23 October, 2017

The Legacy Of Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Thirty Years After

By Rajiva Wijesinha –

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunagala from 1962 to 1983, died 30 years ago, on October 23rd. He was undoubtedly the most impressive Anglican Bishop Sri Lanka has produced, and with every year that passes his stature seems to grow.

Much has been written about him recently, most notably in Rajan Hoole’s detailed assessment of what happened in July 1983. Hoole shows how those events contributed to his premature death for, though he had a heart condition and had been advised to take things slow, he threw himself into trying to assuage the hurt felt by Tamils who had suffered in the state sponsored attacked on them.

He had been in England in July, taking the much needed break his doctors had advised, and trying to set down his thoughts on an oriental view of Christianity. In the last conversation we had, on the phone for I got to England on the day he was due to leave, he assured me that he would take things slow, in trying first to understand what had happened, and how the social dispensation into which he had been born had turned rabid. But seeing the suffering and the bewilderment, he did not rest, being the first Sinhalese dignitary to go up to Jaffna to apologize for what had happened.

Late Bishop of Kurunegala, Revd. Lakshman Wickremesinghe

Tissa Jayatilaka, in writing on the 30th anniversary of his last Pastoral address, on September 23rd 1983, captures the anguish he felt, and his almost desperate effort to restore a sense of balance based on fundamental principles of decency. But he was full of grief, and soon after that he was admitted to hospital. He sent word for me, on the day I got back, to come and see him, but his mother, my grandmother, told he to wait till he was better. I suspect she knew that emotions might be heightened when we met, given the anger we had both felt at the manner in which the Jayewardene government had conducted itself on this issue.

But even in what was supposed to be isolation, he continued to feel and to worry, and on October 23rd he died. He was just 56 years old.

Though his anguish about the violence the government had unleashed against Tamils, in 1977 and in 1981 and most horrendously in 1983, led to his most distinctive political role, he had been involved in passionate criticism in other contexts too. He would have been horrified therefore at the facile account of his activism put forward recently by the latest Bishop of Kurunagala, Shantha Francis whom he had consecrated as a priest in 1978.

Bishop Francis is reported to have said that, ‘I cannot be a Lakshman Wickremesinghe. He belonged to a leading Sinhala family and he felt that he must speak of the rights of the Tamils. In my case, I’m a Tamil, so my duty towards reconciliation is the other way around. I must understand the Sinhala Buddhist majority community and I must build up some link there.’

This is misrepresentation, whether deliberate or not, of the way Bishop Lakshman functioned. He believed that he had to speak of the rights of everyone, and his first active intervention in politics was with regard to the youngsters involved in the JVP insurrection of 1981. It was because of what he felt was the excesses of government in controlling that insurrection that he was a founder member, along with Prof Sarachchandra, of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka. And after the Jayewardene government came to power, his first major criticism of it came with his support for the strikers of July 1980 who he felt had been beaten into submission.

It was salutary then that his letter to the Times, following the 1982 referendum which the British establishment had welcomed, was republished recently, reminding us of the breadth of his political understanding and involvement. He strove to be objective in his assessments of events though he believed that, as a churchman, his duty as he put it was to afflict the comfortable while comforting the wicked.

But, as I wrote in the New Lankan Review in 1983 in a tribute that was republished in 2008 in Lest We Forget: the tragedy of July 1983 that I brought out while heading the Sri Lankan Peace Secretariat, to remind us of the main catalyst for the tragedy that the country was facing –

‘his radicalism was balanced, and subject to basic general moral principles. Thus, he in no way condones the violence of the insurgents of 1971, in his moving plea on their behalf, ‘Emergency Regulations – For Whose Benefit?’, the first pronouncement on the subject by a nonpolitical public figure, a parallel to his being the first such figure of any consequence to visit the Jaffna Peninsula after the violence in 1983. At the same time, in criticizing violence, he does recognize that where the young turn to violence it is the responsibility of the authorities to appre­ciate that there must be good reason for this, and to look into their grievances; and also that excessive and unnecessary recourse to violence by authority combating violence only exacerbates the situation while taking away from the moral status of what is being defended.

His last Pastoral letter, which received a lot of publicity after his death, takes up a number of these factors: the absolute rejection of violence and terrorism, along with a plea for the powerful to unbend, for strength to be exercised on behalf of the oppressed and suffering. More importantly perhaps it asserts a profound concept of responsibility and moral awareness. Lakshman was one of the few adults of his generation who was ready and willing to apologize to anyone, whatever their relative status, if he felt he were wrong; he was also anxious to consider carefully whether he were wrong, to weigh issues on their merits rather than in terms of consequences, real or imagined, adverse or otherwise, for those involved. Where so many people in authority are eager to blame others, to claim they did not know, that saboteurs are responsible, Lakshman lays down through an unassailable argument the need for a national apology to those who suffered for the violence that occurred. It is not a question of collective guilt; that he shows is untenable in his argument against those who attribute such guilt to those who suffered; but he proclaims a need for collective remorse by virtue of the claims of the individual to a common humanity and, where relevant, to a religious inspiration.

