A senior cop remembers April 1971
(Excerpted from the memoirs of Senior DIG (Retd.) Edward Gunawardena)
A few months after the SLFP-led United Front Alliance headed by Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike was elected in 1970, information started trickling in that the JVP was planning an uprising against the government. Cells were formed island-wide and clandestine indoctrination classes conducted by trained cadres. Simultaneously there was a spate of bank robberies and thefts of guns from households were reported to the police from all parts of the island. Unidentified youths were collecting empty cigarette and condensed milk tins, bottles, spent bulbs and cutting pieces of barbed wire from fences to make hand bombs and Molotov cocktails. Instances of bombs being tested even in the Peradeniya campus came to light.
By January 1971 the threat became real and the police began making arrests. Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the movement, was arrested with an accomplice Kelly Senanayake at Amparai and detained at the Magazine prison. In the villages the common talk was that a ‘Che Guevera’ movement has started. Unknown youth moving about in villages were being referred to as ‘Che Gueveras.’ Police intelligence briefed the government of the developing ‘Naxalite’ like situation and action was taken to alert all police stations.
At the end of March 1971 there was specific information that the first targets would be the police stations. The attacks were to be carried out simultaneously on a particular day at a given time. With heightened police activity, the JVP ‘attack groups’ were pressurized to put their plan into effect hurriedly despite Wijeweera being incarcerated.
Synchronizing the attacks was a problem for the JVP. Mobile phones were not available then and the leaders had to resort to coded messages in newspapers. Police intelligence was able to crack their codes without much difficulty. It came to light that all police stations would come under attack at midnight on of April 5. The plan was to fire with guns at the station, and throw hand bombs and Molotov cocktails so that the policemen would run away or be killed. The attackers were to rush in and seize all the firearms in the stations.
The Police were ordered to be on full alert on this day. On April 4, in addition to my duties as the Director, Police Planning and Research I was acting for Mr. P. L. Munidasa, SP as the Personal Assistant to Mr.Stanley Senanayake the IGP. At about 4 p.m. an urgent radio message addressed to the IGP was opened by me. The message was alarming. The Wellawaya Police station had been attacked and the OIC Inspector Jayasekera had received gunshot injuries, a PC killed and several injured. The police had fought back bravely and not abandoned the station.
As soon as the IGP was informed, he reacted calmly. He summoned all the senior officers present at Headquarters briefed them and ordered that all police stations including the Field Force Headquarters, the Training School and Police Headquarters itself be placed on full alert with immediate effect. Among the officers present I distinctly remember DIGs S.S. Joseph and T.B. Werapitiya. All police officers irrespective of rank were to be armed and issued with adequate ammunition. This task was entrusted to ASP M.D. Perera of Field Force Headquarters who was in charge of the armoury. I too was issued with a Sterling Sub-machine gun.
During this time I was living in Battaramulla with my wife and year old child in my father’s house. My brothers, Owen and Aelian, who were unmarried were also living there. My wife and I with the child occupied a fairly large room in which an official telephone had been installed. We had decided to live here as I had started building a house on the same ancestral property; and it is in this house that we have lived since 1971. 1 had an official car, a new Austin A40 which I drove as I had not been able to find a suitable police driver. Apart from the telephone, I had a walkie-talkie and was in constant communication with the Police Command Room and the IGP.
On the night of April 4 as there was nothing significant happening except for radio messages from police stations asking for additional strength, weapons and ammunition, I was permitted by the IGP to get back home. I telephoned the Welikada and Talangama police stations and was informed that the stations were being guarded and the areas were quiet. At about 10 p.m. I reached home safely and slept soundly. But something strange happened which to date remains a mystery. At about 3.30 a.m. (on the April 5) my telephone rang. The caller in a very authoritative voice said, “This is Capt. Gajanayake from Temple Trees, the Prime Minister wants you immediately.”
I hurriedly got into my uniform and woke up my wife and told her about the call. Just then it occurred to me that I should call Temple Trees. There was an operations room already functioning there and Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike had taken control of the situation. When I called, it was answered by my friend and colleague Mr. Cyril Herath. He assured me that I was not required at Temple Trees and that there was no person there by the name of Capt. Gajanayake. Much against the wishes of my wife, my father and brothers, dressed in a sarong and shirt and armed with my revolver I walked down the road for about half a kilometer. But there was none on the road at that time of the night.
By next night disturbing messages were coming to Police Headquarters from all over the Island. A large number of police stations had been attacked and police officers killed and injured. SP Navaratnam and Inspector Thomasz had been shot at on the road in Elpitiya and the latter had succumbed to the injuries. A number of Estate Superintendents had been shot dead. Trees were cut and electricity posts brought down. Desperate messages were pouring in from several Districts stating that administration had come to a standstill. The Kegalle, Kurunegala, Galle and Anuradhapura Districts were the worst affected. The least damage was in areas where the police had taken the offensive. In Colombo although the police stations were not attacked there was panic. With the possibility of water mains being damaged tube wells were hurriedly sunk at Temple Trees. General Attygalle, the Army Commander, had taken over the security of the Prime Minister and Temple Trees.
