By Tissa Jayatilaka –
Thirty years have passed by since we experienced three significant events in the recent history of our country. Coincidentally the 23rd of July, September and October of 1983 are yoked together in our memory. What we have come to identify as “Black July” of Sri Lanka, when unarmed Tamil citizens were attacked and killed by goons associated with leading members of the Government of Sri Lanka of the time, began on 23 July, 1983. Two months later on 23 September, one of Sri Lanka’s finest sons spoke sincerely, eloquently, passionately and apologetically about our national tragedy focusing on ‘Black July’ when he addressed his diocese in Kurunegala, in what turned out to be his last Pastoral Address. A month later on 23 October, that marvellous son of Sri Lanka lay dead. I refer to the late Bishop Cyril Lakshman Wickremesinghe and write these several inadequate words to remember him with love and gratitude on this thirtieth anniversary of that insightful Pastoral Address.
Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of four children of Cyril Leonard and Esme Wickremesinghe, was born on 24 March, 1927 and died on 23 October, 1983. A brilliant product of Royal College, Colombo, the young Lakshman distinguished himself both in the classroom and on the playing fields there carrying away almost every school prize on offer and winning his ‘colours’ in rugger and athletics. Securing a First in Political Science from the University of Ceylon, he went to Oxford and after a few years of study at that ancient university , moved to Ely Theological College in Ely, Cambridgeshire. He was ordained a priest in England where he gained training and experience in parish work after ordination. Returning home to Ceylon, he did a few years of parish work in Mutuwal before moving to Peradeniya where he served as the much loved and respected Anglican Chaplain of the University of Ceylon from 1958 to 1962.
The Revd. Lakshman Wickremesinghe was consecrated Bishop of the Kurunegala Diocese in 1962 by his illustrious predecessor Bishop Lakdasa de Mel, prior to the latter’s move to Calcutta on his being appointed Metropolitan of the Province of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon.
I first heard of Bishop Lakshman from my grandaunt Soma Kumari Samarasinha, the first Ceylonese principal (1946 to 1964) of Hillwood College, the leading Anglican girls’ school in Kandy. From 1962 onwards until her retirement two years later, Mrs. Samarasinha worked closely with Bishop Lakshman in guiding the destinies of Hillwood. He was a frequent and welcome visitor to the Hillwood principal’s bungalow during this period.
My acquaintance with Bishop Lakshman deepened after his nephew Rajiva Wijesinha and I became colleagues and friends while we were both fellow-teachers in the Department of English at Peradeniya. Rajiva stayed at my home when he came up to Peradeniya and he reciprocated my hospitality by inviting me to stay at his parental home Lakmahal, the Wickremesinghe- Wijesinha residence on Alfred House Road in Kollupitiya. During my visits to Lakmahal, I had occasion to meet Bishop Lakshman in a more intimate setting as he dropped in, whenever in Colombo, to see his mother Esme, sister Muktha, brother-in-law Sam Wijesinha and family.
As the years went by, I got to know other facets of the many-layered personality of Bishop Lakshman as he was a close friend of my senior Peradeniya colleagues and intimate friends, Ian Goonetileke and Kingsley (K.M.) de Silva. Bishop Lakshman was a regular visitor to the Goonetileke and de Silva households in Peradeniya . Quite literally and metaphorically, Peradeniya was Bishop Lakshman’s spiritual home.
