22 June 2017

The small problem of the big parties

How many times have we heard that there’s no room for any third party in Sri Lankan politics?  ‘Third party’ as in an entity other than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party or else coalitions led by one of both.  True, parties with extremely modest strength have on many an occasion effected change, played king-maker and even been part of governments; but always, always, it has been either the UNP or the SLFP that has dominated.  Withdrawal of support or threats of support-withdrawal have often made the particular ‘big party’ in power jittery but invariably the dominant partner has prevailed or else the bringing down of the particular government has resulted in the other ‘big party’ moving in.  

These parties are resilient, no doubt.  Both have on occasion been condemned to the dustbin of history.   Interestingly, the United National Party which has not captured absolute power (Kumaratunge was President when the UNP ruled from 2001-2004 and Maithripala Sirisena is the chief executive now, both individuals leading the SLFP) in 23 years and having been associated with this ‘dustbin,’ making a veiled reference to the Joint Opposition talked about ‘political forces relegated to the dustbin of history’ just the other day.  They are resilient; this has to be acknowledged.

Are they invincible, though?  First of all the notion of invincibility rebels against the well known dictum, ‘all things are transient’.  All things (people, collectives, geographical boundaries and even ideas) are born, suffer decay and perish.  Sooner or later.  The UNP and SLFP are old.  They were formed before most people in Sri Lanka were born.  It is natural then to mistake longevity for immortality.  

We must not forget, however, that the SLFP of Bandaranaike was not the SLFP of his daughter and certainly not the SLFP of Mahinda Rajapaksa or Maithripala Sirisena. The same goes for the UNP.  Ranil Wickremesinghe is certainly not a D.S. Senanayake.  

And of course the country has changed.  The economy has changed.  We have less forest cover. Development priorities have changed as too the thinking on development.  Even the name has changed.  

And yet, we have these two parties.  The older left made its run and one might say squandered excellent chances.   The not-so-young-anymore left tried armed insurrection and thereafter electoral politics but is still nowhere near capturing power.  As Chiranjaya Nanayakkara observed at a rally supporting the United Socialist Alliance presidential candidate in 1988, Ossie Abeygunasekara, ‘the left has helped these two parties into power and helped them out of power’.  The wish, at the time, was for a Left that could stand on its own.  Well, that has not happened and one could attribute this to being out of touch with reality, ideological and political errors or something else.  The fact remains that ‘The Left’ has always been a weak factor in the political equation, at best a wrecker (the JVP in 1971 and 1988-89 for example) or a prop to one of the two major parties.  

Communalist parties have played roles similar to those played by the JVP and it’s fellow old-left parties such as as the CP and LSSP — critical in presidential elections and in general elections where the major parties don’t get clear majorities.  They are less amenable to inclusion in the ‘possible alternative’ category for sheer demographic reasons.  

So on the face of it, regardless of trasience-truisms, on the face of it we have this phenomenon of  the major political parties as permanent fixtures with one or the other always in power.  

Given their track records it is legitimate for anyone to feel despondent.  However, despondency is a close relative of ‘disillusionment’.  There’s where there’s hope.  

The gut reaction could be (and has been) to look to a different party.  This is why other parties get some votes. However, we cannot escape the sobering fact that even at its best showing even the JVP got only 5% or thereabouts of the total votes.  There were more votes spoiled than the amount the JVP secured.  The non-voters also outnumbered the JVP vote.  

What happens, then, is what has been described as the default-option factor.  People are voted out of power rather than being voted into power, typically.  The proponents of this method use the easy (and erroneous) line ‘first things first, we have to get this lot out!’  But politics is not something that begins when Parliament is dissolved or a Presidential Election called.  It does not end when the Elections Commissioner announces the result.  

In the understanding of the political that is longer, i.e. goes beyond ‘elections,’  political parties have failed the people and more worryingly, the people have failed themselves.  If, for example, people abandoned political parties, they sink.  

More importantly, if the idea of political parties was dropped, people win.  They recover some semblance of self respect and dignity.  Since representation is a myth and since what transpires in parliamentary politics is less representation than mis-representation, such an eventuality can only enhance the worth of the citizen.  

So how does this work or rather how can it be made to work?  First, we need to draw a lesson from the fact that exchanging a sooty pot for a sooty kettle still leaves us defaced with soot.  We have as a voting population dirtied our hands by raising them to vote one set of incompetent rogues into power in order to defeat another set of incompetent rogues.  We have to therefore get political parties out of our heads because ‘political parties’ is like a pet parrot, a pet rabbit, a pet puppy or kitten that we love and feed in our minds.  Unless we stop cuddling and taking care of the notion of ‘political parties’ we really don’t have a moral right to take issue with the dominant mode of politics.  

There’s a lesson to be learned from France too.  A coalition led by President Emmanuel Macron’s one year old party ‘La République en Marche (Republic on the Move, or REM)’, won the parliamentary election.   A 42% voter turn out prompted the leader of the party ‘France Unbowed,’ Jean-Luc Mélenchon to observe that the French had ‘entered a form of civil general strike.’  Of course REM is a party but perhaps we can see that tendency as a positive development against the tyranny of ‘big parties’ (and of course their small-party enablers).  What Mélenchon has missed is that when you add the number of those who did not vote to those who did vote for REM, the rejection of the ‘here forever’ political parties is astounding. 

Invincibility of a single political party is a lie and is recognized as such.  The invincibility of ‘political PARTIES’ is a myth that is yet to be acknowledged.  That’s not the fault of the political parties.  We can be a ‘republic on the march’ and certainly not one that sees Macron and REM as heroes for anything other than debunking the French version of invincibility.  

