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Matters of Life and Death



by S. N. Arseculeratne

Humans have only two certainties to worry about: income tax and death. I do not have to worry about tax as I have nothing to be taxed. Death is worth a thought. Of course, that it is inevitable, is a painful axiom. But a thinking person will want to know why we are born and suffer if we are to die. Richard Dawkins has pronounced that it is all because of The Selfish Genes that tricked us here for their ulterior purpose of getting themselves propagated. I’d think that his book is important to the extent that it provokes us to consider the ultimate questions.

But humans have another dilemma – to live or to die, or as Hamlet had it “To be or not to be“?, that dilemma was well portrayed in the beautiful film of the 1950s, A Matter of Life and Death by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was about an airman who crashed and was hovering between life and death; his friends in the Celestial Court in Heaven wanted him up there but his earth-bound friends wanted him back alive on earth. The advocates on both sides gave utterly memorable speeches in pleading their causes. If I have a choice, I’d rather be Nobel Laureate Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Unknown Guest, a Discarnate Entity who from up there, helps his hapless erstwhile colleagues on this troubled earth, as convincingly portrayed by John G. Fuller in his factual accounts of The airmen who would not die and The ghost of flight 401.

My daily walks in our garden bring me to our beautiful flowers. I wondered, they are born, they become so beautiful and they wither and die. Biologists call this process Apoptosis, programmed cell death. And that sight gives me scope for daily meditation and a little philosophizing – on impermanence. Such instances keep prodding me to reconsider the perennial question of what life means and what is Man’s role in this sorry scheme of things that embroils him and his family in a world sodden with tragedies of all sorts. I have thought about these matters, in an essay titled The Phenomenon of Man, in which I considered Man to be just an epiphenomenon in Nature with no importance except as the unwitting carrier of Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Genes, through the fatal attraction for the bribe of a female. That essay merely used Teilhard de Chardin’s catchy title of one of his books but I certainly did not partake of his far-fetched and fanciful views which Nobel Prize winning biologist Peter Medawar shredded. My other essay The Final Testament and A Reconsideration of Rene Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum”) I think therefore I am) through a synthesis of the ideas of Buddhism, Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson and Andrew Newberg, in my book that was recently released “I think, therefore I am – Rene Descartes” referred to Man’s obsession with himself as the centre of the universe. Man’s “self” is of no other significance than as an impetus for rebirth and the perpetuation of genes, a matter discussed in my essay on Rene Descartes. Yet Man keeps wallowing in his selfish fantasy, in the fragile cocoon that he has built for himself with his self-centered pursuits. Authoress of crime stories P. D. James wrote in her Introduction to her book Death in Holy Orders (in which she came upon the body of a dead youth who had fallen off a cliff): “All our lives are as insignificant as a single grain of sand. My mind felt emptied, even of sadness. Instead, gazing out to sea, accepting that in the end nothing really matters, and all that we have is the present moment to endure or enjoy, I felt at peace”.

The ultimate cause of this crazy world with its hapless inhabitants may now be considered as I often do and as I see it, despite the inevitable scorn and ridicule that agnostics, incorrigible skeptics,

and self-acclaimed ‘rationalists’ in their confusion, will heap on me. Some would tentatively blame, the controlling effect, the compulsions of and motivations from the planets on this world and its living things; after all they have some cause as ancient wisdom did, the Sun gives life to things on earth and the moon causes tides in waters. The convincing point in their view that compels credibility, is that their statements including predictions have sometimes proved to be convincingly right. I’d refer readers to the books (1) The case for Astrology, by John West and Jan Gerhard Toonder (1970) and (2) Explaining the Unexplained by H. J. Eysenck and Carl Sargent, my short essay A test for the validity of astrology, and to the comments of Nobel Laureate in Physics Prof. Brian Josephson in his interview with BBC on why he turned from physics to parapsychology– “I started to feel that there was more to reality than conventional science allowed for….”, Lord Dowding “I confidently predict that all these ideas will be commonly accepted in a hundred year’s time when those who reject them will be classed with those who now believe that the earth is flat”, science philosopher Paul Feyerabend “When a representative of the BBC wanted to interview these eminent scientists (on their view that astrology is non-valid) they declined with the remark that they never studied astrology and had no idea of its details”, and the views of London’s engineer Professor Arthur J. Ellison that Britain’s Society for Psychical Research had at one time many Fellows of the Royal Society of London, and 12 Nobel prize winners.

The final word in liberating ourselves from this messy world is perhaps from Buddhist philosophy which dwells on the theme of Impermanence, as the inevitable root of suffering. Need we cogitate on these ultimate questions? or follow the Buddha’s splendid advice and relieve ourselves of these burdens, without bothering about unanswerable questions; a person shot with an arrow should first take the arrow out, without bothering about who shot the arrow and why. Yet, the questions are relentless and inexorable; how do we take the arrow out? Is it through meditation to reach the higher states or Jhanas, of self-awareness and self-realization? Thus, as I wrote in a short essay “My short-cut to heaven“, I think I have the clue, which is to ablate my ‘self’ denying it the option of re-birth.

