4 February, 2023

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Nihal Jayawickrama’s Splendid Oration & The Narrative It Deserves

By Vishwamithra

“Lost rights are never regained by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers, but by relentless struggle…. Goats are used for sacrificial offerings and not lions.” ~ Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar,

Dr Nihal Jayawikrama

The landscape is barren; its soil is contaminated and the air is devoid of any soothing breeze. Three or four decades ago, it was not like this, not that it was perfect for fresh plants and fruits to be plucked. The generations that preceded the current one did not do an adequate job. Not only had the leaders, followers too contributed to this infertility of talent, intellectuality and determination. A desolate land, castoff by its leaders and found inadequate by its hapless mass of inhabitants is silently waiting for a miracle to manifest itself. But no miracle will appear; such dreams look extravagant now, especially in the context of an opaque and unidentifiable exertion.     

Here I quote the eminent legal mind, Dr Nihal Jayawickrama. In his recent ‘Dr P.R. Anthonis Memorial Oration’, he says: ‘I do not wish to conclude my presentation by leaving the impression that Sri Lanka has been devoid of any manifestation of leadership. Of course not. In the 1920s, A.E. Gunasinha provided the leadership for the working people to organize themselves, and for the youth to agitate for the immediate relief of social problems. In the 1930s, a group of young Ceylonese intellectuals on their return from universities abroad, influenced deeply by the ideas of Karl Marx – Dr S.A. Wickramasinghe, Dr N.M. Perera, Dr Colvin R de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene and Philip Gunawardena – provided the leadership to the formation of the left movement in Ceylon. In the 1940s, D.S. Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke provided the leadership to the negotiations with the British Government that secured self-government for Ceylon without shedding a single drop of blood. On the long night of January 27, 1962, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, almost single-handedly, saved not only a great many lives, but also the social and political fabric of our society by aborting the first ever attempt to overthrow the lawfully established government of this country. In April 1971, barely two weeks into the JVP insurgency, with the military ready to launch an offensive, Mrs Bandaranaike called upon combatants to surrender at check points manned by public servants, guaranteeing them safe conduct, an appeal to which nearly 10,000 young persons responded. In 1978, J.R. Jayewardene gave a whole new direction to our economy, lifting it out of the shackles of outmoded socialism…’

I do not want to dwell in the past, recent or ancient. It serves no valid purpose and most of the time fails to encourage or inspire the younger generation. Because their, the youth’s, fundamental argument is that if we did have such exemplary leadership why did they not prepare the ground or leave no appealing legacy for them to follow- a very valid retort.

We are not engaged in a debate; nor are we in those not-so-significant halls of parliament where more is spent on less and less. What matters is the present and legitimacy of those issues whose resolutions and reconciliations are way too heavy and burdensome for the current crop of leaders to bear. The economic collapse and its consequential repercussions on the average villager as well as the urban dweller are making their day-to-day life unlivable. Their second generation, their offspring are facing a gloomy future. They are not bothered about the scarcity off petrol and diesel; but unavailability or unbearable price of kerosene cannot be disregarded as insignificant. No kerosene means there is no light after sunset; for them kerosene is not a substitute for gas cooker for they cannot afford a gas cooker in the first place. For them, kerosene is fundamentally used for their lamps because most of them have defaulted on their electricity bills; in such a drastically abject socioeconomic environment, their dreams have shrunk; their aspirations have evaporated and in a maddeningly cruel world, their sense of compassion and love for their children have reduced and anxiety augmented. 

This is why Nihal Jayawickrama’s analysis on the aspect of leadership is so telling and appealing. The Rajapaksas have already been judged and they appear to have been thrown out; the rest, starting with Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Champika Ranawaka and Sarath Fonseka fall way behind the giants of leaders of yesteryear. Nihal’s fundamental argument or more aptly put, his statement that those leaders who could lead with no regard for consequences to themselves and acting as per the dictates of the moment are not present today, is well founded and weighty in the context of the wide and varied experience he had in the past governments as a top civil servant (not in the sense of the old ‘Civil Servant’ but as a government servant) serving the purpose of the offices that he held.

