By Laksiri Fernando –
This happened a long time back when I was a first-year university student in 1965. I was involved in radical left politics at that time and used to support the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) revolutionary wing which broke away from the mother party in 1964. The breakaway group was led by people like Edmund Samarakkody, Bala Tampoe, Merrill Fernando and V. Karalasingham. The party was called the LSSP (R).
I was keenly enthusiastic about the prospects of ‘the coming revolution’ in Sri Lanka (at that time Ceylon) and sometimes indulged in politics more than my studies. It was the time of the General Elections in 1965.
Edmund Samarakkody was contesting the Bulathsinhala seat and our campus group decided to go and support his campaign with students from other universities and campuses. In my first year, I was at the Colombo Campus of the University of Ceylon before I was transferred to read for my honours degree in Economics with Government as major later that year.
Samarakkody was a veteran politician and a fiery speaker. He was one of the founders of the LSSP in 1935 and was in jail during the Second World War for anti-imperialist activities. I thought he was absolutely right in breaking away from the LSSP on the issue of forming a coalition with the SLFP, and he was a genuine man unlike many other left leaders, and therefore he would easily win the elections. But the reality was different. Perhaps that was my first practical lesson in political science.
Coming from Moratuwa, Bulathsinhala was an unknown place to me at that time. When we were young, we didn’t have much opportunity to travel around the country on our own. My additional impetus therefore was to see the place. I was asked to go to Bulathsinhala by bus from Horana and then to find the post office to meet one Nanda. It was not so difficult and Nanda was our guide and local contact. We even stayed three nights at his ancestral home. That was the arrangement for our revolutionary campaign. There were few other university students, some known and others unknown. Our group was small and many had not turned up although they promised.
To make the long story short, our first task was to distribute the ‘revolutionary election manifesto’ at the Athura bazaar. That was an afternoon. Incidentally, Athura was the ‘capital’ of Bulathsinhala, so to say. There were about ten shops and few houses surrounding the ‘capital.’ This was 1965 and not today. There had been a Friday market in the morning but by the time we went, there were only few vendors hanging around. At the entrance to the market place, there was this peculiar handwritten notice.
No Muslim Can enter here
Only Humans are allowed
By the way, it was written only in Sinhala (the official language!). At that time, it didn’t occur to me whether it could be read by the Tamils or not. What struck me was the idea. I asked Nanda what is this all about? He laughed and said it was by Chalo Mahattaya (Mr Chalo). His actual name was different and long, but everyone knew him by his nickname.
Who was this Mr Chalo?
I wondered. In the meanwhile, we got involved in a heated political debate. A group of red shirts wearing supporters from the old LSSP had come around to thwart our revolutionary campaign. They were arguing against us and in fact one fat guy grabbed my manifestos and tore them away. They were accusing Edmund Samarakkody of defeating a ‘progressive government’ of the SLFP-LSSP coalition that led to the present election. As a matter of fact, the accusation was correct, whether it was a progressive government or not. We argued furiously against them. At the same time my mind was boggling around this Mr Chalo. Apparently, Mr Chalo was an independent candidate for the same election. He in fact got more votes than Edmund! He was a local notable in the area, claiming an ancestry from a feudal family of yesteryears. But that was not his main brief. He has been articulating kind of a political philosophy throughout his life which could be characterized as Anarchism in its good sense. Apparently, he also had his own ‘political legacies’ and the following was one story about him related by Nanda.
Mr Chalo has been dead against communalism throughout his life. When the communal riots took place in 1958, he was highly disturbed. And he has apparently sent a telegram to the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, asking him to ‘handover the Government within 24 hours,’ claiming that the government has failed to take necessary steps to curtail violence, death and destruction. The funniest part of the story was the following.
Having received the telegram, the Governor General had handed it over to the police for action. Without knowing what actually to expect in an extremely a trouble time, the Inspector General of Police had decided to send a police/military convoy not only to arrest Mr Chalo but also to curtail any possible rebellion. When the convoy reached his remote village, Mr Chalo had apparently thought that the military had come to handover the Government to him! Whether the second part of the story was true or not was not so clear. Nanda insisted that the telegram actually was sent, as he was working at the post office even at that time, and the convoy in fact came, as he was an eye witness to the event. The rest perhaps was a fabrication to suit Mr Chalo’s political thinking and the way of life.
By this time, our revolutionary election campaign was getting demoralized. After the first confrontation with the LSSP stalwarts, we knew that the whole exercise was not going to be smooth. Only Nanda was undeterred. It was strange that they did not confront Nanda, as if there was a silent agreement between them. More to the point was that he was rather tactful with them while we were too daring – believing that as university students we could easily win the argument.
After they left, we turned to some ordinary folks. They in fact were watching us from a distance. We rather ‘pleaded’ with them to vote for Edmund as a principled and a good candidate. They of course agreed with us that our revolutionary candidate was a good person. Then they questioned why he left the LSSP and voted with the UNP. It appeared that the people in the area were by and large left minded, at least at that time, and they were loyal to a party or a movement rather than to a person. We called-off the campaign rather early that day.
The second day was more depressing as some of our ‘comrades’ had to go back home. They gave several excuses, but the real reason was the difficulties in campaigning or lack of experience to do so. Bulathsinhala was a sparsely populated area at that time. Of course, there were, Tamil estate workers sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, according to Nanda, but they didn’t have the vote. We went interior that day and the results were more depressing because some people were not very concerned about the election or they pretended to be so, engaged in their own day to day activities. The election manifesto that we were given to distribute also was a difficult document to explain without having any catchy slogans or promises. There were long paragraphs explaining the ‘dangers of a coalition with the bourgeoisie’ for the working class written in the typical Marxist jargon. Even we could not understand the head out of tail.
The third day I was determined to go and see Mr Chalo. I said this very clearly and also was not feeling terribly guilty because I had already fulfilled my revolutionary task, campaigning for Edmund under extremely difficult circumstances. Nanda approved it and even gave me instructions how to find Mr Chalo.
Mr Chalo was at a tea-kiosk. He was in his forties I believe. I pretended to be a journalist but he was unconcerned. When I asked about the notice at the entrance to the Friday market, his answer was first to say that he ‘owns the market ground’ and therefore he was ‘free to put up any notice’ as he wished. Then he added that according to the Buddha all humans are the same whatever their marginal differences. That was his philosophy on ethnicity.
Then he came up with his philosophy about a ‘government-less’ society. He said that all forms of government are oppressive. He seemed to hate the police, the army and any type of force. People by nature are good, he insisted. What requires is leadership to motivate them for good deeds. Public policies can be implemented through mere gazette notifications. ‘Governing by gazette’ was his idea. He told me about various propositions to implement his ideas. But they are not very relevant to my story here. The important thing is that there was this man from Bulathsinhala who advocated a kind of political philosophy of his own.
I immediately came to realize that his views were similar to what we learn in books as Anarchism. But it was not anarchism of people like Michael Bakunin, but of Leo Tolstoy. There are two main types of Anarchism; one violent and tries to demolish the state and all forms of government. The other is extremely pacifist and tries to implement self-governing by the people through education. Mr Chalo was of the second type.
What I learnt was that although the theorists give big names for different type of political thinking like liberalism, authoritarianism, fascism, socialism and anarchism, many of them originate from different attitudes to life and politics, which are sometimes prevalent across countries and national boundaries among the ordinary people.