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Bamboo: An untapped goldmine

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By Shantha Ramanayake

At the 8th World Bamboo Congress held in Bangkok in 2009, the World Bamboo Day was declared as 18th of September. This was an effort to bring the potential of bamboo to a more elevated exposure, protect natural resources and the environment, ensure sustainable utilization, promote cultivation of bamboo for new industries and promote traditional uses and community economic development. In this context, what has Sri Lanka achieved in developing bamboo cultivation and utilising it for the economic and environmental benefits?

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a global economic crisis and we must think of new avenues of being self-sufficient in areas where we have the potential. Lockdowns and the closure of many industries and organisations have led to the loss of livelihoods everywhere.

Against this backdrop, the potential of a bamboo as a means of creating new lively hoods needs to be reconsidered. There is an increased awareness of the value of bamboo as an environment friendly fast growing source of wood that can be substituted for timber. Bamboo flooring, panels, mat board, strand woven bamboo, ply wood, etc., are now industrially manufactured in many countries, especially in China, which is the global centre for bamboo industries. These products are sought after for their durability and strength in the building construction sector and in making furniture as a timber substitute. This indirectly protects forests as valuable forest trees need not be harvested for timber. India, Indonesia, some Latin American and African countries endowed with bamboo forests have also started bamboo based industries and planted large extents of useful bamboo. These well-managed bamboo plantations have higher yields than natural stands. Thus, bamboo farming and related industries have become a new means of lively- hood generation. Thus it is considered the miracle plant of the 21st century!

There are a few industrial applications of bamboo in Sri Lanka but the raw material is mostly imported. A recent news report mentioned that bamboo sticks imported from India for making incense sticks are no longer available. Many tons of bamboo sticks were imported annually. These can be easily turned out here if the cutting and splitting machinery is locally turned out and bamboo stands identified and permits issued for harvesting and transport. Bamboo strips are imported to weave boxes for tea leaf packing, bamboo yarn for clothing, bamboo culms for making flooring are among some local applications of bamboo which depend on imported raw material. These are all however relatively small-scale applications. Fresh edible shoot are also available in the local market at times.

Regretfully unlike our neighboring countries, Sri Lanka is not utilizing bamboo profitably although we are located in a region where bamboo grows naturally. Its main use is in the handicraft sector and as scaffolding for building construction. Most of our handicrafts do not have the novelty and finish required for the export market. Bamboo blinds are also turned out depending on demand. The local market is declining as the craft workers find it difficult to compete with cheaper plastic substitutes available locally. This has been an ancient craft with skills handed down over generations and needs to be revived.

Over one million plants of bamboo has been planted from 2004 to date as claimed by the Mahaweli Authority. Surviving plants are scattered, because of poor aftercare, in various locations and it is difficult to harvest and transport them. Mahaweli authority of Sri Lanka has the technology for mass scale production of bamboo by tissue culture and an output of nearly 200,000 plants per year. They must incorporate more useful species in their production lines. Thus we have the capacity to raise sufficient plants for plantation establishment which is not available in many other countries in the region.

To realize the potential of bamboo for new industries it is absolutely necessary to raise plantations with suitable bamboo species. This was hindered due to the misinterpretation that large-scale bamboo cultivation – as required for a bamboo based industry- was not viable for our country. Baseless reasoning that bamboo leads to depletion of soil water, desertification, cause soil erosion and invasive etc. voiced by certain individuals has misled the authorities. This is similar to the misinformation about oil palm guzzling up water more than rubber when an erroneous comparison was made on the evapotranspiration of the two crops.

There is a myth that bamboo will deplete water in the soil. Bamboo is a grass and its roots do not penetrate deep into the soil. It has an underground network of rhizomes and roots that bind the soil preventing erosion. Local farmers were aware of these facts in the past and planted bamboo in suitable locations. The rhizome traps the leaf litter and run off water during rains. Thus water is absorbed into the soil and stored in the rhizome and culms. The soil is gradually built up and ameliorated when planted in degraded lands. Bamboo is fast growing and will need water like any other tree crop. During drought it sheds leaves to conserve water. Plants do have various methods to conserve water. A well-established bamboo plantation will thus store soil water and limit evapotranspiration. There is a report that in India when bamboo was planted in a soil degraded due to brick making, the soil soon became richer and the water table rose and inhabitants were able to grow crops and also supply bamboo for industries that were created. A similar report in China also mentions that bamboo cultivation in a degraded soil caused the water table to rise.