Not only we miss leadership at the topmost political level, even in the civil service level, we can hardly find a single leader of Nihal’s caliber. Maybe we have amongst us one or two retired civil servants who could match Nihal’s occupational talent, dedication and leadership, but scarcity of that talent, dedication and leadership tells another whole story of the dearth of our educational, intellectual and manly element in our current government service.

It is rather easy and even popular to point the finger at the dearth of this and lack of that. That does not solve the issue. Where are we going from here? Without a full overhaul of our educational system and creation of a totally fresh set of principles, apolitical approach to the resolution of our national issues, it would be certainly impossible to achieve even a modicum of mediocrity.

The following paragraph from Nihal’s oration, especially on power sharing amongst the various ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, leaves a lot of food for thought: ‘Therefore, it seems to me that, whatever agreement may be reached regarding governance at the periphery, it is vital and fundamental that there should be power sharing at the center. This is not a matter that should be left for negotiation at the conclusion of a general election. That has led in the past to the inclusion of Colombo-based token Tamils in the Cabinet, such as C. Kumarasuriar and Lakshman Kadirgamar, who represented none but themselves. Power sharing at the center is a requirement that should be incorporated in the Constitution. Whichever political party forms the government, it should be mandatory for the different ethnic groups to be represented in the Cabinet, at least in proportion to the number of such members elected to Parliament. Thereby, the minority communities will be constitutionally guaranteed not of token but of genuine representation, both in the legislature and in the government. Policy formation will thereafter be by consensus of the different ethnic groups, which is how it should be in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic country as Sri Lanka.

B R Ambedkar considered the father of Indian Constitution was, born in 1891 into an “Untouchable” family of modest means. One of India’s most radical thinkers, he transformed the social and political setting in the struggle against British colonialism. He was a high-volume writer who oversaw the drafting of the Indian Constitution and served as India’s first Law Minister. In 1935, he publicly declared that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die as one. Ambedkar eventually embraced Buddhism, a few months before his death in 1956. Ambedkar’s basic struggle was for equality of all human beings. Long before Martin Luther King Jr. of America, Ambedkar’s commitment and his narrative for the cause of humanity went almost unrecognized outside the shores of the Indian subcontinent. Ceylon never had the privilege or the fortune to be in the company of such a great mind. But what might come in the future, we cannot foretell. Such clairvoyance is not mine to boast about. 

Russia, when under the brutal regimes of the Czars and even under the overpowering boots of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, produced some of the greatest literature figures such as Chekov, Tolstoy, Gorky, Pastanov and Solzhenitsyn. How can we create the circumstances and context for birth, sustenance and development of great minds who would take political leadership not as a means to enrich oneself but a tool to serve a greater cause of humanity? Victor Hugo, the creator of Les Misérables wrote: ‘Between the government which does evil and the people who accept it – there is a certain shameful solidarity.’ That solidarity has, more than anything else including socioeconomic conditions, has contributed to the collapse of human society and its real values we have been struggling to adopt as archetypal way of life and living. We have failed repeatedly. We have let down our next generation and many more generations to come.

Writers are continuing to write and many great orators have been narrating new ways of thinking and the clergy of all religions have collectively betrayed not only their respective teachings but their obedient devotees. In this collective sociopolitical demise, politicians stand as the deliverers and they have succeeded in delivering themselves from poverty to immense wealth and the masses from self-sufficiency to abject helplessness. 

*The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com 

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    As rightly noted by Vishwamitra, Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama, Is an intellectual giant of our time, a highly recognized champion of Human Rights at the global level, who, in his brilliant oration, has outlined the contemporary political history that led to the malady inflicted by the recent politicians on the ailing Sri Lankan society today. Vishwamitra seeking a cure, asks, “How can we create the circumstances and context for birth, sustenance, and development of great minds who would take political leadership, not as a means to enrich oneself but a tool to serve a greater cause of humanity?”
    The cure is clearly in the hands of those who continue to suffer. It is no secret that people in Sri Lanka have nothing but contempt for the leaders and their political henchmen, and justifiably so, but the very same people demean themselves by venerating the leaders and politicians in power and voting them in regardless of their contempt and continuing to perpetuate the woeful situation.

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