Thus I not only got to know Bishop Lakshman better but I also got to know of him better during the mid-to-late 1970s. Messrs. Goonetileke and de Silva educated me in particular on Bishop Lakshman’s principled opposition to opportunistic politics and his immense capacity to ‘talk truth to power’. He was a fearless champion of all that ennobles humanity. He used to refer to Ian and Roslin Goonetileke’s Upper Hantane home as the Saloon initially and later as the Aramaya. From around 1975 onwards, Ian began to grow disillusioned with university life due to the increased politicisation of university administration. The rot begun by I.M.R.A. Iriyagolle in the 1965 – 1970 era was now deepening in the post – April 1971 setting. Although born and baptised a Christian, Ian had moved away from the church and in later life was not a practicing Christian. Bishop Lakshman, who shared most of Ian’s political convictions, was most interested in supporting Ian in his political stances while remaining even more interested in getting Ian back to the Christian fold. I wish to quote from some of Bishop Lakshman’s letters to Ian that shed light on both of the above factors- – political collaboration and the possible securing of Ian’s return to his spiritual base. Here is an extract from a letter Bishop Lakshman wrote to Ian on 12 September, 1975:
Your article on Ananda Coomaraswamy was a sheer delight to read – “quintessence Ian”! I am also happy at a more fundamental level that you have so much in common with Coomaraswamy, have slowly moved towards an orientation to and experience of the Transcendent, which is also engendering an interior purification within you. I have always hoped and prayed that in your own way and in your own time you will return to the Source!
The concluding paragraph of Bishop Lakshman’s letter addresses Ian’s disquiet about the quality of life in Peradeniya of the mid-seventies:
I hope you stand the strain by God’s grace in the days to come. All I can [say] is that a very important ‘light’ (representing our way of life and thought) in Peradeniya will be extinguished, if you have to depart.
Nearly five years pass by. At the end of much soul searching Ian has now taken the painful decision to take early retirement and leave his beloved Peradeniya. In a letter quoted below in full from Lakmahal (obviously on a visit to his parental home in Colombo) dated 23 March, 1980 Bishop Lakshman writes:
My dear Ian & Roslin,
This is a brief note before I leave for a week in New Delhi (in the company of Bala Tampoe) to wish you both for your anniversary tomorrow. My prayers avail for you as you prepare to leave for a new abode, and detach yourselves with great difficulty, from the sylvan abode of Upper Hantane. Anicca vata sankhara!
This is my last letter to you addressed to the ‘Saloon’ later turned into an ‘Aramaya’, the scene of so many memories of people, events/happenings and culinary delicacies enjoyed in the midst of quiet reflections on the currents of life in society.
I am reminded of some lines of an Indian poet [Bano Tahira Sayeed] who is in the tradition of Tagore, thinking of your house/saloon/aramaya:
You are a delicious reminder of my past. I envy you your permanence. I, myself, am a mirror of life’s jolts and jerks.
I am that gold which is in the process of purification in the furnace, I am a candle, burning and scattering light, I am a portrait of life itself, Unlike you, who are a ghost of my past.
You have been facing life’s jolts and jerks recently, and to my mind being purified, and being burnt to scatter light in the days to come.
My constant prayer for you has been this and will be always until the shadows lengthen, the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over:
Lord, teach me to accept your bewildering ways. In my poignant pain, amid deprivation and denial
Show me your hidden but all-embracing love.
With my deep gratitude and undimmed affection –
Bishop Lakshman and Ian Goonetileke continued to see eye to eye on politics until the end of their earthly lives. Ian, however, despite Bishop Lakshman’s best efforts, died without regaining his lost belief in institutionalised religion.
Ian’s obituary consequent to the sudden death of Bishop Lakshman is reflective of the close friendship he shared with the late Bishop:
He [Bishop Lakshman] wore the purple sash to the manner born but it was never allowed to restrict his passionate concerns for the human condition. When he died he had almost certainly begun to embody the rare and splendid fusion between thought and action, religion and politics, because he had realized, not without struggle, that spiritual emancipation must, in the last analysis, rely almost exclusively on the liberation of man as a political animal. His final message [Pastoral Address of 23 September, 1983] bears abundant testimony to the unswerving addiction to the voice of his moral conscience in the thick of contradictions.