The prescription for this ablation is to be found in the Buddhist Abhidhamma as referring to the last thoughts at the death off a person, cuti citta [pronounced chuthi chitta], as determining the thoughts at the conception of the next birth (Uppada citta). I would also earnestly recommend to those interested in this means for ‘taking the arrow out’, the article by Sharon Begley, Science and Technology section, Newsweek, May 14, 2001 on the experiences of the American neurologist Dr James Austin who was heading to the Zen Buddhist Retreat in London. “Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him, evaporated like a morning mist in a bright dawn. … His sense of ‘I’, ‘mine’, disappeared “.

Yet, personally I feel compelled to ask myself the ultimate questions, who are we and why are we here? On the one hand philosophers have endlessly argued on why we continue to be re-born as discussed in my essay “A reconsideration of Rene Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum….”, and on the other hand, is the fruitless consideration of what death means. The topic of Karma enters this discussion. All these questions invoke Albert Einstein’s trenchant comment: “To ponder interminably over the reasons for one’s own existence or the meaning of life, in general seems to me, from the objective point of view, to be sheer folly”.

My final thoughts on all this are that we face overwhelming insoluble problems in life – wanton destruction, crime, drugs, Hitler and his monstrous Nazis, Pol Pot, Prabhakaran and their intolerance, racism and absolutism, Corona Virus, HIV and other diseases of all sorts, environmental degradation, and of course spicing this incendiary mix are the determinants of ‘Belief’ that subsume nearly all of humans’ horrific activities. It is even more tragic that people waste their (and others’) time and energy on trivial and petty squabbles that are of absolutely no consequence to anybody.

A further thought is that this mayhem characterizes human societies and not animal ones; animals do not display these evils which only Humans do; if animals squabble it is for understandable and fundamental reasons of survival, hunger and sex for propagation of their kind, which would seem an irreducible mix even for humans but with the added expression of their talents and creativity. But Man has paid a heavy price for his alleged cerebral superiority over animals. It has spawned telling commentaries such as Charles Duff’s This Human Nature.

And that consideration brings me finally to the title of another book by Chardin, without any acceptance at all of its content – The Future of Man, which, in my opinion, is totally bleak; and, Heavens, to think of the ultimate human arrogance as depicted in my essay in my Rene Descartes book, Lets go colonise the planets, prompted by Stephen Hawking’s, perhaps tongue-in-cheek comment: “….. the long term survival of the human race is at risk so long as it is confined to a single planet…..“. Of course the unstated stark fact is that Man has himself created the threat to his own survival on earth. For the moment I will stick my tongue out at Life while exclaiming, as John Gunther did on the untimely death of his son from a brain tumour, Death be not proud.

(The writer is an emeritus professor of the University of Peradeniya)

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Democrat concerns about Biden’s candidacy deepens



Project 2025 – Ominous mandate for Republican agenda

by Vijaya Chandrasoma

Two weeks have passed since the disastrous CNN debate on June 27, and the news cycle has been consumed with the controversy whether Biden should stay in the race for the presidency or whether his dismal performance was not a sign of a more serious malaise.

At least 17 Democratic Congressmen and one Senator (and counting, just about every hour), have called on him publicly to withdraw. There are many more private murmurings that it would be best if he does hand over the torch to a younger, more electable candidate. Even Speaker Pelosi sent a carefully worded, lukewarm statement about Biden’s chances in November. There are rumors that Pelosi and President Obama have been meeting privately to discuss this problem. After all, the basis of Biden’s run for the Presidency in 2020 was that he would be a one-term president to defeat Trump and provide a bridge to the leadership of the younger generation of the Party.

Another hit came last Wednesday, when Hollywood idol, George Clooney, who recently participated with President Obama and other celebrities in a star-studded Biden fund raiser which raised over $30 million, released an op-ed in the New York Times, urging the Democratic Party to choose a new nominee, after Biden’s dismal debate performance. The fact that even major Democratic donors like Clooney are falling off the cliff indicates that the Party will run into serious financial problems ere long.

Urging Democratic lawmakers not to wait and see if the dam breaks, Clooney says, “The dam has broken. We can put our heads in the sand and pray for a miracle in November, or we can speak the truth…. We are not going to win in November with this president. On top of that, we won’t win the House, and we’re going to lose the Senate. This isn’t only my opinion; it is the opinion of every senator and congress member and governor I’ve spoken with in private”.

Clooney’s comments were devastating. Mainly because they were true; there is little doubt that many more donors will follow his lead. Significantly, Clooney gave President Obama a heads-up before he submitted the op-ed to the New York Times. Sources familiar with the exchange say that while Obama did not encourage Clooney to write what he did, neither did he object to it.

Even those who support Biden in a public show of loyalty are known to have a sneaking lack of private enthusiasm. Many have expressed fears, confirmed by current polls, that Trump will win re-election handily in November, and the Republicans will also gain control of the House and the Senate. With the Supreme Court completely suppliant to the conservative cause, the Trumpian Party will reign totalitarian supreme for the foreseeable future.

