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George Floyd, African-Americans, and Sri Lanka’s Estate Tamils (Part I)

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By Uditha Devapriya

Over two weeks, the George Floyd protests spread practically everywhere. From Kansas to Kenya, from Baltimore to Berlin, they turned into symbols of dissent against not just the racism, but also the xenophobia, of White America.

One of the most haunting images to emerge from the demonstrations was that of a young Sri Lankan girl, draped in the flag of her country, posing defiantly on the streets of an American city. The image and the girl in it attracted both support and opposition, the latter coming from militant Sinhala nationalists who felt she dishonoured a national symbol by using it as a sign of civil disobedience involving a domestic issue of another country.

The response of the nationalists to the George Floyd uprisings was, if at all, amusing. One section of this crowd took to social media to condemn White America for exhibiting its racist, chauvinist face yet again. Another section – no less big or significant – took the opposite stance, censuring those protesting against the murder of a black civilian because, to them at least, Floyd’s murder did not warrant the rampaging and the pillaging of public property. To the latter group, these protests seemed disproportionate to what they regarded as an instance of police authority enforcing the law over a minority community.

The few within the nationalist crowd who did support the raging protests were, even more amusingly, taken to task on social media by another group, this one ideologically opposed to nationalism. The latter crowd seemed to think, not without justification, that the nationalists sharing posts and posting comments against White America were myopic: they seemed to sympathise with George Floyd, but not with the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka, whom the anti-nationalists alleged are as discriminated against over here as George Floyd’s community is over there. Thus both nationalists opposed to the protests AND anti-nationalists critiquing the selectivity of those supporting the protests persisted in comparing African-Americans to the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka.

In that sense the protests taught us two important lessons. Though they don’t form the subject of this essay, they are relevant to it, and hence need to be examined.

Firstly, the inability of many Sinhala nationalists to take their struggle against neo-colonialism and Western hegemony forward. Resistance to colonialism has historically formed the bedrock of the Sinhala nationalist lobby, yet their denunciations of this uprising betrayed a failure to think beyond geographic borders. This came out quite despairingly in their reaction to the only local political party that saw it fit to organise a protest in front of the US Embassy. The government’s crackdown on the demonstration didn’t seem to ruffle their feathers, nor did the point that the demonstrators were making.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the inability of local left-liberal outfits to come up with a proper front, in Sri Lanka, against the George Floyd murder. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) organised the protest against the US Embassy, while the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) organised a discussion on it online. But neither of these belongs to what is traditionally labelled as “civil society.” The point can be made that the issue at the centre of these protests was not Sri Lankan and that is why civil society ignored it, but that excuse pales away when one considers that the moment sections of the nationalist crowd let out their anger at the US’s handling of the protests, certain social media civil society activists focused their energies more on pointing out the hypocrisy of the nationalists.

Despite the hostile exchanges between the two factions, one particular point brought them together: their comparison of African-Americans to Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. They underscored this comparison from two different vantage points.

Thus the nationalists who critiqued the protests seemed to believe that, like extremist Tamils and Muslims, African-Americans and other minorities in the US were unfairly questioning the legitimacy of rule by an ethnic majority. Those opposed to the nationalists, on the other hand, inadvertently, by their critique of the nationalists’ sidelining of Tamils and Muslims, equated the latter two with the community which Floyd hailed from. The question to be asked here is whether such an analogy is, if not plausible, then at least tenable.

In 2011, a year before Barack Obama won election for a second term, Vinod Moonesinghe wrote a cogent reply to someone who in an article had wished for a Tamil or Muslim to be elected as this country’s leader. Vinod made two points there: considering Obama’s win as a win for all African-Americans failed to distinguish between his class origins and those of most African-Americans; and equating African-Americans with Tamils and Muslims was anachronistic, given the economically privileged status of the latter two groups.

Taking class and caste into consideration, then, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election win seemed closer to such a comparison than the potential coming to power of a member of a “minority.” Taking class, caste, AND ethnicity into consideration, the analogy would have to extend, not to Jaffna and Colombo Tamils, Moors, and Malays, or Borahs and Sindhis, but instead to a community that, like the blacks of the US, was imported as dirt cheap labour, cut off from the rest of the population, and supervised under a setup no different to the plantations of the southern US. In other words, the migrant Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Before making an analogy between these two groups, though, it would do well to reflect, very briefly, on the historical trajectory of slavery in the West.

