18 May, 2022


“We The People”: Reflections On Governance And Civic Engagement In Sri Lanka

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was deeply humbled by the invitation to deliver the 17th Deshamanya Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Oration. At the outset, let me thank the members of the Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Trust for the honor of the invitation. Let me express my appreciation to the Trust for deciding to celebrate the life of Prof. Kodagoda in this fitting manner—that of offering an immensely valuable platform to engage in public conversations.

DeepikaA few decades ago, when I was a law student and then a young academic at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda was a huge star in the academic firmament of Sri Lanka. When I think of him, the image that comes to mind is that of a man with a larger than life personality, with a booming and authoritative voice, brilliantly accomplished not only in his chosen field of academic specialization, but also in a myriad other fields. He was the Dean of the venerable Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo and later the university’s Vice-Chancellor – dizzying heights for an academic.

However, as one coming from another academic discipline, the enduring image I have of him is that of Nandadasa Kodagoda, the public communicator par excellence. I still recall how enthralled I was watching his television programs on the Vanniyela Aththo community or on public health issues, his baritone beautifully modulated, his impeccable Sinhala diction flowing forth like rich honey. He was the quintessential inter-disciplinarian. He recognized no boundaries to knowledge. The study of the human body, of the aesthetic of language or of music, or of social anthropology were, I believe, interconnected parts of a larger whole for him. What fascinated me was his wide ranging intellectual curiosity. The education we received generally boxed everything into compartments. And so, to see a man of western medicine waxing eloquent about the cultural characteristics of an ancient community or the fine arts was truly inspiring. In retrospect, I think it was the likes of Prof. Kodagoda who taught us, wittingly or unwittingly, the value of inter-disciplinary education and the potential of academics to enrich the lives of people in a myriad ways.

I do have vivid memories of my first meeting with Professor Kodagoda. Emboldened by the post- graduate education she had received in a rather radical seat of learning in the US, the then recently returned young Udagama invited the eminent professor to speak to students in her human rights law class. The topic was how forensic sciences dealt with sexual violence. Well, as many of you can imagine it was a morning to remember! He patiently explained the scientific dimensions first and then regaled the class with anecdotes, some of which did not go down well with the gender sensibilities of the young academic. The expected combustion did not take place as the good professor dealt with dissenting views with charm and grace, never losing his cool. I could see that he tolerated the ‘impudence’ of the young academic with some amusement and a twinkle in his eye! The students learned a great lesson on how to agree to disagree irrespective of age, gender or seniority.

Professor Kodagoda’s journey from the small temple school in the village of Ahangama in the South to prestigious Nalanda and Mahinda Colleges on a government scholarship and then on to medical school and eventual great professional heights, in many respects, typifies the Sri Lankan success story of the early to mid-Twentieth Century. Such personalities of that era, more often than not, gracefully straddled the ways of rural Lanka with urban sophistication. They became fully bi-lingual, and in some instances tri- lingual. They were familiar with, and appreciated, both eastern and western thought. Professor Kodagoda’s appreciation of the ancient Ayurveda medical system and his serving on the Board of the Institute of Indigenous Studies, while rendering yeoman service to promote public education on western medical thought, is a reflection of that open mindset. Today, while there are many more avenues for educational and social advancement, one very rarely witnesses among the beneficiaries of those opportunities the mellow richness of thought, the learned qualities, the tolerance or the public service orientation which were integral parts of the combined world that the likes of Prof. Kodagoda inhabited.

In sum, I see the late Professor Kodagoda as a colorful, multi-faceted and multi-talented personality who contributed positively to Sri Lankan society in a great many ways. He was a fully engaged citizen who richly deserved the national honor “Deshamanya” (Pride of the Nation). It is that very idea of citizenship- -specifically of civic engagement in Sri Lanka–that I wish to explore in this oration dedicated to the memory of the Late Prof. Kodagoda.

Why Focus on Civic Engagement?

My objective here is to engage in a conversation with you about how we in Sri Lanka view our role as citizens—i.e. our civic rights and responsibilities and whether we adequately engage in shaping decisions on matters of common concern to us. If we do, then what are the reasons that animate us? If not, what are the underlying reasons for civic disengagement and apathy? This, by no means is a presentation of scientific findings on any of those questions. I also am not a political scientist. I am first and foremost a citizen and then a student of public law. The purpose of this proposed conversation is to discuss with you certain observations on the topic and to nudge all of us into collective thinking and action. With those caveats let me proceed.

One could very well question the need to focus on the citizenry of Sri Lanka and how we participate in governance, when all important political decisions are made, and indeed political mischief is committed, by those in control of centers of State power. So, why not continue to study what politicians do and unearth the reasons as to why they do what they do? It seems to me that that approach is precisely the problem with our politics and our political culture.

For far too long, we have been obsessed with the study and analysis of the doings and the idiosyncrasies of the political elite. We thoroughly scrutinize their public statements, autobiographies (though there are very few in Sri Lanka) and biographies and so on. Just as much as history is written and seen through the prism of elite actors, so also in our study of contemporary politics our focus is almost entirely on the political movers and shakers. Will politician A fall out with politician B? If so, what will happen to the government and the making of policy X ? That is how our political discourse goes. It is almost by chance we discover that they are nothing but political creatures of our own making. We have voted for them, sometimes lionized them and acknowledged them (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) as our political leaders who can show us the way forward. That they are our political representatives who are there to do our bidding is, well, mostly a secondary thought. What all of the above means is that the sense we have of our own political agency is minimal.

As the analyses we make is premised on democratic governance, is it not equally, if not more, important to turn the searchlight on us, the citizens, in whom sovereignty lies under our Constitution? Is it not pertinent to ask ourselves the questions as to what extent we fashion policies through democratic participation?; Do we have faith in our democratic entitlements and powers?; Do we have the confidence that we can positively change policies and practices that affect us through the use of those powers?; Do we possess the necessary knowledge and skills for such purposes?; Or, are we content to be mere political instruments that are occasionally cajoled into taking sides during election time by those who nurse political ambitions?

Those are important questions we have to address if we are invested in the idea of a meaningful democratic future for Sri Lanka. As the purpose of this address could be misunderstood, let me state categorically that shifting the focus on the citizenry and on civic values and engagement is not to exonerate public representatives from abuse of authority or relieve them of their sacred duty to govern in a democratic and decent manner. Indeed, if any politician were to maintain by way of defence that abuse of authority and misrule by the political establishment takes place because of a weak citizenry, such a position must be dismissed as cynical and irresponsible nonsense. Anyone holding elected office, or is expecting to seek such office, should know better.

Do We Possess a Democratic Ethos?

As we all know, Universal adult franchise was introduced to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1931 by the British colonial authorities through the progressive Donoughmore Reforms. We were one of the first colonies in the British Empire to be granted universal adult franchise. Since then we have changed governments only through electoral politics, even during periods of tremendous political violence and upheaval. One could well maintain that there are three pillars that have sustained and shaped modern Sri Lankan society—universal adult franchise, the public education system and the public healthcare system (in my opinion, the latter two being more pivotal than the first). As we have had a long history of multi-party electoral politics and of democratic institutions (what Robert Dhal calls ‘polyarchy’1), could we say that we Sri Lankans have developed an abiding liberal democratic ethos over the decades?

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘ethos’ as –“The characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations”. So then, are our attitudes and aspirations animated by democratic values such as free speech and expression, the right of dissent, the right to information, freedom of association and assembly, the right to claim our rights through democratic institutions? On the other hand, if our thoughts, actions and ideals are animated by other values (e.g. those that make us ask for ‘favours’ from political patrons), what are they? Or, is it the case that democratic values and non-democratic values exist side by side to be used selectively as the occasion suits? Investigating the political value base of Sri Lankan society in a nuanced and comprehensive manner is going to be a vast future research endeavour, but that must be done. The results will reveal quite a lot about ourselves and also perhaps explain the enormous contradictions we see in our literate society.