This whole argument of whether to change the course of Democratic leadership seems to be a waste of valuable time, with the election just under four months away. The Democrats must concentrate on one objective only, that of keeping Donald Trump, who will destroy the democracy of the nation, away from the White House. As Senator Bernie Sanders said. “What we are talking about now is not a Grammy contest song for the best singer. Biden is old. He’s not as articulate as he once was. I wish he can jump up the stairs of Air Force One, but he can’t. What we have to focus now is on policy; whose policies have benefited, and will benefit, the vast majority of the people of this country”.

After the debacle of the debate, the short-term aim for the Democratic Party was to remove the indelible impression of an old man, unable to articulate two very simple messages. One, the remarkable achievements of the first term of his presidency, which transformed a failing, criminally mismanaged Trump first term on the cusp of recession to the most robust economy in the world today – a record of bipartisan legislative achievements unparalleled in recent history. Two, the existential danger that another Trump presidency will threaten the democracy and the rule of law of the nation.

What President Biden must emphasize is the obvious. That he is old. He is not the man he once was. He did have a terrible night during the debate where he made these facts painfully obvious to an audience of 51 million viewers, a spectacle of frailty, perhaps worse, which can never be unseen.

But Biden must remind the American voters of the temporary amnesia they seem to be suffering about how they fared during the four years of Trump’s first term. How he gave a tax cut of over $1 trillion which benefited mainly the super-wealthy and the corporations; how he mishandled the handling of the Covid pandemic, ignoring the advice of the greatest scientists in the world, which caused the avoidable deaths nearly a million Americans and tanked the economy to near recession; how he incited an insurrection that nearly brought down a democratically elected government; how he stole top-secret government documents to trade with the nation’s adversaries; the list is endless.

Trump’s mind has become exponentially unhinged, with outrageous comments in his campaign rants, the latest being the explanation of his energy policy at a recent rally in Las Vegas, where he argued that he would prefer being electrocuted in a boat powered by an electric battery rather than being eaten by some imaginary shark! In truth, so would I.

Biden gave a relatively energetic campaign rally speech in Raleigh, North Carolina the day after the disappointing debate, where he acknowledged that he was not a young man, but stated that his record and character prove that he’s still the man for the job. He also made a forceful speech at the 75th Anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Alliance in Washington DC, quoting Reagan, “If our fellow democracies are not secure, we cannot be secure. If you are threatened, we are threatened. And if you are not at peace, we cannot be at peace….”Reagan knew it then, and we know it now. Our nations will continue to keep faith with what we’ve pledged in the years to come”.

However, NATO leaders present at the meeting, are petrified at the prospect of the re-election of Donald Trump, who threatened to leave the Alliance during his first term, and has made no secret of his deep admiration for Russian strongman, Putin. They appeared to be distressed at how much more frail and aged Biden seemed, just a month after the G7 meeting in Italy.

Both the North Carolina and NATO were strong Biden speeches, with no gaffes, but they were both scripted and made with the use of teleprompters, which did little to achieve what was intended: to convince us that the presidential debate was a one-off disaster. He did make a mistake when he introduced President Zelensky at the end of the NATO conference as President Putin, but he caught himself within seconds and made a joke of it.

Thursday’s crucial press conference went off relatively well for President Biden. He made a scripted 20 minutes speech about the success of the recently concluded NATO Anniversary celebrations, and listed the reasons why he is the best person to defeat Donald Trump in November; stressing that “I am the most qualified to run for this job. I am not in this for my legacy. I am in this to finish the job I started”. He articulated clearly his grasp of the economic and societal problems facing the country, and certainly spoke like a different person than the man we saw at the presidential debate.

He then invited questions from the international press. He faced nearly an hour of probing questions, but started off badly right at the top. When asked about the qualifications of Vice-President Harris to do the job, he said, “Look, I wouldn’t have picked Vice-President Trump (!) if I were not sure she could do the job”. But he answered questions about his policies if he wins a second term in remarkable detail, especially questions on foreign policy, which were right in his wheelhouse. But for a couple of minor errors, mistaking names which, as every octogenarian will tell you, is a constant problem, he did as well as could be expected.

But the issues that have plagued him and caused all the doubts about a second term which make for his low poll ratings, and cause doubts among his Democratic colleagues, remained unchanged. He is too old, he is too frail, he is failing in cognitive acuity and physical health. And these problems will only keep getting worse with the passage of time.

The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank with deep ties to the Republican Party, especially its Trumpian incarnation, released a 922-page document titled “Project 2025”, which outlines the far-right Republican agenda which the federal government will carry out immediately after Trump wins re-election. Project 2025 is authored by numerous officials of Trump’s first term, with contributions from conservative organizations intent on transforming the nation into a Christian white autocracy.