Following the Arab invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, Europe turned inward. The eminent historian Fernand Braudel has written of a “second serfdom” that sprang up in parts of the continent where feudalism failed to give way to capitalism. The result was the growth of a kind of slavery, white slavery, across the East, in what is now Russia; it’s a testament to the legacy of the trade which emerged there that the word “slave” derived from the ethnicity of those marshalled into it from that region, Slav.

With the influence of the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks after them waning after the fall of Granada in 1492 (the same year Columbus “discovered” the New World), a liberated Europe, discovering hitherto unchartered colonies in the Americas on one side and Australia on the other, gradually instituted a system of indentured white bondage.

It has been estimated that around 67% of all white immigrants to the new colonies arrived there as servants. These immigrants were bound to a contract that compelled them to work for an overseer, without pay, over a specified period of time. Most often such contracts were drawn for those who had a prior obligation to these overseers which they couldn’t meet, such as a debt. Since the government usually didn’t interfere with these contracts, extortion and kidnappings became common, as they would among Africans later on. The situation was such that even in as late as 1910 the US government was trying to put an end to white slavery: the White Slave Traffic Act (or the Mann Act) that year made it a felony to transport women across state borders for the purposes of “prostitution or debauchery.”

Debt bondage, however, applied in the early period only to white immigrants to the white colonies, and the Irish; the difference between their situation and that of African slaves was that the latter were never recruited to pay off an obligation; most of them ended up as lifelong labourers, unpaid and treated as chattel or property. As Liam Stack once observed, “[u]nlike slaves, servants were considered legally human.”

To put this in its proper perspective, the position of those shipped to the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the cotton mills of the southern United States fitted that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. The process of recruiting and transporting these Africans, in the long term, thus became, as Gordon K. Lewis put it, “quasi-militarised”, while once quartered in the plantations their owners did everything to isolate the unfortunate immigrants, prisoners really, from the world outside.

Revisionist historians, white and black, have tried to understate the full weight of black slavery, either by pointing at the involvement of African intermediaries in it or by showing that European Christians became as entangled in it as Africans.

Thus Robert Davis (Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters) argues that while the Atlantic slave trade was 12 times as large, more Christians than Africans were captured between 1500 and 1650, while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (“How Many Slaves Landed in the US?”) contends that of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the passage to the West, “only about 388,000” were shipped to the United States. What these “findings” fail to show is that black slavery was not geographically limited to the US, or for that matter to Western Europe, and that from 1530 to 1780, when more than five million Africans found themselves dispatched to Portugal and Brazil, only about a million Christians were forced into servitude in North Africa, along the Barbary Coast and into the Ottoman Empire.

The Abolitionist movement, no doubt representative of a progressive, enlightened wing in the Evangelical Revival, agitated for African slavery’s end. It did this as much for moral reasons as for pragmatic ones; the rise in Britain of an industrial Whig bourgeoisie over a landed Tory gentry and the expansion of British interests in Asia and Africa had by then necessitated the rise of plantation colonialism. It is hence not a coincidence that African slaves in the British West Indies were emancipated by official proclamation in the same year (1833) that the most ambitious set of administrative proposals were tabled in Sri Lanka (Colebrooke-Cameron) to lay the foundation for the new colonial plantation economy.

Against this backdrop, black slavery soon receded to countries where a white settler class predominated, including Rhodesia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. S. B. D. de Silva in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment refers to these as “settler states”, a distinction I will return to later. In any case, what we have here is the first of many differences between the plight of African-Americans and that of Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims.

Plantation colonialism demolished and also made use of existing traditional political, cultural, social, and economic patterns in much of Asia and Africa. The most immediate result of that, of course, was the impoverishment of the peasantry; in Sri Lanka, as we know, the peasantry most directly affected by these policies remained the Kandyan Sinhalese.

Marx was largely correct in his comparison of British domination of India to that of Ireland. He was more prescient in the implication that the British brought with them to the colonies their experience in subjugating the Irish peasantry. Two policies make it clear to what extent they were following the Irish example in India and Sri Lanka: the expropriation of peasant land, and the pursuit of divide and rule. I shall turn to these next week, and with them, the growth and evolution of Indian migrant labour.