Even in the absence of comprehensive scientific findings, what we experience or observe on a daily basis are common enough for us to come to at least some initial conclusions about our political values that inform our responses to issues of concern. Let me present some of my own observations/experiences to illustrate the point. Please recognize that these situations are being recounted not in a spirit of ridiculing the parties concerned, but in order to recognize certain ground realities:

i)  A working class mother complains that the principal and teachers of her child’s school constantly ask for money for various purposes. This time the complaint is that each child is required to bring Rs. 2000/- to paint the class. There are 48 students in the class, and the collection then will be Rs. 96,000/-. “How can painting the class cost so much?” the mother asks me. “We don’t know how they spend the money” she laments. When asked what the PTA is doing about it, she says that nobody wants to question the teachers for fear of the child being ill-treated. “Api bhayay (we are fearful/afraid)” she says. “So, what we all do is keep quiet. Each parent is only concerned about one’s own child. Because we are not together the teachers constantly exploit our silence”.

ii)  I am at a human rights education program in a school in the North Central province. The students and the teachers, a lively group, ask me during the tea break whether I can please request the MP, who had been invited by the principal to the event, whether they could be given a good science laboratory and a library. So, why don’t they ask him—after all the MP is from their area? “ Appo api bhayay” comes the answer. “Because you are from the university he will not scold you.”

iii) A group of academics complains that irregular appointments are being made in their university because of political influence. Another complaint is that an irregular extension of service has been made, again through political interference. So what are they going to do about those irregularities? In the first instance, the academics say that their group is pressing ahead with their complaint, but they lament that there is very little support from other academics as they are very worried about their promotions, scholarships and leave and so on (i.e.“we don’t want to get into trouble” response). In the latter case, I was told that most staff members of the faculty concerned feel that as it is difficult to fight “these political cases”, what they want to do is to also ask for similar extensions of service for everybody. In other words, their position is– if you cannot beat them, join them.

iv) Students complain to a Head of Department that it is very difficult to understand the lectures of a particular lecturer. Have they spoken to the lecturer about it? “No, we are scared” they say “the lecturer will take it out on us”. So, why don’t they go in a large group? “Very few will join us, and only those few who will go will get penalized”.

v) Academics and other professionals stating at meetings, seminars and even in the classroom that “it [whatever matter under discussion] is a controversial issue, I do not want to comment on that”.

vi)  I ask a member of the legal profession why he had accepted an appointment to an independent commission when the appointment was clearly unconstitutional as it was made without adhering to the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution. “What can I do when the highest in the land appoints me?” was his response. He studiously avoids answering the question on the legality of the appointment. Then he chastises me –“The problem with you Deepika is that you live in an ideal world; we don’t”.

vii)  Some years ago, an environmental organization came forward to petition the courts about a powerful generator that had been installed by a private company in a residential area, causing severe health problems due to noise pollution. As public interest litigation is of narrow scope under the law of Sri Lanka, they solicited volunteers from the neighbourhood to be petitioners. Although almost everybody in the neighbourhood complained of the noise, hardly anyone wanted to join in as petitioners. But when the organization persisted and won the case, they all were delighted. Human rights lawyers too, I am sure, could provide many such examples.

viii)We all know that sexual harassment, or “eve teasing” as they say in India, is rampant in our public transport system. But very few women, who are harassed, will raise cries or complain. My students tell me that it is so, because most of the time other passengers not only do not support the victim, but they look at her as if she is the guilty party. Now that I too constantly commute to Peradeniya, I can confirm what they say. “Speaking up is wrong” is the general message one gets—“just why can’t you put up with it and save everybody the embarrassment of a public spectacle”.

ix) A CEO of a company that is a giant in the retail business tells a university audience that compared to consumers elsewhere, Sri Lankan consumers are a meek lot. “We get away with a lot” he says.

I am certain that almost all of you can relate to the instances and responses I have recounted. Commonly recurring responses to the query about inaction are: “we are fearful”, “we don’t want to get penalized”, “we don’t get the support of others, so we too keep quiet”. Let me add another response I keep hearing often—“Well, you can afford to dissent or talk about controversial matters because you are a human rights person. But if we say that it will not go down well (with the authorities)”. My response to the last is that all in a democracy are expected to be “human rights persons”.

This ever-present “fear psychosis” and the failure to mobilize around common causes have to be further explored. My observation is that expressions of fear are of two types: one is about fear to personal security, and the other is about fear of losing benefits or entitlements such as one’s job, promotions, titles and perks. Fear that is entertained is perhaps amplified by the knowledge that others will not come to one’s assistance and also the lack of faith in institutions and processes that are expected to provide remedies. It is also clearly the case that we suffer from the described “fear psychosis” because our democratic orientation is very weak. If we were fully convinced of the critical value of freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in a democracy, we would not fail so often to take collective action in the face of violations of our rights and liberties.

Of course, during the many cycles of violence our country has gone through, thousands were victims of violence unleashed by all parties concerned, be it torture, abductions, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. It is also no secret that the dismal state of the rule of law in the country does not inspire confidence in the citizenry to seek protection through the law. While there is merit to those arguments, we must also seriously give thought to the consequences of remaining passive. In the long run, are we not saving our individual interests through passivity by sacrificing the future of a nation? It would be rather preposterous to suggest that citizens should be engaged only when the zone is clear.

Onecancitemanycomparativeinstancesinwhichcitizen action prevailed over entrenched authoritarianism and violence. Some of the best examples that come to mind are the Arab Spring, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, people’s resistance against the apartheid régime in South Africa and the generals in Burma and how the people of India valiantly resisted the state of emergency declared during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure in 1975. If the Indian citizenry caved in to authoritarianism then, the India of today would have been a very different one. It also must be said that a healthy democracy depends not only on large scale people’s movements; but on the everyday small steps that we take individually and collectively to articulate our ideas and views, question what is illegal and assist others who have been victimized to obtain redress.

In many public institutions in Sri Lanka, including the higher education sector, there is grave concern that deliberative bodies have fallen silent. There is a sullen deference to authority citing some of the above reasons, but the dissent and discontent that is not articulated are palpable. The end result of this silence is that decision-making happens almost by default without the benefit of a process of informed deliberation. The entrenchment of authoritarianism through this silent disengagement is all too obvious. Yet, the erosion continues unabated.

Of course, you may rightly pose the question as to why instances of successful public interventions are not been recounted here. The truth is that such instances, are very few and far between. The two recent examples that come to mind are the FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) campaign to improve the education sector, which almost turned into a social movement, and secondly the campaign launched by the Allied Health Sciences Students to obtain a better quality degree. My observation is that there is more successful citizen mobilization and intervention among the working class communities than among the middle or upper classes. We all know that democracy thrives with an enlightened middle-class. But most middle class civic bodies—such as chambers of commerce and professional bodies– are disengaged from public issues. It is indeed a welcome change to see the Bar Association of Sri Lanka at present being very active on behalf of the rule of law and the right and liberties of the people.

If the above observation is correct, is it that the more literate and privileged classes in Sri Lanka have consciously abdicated their responsibilities toward democracy? Is it the case that greater possibilities of rapid social mobility in Sri Lanka, made even more rapid through political patronage and a liberalized economy, blind us to larger social issues? Whatever the causes are, it is hard to envisage us having well established democratic social movements here such as the right to information and anti-corruption movements or the massive “brave heart” campaign against sexual violence in India. Instead what have gained ground in Sri Lanka are movements based on ethno-religious nationalism.

Democracy & Civic Engagement

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘Democracy’ is derived from the Greek word demokratia. It is coined from the words demos (people) and kratia (power). In other words, it denotes people’s power—hence, “we the people”.

As we all know, the idea of democracy is premised on the principle of the will of the autonomous individual, who is a citizen of an organized political community (polis). Sovereign authority to govern is vested in the individual who is deemed all powerful. In other words, to use monarchical parlance, in a democracy it is us, the people, who are kings and queens and princes and princesses. We are supposed to be the prime movers and shakers who decide on our futures, our destinies. The design of democratic governance of a State, therefore, must have as its primary objective the serving of the will of the peoples—of course not only the will of those in privileged groups, but of all, recognizing the diversity and pluralism of aspirations among us.

