17 March 2015

Portrait of an evergreen Red

I once saw the following caption beneath a portrait of Ernesto Che Guavara: "Some people struggle for a day, and that is good; some for a year, and that is better. Then there are those who fight all their lives, and they are truly revolutionary."

It is indeed rarely that one comes across such personalities. Not all of them are as famous as Che. Typically, they live and die without celebration and acknowledgement.
And yet their lives, their work and their hearts are as vibrant and life-giving, and they always leave a trace of their particular fragrance on this earth.

I first met Manikvadura Daniel, known to countless activists and communist fellow-travellers as Danny Aiya and Communist Danny, at a discussion on Green Socialism about 10 years ago. Later Danny Aiya and I were fellow-detainees in one of the many National "security" headquarters in Longden Place.

Last week I went to see Danny Aiya, who is now 71 and lives in a village called Gonagalapura, about 7 km inland from Aluthgama, and was the recipient of his hospitality, wisdom and soft ways.
Born in Thalalla, Matara, and named Daniel by a high-handed person whose task was to register births (quite against the wishes of his father), he was the 7th in a family of 14. He belonged to a family of traditional farmers. He described his father as a man with an infinite capacity to give. A couple of years before he died at the age of 102, the old man, whom Danny described as a "Kawthuka Vasthuva," had given up his room to accommodate refugees who had fled terrorist attacks in the Eastern Province, and this "in a country where there are people who are reluctant to offer a glass of water to a stranger." His mother was from Waawwa, Devinuwara, a village that gave rise to the tongue-twister "Waawwa Weve Vee Vewwa".

The family had been strongly influenced by the political thought of Anagarika Dharmapala and their ideological predilection was broadly left-wing. Unlike the rest of his family, however, Danny committed his entire life to progressive politics, giving his labour and time, and losing everything of material value that he possessed in the process. "My siblings, with whom I have excellent relations, say that I am a person who is paying off other people’s debts," he said with a wry grin.

He had studied in Sinhala until the 5th grade and then in English until the "SSC". He has an excellent command of both languages and have contributed many articles to both Sinhala and English newspapers over the years.

Nineteen Forty Seven marked his baptism as a political activist. Premalal Kumarasiri had contested the Hakmana seat for the Communist Party, his chief rival being Maj. Dharmapala of the UNP. Kumarasiri had made a campaign stop at Thalalla and Danny had been impressed by the eloquence of the man. After that, he had abandoned his usual practise of going to the paddy field upon returning from school and had gone from meeting to meeting, village to village. In the evenings, he would stand on the Vangediya and repeat the speeches he had listened to. His father had been quite perturbed, but Danny remembers that his mother had been quite supportive.

By this time he was attending the bilingual school in Devinuwara, his education being provided for by his older brother. During the campaign and afterwards, he had been suspended three times by the principal, H. B. Weerasinghe. Apparently he and his friends were in the habit of going to a small boutique called "Nuga Sevana" where they would leave their books and take off with Premalal on the campaign trail. Someone had tipped off the principal. He recalled with some mirth the fact that even those who had failed to come to school because of other reasons had been suspended on one of these occasions. When he came home he had been duly beaten by his father. Again his mother saved him, arguing that Danny cannot be doing all this without having given proper thought to the matter.

After the SSC he had come to Colombo to work as a full-timer for the party. Having built quite a reputation for himself as a fiery speaker and a dedicated activist, Danny had been in the forefront of the ‘53 Hartal’ in the Southern Province, engaging in quite a number of subversive activities. He had been shot at and had to flee to the jungle on a number of occasions.

When the Paddy Lands Act was introduced in 1958 he had been appointed as a Field Officer in the Hambantota District. He had resigned not long afterwards, against the advice of Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, choosing instead to work for the party.

Being a long standing member of the Communist Party, and a founder member of the "Peking Wing" led by Sanmugathasan (or "Shan" as he was often called), as well as being in the Central Committee of other off-shoots such as Nava Lanka Communist Party (led by Kalyana Thiranagama) and Gamini Yapa’s Peradiga Sulanga, Danny was able to trace the trajectories that Left politics in Sri Lanka have taken over the past three decades.