To be continued next week…

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Sat Mag

50 years of legacy of Police Cadeting at Ananda

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By Nilakshan Perera

Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake wanted to forge a cordial relationship with school children and the Police Department, after carefully studying a similar programme in Singapore and Malaysia. With the support of the then Ministry of Education and the Sri Lanka Police, the Sri Lanka Police Cadet Corps began as an attachment to the Sri Lankan Police Reserve. On 03 July 1972, six schools were selected for the pilot programme; namely Kingswood College Kandy, Mahinda College Galle, Hindu College Jaffna, Ananda College Colombo, Zahira College Gampola and Sangabodhi Vidyalaya Nittambuwa. By 1978, this number rose to 32 Boys’ schools and 19 Girls’ schools.

Each of these individual platoons consisted of 33 cadets. The masters who were in charge of these platoons were considered part of the Police Reserve. They were assigned with the rank of an Inspector (IP) or a Sub Inspector (SI).

Cadet Corps held a selection for the camps. They would participate in annual competitions for squad drills, physical training, first-aid, drama, billet inspection, general knowledge and public relations, best commander, sports and IGP’s Challenge Shield. From these selection camps, the first three winners would be called for the final camp, from which the Island winner was then selected.

When Ananda College was selected for Police Cadetting on 03 July 1972, two of the school’s teachers were appointed as the Officers In-charge of the College Cadet Platoon. They were Mr Lionel Gunasekera and Mr Ariyapala. Later on, Mr W Weerasekera took over from Mr Ariyapala. Both Mr Gunasekera and Mr Weerasekera extended their invaluable and unwavering services for the Cadet Platoon’s success story. Both these gentlemen were there to supervise and train cadets. One could not forget Mr Weerasekera’s 9 Sri 7321 orange coloured Bajaj scooter parked next to the College main canteen. Another teacher, who trained cadets for drama competitions, voluntarily, was the late Mr Lionel Ranwala. He was the talented master who helped cadets to secure wins in the drama competition, year after year, at the annual camps.

The evening before attending the camp, a special “Mal Pooja” was organised to bless the platoon. After this, they would meet the principal, at his office, for another special blessing and a tea party, hosted by the principal himself. The then Principal of Ananda College, Colonel GW Rajapakse, gave his fullest blessings to the Police Cadets. These recognised cadets earned more responsibilities and assumed various leadership roles at the College. Prefects, Deputy Head Prefect, Head Prefect, Big Match Tent Secretaries, and Presidents of various societies were given to Cadets uncontestedly.

The Cadets stayed at the hostel, the night before leaving for camp. Our trunks were loaded into the college van and unloaded at Maradana Railway station. The most valuable trunk in the Cadet’s eyes was the PLATOON BOX. This was so since the box often contained items such as butter cakes, bottles ofcordial, sweets, such as marshmallows, chocolate rolls, and biscuits. This precious box was kept under lock and key and the watchful eyes of two Cadet Corporals.

SSP Prof Nandadasa Kodagoda, SSP P V W de Silva and a few other senior officers from Police HQ often attended as judges for different categories in the annual camp competitions, such as first aid, general knowledge, squad drill and physical training. Both these senior officers would discharge their duties to the rule and spirit.

All first-aid requirements were provided by the college St John’s Ambulance Brigade for all college special events, such as big matches and sports meets. This unit was led by 1979 Corporal Devapriya Perera (IT Professional – London) and most of the first-aiders were Police Cadets. They volunteered their services to the General Hospital Accident Ward and the Sri Pada pilgrims. It was pleasing to see Cadets controlling traffic duties in front of the college, at the Maradana – Borella main road, every morning, from 7.00 am to 7.25 am and helping with traffic duties and car park duties during the college sports meet and other functions.

Police Cadets CR Senanayake (Automobile Engineer-Brisbane), Ravi Mahendra (IT professional), and the late Dharmapriya Silva, established a swimming club that held its training at Otters Swimming Club. The School Bus Travelers Society, organized by the Police Cadets, issued bus seasons tickets for students with the help of CTB officials.

Back then when a teacher had not reported to a class, senior Police Cadets would step in and take turns to teach these classes. Deepal Sooriyaarchchi (Former MD of Aviva, Management Consultant) and Sarath Katangoda (Management Consultant – UK) were the most popular student masters in that era with their popular stories and innovative methods of teaching. This increased the popularity of police cadets among the other students. The way cadets conducted themselves had a very high impact on fellow Anandians, and the number of students attending practices rose rapidly.

