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Bakeer Markar left his mark in every Lankan’s heart

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By Dr Harsha De Silva

Passionate in his noble thoughts with an undying belief in unity for the sake of peace, coexistence and, above all, the development of the nation, Deshamanya Al Haj Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar was a prominent lawyer, a formidable politician and a loving family man who has left his mark in every Sri Lankan’s heart.

It is very hard to eulogise any man, to capture in words the very intimate details of his life, and it is even harder to do so for a prominent figure in history, who moved a nation towards unity and harmony. However, I consider it a privilege to write about the remarkable life lived by Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar and will attempt to capture in words the true essence of his life.

Bakeer Markar was born into a respectable family in Beruwala in 1917. After completing his primary school education at St. Sebastian’s School, Hulftsdorp, he had the privilege of joining Zahira College, Colombo for his secondary education. He passed out as a lawyer and commenced his legal practice at the Kalutara Bar in 1950.

Due to the perseverance and study he put into his practice of the law, he had clients, both Sinhalese and Muslim, flocking to him. Legends are many of the several instances where he appeared for Sinhalese clients in cases filed against persons of his own community, thereby following discerningly the commandment in the Holy Quran that one must ‘stand up for justice’ even against one’s own kith and kin. Like it is said, he never wavered from the courage of his own convictions.

His initial steps into politics, was in 1946 when he was sub-warden at Zahira College, Colombo. Then Dr. T.B. Jayah contested the Labour Leader A.E. Goonesinghe at the General Elections of 1946, to the State Council. Bakeer Markar was entrusted the task of carrying out Dr. Jayah’s election campaign, which he did successfully. Dr. Jayah was elected Member of the State Council.

The leadership of Dr. Jayah was laudable. With this kind of inspiration, experience, and the taste of political nectar, Bakeer Markar pursued in the footsteps of his political guru Dr. T.B. Jayah. Bakeer Markar began his political career as a young member of the Beruwala Urban Council in 1950. It would have been evident even at the time, where this young and amateur politician was heading when he was elected Chairman of the Council in his first year as a member.

Early in his political career at the Urban Council, he earned a name as a servant of the people; an honest, hardworking and approachable man with excellent knowledge of his constituency and its citizens. That reputation naturally paved the way for him to become the Member of Parliament for Beruwala and later the highest position in the Parliament of Sri Lanka, the Speaker of the House in 1978.

His time as the Speaker earned him respect and appreciation from parliamentarians of both sides of the House. He continued to serve as the Speaker until 1983 when he was appointed a Cabinet Minister without portfolio. After ending his parliamentary career, he was appointed as the first Governor of the Southern Province.

Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is appropriate to remember Bakeer Markar as an icon whose qualities set him apart from everybody else. His memory is still fresh in the minds of the Sri Lankan people as a man of robust principle and strong character, never seeking wealth or glory through his political ambitions and responsibilities.

His home electorate of Beruwala is and has always been, a complete image of the diverse ethnic and religious communities of Sri Lanka. Engaging these various groups towards a common cause and a shared political goal was never to be an easy task. Only a man of exceptional character and an unwavering will, like Bakeer Markar, had the ability to do so.

“Though I belonged to the minority community, I was able to enter the national and international arena only because I was able to go forward with the majority community,” were words spoken by Bakeer Makar himself as an advocate of national unity. In the name of harmony and unity, Bakeer Makar was a prominent figure at the Beruwala Urban Council who pushed the moving of the resolution to recognise the Sinhala language as the official language. In his efforts to unite the Muslim youth with the Sinhalese, Bakeer Makar earned the affectionate nickname “Sinhala Bakeer”.

Further, he wholeheartedly supported the policy adopted by then Leader of the Opposition J. R. Jayewardene to avoid stirring the simmering anger of a vast section of the public of Sri Lanka towards violence. Moreover, speaking on the special allowance to plantation workers on 6 October 1965, he spoke on behalf of the estate workers, referring to them as “Ceylonese” which emphasised his vision “one identity under one nation”. He believed and espoused the true spirit of equality for everyone.