According to the website of the project, “It is not enough for conservatives to win elections. If we are to rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left, we need both a governing agenda and the right people in place, ready to carry this agenda out on Day One of the next conservative administration. This is the goal of the 2025 Presidential Transition Project”.

As The New Republic notes, “Project 2025 is a remarkably detailed guide to turning the United States to a fascists’ paradise….a Christian nationalist nation of the United States, one in which married heterosexuality is the only valid form of sexual expression and identity, all pregnancies would be carried to term, even if that requires coercion or death, and transgender and gender-nonconforming people do not exist”. And 90% of the poor and the immigrants, especially those from shithole countries, exist only to serve the wealthy, white 10%.

In a post on his Truth Social platform last week, Donald Trump attempted to distance himself from the extreme agenda of Project 2025. Although, if he had the ability to read, the text of the document, a carbon copy of his plans for America’s radical right, Christian white future, would have rewarded him with a wet dream of enormous pleasure.

The Republican National Committee Convention starts tomorrow in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the course of which Trump will be gloriously anointed as the Party nominee for the monarchy, as the presidency has recently been defined by the US Supreme Court. Trump will also likely announce his running mate next week, who will be selected on the basis of their answers to two vital questions:

Will you faithfully follow every command of His Republican Highness?

Will you agree to be hanged if you don’t?

So with four months to go, American voters are faced with the most important decision the nation has been threatened with in 250+ years.

We can only pray for one, even two more viable alternatives. Sure can’t do worse.

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Dream That was Peradeniya: The Beginning of the End



by Ananda Wanasinghe

Last Sunday my friend Nissanka Warakaula wrote about the halcyon days at the then iconic University of Ceylon at Peradeniya. Nissanka was three years senior to me. I went down from Peradeniya in 1966. In my first term of that final year, I had the misfortune of being present on the day that set off the decline of “The Dear Perpetual Place” as Prof. Ashley Halpe lovingly and aptly referred to it in the excellent anthology “Peradeniya: Memories of a University” (1997).

A major, and most un-academic, diversion from studies during the first term of every year was routine during our time at Peradeniya. With exams being a distant two terms away, these rumpuses on campus were taken as lively distractions from studies. In my first year (1962) the disturbances started when some left-wing students jostled Mr. Dudley Senanayake, the then Leader of the Opposition, who had been invited to address the students at the Arts Theatre. Two other strikes followed in ‘63and ’64. So, inevitably, a boycott of lectures based on 12 demands commenced on Monday, December 6, 1965. Provision for regular meetings between the Vice Chancellor and students’ representatives; assured government employment for all graduates; and making all minor workers permanent employees of the University were among these demands. Unfortunately, no one seems to remember any of the other demands now. However, they were all couched in the language of the strident radical left-wing politics of the time.

In my narrative below, I write what I recall vividly of what I witnessed that day, as well as what I gathered from others immediately after the events. A few gaps in the account have been filled after discussion over a few weeks, with some of my contemporaries: all of us going down ‘memory lane’. This account amounts to a series of snapshots of incidents in the larger episode and is by no means a minute-by-minute commentary. There could be some incidents that I am not aware of.


I was woken up at five in the morning from a deep slumber by the sound of loud knocking on some doors on my floor in the Wijewardane Hall accompanied by loud talk. It was Saturday, December 11, 1965.

The previous night most Hall Societies including ours had decided, after much fractious debate, to end the strike. A large number of students who were against the strike, including myself, participated in a boisterous march to Ramanathan Hall to announce to all that reason was restored.

Now it seemed that the strikers headed by my friend and batch-mate N. Shanmugaratnam (Shan), President of the Union Council, had plotted and planned throughout the night in Marrs Hall and were ordering the first-year students out to continue with their agitation. I realized that we, the anti-strikers, had been preempted. Shan was a decent and good-natured fellow with a strong mind. Politically, he was a ‘Maoist’ with the Peking Wing of the Communist Party. He also had the support of the other left parties for the strike. However, there were also opportunists who were after glory for themselves by indulging in vain deluding heroics.

At about 5.30 in the morning, I telephoned Shan at Marrs Hall and spoke with him for about five minutes. [Shan and I were in the Agriculture Faculty and a large majority of faculty students were against the strike and continued with the lectures and practical work. I openly campaigned against the strike in the Faculty as well as among the fellow students at Wijewardane.] I asked him to rethink the possible consequences of going ahead with the strike, particularly because there were a significantly large number of students who were against the strike. He told me that he believed what they were doing was the right thing and that he was determined to go ahead. I cautioned him about others who may have different objectives and told him to be a little careful of his own personal safety in the event that things got out of hand. It was a very cordial exchange that would be unthinkable in the present culture of campus politics and agitation anywhere in Sri Lanka.


After breakfast I was alone in my room on the second floor of the first wing as my room-mate Gerry Jayawardane had gone for lectures. As I had no work in the Faculty that morning I practiced on a ‘Button Accordion’ That I had borrowed from the late Dr. Harold Wijetunga, the Senior University Medical Officer and a very kind gentleman. After a while I decided to catch up on the sleep lost earlier in the morning. I must have slept for about an hour, when for the second time that day I was rudely awakened by the door being burst opened and two girls and a boy rushing into the room screaming “wedi thiyanawa, wedi thiyanawa“. All three of them were covered in perspiration and hysterical.