On several occasions, Anula Vidyalaya Police Cadets called our Cadets to assist with their training in preparation for their Annual Camps. Having borrowed bus season tickets from students coming to College, via Nugegoda, our senior cadets were looking forward to visiting Anula to train them during school hours. This friendly culture blossoms during camps as well as outside the two schools. We still continue our friendships with Kamal Hathamuney (who joined the Army and retired with the rank of Major, residing in Sweden), Nirmala Perera, Malraji Meepegama (married to Maj Gen Sunil Wanniarachchi), Rosy Ranasekera (married to former Ananda Cadet Band leader Maj Gen Dhananjith Karunaratne) Dilani Balasuriya, (former IGP late Mahinda Balasuriya’s sister – married to Dr Priyanga de Zoysa). Interestingly our Cadet Lanka Herath continued this relationship and found his lifetime partner Ganga Thilakaratne from the Anula Vidyalaya Platoon. A famous school from Kelaniya, St Paul’s Balika Vidyalaya, too, started Police Cadeting in 1980. The writer being 1981 Ananda Sgt found his partner from St Paul’s Balika Cadet Sgt of the same year, Rasadari Jayamaha. Former Dean of the faculty of Law, University of Colombo Prof Indira Nanayakkara and Shiromi Perera (Melbourne) were the Corporals of the same platoon.

In 1972, the College platoon, led by Sgt Ranjith Wijesundara, became the Island’s best platoon. On the 23rd of July, 1983, the Sri Lankan Army’s routine patrol was assigned from Madagal to Gurunagar with the call sign of Four Four Bravo, commanded by 2/Lt A.P.N.C de Waas Gunwardane with 15 soldiers attached to Charlie company of SLLI were ambushed at Thirunelveli in Jaffna. 2/Lt Waas Gunawrdane and 12 soldiers made the supreme sacrifice. Adjutant and Intelligence Officer of SLLI Capt Ranjith Wijesundara was assigned the task of identifying the fallen heroes. Lt Wass Gunawardane was a Cadet of the 1977 platoon. Ranjith Wijesundra is now retired with the rank of Colonel.

In 1975 the College platoon, led by Sgt M A K E Manthriratne, also became the country’s best platoon and he was selected by the National Youth Council to represent the Sri Lanka Police Cadet Corps to travel to Canada under the Youth Exchange Programme between Sri Lanka and Canada. Manthriratne later joined the SL Navy and retired with the rank of Commander. Presently, as the President of Past Cadets, together with the ever-reliable 1982 Sgt V S Makolage carrying out various welfare projects under the banner of the Past Police Cadet Wing of Ananda.

Ananda held an unbroken record of winning nine out of 10 Trophies in 1978, under the great leadership of Sergeant Kithsiri Aponso who undoubtedly took Ananda Police Cadets to greater heights, was a leader with great charisma, integrity and leadership qualities. He became the Deputy Head Prefect and joined the STF. He later moved to the Police dept and is presently appointed as the DIG In Charge of the Badulla region.

The highest rank Cadet could achieve is Sgt Major. There were three Sgt Majors who brought honour and recognition to Ananda, namely Piyal Jayatilake in 1977, Jagathpriya Karunaratne in 1978 and ‘79, and Kithsiri Aponso in 1980. Chinthaka Gunaratne, a Cadet of 1981, also became the athletic Captain in 1983 (presently SSP In Charge of Highways) brought great honour and recognition as he became the Director in Charge of the Sri Lanka Police Cadet Corps.

College Athletic Captain of 1977, Ranasinghe Dharmadasa (Snr Manager BOI), 1978 JPPP Silva (Consultant-USA), 1980 Damitha Vitharana, (joined Sri Lanka Navy and retired as Lt. Commander and was the Director at Lankem Ceylon PLC before migrating to the UK), 1981 Jagath Palihakkara, (joined Sri Lanka Police as a SI in 1982 and at presently acting Senior DIG Western Region). DIG S M Y Senviratne another past Cadet joined the Police and is presently DIG in Charge of the Ampara Region. They also brought pride and joy to their alma mater during their time in their respective platoons and in their subsequent endeavours.

Two Sgts who led the Island’s best Platoons in 1983 Priyantha Ratnayake (Planter) and Pasindu Hearath of 2016 (Undergraduate of Kyoto University, Japan) became Head Prefects and Pasindu was awarded the Fritz Kunz Memorial Trophy for the Most Outstanding Student of 2017. The 4th of July 2017 was a great day for Ananda, as well as for the Police Cadets. 1980 Cadet Sgt who led the Island’s Best Platoon became Commander of the Army. It was a great honour for Cadets. Past Cadets organized a felicitation for Gen Mahesh Senanayake to recognise his prestigious appointment.