Bakeer Marker secured a special place in the hearts of the people as he worked tirelessly to change the lives of poor and desperate. Economic policies of Sri Lanka from 1970-1977 which created hardships for most people, made Bakeer Makar see the harshness of poverty and the struggle of the poor in the country. He knew the only way to change the lives of the poor was to change the government.

Bakeer Marker’s remarkable contribution towards the United National Party is not to be forgotten. With a strong will and lasting belief in fellowship, he worked tirelessly to support the regrouping of a demotivated United National Party after the catastrophic defeat at the parliamentary election in 1970. His work in the party, especially in the Kalutara District was an illustration of the positive contribution he and few other politicians made towards reorganising the party network and regrouping its members.

His victory at the General Elections of 1977 was the dazzling landmark of his political career. At this General Election, he was returned with a remarkable majority of 27,000 votes, with a total poll of 49,000 votes. This electoral victory of 1977 was a historic gift to the respectful minority.

On 4 August 1977, he was elected Deputy Speaker. This was a short stint. He was thereafter elected to the high office of Speaker on 21 September 1978, being the unanimous choice of the Government and the Opposition. He was the last Speaker of the old Parliament at Galle Face and the first Speaker of the new Parliament in Sri Jayewardenepura.

On his elevation to the position of Speaker, he stood by the great traditions and decorum of the Speaker’s Office. He did not want to be a nominal Speaker, merely presiding at parliamentary sessions. The Office of Speaker was made most significant. The mace was not any more mere symbolic. The Speaker’s mace was made the due symbol of authority. The Speaker’s traditional robe was reintroduced, which to this day has its glamour. Dignity was restored and redefined to the Speaker’s office.

Above all, Speaker Bakeer Markar saw to it that the annual audit of the Parliamentary administration was brought under the direct supervision of the Auditor General, making Parliamentary affairs and administration transparent. As the Speaker, he also maintained an excellent rapport with the diplomatic community. Further, he made sure a roster was drawn to ensure that equal opportunities were given to all Members of Parliament to go abroad on official duties.

Bakeer Markar was internationally renowned and countries in the Middle East and the Far East held him in high esteem as he proved to be a great Ambassador of goodwill for Sri Lanka. He went on to excel in international relations and established close connections with the Iraqi Government. Through this connection, he built an entire village in Eravur, in the East. He was the founder President of the Iraq-Sri Lanka Friendship Association and remained in that position until his demise. He was fortunate that he did not witness the dismemberment of Iraq which would have grieved him immensely.

In addition to his extraordinary political career, Bakeer was an extraordinary humanitarian. Large gatherings from all walks of life were constantly seen at his Arab Road residence in Beruwala and each individual was attended to their satisfaction. He attended weddings and funerals and went wherever and whenever he was needed as President of the Muslim League Youth Front. He travelled to all corners of the country, continuously meeting people and addressing their needs. All petitions and requests were perused in his chambers and the relevant ministers were summoned to deal with and give redress to the humanitarian problems of all concerns.

He was also known for advising his security to ensure that the public was made comfortable when visiting him, for he believed that without the support of the common man he would not have reached the heights in life that he has. It was precisely this goodness in his heart that he carried and the deeply embedded love he had for his people that makes him unforgettable.

Bakeer Markar’s legacy lives on through his children and grandchildren. The public standing and love his eldest son Imthiaz Bakeer Markar is enjoying throughout the island is a testimony to this. Imthiaz Bakeer Markar similar to his father, is a well-respected, politician and a man of robust principle and strong character. His grandchildren Asaf, Azam, Fadhil, and Insaf continue to carry on their grandfather’s legacy by working tirelessly towards social justice and equality. I take this opportunity to remember not only the soul of Abdul Bakeer Markar but also the young and wise soul of his loving grandson Adhil Bakeer Markar.