I told them to sit down and try to be calm. Looking out of my window I saw some policemen come running past Jayatilaka Hall towards Kandy Road with a large number of students in hot pursuit. Just past the railway under crossing, almost out of my line of sight, the students caught up with them and the last policeman was dragged down by the leading pursuant. In an instant a dozen student were upon him. I also saw one student picking up a large rock with both his hands and walking towards the scuffle which was now out of my sight. I thought the policeman might be killed.

Later I learnt that Sarath Ranasinghe of Wijewardane, my classmate in school, while walking to the Medical Faculty had been there on the spot when the students attacked the policeman. He boldly intervened and stopped the student with the rock before he could hurl it on the fallen policeman. Sarath received a few blows himself, but managed to prevail on the assailants to have mercy on the man who was badly injured. When they left, Sarath, being well-built and strong, carried the injured man (Sgt. Seneviratne) up the embankment to the road and continued towards the Medical Faculty to have him attended-to when a police ambulance arrived and took the Sergeant to the hospital. This incident was reported in ‘The Island’ of October 19, 2008.

The spark that set off the violence had been lit at the entrance to the Biology Lab. Kushlani Ranasinghe, a final-year student from Sangamitta had been prevented from entering the zoology lab by picketing strikers lying supine covering all approaches to the main entrance to the building. Evidently, a daring girl, she waded across this mass of ‘fallen’ humanity and stumbled into the doorway where she was stopped from losing her balance and helped in by her batch-mate R. Rudran from Arunachalam Hall, who had arrived before the entrance was blocked. Following this event, Prof. Hilary Cruz, who was authoritarian and could hardly relate to the students, had called the University Proctor.

Kushlani recalls Dr. Tommy Wickramanayake (Proctor) turning up and telling the picketing students to vacate the place, and going away saying that the police would be called if they did not. When there was no response from the strikers Prof. Cruz had called the Police. In a while, the police arrived. Bandula Perera from Wijewardane remembers Mr. R. Sunderalingam, SP Kandy, removing his regulation cap in an obviously conciliatory gesture, and proceeding to address the strikers. He spoke as a graduate of Peradeniya as well as a past President of the Union Council and appealed to the students to disperse peacefully. At this point Shan stepped out and spoke to the gathering asking them to listen to the present President and said that this is our campus, and the police have no right to interfere. He added that the students were not moving away from where they were.

Not long afterwards, a group of policemen had arrived at the scene fired tear gas at the crowd of students and baton-charged them. One of the first to get hit was Shan, and he was bleeding from the head. A Police Inspector took hold of him saying that he had a big mouth. Let me quote Shan about what happened next. “…Then I ended up in a police truck. That was when WS (Prof. W.S. Karunaratne), fleeing the angry crowd, ran towards the truck calling out ‘ralahamy, ralahamy’, and got in and sat with me. He was quite chatty!! The students were now marching in big numbers towards the truck. Coora (P.S. Cooray) was one of the leaders. He removed his shirt, waved it, and raised his clenched fist and shouted at the police. In the melee I saw a tall man steadily walking towards the police truck. Pointing at me, he told the officer standing there – ‘You must release this man, otherwise it’s going to be difficult to control the students.’ I came to know later that he was Prof. Sivapragasapillai of the Faculty of Engineering. After some time, I was taken to the Kandy police station. Prof. Siva had followed us to the police station. He bailed me out and took me to the hospital. Many students visited me at the hospital. Some of them wept.”

The students who had now been provoked attacked the police with stones. Pandemonium reigned at the Biology Building. Rudran remembers hearing shots being fired, and a large number of students fleeing across the cricket field towards the Arts Faculty. Police had fired warning shots in the air. He remembers he was sick the entire day from the tear gas that came into the lab. Kushlani recollects that she, with other lab staff, dressing wounds of a few girls, among those who rushed into the lab for protection.

They were bleeding from cut injuries. There were no reports of any student sustaining gunshot injuries. H.L. Premasiri, an engineering student arriving late in a group to join the protest saw Neville Perera, a well-known loud-mouthed agitator who seemed to bask in the adulation of his followers, come loping down the Old Galaha Road. As he passed Premasiri’s group, he shouted “sahodarawaruni duwanda” [run comrades run]. So Premasiri and others beat a hasty retreat back to Wijewardane Hall.

Among those who fled towards the Arts Faculty was K.S. de Abrew, an engineering student who was a hyperactive supporter of the strike. A few days earlier, he was apprehended by Marshals while slipping leaflets under people’s doors at night. He was an inveterate troublemaker. There were a large number of students at the Arts Theatre who were injured during the baton charge and the resulting stampede. Abrew with a colleague who had a scooter rushed to the Health Center on Sanghamitta Hill to get some medical supplies for dressing wounds. When the Sister-in-charge refused to give anything, they forcibly grabbed as much cotton wool and bandage rolls as they could and rode back to the Arts Theatre.