With profound gratitude, we remember past Cadets Rear Admiral Noel Kalubowila (a highly rated naval officer decorated with the highest gallantry medals especially having led the “Suicide Express” in 1990 evacuating troops from Jaffna Fort, Major General Lakshan Fernando, Major General Ajith Pallewela, Brig Mahinda Jayasinghe, Maj Aruna Vithanage, Maj Sampath Karuanthilake, Major SP Rodrigo, Lt Bandual Withanachchi, Director Prisons TI Uduwera, SSP Deepthi Hettiarchchi of STF (Zonal Commander Jaffna Mannar, Killinochchi and Mullaithivu), SSP Amal Edirimanne (In Charge of Colombo North) were Cadets who joined the forces, Police and Prison departments, respectively.

Chairman of University Grant Commission Senior Prof Sampath Amaratunge, one of the brilliant academics and a past Cadet, always believed and mentioned that “I am where I am because of my alma mater, and shall forever grateful to my journey”. Other note-worthy past Cadets are Harbor Master Capt Nirmal Silva, Prof Rohan Gunaratna (a political analyst specializing in international terrorism) present President of Ananda OBA, Bimal Wijesinghe who excelled in athletics during annual camps.

When this writer contacted one of our Masters-In-Charge, Mr W Weerasekera, he recalled those golden days. “As a pilot school where Police Cadet platoons were formed, Ananda College played its role in achieving the aims of cadetting as envisaged in the curriculum. It gives me great satisfaction to note the leadership and achievements of the Cadets, their success in later life with the highest contribution to the society at large”

Thanks for the untiring efforts of Hiranya Hewanayake (Senior Manager – Singer Sri Lanka) and Wing Commander Pradeep Kannangara Retd (Former Officer Commanding of the Special Air Borne Unit of Sri Lanka Air Force – Director – General Manager Abans Securitas), all past Cadets who reside all over the world are now well connected, via social media.We cherish the remarkable legacy of Ananda Police Cadetting.

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The history of a hostel; the sociology of a school

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By Uditha Devapriya
With input from Uthpala Wijesooriya, Pasinadu Nimsara, and Keshan Themira
Archive images courtesy of the J. R. Jayewardene Centre

On July 7, the Hostel of Royal College, Colombo, will be unveiling its annual Day. Organised after seven long years, the Hostel Day will incorporate a number of aesthetic, cultural, and sports events. Many of them have been held over the last two months and a few are yet to be finalised. In the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, it has been a challenge and a triumph to have held them at all. For the residents of the Hostel, it has also been a baptism of fire, no less than a continuation of a long, unbroken tradition.

The Royal College Hostel has not had an unbroken and continuous history. Unlike most public-school boarding establishments, it has been shut down and re-opened. Over the last few decades, it has also witnessed much change. From a historical-sociological perspective, its story provides a unique insight into certain social transformations.

Established on the recommendation of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, the first avatar of Royal College, the Colombo Academy, did not open a boarding establishment for its first 30 years. Official records tell us that its first boarding establishment was founded somewhere in the mid-1860s by the then Principal, Barcroft Boake. Considered the leading tutor of his day, Dr Boake felt the need to provide a separate residence “for the sons of planters and Ratemahattayas.” Since the latter crowd made up much of the population in the school, it made sense to open a separate lodging for them.

Boake took an active interest in the boarders. He would join them for breakfast and dinner, sitting at the head of the table. Yet despite his efforts, the number of boarders “never exceeded 36.” Under two subsequent heads of the establishment, George Hawkins and Ashley Walker, it reduced to 10. This was despite a prestigious award at the Academy, the Lorenz Prize, stipulating residence at the boarding as one of its conditions.

In 1881 the Colombo Academy became the Royal College. Much earlier it had anchored at San Sebastian Hill, near the Beira Lake. We are told that around 1905, because of an illness brought on by its proximity to the Lake, the boarding was indefinitely shut down. Six years later, the school shifted to Thurstan Road, in Colombo 7. Official records inform us that past pupils lobbied for the construction of a hostel there. Yet the government of the day, led by several highly conservative officials, rejected their requests. Having spent Rs 250,000 for the shift to the new location, they were in no mood to spend more on a hostel.