Talangama Police station that policed Battaramulla was guarded by the people of the area. Even my brothers spent the nights there armed with my father’s shotgun. IP Terrence Perera who was shot dead by the JVP in 1987 was the OIC. The excellent reputation he had in the area made ordinary folk flock to the station and take up positions to defend it if it was attacked. Some of the people of Battaramulla who were regularly there whose names I can remember and who are still living are K.C. Perera, W.A.C. Perera, Jayasiri, Victor Henry, Lionel Caldera and P.P. de Silva among others. Incidentally Brigadier Prasanna de Silva one of the heroes of the recently concluded war against the LTTE is a son of P.P. de Silva.
There were also those who gave assistance in the form of food and drink for all those who had gone to the aid of the police. The late Edward Rupasinghe a prominent businessman of Battaramulla, supplied large quantities of bread and short eats from the Westown Bakery which he owned. However as the attacks on police stations and state property became more and more intense, the SP Nugegoda T.S. Bongso decided to close down the Talangama Police Station and withdraw all the officers to the Mirihana Headquarters Station. This move made it unsafe for me to live in Battaramulla and travel to Police Headquarters.
The late Mr. Tiny Seneviratne SP and his charming wife readily accommodated us in their official quarters at Keppetipola Mawatha. The late Mr. K.B. Ratnayake had also left his Anuradhapura residence to live with the Seneviratnes. KBR and Tiny were good friends. During this time in the midst of all the disheartening news from all directions there were a few bright spots I have not forgotten. These were messages from Amparai, Kurunegala and Mawanella.
At Amparai the ASP in charge A.S. Seneviratne on information received that a busload of armed insurgents were on the way to attack the police station in broad daylight had hurriedly evacuated the station and got men with arms to hide behind trees and bushes having placed a few dummy policemen near the reserve table that was visible as one entered the station. As the busload of insurgents turned into the police station premises a hail of gunfire had been directed at it. About 20 insurgents had been killed and the bus set ablaze.
In Kurunegala the Pothuhera police station had been overrun and occupied by insurgents. Mr. Leo Perera who was ASP Kurunegala had approached the station with a party in mufti unnoticed by the insurgents, taken them by surprise and shot six of them dead. The police station had been reestablished immediately after.
In Mawanella and Aranayake the insurgents held complete sway. Two youths had visited the house of a retired school master on the outskirts of Mawanella town and demanded his gun. He had gone in, and loaded his double barrel gun and come out on the pretext of handing it over to the two youths he had shot them both dead discharging both barrels. The schoolmaster and his family had taken their belongings, got into a lorry and immediately left the area.
With the joint operations Room at Temple Trees under Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike assisted by the Service Chiefs, the IGP and several senior public servants functioning fully the offensive against the insurgents began to work successfully. Units from the Army, Navy and the Air Force were actively assisting the police in all parts of the Island particularly in making arrests. Helicopters with pilots provided by India and Pakistan were being extensively used by officials and senior officers of the Armed Services and the Police for urgent travel.
On the night of April 10 or 11, I had finished my work at Police Headquarters and returned at about 10 p.m. to Keppetipola Mawatha. During the day my wife had been able to find a police jeep to be sent to Battaramulla to fetch a substantial supply of jak fruits, manioc and coconuts from our garden. The Seneviratnes took immense pleasure in feeding all and sundry who visited their home.
At about 10 p.m. I received a call from the IGP requesting me to take over Kurunegala Division the following morning. He told me that a helicopter would be ready for me at Parsons Road Air Force Grounds at 5.30 a.m. According to him the insurgents were still active in the area; the SP Mr. A. Mahendran was on sick leave and Mr. Leo Perera ASP was bravely handling the situation almost single handed. Although the assignment did not bother me much, my wife was noticeably concerned. Mrs. Seneviratne an ardent Catholic gave me a miniature medal of St. Anthony assuring me that the Saint will protect me from harm.
The helicopter took off at the crack of dawn. It was piloted by a young Flt.. Lieutenant from the SLAF and I was the only passenger. I have forgotten the name of this pilot. He was a pleasant guy who kept conversing with me all the way. He told me that he had flown to Anuradhapura and Deniyaya the previous day and in both those areas the insurgents were on the run and the security forces were on top.
Having been cloistered at Police Headquarters always peeking out of windows with a weapon in the ready or reading messages of deaths of police officers and the successes of insurgents, a feeling of relief overtook me on the flight. In fact I began to look forward to some action and this did not take long to come.
As the helicopter landed I was met by ASP Leo Perera who was a contemporary of mine at Peradeniya. There were several other police officers and also two officers of the Air Force. The latter were there to go to Colombo in the same aircraft. I carried only a travel bag with the minimum of clothes.
My first task was to address the officers gathered at the Police Station. I praised them for facing the situation bravely. Their only complaint was that they were short of ammunition. I suggested to Leo that as far as possible shotguns be used instead of 303 rifles. An officer was dispatched immediately to get as many guns as possible from the Kachcheri and the production room of the court house.
ASP M.D. Perera of Field Force Headquarters who was contacted on radio undertook to airlift 15 boxes of SG and No. four 12-bore cartridges. All the officers present were pleased as they all agreed that shotguns were more effective. The families of police officers too had left their quarters and barracks and taken up residence in different sections of the station. Most importantly their morale was high. Leo Perera had led them admirably.