The difference between democracy and forms of authoritarian governance is just that. In authoritarian systems, power is concentrated in an individual, such as in a hereditary monarch or a dictator, or in a group of persons, as in an oligarchy. Powers of governance or of decision making do not lie with the people in such a system—we are merely obedient subjects, dependent on the whims and fancies of those who posses power. It is precisely because of the stark difference between democracy and non-democratic political systems that the citizen’s role in a democracy—with attendant rights and duties—is of such vital importance.

Democratic constitutions are expected to establish institutions and systems of governance that function entirely on behalf of the people and which are accountable to the people so that our needs, rights and liberties are protected to a maximum. Fundamental features of liberal democratic governance such as separation of powers, checks and balances, protection of human rights, independence of the judiciary and the franchise are all expected to be a part of modern democratic constitutions for that reason. The overall expectation, however, is that the institutions and systems put in place will function optimally and effectively not on their own, but through active public opinion and scrutiny.

When one studies the evolution of democracy, however, the participatory role of the citizen has varied in different models of democracy. One could say that the citizen’s role was of primary importance in systems of direct democracy, i.e. assembly democracy, which prevailed in the Greek City States. Similarly, members of Buddhist Assemblies of yore were the primary participants in direct democracy practiced within those assemblies. Athenian democracy, which is considered to be strongest among the Greek city- states, was based on the idea of civic virtue—i.e. a citizen’s worth was measured not through wealth, education or social status, but through the level of civic participation in public matters. The celebrated funeral oration attributed to Pericles, a prominent Athenian citizen, declares that:

Here [in Athens] each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics—this is a particularity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.2

The concept of civic virtue was also very important in the later Renaissance Italian city-republics.

However, the idea of direct democracy gradually went into abeyance and its validity was questioned in view of the expansion of scope and size of the State. Could direct democracy function in States with larger populations? The answer was in the negative. The answer to that dilemma was provided by the rise of representative democracy in the Seventeenth Century, primarily through the work of English political philosopher John Locke (1634-1703). Locke was a contractarian who believed that the ideal form of government should be based on a social contract forged between the people and their representatives. In his celebrated work The Two Treatises of Government (1690) he presented the idea that sovereign powers lay in the people. The people should form a government by transferring some of their powers temporarily to their chosen representatives. They were, in turn, expected to attend to the needs of the people and protect their ‘life, liberty and property’. If the representatives did not fulfill their duties toward the people and violated their rights, then the people had the right to remove them from office. The idea of representative government was further developed by liberal philosophers, chief among who was John Stuart Mill (1806-73).

While representative government was a practically effective form of democracy in large States, it did eventually result in the dilution of active citizenship. People became active during election time and thereafter largely left governance to their elected representatives. Mill argued for the need to have a well informed citizenry which was very active in public life—in voting, in local government and jury service. Theorists like Barber have pointed to the need to entrench ‘strong democracy’, where a well- informed citizenry actively participates in public life because of a strong conviction in self-government, as opposed to what he calls ‘thin democracy’, where the citizens use democratic systems in a self-serving or instrumental manner.3

Although one can witness a downward trend in civic engagement all over the world, it is abundantly clear that at least a certain minimum level of civic participation is needed to sustain effective democratic governance. We do observe that in more mature democratic systems civic consciousness is still greatly valued and actively promoted. In aspiring democracies, we have seen remarkable spurts of citizen mobilization in recent times such as in North Africa, the Middle-East and Eastern Europe.

The latest form of democracy to emerge is what John Keane calls “monitory democracy”4—meaning the development of citizen’s initiatives for checking governmental excesses. The development of citizens’ initiatives on election monitoring and the right to information, citizen’s tribunals and community initiatives to check corruption are good examples of monitory democracy. India’s right to information movement, the Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaign and the all woman anti-corruption outfit “The Pink Brigade”5 are people’s initiatives that have captured the imagination of people the world over. It is also the case that citizen activism has moved from national confines to reach global heights as in the anti- globalization campaigns in Seattle and elsewhere and in the form of international advocacy groups such as Avaaz.org that use modern technology to achieve a global reach.

So, while there does appear to be a slump in civic engagement in many countries, yet there are also counter developments in various regions and, indeed, at the level of global citizenship that offer future promise.

For our purposes, we need to look at where Sri Lanka stands in regard to all those developments. Can we, who have had the right of universal adult franchise for 83 yeas and who are also heirs to the rich legacy of free education and public health care, and consequently who possess high social indicators, be satisfied that we are the driving force of governance in our country? Or are we contend to be mere subjects resigned to whatever destiny that is crafted by our representative guardians? If the answer to the first question is in the negative and the latter is answered in the positive, then the democratic scheme in the country is in crisis. It means that our success stories—that of high levels of literacy and social mobility and a long history of exercising the franchise have not been translated into an abiding democratic culture.

What Accounts for Strong Democratic Cultures?

A democratic culture by definition is one that is grounded in an entrenched democratic value base, or in other words, in an entrenched democratic ethos. So, what accounts for the fact that some societies seem to be more successful than others in sustaining democracy? That is a question that social anthropologists and political scientists are best qualified to answer.

What I wish to raise here is just one point for reflection—and that is whether or not the idea often expressed, both by politicians and some of our fellow citizens, that we cannot be expected to be exemplary democrats as we are not of the west (i.e. the Occident) is justified. A strong assumption that colors political thinking in non-western societies, including ours, is that democracy is a western invention as are human rights. Therefore, this transplanted value system, we are told, will take time to take root, if at all.

I do not agree with that position. To say that ideas of human liberty, human dignity and people friendly governance emanated only from the west is a frontal insult to all non-western societies. Equality–the most revolutionary political idea of human kind–freedom of thought and of expression, right of dissent, the right to a remedy, consultative forms of governance and religious pluralism are among democratic ideas that have been created by indigenous thinking and practiced in non-western societies for millennia. That fact is borne out by both eastern and western scholars. This does not mean to say that all eastern thought is democratic. Just like some forms of western philosophical thought, some eastern thought is also not compatible with democratic values.

In my opinion, what is perhaps exclusively western is the form of liberal democracy practiced today. The idea of government via a social contract, of separation of powers between three branches of government and of checks and balances, independence of the judiciary and so on could be argued to be inventions by western political thinkers. However, to say that democratic values and principles and, indeed the spirit of democracy, are all exclusively western is an absolute fallacy, in my opinion. Even if structures of modern governance are all western and are alien to us, why is it that we are unable to develop structures relevant to us and infuse governance with democratic values and traditions that are inherent in our cultures?

That makes me come to our giant neighbour India. How has India remained such a vibrant democracy? That is a question that often puzzles us. The enormity of its physical scale, coupled with its diversity and competing claims surely would make governance a nightmare? India’s modernity attempts to co-exist with its ancient past. The social and economic gaps are vast. The country abounds with various forms of conflicts. But yet, for all those internal contradictions and upheavals, India never ceases to amaze one with the robustness of civic engagement, the huge capacity of the people, irrespective of literacy levels or social status, to form social and political movements and prevail over government. Then there is the constant cacophony of voices articulating various ideas and demands. I always say that my civic senses come fully alive when in India. Recently, I had the privilege of teaching comparative constitutional law recently at a prestigious seat of legal education in Delhi. The vibrancy of student participation in the discussions and the vigour and passion with which they would articulate their viewpoints, and indeed dissent, were simply breath taking. The classroom was a riot and I simply loved it!

In his celebrated and engaging essay “The Argumentative Indian”6 Professor Amartya Sen gives us some clues as to why India’s democracy is so vibrant. He points out that there is a long argumentative and deliberative tradition in India that celebrates diverse and unorthodox views, including dissent. He points to the enormous influence of the ancient Hindu epics, the mahabharata and the Ramayana which articulate values more in a deliberative than prescriptive manner. In particular, he discusses at length the famous debate between Arjuna, the righteous warrior, and Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer (a human incarnation of Lord Krishna), in the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most well-known section of the mahabharata.