It is reported that bamboo in general is invasive. Bambusa bambos (katu una) growing in some parts of the dry zone has grown extensively to become invasive. The local farmers do not harvest this because of the thorns but in India it is utilized in many ways (for paper pulp, as a timber substitute etc.). Recent recommendation was to burn it down! If proper cutting equipment and protective gear are used this could be utilized even as a fuel wood. I have seen this species planted along a stream near Katugastota Matale road from the time it was planted until now. It has become an impenetrable row extending some distance- ideal if planted to grow into fences replacing electric fences in villages attacked by elephants.

Another misinformation is bamboo as a mono crop plantation will have adverse effects. Many plantation crops like coconut, rubber and tea are also mono crops. Mixed bamboo species could be grown together. Bamboo is recommended for cultivation in underutilized or degraded soils where no other agricultural crop could be raised. Many such places are available. Abandoned tea plantations with degraded soil in the upcountry are ideal. Bamboo planting along river banks has been curtailed by certain organizations as they infer that bamboo will damage the riverbank. This is due to sand miners digging into the river bank dislodging bamboo. In fact bamboo should be planted behind the flood line which needs to be extended with the prevailing heavy rainfalls that often lead to flash floods. Giant bamboos with a large rhizome which can hold the river bank as a live wall is suitable whereas smaller species like reed bamboo can be grown along stream sides. Bamboo is a grass and the older culms need to be removed to induce new growth. The old culms die and collapse into the river if not removed. Thus the plant needs to be managed by sustainable harvesting of culms a resource much needed by craftsmen. Clump management practices and preventing illegal activities rather than stopping bamboo planting is what is needed.

There are many other uses of bamboo such as manufacture of paper pulp. This is the oldest industrial application and is done on a large-scale in India and China. Edible bamboo shoots are a thriving industry in Indonesia. Dendrocalamus asper is the most suitable species and it grows well here. Bamboo is used to make rayon for clothing, for making charcoal and as a fuel wood especially in tea factories and for generating electricity (dendropower), etc.. to name a few.

Constraints to the development of a bamboo industry in Sri Lanka

It is necessary to assure the growers that they will be able to harvest their produce with least state interference.

Most of the land available for bamboo cultivation is state owned and it is important to ensure security of land tenure and ownership of plants to encourage cultivation.

Restrictions on harvesting and transport of bamboo need to be updated. Legislations on bamboo protection made as far back as 1992 by the Forest Department need to be reviewed as the present situation demands. Sustainable management practices have to be enforced and license to harvest issued based only on such practices.

The Central Government of India recently categorized bamboo as a grass enabling its harvest from bamboo plantations while bamboos in forests still remains categorized under trees to prevent their over-exploitation. Similar actions are needed here and the Government of Sri Lanka must pay serious attention to reviewing and amending constraints to cultivation of bamboo.

There are many young entrepreneurs who are ready to start new ventures. We all can get together to promote the potential of bamboo towards alleviating poverty and ensuring economic development of the country!



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Call of the Forests – only a certain few hear it

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Much is being discussed (not so much by government or need-to-be-concerned officials); presented in video clips and written about deforestation in Sri Lanka, one of the country’s most severe environmental hazards. I quote statistics (from Internet searching) to show how fast and drastically our forest cover has been decimated.

“In the 1920s, the island had a 49 percent forest cover but by 2005 this had fallen by approximately 26 percent. Between 1990 and 2000, Sri Lanka lost an average of 26,800 ha of forests per year. This amounts to an average annual deforestation rate of 1.14%. Between 2000 and 2005 the rate accelerated to 1.43% per annum.”