Danny protested my use of the term "Peking Wing". "Don’t say Peking-Wing. We were the ‘revolutionary wing’ of the Communist party. We were against Revisionism and Khruschevism; that is why we had to split." He claimed that the Ceylon Trade Union Federation, the All Lanka Peasant Congress and a number of youth and women’s organisations of the party chose to go with Shan’s faction when the split occurred.

Later he had parted ways with Shan on ideological grounds. He said that it was much later that he realised the racist agenda of the man. Apparently, in a discussion on who constituted the local version of the "revolutionary vanguard," Shan had insisted that it is the estate workers that constitute "the real proletariat", and argued that it is with them that the party should move. He, along with others, had countered that it is the peasants that should be considered the vanguard of the revolution, following Mao’s line.

"Our party was fraught with factionalism. Nine people of the Central Committee resigned, led by Premalal Kumarasiri."

Danny had been a founder member of the Samastha Lanka Govi Sammelanaya which Ariyawansa Gunasekera had formed. He described Gunasekera as an exceptional human being and an unforgettable personality in the struggle of the peasantry. He had been a founder member of the LSSP, the CP, the "Revolutionary" CP and the Nava Lanka CP.

Danny had to hide from both the JVP and the state during the ’71 uprising. After that he had given up party politics, devoting himself to social work. "Still, time and again, party activists would come to see me, requesting that I help them in numerous ways. I could never say ‘no’," he said.
Danny, being the fire-brand that he was and a much sought after public speaker, had his fair share of excitement, adventure and political intrigue.

He is clearly endowed with an excellent memory and an amazing ability to recollect detail. He recalled a strike organised at the Andapana Estate, owned by Sarath Wijesinghe, a leading figure in the ‘56 government and the brother-in-law of Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe, where he had been very active in organising the workers. This was in 1963-64. Apparently one thug by the name of Highran Prema, a well-known bomb-maker who had also thrown bombs at the house of CP stalwart Tudawe, had been assigned the job of breaking up the strike. The workers had resisted and in the melee the thug had been killed. Danny had been on the way to the estate at this time and when he arrived he had been surrounded by the Prema’s gang.

"For the first time in my life I encountered the fear of death. I knew that they were going to kill and that I had only minutes to live. I was saved by a Sergeant named Piyaratne, who was aware of who I was and the kind of politics that I practised."

I remember, while being incarcerated with him, Danny telling me about Rohana Wijeweera. "His is a history of betrayal. I was the first person that he betrayed, alleging that I was flirting with a woman in one of the houses where we stayed during our political work." At that time he did not elaborate on his version of the rise of the JVP.

He had met Wijeweera during the election campaign of March 1960. He had called on an old CP activist, Andiris Wijeweera, Rohana’s father. During the ’47 election, supporters of the UNP candidate, businessman W. P. Arnolis Appu, had abducted Andiris and had later thrown him out of the jeep in which they were taking him. The fall had forced him to be bed-ridden for 22 years. When Danny had gone to Lunukalapuwa to see him, Andiris had called his son and told him to take Danny to meet all the CP supporters.

He remembers Rohana Wijeweera as a dedicated and disciplined activist. "Wijeweera did everything he was asked to do on time and with total commitment," he recalled. They had organised pocket meetings, going from village to village, choosing times and days when the local fairs were held. It was Wijeweera who announced these meetings.

Afterwards, when Khruschev started the Lumumba University, Wijeweera’s name had been nominated even though he was not a member of the party. His father’s history, and Wijeweera’s loyalty to the party during the campaign had worked in his favour. In Moscow he had been denied membership of the Sri Lanka Communist Party’s Secretary in Moscow, K. A. Jeewaratne. When young Wijeweera returned, he had resigned from the party along with those who chose the Maoist line.