This giant in history demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough and that no matter how right, they must be chiselled into law and institutions. Bakeer Marker was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. He was not only a leader of a movement that pushed for equality and unity but also a skilful politician who understood the ties that bind the human spirit.

With a strong belief in reconciliation and coexistence and a will to contribute in his utmost capacity towards the harmonious development of the nation, there was a tone of sadness in his final address to the Parliament when he stated, “It is my regret that I shall no longer be with you when you add chapter to shining chapter in Sri Lanka’s history.”

He dreamt further when he said: “The time is not far off when Ceylon will sit in the Assembly of Nations, as a well-developed country and take its rightful place there and play its role.” This goes on to show Abdul Bakeer Markar’s deep-seated love for his nation, every community that makes Sri Lanka the beautiful diverse island it is, and his undying belief of the heights the nation can reach coupled with his vision “one identity under one nation”.

It is no doubt that his political legacy and the memory of his magnificent soul continue to secure a hopeful future for Sri Lanka and all its people.



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Opinion

This Pretentious Plenitude

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(loketa parakase, gedarata maragate )

“On 3 June, 1400, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus entered Paris. By the showy standards of contemporary state visits, Manuel cut a sory figure. Accompanied by fewer than sixty of his own attendants, speaking nothing but Greek, mounted on a borrowed white charger and dependent for his travelling expenses on his hosts, he had come to beg for money and troops in the hope of preserving his shrunken domains from the Ottoman Turks.”

– Cursed Kings, The Hundred Years War IV, 2015)

By Usvatte-aratchi

A few days ago, I went to Panadura to see my brother, 95 years old. We parked the car to go to the Arpico Supercentre at the southwestern corner of Galle Road and Nirmala Mawatha. From the park, I did not go into the store; I sat in the car. There were about 20 cars parked and people went into the store and drove away after making their purchases. There were more women shoppers than men. The women were distinctly well-clothed and appeared well-fed. They all wore slacks or skirts and upper garments, all in good taste with no garish hues. None wore a sari. All men wore slacks and shirts and none a kapati suit or sarong. All the cars glistened in the morning sun; none had scratches or worse damage. One car had a number plate BK; all the others had number plates with three letters. There was plenitude; where is the austerity the country is published to undergo? Or is austerity the burden borne by only one category of citizens? A few days later, as I entered through the gates to a hospital compound, I noticed that the man who issued tokens from a little cubicle in the heat and humidity wore a necktie. Public servants assembled before ministers invariably wearing a suit. The rooms are airconditioned to accommodate them. Doesn’t it make more sense to wear simple shirts in rooms cooled to a higher temperature to save fuel? Why this pretence of plenitude in this land of austerity? It is so poor that it bears the odium of having defaulted on its sovereign debt.

What are the rules of etiquette that require us to wear evening dress, no matter who the dignitary that one has to meet? Well, of course, anyone is entitled to wear funny clothes, even silken wigs in this high temperature and high humidity in torrid tropical weather. But in this impoverished hungry land, where children who attend school faint from starvation? There are reports of stunted and underweight children. I expect to read infant and maternal mortality rates for 2021, 2022 and 2023 higher than the excellent levels that our health services had ensured for us. The age cohorts born in 2020-2024 will bear the scars of this scourge throughout their lives.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, a friend of mine was the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam. She was very keen to learn Vietnamese. After a few weeks in the country, she hired someone to teach her Vietnamese. Although now written in Latin script, there is a range of diacritical marks to help one to speak a word with the proper tones -more complex than in Mandarin or Thai. (The Latin script was introduced in the 17th century by Portuguese Jesuit priests.) In the second week of lessons, the tutor took the liberty of raising a question with the Ambassador, one evening after the lesson. ‘Madam, with the flaps of the dress you wear, I can make a pretty blouse’. Isn’t it a pity that so much cloth must is wasted’? (Vietnamese are still small-made, perhaps genetically and the result of centuries of malnutrition.) The ambassador who was very sympathetic to what Vietnam was trying to achieve, was shocked by how right the tutor was. She took her lesson seriously. I was a student in Britain in the 1960s and stayed in my lodgings all summer, except to go to the theatre in London. One summer, I was invited to tea in the garden with the queen. Many students from Commonwealth countries were so invited. I had no suit to wear for the occasion nor did I consider it wise to invest in one, just to attend a tea party. (Mad Hatter might have considered it otherwise.) We are still a poor country and anyone who yearns for the use of expensive clothing must seek a fitting clime. Some of you must have observed the army-style warm collarless cardigan that President Volodymyr Zelensky wore when he addressed the US Congress, a rare honour bestowed on men from outside the US. Does a caparisoned elephant look more dignified than the real thing in the wild? Do murderers, plunderers, women abusers and forgers gain dignity when they wear kapati suits buttoned up to the chin? If clothes make for dignity, mannequins in shop windows must present the most dignified postures in the world.