“According to the UN FAO, 28.8% or about 1.860.000 ha of Sri Lanka was forested in 2010. Of this 9.0% – 167,000 ha – is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest. 185,000 ha is planted forest. Between 1990 and 2010, Sri Lanka lost an average of 24,500 ha or 1.04% per year, in total, 20.9% of forest cover or around 490,000 ha. SL’s forests contain 61 million metric tons of carbon in living forest biomass; and some 751 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these 21.7% are endemic – they exist in no other country and 11.9% are threatened. SL is home to at least 3,314 species of vascular plants of which 26.l9% are endemic. 9.6% of Sri Lanka is protected under IUCN categories 1-V.”

 

And now the forest cover is only 17%.

Reforestation is minimal but logging, distribution of forest land, grabbing of forested land, goes on apace. And the very worst is, it looks to be under the very nose of government officials who need to protect our forests. We hear of borderline forest land being broken up and distributed to villagers to grow vegetables. They can do this type of agriculture in the land that is already available. The fear however is that these peasants cry out for more land and it is given them, never mind deforestation, imbalance caused to eco-systems and elephant corridors and their habitats invaded. Most often it is then grabbed by mudalalis and then sold to richer entrepreneurs planning to build factories or holiday resorts – all to make money at the expense of villages, wild animals and preciously wondrous forests

Which sent me back seven decades to recalling how trips out of the cities invariably set you on roads going straight through dense forest on either side. Remembered seeing as a kid, when the car stopped for a while on the way to Anamaduwa, green snakes entwined from branch to branch indistinguishable from leaved twigs until the creatures moved. Guava trees at Anamaduwa were taboo to us as they were completely colonized by curling gerandiyas. You’d invariably meet elephants who quietly moved aside to let your car pass. Not always. My brother and friends were chased and the elephant reached 30 mph. Must have been a very angered rogue banished by the herd matriarch. At that time there was a win-win coexistence between man and beast. Then came development which enlarged to development at any cost, and the elephant-human conflict.

 

Chenas

I remember chena cultivation. The waste of this slash and burn type of agriculture was lost on the child that was me, only enamoured of the watch hut on a large tree and the tender succulent bandakka and bada iringu to be plucked and succulently chewed while looking through a chena plot. Lack of water and sufficient hands-to-help prevented paddy cultivation or crop growing on permanent pieces of land, hence the only way for subsistence farming of poor peasants in jungle areas was chena cultivation. This was stemmed to a large extent by D S Senanayake’s colonization schemes, the first – visited often – in Kottukachiya between Anamaduwa and Puttalam with Manager Mr Unantenne and Assistant Mr Amunugama.

As yet a classic on Ceylon

I dipped into Leonard Woolf’s Oxford University Press 1931 published Village in the Jungle (first published in 1913) because his graphic description of the fierce winds that blew across the forests where Silindu and his family lived, and the forests, were indelibly mind-marked. Whenever the Hambantota Rest House was stayed in when it was a fine place and later, stopped at for lunch, I would walk to the still extant court house where Woolf sat in judgment as Magistrate of the Province. He mentions the scene that met his gazing eye before he pityingly passed judgment on the simple forest dwellers charged for petty crimes, which often they were not guilty of. “The judge as he sat upon the bench, looked down upon the blue waters of the bay, the red roofs of the houses, and then the interminable jungle, the grey jungle stretching out to the horizon and the faint line of hills.” Still to be seen except the jungle is diminished and receded and the town expanded.

Woolf describes vividly the forest surrounding Silindu’s village and the villager’s strong connection to it. At the end of Village in the Jungle only Punchi Menika is left, refusing to leave her home and the jungle as the others were doing. Her husband Babun, sister, father, and aunt Karlinahamy were all dead. “She was alone in the world, the only thing left to her was the compound and the jungle which she knew. She clung to it passionately, blindly,….The jungle surged forward and blotted the compound to the very walls of her hut. She no longer cleared the compound or mended the fence, the jungle closed over them as it closed over the other huts and compounds, over the paths and tracks. Its breath was hot and heavy, stretching away unbroken for miles.”

