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Implementing the Paddy Lands Act of 1958 – the Cultivation Committees

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

Introduction: A Personal Note

In the CCS in early 1958, I was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Agrarian Services Department, in charge of implementing the Paddy Lands Act of 1958. In setting out to draft the Administrative Regulations under the Act, I came across a number of structural, legal and operational considerations, which probably had not been foreseen by its authors. This was probably the first time that it was being looked at by an administrator with field experience – and the first time that it was being looked at by someone who was new to the Paddy Lands Act and to its thinking.

First, from a conceptual side, the concept and design of the Act did not fit, for example, the agrarian conditions of the Batticaloa district, which raised some problems of implementation. Secondly, because of the Act’s contentious nature, its legal provisions were likely to be challenged and its implementation obstructed. This made it necessary to examine its provisions from an adversarial point of view – which revealed many legal and administrative vulnerabilities. Thirdly, there were new problems of implementation. For example, the Act safeguarded tenants, but there were no records of tenants or of landlords. New records of land ownership, tenancy, etc. would have to be created from scratch before implementation could even begin.

In comparison, the land records in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had been built up over a period of 200 years by the British imperial power. How could such records be created within six months before the Act would become operational in six districts of the country – as stipulated in the Act? Moreover, there were all sorts of potential legal and administrative problems in the elections of the Cultivation Committees. And so on.

The Commissioner of Agrarian Services happened to be abroad for three weeks. Thus, not only was I was the Acting Head of a Class I, Grade 1 Department at the age of 28 years, but I also needed policy-level help, because this was hitherto unchartered territory in the country. So I asked for an appointment with the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Phillip Gunawardene, the author of the Act, whom I had never met or seen before. The Minister was charming, affable and even fatherly, over a cup of tea and cakes in Parliament. Getting down to business, I brought to his notice the number of legal difficulties and some of the administrative problems that needed his guidance.

I was so intent on my presentation of the potential legal problems of the Cultivation Committees that I failed to notice that he had tossed his spectacles on the table, which was a sign (I was told later) that he was losing his patience – and his temper. I was only half way through my list when he suddenly banged his fist on the table with a loud noise, stopping me abruptly. “Young man” he exclaimed: “Have you come across these difficulties in the field – or are they in your head?” When I pointed weakly to my head, “Go and work”, he thundered! “And when you come across these problems, then you come to me!” In complete disarray, I scooped up my files and scooted from Parliament, leaving a trail of paper in my wake! This was the first and last time that I saw Mr. Phillip Gunawardene.

Within a few months, he was isolated and pushed out of the Cabinet, to be succeeded as Minister of Agriculture by Mr. C. P. de Silva. This resulted in two difficulties that I had to face. Within a few months, every one of the legal and administrative problems that I had raised with the Minister had actually come to pass. But secondly, when I needed ministerial help, Mr. Phillip Gunawardene, was no longer there. Instead, there was a new Minister, Mr. C.P de Silva, his political foe, who was actually opposed to the Act, and who decided to let it fester in its own legal difficulties so as to discredit it countrywide. In fact, I had to battle with the new Minister to amend the Act in order to give effect to the intentions of Parliament, or to repeal it. I gathered that he was not prepared to go to Parliament to publicly repeal it, since it was publicly popular. As late as 1960, I was struggling to get the same loopholes plugged that I had pointed out to the former Minister (Mr. Philip Gunawardene) in 1958.

Although upset by my encounter with Mr.Phillip Gunawardene, I came later to recognize that I had been looking at it only from my own administive and legal point of view, not appreciating his political difficulties in going back to Parliament for amendments before implementation had even began! Although I never met Mr. Gunawardene thereafter, he must have appreciated my work, for he later paid me a handsome compliment in Parliament, as recorded in Hansard.

 

New Ideas: The Role of the Cultivation Committees

Starting from the premise that the state machinery, especially at lower levels, was subject to the influence of the landlords, the Paddy Lands Act created a new Agrarian Services Department at national level, devoted to its implementation. Moreover, in order to bypass the lower level of administration at field level (which was thought to be under landlord influence), it created Cultivation Committees with assured majorities for the actual cultivators. This attempt to bias the administration in favour of the weaker sections of the agrarian society represented a change from the view prevailing from colonial times, namely, that the administration would be neutral in its dealings with all sections of the public. It is relevant to note here that most of the agrarian reform programmes in Latin America started from the same premise. Similarly, they opted for separate, dedicated agencies for the implementation of their land reforms, outside their existing ministries. The experiences of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were quite different because their land reforms were carried out under martial law, or with the active backing of the military.

