By Susil Sirivardena –
This book is a testament to a lifetime of action and reflection by Neville Jayaweera, a Sri Lankan Civil Servant, endowed with a rare vision of what it means to be civilized. Its distinctive feature is its granite-like commitment to ethics and values, supported by an intrepid intellectuality. While remaining rooted in his native soil he also comes across as drawing strength from a reality beyond the mundane and while he seems a person of the Enlightenment and of modernity, he also seems undergirded by an unflinching commitment to his conscience. Summing up the impossible contradiction of his role as the Government Agent of Jaffna in the mid-sixties, Jayaweera says that it was like keeping his nose to the grindstone while at the same time keeping his eyes focused on the stars! Whilst remaining firmly anchored both to heaven and to earth Jayaweera’s career seems an attempt to fill the space in between, both as Yogi and as Commissar, as he describes it, borrowing the title of a famous essay written by Arthur Koestler.
The immediate point of departure for the book is Jayaweera’s experience as the Government Agent or head of the government, of the District of Jaffna in the mid-1960s. Jaffna was the primary site of Independent Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil nationalities whose ramifications are still reverberating through the corridors of our national life. The experiences of his tenure in Jaffna from 1963 to 1966 became an enduring foundation for a narrative that has preoccupied him at many levels for a lifetime. Now at the age of 83+ he has decided finally to publish that narrative, based on his first-hand experiences.
His intention is single-minded – to reconceptualise and reinterpret the nation’s long-running modern trauma and exorcise the myths of a botched agenda. Simultaneously he seems to hold tenaciously to an overarching vision of what a united and harmonious Sri Lanka should be like. That overarching vision of a reconciled, healed and harmonized Sri Lanka seems to be Neville Jayaweera’s idée fixe, the passion that has sustained him over the past fifty years, from 1963-2013. That dream is Jayaweera’s gift to Sri Lanka, a dream worthy of its people’s historic quest for dignity and peace.
Structure and content
The book opens with a Prologue written by Jayaweera in 2013, in which he explains in detail why, having written the first ten chapters while he was still holding office as the GA of Jaffna 1963-1966, it took him five decades finally to decide to publish them. The Prologue makes for fascinating reading for that reason alone.
The Prologue is imperative reading also for another reason. It contains an advanced résumé of the core submissions of the book and a recap of what the writer refers to as the “driving motors of the ethnic conflict”. It cleverly fast-forwards the narrative up to the present date but having done that, Jayaweera returns to Jaffna to recapture in detail, through Chapters 1 to 10, the existential and traumatic experiences he lived through between1963-1966. Those chapters exude authenticity because they are based on the Govt. Agent’s daily diaries.
Referring to the main chapters of the book Jayaweera says, “These chapters are a search for the meanings and values underlying the experiences that confronted me ….and are an attempt to rise above them and look at the big picture.” This pronouncement contains the core of the narrative, its leitmotiv, so to say. While spicing the unfolding narrative with critical observations, Jayaweera simultaneously interrogates himself and the zigzag of events ruthlessly. This is like a forensic investigation. Those ten chapters impact locally on Jaffna, as well as on successive governments in Colombo, because he uses his Jaffna experiences as a prism through which to look at the larger problem confronting the nation as a whole. All those chapters are riveting, to say the least.
The two Epilogues
Fifty years after writing the ten chapters that constituted the heart of his Jaffna narrative, to bring down the curtain, Jayaweera writes two Epilogues.
Epilogue One, written in February 2009, before the LTTE had been vanquished in May of that year, is a reflection and interpretation of the continuing conflict, now taking the proportions of a decades-old civil war, causing great havoc and destruction throughout the whole country.
In this Epilogue the author defines the parameters of a fully reconciled and harmonized Sri Lanka. While arguing the case for “Sinhala-Buddhism” as Sri Lanka’s central zone, he also argues the case for recognizing all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious groups as constituting an organic unity, essential components of the Sri Lankan mosaic, without which, he emphasizes, the central zone itself will wither and die. I can do no better than to quote Jayaweera himself on this point.