I refer to another book that speaks of our jungles of long ago. John Still’s Jungle Tide. I have no copy at hand to quote from, but I am sure you most have read this classic. Still was born in Lambeth, England in 1880, educated at Winchester College, came to Ceylon in 1897, served in the Labour Commission and was Secretary, Ceylon Planters Society. He worked with H C P Bell in the Archeology Dept. and was associated with the discoveries at Sigiriya and the ruins of the Polonnaruwa Lotus Bath. He authored several books on the history of the island, including Ancient Capitals of Ceylon, Tantrimalai, and Index to the Mahavamsa.

Very many books, monographs and research papers have been written about the forests of Sri Lanka. If persons had read these ancient classics, they would be more sensitive to the need to conserve our forests, not ruthlessly tear them down. I know I sound simplistic. It takes more than appreciation of literature to be conscious about preserving resources for future generations and the deplorable travesty of thinking money is everything. Yes, power, the good life may be available with money in hand, but how it is earned is so very important. Good breeding, good family background and good schooling are all important to develop a well balanced personality prizing above all else honesty, integrity and true national feeling. Appreciating Nature too and what it generously offers us, humans.

I adore quotes. Here are three from the two most famous persons of the world and the third from a respected protector of wild life:

“The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe-man who destroys it.” – Gautama Buddha

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another” – Mahatma Gandhi

“Forests are the world’s air-conditioning system – lungs of the planet – and we are on the verge of switching it off” – Prince Charles.

 

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CHAMINDA VAAS AN ALL-TIME HERO OF SRI LANKA

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by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

Fast bowling is an arduous task and is doubly so in the Asian subcontinent, where docile pitches and energy-sapping heat takes their toll on those brave enough to take up the challenge. One must have a big heart, a great deal of determination and lots of skill to succeed as a fast bowler. Chaminda Vaas (CV) had plenty of these and a few more.

He represented Sri Lanka for over 15 long years with great distinction. He played nearly all his cricket alongside the great Murali; whose bowling record is the best in the world. This prevented Vaas from receive the plaudits he deserved. He was the “unsung hero.” Vaas was no extrovert. He did not celebrate his wickets with much physical display. He went about the business of taking wickets and helping the team’s cause as a true professional.

Vaas has been a great performer for Sri Lanka. It will be the statisticians and connoisseurs of cricket who will genuinely appreciate what he has done.

He delivered 39,213 balls for Sri Lanka in Tests and one-day matches, an equivalent of 6,535 overs and took 755 wickets in these two formats. The split was 355 test wickets and 400 limited-overs wickets. In addition, he scored 3,089 test runs at an average of 24 runs per innings and 2,025 runs in the limited-overs segment. A genuinely outstanding record due to a Herculean effort.

The purpose of this article is to review the circumstances under which he resigned as the bowling coach of the Sri Lanka team a few hours before the team departed for the West Indies.

Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) released a media statement stating “SLC wishes to inform that former Sri Lanka Cricketer and Consultant Bowling Coach of Sri Lanka Cricket, Chaminda Vaas today (February 22) announced his resignation from his post effective March 26, 2021, and also informed that he will not be available to tour West Indies as a member of the support staff. Vaas’s resignation comes hours before the team was scheduled to depart for West Indies, which is scheduled for tonight. It is particularly disheartening to note that in an economic climate such as the one facing the entire globe right now, Mr. Vaas has made this sudden and irresponsible move on the eve of the team’s departure, based on personal monetary gain. The Management of SLC, and indeed the entire nation, hold Mr. Vaas in high esteem as a cricketer who has excelled for his country. His years of yeoman service have been appreciated and rewarded over the years, both in status and in kind. In such circumstances, it is extremely disheartening that a legend such as Chaminda Vaas has resorted to holding the administration, the cricketers, and indeed the game at ransom, by handing in his resignation at the eleventh hour, citing the administration’s refusal to accede to an unjustifiable demand for an increased USD remuneration, in spite of being a contracted employee of Sri Lanka Cricket, already receiving remuneration that is in keeping with his experience, qualifications, and expertise, in addition to which he would have been entitled to the usual USD per diems offered to all members of a traveling squad”.