Wijeweera had lectured, along with Shan and Danny in a political school that the party had established in Thalalle. He was elected the Vice Chairman of the Youth League, the Chairman being A. R. Edmund. This gave him the opportunity to meet students from all parts of the country. This was, according to Danny, his baptism in party politics. Danny said that Wijeweera had participated in a UNP procession in 1965, during which one Buddhist monk from Dambarawe had been killed. Shan had asked for explanation, and Wijeweera had resigned to form the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, along with G. I. D. Dharmasekera and others. The name had been proposed by Kuliyapitiye Prananda, who was also the person who came up with the term "Jathika Chintanaya".

During his tenure in the Youth League, Danny alleged, Wijeweera had engaged in a vile campaign against the party leadership and had been building his political base among the students. It was in this way that he was able to take off on his own and build his own political organisation.
Danny has visited China twice, once in 1962 as a party representative and again in 1982 along with Gamini Yapa, a year after Peradiga Sulanga was formed. He recalled these visits with much pride and said that he learnt a lot during his travels.

In 1962, although initially sent for a year on a study programme, he had come back in four months. The group had been taken to Hong Kong and they had crossed the border and entered China at a place called Kolung. Having broken from the Moscow-led Communist Party at the height of the Sino-Soviet ideological split, they had been accorded a red carpet welcome. He had participated in the May Day celebrations of that year and holds the distinction of sharing the stage with people like Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Chou Enlai.

There had been representatives from 82 countries, some of who were later killed in the struggles they led in their home countries.

He said he had learnt a lot about agriculture, sustainable development and the efficient use of scarce resources during this visit. More than all that, he had learnt the importance of discipline. "The Chinese are the most disciplined people I have met. Discipline is one of the most important things for an activist, it enables him/her to engage to the full potential as well as allows the quick uncovering of deceit."

Danny recalled his visit to Mao’s village, where there had been a party in their honour and he had been forced to take his first sip of alcohol, some rice wine. It had been a good educational experience. First they were taken to the landmarks of the Chinese Revolution, places where there had been critical battles. Then they were introduced to those who had actually taken part. Finally the politics and history was discussed. "This was a very organic way of instruction. This process ensures that the lessons are concretised in your mind and heart."

In 1982, he was on a "tour," and able to go where he liked and talk freely with the people. He witnessed the changed under Deng and said that the Trotskyist charge of China becoming capitalist did not have any base in truth. At that time, all that was given by way of private property was a small plot of land which people could do whatever they liked with in whatever leisure time they had.
Looking back at his life he said "I never thought about money. All I ever did was work for the betterment of the community. After 1980, I wrote for the "Goviya" newspaper, and worked with the All Lanka Peasant Congress of which I was the Organising Secretary. I also engaged in social service."

He is perhaps best known for what he did for the refugees from the East, and of course what he had to suffer as a result.

The inmates of the Kantale Refugee Camp who had been forced to abandon their village, Alla, in 1986, had come to the South upon hearing rumours that others in their position had been given land in the area. One hundred and eighty three people had come to his village of Thalalla. Danny had appealed with the chief monk of the Sri Mandalaaramaya to allow these people to stay in the temple premises. The monk had said there was only one toilet and that he couldn’t accommodate all these people.

Danny had been running a small scale coir rope industry at that time and he had two toilets. He had decided to take everyone to his house. "The police, which was generally not too well disposed towards me, gave me a lot of support on this occasion.

More than that, people from nearby villages rallied round me to ensure that these people who had lost their property and livelihoods to LTTE terror are looked after."

This humble man with modest means had looked after these 183 people for 5 full days. Thereafter they had gone to Ambalantota, seeking relief from the Government Agent. Instead of relief they had been set upon by a group of thugs. Danny, along with others had been arrested and had to languish in police cells for a month. The matter had been taken up in courts, where it was determined that "Every citizen has the right to live anywhere." No compensation was granted.

Danny, as I mentioned earlier has been a vociferous campaigner for the rights of farmers. He has been arrested and held on three occasions, detained on countless occasions. In 1992, along with 15 others he was arrested while having a discussion in a temple in Wadduwa. The group consisted of the core of what later became the Janatha Mithuro. They filed a Fundamental Rights Application, a move which prompted the Attorney General to charge the group with sedition. Both cases were decided in their favour, the Fundamental Rights verdict being a landmark decision in the legal history of the country.