In 1931, the country held its first State Council election. Signalling the shift to universal franchise, the first and second State Councils appointed a Board of Ministers who chaired a number of Executive Committees, in various areas of specialisation. Appointed as Minister of Education, C. W. W. Kannangara became the voice of reform in his domain. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the Royal College Union advanced Rs 1,000 for a new boarding. For this Kannangara gave his approval and blessings. The official roll of the new Hostel that year lists 26 boarders. When it shifted to Bandarawela, in 1941, the number rose to 48. It would increase to 50, five years later, when the school moved back to Colombo.

These were deeply transformative years. Both Royal College and the Hostel felt their impact. In 1939, Kannangara convened a Special Committee on Education. Four years later, it tabled a Report. Among its recommendations was a free education scheme for all children, from school to university. Though opposed by certain groups, Kannangara’s scheme became the cornerstone of the country’s education system. Most significantly, it led to the entry of non-elite groups to leading and elite institutions, including public schools.

Following the War, both Royal College and the Hostel were compelled to accommodate these developments. In 1951, the Minister of Education, E. A. Nugawela, noted that since Kannangara’s proposals, “the Royal College is no more a school for the rich and privileged classes.” Observing that 317 of 519 parents worked as “peons, labourers, chauffeurs, and so on”, he concluded that the school had opened its gates to “the lower-middle class.” Such a trend could not be averted, much less reversed. It accompanied another, more significant transition: the “indigenisation” of colonial institutions.

In 1946, Royal College appointed its first Ceylonese Principal, J. C. A. Corea, who took over from E. L. Bradby. That year it also appointed Bernard Anghie as the Hostel Warden. The records tell us that Anghie breathed new life to the Hostel. His successor, Cecil Belleth, saw through his changes. By the time Belleth retired, in March, 1966, the Hostel had inaugurated various clubs, including Debating Societies and Literary Associations, and recorded several advances and improvements. Fitting enough, today it is so associated with these individuals that the four Hostel houses – Bradby, Corea, Anghie, Belleth – bear their names.

The result of these developments was a rise in the number of Hostellers. In 1961 there were 93 boarders. In 1967, the Hostel was closed, on the orders of the Education Ministry, to be reopened in 1971. Two years later, the number of boarders had increased to 140. By 1979, it had risen to 250, shooting up to 252 in 1986 and 300 in 1992.

 

The Hostel, as it stands today, consists of about 27 buildings. These include 10 dormitories, with separate quarters for Grade 10 and Grade 11 boarders; a Senior Prefects’ Room; a Library; and a Smart Classroom. Over the last year, a number of these units, including the Music Room and the Bathrooms, have been renovated. Prefects are selected from three batches, numbering 20 in total, of which five are currently in Grade 13. Every student is governed by certain rules and regulations, extending to lunch and sleeping hours. Led by a dedicated staff, including its Warden, Janaka Jayasinghe, they try to keep the place going, adhering to schedules and routines which devolve responsibility on everyone.

As with almost every educational establishment, the Hostel has been forced to keep up with growing demand. As mentioned before, it encountered its biggest spurt between 1977 and 1995. These were years of expansion in the education system, epitomised by the Grade V Scholarship Exam: from 3,629 in 1977, the number of scholarship awards shot up to 22,000 in 1992. Since most, if not all, the Hostellers are Grade V Scholars, the Hostel has effectively become a symbol of mobility, particularly for those whose children obtain the highest scores for the Exam. This is perhaps the most significant development yet.

How does one explain such trends? The shift from colonial to dominion status, and later to republican statehood, in Sri Lanka, was accompanied by a transition in the country’s elite institutions. Yet it remains a paradox – a paradox identified by social scientists – that while power has moved away from the colonial bourgeoisie, the latter’s place has been taken over, not by the poor, but by an intermediate, Sinhala and Tamil speaking class. This has arguably been most evident in elite schools, like Royal College.

Surveying Europe’s education system, the French sociologist Agnès van Zanten has noted the contradiction between the elite background of these schools and the changes they have undergone due to various external pressures. The contradiction here has to do with what she calls the “charters” or “mandates” of these institutions, which have changed with the expectations of dominant groups. As van Zanten correctly notes, these groups have, over the last few decades, radically evolved and transformed.

This is as applicable to Sri Lanka as it is to Europe. Since independence, the country’s elite schools have witnessed a shift from bourgeois and aristocratic ideals to a middle bourgeois ethic, emphasising not family background, but academic merit. Not surprisingly, exams like the Grade V Scholarship have had a say in these developments.