It was an unusually lengthy and candid media statement highly prejudicial to Vaas. I assume that as Vaas is contracted to SLC until March 26, 2021 he was unable to comment other than say in a twitter message “I made a humble request to SLC and they turned it down. That’s all I can say at the moment. justice will prevail!

In trying to understand what actually happened it is necessary that SLC discloses as to why Vaas was appointed the team’s bowling coach just three days before the team departed to the West Indies. Should this vital appointment not have been made several weeks prior?

I understand that David Sarkar who was the contracted bowling coach of the Sri Lanka team left the country no sooner the second test match between Sri Lanka and England concluded on January 26, 2021. I have not seen a media statement from SLC explaining why Sarkar terminated his contract and whether the termination was unilateral or mutually agreed. It would be good to know whether there was a clause in the contract requiring Sarkar to give at least three months notice for early termination and if not given whether SLC is entitled to financial compensation. This is how employment contracts are drafted in the private sector and hopefully SLC has a similar clause when they contract both foreign as well as local coaches.

Considering the above there is a question mark as to why the SLC waited until February 19, 2021, to announce the appointment of Vaas as the bowling coach? This is three weeks after Sarkar left his post. Was SLC trying to find an alternative coach and only due to their failure turned to Vaas at the last minute? By any stretch of imagination, appointing a person with only three days notice for an overseas assignment seems exceptionally unprofessional. Today, International cricket is big business, and there is no way that important appointments should be made at such short notice.

It is true that Vaas is contracted to SLC but only as a “Consultant Coach”. A consultant’s job in the business world is significantly different from that of a full-time assignment. Therefore, should SLC and Vaas not have negotiated a new or even a supplementary contract? Was Vaas being appointed as the permanent bowling coach or just for this tour?

The SLC takes issue because Vaas resigned only a few hours before the team’s departure. We must assume that SLC had not negotiated terms with Vaas prior to announcing his appointment. Otherwise, there is no reason for a financial dispute. The only plausible explanation is that the SLC assumed that because Vaas was contracted as a “Consultative Coach”, he had no option but to accept this appointment? The SLC is unfortunately silent in these matters.

SLC has mentioned that Vaas has made a decision based on “personal monetary gain” What is wrong with that? How many others at the SLC and the many foreign coaches in the team not motivated by personal monetary gain? Are they working for free?

Unfortunately, in our part of the world, those in top positions reposed with responsibility tend to agree to any terms and conditions laid down by “white-skinned” applicants. However, when it comes to our own equally skilled and capable, every effort is made to refuse market terms. I have seen this even in the private sector.

In this instance, based on information in the public domain, I do not think that Vaas requested anything on par with the remuneration paid to Sarkar. Only an additional US $ 75 per day as his per diem allowance?

The SLC used the word “held to ransom” by Vaas in their media release. If indeed the enhanced amount was only US $ 75 per day, it seems the insinuation seems over the top.

SLC also states, “It is particularly disheartening to note that in an economic climate such as the one facing the entire globe right now”, that Vaas had wanted an increase in his per diem allowance. I find this an extraordinary statement coming from the same team who proposed that a cricket stadium be built in Homagama at the cost of several billion rupees during the pandemic! Are these guys really serious?

Sri Lanka has very few real heroes other than in the armed forces who fought during the terrorist war against the LTTE and the Sri Lankan cricketers who notably represented the country when Sri Lanka cricket came of age. Between 1990 to 2005 we woke to read news reports of our Army, Navy and Air Force camps being overrun and with many fatalities and ammunition and arms lost to the LTTE. The bombing of the Central Bank, the attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport and the oil storage tanks in Kolonawwa were disheartening. Amid this mayhem the only shining light and ray of hope was the performance of our cricketers. They gave us hope and much pleasure in those depressing times.