He has written several articles to newspapers both as a citizen and an officer bearer of the All Lanka Peasants Congress. His commentaries on the political economy of agriculture have been extremely perceptive and he has demonstrated a feel for the peasantry that is sadly lacking among the political leadership of this country.

"It is because we were self-sufficient in rice that we could proudly say that we are not afraid of anyone or anything. We had fertile land. In those days the worth of a piece of land was assessed according to the number of earthworms in a handful of soil. Then came the pesticides and chemical fertilisers when we were taken for a ride in the name of the so-called Green Revolution. Now our soils are heavily dependent on chemical inputs for fertility and protection from pests."

I asked Danny what his thoughts were about the future and how he evaluates his life.

"My wife, Ariyawathie, who has been a comrade and friend, died a year ago. This is the greatest loss I have suffered. As I was taking her in a three-wheeler to hospital (where she later died), she asked me ’mechchara karalath apita sathutin inna puluwan unada?’ referring of course to the hard life we led and which we still lead. I said ‘This is the way it is sometimes’. She has never sent away anyone who came to our house without giving them a meal. She always made people comfortable. I was away most of the time, so it was she who brought up our three daughters and son."
Danny lives with his three daughters, Hemamali, Sarala (named after the notion of simplicity) and Chinta (after Mao’s thought) and his grandson, Chatura who is in many ways the apple of the old man’s eye.

Over the years, Danny has moved away from Marxist ideologies, even though he has lost nothing in terms of his fierce commitment to progressive political transformation. "My political philosophy has been fed to a great extent by Buddhism. Buddhist thought with its stress on simplicity and a life that is neither extravagant or impoverished, teaches important lessons in terms of economy and social organisation. I consider Kuliyapitiye Pranand, Rev. Athureliye Rathana and Champika Ranawake to be the main people who have made me change my view of the world. Champika and Rev. Rathana, especially, have been instrumental in making me see the fault-lines of Marxism. My wife always told me "Whenever there is a problem, go to Rev. Rathana, he will take care of you."

"About the future? The President said recently that no one can solve the problems of this country. This, I consider, to be an insult to every Sri Lankan. We have the resources and we have the knowledge. We don’t have the correct leadership. There are enough Mahoushadas in our country. I take this statement of the president as a personal challenge. We don’t have leaders of any stature in our country. There was a time when our kings knew the amount of rice being cultivated. In fact they could calculate to the grain the wealth of the country. In stark contrast, our present day leaders don’t even know how many acres are under cultivation."

At the same time, Danny lamented no one is taking advantage of his experience and the knowledge that he has acquired over the years: "People don’t make use of people like me. People like me are like the karapincha in a kirihodda, used to give flavour then thrown away. Just like the parliament and the voters. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we can make our country prosper.

"As I said, I no longer consider myself a Marxist. Marxism has many flaws, one of the main being its inability to take into account the issue of culture. At the same time, I take a lot of inspiration from the Chinese example. Mao understood the critical issues and the cultural ethos of the region. We have a lot to learn from China. I have taken heed of the words of wisdom that a man who was branded as a ‘capitalist roader’ said to me when I was in China: ‘open your eyes and see the world’."

M. D. Daniel, quiet man whose eyes easily fill with tears but who with sheer strength of character bears his wounds without complaint, has lived a life that embodies the famous words of Nikolai Ostrovsky "Always strive to work for the betterment of mankind, and so live that when you die you can do so with the full knowledge that yours has not been a life lived in vain where personal enhancement mattered more than social gain."

In the 54th year of our so-called Independence, perhaps it would be most fitting to think of the Dannys of our country whose struggle to win freedom for our people has no end-point in event and time. This gentle and humble man who refuses to retire from political engagement would not want any thanks for all he has done for people who will never know him. It would be more appropriate, I believe, to repeat these lines from that simple folk song:

"May all you find in the wilderness, taste sweet
May the people rally round you like the bees around the flower
May the rays of sunlight fall gently on you".