We can be a republic on the march only if we recognize that recovering the republic has to happen first and that nothing inhibits such recovery than the stubborn refusal to evict ‘political parties’ from our minds.

15 June 2017

A non-political citizenry for a no-politician democracy

"The most radical idea at this political moment could very well be the notion of a no-politician citizenry, i.e. a movement of the people, by the people, for the people, with or without the state."  

දේශපාලනයේ 'අපි' කව්රුද?

Tilak Disanayake and Hilmy Sally who describe themselves as ‘design engineers and concerned citizens’ have proposed a concept which they call ‘No politician democracy (NPD)’ (see ‘No politician democracy’ in the Daily FT, June 14, 2017).  It is a blueprint (in the making) of a new Sri Lanka which will be, in their words, ‘unitary, secular and sustainable, and will have a thriving, inclusive economy affording opportunities for all its people regardless of gender, race, age, religion, caste or sexual orientation.’

Ask any politician or anyone else for that matter and very few if at all would object to residency in such a republic.  Tilak and Hilmy have promised to detail the ‘how to get there’ of all this shortly and I await eagerly what promises in the very least to be a good read.  They have hinted that their ‘plan’ can come into force if 151 Members of Parliament purchase it.  Given the enormous benefits that politicians have reaped and continue to enjoy one might think it is a hard sell, but this engineering duo believe that the benefits of change would outweigh the costs and the said MPs would be ‘swung’.   

That the country requires radical change is a no-brainer.  That it is urgent is clear.  And yet, for all the need and all the ‘blueprints, the resilience of the institutional arrangement and the current political culture is certainly formidable.  

Lying politicians are certainly responsible for sabotaging the reform agenda that they themselves pledged to implement, but theirs is essentially a part role.  There are structural factors that stand in the way.   

This obviously pleases the politicians who were never serious about reform for they can always blame it on the system (when they are not blaming everything on the Rajapaksas that is).  It won’t be easy to convince 151 MPs because easy money is a happier prospect that hard-earned money.  The carrot called ‘freedom from prosecution’ may look delicious but it will nevertheless be compared to the infinitely more delicious goodies that arrive from tenaciously defending a system that does not prosecute.  

The issue perhaps is about how deeply embedded the individual MP is in this corrupt system. We have to understand that some have invested heavily in all this and those who haven’t secured adequate returns will not feel the prosecution-free pull.  

That’s only part of the problem.  When Dullas Alahapperuma decided not to contest the 2001 General Election he offered the following reason: ‘We [I] are [am] too white; there are too many brown people and their brownness is most evidenced when there is a white contrast.’  He has a valid point that has outlived his political ‘whiteness’.  The more serious issue is that we don’t really have a white (or ‘clean’) citizenry.  In that sense perhaps we do have a decent enough  ‘representative democracy’ and this is something we need to recognize.

Our NPD advocates acknowledge this pervading ‘brownness”:  

The mostly dishonest, incompetent politicians (and their parties) that we elect via easily manipulated polls have ruined the country over the past 69 years.  And we the people have been complicit by electing them.’  

If 151 MPs stand up for NPD it would not be a revolution, it would be a coup.  Given that such a coup would immediately get us a different constitution it could revolutionize the system of governance and pave the way for transparent and efficient institutional arrangements and processes. I am sure that there are many people who would share the vision for Sri Lanka that Tilak and Hilmy have outlined.  They probably have shared their thoughts with movers and shakers.  Perhaps they have even won some of them over and who knows, even convinced some MPs.  Perhaps they could do with some help from below.  

The history of social transformation demonstrates that given certain objective conditions what is required is not a citizens’ majority.  We don’t need, happily, ‘two-thirds plus one’ of ‘the people’.  A critical mass is what is required.  An organized critical mass, one might add, or at least a number of people/groups who although they may not work together are in concert in the matter of action.  

The proposition is mouth-watering given what we’ve had for so many decades.  A ‘no politician democracy’ is a cry that rises from everything vile that politician, political party and politics denotes.   

We are, as Tilak and Hilmy imply, a ‘serial monarchy.’  A republic without meaningful citizenship, a population that is not also a citizenry.  

And yet, it is not that ‘the people’ have not counted.  They have stood up, they have challenged, and they have died. Those who say that independence was won without a drop of blood being shed are ignorant of all that has happened from 1815 to 1948 (and that’s only if we count the British period).  We have seen flashes of the kind of citizenship that Tilak and Hilmy probably envisage, but in non-political terms, especially in times of tragedy.  

It is of course not easy to mobilize the energy, capacity, tenacity and attitude demonstrated in such situation for what is essentially a political project, even though the objective is a no-politician democracy.  This does not mean that it should not be attempted.  

The most radical idea at this political moment could very well be the notion of a no-politician citizenry, i.e. a movement of the people, by the people, for the people, with or without the state.  

Anarchy?  It may look like that, but perhaps such a tendency would be the ‘stick’ that would force those critical 151 individuals in Parliament to take the carrots offered by Tilak and Hilmy.  

They’ve set a ball of ideas rolling, these two.  It’s a big object and one that requires more than 4 hands to keep it going in the right direction.  There’s a lot of space on that surface for many more hands.  One thing is certain:  established political parties and professional politicians are unlikely to lend their weight. 

See also:

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene

09 June 2017

Is the Government pressing the ‘Snooze’ button on arson?