At about 10 a.m. after partaking of a kiribath and lunumiris breakfast with the men I left for my office, that of the SP Kurunegala. I was very happy when Inspector Subramaniam was assigned to me. He was known to me and he appeared to be pleased with the task. He was a loyal and cheerful type. I chose a Land Rover with a removable canvas top for my use and also a sergeant and two constables with rifles. Subramaniam and I had Sterling sub-machine guns. These officers were to be with me at all times. In the afternoon I was able to obtain two double barrel Webley & Scott shotguns with about 10 No. four cartridges. There were several beds also already in place in the office. Telephoning my wife was no problem as I enjoyed the privilege of priority calls.
I had lunch with Inspector Subramaniam and my escort in the office. The rice and curry lunch had been sent from the Police Station mess. After a late lunch and a brief post lunch rest the four of us dressed in mufti set off in the Land Rover driven by a police driver. IP Subramaniam carried a Stirling sub-machine gun and the sergeant and PC 303 rifles. A loaded double barrel gun lay on the floor board of the Land Rover. After visiting the Potuhera and Mawathagama stations and patrolling the town area we returned to our base. Subramaniam also made arrangements with a boutique in town for some egg hoppers to be delivered to us at 8 p.m.
A little excitement was to come soon. After refreshing ourselves and having eaten the egg hoppers we visited the station. At about 9.45 p.m. I was having a discussion with a few officers in the office of the OIC Crimes when we heard two minor explosions and somebody screaming that the station was being attacked. Armed officers took up positions according to instructions. I ordered that the station lights be put off. An Inspector armed with a loaded shotgun, a few constables and I crawled to the rear of the building. Bombs were being thrown from the direction of a clump of plantain trees. A small tin with the fuse still burning fell close to where we were.
A PC jumped forward and doused the fuse throwing a wet gunny bag on the object. Two more similar objects fell thrown from the same direction. The same PC rushed forward and removed the burning fuses with his hands. As the objects were coming from about the identical place, I grabbed the shotgun and discharged both barrels in that direction simultaneously. The ‘bombing’ stopped thereafter. Two armed mobile patrols were sent out to the roads to look for any suspects. But the roads were empty. At about 11 p.m. the lights were put on and the station resumed its activities.
To say the least these ‘bombs’ were crude and primitive. In each of these we found a large ‘batta’ cracker the fuse of which came out of a hole in the lid of a cigarette tin. Round the ‘batta’ was a layer of tightly compressed fibres akin to the fibres in a squirrels nest. On the outer side of the compressed fibre were barbs cut off barbed wire and rusted nails. A thousand of such ‘bombs’ could not have matched the destructive force of a modern hand grenade. This state of unpreparedness was perhaps the foremost reason why the insurrection fizzled out early.
More action was to follow that same night. After my escort of three officers and I had retired to bed in the SP’s office, a few minutes after midnight the Sergeant guarding a large transformer on the Wariyapola Road with two other constables started calling me on the walkie talkie in a desperate tone. He sounded very excited and told me that shots were being heard close to the guard point. I instructed him to take up position a reasonable distance away from the transformer where there were no lights and shoot at sight any person or persons approaching the transformer. I also assured him that I would be at the guard post with an armed party in the quickest possible time.
IP Subramaniam and the other two officers were eager to join me. I got the driver to remove the hood cloth of the Land Rover. Whilst the sergeant who was armed with a rifle occupied the front seat alongside the driver, Subramaniam and I armed with two double barrel guns loaded with No. four cartridges took up a standing position with the guns resting on the first bar of the hood. The two PCs were to observe either side of the road. Prior to leaving I radioed the Police station to inform the Airforce operations room about my movements and not to have any foot patrols in the vicinity of the transformer.
There were no vehicles or any pedestrians on the way to the transformer. About a hundred meters to go we noticed a group of about eight to 10 dressed in shorts getting on to the road from the shrub. The distance was about 50 to 75 meters. The driver instinctively slowed down. The shining butts of two to three guns made us react instantly. I whispered to Subramaniam when I say ‘Fire’ to pull both triggers one after the other. We fired simultaneously and the Sergeant and PCs also fired their rifles.
Once the smoke cleared we noticed that the group had vanished.
As we approached the spot with the headlights on we noticed three shot guns scattered about the place. On closer examination there was blood all over and a man lay fallen groaning in pain. Beside him was a cloth bag which contained six cigarette tin hand bombs. Two live cartridges were also found. In two of the guns the spent cartridges were stuck as the ejectors were not working. The other gun was loaded with a ball cartridge which had not been fired. Having collected the guns, the bag containing the bombs and some rubber slippers that had been left behind. We proceeded on our mission to the transformer having radioed the guard Sergeant that we were close by.
As we approached the transformer the Guard Sergeant and the 2 PCs came out of the darkness to greet us. They were visibly relieved. But when the Sergeant told us that several shots were heard even 15 minutes before we arrived, I explained to them what had happened on the way. The Sergeant’s immediate response was, “They must be the rascals who were hovering about the village. They are some rowdies from outside this area who are pretending to be Che Guevaras”.
After reassuring them we left. On the way we stopped at the place where the shooting occurred. The man who was on the ground groaning in pain was not there.