My wife (a practicing Buddhist) and I (an extinct Christian) have lost a trusted, cherished and compassionate comrade, always willing to chance his arm in defense of the teetering conscience or the clouded sensibility. For nearly a quarter century until 1980 he was a frequent visitor in our Peradeniya home, and his arrival (announced or unannounced) was sufficient to clear the air of moral ambiguities and environmental wounds. He brought with him cleansing vistas of beauty, strength, symmetry and a balanced joy, and mundane problems melted before the alchemy of his swiftly directed common sense and a clinical, though, impish humour.
Bishop Lakshman’s influence was widespread and extended way beyond his diocese and Sri Lanka. He sought to indigenise the Anglican Church confining himself to Christianity in the Indian region, specifically to its Hindu and Buddhist context. In a lecture titled Christianity Moving Eastwards that he delivered at The House of Saints Gregory and Macrina at Oxford in May 1983, Bishop Lakshman spelt out his personal vision:
Many years ago I left Oxford and England, and taking the advice of
the Buddha, I went in search of myself as a Christian who was rooted
in the Sri Lankan ethos. In his sermon to certain agitated princes and
princesses, the Buddha had observed that it was more valuable to go
in search of oneself than in search of lost ornaments ( whether they be
metal or mental). Mine has been a long and painful search. By the grace
of God I have been able to find my identity as a Sri Lankan Christian, and
in doing so, to share the company of those who have been seeking the Indian
face of Christianity. The result has been what Clement envisaged for the Gnostic
Christian – – a more mature and authentic faith in Christ Jesus.
He was an active member of the Kurunegala group of Amnesty International, through which he worked for victims of human rights violations throughout the world irrespective of political or religious considerations. He was a founder member of the Christian Workers Fellowship (CWF) that came into being in the late 1950s, a movement built mainly through a lay initiative to show the relevance of the Christian gospel in the midst of social change. He played a leading role in the establishment (November 1971) and furtherance of the national Civil Rights Movement serving as its Chairman from 1978 for a few years.
In addition to Sevaka Yohan Devananda, Bishop Lakshman was a close friend of three well known activist clergymen – Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, Fr. Paul Caspersz and Fr. Aloysius Peiris, founders respectively of the Centre for Society and Religion, Satyodaya and Tulana. He identified himself with the work and mission of these organisations.
Among Bishop Lakshman’s outstanding leadership qualities was his ability to bring different individuals and organisations together to build consensus and a unity of purpose. Thus he was able to get together several Christian organizations of different denominations involved in development and human rights activities to form the movement of “Christians in the Struggle for Justice”. Significantly the first meeting of this movement was held at Bishop’s House, Kurunegala, on Hartal Day, 12 August, 1982.
In a similar vein, Bishop Lakshman was also a great believer in inter – faith dialogue. He was a very close associate of the late Ven. Dr. Kotagama Vacchissara Thero, Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at the Vidyodaya University (now the University of Sri Jayewardenepura). The latter’s untimely death, like the former’s later on, was a significant loss to the progressive movement of our country. Both Bishop Lakshman and his father were regular visitors to the Temple of the Ven. Revata Thero, one time Atamasthandadipathi (Chief Priest of eight sacred places) at Anuradhapura. The Ven. Sangharakkhita Thero, Isurumuni Viharadipathi and Chief Sangha Nayake of Nuwara Kalaviya also knew Bishop Lakshman intimately. The Isurumuni Viharadhipathi attended Bishop Lakshman’s funeral in Colombo as well as the religious ceremony held for the interment of his ashes in the Kurunegala Cathedral during which event the Ven. Sangharakkhita delivered an oration. Bishop Lakshman helped in founding the Vimukthi Dharma Kendra (The Liberation Doctrine Centre), an organization for dialogue among the four major religions of Sri Lanka, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, devoted to the theme of social liberation.