Inaction on ‘Aluthgama’, near silence on Bodu Bala Sena (BBC) rhetoric and a government servant (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) not being taken to task for accepting an invitation to open the office of a political organization (BBS), and other acts of omission and commission raised the ire of Muslims in Sri Lanka.  That was during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa and some claim that all this pushed the Muslims of the country to vote for Maithripala Sirisena en bloc.  

Crime and punishment, one can call it.  Not through accepted legal processes but through the vote; the crime being complicity by way of silence/inaction.  

But that was a long time ago.  That government was defeated.  The new government, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe outfit I mean, vowed to end all that. For a while it seemed that they were half way serious.  Not any more.  

Ven Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero, the voice of the BBS is still at large although there’s a warrant for his arrest.  Is this purely incompetence on the part of the police or is there some truth in the rumor that a powerful minister in this government is protecting him?  We don’t know.  

Meanwhile, Colombo Telegraph puts the problem in graphic terms: ‘

A shop, a day’.  That’s one Muslim-owned shop being torched every day.  That’s a rate of violence.  That’s a rate of violence that has a communal signature.  

Let us not be hasty and point fingers just yet.  We cannot say ‘the BBS did it’ although their rhetoric and past record clearly indicates ‘incitement’ which could have spurred someone or several people or even an organized group to indulge in arson.  ‘Incitement’ is not a crime since we don’t have anti hate speech legislation and probably cannot have such ‘safeguards’ without also banning religious texts such as the Old Testament and the Quran. We can ask why the Mahanayaka Theros have been silent on Ven Gnanasara Thero because they are mandated to apply the vinaya rules on the bikkhus, but non-application (for whatever reason) is no crime.  

We an leave all that aside if we want, but it is still a discussion that needs to take place.  

However, if we stick to the basics of law and order and choose to be blind to the communalist mark of these violent and increasingly disturbing acts, we still have to ask ‘what is this government doing about all this?’  

As of now, the only logical answer to this question (What is the government doing?) is, ‘nothing’.  

When ‘Aluthgama’ happened, in an editorial published in ‘The Nation,’ I made certain observations where I blamed the then IGP for irresponsibility and called for his resignation.  A quick recap could be useful and for this reason I reproduce the following sections of that piece:

If there was convoluted justification of last Sunday’s violence and if justification spurred further violence the blame falls squarely on the IGP for making the following (irresponsible) statement: ‘Three Muslims in a trishaw assaulted the driver and the Buddhist monk. The Buddhist monk was in hospital receiving treatment for two days and then discharged.  He was to be taken to the temple in a procession when the incident occurred.’ 

The IGP offered speculation as fact. That’s incompetent and irresponsible. Yesterday the Muslim-owned ‘No Limit’ outlet in Panadura was torched.  While it is not clear how it all happened, it is clear that the sequence of events prompt people to connect dots and reach conclusion, wrong though they may be.  Tinkering with the truth and lying outright causes friction, throw out sparks and cause infernos that are hard to put out.

It is wrong to blame it all on one person, but it is equally wrong not to point out those who provided fuel and matchstick, tossed in extra firewood and refused to douse it even though they had all the water necessary to do the job.  We have to take issue with the IGP.  He must resign forthwith.

There are dots here and they will be connected.  Wrong perhaps, but disturbingly, perhaps correctly too.  All the more reason to err on the side of caution. All the more reason to spare no pains to ensure that culprits are brought to book not because this is the most effective way of insuring against future attacks of this kind (it may be or it may not be) but because it is the right thing to do and what this government solemnly pledged to do.  

We can of course debate about one extremism feeding off another and ponder the chicken-or-egg conundrum.  One could argue that this is a relevant discussion and I will not disagree.  One can say that extremism should be objected to and insist that such objection should be lawful.  That is however a different matter as far as the rights of citizenship and the responsibilities of relevant state agencies are concerned.  

The Police must act.  The Ministry of Law and Order must act.  The Minister must act.  The primacy of the law should be clearly evident.  This is not the moment for sloth (if that’s the case).  It is certainly not the moment for sweeping things under the carpet (as seems to be the case) and especially not for purposes of political convenience (a government with an abysmal performance rating needs distraction — this we know).  Failure to do so would see ‘useful distraction’ bleeding into inter-communal violence and eventually to anarchy.  

Alright, let’s say ‘that’s going a bit overboard’.  Fine.  Still, if are required to be stone cold sober and leave ‘the political’ out of it, we still have a question of blatant disregard for the law.  Arson is a serious matter.  Destroying private property is a serious matter. When the destroyed properties happen to belong to members of a particular community it is an even more serious matter.  

“Arrest this!” 

This is what we have to demand of the government at this point, even as we (as citizens) remain alert and support all efforts to a) prevent such acts and b) support the law enforcement authorities in their work.  

“Tomorrow, where?” is a question that many are probably asking.  If it is not answered, tomorrow we will see a report saying “here”.  Surely, this government can do better?  It must. Or else, its complicity will be suspected.

This article was first published in Colombo Telegraph on June 9, 2017

08 June 2017

A separate state, anyone?

Just before sitting down to write this morning (June 7, 2017), I received a notification on social media. It was about a panel discussion at the Public Library to be held later in the afternoon.   The title was in Sinhala.  It read as follows: ‘Let us defeat the constitution, let us get rid of Ranil.’

It implies on first reading a call for anarchy, but the organizers/publicists were probably referring to the proposed new constitution, the A-Z of which has not exactly been shared with the general, by the way.  The other call is for the (political?) defeat of the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.  The identity of the speakers (Ven Bengamuwe Nalaka Thero, Ven Omare Kassapa Thero, Dr Nalin De Silva and Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera) gives us some clues when dissecting ‘true intent’.  

