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.
Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?
By Maduranga Kalugampitiya
The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!
While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.
What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.
Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.
Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.
Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.
In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.
If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.
In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.
(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Selective targeting not law’s purpose
By Jehan Perera
The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.
Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.
But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.
The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.
Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.
In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.
The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”
Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.
The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.
Girl power… to light up our scene
We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!
The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.
Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.
It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.
Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).
Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).
Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.
They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).
Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.
The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.
Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.
She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.
“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”
With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.
“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.
Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!
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