The history of the Royal College Hostel, in that sense, bears testimony to the sociology of Royal College and other secondary schools. From an enclave for “the sons of planters and Ratemahattayas”, it has become a second home for the sons of an upward aspiring, rural middle bourgeoisie. This represents a shift in social, cultural, even political power, not just in the country’s secondary schools, but also in the country itself. Yet for some reason, this is an area that is yet to be examined by social scientists. It should be, especially since it provides a unique and fascinating insight, into the changing face of Sri Lankan society.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. Uthpala Wijesooriya [wijesuriyau6@gmail.com], Pasindu Nimsara [pasinim19@gmail.com], and Keshan Themira [themirak35@gmail.com] are members of the Royal College Hostel Prefects’ Council of 2022)

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Sat Mag

More than a doctrinal problem:The Buddha and his stepmother

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Ambapalika offering a meal to the Buddha and his disciples, and donating a mango grove (British Library)

By Uditha Devapriya

The Buddha’s response to Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for permission to enter the Buddha Sasana forms one of the more controversial episodes in the Buddhist pantheon. The story, as told in countless narratives and chronicles, essentially makes his acceptance of a female Buddhist or Bhikkuni order contingent on two things: his stepmother making the request twice, then traversing a distance of 150 miles with her followers in defiance of his response, and Ananda Thera’s pleas, which eventually convince the Buddha to change his mind.Viewed from a certain perspective, the episode stands out prominently in the Buddha’s life, for two reasons. Firstly, it marks the first time he makes an explicit pronouncement on the role of women within the Buddhist clergy. Secondly, it takes his Chief Attendant to resolve a paradox in that pronouncement: the Buddha doesn’t accept his stepmother’s request, yet he isn’t necessarily opposed to the ordination of Buddhist nuns.

Ananda Thera’s question is very clear on this point: he doesn’t mention specific names, but rather asks whether, in general, women are “capable of realising the state of a stream-winner, never-returner, and an arahant, when they have gone forth from home to the homeless state.” Only after receiving a positive response to his question does Ananda bring up the issue of the Buddha’s stepmother: “If then, Lord, [women] are capable of attaining Saintship, since Maha Pajapati Gotami has been of great service to the Exalted One… it were well, Lord, that women should be given permission …”

In other words, the appeal to personal ties follows from a philosophical question: if women are allowed in, then why not accept Gotami’s request? I find this highly fascinating, for two reasons. Firstly, Buddhist stories usually have the Buddha turn an encounter with a specific individual into a homily or a sermon: thus it is only upon engaging with Sunita that he makes a pronouncement on caste. Similarly, it is his encounter with Sigala that makes him expound his most significant sermon for the laity (the bourgeoisie?). The Dhammacakkana Pavattana Sutra, his first discourse, can in that sense be viewed as a response to the need to convince his first five disciples, residing at Sarnath, of his attainment of Enlightenment. The encounter with his stepmother turns this on its head: it is his philosophical position on a doctrinal issue – in this case, the ordination of women – that resolves the personal encounter.

Secondly, unlike the bulk of the Buddha stories in the Pali and Sinhalese Chronicles, here he changes his mind over a dilemma concerning the Sasana. However, he doesn’t really confess or admit that he was wrong over the issue. Instead, Ananda’s questioning compels him to remark that what holds true in general (women entering the Buddhist order) must hold true in the particular (Mahaprajapati Gotami and her followers entering the Buddhist order). Most crucially, the Buddha doesn’t reach this conclusion on his own: it takes Ananda Thera, his Chief Attendant no less, to help him take the proverbial leap.

To be sure, his encounter with Mahaprajapati Gotami episode is hardly the only one where the Buddha revises his positions and opinions. There is at least one other occasion where he does so: when his father, Suddhodhana, requests him to seek parental permission before ordaining children, and he agrees. This too is a response to a personal encounter: he converts his son, Rahula, without notifying his mother. What is unique about his encounter with his stepmother, however, is that it concerns a doctrinal issue: the question of allowing females into an order seen, until then, as an exclusively male preserve.

Having asked a number of ordinary Buddhists what they thought of this episode, I can only conclude that no one has any real answers to the issue as to why the Buddha had to be led into an ideological impasse for him to agree to admit Buddhist nuns, or Bhikkunis. The Buddha is generally acknowledged as farsighted and pragmatic. He is not one to revise his opinions, even on the request of a person so close as his Chief Attendant. Indeed, even after accommodating his stepmother’s request, he frankly tells Ananda that the admission of nuns would reduce the lifetime of the Dhamma from a thousand to five hundred years. This does not, however, belittle the fact that he accommodates them.

