peradeniya University was nearby, it was humanists like Lal Wijenayake who were responsible for using what they learnt for the benefit of the masses, not the academic ‘gurus’ and their ‘golayas’!