On the eve of the great battle between the honorable Pandavas and the rogue Kauravas, Arjuna expresses his remorse at the terrible consequences of war, although he concedes that the war is a just war. Krishna, engages Arjuna in a great debate in which Krishna urges Arjuna to heed his duty to engage in the just war and not be distracted by thoughts on the ensuing carnage. Krishna eventually prevails over Arjuna. Of course, modern sensibilities may not necessarily agree with the outcome of that debate, but what is celebrated about this episode in the Gita , aside from its poetic beauty, is the dialogical manner in which the tension between morality and duty is presented. Similarly, Prof. Sen points out that the key players in these great debates include powerful female characters such as Draupadi, the outspoken queen of King Yudisthira in the mahabharatha, and also those belonging to what were considered to be lower rungs of the caste hierarchy.

Sen is also a great admirer of the Buddhist deliberative tradition in India. In the same essay “The Argumentative Indian”, he discusses at some length the contribution of the “Buddhist Councils” to India’s dialogic and democratic traditions. In particular, he refers to the third of the Councils held in the Third Century BCE in Pataliputra, the capital of the Ashokan Empire, believed to have been held under the patronage of the great Emperor himself. While the Councils were held after the death of Gautama Buddha in order to resolve disagreements over religious principles and practices, they also appear to have addressed social and civic issues through encouraging open dialogue. Of course, Buddha himself was a master of dialogic reasoning and set the standard to his followers by the deliberative manner in which he presented his discourses.

The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka was an avid promoter of public discussions and civic participation. He was committed to the principle that public discussion should take place without ill-will or rancour. He demanded, according to Sen ‘restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even on appropriate occasions’. He insisted that ‘other sects should be duly honored in every way on all occasions’. Certainly, a far cry from what passes off as Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka today.

It follows then that another great democratic tradition of India is the appreciation of pluralism. Despite the sectarian strife that flares up in India from time to time, it is inconceivable that the teeming masses of India would survive together for so long without an underlying acknowledgment of pluralism. That secularism has been adopted as a fundamental pillar of the Constitution of India is no surprise, Sen argues. Two of the greatest monarchs of India—the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka and the Moghal Emperor Akbar were proud flag bearers of that noble tradition. Sen traces the long history of religious diversity and tolerance in India, which provided vast public spaces for agnostics and atheists as well. Buddha, he correctly points out, was a non-believer who challenged the concept of God, but who nevertheless had a large following in a society that was traditionally theistic, or God-fearing.

Where there is religious pluralism, cultural pluralism too follows. Sen cites many examples of literary classics of India which appreciate the rich cultural diversity of the Sub-Continent, one of which is the great poet Kalidasa’s classic, the Meghaduta. In it, the wondering cloud, carrying a message from a lovelorn husband to his wife, celebrates the great beauty of the variety of customs and behaviour it observes down below as it floats onwards on its journey.

All those traditions, Sen argues, have captured the popular imagination of India, and have contributed to the continuing tradition of public reasoning and debate, of dissent and unorthodoxy, and the appreciation of pluralism. That has, in great measure, helped sustain democracy in that fascinating country. Certainly, one cannot forget how the vibrancy of the Indian Independence Movement and the constellation of extraordinary leaders it attracted helped consolidate democracy.

What of Sri Lanka? It could be said that Sri Lanka too is a beneficiary of a multitude of such democratic legacies. A small island nation, situated at the cross roads of the Indian Ocean, it attracted migration of various peoples to form an exotic potpourri of communities, some of who were assimilated into existing groups while others co-existed side by side. As Sri Lanka’s eminent anthropologist Prof. Gananath Obeysekere points out, ethnic and religious identities were fluid for a major part of the history of the country, with some possessing multiple identities. An interesting example cited by Obeysekere is King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782) who was “both a Buddhist and a Saivite [Hindu], a speaker of both languages and one who initiated a great revival of Buddhism that had a profound influence right down to the end of the 19th century”.7

Just as much as cultural pluralism was an established facet of Sri Lankan life for centuries, so also was the tradition of public debate and dialogic reasoning. Home to all the major religions in the world, Sri Lankan society has been enriched by the various strands of philosophic thought and traditions from South Asia and elsewhere. The overarching influence of the rationalist and intellectual tradition of Buddhism, however, in this multi-religious society is undeniable.

The dialectical conversation between Arahath Mahinda (thought to be the son of Emperor Ashoka) and King Devanam Piyatissa in the famous mango groves of Mihintale in the third century BCE, which as legend has it, resulted in the king’s conversion to and spread of Buddhism within the country marks a significant event that points to the appreciation of debate and reasoning. That Arahat Mahinda engaged the monarch in a debate is impressive. That I assume was the Buddhist tradition of discourse, no matter the social rank of the party. On the other hand, if a king was open to debate and challenge by a saffron robed ascetic who he did not know before, it is an indication of a tradition of openness and dialogue in that early Sri Lankan society.

Similarly, we have the example of the milinda Prashnaya8, the conversation between King Milinda and Nagasena, a scholar monk, thought to have been written about 500 years after the parinibbana of Buddha. There, the monk answers probing questions of the king on Buddhist doctrine. The monk insists that he will engage in the conversation only if the king wishes to engage as a scholar and not as a king. Scholars admit to mistakes and are keen on unraveling through reason, whereas kings do punish when they do not agree says Rev. Nagasena. The good king readily agrees. Thus, the two engage in spirals of philosophic conversation. It is said that this elegantly crafted work of Buddhist literature written in India and lost to the world for centuries, eventually surfaced in Sri Lanka and was held in such high esteem that King Kirti Sri Rajasinha got it translated into Sinhala in the eighteenth century.

There is then the legend of the great Panadura Wadaya. The point I wish to make here is not about who won the debates, but it is that we have had a long tradition that greatly admired debate, public reasoning and dissent. Similarly, we have had a long history of standing up to tyranny and oppression.9

Given those rich legacies of free thinking, enquiry and challenge, why is it that we are so fearful and disengaged as citizens today? The great irony about the rather alarming level of civic disengagement is that it has set in, and has got worse, in the republican era. Of course, one could argue the State became very violent post-1971 and that democratic governance has seen a downward spiral since then. But the issue is whether there were sufficiently strong civic responses against rising authoritarianism and spirals of violence.

In my opinion, the catalog of people’s grievances on undemocratic governance in Sri Lanka is a long one: We have had two republican constitutions thrust on us within six years of each other with hardly any public consultations; the second republican Constitution thrust on us the executive presidency even before we could really debate the concept and understand what it would mean to governance and to our lives; more recently it was made monolithic by the Eighteenth Amendment rushed through Parliament as an urgent Bill; despite the powers of the executive presidency, spirals of political violence taking place both in the north-east and south of the country due to the failure of successive governments to find meaningful political solutions to grievances; the use of ethno- nationalist sentiments to entrench political power; the rising and unchecked tide of intolerance and sectarian violence even after the ending of the civil war in 2009 ; constant onslaughts on the independence of the judiciary and democratic institutions of the people; governance through emergency powers for nearly forty years coupled with the draconian provisions of the PTA; suppression of free expression and association through attacks on the free media and civic organizations; the steady erosion of the rule of law and the militarization of many spheres of civilian activity; and the entrenchment of patronage politics in place of participatory politics. Quite a long list! The sadness is that, in fact, the list is much longer.

We also have been subjected to a novel political lexicon that defeats our democratic rights–e.g. dissent = conspiracy; dissenter = traitor; one who agrees = patriot; motherland = political establishment. People’s

responses range from outrage to mirth, and of course agreement by some, but overall, in my opinion we have not done enough to sufficiently challenge the serious threat this terminology poses to democracy in the country.

The emasculation of the idea of “we the people” can be seen all around us, if only we care to look. It was vividly brought home, at least to this citizen, when a few months ago she opened the daily news paper and saw a large photograph in the front page depicting a venerable school principal of a leading Colombo school struggling to get into a military uniform in full view of the cameras. She had just completed a military training program conducted for school principals. I was stunned. Would she have really agreed to this on her free will? I thought. Would she have wondered like many of her fellow citizens in Sri Lanka, “How can I refuse, because if I do I will surely get into trouble, and no one will be there to support me”?