“More than the power it derives from an overwhelming superiority in numbers, what exalts any majority community, and endows it with a true greatness and moral authority, is its willingness to accord to all those other communities who lack the advantage of numbers, a status and a dignity equal to its own, and never to let them feel marginalized or disadvantaged because they are fewer in number, or because they are different in colour or beliefs.
Unless and until Sri Lanka can produce leaders who can realise that truth, and are willing to act on it, it will continue to be mired in conflict”
Back in 2009, he also dared to prophesy with remarkable prescience the events he saw unfolding in the years immediately ahead, for instance – the emergence of Jaffna’s long-suppressed underclass as the dominant factor in the politics of Jaffna, the rise of a hugely powerful Tamil Diaspora which he says will match the Israeli Diaspora for influence and global power and will also cause more problems to the SL government than the LTTE, and not least the involvement of Tamil Nadu and Delhi again in the politics of SL.
Epilogue Two follows. Written in 2013, in this section the author explores the implications of the election of the Northern Provincial Council. While looking at the various hurdles that lie ahead he also has some profound advice to proffer both to the Governor of the Province as well as the Chief Minister of the new Council. Referring to his own management style when he was Government Agent in Jaffna, Jayaweera writes,
“Instead of pursuing “confrontation” and “ascendency” as ordered by N.Q. Dias, I followed a formula of “continuous consultation”, “compromise” and “conciliation”, and within a few months had caused the mutual antagonism between the government and the Tamil parties to subside dramatically. Thereby, I had produced for the first time in a decade, an environment in Jaffna, within which the fruits of peace and harmony between the government and the Tamil leaders may sprout and mature”.
He says that thereby he generated a climate within which the Tamil parties and the ruling government could talk to each other once again and the outcome was the Dudley-Chelvanayagam Accord.
He recommends both to the Governor of the Northern Province and to its Chief Minister that they follow the principles that he followed in Jaffna – “consultation, compromise and conciliation”.
With the NPC elections of September 2013, the narrative has come full circle, and ends on the million dollar question, whether President Rajapakse, seizing the opportunity offered him through his electoral strength in the country, will roll back decades of history and finally resolve the National Question.
Will Rajapakse demonstrate the higher vision that is clearly articulated by Jayaweera? – i.e. prove himself to be among the miniscule few who have caught “the broader, grander view” and “who can rise above their narrow constituency perspectives and be able to catalyse the fragmented ethnic and religious groups into a unity”.(Jayaweera’s words quoted from the text)
Jayaweera closes Epilogue Two with another chilling prophecy, which is that unless President Rajapakse will swiftly effect a total reconciliation with the Tamil people of the North, India will get sucked into the Jaffna maelstrom again with disastrous consequences for the unity and sovereignty of the whole country, for defending which the Sinhala South fought a gruesome civil war for thirty years.
The book closes with an important Appendix, a 10,000 word document on the Tamil Caste System, which is an original piece of research into a subject that has hitherto gone un- addressed. A Short Bibliography ends the book.
At one level, Neville Jayaweera’s memoirs/narrative, is a cathartic exploration of the post-independence Sri Lankan trauma, probing what the author considers are the most important and fundamental fault lines and contradictions in modern Sri Lanka. It is a visceral and cross-cutting light, flashed deeply into facts that were directly experienced by him.
The driving motors of the whole narrative are Jayaweera’s first hand experiences. The narrative is neither sterile, data-crunching scholarship, nor speculation, nor political pamphleteering. Rather, it is a candid and unbiased narration of facts as they were experienced by an impartial and intelligent administrator, whose only bias was, as he called it, his allegiance to the “vertical dimension, to values, and to moral boundaries”.
At another level Jayaweera’s memoirs are also more than mere history and politics. It is also, and dare I say essentially, an exploration of the larger things of life, a magisterial and holistic questioning of evil at whatever level it manifested. Throughout the memoirs there runs a high moral tone, a fearless interrogation of his own ego and the exposure of evils embedded in the citadels of power.