The best example for me was my 65-year-old mother becoming a cricket fanatic from 1995 onwards. She would get up early to cook and then have a shower and sit in front of the TV to watch our “boys” after firmly telling our father not to disturb her! She would call me during meetings to ask who was Murali’s batting coach or why Sanath only wants to hit sixes and fours!

There is no doubt that Chaminda Vaas and those who won the World Cup in 1996 and became a world cricket force were our true heroes. They made us proud to be Sri Lankans and showed how there is a way if there is a will. I am sure the many thousands of our soldiers fighting in the jungles would have been genuinely inspired by the deeds of Vaas, Murali, Sanath, Sanga, Arjuna, Aravinda, Roshan, Hashan and many others. In my view, SLC’s media release on Chaminda Vaas is a poorly thought, rushed, and one-sided document.

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NM and Abe Lincoln Pragmatists or Opportunists?

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by Kumar David

Leave aside the difference in measure – gigantic versus small country – or the nature of the endeavours and try if you can to bridge in your mind the century between the 1850s and the 1960s. I think I can’t ask you to forget that Lincoln succeeded in the Civil War and in proclaiming Emancipation while on both the National Question and the so-called Coalition Tactic to take half a step to socialism, NM and the left suffered setbacks. However both men had a characteristic in common; they made crucial tactical compromises on the way. A pragmatist is one who makes needed compromises but does not lose sight of his principles, an opportunist sells out for narrow gain, and a realist throws up his hands in despair and lives with reduced moral commitments.

Did you know that until the last years of his life Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist? He considered slavery immoral and economically retrogressive but he conceded that it was lawful and constitutional. Technically he was right till the 13th Amendment of 1865 after the Civil War. The American Constitution, up to then, did not explicitly endorse slavery but it did include clauses protecting the institution and Lincoln bowed. It is not possible to justify the ‘lapse’ in terms of values of the times because there existed at the time an Abolitionist Movement led by people like William Lloyd Garrison who demanded that slavery be immediately abolished and that freed slaves be incorporated as equal members of society. Abolitionists called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” Though Lincoln worked with the abolitionists he was not one of them. Lincoln’s deepest commitment was not to the abolition of slavery but to the preservation of the Union. This is all well-known and you will find what I have said at many sources, for example:

 

Great Emancipator and Smart Pragmatist

Though Lincoln opposed slavery morally, he did not believe until much later that blacks should have the same social and political rights as whites. During the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas who alleged he supported “negro equality” (like Sinhalese politicians flaying the left: “Rata Demalunta Vikka“) Lincoln defensively declared: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of social and political equality of the white and black races” and he opposed blacks having the right to vote, serve on juries or intermarry with whites. This is hard to reconcile with the Great Emancipator but his views evolved over time. He did want blacks to have the fullest opportunity improve and fulfil themselves and even have their own country. He favoured a separate country being carved out in Central America for blacks: “Given the differences between the two races and white hostility to blacks it would be better to be separated.” – August 1862 statement to a black delegation at the White House. Much earlier, constitution drafter Thomas Jefferson doubted that blacks and whites could live together and advocated a black homeland in Africa for freed slaves – it did take shape eventually as Liberia; Negro Eelam! In 1854 Lincoln wished to free the slaves and send them to Liberia. His epiphany was when the tide of battle turned in the Civil War. In September 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

There is no doubt that all his life Lincoln abhorred slavery and considered it morally repugnant. But he judged till the late the 1850s that the white population would not accept abolition and adopted a pragmatic approach that could yield practical results. This is fascinating; similar but a time-reversed sequence to NM’s retreat on Sinhala Only later in life. In his personal convictions confirmed by my own familiarity (I was a young Samasamajist in the 1950s), NM was firmly committed to the language rights of the Tamils. He was an intransigent advocate of Parity of Status to an extent that many in the LSSP and CP (Philip had sold out by then) – Jack Kotalawela, Robert Gunewardena, Mahanama Samaraweera, Somaweeera Chandrasiri and others who we at the time called turncoats – simply could not comprehend. I know that NM was the clearest advocate of an equitable status for the minorities in the 1950s and he took his stand boldly to the trade unions and the working class. Maybe his training as a constitutionalist helped. Nor was he enamoured of the shilly-shally drivel of Tamil politicians and lawyers; he stood out much bigger than them. Alas the Sinhala electorate was to teach him a bitter lesson. It was not 1952 or 1956, the LSSP and CP did well in both, but the crushing defeats of the March and July 1960 elections that smothered the left. Lincoln won the final lap; NM started out strong but narrow nationalism finally defeated him.