Education to the Rescue?

I do believe that there is broad agreement that something is radically wrong with our political culture. Some people call it the “political rot”. But, as I stated at the beginning of this address, mostly we focus on the venality and callousness of the political establishment. Perhaps, just a few of us acknowledge the linkage between civic disengagement and the crisis in democracy in the country.

Be that as it may, there are many solutions suggested to correct the problematic trajectory of governance in the

country. Almost all of them pertain to constitutional or legal reform, be it the abolition of the executive presidency, the re-introduction of the Seventeenth Amendment (to the 1978 Constitution), power sharing and reform of election laws. Even though a student of the law, I am very skeptical that constitutional and legal reform alone would succeed in democratizing our political system. Of course, good laws are essential. But laws, after all, are interpreted and implemented according to the socio-political ethos of a society. We see how laws, including the Constitution, are so blatantly violated with impunity today. So, without a change of the mindset can we expect deeply rooted change? I do not think so.

That is why I would put my stock in education. Real change can come only in the long term. As a society that has passionately invested in education as a social good, I think education has to be used as the primary tool for democratization harnessing existing democratic traditions. It is education, whether formal or informal, that can attempt to foster a relevant value-base or sharpen an existing value base. In well- established democracies the goals of the education system generally tend to go hand-in-hand with the country’s political and constitutional ideals. One can think of the models of education in the USA and Scandinavia as examples.

I am, of course, not an expert in the philosophy of education. But as an academic and also as one who has both studied and taught in Sri Lanka and overseas, I wish to share some thoughts with you in that regard. When I say that the education system in Sri Lanka should be used as a change agent, I do not mean the formal education system as it exists today. The current education system, it seems to me, is the very anti- thesis of democratic education. Meeting the demands of the economy and the related employment market is the key goal, we are told. Science, mathematics, English and IT are emphasized with the social sciences downgraded as being almost irrelevant to the market. Fostering democratic values and a civic consciousness are, if at all, very peripheral to the major objectives. What is promoted now in World Bank parlance are “soft skills” (e.g. skills relating to communication, team work, organizing and also promoting ethnic harmony). Such skills are taught more through extra-curricular activities than as integral parts of the curriculum. The Social Studies curriculum at secondary education level has some lessons on the political system and the Constitution. Teaching is generally top-down and the classroom is still not an open space for challenging ideas and debate. Students spend a major portion of their time at cram shops—there’s hardly any time for anything else for them other than a tele-drama or two at the end of the day. Life’s worth is determined by exam results, even when you happen to be in grade five. Examinations are largely traumatic events, both for students and the parents. But everybody soldiers on expecting to achieve the Sri Lankan Dream.

Among those deemed the best and the brightest (based entirely on exam results) and who gain admission to our public university system, knowledge of current events, whether local or global is appallingly weak. Very rarely does one come across a student who reads a daily news paper or who is a keen observer of current  events who can give you an informed analysis on a public issue. One gets blank stares when you refer to major public happenings such as the impeachment of the Chief Justice or the CHOGM conference. In one class of about 65 students it seemed that most had not heard of the Burgher community of Sri Lanka. When a question is asked about the political system of the country, there are many students who would say “but we don’t know; we didn’t study political science for A Levels”. Hardly a system that educates for life, leave alone democracy! The youngsters are bright and have tremendous potential. But the system has let them down, together with the country, very badly.

In contrast, I found the US education system to be one which encourages experiential learning; is inter-disciplinary; is based on the Socratic method of deliberation in the class room; encourages free thinking; rewards unorthodoxy and outspokenness, volunteerism and civic duty; and assesses a whole range of skills before judging a student’s academic performance. Education is not the dreary process one has to go through for social advancement. The Constitutional principles of government, civil rights and civic obligations are brought to the attention of students at a very young age. As for Indian citizens, the moment of Independence from British colonialism and the founding of the new republic and its value base, is a defining core theme in the lives of US citizens.

Recently, our Department of Law joined via video link a global conversation with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice of the US Supreme Court. When she was asked for her thoughts on what a young lawyer should do to start up his/her career, I think she surprised a good section of the global audience. She advised that one of the key things to do is to join as many community organizations as possible and make oneself relevant to the community. That way, she said, one learns a lot about governance as well.

The influence of John Dewey on the US education system has been profound. Dewey (1859 – 1952) was the most influential US thinker on the philosophy of education in the twentieth century. In his authoritative work Democracy and Education (1916) he advocated the need to make democracy the central focus of the educational process. Education must address the individual as part of society and impart the necessary values and skills to strengthen that relationship. The idea of experiential learning, as opposed to theoretical learning, also stems from Dewey’s philosophical thought.

I also do believe that liberal arts education widely held in high esteem in the US has played a key role in advancing a democratic ethos within US society. It is also worth noting that in The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive Nation released in 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences emphasizes the need to focus on and invest in education in the humanities and the social sciences in order to sustain civic engagement and democratic leadership in the US while meeting modern challenges of all types. Sri Lankan policy- makers, on the other hand, keep reminding us of the futility of “arts education” as arts graduates are not employable. What a narrow vision of life, society and our collective future!

Finally, it does seem that democratizing the individual and a society is a whole process—not just about introducing a subject or two on civics and political science and tinkering with an already tired and socially irrelevant education system. We do have a lot of thinking to do on that score.


When the war ended five years ago, on the balmy shores of the Nanthikadal Lagoon, most Sri Lankans thought that it was a political watershed that would bring about change and a new beginning for a pluralist and democratic Sri Lanka. That moment has yet to happen. We are not only dealing with unresolved issues from the past but also with new demons such as religious bigotry. As we face the political cross roads we are at today, it is imperative that we reflect on our role as citizens and decide on whether we are going to wait for change, or recognize our power and worth as citizens and be the driving force of the new beginnings we wish for.

Stimulating thinking in that direction was the purpose of this address, and I hope I have succeeded in giving you some food for thought.

Let me leave you with the immortal words of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore from Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Thank you.

*The 17th Deshamanya Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Oration

1. Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics (Yale University Press: 1989) 218 -224. 

2.Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in Thucydides The Peleoponnesian War 145,147 quoted in Held, D. Models of Democracy (3d edn.) (Polity Press, 2006) 13-14.

3. Barber, B. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (1984).

4. John Keane The Life and Death of Democracy (Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.: 2009 ) Part Three on ‘Monitory Democracy” 585.

5.See their website :http://www.gulabigang.in/ accessed on 23/07/2014.

6. Sen, A The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Penguin Books, London: 2005) 3.

7.Obeyesekere, G. Buddhism, Political Violence and the Dilemmas of Democracy in Sri Lanka CSDS Occasional Paper (CSDS:2009) 1-16.

8. Translation from Pali by T. W. Rhys Davids accessed at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/sbe35/sbe3502.htm

9. See, e.g. Jayawardena, K Perpetual Ferment: Popular Revolts in Sri Lanka in the 18th & 19th Centuries (Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo: 2010).


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Latest comments

  • 1

    I read the first half and will do the 2nd tomorrow. What I’ve read so far is brilliant! It is a mirror that we need to stare at long and hard.


    • 2

      Deepika Udagama –

      “We The People”: Reflections On Governance And Civic Engagement In Sri Lanka When you say, “We the people”, do you mean Sinhala Buddhist only?

      This is what “Academic” Nalin de Silva is Saying…the Sinhala “Buddhist” Racism., Amarasiris’s response that the Racists at Lankaweb will not post.