Take the case of cars. In this small island with a short mileage of expressways and a speed limit of 100km per hour, where do people go in a Mercedes 350 or BMW 740 ? Those gas guzzlers, V8 vehicles which even Bhikkhu covet, are symbols of pretentious plenitude. I recall some MPs explaining in parliament that they needed expensive vehicles because they had to travel in their electorates on uneven roads. When NIssanka Wijewardene was the government agent in Badulla in the early 1960s, he toured the district on horseback and Uva is still not an area roads in good condition in that part of the country. Leonard Woolf, 123 years ago, toured the Hambantota district on horseback. Riding a horse on rough tracks and rural roads is no fun. I cannot see why MPs cannot travel about in cheaper cars which are less expensive to buy and also consume much less gas. All this plenitude is at the expense of rich and poor taxpayers. The frequent use of helicopters by the president and ministers is something we cannot afford. Once a relative of a president flew in a helicopter from Ratmalana to Maharagama, at government expense. A president travelled by helicopter several times to ‘inspect’ construction work on the Moragahakanda dam. I wondered how much engineering the man had in him to waste so many resources for so flimsy a reason. When a dam was built across Gal Oya at Inginiyagala in 1950-52 with two months to spare before the end of the contracted date, there was nobody flying around in helicopters. The Ampara-Siyambalanduwa road was a decade away and one had to drive to Chenkaladi to get to Inginiyagala, a tiring journey for a young man even in 1968-69. When a poor population struggles to climb higher in the income ladder, it does not help to grease it with opulent lifestyles by its leaders. That grease pulls down people back into poverty.

Our religious leaders do not help. The Durutu perahera was held a few weeks back. Navam perahera is on a grand scale. Then comes Avurudu when the whole country takes a holiday and eats and drinks as if there were no tomorrow. May is for vesak. June, and people sojourn in Anuradhapura. July is for many festivals in devale in the south. August puts up the spectacle in Mahanuvara. September opens a period of quietude in pansal only to begin again in November. Who objects to religiosity among believers but please undertake them without denying the rest of this economy resources. It is more important that a child goes to school regularly than that votive candles are lit on an altar.

