18 July 2023

Journalism inadvertently learned

In the year 1992, a subcommittee, perhaps, of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), devoted to ‘human rights’ undertook to file a fundamental rights application on behalf of a group of activists, mostly undergraduates and young graduates as well as a couple of ‘old’ activists, 50 and 60 years of age.

There were 14 in total. They had been arrested while having a political discussion in a temple. Another individual who had once been a monk in the same temple was arrested two days later on suspicion of involvement in the political project of the group which the Attorney General of the time submitted to the Panadura High Court amounted to a conspiracy to overthrow the government through means other than those enshrined in the constitution (or words to that effect).

They were initially detained (without a detention order) at the Wadduwa Police Station. Four days later they were separated into three groups and moved to other locations. They were all harassed verbally and physically, both at the Wadduwa Police Station and in the facilities they were moved to later.

Three weeks after the arrests, they were enlarged on bail. The activists, clearly lacking the financial resources necessary for litigation, approached the BASL. They agreed to file FR applications (it was called ‘The Ratawesi Peramuna Case:’ SC Applications No 146/92 to 154/92 and 155/92). Later, the Attorney General would initiate legal action in the Panadura High Court, alleging sedition. Both cases were heard. The FR applications were upheld (on February 17, 1994) and the state ordered to pay compensation. The High Court case was dismissed.

That judgement has been cited in many FR applications since and has been considered important enough to warrant multiple mention in Justice Dr A R B Amarasinghe’s book on fundamental right sin Sri Lanka.

Students of the law and those interested in litigation pertaining to human rights violations might find it interesting reading, but this is about processes and peculiarities in the justice system. It’s about affidavits.

Senior lawyer Santha Jayatilleka was tasked to prepare the affidavits of all the petitioners. That was how I learned the word ‘affidavit’. And that’s how I learned the basics of interviewing people. I was his de-facto research assistant and was asked to talk to and take down the political and personal histories of all the petitioners. In detail.

And so I did. I listened to them relating the life stories of all my fellow-detainees and now fellow-petitioners. I took notes. And I realised that all lives are not just unique but epic in their own ways. Even the lives of the relatively younger petitioners.  Of course the stories of Sunny Dayananda (at the time 50 years old) and M D Daniel (60) were the most colourful of the lot. They had, simply, lived longer.

There were no mobile phones back then and I didn’t have a recorder either. I just wrote down what they said as faithfully as I could. I probably asked a few questions to clarify things that seemed unclear or confusing, but by and large I took their word. It didn’t occur to me that they may have privileged certain things and downplayed or suppressed that which they may have believed to be inconvenient, but looking back I still feel they were all quite honest about what their lives had been.  

The point? Nothing to do with law. Nothing to do with politics. It’s about how we learn certain skills not knowing whether or not they would become useful in a different context.

Almost 10 years later, i.e. in 2001, I was arm-twisted by the Editor of the Sunday Island, Manik De Silva, to interview Lalith Kotelawala. Apparently the advertising people of Upali Newspapers Ltd., wanted the English and Sinhala newspapers to carry a feature on the man, considering the fact that the Ceylinco Group were among the more prominent suppliers of advertising revenue to the company.

‘Lalith Kotelawala bears his heart,’ is the title that Manik gave to the piece I wrote. Then he said, ‘maybe you could interview someone from that generation every week.’ And so I interviewed (I forget the order) M S Themis, H I K Fernando, Pundit Amaradeva, Nanda Malini, Victor Ratnayake, Fr Vito Perniola, Dr Wimala De Silva, Swarna Mallawaarachchi, Dr Gunadasa Amarasekera, Dr P R Anthonis, A Y S Gnanam, A N S Kulasinghe, Dr A T Ariyaratne, General Denis Perera and probably a few others.  

At the time I didn’t realise it but now I do know that all that I did was to repeat that ‘affidavit-exercise.’  ‘Tell me your story,’ was what I said essentially. They told their stories. I wrote it all down and then crafted it into a more readable feature for the 'Sunday Island.' Sanath Jayatilleka wrote the affidavits based on what I had jotted down; Manik De Silva crafted my pieces to make them more readable.

Thirty one years ago I was one of 15 people arrested, beaten up, abused and illegally detained. It was a university of sorts, that experience. It was a school for journalism too, come to think of it! 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road