      Posted on August 3rd, 2014
      Nalin de Silva


      Amarasiri Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 3rd, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Dear Prof. Nalin de Silva,
      Interesting hypothesis. However, there are lots of errors in your writing. Let me point out a few. Remember, whatever the Church or the ancients said about the Sun and the Earth, the facts support a rotating Earth going around the Sun. However, the church could not make the Sun go around the Earth, and apologized to Galileo, 350 years later.
      If you said, NO MAHAWANSA, NO SINHALA BUDDHISM, it would have been somewhat accurate.
      1. Theravāda is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism.[
      “The name Theravāda comes from the ancestral Sthāvirīya, one of the early Buddhist schools, from which the Theravadins claim descent. After unsuccessfully trying to modify the Vinaya, a small group of “elderly members,” i.e. sthaviras, broke away from the majority Mahāsāṃghika during the Second Buddhist council, giving rise to the Sthavira sect.[3] According to its own accounts, the Theravāda school is fundamentally derived from the Vibhajjavāda (or “doctrine of analysis”) grouping[4] which was a division of the Sthāvirīya.”
      “Theravadin accounts of its own origins mention that it received the teachings that were agreed upon during the Third Buddhist Council under the patronage of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, around 250 BCE. These teachings were known as the Vibhajjavada.[5] The Vibhajjavādins in turn split into four groups: the Mahīśāsaka, Kāśyapīya, Dharmaguptaka, and the Tāmraparṇīya.”

      “The Theravāda is descended from the Tāmraparṇīya sect, which means “the Sri Lankan lineage.” In the 7th century CE, Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yijing refer to the Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka asShàngzuòbù (Ch. 上座部), corresponding to the Sanskrit “Sthavira Nikāya” and the Pali “Thera Nikāya.”[b][c] The school has been using the name Theravāda for itself in a written form since at least the 4th century, when the term appears in the Dīpavaṁsa.[d]”

      2. So, the Theraveda Buddhism would have survived in India, whether or not, Lanka the Land of Native Veddah or Sinhala-Buddhism existed or not. The Tipitaka would have been written somewhere in India, instead of at Aluvihare Vihara or temple in Lanka.

      3. The Title “Mahawansa” or “Mahawanso” which means literally the “Genealogy of the Great” properly belongs only to the first section of the work, extending from 543 B.C.E to 301 C.E ( Before Common Era, or B.C. Before Christ, A.D. Anno Domini are commonly referred to , as a reference point. There is consensus[9] among modern scholars that the historical year of the birth of Jesus was around 6–4 Before Christ.).

      The Primary goal of Mahawansa was to record the genealogy of the Vijaya Invaders Dynasty. The others were called “Sulu-wanse” “lower race”

      4. You Say “My story of Sinhala history does not agree completely with the story in Mahavamsa as I believe that Hela people were Buddhists even before the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Thera.”
      This is incorrect, and your imagination only. The historical data does not support this assumption, including the claimed three visits of Buddha to Lanka and to Samanala Kanda or “ Adams Peak”.
      I was checking with Ceylon, an account of the Island by Sir James Emerson Tennent, The Fifth edition, Printed March 2, 1860, before the contamination of Mahawansa with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Chauvinism in the 20th Century. The information is from Tennett.
      5. Chapter II , The aboriginal inhabitants of Ceylon. Page 327.
      “ To the question as to what particular race the inhabitants of Ceylon at that time belonged , ands whence or at what period the island was originally peopled , the Buddhist Chronicles furnish no reply.”
      6. Page 329. “ Whatever momentary success may have attended the preaching of Buddha, no traces of his pious labors long survived him in Ceylon. The mass of its inhabitants were still aliens to his religion, when, on the day of his decease, B.C. 534, Wijayo, the discarded son of one of the petty sovereigns in the valley of Ganges, effected a landing with a handful of followers in the vicinity of the modern Puttalam”
      “There had been Arabs who were Muslims as well non Muslims who had come before the 13th Century but who were non aggressive in Sri Lanka and were involved in trade”

      This is partially correct. Before Islam, there were Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Indians and Romans who had known the Island and used as a trading post and transshipment point. It was the Arabs and Persian who converted to Islam and spread o Tamil Nadu and Kerala and later arrivals from there.

      Reference: Tennent Chapters I, II, II, and V. Pages 549 to 643.

    • 1

      Dear Deepika Udagama –

      “The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka was an avid promoter of public discussions and civic participation. He was committed to the principle that public discussion should take place without ill-will or rancour. He demanded, according to Sen ‘restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even on appropriate occasions’. He insisted that ‘other sects should be duly honored in every way on all occasions’. Certainly, a far cry from what passes off as Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka today.”

      There is no Civic discussions with Para-Sinhala “Buddhist” Racists who came from Southern India at Lankaweb. They do not post alternate opinion of Amarasiri. Amarasiri causes them indigestion and constipation on his posts. Do they follow Asaikas example? No. They Follow Para-Sinhala “Buddhism”. also known as Maraism.

      Lanka web is like the Church trying to suppress the truth of the Heliocentric Model . They want to suppress the para-Sinhalese “Buddhist” Racism., the Curse of para-Monk Mahanama lies and imaginations claiming it to be Buddhism.

      Examples are:

      ” Amarasiri Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 3rd, 2014 at 9:52 am
      Amarasiri Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 3rd, 2014 at 9:52 am

      1. Amarasiri Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 3rd, 2014 at 7:25 am

      2. Amarasiri Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 3rd, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      3. Amarasiri Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 3rd, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      4. Amarasiri Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 3rd, 2014 at 9:52 am

    • 2

      Here is the pdf of the Lecture by Deepika Udagama –


      “We the PeoPle”:
      Reflections on GoveRnance
      civic enGaGement in sRi lanka
      The Head, Department of Law,
      University of Peradeniya
      Friday, 1st August 2014
      at the
      Sri Lanka Foundation

    • 2

      Dr. Deepika Udagama,

      “We The People”: Reflections On Governance And Civic Engagement In Sri Lanka

      The Title Can be changed to:

      We The Serfs with No Soul, With Dead Souls an Anatte: Reflections On People, Governance And Civic Engagement In Sri Lanka.

      The Dead Souls of Sri Lanka.

      Serfs were peasants who worked the land for the benefit of the landowner. They were not slaves-they could not be bought and sold- but they were not free, either.

      So, the people of Lanka, the Land of Native Veddah are Serfs, with dead souls, courtesy of Para-Sinhala Buddhism and the MaRas.

    • 1

      Dr. Deepika Udagama –

      “We The People”: Reflections On Governance And Civic Engagement In Sri Lanka

      “We The Terrorists”: Reflections On Governance And Civic Engagement In Sri Lanka, Courtesy Sinhala Buddhist Terrorism.

      Hudson scared of Nirmala Alwis
      SATURDAY, 02 AUGUST 2014 08:50


      The Chairman of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Hudson Samarasinghe, who is a co-organizer of programmes to commemorate Premakeerthi de Alwis, has kept away from participating in such ceremonies as he was terrified due to the presence of Ms. Nirmala Alwis, the widow of Premakeerthi, in such ceremonies say reports.

      The commemoration ceremonies chaired by the President were held at the complex between the SLBC and SLRC on the 31st of August. The Premakeerthi de Alwis Mawatha and the exhibition were opened by the President. The Exhibition had been organized by former Parliamentarian Chandana Kathriarachchi who had been accused of a double murder and the Chairman of SLBC Hudson Samarasinghe on instructions from the President say reports.

      Ms. Nirmala Alwis has directly accused Hudson Samarasinghe of being involved in her husband’s murder. She has mentioned this in the book ‘Premakeertheeni’ she had written. She presented a copy of the book to the President with the statement “‘Mr. President, Premakeerthi’s murderer has taken refuge under you.” written in her hand writing and telling him about it.

      Related news: Mr. President, the murderer is in your lap

  • 4

    I am sure Deepika did not know the dark side of this Koda. He was a mean Professor. He was terrorizing the students at Bloemfontein Hostel when he was the warden.

    I do not think her topic is appropriate to commemorate this guy.

  • 1

    Well thought out essay/deliberation.
    I fully agree that education system has a major role in progress of a nation both civic sense and general well being.

  • 1

    What a wonderful delineation of the subject, well done Dr. Udagama. This speech has much food for thought not only on where our education system is heading but also on lack of civic engagement and democratic ethos. The distinction between educating children for work in global economy and companies vs educating children for civic consciousness raising is an important distinction being discussed in Comparative education field. Through formal or informal education, the latter needs to be encouraged as it can only open the eyes of citizens to larger systems of knowledge. Knowledge production is dominated by certain players in the world stage to the exclusion of indigenous knowledge systems in Asia, Africa etc.