On his way up and down, he saw a few items of furniture thrown down to the road from the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge. A while later, Sunila Munaweera (final year) an ardent supporter of the strike who enjoyed missing lectures, and Shirani Fonseka (first year) both from Ramanathan remember watching him spellbound as he made a fiery exhortation to the satankaami sahodarawaru (battling comrades) to continue to battle the reactionary forces on campus. Sunila claims that she didn’t know any of the demands she was ‘fighting’ for. Shirani says she had several misgivings about the demands as well as about picketing, but because everyone in her group of friends supported the agitation, she also joined the boycott of lectures but covertly avoided joining in picketing. It is most likely that such attitudes of thrill-seeking and passive participation prevailed among a large majority of the strikers.

A group of students had broken into the Lodge and damaged and thrown out furniture. When Coora visited the place later he saw some periodicals burning on the lawn. And as Samarasinghe says, there was only a little damage caused to the building and the furniture.

There were too many enraged students who were now willing to risk everything to get even with the police and the vastly outnumbered policemen were forced to turn around and run for dear life. It was these men that I saw from my window. By this time, the three [probably first year] students had sought some other place of refuge; and I walked down to the ground floor to find out what was going on. There were a large number of boys and girls in the dining hall and the lobby, and an even larger crowd of boys gathered on the large lawn out in front. It seemed the police had left the campus. Students in small groups were piecing together the preceding events and relating their individual experiences. By now the students had shed their differences and were united against the Police.

Before long, Police returned in larger numbers. Many of them were now armed with rifles. They ordered everybody outside to get inside Wijewardane Hall, and they seemed to mean business – after all, a few of their comrades had been badly mauled by the students earlier in the day. But there were still a few very angry hot-headed students willing to defy the police. However, a few senior students, including Coora and myself stepped out of the crowd and coaxed the others into the Hall. This took some time, and I clearly remember two constables close behind Coora and me pointing their rifles at us. The police ordered students not to leave the Hall. There must have been close to a thousand students now in the Hall. I cannot quite remember about lunch, but I guess that everybody shared what had been prepared for only the 500 occupants of Wijewardane.


Then came to pass the most comical as well as pathetic episode during my four-year stay at Peradeniya.

It was now about two hours after the cessation of hostilities and things seemed to have settled on campus. But police jeeps kept prowling the roads. No student ventured to step out into the open. Then an announcement was made that there would be a meeting of the students in a short while in the dining hall which would be addressed by “The Leader”. To me this sounded ominous and mysterious because everybody knew that Shan was under arrest. I wondered if there was further mischief afoot.

For a while one and all waited in suspense, quandary, and misgivings as to what was going to happen. Then amidst much hailing and hosannas from some of the leading strikers, in strode Neville Perera on to the podium. His supporters kept cheering until he signaled them to stop. Then without any preliminaries he proclaimed that the Union Council was dissolved, and the Revolution had started!! He also announced that the harbor workers in Colombo had gone on strike and that CTB would follow shortly.

Perera went on to give instructions as to how we should conduct ourselves, the details of which I don’t remember. And in truly revolutionary fashion he appointed several agents provocateurs, to act on whatever the ‘revolutionary council’ decreed and also to maintain order. True to form, and to the best of my memory, these agents were bestowed with the code name ‘Danco’. I well remember Bandula, one of the Dancos, marching up and down the lobby of Wijewardane like a drill sergeant ordering students not to leave the Hall. Neville Perera did not stay long after these histrionics and was cheered out by his allies and devotees.

To me it seemed that all this nonsense was taken seriously by everybody present. I felt sad for such seeming credulity of the absurd, among those who were usually referred to by the literati as the ‘cream of the country’s intelligentsia’. Or were they all stunned out of their wits by the bombast?

Towards the evening, Marshals came and asked everyone to get back to their respective halls of residence. They escorted the girls back to their halls. Dancos seemed to have renounced their arrogance and anticipated role in the revolution had re-merged with the students. The police disguised Rudran and Kushlani in police raincoats and evacuated them to Colombo in the evening, for their protection. There came an announcement that the university had closed, and all students were required to leave the campus the next day. This was only one week ahead of the scheduled end of the first term. So ended this unforgettable day.


With the start of the second term, the University instituted action against those who were perceived as indulging in violence. This included all the ‘Dancos’. The inquiries were conducted by a triumvirate comprising Dr. Tommy Wickramanayake (University Proctor) and two other senior staff members. The suspect students were allowed, if they so wished, to be represented by another student. [This was the era when today’s State Counsel were called ‘Crown Counsel’. A wag promptly labeled those representing the suspects – ‘Clown Counsel’.] Understandably, most ‘suspects’ chose those who were openly against the strike to represent them. I ‘defended’ Bandula and the late Sinha Perera.

