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Revisiting Newton Gunasinghe



By Uditha Devapriya

Newton Gunasinghe, easily one of the most brilliant minds of 20th century Sri Lanka, was the country’s first Marxist anthropologist. Gunasinghe’s contributions to the fields of social science and anthropology have not gone unacknowledged. Yet it took some time for his essays and scholarly works to be published: his doctoral thesis on Kandyan social relations came out in 1990, two years after his death, while a collection of his articles followed six years later. The Social Scientists’ Association, of which he had been a leading light and face, undertook the publication of both works. Together with Kumari Jayawardena and a handful of other scholars, he remains an authoritative name for social science students.

In his obituary for Gunasinghe, Jayadeva Uyangoda attempted to sum up his contributions to these fields. Uyangoda essentially argues that serious scholarship did not become a high point of local Marxist scholars until Gunasinghe’s time. Anthropology, considered for long a child of colonialism, had imbibed what he characterises as a “liberal” tradition.

In other words, the likes of Ralph Pieris and Gananath Obeyesekere could not be considered as part of a Marxist lineage. Accordingly, it was Gunasinghe who brought about a revolution, or shift, in the social sciences in Sri Lanka, overseeing a transformation that would define the course of the discipline throughout the years, and decades.

The length and breadth of Gunasinghe’s scholarship cannot be denied, or underrated. What he did was to bring about a synthesis of theory and research when studying the role of class and social relations in rural society. In his doctoral thesis, he attempted to chart no less than the evolution of those relations before, under, and after colonialism. This was perhaps the most groundbreaking piece of social science scholarship since Kumari Jayawardena’s studies of the labour movement. Not surprisingly, Gunasinghe shifted focus from urban elements to rural Sri Lanka, an area which, if we are to believe Uyangoda, had long remained the domain of “liberal” scholars, like Pieris, Obeyesekere, and Edmund Leach.

Obviously, one cannot assess such scholarly endeavours in isolation from the scholar’s own intellectual evolution. Before assessing and appraising that evolution, however, it would be apt to situate him within a specific historical context.

Gunasinghe’s development, as a leading anthropologist in the 1960s, mirrored a paradigm shift in the social sciences. Centring on and revolving around Peradeniya University, this shift followed a turnaround in historical scholarship from its empiricist roots in favour of more Marxist conception of the subject. Even though Marxist historiography never became a dominant strain at Peradeniya, or any other university in the country, it nevertheless spelt out important consequences for other disciplines, the social sciences in particular. That, in turn, mirrored a bigger shift in such domains across Western Europe.

Gunasinghe responded to these transformations as they unfolded. In the first phase of his career, he adopted a Marxist political-economic approach to the study of rural structures. Yet as much as the debates of the 1960s gave pride of place to Marxist scholarship, they also led to transformations, affecting the very basis of that scholarship. As Gunasinghe was to realise later on, he could not remain immune to them.

It was against that backdrop that he read and studied Gramsci and Althusser, from whom he came to appreciate the role of ideology in the formation of social structures. This would have a profound impact on him after he entered the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, where he had moved to, after a stint at Manchester University. His conversion from political economy to Gramsci and Althusser mirrored this physical shift: from the hub of the industrial revolution, Manchester, which had provided Engels with material for his studies of the English working class, he had moved to development studies, far away from doctrinaire Marxism. That, at least, is what Uyangoda seems to imply in his tribute.

Uyangoda contends that three ideological strands influenced Gunasinghe, during the 1970s: Althusser’s notion of epistemological rupture and overdetermination, and Gramsci’s idea of hegemony. This was not unique to Gunasinghe, nor to Third World scholars: the 1970s, more or less, witnessed the globalisation of Gramscian and Althusserian theory. Indeed, one of the more seminal contributions to Gramscian theory came in the late 1970s, with Stuart Hall’s essays on Thatcherism. Though the likes of Hall and Perry Anderson were criticised and even ostracised for foregoing on classical Marxist theory and trying to apply a theory grounded in the historical experience of early 20th century Italy, the spread of Gramsci’s ideas could not be held back. Althusser’s run-ins with the French Communist Party, accordingly, symbolised a need to move away from the tenets of classical Marxism.