How do these ordinary Buddhists I talked with perceive and resolve this problem? One of them admitted that he had been grappling with it all his life, and that since his Daham Pasal days, he had been trying to find a satisfactory answer, to no avail. On the other hand, my mother, hardly the Daham Pasal going type, suggested that it shows that the Buddha, far from embodying an all-knowing ideal, had to rely on another person – his Chief Attendant – to reach a compromise over a difficult doctrinal issue. This is not an opinion shared by too many Buddhists, since it contradicts their view of the Buddha as infallible and beyond question, but it is shared by several ordinary laypeople I talked with.

In response to what many may see as the Buddha’s inborn prejudice against women – sexism, plain and simple – a leading Buddhist monk-writer has this to say.

“In making these comments, which may not generally be very palatable to womankind, the Buddha was not in any way making a wholesale condemnation of women but was only reckoning with the weaknesses of their sex.” (Venerable Narada Thera, “The Buddha and His Teachings”, Fourth Edition, 1988, Chapter 9, Page 156)

Narada Thera, however, is touching on only one aspect to this controversy. This aspect has been covered by a number of scholars, most prominently by Uma Chakravarti, who in an insightful essay (“Buddhism as a Discourse of Dissent: Class and Gender”) remarks that while the Buddha, in his volte-face over the question of female ordination, reveals his recognition, even acceptance, of women’s potential for salvation, by laying down eight rules, and making a rather pessimistic prediction regarding the Dhamma, he reflects the prejudices of his time, where women were expected to serve a subservient role to men.

Although Chakravarti doesn’t discuss it, the Buddha’s encounter with his former consort, Yashodhara Devi, tells us much about the times he hailed from. Bhikkhu Narada’s account tells us that Yashodhara, upon hearing that he had returned to Kapilavaththu, does not visit him herself, hoping that “the noble Lord Himself will come to my presence.”

When this eventually does happen – he enters her chamber and takes a seat – she goes to great lengths to reverence him, ordering her courtiers to wear yellow garments. When Siddhartha Gautama’s father Suddhodana informs his son of the extraordinary lengths to which she has gone to greet him, the Buddha merely replies, “not only in this last birth, O King, but in a previous birth, too, she protected me and was devoted and faithful to me.” He then goes on to relate the Candakinnara Jatakaya, in effect reiterating and re-emphasising values like loyalty and faithfulness that are seen as ‘becoming’ of women.Chakravarti’s argument is frankly disconcerting, but it is the most accurate from those that tackle this issue which I have read so far. While other scholars, like Kumari Jayawardena, trace Buddhism’s hostility to women, and to female activism, to the Buddhist Revival of the 19th century, in which a socially and culturally conservative (petty) bourgeoise took the lead, Chakravarti traces it to the Buddhist Chronicles that relate the Buddha’s life, as it was lived or is supposed to have been lived, themselves. My only critique of Chakravarti’s approach is that she makes no real attempt to relate those Chronicles – many of which, after all, were written after the Tatagatha’s passing away – to the context of their times.

Of course, one can hardly blame or single out the Buddha for these problems. In any case, the India of the Buddha’s time accepted gender and class oppositions. Moreover, it wasn’t just on issues concerning women where he was, to put it mildly, ambivalent. Even on the thorny issue of caste, he didn’t adopt a straightforward position: while he did condemn Brahmin caste structures, he also added that “by deed is one born a Brahmin”, thereby distancing himself from the kind of political critique of caste pioneered by, inter alia, Ambedkar. I suppose one can make the same case for liberation theologists: Christ, after all, did implore to render unto Caesar’s the things that were Caesar’s, a position liberation theologists would hardly adopt today.This aspect, as I mentioned earlier, has been covered. I am more interested in its doctrinal and philosophical dimensions. For the first and probably only time in his life, the Buddha is admitting to a theoretical lapse without really admitting to it. Perhaps to make up for his shortfall, the Buddha justifies his earlier position by attributing the decline of Buddhism – from a millennium to half a millennium – to the very gender he admits to the order. Even if that is not, according Narada Thera, a “wholesale condemnation of women”, we must admit that between the Buddha’s rejection of Gotami’s request, his acceptance after Ananda’s intervention, and his sober prognosis following his acceptance, there was an intellectual leap. I believe this issue needs to be investigated, more deeply.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com)

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