The Act was also innovatory in that it represented the first time in any country in South and South East Asia that legal powers in the implementation of tenurial reforms and the management of irrigation and cultivation at field levels were given to an elected body. The idea that an elected body of semi-educated farmers could take over functions from the government bureaucracy was clearly revolutionary at that time. For example, since the rent payable on a particular field was fixed as one-fourth share of the harvest, how could a distant court know how much the gross harvest of a particular field was? The Act recognized that such factual questions at field level could only be answered at field level. The failure to recognize this and to provide for beneficiary participation in implementing such reforms has been one of the greatest weaknesses of similar programmes in other countries of the region at that time.

The first role of the Cultivation Committees was to help in the implementation of the tenancy provisions of the Act (Sections 8-19). The Committees were also authorized to act as intermediaries between landlord and tenant in the collection of rents, etc., thus reducing the personal hold of landlords over their tenants. The Cultivation Committees were thus expected to play an important socio-psychological role in bolstering the confidence of the tenant-cultivators to actively claim their rights under the law.

Secondly, the Cultivation Committees were given important development functions, with powers for the advancement of paddy cultivation in their areas. They were given access to technical advice in the form of Agricultural Extension Officers and Village Cultivation Officers, who were made ex-officio members of the Committees; but with a right only to speak but not to vote at their meetings. It was hoped that with such technical advice emanating from within, and adopted by the Committees, would enable both paddy production and water-management to be greatly improved by the farmers, acting on their own volition..

A third major innovatory function of the Cultivation Committees was in respect of (irrigation) water management, with the Committees taking over the functions of the Irrigation Headmen (Vel Vidanes) at field level. These functions, among others, included enforcement of rules relating to cultivation dates, clearing of channels, fencing, etc, as well as improving water management. This was in a context where bureaucratic and technical means of water management at field level had already failed. The Paddy Lands Act of 1958 thus predated international recognition of the need for farmer participation in water-management by at least 20 years! In practice, however, the Cultivation Committees under the Act of 1958 never made any progress in this field because they were legally invalidated soon after their formation.

A fourth innovation was in the field of agricultural extension. It was evident then, and more evident now, that agricultural extension systems based on the western models of one extension worker dealing face-to-face with each individual farmer were completely unrealistic in most developing countries with a multitude of small farmers. For example, in Nepal, an extension agent would have to walk one whole day to even reach 50 farmers in remote vellages! No developing country in the world could afford such a system in the context of multiple small farmers, which would require a quadrupling or more of extension workers. Ironically, this has been the recommendation of FAO and the World Bank for decades since the Paddy Lands Act of 1958! It is therefore obvious that a two-stage system or a group system of extension had to be devised, either with the extension agent working through farmer leaders, or through a system of group-extension, as envisaged by the Paddy Lands Act. Thus, the Act’s introduction of such a group extension system with farmer education and participation in the planning and implementation of such self-decided programmes of agricultural development was at least 40 years ahead of its time.

Lastly, the tenurial provisions of the Paddy Lands Act needed to be supported by a broader package of institutional support for smallholder agriculture, in order for the Act itself to be effective. Such a package was provided by the establishment of the multipurpose cooperatives, agricultural credit for smallholders, a fertilizer subsidy, a guaranteed price for paddy and a pilot crop insurance scheme. It is important to recognize that the Green Revolution could not have taken off in Sri Lanka around 1967 if the institutional support structure for small-scale paddy farming had not been laid in the late 1950s, alongside and with the Paddy Lands Act.

While the Act provided for an active role by farmers’ organizations (the Cultivation Committees), it is clear that the latter were not neutral farmer organizations. It was known, for example, that the village cooperatives in most countries of South Asia were under the control of the big landlords. The Paddy Lands Act, therefore, went to great lengths to neutralize the overweening power of the landlords by weighting these Committees heavily in favour of the actual cultivators. The landlords, however, retaliated by getting the Cultivation Committees declared legally invalid. This had the effect of cutting off the implementation structure at the knees, with no feet on the ground, making field level implementation impossible.

Thus one of the main laudatory features of the Act, namely, its provision for beneficiary participation, proved also to be its Achilles heel, leading ultimately to its collapse. Although such local farmers’ associations weighted in favour of the actual tillers succeeded in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, they were supported by martial law, or by military force. In contrast, our Cultivation Committees were subject to a judicial system under the rule of law in a democracy. In fact, it even allowed a President of a Village Tribunal to famously declare from the bench: “Pillippua Parippua-ge kumburu panatha appete epa” (We do not want lousy Phillip’s Paddy Lands Act!)

The Department of Agrarian Services organized rounds of field-level meetings, trying to encourage the Cultivation Committees to hold fast, promising that legal amendments would soon be forthcoming to remedy their legal incapacity. But in fact, these amendments came too late. They were passed only after the landlords had already evicted their tenants, and only after the Cultivation Committees had been seen to have failed in their cultivation and irrigation duties, thus losing the confidence of the farmers themselves.