Having snatched a couple of hours of sleep, at about 9 a.m. I drove with the escort to the Kurunegala Convent to call on the Co-ordinating officer Wing Commander Weeratne. A charming man, he received me cordially. He looked completely relaxed, dressed only in a shirt and sarong. He introduced me to several other senior officers of the Airforce and Army who were billeted in that spacious rectangular hall. One of the officers to whom I was introduced was Major Tony Gabriel the eminent cancer surgeon. A volunteer, he had been mobilized. I was also told that a bed was reserved for me. But I politely told him that I preferred to operate from my office. Wing Commander Weeratne also told me that he would be leaving to Colombo on the following day and the arrangement approved by Temple Trees was for the SP to act whenever the Co-ordinating officer was out of Kurunegala.
I joined the Co-ordinating officer and others at breakfast – string hoppers, kirihodi and pol sambol and left for the Police Station soon after. The escort was also well looked after. Weeratne and Tony Gabriel became good friends of mine. Sadly they are both not among the living today. After the meeting with the Co-ordinating officer we visited the Potuhera Police Station. Blood stains were clearly visible still and the walls and furniture were riddled with bullet and pellet marks. The officers looked cheerful and well settled. They were all full of praise for the exemplary courage shown by ASP Leo Perera in destroying the insurgents and other riffraff who were occupying the station and for re-establishing it quickly. One officer even went to the extent of suggesting that a brass plaque be installed mentioning the feat of Mr. Leo Perera.
When we returned to Kurunegala the officers were having lunch at the Station. The time was about 1.30 p.m. We too joined. Leo Perera was also there. He had tried several times to look me up but had failed. I complimented him for the excellent work done and told him that the high morale of the Kurunegala police was solely due to his leadership. He smiled in acknowledgment. But I noticed that he was not all that happy. He had a worried look on his face.
At about this time a serious incident had taken place giving the indication that insurgents were still active in the area. An Aiforce platoon (flight) on a recce in the outskirts of the town had come across a group of insurgents in a wooded area. The surprised group had surrendered with a few shot guns. An airman noticing one stray insurgent who was taking cover behind a bush had challenged him to surrender. The insurgent had instantly fired a shot at the airman who had dropped dead. The attacker had been shot dead in return by another airman.
At about 3 p.m. an Airforce vehicle drew up at the police station with a load of nine young men who had been arrested. They had deposited the two dead bodies at the hospital mortuary. All those under arrest were boys in their teens dressed in blue shorts and shirts. They had all been badly beaten up. I cautioned the airmen not to beat them further and took them into police custody. They had bleeding wounds which were washed and attended to by several policemen as they were all innocent looking children.
On questioning they confessed that they were retreating from the Warakapola area and their destination was the Ritigala jungles in Anuradhapura. They had these instructions from their high command. At this time, as if from nowhere appeared two young foreign journalists, a man and a woman. One was from the Washington Post and the other, the young woman from the Christian Science Monitor. Apart from taking photographs they too asked various questions.
The boys had their mouths and teeth were badly stained. They had been chewing tender leaves to get over their hunger. According to them they had been taught various ways to survive in the jungle. They had been told to eat apart from fruits and berries and tender leaves even creatures such as lizards and snakes; and insects particularly termites and earthworms. The nine young men were provided bathing facilities and a meal of buns and plantains; and locked up with about five more insurgent suspects to be sent to the rehabilitation camp that had been established at the Sri Jayawardenapura University premises. This was to be done on the following day in a hired van under a police escort.
At the police station I received a call from the Wariyapola police to say that six young men with gunshot injuries had got admitted to the Wariyapola hospital. They had told the police that they had been shot by a group of insurgents on the Wariyapola-Kurunegala road and had been able to reach the hospital in the trailer of a hand tractor. I immediately guessed that they could be the insurgents who were shot near the transformer. I explained to the OIC Wariyapola that they were a group of insurgents and to keep them in police custody.
In the evening I received a call from the IGP that he would be arriving in Kurunegala at 8 a.m. accompanied by General Attygalle. He told me that they wanted to have a chat with Leo Perera. I immediately informed Leo and told him to remain in office or at the Police Station in the morning.
By that time I had come to know that several Kurunegala SLFP lawyers had made some serious complaints against the ASP. Leo having received credible information that some of these lawyers were in league with insurgent leaders had not only questioned and cautioned them but even got their houses searched. One special reason for these lawyers to be aggrieved was because three of the insurgents shot dead by Leo when he recaptured the Potuhera Police Station had been local criminals who had been associating closely with them.
When the IGP arrived with the General I met them and brought them to my office. Wing Commander Weeratne, the Co-ordinating officer was also present to meet them. He had made arrangements for an armed escort of airmen to accompany the IGP and the General wherever they went. The undisclosed mission of the two top men was to take Leo back to Colombo with them. The IGP had been pressurized by Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike to transfer the ASP, but the IGP had decided not to displease and discourage a young officer by making him feel that he had been punished. The IGP was more than conscious of the fact that the ASP had done an excellent job in quelling the insurgency in the Kurunegala District.
Leo was in my office. He was cheerful, calm and collected. The IGP and General Attygalle spoke to him cordially. Over a cup of tea the four of us discussed the happenings in the country. After a few minutes the General turned to Leo and said, “Leo, you have been working very hard. You need some rest and you must come along with us to Colombo”. Leo smiled, looked down and calmly responded, “Sir, thank you for the compliment, but let me say that this is not the time to rest, there’s plenty of work to be done”. He then went on to explain the underhand manner in which three lawyers, mentioning their names, who pretended to be great supporters of the government were acting. He went on to emphasize that he even had proof how they were hand in glove with insurgents and local criminals.
