by G. H. Peiris
Professor Ananda Wickremeratne ranked among our most brilliant scholars whose careers commenced in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ceylon in the 1950s and the early ‘60s. From about the late 1960s, as our political turbulences and economic hardships intensified, many among them were induced to emigrate to countries where their qualifications and skills could be put into more rewarding use. When Ananda joined that exodus in 1979, belatedly and somewhat reluctantly, the prospects in the ‘West’ (especially the United States) for our graduates in Arts and Humanities were far more restricted than in earlier times.
The information on Ananda’s death following several years of deteriorating health reached us about a week ago. Death is such a non-event here that even the passing away of extraordinarily erudite scholars and professionals tends to remain ignored. That does not matter. But what does matter is that their legacies also remain forgotten or unknown. It is in this latter context that I am impelled to offer this homage to my friend Ananda in the form of a brief sketch of his academic achievements.
In what could be considered as the first phase of Ananda’s teaching career he remained in the university system of Sri Lanka – briefly at Jayawardenapura, and over a longer spell at Peradeniya – where, apart from being an extraordinarily popular teacher, he, with his colleagues like Kingsley de Silva, Michael Roberts, Gananath Obeyesekera and Ian Goonetileke, made an indelible contribution to a flourishing tide collaborative research in the Faculty of Arts. A greater part of his remaining university career was spent in the United States.
Ananda obtained the baccalaureate degree in History with honours in 1961. Soon thereafter he was recruited to the teaching staff of the Faculty of Arts. Having been awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship for post-graduate study in Britain, he gained admission to Oxford and undertook a programme of research at the successful completion of which he was awarded the doctoral degree. The in-depth inquiry into education and religious affairs during what could be considered the most vicissitudinous phase during the ‘Victorian Era’ of British dominance over the island – 1865 to 1885 – one finds in his thesis a much greater focus on the impact of the related social changes on the indigenous inhabitants of the island than in other detailed studies (except Ralph Pieris’ ‘Society in a Time of Troubles’ – a series published in the University of Ceylon Review) of spatial and temporal overlap.
It was probably the quality of Ananda’s doctoral dissertation in terms of detail anddepth, and refinement of presentation, that earned him a ‘Commonwealth Academic Staff Fellowship’, enabling him in the mid-1970s to enrich his earlier research at the archival sources in London, expanding the scope of his interests on the impact of the fluctuating fortunes of that 20-year period – social destabilisation caused by the process of dispossession of vast extents of land from Buddhist temples and shrines (vihāragam and dēvālagam) in the enforcement of the ‘Temple Lands Ordinance of 1856’, the accelerated growth of coffee plantations in the highlands followed by the spectacular collapse of the coffee enterprise from about the late 1870s, the advent of rail transport and intensification of the road network, the discriminatory educational reforms, and the changes in the modalities of taxation of the those engaged in paddy production.
Several of his publications during this period such as ‘Religion, Nationalism and Social Change in Ceylon’, ‘Rulers and the Ruled in British Ceylon’, and ‘Famine Conditions in Late-19th Century Ceylon’, considered collectively, convey the impression that they were a prelude to what turned out to become one of his major research concerns – viz. Buddhist revivalism and nationalism in Sri Lanka. It was while working on that subject with the thoroughness typical of his efforts that he contributed to the aforesaid collaborative research in the Faculty of Arts, the most significant outcome of which was the long delayed ‘University of Ceylon History of Ceylon, Volume III’ (1973) for which Ananda contributed four chapters and co-authored another with Michael Roberts. Yet another product of collective faculty effort of much wider scope – Sri Lanka: A Survey (1975) – also included a study by Ananda on ‘Peasant Agriculture’, in addition to those by Ediriweera Sarachchandra on the performing arts, and K. N. O. Dharmadasa on literature.
From the information given to me by Ananda himself, it was Professor S. J. Tambiah, the world-renowned Anthropologist at Harvard University, which made it possible for him to proceed to that university on fellowships granted by its Department of Anthropology and the Centre for the Study of World Religions. The Harvard offer represented the severance of Ananda’s formal links with the university at Peradeniya, but enhanced his opportunities to focus on the Buddha Sasana and the State in British Ceylon.
Following the completion of his assignments at Harvard, Ananda shifted to Chicago, with a Fellowship awarded by the Kern Foundation, a major contributor to the Theosophical Society of the United States. He also gained an Associate Professorship in the Department of Theology at the Loyola University.