One of those citadels of power was the person of N.Q. Dias, the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs in the 1960s. Systematically, Jayaweera recounts the catalytic role played by N.Q. Dias in shaping the ethnic conflict and setting it in concrete. While recognizing Dias’s brilliance as a strategist and his impeccable integrity as a public servant, Jayaweera also exposes Dias’s role as apocalyptic, and claims that more than any contemporary politician, it was Dias who, working behind the scenes and in the interstices, shaped the ethnic conflict in its early years.
It was this sharpness of discernment that enabled the author to unravel the subterranean depths of received myth and conventional wisdom which have distorted the nation’s imagination.
Jayaweera’s intense empathy for the underclasses of Jaffna, who had been victims of history for centuries, was the whetstone that helped him navigate his way through Jaffna’s iniquitous social structures. Borrowing the title of a book that was popular at that time Jayaweera called them “The Wretched of The Earth”. The Tamil underclass was the product of an iniquitous Tamil apartheid which was hardly acknowledged outside the Peninsular. He writes, “Central to my understanding of the ethnic conflict has been my recognition of the pivotal role played by the Vellalar Tamils of Jaffna who presided over this iniquitous system.” The principle of “heredity” – once a road sweeper always a road sweeper – had set the Tamil caste system in stone, and the disproportionate ownership of land by the Vellalars had consolidated the evil structure.
A highly biased interpretation of the Hindu scriptures, proffered by the Brahmins and the Vellalars, had provided the ideological legitimacy for the evil social structures of the Jaffna Tamils, and the iniquities went unquestioned because they seemed to have the sanction of deity!.
Realizing that he had first to question this ideological underpinning before he could deal with the iniquities it had spawned, Jayaweera undertook a monumental research task such as no scholar or administrator had ever attempted before, and that was, with the assistance of a Brahmin scholar from Annamalai, actually to scrutinize a mountain of Hindu scriptures to ascertain the truth. The outcome of that heroic endeavour is the 40 page Appendix to this book.
Throughout these memoirs the political and intellectual leaderships of all political parties come in for concentrated criticism because it is they who are accountable for this inglorious and tragic chapter in the country’s history. It is they who manipulated and mobilized myth and hypocrisy in the lust for political gain and survival. This aspect of the analysis is eloquently summarized in the Prologue, through what the author describes as the “six powerful motors” which drove the ethnic conflict.
Quality of mind
Fundamental to the discussion is the writer’s quality of mind, which seems to have benefited from a life-transforming experience he had when he was the GA of Vavuniya. He writes, ”However in 1972, when I was the GA of Vavuniya, I underwent a radical paradigm shift in consciousness, which meant that my perception of what constitutes Reality and the perception of my “self” relative to it, changed fundamentally”. From that day onwards Jayaweera’s life ceased to flow at the level of the mundane and anchored itself firmly in the Transcendent, and it is from the latter perspective that he keeps looking at the unfolding scene below. He seems to share with Spinoza the compulsion to look on the world “Sub specie aeternitatis” (from the point of view of eternity)
The mind behind this work is unique. It is the product of a number of rare strands – an unrelenting and ruthless self-criticality, a scrupulous attention to detail, a rigorous intellectual discipline, a sophistication of a rare quality, a capacity for empathy and compassion especially for the disempowered, and intrepidity to nail hallowed myths and call a spade a spade. Clearly noticeable is his ability relentlessly to think a point through to its very end and the large-mindedness of the writer is mirrored on every page.
It is this quality of mind and style of writing that coheres. Felicity is integral to it, and the razor sharp clarity of the luminous writing adds value to the whole narrative. The flow is beautifully controlled and the argument or analysis is tightly built up and heightened to drive the point home.
The marriage of morality and intellectuality, the fusion of emotion with thought, and the balance of holism with particularity, are the dominant characteristics of these memoirs.
Jayaweera assures us that close on the heels of this publication he plans to bring out a companion volume, titled “The Siege of Vavuniya” in which, among things, he will talk about the paradigm shift in consciousness which gave coherence and substance to his life.
*Susil Sirivardana – B.A. (Oxon) Sri Lanka Administrative Service (Retd)