Their (collective) concern, going by what they’ve said and done over the past several decades, is not hard to obtain: constitutional reform that amount to wrecking the unitary character of the state and conceding ground to Tamil chauvinism on the one hand, and a leader who is at odds with the country’s interests.  It is not about anarchy.  It is about regime change, but not necessarily one that seeks the ouster of President Maithripala Sirisena; after all the legend doesn’t say ‘Let’s get rid of Ranil and Maithripala.’

We have seen all this before, except that objection to constitutional reform has been about different elements and with different personalities being targeted for ouster.  When the 18th Amendment was brought, there was also a hue and cry.  The call was for its defeat and for the removal of those in power at the time, particularly Mahinda Rajapaksa.  

Is it simply a matter of getting the ‘right guy’ (read ‘our guy’) to rule us?  Is it simply a matter of tweaking the constitution (or not tweaking it) so that our political preferences are served? 

Dhamma Dissanayake,  Department of Political Science, Colombo University, who has written much on issues of governance, constitutional reform and political culture shared some interesting observations in an article titled “රාජ්යකරණයේ ආඩම්බරය සහ ආපදා රාජ්යය (‘Statecraft(ing) and the disaster state”) in the Lankadeepa (July 2, 2017).

“The state apparatus set up by the British to suit their colonialist plundering purposes, in other words the political and administrative as well as structures pertaining to justice, education, health etc., still remain.  The rulers of this country have not demonstrated the will, the wisdom, the need or a program to adjust all this so there is even some degree of relevance to the local context and aspirations, never mind a restructuring that yields a quality product.  What was done was what should not have been done.  They went along with the same state apparatus, the same economic system and same methodologies.  The rulers did not suffer, it was the nation and the people who did.  This is how the rulers laid the foundation to produce a “disaster state” or facilitated such a construction.  There were some laudable efforts, true, but since 1948 what we’ve had is a “disaster state.”’

Dhamma is obviously riding on the topical here, but he is clearly faulting the structure of the state, the institutional apparatus, the political culture and the ’imperatives’ flowing from a particular economic system for the overall disaster which is no longer possible to sweep under the carpet. He poses some interesting questions: “Why didn’t the rulers have a plan to manage disaster? Were they incapable?  Are the state and the rulers inadequate?  Were the rulers simply lazy?  Was it because they didn’t are about the country or the citizens?  Is it that the people are stupid?”

All these questions lead to another which, again, Dhamma had asked in a previous article also published in the Lankadeepa.  He has essentially said that the issue is not about regime-change, not about replacing one party with another, one leader with another, but the construction of a different state which, let us add, is not a proposition that speaks to or of the tired and lie-infested debate over ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’.  A different order, no less, is what Dhamma has proposed. A ‘separate state’ that is also separated from the much-hyped debate about traditional homelands, ethnic enclaves, frilled grievances and inflated aspirations.  

That’s where we are at right now.  We are not mis-labeling here as has been done in the past where antipathy to a particular government the prompts shrill exclamation ‘failed state’.  The issue is not about constitutional-tweaking to favor a particular outcome preference or about faith in a leader or set of leaders or a political party or a political coalition.  It is about re-haul.  It is about revisiting the current branches of the state which any objective assessment would deserve nothing more than a failing grade.  The legislative, judiciary and executive have separately and together failed.   The fault is with the structure and also lies with the personnel who prop structure even as they are produced by the structure.  

The political parties have failed us, all of them and not just the two main parties which directly or indirectly carry the smaller entities.  They will not give us a separate state because, as Dhamma observes, they are not motivated to do so, do not have the wisdom to see the need, and certainly lack the competence even if they had those other rare qualities.  

What needs to be recognized (and fast) is that we have all to lesser or greater degrees believed that the state (as it exists) will correct its flaws or have the flaws corrected rather and eventually deliver.  We have believed that there will be leaders and parties that will rise above the political culture and set things right.  We have all got to acknowledge that we were wrong.  That we were and are deluded.  

We have to start from scratch.  And let us be clear that what is being proposed is not bulldozing existing structures and building anew.  That is for later.  For now, it is imperative that we shed our illusions about this state.  It is imperative that we entertain the idea of a ‘separate state’.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance journalist. Email: malindasenevi@gmail.comTwitter: malindasene

07 June 2017

Siri Gunasinghe left behind light and warmth


When I heard that Siri Gunasinghe had passed away, I posted on Facebook an article based on an interview I had done with him more than 15 years ago by way of tribute.  My friend A.S. Fernando wrote a short response: “I think the last link of a great generation is gone!”  

When did that ‘great’ generation begin and who made it ‘great’?  H.L. Seneviratne gives a clue in an article published in Colombo Telegraph:

One of the semi official tasks that the University of Ceylon undertook as it established itself in the new campus at Peradeniya in the early 1950s, was the regeneration of national culture in the form of the arts. This was reflected in a seminar held at Peradeniya in 1956, whose proceedings were published in the same year under the title Traditional Sinhalese Culture. Prominent among the scholars who succeeded in that endevour were Siri Gunasinghe and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. While Sarachchandra’s work was confined to literature and drama, Siri Gunasinghe stood out for his versatility, his interests covering every field of the arts. So much so that his adversaries who had embraced a different kind of cultural resurgence – a militant, prudish and philistine Sinhala Buddhist nationalism—derisively called him sakala kala vallabha, “the husband of all the arts”. 

H.L. Seneviratne’s almost customary broadsides against anything associated with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism notwithstanding he does capture stature and locates Siri Gunasinghe in the relevant history.     