All of these manifold activities in Bishop Lakshman’s search for truth and justice must surely have come at a significant price. He must have endured many a moment of agonised soul searching in his spiritual and political journey. He came from an affluent and privileged ‘upper class’ family that was heavily committed to the establishment and status quo, and Bishop Lakshman, like any normal human being, had a deep seated attachment to and affection for his family. Some of his political actions based on ‘indigenous Marxist socialism’( see his D.T. Niles Memorial Lecture titled Living in Christ with People delivered in Bangalore, India in 1981, for details) that he subscribed to, so at variance with his family culture, would certainly have caused more than ripples in the family pond. Yet he soldiered on undeterred and unfazed. Bishop Lakshman’s enormous strength of character and integrity and the mutual understanding that he and his family shared made possible his maintenance of a fine balance between family commitment and personal conviction. Bishop Lakshman was a man of ‘unyielding convictions’ as he once described himself and there were occasions when he refused to compromise. The tribute paid to Bishop Lakshman on his passing by the Christian Workers Fellowship illustrates the above aspects of his personality:
As a priest and bishop, Bishop Lakshman provided a prophetic and courageous witness to the truly human values of our country, and to the centrality of his struggle for total liberation. Though from an affluent family, he deeply identified himself with the poor workers and peasants of Sri Lanka.
No account of Bishop Lakshman’s life and work will be complete without reference to his deep concern for the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka and his robust involvement with the fight for justice for our fellow-citizens. Like his struggle with his loyalty to his family on the one hand and his devotion to personal conviction on the other referred to above, Bishop Lakshman’s toil for justice for the Tamils of Sri Lanka was a complex endeavour. He was acutely aware of the many deprivations the marginalised Sinhala peasantry in particular had suffered over the centuries and the many tribulations they continued to labour under. He was conscious of and receptive to the deep-seated cultural problem of the Sinhala Buddhists in their effort to maintain their identity. He recognised that the Buddhist Sinhalese do not want the dominant culture of Sri Lanka to be either a variation of Dravidian culture or a pale imitation of western culture, either in its religions or secularized form. Where he differed from the majority of the Buddhist Sinhalese, however, was in his conviction that in the final integration of our country, the minorities have a real place as have minority cultures. Hence Bishop Lakshman’s reaching out to the Tamils was indicative of his quest for human justice. He cared deeply for all human beings from all backgrounds, from all over the world, transcending man-made barriers of ethnicity and class. He was a regular visitor to Jaffna, to the plantation areas in the central highlands and to the eastern province.
His passionate concern for the Tamils of Sri Lanka find expression in a significant talk Bishop Lakshman gave in 1976, the year in which the United Left Front Government (1970 – 1977), under various pretexts, was trying to postpone the general elections then due. The title of that talk was Elections and Christians and whilst challenging the calculated move of the then Government, Bishop Lakshman in the course of that talk also touched on the national political need to redress the grievances of the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka. He reiterated the need to –
ensure that Sinhala [political] parties give more attention to redress the grievances of the exploited and destitute mainly Tamil estate workers. On many estates, their living conditions are sub-human. Recent Land Reform measures introduced to benefit the landless Sinhala peasantry, have resulted in [Tamil] workers being banished from some estates and becoming destitute. Party manifestos must provide some solution to this issue, and not avoid it because it is an unpleasant and unprofitable matter among the Sinhala voters. It is important that we recognize that persons of Indian origin also have basic human rights, which require state aid.
He then refers to the need for a ‘regional transfer of power and resources’ from the centre to the periphery:
… .There is the issue of the Jaffna or Sri Lanka Tamils. They demand transfer or devolution of power and resources from the Sinhala-dominated central government, so that they may have the opportunity to develop their minority community in their traditional territory. To condemn their demand for a separate state and allege their close links with Tamilnadu, is to ignore their main grievance. If they are not permitted to develop their minority interests in Sinhala territory, they want the space to do so in their homelands. If the Sinhala people want to safeguard their territory against inroads by this Tamil minority, they must accede to their alternative demand! I would like to see all party manifestos dealing creatively with this legitimate demand for a regional transfer of power and resources, under the aegis of the Sinhala – dominated central government. It is a basic human right, we must recognise.