From copies of Ananda’s publications which I have received as gifts I am aware that he has authored at least three major monographs since making Chicago his place of residence and the base of his academic pursuits – The Roots of Nationalism in Sri Lanka (several publishers including the Cambridge University Press); The Genesis of an Orientalist: Thomas William Rhys Davids and Buddhism in Sri Lanka (1985); and Buddhism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka (1995). There is a common methodological feature that could be discerned in all these works which Professor Paul J. Griffiths has portrayed in his ‘Preface’ to the first monograph referred to above as follows:
The writing of history, like so many intellectual endeavours during the past several decades, is in danger of being crushed under the weight of debates about theory and method. The virtues of historiography based upon close study of documentary sources from the period being written about, and with the unpretentious goal of offering a narrative account of what happened and why, are now rarely visible. This is both sad and unnecessary; sad because such historiography still has much to teach, and unnecessary whatever the value of purely theoretical debates, there is no reason at all why they should make every other kind of historical writing suspect. It is therefore a pleasure for me to write a Preface to Ananda Wickremeratne’s new book, for it is an instance, and a good instance, of the endangered species I have mentioned”.
As an avid reader of historical research on Sri Lanka but with no claim whatever to expertise in the related epistemological perspectives, I am reluctantly compelled to mention that the feature highlighted by Professor Griffiths is not the only difference between Ananda’s writings referred to above and the majority of other works of research in the same field by expatriate Sri Lankan scholars. What ought to be stressed is that, in Ananda’s publications, “what happened and why” in the highly ramified interactions between Buddhism and the State in ‘British Ceylon’ are presented to the readership devoid of any denigration of Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka.
Ananda being selected by the US State Department as chaperone for a well-planned tour of that country offered in 1986 to the Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha Thera was an interesting episode that had an inspirational impact on Ananda. The tour, covering as it did many places of interest, received considerable media coverage. During their sojourn in Washington DC I had an opportunity of meeting the Thera, and to observe the intellectual rapport that had developed between them.
Living in the 32nd floor of an apartment complex located on the ‘South Lake Shore Drive’ bordering Lake Michigan could have created in Ananda’s mind a yearning for a return to his ancestral home overlooking Bogambara Lake and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth-Relic in Kandy. This was the impression I got during my three-day visit to their home in 2003 when, as usual, Ananda, Swarna and their daughter Ranmini made my stay one of the most pleasant I ever had. Yet, returning to Sri Lanka was not an attainable option for Ananda – certainly not, because he could not abandon his wife and the children to fulfil his own desire. Nor, with failing health, could he survive without Swarna’s care – a consideration which became starkly evident when he attempted, with the consent of his wife and the children, a few years ago, to live alone at his home in Kandy, helped by a hired caretaker and his brother’s family supplemented with an occasional visit by friends.
Sadly, Ananda’s long-cherished research objective of producing a seminal work on Anagārika Dharmapala had to remain unfinished. The few drafts which I was privileged to read conveyed the impression that, despite failing health, he will somehow achieve his goal of presenting new insights on that sage in the literary style of effortless elegance typical of his writings. Finally, when he became almost totally incapacitated, that failure must have added to the burden of his grief.
We condemn casteist violence at Vaddukoddai; We resolve to fight against all forms of caste oppression
The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence strongly condemns the casteist violence unleashed on the oppressed community in Arasady, Vaddukoddai, in Jaffna, on the 19th of September 2021 by a group of dominant-caste youth and men. Many members of this community were injured during this violence. One person’s finger was slashed off. Houses, properties, work equipment and workshops belonging to the members of this community were vandalized.
Caste-based violence has a long history in Vaddukoddai and its neighbouring villages such as Ponnalai, Thunaivi, Koddaikaadu and Muthali Koviladi. The incident that happened in Arasady cannot be viewed merely as an incidental use of physical force by one group on another or a conflict between two groups, as sections of the media try to portray it; it is a violent manifestation of deep-seated caste prejudices existing within caste-based hierarchies and socio-economic dimensions of caste oppression that characterise Jaffna society.
Caste Structure around
Arasady, where this violence occurred, is a village that is geographically and socially divided along caste lines and caste-based boundaries. The villages in and around Vaddukoddai, where marginalized communities live, do not have paved roads. The sand pathways in these villages become clogged with flood water during the rainy season. Some of the houses lack basic facilities.