It took me back to an afternoon in early February 2002.  Peradeniya.  He was visiting a friend and it was at the friend’s house that I interviewed him as per instructions from my boss, the Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Sunday Island,’ Manik De Silva.  Listening to him, I still remember, was like witnessing a documentary on the literary history of the University of Ceylon in particular and the evolution of the Sinhala poem in general. 

There was some personal history involved.  Back in the late sixties when my mother decided to do her teaching diploma in Peradeniya, we stayed in the official quarters of Dr Gunasinghe who was on sabbatical leave that year. Years later I would come across his first collection of poems "Mas le nethi eta" (translatable as ‘Bare Bones”) at home.  So the name ‘Siri Gunasinghe’ which I had heard off and on, got a tag, ‘poet’.  

That day, on my way to Meevatura, I ran into a campus mate who was then an instructor of physical education in the university. When I told him that I was going to meet Siri Gunasinghe, he regretted that he had some urgent work to do, and that otherwise he would have loved to accompany me. He mentioned the book and said "mata mathakai potha, satha panahay neda mila?" (I remember the book, it was 50 cents, right?).

That book, worth fifty cents, was a landmark in modern Sinhala literature, so much so that it would be meaningless to assign a value to it.

Dr Gunasinghe told me his story and I wrote it for the ‘Sunday Island’ of February 10, 2002.  Here are some excerpts:

He was born in Ruwanwella, his mother’s hometown, in 1925 and was the fifth in a family of five brothers and two sisters. His father, a businessman, was from Galle. He had his early education in the Akmeemana Sinhala School and then moved to Mahinda College, Galle. From his early days, Siri had developed a love for English poetry. The Silumina had actually published a couple of his early experiments in Sinhala free verse. Gunasinghe acknowledges that these were "not serious".

I asked him about his teachers and who among them influenced him. "Actually I can’t think of a single individual who was critically important.” While acceding that this might sound ungrateful, he went on to mention Mr. Handy, who taught Pali at Mahinda, explaining that ‘his style of teaching had a kind of impact’.  Mr. Edirisinghe (who later became principal of Dharmapala) had taught him history.

He also mentioned Mr. Thanabalasingham as the teacher who fuelled his interest in literature and in particular his fascination with free verse. "Thanabalasingham had been a recent graduate from Peradeniya. He was different and this may have been because he would have come under the tutelage of people like Ludowyk, Passe and Souza. He liked poets like Pound, Eliot and Auden." Gunasinghe himself admits that Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce and later on Lawrence Durrel were among his favourites.

Gunasinghe had entered the University of Ceylon in 1945 and studied Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala and History, specialising in Sanskrit in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. In addition to his studies or perhaps as a part of it, Gunasinghe had experimented with the free verse form. 

"I found the traditional 4 line stanza very limiting and in contrast the free verse form was liberating. The 4 line stanza frustrated me. It typically led to soppy language. In fact it crippled the language. I realised that there was a lot of natural rhythm in the Sinhala language which could be creatively exploited in free verse."

After graduating he had joined the faculty at Peradeniya. In 1950 he had been awarded a government scholarship to London to do his PhD. However, he had had disagreements with his professor at the London School of Oriental Studies. "We could not agree on a topic. He was a grammarian and wanted me to work on Panini. This is usually the case. Professors want their students to do research on the topics that interest them. I wanted to study the techniques of painting. There was a whole body of literature on this subject in Sanskrit. Maybe he was not aware of it."

Around that time, Gunasinghe had gone to Paris for a week, where he met with Prof. Renou whom he had got to know in Ceylon. "I told him about my situation and being a Sanskritist, advised me to move to Sorbonne. Prof. Dupont, an art historian, and Prof.Filliozat, a student of Indian culture, along with Renou were my teachers. I would say that Prof. Dupont had the most influence on me, maybe because of his interest in Eastern Art and Architecture."

Upon completing he returned to the Sanskrit Department at Peradeniya.

Before mas le nethi eta, Gunasinghe had a couple of poems published in the Sinhala Society Magazine. This was around 1946. He had also written some critical essays on modern Sinhala poetry. Mas le nethi eta came out in 1955. The book had got a lot of publicity. Since it constituted a radical departure from the traditional verse form, it had come under severe attack at the hands of the Colombo poets. Gunasinghe said that G.B. Senenayake has also published a couple of poems in this form. However, it was Gunasinghe’s book and the storm it generated that made people consider free verse as a viable and indeed liberating form of poetry.

All that happened afterwards is now well known. In a sense, Parakrama Kodituwakku, Monica Ruwanpathirana, Ratna Sri Wijesinghe and of course Mahagama Sekera owe a lot to Siri Gunasinghe. I told him that some people have criticised him, arguing that his style is a mere anukaranaya (imitation) of a western verse form. 

"It depends. Poetry is not just about form, it is about language use and subject as well. Therefore I disagree".

He recalled that Peradeniya at that time was a seat of learning. I asked him about his relations with people like Sarachchandra and Gunadasa Amarasekera. "I was often at odds with them both when we discussed art and literature. Sarachchandra was a Romantic in outlook and was not a student of modern literature. He considered Gunadasa a disciple. He liked disciples, in fact. So he boosted Gunadasa. I didn’t want to be anyone’s disciple. We had heated arguments, especially on matters of form and criticism. We remained friends, nevertheless. In fact I did the first set of costumes for ‘Maname’ and the make-up too."

Actually it was during this time that he met his wife Hemamali. She was the first Maname Kumari. I laughed and observed, "Doing the make-up would have brought you close". He laughed with me, agreeing, and said that the relationship grew thereafter. She completed a PhD in linguistics in the University of Victoria and now teaches English at Camosun College.