It is also necessary to consider the socio-political climate in the villages at that time. There was euphoria among the tenant-cultivators and agricultural workers when the Act was passed, heightened by their participation in the formation of the Cultivation Committees, which they felt would support them against arbitrary eviction and higher rents.

This enthusiasm was reflected in other aspects of cultivation too. Fertilizer consumption doubled in the first year of the formation of the Cultivation Committees, but collapsed in the year following their legal invalidation. This collapse caused great demoralization among the cultivators, since they had gained great socio-psychological support from the Committees in standing up for their rights. With their collapse, many tenants surrendered their rights, accepting their plight as “hidden tenants” with no rights under the law. There was chaos in the paddy fields too, since there was no agent/agency left to ensure that the fields were fenced or the water issued. Hence, by the time the Cultivation Committees were re-legalized by the Paddy Lands (Amendment) Acts of 1961 and 1964, the latter served only to close the stable door after the horse had bolted. The Committees never regained the vigour and vibrancy that accompanied the first flush of their formation under the Act of 1958.

 

Legal and Administrative Challenges: The Collapse of the Cultivation Committees

It is left only to record the legal arguments that led to the collapse of the Cultivation Committees of 1958 – which provides a lesson in itself of how legal finagling can upset progressive legislation.  A Cultivation Committee was to consist of twelve (12) members (Section 29). “Of the prescribed number of elected members of the Committee: (a) not less than three-fourths shall be elected by the qualified cultivators……; and (b) not more than one-fourth shall be elected by the qualified owners….” Clearly the intention was to give greater weight in the Committees to the actual cultivators as opposed to the landlords.

In administrative terms, it was clear that there had to be two separate elections: one for the owners to elect their members, and one for the actual cultivators to elect theirs. This required that separate electoral lists be prepared for the owners and separate ones for the cultivators. Given the predictable opposition from the landlords, every name on every electoral list was liable to be challenged, while the elections themselves could be disputed in law. I had pointed this out to Mr. Phillip Gunawardene in my first and only encounter with him.

But there were even more serious problems. Since the law and relevant regulations stipulated that all Cultivation Committees shall have twelve members, the refusal by landlords to elect their representatives would render most of the Committees invalid. This again was a potential problem that I had brought to the notice of the Minister in my initial and only meeting with him – for which I was chased out by him! Faced with this situation on the ground one year later, we took the position (with the agreement of the Attorney-General) that if the landlords failed to elect their three representatives, the cultivators could elect the full twelve members of the Committee, since they (the cultivators) were entitled to elect a number “not less than three-fourths” of the Committee. The landlords then consulted Mr. H. V. Pereira, the highest legal luminary in the country. His brilliant mathematical argument in the appellate court was that since the landlords were to elect “a number “… “not more than one-fourth”, and since the qualified owners had elected nought representatives, and since nought is not a number, the Cultivation Committees were not legally constituted! On this abtruse mathematical argument, the Court decided that the Cultivation Committees were not legally constituted!

All past and future actions of such Committees were also declared null and void! This ruling encouraged the landlords to boycott the Cultivation Committee elections all over the country, thus rendering them legally invalid and their actions legally void. Thus the implementation machinery of the Act at field level was completely demolished on the basis of this legal argument! Since these Committees had by law taken over important irrigation and cultivation functions (the vel vidanes having been abolished) their invalidation led to a breakdown in the common arrangements for cultivation and irrigation, thus causing complete chaos in the field. And the Minister in charge of its implementation (Mr.C.P. de Silva) was not prepared to pass the needed amendments to plug the legal loopholes.

This placed me, as the implementer, in a professionally unenviable position. On the one hand, my duty was to implement the Act; but on the other, my own Minister who was also supposed to be implementing the Act, seemed intent on making its implementation impossible. Nor was he willing to repeal the Act, since it still had popular appeal. Two Commissioners of the Agrarian Services had been transferred out of the Department because they had agreed to sign the needed amendments to plug the loopholes in the Act. After more than two years of this unequal and unsuccessful struggle, I capitulated and sought a transfer out of the Ministry.

 

(The writer, a former member of the Ceylon Civil Service, later worked for a long period at the UN’s FAO in Rome).



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Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole

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By Gwynne Dyer

I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.

The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.

The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.

Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.

Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.

The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.

Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.

Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].

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Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances

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The river we step in is not the river we stand on

By B Nimal Veerasingham

Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.

Peace memorial

This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.

US Foreign Policy

The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.

Fr Eugene Herbert memorial

Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.

Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.

Multi-talented

Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.

Excellence in Basketball

Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.

The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.

Reaching the stars

I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.

The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.

Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.

Last letter

In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.

‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.

The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.

Breaking down societal imbalances

El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.

The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.

This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.

 

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Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs

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By Uditha Devapriya

Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.

In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.

In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.

There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.

Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.

Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.

In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.

Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.

Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.

Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.

Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.

In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.

He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.

Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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