    The question raised about the citizen and governance in a representative democracy is a fundamental one. In my view, instead of citizen engagement, we witness fear and disengagement including in university classrooms, because of the way power is conceived, interpreted and exercised in the country. Given the violent history characterising post independent Lanka, the focus on fighting internal wars, destruction to life and property, etc.a binary political discourse was constructed as the main discourse. Other intellectual traditions and their advocates plus the mechanisms that existed for the dissemination of critical,analytical, and pluralist discourses were marginalised. Majoritarian democracy was implanted and dissenting voices were not admired as in critical traditions. Establishment view became the royal doctrine that everyone has to follow.

    People need to come out of this binary discourse,ie Sinhala vs Tamil or Muslim, and explore alternative discourses and methodologies of knowledge construction in order to get out of the artificial boundaries created by the binary discourse and those actions that reinforce the same.

    It is only then a truly Sri Lankan civic consciousness and engagement is possible. Creating these is an uphill battle though as establishment philosophy of education only reinforces neoliberal, market driven education at the expense of civic education based on concepts of representative democracy.

    The comparison with India is a good one. We are what we are today because our systems of education, governance, and even law reproduces a colonial mindset and practice of power where the subject is viewed as totally powerless.

  • 2

    Great address. I especially liked the section on how “human rights” is not a western invention.

    On citizen involvement: I recall a story my achchi told me about a kandyan king. The king sentenced one of his nobles for treachery, and failing to locate the said noble, his family was punished. His wife was made to murder their children by pounding them with a pestle in a mortar. Following this the woman herself was forcibly drowned in the Bogambara lake.

    Did the people in Kandy take this atrocity sitting down due to “fear psychosis”? No! They protested the king’s actions in a forceful, but non-violent manner. They refused to light any fires/lamps in their houses for several weeks as a mark of protest. Martin Luther King Jr. would have approved!

    With the power of social media now, I would imagine that peace activists in Sri Lanka can mobilize similar powerful protests against the autocratic bigots destroying the nation. If only they could find unity of purpose.

    • 1

      “”””If only they (we) could find unity of purpose.”””” – This gets a 5 star rating from us…..

  • 0

    Congratulations Deepika on a thoughtful and well sculptured piece paying tribute to a great scholar and public intellectual
    Warm regards

  • 4

    Deepika Udagama –

    “We The People”: Reflections On Governance And Civic Engagement In Sri Lanka

    When you say, “We the people”, do you mean Sinhala Buddhist only?

    Or Is it The MaRa Family, Their shills and cronies only?

    Are the Tamils, The Muslims, The Christians, the Malays, the Burghers not included in “We the people” ?

    The data seem to support that, courtesy of Sinhala Buddhist Chauvinism.

    Can we turn Sinhala Buddhists to be agnostics? There will be peace in the land. The Christian and Muslims will never be able to convert, then.

    • 2


      It would have been more appropriate to call we the chosen people and owners of the island rather than “We the people”.

      Tamils, Muslims,and Christians are others.

      This ‘governance’ since 1948, that has degenerated into racist anarchy is beyond repair.

      Most from the majority community don’t want to accept that the institutionalized racism of the state is the root cause of the downfall.

      But, racism of the state and the rulers continue unabated.

      Even the Buddha can’t enlighten them about this.

      • 2


        If you are looking for a non racial, non religious, non gender and classless phrase for all people of this island, how about

        “we the descendants of Kallathonies”.

  • 0

    When the war ended five years ago, most Sri Lankans did not think that it was a ‘political watershed that would bring about change and a new beginning for a pluralist and democratic Sri Lanka’. People just woke up from a state of ‘shell shock’ after 30 Years of subjugation by a group of ruthless terrorists. The new beginning was the quick restoration of long lost freedom for the people and the reconstruction and restoration of the institutions ravaged by the conflict. Over 30 Years of lost freedom was restored for the North to elect their own Provincial Council. There may be much more to be done. What has already been done seem remarkable. The writer will do well to restrict herself to her academic stuff instead of delving into rhetorical gibberish popular among some self serving, parasitic NGOs.

    • 1


      “When the war ended five years ago, most Sri Lankans”

      When the RACIST war Between the Para-Sinhala and Para-Tamils, both from southern India, ended five years ago, most Sri Lankans……

    • 1

      Chandra quoting you” Over 30 Years of lost freedom was restored for the North to elect their own Provincial Council. There may be much more to be done. What has already been done seem remarkable. The writer will do well to restrict herself to her academic stuff instead of delving into rhetorical gibberish popular among some self serving, parasitic NGOs”. This is a racists myopic view not understanding the ground reality.
      Dr.Deepika Udagama thank you for this excellent thought provoking oration. Thank you for the quotation from Rabindranath Tagore,they are immortal words.

  • 1

    Evidence for the author’s statements on the citizens’ actions:
    By Rukshana Nanayakkara –
    Speculation has been rife about the transfer of the former Director General of the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption in Sri Lanka. So far no official position had been given by the Commission itself or the government, which in principle has to stand for the independence and the proper functioning of the Commission.

    Ceylon Today which broke the story quoted the Director General as saying she is unaware of the reasons behind her transfer. The non-response on the part of the Commission or the government paved the way for much speculation. Interestingly the transfer took place in the backdrop of a complaint to the Commission against its Chairman, Jagath Balapatabendi. According to newspaper reports the complaint against him continues to be un-investigated.

    This is not the first time that a Director General of the Commission has been abruptly transferred. In 2008, Piyasena Ranasinghe, the predecessor of the previous Director General was also abruptly transferred to the Presidential Secretariat by the President.

    The pattern of government interference in the work of the Sri Lankan anti-corruption commission is a reflection of the commitment and promise of the government to fight corruption in this country. The action comes despite the rhetorical promises by the President, powerful senior government officials and secretaries to eradicate the menace of corruption in the country. Interferences by the State and the powerful in the independent functioning of the anti-corruption commission is not just a Sri Lankan phenomena. However, the responses on the part of the Sri Lankan Government, the opposition, media and civil society drastically vary in comparison to similar instances in other countries.

    Arrest warrant on PNG PM
    In June this year, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) removed the head of the country’s anti-corruption task force after a warrant was issued by the task force for his arrest over corruption charges. The relevant charges alleged that the PM had authorized underhand payments worth millions of dollars to a law firm, which acted in collusion with the PM to loot money out of the country. The sacking of the head of the task force was accompanied by the sacking of a number of other public officials and police officers who were potentially to be involved with the investigation. This included both the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner of the country.

    The Prime Minister’s action outraged thousands of Papua New Guineans who gathered in the capital city to mark their protest against the government. International pressure mounted on the country demanding the PM to respect and honour the rule of law and the proceedings of the Court. The PM himself went to Court to have the arrest warrant against him nullified. However, the Court which upheld the request of the PM, which decision is under appeal at present, made orders to the government to reinstate the anti-corruption task force and appoint a new Attorney General and a Police Commissioner. It also ordered the PM to refrain from interfering with the work of the anti corruption task force.

    Sri Lankan scenario
    At present the PNG case is far from being resolved. However, the re-instatement of the task force and actions taken by the government to uphold rule of law of the country sparks hope for the future of the country and its integrity.
    When compared with the Sri Lankan scenario, the example of PNG highlights somewhat a success story, reflecting the strength of people and the anti-corruption community who managed to stand against powerful parties with vested interests.

    It is clear that both the State capture of the independent commission fuelled by the 18th Amendment and the weak opposition in Sri Lanka have enabled the government to have a free hand to transform the Sri Lankan anti-corruption commission into a political tool. Sri Lanka is far from following the PNG example where the media and the opposition followed the matter with vigour in the interest of the public. In this country we hardly witnessed any censure, protest or outpouring of disgust by the people over the issue. The opposition hardly spoke against the transfer.