 

Parity of Status

The lesson was painful but abundantly clear and NM, pragmatist per excellence compared to other LSSP leaders, drew it first. No party that fails to advocate the cultural primacy and political hegemony of Sinhala-Buddhism can win political power in Lanka. This has been true for 70 years; the intervention of a civil war hardened it. Lincoln never in his soul accepted slavery, but for the main part of his political life he did not place abolition on his programme. NM despised Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism but in the mid-1960s he gave up leading the charge against it. There is no way the Left could have turned back the tide of ethno-religious nationalism; history was being written by deep social and historical forces. Hence NM’s decision in the final decades of life to partner with the ‘progressive petty-bourgeoisie; our day has yet to come’. Inability of left ideology to defeat nationalism is best illustrated by the fate of the movement that displaced the LSSP-CP as the left-mainstream in subsequent decades. The JVP could not break from Sinhala nationalism for the first half-century of its existence. Worldwide, class receded to make way for ethnicity (linguistic, racial, cultural or fealty to an extravaganza of gods) as the primary driver of social conflict. Marx forgot to add ethno-national hubris to religion as the world’s bestselling opium.

This essay must not be misunderstood as an apology for the Lankan left’s accommodation of nationalism (quintessentially leftists are internationalists whatever national pragmatism compels in day to day matters) but I do insist that the ‘old-left’ was pragmatic not opportunist while today’s ‘Dead-Left’ is concerned with what leaders get for themselves; programmes don’t matter. I therefore firmly underline that neither Lincoln nor NM were opportunists in this pejorative sense. There has been scholarship enough to fill libraries about Lincoln and slavery and no judgement that I can add will be useful. I would however ask that my intervention today be read as an honest attempt at the evaluation of two persons in relation to the prevailing conflicts of their times.

I will conclude with a few personal comments about pragmatism that I trust a few of you will find interesting. Those who do me the honour of reading my column and those who have had the misfortune of personal acquaintance, have some idea of my views. I am an unrepentant Marxist, an internationalist who despises all nationalisms (Sinhala, Tamil, Timbuctoan), who draws strength from materialism, sees culture as a social product, and has trust in dialectics and science. Sometimes I confront the challenge “Marxism is dead and buried; it has no future; see what happened to the Soviet Union?” This is daft; the stuff of superficial minds. Imagine if the crimes of the Burmese Buddhist Army or Narayana Modi’s Hindutva were adduced as evidence that Buddha was a no-good dreamer or Hinduism is a load of crap! My Christian education equips me to play this game even better with the Church. I have no time for imbeciles with no inclination to philosophy or methodology.

But there is a pragmatic point. Socialism will not dawn tomorrow, nor is a classless utopia just over the horizon. Lenin’s brilliant strategy of a party of professional revolutionaries is of zero relevance one hundred years on. Guevara’s thesis is a one-of exception for Cuba. Modern Marxists must be pragmatic in dealing with the actually existing world while retaining their vision. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you: If you can dream and not make dreams your master: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting”, then dear boy or girl you will make a splendid pragmatist who can strive for decent objectives with good sense. People who are in a hurry to discard ideals actually never had any. Sell-outs are opportunists, simple scoundrels. Marxists must learn to navigate complicated currents between actually existing liberal-democracy and aspirations of equity, between decaying finance-capital and desired social democracy, and seek allies to defeat extremists whether the American Trump-hooligan variety, Asian ethno-religious mobs, or other neo-fascisms elsewhere. When the Lankan regime’s best friends at the UNHRC include Belarus, the Philippines, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela it confounds my dutiful countrymen who venerate patriotism as a sacred obligation.

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