In the late sixties he got a one-year appointment at the University of Victoria, Canada. He went on no-pay leave. "At the end of the year, the students wanted me to stay for another year. I contacted the Head of the Department at Peradeniya and asked him, informally, if my leave could be extended. He said yes, to I agreed to stay on.

"I developed the syllabus, prepared the course material and started teaching. Then I asked for leave, officially. I was refused, and was told that Mrs. Bandaranaike had wanted all professors abroad to return to Sri Lanka immediately. I appealed for a reconsideration of my request. There was some correspondence, but at one point I got angry because I heard that another professor in Canada was given an extension.  In January 1971 I got a letter asking me to return by the end of December 1970! I wrote back saying I am not resigning, but I am done!"

Before leaving for Canada, in which country he has spent over 30 years now, Gunasinghe brought out two collections of poetry, "Abhinikmana" and "Rathu Kekulu", as well as a novel "Hevanella" ("Shadow" later translated in English by his wife). Since then he has written another collection of verse, "Alakamanda" (roughly, a beautiful, paradisial place) and another novel "Mandarama". His third novel, "Miringuva Elleema" (Capturing the mirage) is to be published by S. Godage.

"I now write in spoken Sinhala. It has been a conscious decision because it is the language of the people. In fact I once wrote an essay titled ‘Isn’t there a grammar for the spoken language?’ in a collection edited by Ajith Thilakasena called ‘Language suitable for modern times’. I have argued for the dropping of the ‘na-na la-la’ distinction because we don’t adhere to this in the colloquial form. I have been bothered by the classical-colloquial distinction. Even J.B. Dissanayake who writes extensively on language usage, prefers to be ‘academic’ rather than expressing himself in the colloquial form.

"There seems to be a general fear about language. This should not be so. Language does not control you, you control language. There’s a thing called ‘vyaktha’ language, i.e. erudite language. The vyaktha part should not be in the grammar but in the vocabulary."

Unlike those who ‘derisively called Gunasinghe a sakala kala vallabha’ and those who saw in him a warrior against any and every voice that refused to salaam anything and everything the country and its people were not, Gunasinghe did not get entangled in the traps of false dichotomy.  He was a scholar, a free thinker and one, one might say, who embodied in approach and practice recommended in the Kalama Sutra, the Buddhist Charter of Free Inquiry.  

He’s gone now.  The tributes will pour from all quarters.  Uvindu Kurukulasuriya offered some early observations.  This is what he wrote:


This is something that was released on the Colombo Telegraph youtube channel a few years ago.  It was penned and sent to me by Siri Gunasinghe’s wife Hemamali on the occasion of her 90th birthday.  My son added the visuals.

Hemamali was the first Maname Princess.  She was with Siri Gunasinghe until the very end.  Was the sword offered to the Veddah or did the Veddah grab it?  Are women fickle? Opportunists?  What is the difference betwen goodness and fickleness?  Are they binary opposites?  Is there fickleness that is entwined in goodness?  Is there goodness that cohabits with fickleness?  I feel these are the questions that Sarachchandra raised.  Although Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s work was tied to his personal life, the lives of his players were not necessarily similar.  It would be good if those who spin stories about actors and actresses think again.  

You.  You are the nirvana that I seek!

Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta made a sober observation a few minutes ago, “...and yet the free verse remained enslaved….’  He is correct.  There’s a tendency to confuse the advent and embracing of free verse with emancipation.  Freedom of/from structure is one thing, its employment is another in terms of intended ends.  There are, as Pierre Bourdieu said ‘structuring structures and structured structures’.   Structure and agency in a dialectic if you will.  The character of any particular exercise is evidenced by the nature of the engagement, the objective and of course color, tone and music.  Poor prose (or indeed good prose) cut into lines to yield a ‘poetic structure’ as per the visual of ‘free verse’ is not good prose.  And neither does it fuel emancipatory projects. Siri Gunasinghe never made the kind of wild claims that those who revere him often make.  He was a scholar.  A sober human being.  He did not confuse poetry and scholarship with rhetoric, or poet and scholar with rhetorician.  

When an individual as accomplished as Siri Gunasinghe passes on at such a ripe old age after outliving all outstanding men and women of his generation, it is customary to say ‘he was the last of the greats’.  A.S. is correct.  But then, the man himself, one feels, would dismiss such tags, not least of all because he knew enough history to understand that there are no great or lesser ages or generations.

My last Siri Gunasinghe moment was one where this incomparable man who was at once a Sanskritist, an art historian, poet, novelist and film-maker was absent.  He would have been 91 then and was bedridden, I was told.  Siri Gunasinghe was present in tribute and recollection that afternoon.  It was at the Colombo University.  It was a modest celebration where his collection of books was formally gifted to the University.  The great man was represented by his brother.  

But then again, how can there be a final Siri Gunasinghe ‘moment’ this side of death to anyone who is interested in the Sinhala language and the enormous and varied literature of that language?    

Perhaps his family, in a short note, said it best: “Today the world is a dark and cold place, but  his light and warmth are still with us.”

06 June 2017

The nation rises…

Calamity is responded to with horror.  It produces grief and helplessness. It prompts anger and finger-pointing.  The blame game is a constant undercurrent which gradually rises to the surface, often obliterating tragedy, the need to address post-tragedy relief and rehabilitation issues and the ultimate need to ensure there’s no repetition.  There’s blame for flawed or absence of policies, for  being unprepared, for being slow, for non-delivery etc., and a manifest non-acknowledgment of contribution.  We’ve seen all this before.  Calamities are painted by these things.  And yet, they also bring out the best in human beings.  This too we’ve seen before.  