Some places of religious importance in this country are mighty rich. Their daily income probably is in the millions. What is the educational institution or hospital that they financed to build and run? Even the Vidyodaya pirivena receives, to date a subvention out of taxpayers’ money. Why isn’t it maintained with the collections in the shrine with a Bo-tree in Kalutara? The collections are administered by the Public Trustee but why not give a sense of ownership to those that collect the money? The Venkateshwar kovil in Andhra Pradesh runs a fine university with a part of the huge income it earns. Superstitious politicians from our country contribute to that income. Satya Sai Baba organization in Bengaluru runs schools and provides pipe-borne water to villagers close to their offices. The Rama Krishna Mission in India has a brilliant record of having established and run many schools and colleges in India. Tatas have established research institutes that put out high-quality work. In the 13th and fourteenth centuries when England was probably poorer than Sri Lanka then and certainly poorer than even impoverished Sri Lanka today (2023), colleges that now comprise Oxford and Cambridge universities, were built and run by Roman Catholic churches, monasteries and rich individuals. Many Bishops established colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. Walter de Merton started Merton College in Oxford; Peterhouse in Cambridge had similar beginnings. They had to wait for Edward III and Henry VI to meet Royal benefactors of colleges. In the first settlements in Boston Bay, the immigrants established Harvard College (now Harvard University) in 1635 well before a systematic government came into being there. Someone needs to inquire why well-endowed religious establishments in this country, do not find it fitting that they establish educational facilities for bright students. They would rather gild with 13.5 kg of gold, a fence around a venerated tree.

Why do we so often mistake appearances for substance? More than 120 years ago, Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to identify behaviour patterns of people in opulent societies. What does one call this pretentious plenitude in a land where hunger haunts almost every household day after day?

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Opinion

The ‘Smiling Chancellor’- educationist par excellence

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The most reverend Dr Oswald Gomis, Emeritus Archbishop of Colombo and the former Chancellor of the University of Colombo, was called to his heavenly home on 03.02.23

It is with sincere gratitude that I pay this tribute to him for his invaluable service to the field of education in general to the University of Colombo and to me as an academic

It was Father Bonjean, a Catholic priest, who has been acclaimed as the greatest contributor to Catholic education at that time through his submissions to the State advocating a system of state-aided schools to be run by each religious denomination for its children. He pointed out, not only Catholics but also the adherents of other religions in the island (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims) should be fairly treated. The Denominational or Assisted Schools System, which it was hoped would benefit all religions, thus came into being and lasted nearly a century until the takeover of schools by the state in 1960. Fr. Bonjean came to be known as ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’

Father Bojean was considered ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’, and most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis can be considered the modern father of Assisted schools. Being a product of St Bendict’s college, he wanted to provide similar education through equality and religious harmony for the students. At an interview he said that when he was appointed Archbishop of Colombo, he had a special objective – that is to provide a good education for the people. To achieve this, he wanted to expand the catholic education. Hence, he made a valiant effort within the existing legal framework to establish branch schools of the popular catholic private schools. St. Peter’s College, Gampaha and Udugampola Branches, St. Joseph’s College, Enderamulla and Kadolkele branches and many more such branch schools. Further, a branch of St. Nicholas’ International College in Negambo and St. Thomas Catholic International College in Seeduwa were also established. School of Hope, Paiyagala and– Don Bosco Technical Institute – Nochchiyagama were also founded under his patronage.

Most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis as a historian and author has also contributed to education. For example, he has disproved that, i.e. Catholicism was introduced for the first time in our country by the Portuguese, in his book, “Some Christian Contributions in Sri Lanka”

The Archbishop, has pointed out that one Jordanus Catalha de Severac, a Dominican Friar, was appointed to Colombo as a bishop by Pope John XX11 on 5th April 1330 according to a document in the Vatican Archives, and he (Jordanus) has written a book called “Mirabila Descripta”(also in Vatican Archives) giving vivid description about various countries including ancient Sri Lanka and about two kings during his stay here. He also forwarded evidence according to Vatican sources that another missionary, a Papal Legate by the name of Giovani de Marignolli who was sent to East by the same Pope stayed in Colombo for eighteen months around the years 1348/1349 and taught catechism in a church dedicated to St. George and also erected a huge stone Cross here, before his departure to Europe. The Archbishop also quotes that Prof. Paranavithana, in his book , “Story of Sigiriya” has proved that Christianity was in ancient Sri Lanka with irrefutable evidence based on details found in the rock inscriptions in various parts of our country. A stone Cross in Anuradhapura he claims bears testimony to this.