The IGP and Attygalle were conspicuously silent. After a few moments Leo spoke again. He said: ” If I come with you now, all these rascals will think that I was arrested and taken to Colombo. I will come to Police Headquarters on my own. Shall drive down this afternoon”.
Soon after the IGP and General Attygalle had left, at about 11 a.m. a high level team of investigators arrived from Colombo. This team consisted of Kenneth Seveniratne, Director of Public Prosecutions; Francis Pietersz, Director of Establishments and Cyril Herath, Director of Intelligence. Their mission was to carry out a general investigation into the happenings in Kurunegala. They were all my friends; my task was to give them whatever assistance they required. They were billeted with the Airforce and worked mainly from my office. They visited several places including the Kurunegala, Potuhera and Mawathagama police stations; and the Rest House which had been the meeting place and ‘watering hole’ of some of the lawyers during the height of the troubles. Many lawyers and several police officers were also questioned by them. They completed their assignment after about a week and left for Colombo.
Significantly they had not been able to find evidence of any wrongdoing by ASP Leo Perera. Before long I too was recalled to Colombo and asked to resume duties as the Director of Police Planning & Research. From this position too I was able to make useful contributions to the rehabilitation effort and particularly the fair and equitable distribution of the Terrorist Victim’s Fund.
India Forges ahead even arts-wise; Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy (?)
Hope springs eternal in the human breast, it is said, but if the breast is of a national-minded Sri Lankan, hope cannot rise; it is stifled by fear, worry, frustration and stark disappointment. Government persons are flapping their upper limbs and crowing about improvement in the economy; nothing much for us Ordinaries to experience or savour.
The President has announced the thuttu deke Sri Lankan rupee has risen against the dollar as if he had achieved the fall in the price of the dollar himself with his great economic expertise. Yes, the value of the dollar has declined from its 360 plus worth but if anyone has to be thanked, Cass boldly affirms, it is the Governor of the Central Bank, bless him, our Saviour at this moment. He works cleverly we have to presume, with dedication and loyalty to the nation, gaining nothing himself except his remuneration which we believe he could very well have done without as he was recalled from retirement in Australia to haul the nation out of the economic blackhole it had been pushed into by its own bigwigs – a past Prez, a former PM who, when he was Prez, borrowed mostly from the Chinaman to build his Ozymandias constructions to have his name emblazoned on them. Assisting these two, pulling the strings and side driving in government, was a former Minister of Finance who absented himself often from Parliament when the budget he presented was being discussed. Then there were ministry secretaries and CB high ups and a Gov himself who helped in pushing the rupee to near worthlessness and the country firmly into bankruptcy. This they did in brotherhood, three of them, and unitedly, willfully and most insanely with glaring mismanagement and mistakes.
And we sit and mourn and suffer on account of their mistakes. Some rose in unison and protested and we saw drastic changes in top positions but not in structures and systems. Naturally, and to be accepted, is the fact that recovery will be very slow and very painful. Those who rise up in protest now – chief among them being the IUSF and persons like Stalin whoever – are only a menace and obstacle to whatever economic progress is underway. We see and hear some of the earlier bootlickers of the R clan, or their kith and kin, pontificating again. Cass mentioned three such in her last week’s column. Add to them a horizontally gifted Minister who is guilty of and charged in court for soliciting payment to do some job he had to do; and another who is associated, wrongly or rightly Cass knows not, in the drug trade. He came to the limelight when rescued in a VVIP power driven helicopter with the said power as an actual presence. Only blood relatives are thus treated!
This is miserable Sri Lanka’s side of the picture. Cass cannot help but create the analogy of a beautiful damsel who pleases in every way, being raped by greed and lack of any sense of decency or humanity but totally for selfish gain by rapacious persons to gain power and enjoy the perks accompanying. Thus, she is grievously harmed and injured both physically and mentally. A brave person comes along and rescues her and attempts giving her the chance to recapture her charms. Cass supposes this could be the present Gov of the CB and not the IMF which organization has its own agenda.
And, so we have secured IMF emergency funding. We hear congratulations to Prez Ranil W being extended by SLPP MPs in Parliament. The SLPP may gloat but the Prez has wisely warned our troubles are far from over. TV1 in its news broadcast on W ednesday night had an accurate recalling of how the IMF loan came to be granted.
Hearing the loan was approved and the first tranche would soon be released had the immediate image crossing Cass’ mind of some in power salivating with selfish greed to get their hands on bits of it. But to her great delight she finds that one superb condition, loudly greeted, of granting relief through the IMF is that corruption must be reduced and eradicated. Tall order but it is there in black and white so maybe ticking minds will slow down and seeking/grabbing hands held back.
My title speaks of India. Yes, it is outstandingly clear how far India has progressed in its development and position it now holds in the world. She was burdened with a huge and ever bloating population; widespread poverty; a high percent of illiteracy and lack of education; internecine strife between races and religions and the ever-bubbling Kashmir problem. But just see how far she has progressed, outpacing some developed countries, almost on par with China and courted by the US and EU. I remember vividly a cartoon seen when she entered the Nuclear Club which had just five members. The cartoon showed a bare-bodied man in a dhoti entering a posh club with its wide chairs and bar. India now hopes to join the outer space travellers’ club. There was rampant corruption but laws and the right for the public to report and even bring to Court malpractices of bureaucrats and politicians has reduced the prevalence of this canker. Vigilante groups rendered great service.