Bishop Lakshman was, as we know, a most perceptive and sensible human being. Hence he concluded his talk by hoping that ‘what I consider ethically desirable, will be politically possible’. Alas, no political leader of Sri Lanka has yet been able to make Bishop Lakshman’s vision for Sri Lanka a reality. I am convinced that Bishop Lakshman died eventually more of a broken heart than of a heart attack given his lack of success, try as hard as he did, to bring about reconciliation and harmony among the different ethnic groups of our island home.
Bishop Lakshman’s final message also focused closely on the Sinhala – Tamil conflict. His fragile health coupled with over-work brought on a heart ailment that in turn made it necessary for him to rest and recuperate. On his recovery, he took a sabbatical in Birmingham, England. Cutting short his sabbatical, he returned home in August 1983 after the awful ethnic violence of July.
Disregarding his personal wellbeing, Bishop Lakshman sought to comfort the afflicted. He visited his clergy and people – especially the Tamils among them — in the Kandy and Matale areas where the harm caused to the Tamils was extensive. He visited the ‘refugee camps’ in these areas and then went to Jaffna by train. In between his criss -crossing the country, he rushed to a Meeting of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Singapore. Having gone around the island, met people and familiarised himself with all that had happened in Sri Lanka in his absence, he began to prepare his Pastoral Address to the Diocesan Council to be delivered on 23 September, 1983. The primary focus of his Address, as noted above, was the predicament of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the upheaval of July 1983 and the resultant national crisis.
At the Diocesan Council, at which the above- referenced Pastoral Address was given, a resolution was bought forward on the “Tamil Problem”. This resolution which included an apology by the Sinhala people to the Tamils, was passed by an overwhelming majority. Incidentally he was the first Sinhala citizen of public standing who first offered a public apology to the Tamils for the atrocities committed against them in July 1983. Observing that we must admit the fact that the massive retaliation mainly by the Sinhalese against defenseless Tamils cannot be justified on moral grounds, Bishop Lakshman wanted us to acknowledge our shame. He then went on to say:
And we must do so for the right reasons. It is not enough to be ashamed for the reason that inhuman passions enslaved a section of the Sinhalese for a short period. Nor must we be ashamed because our sense of moral outrage will improve our image abroad. We must be ashamed as Sinhalese for the moral crime other Sinhalese have committed.
Acknowledgement of our shame had, Bishop Lakshman noted, to be accompanied by our apology to those Tamils who were unjustified victims of the massive retaliation. It is only by such a sincere apology that ‘we shall also recover our moral and religious values’. In the course of his Address, Bishop Lakshman also admitted that;
I am among those who have tried hard and failed [to bring about national unity]. But I know and trust in God, who is ever creative in bringing good out of evil.
And he concluded his Address with the words of the late D.T. Niles:
Hope in God arises out of the ruins of our expectations.
Bishop Lakshman died a month after he delivered his 23 September, 1983 Pastoral Address substantiating and illustrating for the final time, his tremendous moral clarity and splendid vision. Sadly and tragically, our expectations for a just and fair Sri Lanka continue to remain unrealised thanks to the obtuseness of the current Government and those from all parties – – political and otherwise – – in the Sinhala establishment who openly or tacitly support the status quo. Hope in us was briefly rekindled after the brutal internecine war with the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009, but efforts at a genuine reconciliation have disappointingly fallen short of expectations to-date. The extremism of the Sinhala and Tamil ultra-nationalists that is yet apparent today renders the moderates amongst us impotent. Our national curse has been (and is) Sinhala ineptitude and intransigence feeding Tamil ineptitude and intransigence thanks primarily to the machinations and skullduggery of our respective political leaders.
Will we Sri Lankans ever achieve the moral clarity and mature vision of a Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe before we destroy what is left of Sri Lanka?