Bishop Oswald Gomis’s Contribution to the University of Colombo and to me personally is invaluable. In 1994 in response to an application I sent to the University of Colombo for a Post of Probationary lecturer in Humanities Education I was called for an interview. At the interview I was amazed to find his lordship most Rev. Oswald Gomis the Archbishop of Colombo on the interview panel. I thought that my nervousness was making me see a vision! However, later I learnt that he was indeed there as a member of the University Council as an educationist. Years later as the Dean of the Faculty of Education when I met him at a convocation, I mentioned this incident to him. With his usual endearing smile, he said “I am glad we made the correct decision at that time”. In 2019 at the Post Graduate Convocation when he as the Chancellor handed me the Vice Chancellor’s award for excellence in research in the Faculty of Education in the year 2018, beaming with pride he told the Vice Chancellor “I selected her to the University”. Such was his memory!

Bishop Gomis has been on the Council of the University of Colombo from 1977-2001. Later, he was appointed the Chancellor in 2001 and continued to serve the university in this capacity till 2021. Every year I hear the graduands after the convocation commenting on the “smiling Chancellor’ who wished each and every one of them. In spite of the arduous task of sitting through three days of four sessions , and handing over the scrolls , he made it a point to make their big day memorable by that personal touch. He continued to discharge his role as Chancellor to perfection by attending all the University functions he was invited irrespective of whether it was X’mas carols or Pirith. He took pride in the achievements of both the students and staff of the University of Colombo. I have heard him saying to the students, referring to raging such unfortunate incidents do not happen in our university. Bishop Gomis held his position with dignity and pride. In turn the students and staff respected and liked him.

When Bishop Gomis was appointed the Archbishop of Colombo the Bishop’s Conference in a statement said, he brings to Colombo valuable expertise as a scholar, educationist, historian, author and above all, a revered pastor”. He has indeed used his expertise to the maximum and in his retirement continued to impart this knowledge through his writings. People of Bishop Gomis’s calibre is very rare today.

We will miss you dear father, but you will live through your good deeds.

May host of angels lead you to your eternal rest!

Marie Perera
Professor Emeritus
University of Colombo

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Opinion

Senerath Rajakaruna

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Senerath or Sene, as he was affectionately called, passed away on January 7 plunging his near and dear and a host of his friends and associates into a pool of tears and agony. According to his wife in whose arms he breathed his last, death was instantaneous.

True, he had a few health issues which however did not warrant the kind of quick “exit” he encountered. Senerath, my son-in-law was a doughty fighter who braved his affiliations with great fortitude. The doctors who treated him were baffled by the composure he evinced when confronted with the complications he was doomed to go through. Admirable, isn’t it?

An alumnus of D.S. Senanayake College, he cultivated a strong link with the school and was an active member of the Old Boy’s Association of the school. After a brief career as a Demi Chef in a prestigious hotel in the Middle East, he showed his powers in Real Estate in later years. He was over the moon and basking in the success of his trade.

Sene was an entertainer par excellence. He ran an open house for his plethora of friends and associates. The gregarious animal he was, prompted him to hold musical evenings where singing and dancing went on till the wee hours of the morning. He sang with lilting and melodious resonance. “Baila’ was his forte good lord Bacchus was an indispensable invitee to his parties where he had free rein.

This popular personality was a compulsive humorist who left his audience roaring with uncontrollable laughter. His infectious smile is missed by many. His philanthropy extended far and wide especially to the poor and helpless people in and around where he lived. The received monetary assistance, dry rations and produce from his cultivations.

He had traveled widely and was planning to visit his son who is employed in New Zealand but it was not to be. His daughter had left to the United Kingdom just three days before her father’s passing. He was a loving husband to his wife Lalana and a fond father to Lakitha and Lasandhi. As his father-in-law I join them to invoke blessings of the Noble Triple Gem to help Sene to tread the path to Nibbana.

Bandula Abeyewardene

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