It would be impossible to enumerate all efforts great and small to rescue people, and provide food, water, clothing, shelter, medicine and where necessary medical treatment.  It would be impossible to name all the good people who, individually and collectively, did the little they could to help their fellow citizens.  We can speak only of things generally.

First, let’s leave the negatives aside. For now.  People stood up.  Regardless of where they were from, what their vocations were, preferred and ascribed identities, age, gender and so on.  I can only speak of people I know personally or are known to me in social media or those involved in rescue and relief work whose contributions slipped into the forums I inhabit.  In a word, inspiring.  

They were tireless.  They were on the ground.  They moved and they moved others to move.  They used all communication technologies at their disposal and networks they were part of.  They created new networks when such were required to deliver and to ensure the process was efficient.  When things went wrong, they innovated.  They used whatever information they had, verified whenever this was possible, warned people who were in danger and alerted people in a position to help.  Naturally there were frayed tempers, there was frustration and disgust, but they did not allow themselves to be distracted too much by such things.  

Naturally, too, one can say ‘they could have done better’.  That goes without saying. They did and are still doing their best.  Amidst the cheers, not forgetting the inevitable jeers, one must add.  

No one asked them to.  No one demanded that they step in.  Aggregate all that and among other things we get a thing called hope.  Some may call it a resilient strain in the ‘National DNA’.  This should not surprise because it is ingrained in the vast majority that they have to put aside all difference, past animosities, egos and such and rejoice at the magula and be there at the maranaya.  Metaphorically of course.  

It is hard, as pointed out, to name them all, these national heroes who are not taking ‘selfies’ of heroics to advertise heroism.  There are however some observations (again, of thousands of observations impossible to gather) that say something about the last few days.  
Someone wrote and others shared the following: "මම" තේමාව කරගත්ත සමාජයේ......"අපි" තේමාව කරගත්ත උන් තමයි මිනිස්සු” (“Those who made ‘us’ the theme in a society that has ‘I’ as its theme…they are the truly human”).   That’s a quality that is deeply resident, I like to think.  We call upon it in moments such as this and it always our call, every single time.  Of course it would be presumptuous to say that it is a quality peculiar to Sri Lankans.  It’s just good, however, that it exists.  

There were more directly political observations.  Jonathan Frank reflected on volunteerism and came up with some conclusions: “1. We don't need a centralized, authoritarian state, 2. People can manage/ govern their own affairs in their communities through mutual, collectivist association, 3. Given the circumstances the people triumphed and exemplified egalitarian principles [and therefore] an Anarchist/Socialist society is possible, [so] don't stop believing!”

I would say that’s easy extrapolation but I will not say ‘stop deluding yourself’ for there’s spirit there which, at least in times of calamity, makes a difference and in its aftermath prompts us to revisit and evaluate the structures of governance.  

What we can definitely observe is the energy and innovation that this country is endowed with.  The citizens were able and more importantly, willing.  We have no way of predicting when and where natural tragedy will strike, but here’s an initiative based on the thinking that it is best to be ready. 

Sudara Pathirana, Saranga Anjana Wijerathna, Dr Pathum Kemer and 24 others are thinking ahead (as perhaps we all should and should have after what happened a year ago!). They are starting a ‘Rapid Deployment Unit’.  Here’s the gist of the announcement posted by Sudara:  

“This is an initiative that anticipates future floods. This team will have doctors and ex-military guys. We have got a Kayak and some medical equipment already.  Pathum Kerner will be the head of medical team and coordination will be done by Saranga and I. We need of your help to buy boats. We have got donations of about 2 lakhs through our friends and we need some more. Also we would like to have volunteers (prefer if you have been trained for disaster management or have experience, but not a must).”

I am sure there are not the only bunch of young people who are thinking along these lines.   They are thinking ahead, all of them.  They are not only anticipating calamities but are operating on the assumption that whoever or whatever fails those in distress their fellow-citizens should not and will not.  From there, it seems logical that they will go on to disaster mitigation.  Of course there’s very little you can do with a few hundred thousand rupees and two or three dozens of volunteers.  However, if we’ve learned anything from the past few days it is that people come together fast and collectives grow in numbers.  

There’s, then, a state of citizens that is in the making.  They are not calling for insurrection, but what they’ve done so far shows that they can resurrect a system that is clearly showing signs of collapse or rather, replace it with something that actually works.  Sooner or later they will encounter the illicit timber feller and all relevant accomplices.  They will confront legislation and institutions that stand in the way.  They may encounter the perverse ways of a mode of development and how certain state actors who are comrades in arms in rescue and relief operations are then called upon to defend these destructive institutional, legal and political structures processes.  They will be tested, this generation that has carried the nation over the past few days.   They have generated a lot of hope.  Let’s hope they will prevail.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene

05 June 2017

And they are still dropping parippu even 30 years later

First India dropped dhal (Parippu), then they dropped the IPKF and ensured 22 years more of death, destruction and displacement
Exactly thirty years ago something happened which altered the course of history in Sri Lanka.  Wrong.  ‘Happened’ is a bad word for it implies an agency-less occurrence.  It’s like saying ‘it rained yesterday,’ which of course is different from ‘there was a flood’ since the latter phenomenon at least in the case of Sri Lanka over the past few days can be directly linked to human arrogance, ignorance and rank stupidity.  