I mentioned the arts in my title. This because India has bagged two Oscars this year, one for best short documentary and the other for best song. I watched both films: Elephant whisperers and RRR. The first was of an elephant nursery in South India. I thought our Uda Walawe elephant orphanage where abandoned infant animals are nurtured and rehabilitated to go back to their jungle living could have been filmed to an even better documentary. RRR had the rousing song Naatu, Naatu. Goodness! It was a typical South Indian, though Hindi film of impossible feats of bravery, blood drenched and insanely melodramatic. But the songs were superb.
It was said three conditions held the vast subcontinent as one country – after Pakistan broke away. They were: the continuation of democracy and the efficient bureaucracy the British left; the widespread use of English and it being the main language of communication between the centre and states; and communication in the way of a wide web of railways. Cass feels the most important positive that not only held the country as one vast collection of states but also aided its development and march forward to be one of the VIP countries of the world is that Indians are first and last Indians, whether of the south, east, north or west; and their ardent patriotism.
We Sri Lankans lack these great and good qualities.
We invariably intoned “poor Bangladesh”, considering it would always be battered by tidal waves and floods and continually poverty stricken with two widows clawing for power. Look at her now! She lent us money; she is moving upwards as a self-sufficient country looking after its population. While our GMOA and universities acted strong against private medical education, a college in Chittagong earned plenty forex from just our students alone among its international student body.
A radical change in systems, mass and individual behaviours and mostly in those who rule the country is urgently needed. We are in another debt, this time to the IMF. We need to get back on our feet. We stood firm a couple of decades back. With our positives, mainly of clever, educated people, and potential of the country we can get out of the dire straits we are in. Will we even now wake up and work unitedly while getting rid of the dregs of society that wield power?
The Box of Delights
Seeing through testing times and the future
Text of the Keynote address By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.
At the beginning of this year I read again, after well over half a century, a delightful book by John Masefield, called The Box of Delights. A feature of this box was that it allowed one to travel swiftly, and to make oneself very small. It struck me then that these magical properties were what is needed for us to do better in the field of English Language Teaching. Those making the running as it were must move very quickly, and they must be able to think like the young do, the very young but also all those students who need to be motivated to learn.
Unfortunately, all efforts to take things forward have to contend with the blockages imposed by the equivalent of Masefield’s coven of witches in an earlier novel, The Midnight Folk, now turned sanctimonious as potential churchmen in The Box of Delights. Who these are in real life varies from generation to generation, but what they have in common is slowness of thought and execution, and an incapacity to think except as adults, and sometimes not even that!
At the end of last year, I came to this university to celebrate a welcome initiative on the part of your Library, together with Madhbhashini Ratnayake of the English Language Teaching Department, the first major contribution to English Language Teaching – or Learning as I prefer to term it – since the nineties. In that decade too personnel at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura played a major role in taking things forward, and I was happy to learn that now too those in authority have given unstinting support to the innovations your colleagues are trying to introduce nationwide. But remember that the midnight folk are always waiting to pounce, the negative ones, though I should note that Masefield also thinks of the little people who help as midnight folk, working with their lights under a bushel.
Let me now speak briefly of those initiatives of the nineties, even though this may seem an arrogant move, given how central I was to all the developments of those days. But I should make it clear that none of this would have been possible without not just strong but also imaginative support from many others, including two fantastic practitioners of English Language Teaching at this University, Parvathi Nagasunderam and Oranee Jansz. Interestingly, the latter was not initially enthusiastic about the former joining the university, because she was a strong proponent of autonomy for the English Language Teaching Unit, and resented what she thought was potential interference by a recruit to what was then the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies. The then Vice-Chancellor had expressed the view that Paru should be appointed to head the ELTU, but there was such opposition to this that the incumbent who had resigned reassumed the position.
Oranee herelf changed completely when there was opposition on racist grounds to Paru by other members of the ELTU, and not only supported Paru thereafter, but took another Tamil recruit whom the other ladies were attacking to work with her in the Medical Faculty. Her imaginative approach there meant that USJP medical students were accepted much sooner by the medical hierarchy than graduates from other new medical faculties – since as you know the establishment in this country belittled any new medical faculty, and in turn, when that faculty gained wider acceptance, it joined the old guard in belittling new ones. Kelaniya and Ruhuna and Sri Jayewardenepura and Rajarata have suffered such persecution in turn, though perhaps that mentality has now changed for the Sabaragamuwa Medical Faculty has not had to face similar belittling.
My return to the state system was because of an initiative by Prof Arjuna Aluvihare to extend opportunities in tertiary education, and to do this in particular with regard to English. Typically, the Midnight Folk sniffed at this, anguished by the thought of English being made available at tertiary level to students who had not studied English at the GCE Advanced Level, in short, to students outside the charmed circle of Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna. After all, as one professor put it, when earlier I had suggested syllabus revision to incorporate Sri Lankan writing in English, her students could go to Cambridge for postgraduate work, though in actual fact no one from that university or indeed any other in Sri Lanka had gone there for postgraduate work for two decades.