Naturally this, the most important part of the letter, is trun­cated in most of the newspapers. Whether in any case any notice will be taken is a moot point. He is no longer around to afflict the comfortable, and the sentiments his death arouses are not likely to carry far. Yet the comfort provided to the afflicted will endure. The numerous tributes that are written would testify to what has been achieved, even if the actions and arguments did not speak for themselves.’

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Latest comments

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    Where was the good Bishop when killings of tamils commenced soon after independence in 1956 ?
    Did it take only an island wide pogrom in July 1983, to cause him anguish?

    http://www.eelamhomeland.com/infor/Lest_We_Forget_p1.pdf

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      He was a very young man, considering he was in his mid-fifties when he died in 1983! Let us not denigrate even the rare goodness , decency and morality we see around us. Individuals like the late Bishop Luxshman Wickrmasinghe are like the stars in our dark skies.

      Dr.R.N

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    what’s so special about this bloody traitor the Lakshman Wickremesinghe?

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      Rot in hell you worthless scumbag. The man was a saint.

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        this stupid saint is wasted in hell thinking about vellamullavaikal slaughter….

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        [Edited out]

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    Did anyone of these anglophile puppets try to explain to their fraternity that it was the British rule that created and perpetuated rifts between communities in many parts of the world including Sri Lanka?

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    Bishop Laksman Wickramasinghe played a laudatory roll when he prevented a mayhem against the Tamils at the Theological College in Pilimatalawa in July 1977, when a marauding Sinhalese mob was descending from a Buddhist Vihara further up in a nearby mountain to carry out a major assault on the college.

    His engagement brought the army and the gangsters were arrested. Having experienced almost a half day long running for life I, my two elder brothers, my sister in law and my young nephew reached the Theological College where my maternal uncle Late Rev D J Kanagaratnam who was a senior lecturer gave us protective sanctuary. He was later served as Archdeacon of Jaffna until his demise.

    If not for the Bishop, the gangsters headed by the ruthless Jayasinghe would have consumed our lives or caused serious harm to us. The Bishop ensured that we were taken to the St Sylvester College in Katugatota and we remained there almost for a week as refugees.

    It is sad that the successive governments are still unable to reconcile with the Tamils and leaving open the field for further slaughters by constraining the communities and propping up Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony.

  • 0
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    Dear Blue Eyed Prof,
    “.. apologize for what had happened “. When are you going to apologise?

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    ela kola,Piranha – both of you first and foremost learn the fundamental principles of human decency. you two have disgraced yourselves with your comments and your community.
    Barbaric instincts in you need purification. Lakshman Wickremesinghe Bishop of Kurunagala was a kind man, a saint who had real compassion towards his fellow humans.

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      small correction Piranha was not referring to the good Rev but to Ella Kolla!

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        This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy
        https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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        Thanks Pro.

        I was referring to the moron Ella Kolla when I said scumbag. Bishop Wickremasinghe was more than a saint. There should be a statue of him to remember him by. He showed care and compassion towards those who were wronged. He was brave and he was fearless. Terrible shame he died young.

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      I couldn’t agree more and there really should be some sort of control on comments like this.

      If the forum wants to be taken seriously and maintain a certain level of acceptance among the majority of it’s readership.

      I for one do not wish to participate or post comments in a forum that tolerates the likes of such comments.

      It is time to be selective CT, with popularity comes a sense of responsibility !

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      [Edited out]

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    Rajiva – One can’t help but wonder what this exceptional individual would have thought of your hypocrisy and your siding with murderers, thugs and elements like the creators of BBS and their ilk – not to mention your defense of the regime’s crimes at international fora.

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      He would have never allowed Rajiva to tread the path that he has. Had the Bishop been alive a lot of us would have been different people !

      Such is our loss….immeasurable !

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    This most reprehensible character, a monumental stooge of the current racist regime is trying to have some of the decency that Lakshman Wickremesinghe personified rub off on him by virtue of the fact that the latter’s mother was his grandmother!
    Blood relationships don’t cut it in the matter of converting apologists for murder and racism into “defenders of decency and goodwill to all mankind.”
    Is there truly no limit to this man’s efforts to turn a well-worn sow’s posterior into a silk purse?

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    Prof,

    Having been a party to the Genocide and at last at your grand old age you seem to have attained enlightenment and starting to talk about other peoples Legacy. Sadly you are burned with being your role in Aiding and Abetting MR from which you cannot escape and you will face your day of reckoning.

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