Something was done, then.   Thirty years ago.    Does anyone remember?  Perhaps not.  I did not remember either; not until Jayasuriya Wijedasa sent me a cryptic email under the following subject line: “First invasion of independent Sri Lanka 4th June 1987.  And this is what he wrote: “30th anniversary in 5 days... Hope you are planning to highlight this tragedy and ensuing calamity to us.”   Clicked.  Had to be what has since come to be known as the “Parippu Drop”.  

We have better recollections of the 29th of July, 1987 because that’s when Rajiv Gandhi and J.R. Jayewardene signed the infamous Indo-Lanka Accord.  We know of the ‘first invasion’ but few would remember the date.  Operation Poomalai, as it was called, is something we should not forget, though.

The Indian Air Force airdropped 25 tons of food and medicine into areas held by the LTTE at a point when the security forces had essentially corralled the terrorist outfit in Vadamaarachchi.  It could be called the  Nandikadal of 1987 and to ascertain the significance of that lost opportunity all we need to do is to take note of the gains of defeating the LTTE 22 years later.  Let’s first do that.

There will be those who claim that ‘the problem’ is still unresolved.  There’s some truth in this.  The demands made by Tamil nationalists (and chauvinists) are still out there.  ‘Normalcy’ is yet to be obtained.  Then again we are talking of a 30 year war and one which exacerbated mutual mistrust among communities, caution on the part of successive governments given that close friends and indeed former members of the LTTE are using the very same rhetoric of that outfit.  On the other hand, one could argue that things are no better and no worse than they were, say, before 1977 and the Batakotte (Vadukoddai) Resolution of the TULF in the seventies.  However, if we take May 18, 2009 as a point of reference, we have to acknowledge the following: a) no war, b) no abduction of children and forced conscription, c) no terrorist attacks, d) no Tamil politician enslaved by the LTTE, e) no threat of hostage-taking for purposes of creating human shields, f) no major obstacles for people to engage in livelihoods, g) no waylaying of supplies.  

June 4, 1987.  Historic for all the bad reasons.  That nevertheless was a landmark but not necessarily the beginning.  India’s direct and indirect support of the LTTE from arming to funding and training insurgents predates 1987 and is well documented.  

The Parippu Drop precipitated the dumping of the Indo-Lanka Accord and with it the conferring of a certain respectability to the myth of a ‘historical homeland’ with well-demarcated boundaries.  Tamil nationalism is still squeezing juice of that particular rotten orange.  

The Indo-Lanka Accord allows India (and others) to keep harping about the 13th Amendment as though it was cast in stone when in fact it was obtained through an agreement which was observed in the breach, india being the major transgressor.  

India agreed, for example, to oversee the surrender of arms by all militant groups.  We know what happened.  Quite interestingly (and this I chanced upon only a few minutes ago), the Accord has this: “These proposals are conditional to an acceptance of the proposals negotiated from 4.5.1986 to 19.12.1986.”  In other words, ‘July 29, 1987’ was in the making from May 4, 1986!  What these ‘proposals’ are weren’t mentioned in the agreement.

India embarrassed itself in Sri Lanka.  First of all, the reasons offered were ridiculous.  Twenty five tons was just not enough to feed a ‘starving’ population.  The ‘hurt’ of Tamil brethren in India being the prompt was as silly an excuse as any.  There would have been more people starving in Tamil Nadu on June 4, 1987 than in Vadamaarachchi or in the entire Jaffna Peninsula,  I am willing to wager.  In any event, India helped create the conditions for the operation that the Parippu Drop was designed to stop and therefore the moralizing was melodramatic and little else.  

The Parippu Drop was followed by the Indo-Lanka Accord and that brought the IPKF to Sri Lanka.  It would be good to recall that less than three months later, on October 21and 22, 1987, the Indian Army entered the premises of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital in Jaffna and killed between 60-70 patients and staff. One can’t draw a straight line from June 4 to October 21 and 22 of course, but there are things we know which force us to conclude that India was bad news back then.   

We know that Rajiv Gandhi described the process as ‘the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka’.  We know that for India, it was a coup (and this too has been admitted) to get the LTTE to agree that Trincomalee would be the capital of the merged Northern and Eastern provinces. 

Admittedly, India has helped Sri Lanka on occasion but probably not due to ‘lessons learned’.    India sent three ships filled with relief items for flood victims.  India, according to some, helped the Government by sharing intelligence on the LTTE during the last stages of the war.  Some would argue that India’s interventions cushioned some of the blows aimed at Sri Lanka by the USA and the European Union.  These are initiatives that are not uncommon.  There have been times, we must not forget, when India zipped-up when Sri Lanka needed military help whereas Pakistan responded immediately.

Today, India appears to have dropped the kind of schoolmarmish devolution rhetoric that was a staple for Indian diplomats and foreign ministers for more than two decades.  Nevertheless, India has not called for the scrapping of the 13th Amendment.  It is pertinent to point out here that Col. R. Hariharan, Head of Intelligence, IPKF, openly admitted ‘The Accord retains the potential as an instrument of Indian influence in the region’.  This he said five years ago.  He is correct.  

We have to keep in mind that through it all, i.e. the friendship-claim, largesse-show and other such tokenism, India has insisted that Sri Lanka play within the parameters of ‘Indian Interests’.  Not that it is wrong because that’s what countries do.  However, for all the history associated with June 4, 1987 (and that includes the before and after), Sri Lanka should never drop her guard not least of all because India would not drop her guard either (although she shot herself in the foot with unpardonable incompetence with respect to reading the LTTE between 1987 and 1990).  

There’s a simple reason: Parippu is being dropped even now, except it is being called different names.  And not just by India, of course.

This article was first published by Colombo Telegraph on June 4, 2017.  
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.   Twitter: malindasene.