The Court Case and After

The case, Queen vs. N. Shanmugaratnam, N. Perera, Sydney Jayasinghe, and W.B. Wijeratne, was first taken up in the Majistrate’s court. They were charged with unlawful assembly, arson, attempted murder etc. Sydney was discharged at this inquiry. The other three accused stood trial at the district court in Kandy and were defended by a team of three lawyers headed by Mr. V. Karalasingham. In the end, an understanding judge conditionally discharged the accused students.

This was followed by an inquiry by the University’s Board of Residence and Dicipline. The inquiry was conducted by a panel headed by Prof Bawa with Dr. Mrs. Aluwihare as a member. Shan and Sydney were suspended for one year. Wijeratne and Wijegunawardane were suspended for one term. Neville Perera was not suspended on the technical point that he was not a student at the time.

Long-term Consequences

This event was the turning point of the decline of universities in Sri Lanka. The government took the opportunity presented by the violence to appoint Civil Servants as Vice Chancellors instead of electing them from among the academics. The Minister of Education, who had an axe to grind with the university, took every opportunity to intervene in the affairs of the universities. (Incidentally, the minister’s daughter and future son-in-law were students at Peradeniya during this period.) Prof. Ashley Halpe has recounted in some detail the decline of the Universities in Sri Lanka following this event in the anthology mentioned above.

R. Sundaralingam, at the time, Acting S.P. Kandy, and a former president of the Union Council, is on record as telling the Vice Chancellor early in December 1965 “…that police intervention in university student unrest would aggravate the situation, the Vice Chancellor, … was adamant that police should intervene to bring the situation under control.” Sir Nicholas had also reported to the Prime Minister about the SP’s attitude. He further says that the police intervened in response to a call from Prof. Cruz claiming that the biology building was being stoned causing heavy damage. [‘The Island’, October 19, 2008.]

Sir Nicholas Attygalle had a reputation as an exceptionally gifted obstetrician and gynecologist but not as a great educator. He was authoritative, rarely accessible to students, and hardly responsive to student demands of any sort. Newspapers of the time often referred to him as the “Iron Chancellor” after the first German Chancellor von Bismarck. The students’ demand for regular meetings with him reflected this obstinate attitude of his.

It was also known that there was an irreconcilable rift between Sir Nicholas and Prof. EOE Pereira, Dean of the Engineering Faculty. The latter was known to be an excellent teacher and was almost venerated by students of his faculty. He never compromised on the high academic standards expected of them. There would have been members of the staff who supported one or the other of them. This may have been a major reason for the strong participation of the Engineering Faculty in the strike. However, there must have been many other highly respected senior staffers who did not take sides. They perhaps could have opened a dialogue/initiative with student leaders and political leaders of the time who themselves had been the beneficiaries of post-graduate education at prestigious universities in the West. Such an effort towards the development of the University along the liberal lines that Sir Ivor Jennings had intended for Peradeniya could well have prevented the deterioration of university education in Sri Lanka that we see today.

In hindsight, it seems that Sir Nicholas may not have been the best to succeed Sir Ivor who went on to hold the positions of Master of Trinity Hall and Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University. Prof. EOE Pereira was appointed Vice Chancellor in 1969. But by that time, the university system had undergone a seminal change, and its effective management had passed on to the hands of mere politicians.

It is the country’s misfortune that the pantheon of academic luminaries that graced the then University of Ceylon could not deliver a scholar as Vice Chancellor who would have commanded the respect of the staff and the esteem of the students.

How they ended up – 50 years on

Cooray P.S. – Retired Teacher and voluntary social worker; Bandaragama

De Abrew, K.S. – Senior Water and Sanitation Engineer, Botswana

Fonseka, Shirani – (Mrs. De Abrew) Amateur Ceramic Artist; Botswana

Jayasinghe, Sydney – Consultant Director, Bogala Graphite Company PLC; Colombo

Perera, Dr. Bandula – Company Director; Deputy Chairman, Public Utilities Commission; Board Member, Industrial Technology Institute; Colombo

Perera, Neville – Germany (when last heard of)

Premasiri, H.L. – Water Supply Engineer; Specialist in Procurement; Colombo

Munaweera, Sunila – (Mrs. Rajawasan) Formerly; Statistician, RVDB; Now Aerobics Instructor; Mt Lavinia

Ranasinghe, Kushlani – (Mrs. Amarsuriya) Formerly, Executive Director, Alcohol and Drug Information Center (ADIC); now, voluntary social worker, Colombo

Ranasinghe, Sarath – Consultant Physician and Managing Director, Kandy Private Hospital

Late Rudran, Dr. R. – Scientist Emeritus, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. USA

Shanmugaratnam, Dr. N. – Professor Emeritus and Director of international studies,

Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Aas, Norway

Wanasinghe, Ananda – Consultant Development Economist, Colombo

Wijegunasinghe, D.

