21 September 2023

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a building, statue, street or stamp

['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 the 225th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]     

 Recollecting that the 40th death anniversary of Hector Senarath Rajakaruna Bandara Kobbekaduwa fell on the 18th of September, 2023, taking cognisance of the fact that an institution and a street in Colombo 7 have been named after him and remembering some observations made for a video clip on the occasion of his 39th death anniversary a year ago when I was the Director/CEO of the said institute, I devote today’s piece to a man who made a mark that was deliberately erased at great cost to the country.

Hector Kobbekaduwa died at the age of 67, less than a year after he contested a presidential election highly skewed against him. The government of his principal opponent, incumbent president J R Jayewardene, had moved to strip the probable candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights. Thus the would-be obstacle to re-election had been eliminated. Moreover, the election itself was an exercise marked by innumerable malpractices, violence and rampant abuse of state resources.  

Kobbekaduwa probably knew it was a losing cause but he bravely fought a good fight as the SLFP’s presidential candidate in a context where even certain sections of his party worked against him. The victor and his party, note, would go on to subvert all democratic norms two months later through a referendum. It was another election marked by fraud. Most disturbing was the fact that it was used to secure a further six years for the parliamentary majority obtained in 1977. 

He was, by many accounts, more radical in the reforms he proposed and implemented than some of the leftists in the United Front government of 1970-1975. He could have resigned when Prime Minister Bandaranaike extended the term of the parliament for two more years. Maybe he went along with the party decision. Those close to him and have intimate knowledge of what the party stalwarts thought at the time might be able to shed more light on such things.

He was obviously acutely aware of the structures of political economy that kept significant segments of the country’s population impoverished. His work as the Minister of Agriculture and Lands clearly indicates a determination to rectify these anomalies in favour of those who were most disadvantaged by existing laws and practices.

Later, he would be vilified for the complementary role he played to the economic policies pushed through by N M Perera, but his detractors forget the play of global politics, especially related to the USA and the Gold Standard. Among them were people who had played kalu-suddha to perfection for decades and of course the colonial interests that were entrenched deep enough to survive Independence.

There was a vision back then. A country is not a territory described by longitude and latitude, square miles (as it was back then), with certain physical attributes, climates and weather patterns. A country is not made of a population, but peoples identifiable in terms of race, caste, religion, location within structures of power and access to entitlements or lack thereof. Kobbekaduwa was aware of all this.

He probably knew the difference between being located in a global political economy and selling the country outright to capital interests, local and multinational. Sri Lanka needed a strong economic foundation and this required a focus on manufacturing as well as the establishment of development banks. There’s no nation without things national.
Ironically, in the aftermath of the economic debacles witnessed a year ago, many who had rubbished the likes of Kobbekaduwa looked back wistfully at those much vilified 1970s were heard to murmur, ‘if only we had continued in that vein…’

It was not all perfect, sure. Mistakes were made. Corruption there was. Political patronage and cronyism was evident although these are not the preserve of that period and indeed would ‘develop’ to degrees that make those times appear quite juvenile.

He believed firmly in the abilities of his fellow citizens. He believed that true independence was possible. His thinking could be captured in the following: ‘progress by the people, with the people and for the people.’ In the ensuing decades people were abandoned, insulted, humiliated and slaughtered.

He spoke of, blazed and walked along pathways since abandoned and today are talked of as opportunities missed. He spoke of a different way of thinking and imagining and did his utmost to develop policies accordingly.

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a street; he represents alternative trajectories for the country. He is not a building but an institution; he is not just an institution but one that is committed to scientific inquiry that informs policy-making. He's not a stamp although there's one that commemorates him valued at Rs 3.50; and yet he has stamped a vision.

There’s a statue of the man in the premises of the institution that has been given his name. It’s larger than life. And yet, Hector Kobbekaduwa was not about self-aggrandisement. He knew the dimensions of his abilities, what he could and could not do. He did his best with courage and dignity.

There's a primary school in Kubalwathumulla, Kiribathkumbura in the Yatinuwara Electorate he contested that has been named after him.  Hector Kobbekaduwa knew the basics. He was a school, one could say. Only, the lessons were unlearnt and there's a marked reluctance to learn them.


Other articles in this series: 

Rajagala and the Parable of the Panner

Let's show love to Starbucks employees!

You've got mail?

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

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