Gunasinghe’s shift from the Marxist political-economic approach he had opted for and the Gramscian-Althusserian approach he was now opting for worked out at the level of theory and practice. At the level of theory, he applied Althusser’s notion of overdetermination to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka: in effect, he contended, the class dimensions of the war had been or was being replaced by its ethnic character. What this necessitated, for him, was a strategy to prevent the conflict from losing its class character: for that, he argued in a piece in the May 1, 1984 edition of the Lanka Guardian, the Opposition had to combat all racialist-communalist elements within its ranks before fighting the government. Otherwise, the class struggle faced the dismal prospect of being subsumed by the ethnic conflict.

At the level of practice, Gunasinghe played a more prominent part in organisations and institutions set up to combat racialism and communalism, particularly the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality or MIRJE. His earlier preoccupations had been in working class and peasant movements. To note his shift is not to suggest that by moving from the one to the other, he forwent on his concerns for workers and peasants. But from the one to the other, there certainly came about an intellectual turnaround: from material issues, he was now involving himself heavily in identity politics and ethnic concerns. Fittingly enough, he wrote several essays on these matters to various newspapers and journals.

Yet it is a testament to Gunasinghe’s abiding concern for the country’s politics and people that even this phase did not last for long. Towards the end of his career and life, Uyangoda argues in his tribute, Gunasinghe seems to have been dissatisfied with the approach he had taken to, inter alia, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. In Uyangoda’s own words, “he came to the theoretical conclusion that it is the social structures that determine, in the final analysis, ideological formations and transformations.” Representing a turnaround from his earlier position, it epitomised his return to Marxist political economy. Uyangoda takes great pains to show that this was “not a mere moving back to the old master, Marx”, yet he argues that he considered whether ideology responds to “changes in the social structure”, which is an eminently classical Marxist approach in my book. In any case, Uyangoda himself admits that Gunasinghe “returned to Marx via Max Gluckman and Louis Dumont.”

To me, this is the most crucial volte-face that Gunasinghe underwent in his career. But it is that phase which writers do not touch upon in their appraisals of the man: perhaps because he did not really go through such a phase, given his passing away in 1988. Yet to me it shows clearly that he had grown a little disillusioned with his shifts to Gramsci and Althusser, and that he had perhaps come to realise that mere application of their theory would fail to draw up a comprehensive picture of the country’s political situation.

That is why I disagree with Uyangoda’s assertion or rather assumption that Marxist scholars from before his time did not engage properly with field research. True, our Marxist thinkers and theoreticians were attached to political organisations, and they were hardly mobilising rural and working class elements for Masters or PhD dissertations. Yet one has only to read the likes of Hector Abhayavardhana and P. Kandiah to realise that their contributions were insightful and nuanced. These doubtless provided Gunasinghe the theoretical grounding for his own work, a point Uyangoda does not, for some reason, explore or probe.

Indeed, the point can well be raised that for Marxist political activists, working and living among the peasantry and working class became their fieldwork. Their engagements with these social groups, during the Suriya Mal campaign, in the Sabaragamuwa Province, helped them understand agrarian issues from a grassroots and Marxist perspective. Their research and volunteer work, during the anti-Malaria campaigns of the 1930s, moreover, helped urban Marxist intellectuals grasp the dynamics of rural social stratifications, especially with regard to caste: hands-down the least understood social phenomenon in Sri Lanka.

For me, the insinuation that local Marxist scholars were not scholarly enough in their work underlies a condescending attitude to the pioneers of Marxist scholarship in the country. It implies that those pioneers were not rooted in the society they lived in, and that they rigidly applied classical Marxist theory to their surroundings. What is ironic about such arguments is that they are no different to the arguments Jathika Chintana ideologues propound with relentless passion: that Marxists in Sri Lanka worked within a Western framework.

For Sinhala nationalists, Marxism failed to bond with the cultural roots of their country; for ex-Marxist academics, Marxism needs to move away from its engagement with material issues. That Newton Gunasinghe’s career shows the pitfalls of going down the latter path is something social scientists may not admit to. For me, though, the evidence is clear: having retreated a little from issues of relative advantage, none less than Sri Lanka’s finest Marxist anthropologist returned to them in his last few years. It is my belief that if social science in Sri Lanka is to return to its roots, it should follow a similar trajectory. This is a never ending debate, but one that is yet to actually begin over here.

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UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process



Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.


In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.


Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan



I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…



Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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