So, it was USJP that took up the challenge, through the then Dean of Arts, Mahinda Palihawadana, whose erudition too I see has been honoured by the republication of a seminal work on the Vedas. Given his wide-ranging sense of commitment to students as well as books, he roped me in, and persuaded me to join the university, which seemed essential to keep things going, for he himself was on the verge of retirement. So, I not only took charge of the English Diploma course at six Affiliated University Colleges and of General English at five others but also transformed English at this university, introducing an English Language component in addition to English Literature. And this was available also in the External Degree we started, which rapidly became the most popular external degree in the whole university system.
I was able to do all this because of the wonderful support I had in the Department, and in time Paru expanded on this, when, finally, an English Department was established here. She also when we requested this from the Ministry introduced English Language Teaching as a component of the external degree, which was a great boon to teachers nationwide. Again, in those days, at the turn of the century, the other universities refused, for they still believed pedagogical skills had nothing to do with academia.
That situation has now changed, and all universities I believe understand the need for this, though I fear the idea has not penetrated into other skulls, whereas we also need for instance components of teaching mathematics in university mathematics degrees, if we are to develop STEM education. But while successive ministers of education talk about this, they will not ensure the elementary measures needed to promote such education, namely to produce better teachers – and swiftly, as I started by saying we must ensure with regard to all positive measures.
I have spoken thus far of the colleagues I worked with in the university system to change things so swiftly in the nineties, after half a century of moribundity as to tertiary level English. But there were also other tools essential to take things forward. The most important of these were materials, and materials that could be made readily available, for students to be able to own them and work with them on their own.
This was an area in which The Midnight Folk had a particularly baneful impact. They did not believe in materials which students could use on their own, and instead thought that education demanded power in the hands of the teacher. Thus materials were not easy to understand, and had to be explicated further, and all this meant enormous profits for those who produced materials, books prepared by teams whose members vied to impress each other rather than produce what students could readily understand, and then teachers’ guides which also had to be studied, and only by the teacher. The fact that these did not always reach students and teachers in time – the more remote the area, the greater the delay in transmission – meant nothing in a context in which the production of materials, and the money made on them, through allowances for preparation and contracts for printing, was an end in itself, with little thought for the use that was to be made of them.
I transformed this, using a system I had instituted while at the British Council, where fortunately those in charge accepted my argument that we needed to develop the reading habit, and we could best do this by producing low cost readers. A stream of these were produced, initially costing Rs. 5 each, which meant they were snapped up by students all over the country. And thus we could reprint without further subsidy.
We had produced well over 50 titles at different levels by the time I joined USJP, and we then produced dozens more which were made available to students, some at just Rs. 10. Needless to say I was accused of making money on this, though the students themselves, who had initially objected to paying for materials – provoked by The Midnight Folk who did not like the successful impact of my programmes – agreed that Rs 10 simply covered costs and that, having got money, from the Canadians who were very supportive, to publish the first copies, I was not going to go begging again to them.
Unfortunately, this very simple principle, that we cannot live for ever on handouts, is very far from the minds of our decision makers, for as you can now see, when we are hopelessly in debt, the only answer they can think of is more debt. The idea of generating income, of using borrowed money only to promote productivity that can pay for itself, the horror of sinking further and further into debt that future generations will have to repay at the cost of their own productivity, is not something that occurs to the unimaginative Midnight Folk.
To return to the idea of producing our own, I believe that over the years I have been responsible for well over a million books for language learning, which were snapped up by students all over the country. I had wonderful collaborators in this project, Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Sybil Wettasinghe and Madhubhashini Dissanayake as she then was for primary and secondary level, Madhu again and also Nirmali and then Janaki Galappatti (and a team of university scientists) and Goolbai Gunasekara and Oranee and the ELTU head Damayanthi Ahangama for tertiary level, Paru and Dinali Fernando – who was at USJP for several years – and Rapti de Silva, later of Moratuwa University, for pedagogical input.
We used these materials, refined further, when Oranee and I were also asked to take charge of the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) project, where we changed the term teaching to training, for we were also concerned to introduce soft skills, the first time in this country, long before they became fashionable – and still with no proper system to develop them nationwide. Sadly the Life Skills curriculum developed when I headed the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education was perverted to exclude this, with a change of Minister and another of the Midnight Folk appointed in my stead. Entertainingly that same Minister is now in charge of education, and tertiary education and vocational education too, for the umpteenth time, with nothing to show for his many periods in office, only sanctimonious pronouncements.
(to be continued)
Happy Birthday dearest Mrs. Peries !
Dear Mrs. Peries,
So you would have turned 88 today, 24th March 2023. On a day like this, my mind goes back many, many years, to all those birthday parties and celebrations at the old Dickman’s Road (Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha) house.
Birthday month at No 24 residence spanned both March and April and usually kicked off today, when in the morning you would offer dane to the Bellanwila Temple.The floors were polished, as was the gleaming brassware. The prized crystal ware would sparkle from inside the glass cabinets and the vases would brim with flowers. The birthday mood was all pervasive.
That faithful telephone, the much memorised 011.2588822, would ring incessantly right through the day and this was perhaps the only day in the year when LJP would not volunteer to answer, since the calls were invariably all for the Missus.The evening was generally a subdued quiet affair with family from both the Peries and Gunawardene sides, and a few very close friends, and even fewer from the big screen.