Parents from these communities complain that their children are discriminated against in the schools at Vaddukoddai. Even in places of worship, the community faces marginalisation and exclusion. The religious and social organisations that operate in Vaddukoddai are organized along caste lines. In everyday life, the marginalized people from this area face casteist slurs from those of dominant caste groups.
The oppressed communities at Vaddukoddai have been affected by poverty. Many of them work as daily-wage labourers. Some of them do not own inhabitable or cultivable land. Children from some of these families have had to drop out from school due to poverty. This community has faced systemic marginalisation in education and economic development, transportation and infrastructure facilities and culturally as well, for many decades.
Some members of this community were among those most severely affected during the protracted civil war in the country. They were displaced from Jaffna during the 1995 Exodus. Some of the displaced people later moved to the Vanni and had to live through the horrific violence that unfolded during the end of the war, before returning to Vaddukoddai a decade ago. In the post-war years, the state did not offer any robust programs for the socio-economic upliftment of this war-ravaged community. Some members of the community, in their effort to make ends meet, fell into the debt-trap of predatory microfinance companies. The violence they faced in September has compounded their sense of marginalisation.
Historically, caste chauvinism is transmitted from one generation to another; economic policies of the state do not take into consideration the ways in which caste oppression works in society; and Tamil political leaders ignore, downplay and conceal casteism prevailing within the Tamil community. These factors and forces have led to the current predicament of the oppressed communities in Jaffna. We need to understand the violence at Vaddukoddai as a part of these continuing social, political, economic processes of caste-based oppression and exclusion.
Caste struggles have been fought and the oppressed caste communities have risen against their oppression. They have fought, negotiated, compromised, and individually and collectively challenged the oppressive conditions of caste domination. The community at Vaddukoddai that faced casteist violence has shown great resilience and courage in overcoming caste-based marginalisation over the years. Their will to survive and to survive with dignity and their ability to recalibrate their struggles for the future bear testament to this. Their perseverance, resistance and community building and the openings created by the larger and everyday struggles against casteism in the North have made possible changes, mobilities and progress in geographic, social and economic terms.
Taking pride in all that they have achieved as individuals and as a community against all odds stacked against them, the people collectively and continuously strive for a dignified life for their community. They have faith in life and persevere to ensure that their children will not face the problems they and their ancestors had to face. Even though the recent violence has caused fear among the community, they are confident that they will overcome the threats they face in a collective spirit and by building alliances.
Justice for the Community and Eliminating Caste Oppression
The measures taken by the Police to ensure that those affected by the violence at Vaddukoddai have justice are unsatisfactory. It is even alleged that the Police on some occasions allied themselves with the dominant caste group that perpetrated this violence. The Police have not done enough to bring to book many who were involved in this violence. Politicians and lawyers associated with the perpetrators and others who are hesitant to challenge casteism head-on are sending feelers to the affected community to dilute the latter’s demands for justice and their democratic struggle against casteism. Such insincere attempts to weaken the community’s spirit of resistance should end immediately.
The Vaddukoddai incident has brought us to the crossroads of anti-caste activism and a reappraisal of how we look at the societies we live in. We need to acknowledge and struggle against the deep economic, political and social divisions that are amidst us, signified most potently by caste. As the community in Vaddukoddai rises against this latest infraction of their right to inhabit place, the right to work and live in society, we as a whole must act in solidarity with them. While condemning the casteist violence in Vaddukoddai, we commit ourselves to fighting and resisting all forms of caste oppression and building a social and political culture where there is no room for caste-based oppression.
The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence was inaugurated following the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 with a view to promoting coexistence and social justice among different ethnic and religious communities.
Following the casteist violence at Vaddukoddai in September 2021, the members of the Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence visited Vaddukoddai and held discussions with the people who were affected during this violence. The Forum met on the 22nd of October 2021 to discuss the violence and the challenges faced by the oppressed community in the aftermath of the violence. A decision was made at this meeting to issue a statement condemning this violence.