    As with any other public institution managed and run by the tax payers’ money, the Commission at large is accountable to the people of this country. Given the stakes involved with the removal of the Director General, the Commission owes an explanation to the public, reasoning out the circumstances which led to the transfer.
    As a matter of decency the failure of the Commission demands the resignation of the Commissioners. But this is a far-fetched idea in a political and administrative culture such as ours. Even so, at least a public apology is owed on the part of the Commissioners to the population at large. Sadly however, the Commission seems neither ashamed nor contrite of its own actions and omissions.

    In this context it is worth quoting two examples highlighted in an article written by Niranjala Ariyawansha which appeared in the 28 July issue of Ceylon Today, as it aptly and remorsefully summarises the level of public accountability of the Commission to its people:

    “The Bribery or Corruption Commission received a complaint several years ago against Minister of Ports and Ports Development, Rohitha Abegunawardhana, over the way he earned Rs 400 million. When media inquired about this from the Commission Chairman, Jagath Balapatabendi, he replied, “Yes, I remember that complaint but I don’t know what happened to it. It was a complaint lodged before I took office.”

    “In 2014 a businessman from Maharagama called Dissanayaka was arrested by officials of the Bribery and Corruption Commission as he was soliciting a bribe from a person who complained to the Commission. Instead of remanding the suspect, he was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital. He was treated there for several months and acquitted on the basis that the evidence was not adequate. The suspect was revealed to be a close relative of a VVIP politician.”

    Courtesy – Ceylon Today

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    It’s frightening to find the behaviour of some headteachers:


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    She portrays well the fear and indifference of citizens to fraud, corruption and injustice.
    Politicians nowadays appear to get away with anything,even murder.
    There has to be a change of regime, urgently.

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    Good one

    hope this message will pass to all SL

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    Dr Deepika Udagama has been partially Westernized or aspiring towards a form of Western modernity by the infiltration of Fulbright mindset the encroached by west of both intellectual and physical on her philosophy. She says in her speech’…US has played a key role in advancing a democratic ethos within society. Sustain civic engagement as democratic leadership in the US while meeting modern challenges of all types…..’In fact that Dr Deepika has misread and no understating at all of Modern Capitalism and Its products of hegomoinism of Imperialism has been led by since end of second world WAR 1945.
    Ongoing democratic system the world under subject to rule and Govern by locally and Globally led by US and their allies, its political class in mainly center by govern in US soil.
    The so-called Global governance model and democracy led by US who are not care that national political class in power or are out of job ‘modern challenges of all types’ of leadership of democracy.
    The few Fulbright scholars like Deepika’s mindset that political, social and educational theorist and legal teachers suggest that democratic global can grow out of today US network policy makers. Deepika has not check new mechanism and accountability of democratic global governance led by Western Center Power; modern capitalism grow unevenly much diversity in the world nations can not come to common rules is quite impossible due to the exploitation and plundering Wealth of poor nation, that bullying by many ways and means by US led democracy.
    The Global standards and regulation of ongoing world order not just impractical ;they are undesirable. The democratic legitimacy of US constraint virtually ensure that global governance will result in the lowest common denominator ,a ruling regime of weak and ineffective in ruling power own country. Needless to say ‘…crisis in democracy in the country..’ which Deepika totally misread by mismanage of her educational philosophy.
    What is that Deepika’s has proposed, any nation state is passé or have disappeared ,our identities are no longer bound by place of our birth, while domestic politics economic social and civilization is being superseded by newer US policies large multinationals companies and faceless international bureaucratese.
    How many times have we heard these type of theses or similar speeches or statements of dawn of a new era of democracy governances? in Sri lanka and as well as outside our land in many world forums?
    Who can bail out our Democracy? Sovereignty ? Territorial Integrity? an Independence nation ? And who gets the lion’s share of the blame of the Presidential system Republic of Sri lanka?
    And who are responsibility 30 years war, that where went wrong before during and after? is this war against terrorism?
    Dr Deepika said by her speech ‘…on the balmy shores of the NANTHIKADLY LAGOON most Sri Lankan thought that it was a political watershed that would bring about change and a new beginning for a pluralist and democratic Sri lanka…’
    I have say and to be correct it that most SL believed defeated Of LTTE Tamil terrorist out-fit had been an open to wide-eyed regain Democracy path, that back nation after 45 years in North and South terrorism and anarchism by LTTE and JVP politics has come to end in an Island.
    Are you proposed that crudest form of past UNP so-called democratic governance back rule by slogan “we the people” may seem like naïve rumination of political democracy, that who don’t understand logic roots of democracy by Dr Deepike asked people change mindset.
    In the democracy is a good thing as long as Western interest are protected. The Dictatorship or Terrorism is NOT bad thing as long as Western interest are safeguard by who ever in power. It has nothing to do with ethics and morality of democratic that the everything to do power and money. Ours are vital that supporting a divided and nebulous opposition is a risk worth taking that even at the cost of breaking up country again ‘we the people’.
    To end this dilemma that we have to seek Tagore vision; ‘When lord Buddha realized humanity in a grand synthesis of UNITY, his message went forth to China as a draught form the fountain of immortality. But when the modern empire -seeking merchant, moved by his greed, refused allegiance to this truth of unity ,he had no qualms in sending to China the deadly opium poison.’ We have decided take or leave,that what type of New Mindset suited us but that not proposed by Dr Deepika.

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    The present day “political Leadership”(Guardians or the Rulers) and the “Auxiliaries or the Administrators)is a mirror effect of the slow degeneration of the “Education System” that was subjected to clandestine changes made by the successive Governments. The changed systems were more experimental than practical and it continues even today. The whole meaning of “education” has been revolutionized to cater mainly to the economic needs rather than to “evolve” a child to be “Guardian” or “Auxiliary” of the society who ultimately takes care of the common good of the people. Even today the political leadership boast of the “introduction” of varying categories of streams of education mostly “skill” development but not geared to creating a Leadership or workforce socially responsible to work toward common good. In today’s context, all that matters is to secure a job for survival and the maintenance of social value systems is not the prime concern. So no wonder that we have a “corrupted” and “self seeking” political community a “belligerent” work force and a “irresponsible” voter population. Who are the most benefited in this system? They are the Politicians and they will do their utmost to maintain it.

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    Congrats Deepika.You have said quite a bit for civil society to reflect on as they now stand anaesthetised due to fear of white vans and the culture this regime introduced NO DISSENT.That apart even after sixty odd years our electorate still gets swayed by emotion.Now the new strategy to continue in power acquired without reference to the electorate by using polevaulters and amending the Constituition will be to say that Rajapaksa’s who are now billiionaires are divine designated rulers and that he should be there till the SYNTHETIC LAWYER who will soon be a SYNTHETIC DOCTOR IS READY TO TAKE OVER.IT IS SAID THAT HE RUNS A LAW FIRM BASED AT GOWER STREET AND THAT ALL GOVERNMENT WORK IS SENT THERE.
    Deepika its indeed a joy to observe such academics like you are still there who have the guts to speak amidst rats who only stooge for survival.

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    @ Deepika,

    When our unthinking elders decided to accept or even welcome the policies that made the majority of our students mono lingual, we limited our students in the Humanities to becoming followers of teachers who within a few years became no more than pedlars of undigested notes – except the privileged few who could and did read texts in some other language also.

    Few seemed to note that the closed conditions which did not entirely disable training in trades like Engineering, Medicine or Accounts were fatal to the greyer studies in the Humanities.

    The challenge is to restore the possibility of open education in the Humanities even for the few that can afford the risk.

    Incorporating Humanities into the curriculum of tradespersons seems a very practical idea – but then, quickly the Humanities seem to become the monstrous mutations you mention – social Sciences and Skills – soft or the other s – word.

    Perhaps we may reflect on this: most of those who pursued Humanities learning in the ancient times we speak of begged for their food.

    But even then many others sang for their supper.

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    Wow man what a speech. No patience to read full.Indubitably an intellectual of par excellence.
    Our country needs such people and am proud of you as a thorough bred srilankan

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