(now Wije Dias) – General Secretary of the Socialist Equality Party, Colombo

Wijeratne, Dr. W.B. – Director, Research & Food Technology, Harvest Innovations, Iowa, USA

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Sir Ponnambalan Ramanathan  (1851- 1930): The First Member for Ceylon



Sir Ponnambalan Ramanathan

(Excerpted from Selected Journalism by HAJ Hulugalle)

In 1911 Sir Ponnambalan Ramanathan was elected to the educated Ceylonese seat in the Legislative Council at the age of sixty. The seat was so named because, even as late as 1910, the Governor did not think that Ceylonese in general were fit to exercise the vote. Ramanathan was elected to the seat largely by the votes of the Sinhalese. Admittedly, he was a brilliant speaker and had held the high office of Solicitor-General. He defeated Sir Marcus Fernando, a distinguished physician and a man of rare ability in many fields.

The 125th Anniversary of the birth of Ramanathan will fall on Friday April 16, 1976. As a young man he was a hard-working lawyer who was nominated a member of the Legislative Council at the age of 28 to succeed his uncle Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy as the ‘Tamil member’. He had to give up his seat when he was appointed Solicitor-General.

The late Sir Gerard Wijekoon has written, referring to this period: “When he was pitted against Fredrick Dornhorst who was then the leader of the unofficial Bar. and a strong advocate, there were great encounters of forensic eloquence. Both have a commanding appearances. Dornhorst was powerful and eloquent. Ramanathan was suave in manner and polished in diction. He was never ruffled and was at his best when he re-examined a witness whose evidence had been damaged by defending counsel”.

Ramanathan had acted as Attorney General but was never confirmed. The Chief Justice, Sir Charles Layard, did not like him. It was no doubt fortunate for the country that he did not find a place on the Supreme Court bench himself. He lived to become a fearless politician and a tribune of the people.

He had mastery of the English language, a beautiful voice and a rare felicity of phrase.

When I first became a journalist in 1918, he was still the leading politician in the Island. His reputation for courageous action has been enhanced by the untiring fight he put up for the Sinhalese Buddhists who were badly treated by the Government over the religious riots of 1915. Many of their leaders

were unjustly punished on false evidence. Ramanathan stood up for justice and took their appeal to England at a time when the seas were infested with German submarines.

No one who saw him in those days could forget the lithe and graceful figure in his sixties in a well-tailored tunic which went down to his knees and a shapely turban to cover his head. A contemporary paid him this tribute.

“There could be no question of Mr. Ramanathan’s usefulness and qualifications as a Councilor. He mastered every subject under discussion. He was a keen and merciless critic of Government and his criticism was generally just and fair.”

“He was fearless in debate and always kept cool and unruffled. Governors and Colonial Secretaries stormed at him, but in vain. He kept his head packed in ice. G.T.M. O’Brien, the great Colonial Secretary had tried to squash him but in vain.”

“Ramanathan was received in London as the greatest Unofficial of Ceylon and sported a bejewelled turban and magenta shawl much to the vexation and amusement of the Colonial Englishman. Sir Arthur Gordon poked fun at him and asked in the Council: “Why do we not see that gorgeous turban and magnificent shawl”?

It was not becoming for a Governor to hold up to ridicule the personal appearance and dress of one of the Legislative Councilors and Ramanathan administered a dignified rebuke which compelled a sort of apology”.

All three grand-sons of Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy were in due course in the Legislative Council. Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam were different types. The first had much talent but little ambition. He was warm-hearted and enjoyed life. Arunachalam was able, methodical and public-spirited. He wrote books, and books have been written about him. He won scholarships, imbibed the traditions of Cambridge University and exchanged letters with the Earl of Crewe and Edward Carpenter. He built the structure of Ceylon’s Reform Movement step by step.

In a well-documented book Ramanathan wrote on the Riots of 1915, he published a statement by a future Prime Minister of Ceylon (D.S. Senanayake) in which the latter said: “on the fifth of

August 1915, after 46 days of incarceration under as unpleasant circumstances as one could imagine, I was let out on my entering into a bail-bond. The conditions of this were that I would not leave Colombo for a period of one year, and that I should appear before any Commissioner if called upon. I was also to deposit Rs. 10,000 in cash and enter into personal bail for Rs.50,000″.

The years mellowed the fiery radical in Ramanathan. He came to the conclusion that education was more important than constitutional reform and scorned what he called “the freedom of the wild ass”. The noisy political caravan moved on while he sat in his study devising his own plans for the government of the Island. From under his very nose someone stole a secret memorandum which he had inspired and it was published in the newspapers.

The seeker after truth and commentator on the Christian gospels found solace and refreshment in the Upanishads. A long life had brought him all that a public man could desire: wealth, fame, the triumphs of the legal forum and the political arena, respect, recognition, the pleasures of the intellect and tranquility of the spirit. With his snow-white beard he was referred to in his later years in the Legislative Council as the “venerable knight”.

There is a photograph of him taken in June 1930 in Buckingham Palace gardens during a reception in which he is seen in conversation with the British Prime Minister Ramsay Mac Donald. He died on November 26 of that year.

First published in April 1976

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