Prof. Anthony Joseph Weeramunda
An online commemoration event was held last week, organised by the Sociology Alumni Association of the Colombo University, in association with the Department of Sociology there, to appreciate the contribution that Professor A.J. Weeramunda, who passed away three months ago, made to the Department, training of undergraduate and graduate students and sociological and anthropological research over three decades, since the early 1980s. The well attended event showed the wide ranging impact that his presence and work at the University of Colombo has had on his students and colleagues there, over several decades. What I attempt in this short narrative is to highlight a few significant contributions he made to promote critical social science research in Sri Lanka, based on my own observations, over three decades, when I had the opportunity of closely interacting with him as one of his colleagues in the Department.
Professor Weeramunda became a regular staff member in the Department of Sociology, in the early 1980s, and was already the Head of Department when I moved in there, in 1985 as a young lecturer. Though he was much senior to me, at the time, I immediately felt that he did not worry about his seniority in dealing with his colleagues. He began to address me affectionately as Siri, giving me the tacit understanding that I should reciprocate by addressing him by his first name, Joe. No doubt our graduate studies for several years, in two broadly similar western countries, made the above interpersonal adjustment that much easier. But, then it did not take long for me to realise that he was a kind, unassuming, friendly, informal, humorous and down to earth person who did not worry about hierarchical values.
Joe Weeramunda was not just another academic. While his commitment to serious academic research and dissemination of knowledge was quite clear throughout, his personality has been multifaceted from his undergraduate days. Though his main area of study at Peradeniya was English, he also had an interest in the Sinhala language, performing arts, drama, and even religious activities in the area of his own faith. Exposed to the work of such well established, eminent academics, like Edmond Leach, S.J. Thambiah, Gananath Obeyesekere and Ralph Peiris, already as an undergraduate, his interest in Anthropology and Sociology no doubt grew rapidly. His decision to pursue his post graduate studies in Anthropology at Washington University, in the United States, was no doubt a reflection of the above interest. On the other hand, his subsequent research interests that he pursued after his post-graduate studies indicated an influence of even a wider spectrum of scholars.
Several years prior to joining the Colombo Sociology Department, as a permanent staff member, in 1985, I was a visiting lecturer there for several years. It was during this period, in 1984, Joe worked with several Sri Lankan and foreign academics, notably James Brow, Mick Moore and Gananath Obeyesekere, to organise a landmark conference at Anuradhapura on Symbolic and Material Dimensions of Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka. ‘This conference brought together many Sri Lankan and overseas scholars with diverse theoretical orientations. This was necessary given the longstanding theoretical controversy over symbolic versus materialist orientations among anthropologists and sociologists at the time. In the Colombo Department of Sociology itself, this division was evident. While Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, another well known academic there at the time represented the Materialist school, as was evident from his research and writings on agrarian relations in Sri Lanka, while Joe was more tilted towards the symbolic. When a good selection of papers presented at the above conference was published by Sage India in 1992 as a collection of essays edited by James Brow and Joe Weeramunda under the title: Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, it immediately attracted the attention of many scholars and students alike, in both Sri Lanka and overseas. I was fortunate enough as a younger academic to have had the opportunity of contributing to both the conference and the publication.
As a well trained liberal arts scholar and an Anthropologist, Joe displayed a keen interest throughout in conducting field research on diverse themes over several decades. He was convinced that undergraduate students should not only be exposed to theoretical discourses within the subject but also undergo practical training in conducting ethnographic research in the field. This would have been been at least partly due to his own exposure to field research conducted by senior scholars there with the involvement of undergraduate students at Peradeniya. So, he naturally tended to encourage students to spend time in the field, both in rural and urban areas. For instance, even the academic curriculum was modified to some extent to accommodate this aspect of undergraduate education in sociology in Colombo.
The Department of Sociology in Colombo was fortunate to establish an academic exchange programme with Leiden University in the Netherlands, in 1985, when Joe was still the Head of Department. This programme opened up many possibilities for promoting sociological and anthropological research on a range of themes, including the growing phenomenon of labour migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East. Many academic visitors from the Netherlands actively took part in research activities for a number of years in collaboration with members of the academic staff and students in the Department. These research activities no doubt pleased Joe as he could see his students playing an active role in field research as part of their studies.
Joe Weeramunda served the University of Colombo for about three decades. He made a highly significant contribution to the development of the academic and research programmes in the University’s Department of Sociology. He took an active interest in the development of research and other skills of the students. His very friendly and informal ways of dealing with his students helped him to develop a good rapport with students. As many of his former students attested at the commemoration event, he was not just another university professor for them. It is no doubt his multifaceted personality that appealed to them, turning their experiences as undergraduate and postgraduate students into lifelong memories.