I remember Mrs. Paddy Mendis, a regular birthday visitor. After all it was during her husband Dr. Vernon Mendis’ tenure as Ceylon’s Charge d’Affaires in Paris in the late 1950s that LJP first met you, when en route to Cannes with Rekawa.Remember how you carefully chose your short eats. Getting pride of place were your favourite delicate asparagus sandwiches. Coming a close second would be those cheese and chicken bouchees, and the ginger beer and the iced coffee.
There would be Nuran Gomez, the great-grand-nephew from the Peries side, at the piano, tickling the ivories and entertaining everyone with music from the Peries’ films and old world continental hits much to LJP’s delectation. Aaahhh such lovely soirees those were.
Today would also begin the countdown to 05th April, when No 24 literally overflowed with humanity and when the maestro would blow the increasing numbers of candles on his cake. Oh 04th April is another story altogether !
Yes No 24 overflowed with humanity from the film industry. But then as I sadly observed over the years, as the both of you made fewer and fewer films, those crowds decreased. When the both of you finally stopped making movies, he with Ammawarune (2006) and you with Vaishnavee (2018), those numbers dwindled down to a mere handful from the film industry. You were left with family and a few very close friends.
I remember one of your birthdays a few years ago when you and I decided to go on a “loaf” one evening. We drove around, loafing around, I actually forget where, and when we finally got hungry it was past 10.30 pm when most of the restaurants were closed. We were hungry, very hungry and there was no place open.
I remember calling my good friend Harpo Guneratne who, in turn, immediately called the staff at Harpos Pizza Pasta Parlour on Mirihana Road, Nugegoda and told them to keep the shutters open despite it being way past closing time. The boys were there, all smiles, to greet and serve the celebrity Birthday Girl guest.
I remember, very, very vaguely, another birthday soiree in the late 1990s in Paris when you were our Ambassador. It was just LJP and You and I in that beautiful salon at your Ambassadorial apartment on the Avenue de Longchamps with the French cheeses and the wines, and Coq-au-Vin for mains, and as the champagne popped we sang Joyeux Anniversaire in French. Quelle nostalgie !!!
‘Carols for LJP’ at Christmastime was yet another looked forward to event at the old Dickman’s Road House with Nuran Gomez once again at the piano and everyone joining in lustily. What absolutely memorable and joyous soirées those were.
There were also those New Year’s Eves when you lit sparklers in the garden with Kumudu Casie Chetty, Surangani Wijewickrama and Lalinka Mutukumarana and much to LJP’s fretting and concern, those after-dinner chats that went on beyond midnight, the impulsive drives we went out on for iced-cream and those occasional dinners out. Those were the simple pleasures of life you also rejoiced in.If I were to go back in time, the both of you came into my life that morning in 1986 when I walked into your Dickmans Road sitting room and we shot my first ever interview with you for “Bonsoir” for the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka. I was in great awe and felt terribly small and insignificant in your presence.
Little did the three of us ever realise that this was to be the beginning of our private lifelong bond … sealed by France and the French culture and language. Yes it was our very private “Club Français”. In it we regaled. In it we journeyed through French history, gastronomy and culture through our innumerable chats. In it we constantly celebrated the francophones and francophiles in us. LJP was the first to leave us and our little Club got empty. Mrs. Peries now you, and our Club is emptier than before.
Seated in the audience at the BMICH that afternoon in January 2022 with Nadeeka Gunasekare and Yashoda Wimaladharma, I vividly remember the joy jubilantly splashed across your face when the University of Kelaniya conferred on you an Honorary Doctorate (Sahithya Chakrawarthi). Your portfolio of honours and achievements was finally complete. You were now Dr. Mrs. Sumitra Peries.
And exactly one year later you’re gone. Mrs. Peries, as I write this piece I don’t think even you realised, two months ago, that you would go, go just like that, in literally a flash. Yes you were ailing but you were ok too. And then suddenly you were gone.
That evening at the Independence Square was sad and overcast as the flames consumed all that was mortal of you, at almost the identical spot they did to LJP five years ago in 2018. And as I did with LJP too, I patiently sat there by your pyre, in the intermittent drizzle that evening, and stayed with you way past midnight, until you were finally gone, until all that was you turned into soft, burning hot ash. Those images still haunt me.
My dear Mrs. Peries, it’s already two months and a week for today, since you’re gone … gone on your journey in Samsara. The inescapable humdrum of life has overtaken us all, yet the grief still persists, thick, viscous and heavy. It sits like glue at the bottom of my heart.
The nation mourns. The film industry mourns. Family, friends and colleagues still mourn. I too grieve my very personal loss, yet celebrating the memory of two wonderful people who lit up my personal and professional lives and who were also my ‘alternate’ Father and Mother. You often referred to me as “the son we both never had”. The feeling was absolutely mutual.
Yet … just as a rainbow slowly appears after a torrential downpour, there is also a very strange sense of joy … joy as we now celebrate your life and everything you meant to a lot of people.As you journey on … what more can I say but “Thank You / Merci Beaucoup” for the memories, those warm, cheerful, nostalgic and indelible memories. May your journeys through Samsara be speedy my dearest LJP and Mrs Peries, my ‘adopted foster mother and father’. Love you both from the depths of my heart … always … and beyond always.
– Happy Birthday Mrs. Peries.
Kumar de Silva
Trustee – Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation
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