I, as one of his colleagues in the Department for three decades, would remember him not only as a brilliant scholar but also as a good friend and a humble, down-to-earth person.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology,
University of Colombo
What to do with political ‘dishonourables’?
Everybody, it seems, is appalled by the attraction of politics as a haven for the Intellectually challenged. It is revealed that some 60 % or something, in Parliament (Our Head Office for Democracy), do not boast of six passes at the “O-Level”. The actual numbers are unimportant, because even one (in 225) is excess. (Please ask the peons who scuttle around the chamber, keeping the water bottles of MPs recharged. Their percentage will surely be higher). For their contributions to State performance, even tapeworms would probably be more generous in the returns to their hosts.
But give it to the Honourables and their ingenuity, they use a very fine method. This is to bestow, as many as possible, Doctorates – thereby raising the average – assuming that credits are transferable! Suits me, as my conscience does not permit the use of “honourable”, I feel more comfortable with Dr. – at least I would be right 50% of the time, and still rising!
It has often been stated that members of the Singapore Legislature are among the highest paid in the World, but as the Chinese itinerant cloth seller of yore would say to the bargaining housewife, “Yes, m’am, but good things no cheap, cheap things no good”. It has to be noted that in the Singapore comparison, the much-envied numbers are “absolutely all-inclusive”. No housing allowances, cars, petrol, attendance fees, subsidised meals, light bills, telephones, medicals or any other. I believe that the legendary Lee Kwan Yew, generously conceded that ‘any of his cabinet’ was at perfect liberty to dwell in the swankiest neighbourhood, or own the poshest vehicle – but at his cost.” The recently retired German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was asked, “Why are you always clad in the same overcoat? Do you not own another?” Retorted she, “I am a public servant and not a fashion model!” What modesty, what class!
It would be unrealistic to expect the electoral process to operate on the basis of an objective assessment of the merits of contending candidates. Equally, it cannot be denied that the performance and contributions of the successful are demonstrably unequal.
However uncomfortable it may be, some means of recognising and giving effect to the indisputable principle that “Performance must match emoluments” or “Service must match reward”. There is no simple method of achieving this manifestly fair goal. May one suggestion be useful as a working proposition? Every member should draw as emolument, their last drawn salary or fee, (supported by the latest Income Tax declaration), multiplied by a pre-agreed factor of five, 10 or even 20 (or whatever), as all-inclusive remuneration. Beyond that, no other payments or perks, hidden or otherwise whatsoever. It would be a great index of sincerity, if such a proposal were to be seriously considered (or voted upon, by a secret ballot if desired). This might help us to separate the grain from the chaff, and go some way in raising the public esteem of Parliament, from its unhealthily low present position.
One other compelling benefit will be that the indefensible crime of hawked vehicle permits would cease. We cannot afford to have criminals in our Hallowed (or Hollowed?) Parliament, can we? If this suggestion secures approval, a great improvement in quality of debate, behaviour, decorum and usefulness will soon manifest.
The vehicle permit issue deserves a further mention, because one justification is laughable and serious at the same time. One person close to the political centre and thus reliable, argued that contesting an election was very costly, and beyond the reach of the capable and the untainted. Only drug kingpins, smugglers, cheats, procurers and similar criminal types could afford such an outlay. All agree that an improved composition of Parliament membership is urgently needed. Therefore, the honest ones selected, deserve some means of recovering their costs. So, what could be wrong in their selling a privilege – vehicle permit, petrol coupons, fake medical claims, etc.? And if I may add, “Take-away packs” of the heavily subsidised restaurant grub?
But some problems arise with such a cozy attempt to justify this clearly improper practice. The major problem is, why did not this principle of “The end justifies the means” apply in the case of that poor woman who attempted to pinch two packets of milk powder to feed her starving kids, or that girl arraigned for picking a few fallen coconuts to help pay for her class books?
One may well be tempted to ask “Why should not those who make the Law (Legislators) be also permitted to break them?”. Or, in the case of politicised appointees, “Why should not the person who appoints, be denied the right to “disappoint”? Neat but not logical nor moral enough. Two wrongs do not make a right. Or, do they?
Dr UPATISSA PETHIYAGODA
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