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Rolling out holistic solution to perennial problem of laws’ delays



Speech delivered by

M.U.M. Ali Sabry, PC 

Minister of Justice

at the 47th Annual Convocation of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka on the 27t March 2021 at the BMICH.

Your Lordship the Chief Justice, Hon. Attorney General, Your Lordships the judges of the superior courts, the President of the Bar Association and outgoing President, Committee members and my learned friends.

It is a pleasure to be here today, amongst the familiar faces I am used to seeing across the bar table for many years.

Firstly, I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to Mr. Saliya Peiris, President’s Counsel who won the election as well as the newly appointed members of the Exco. The bar has chosen you as its leader, and I wish you the strength and the determination in performing this important task. You carry on your shoulders the responsibility of guiding this noble profession in the years to come, and I have no doubt that you will continue to maintain the traditions of the bar whilst ensuring that the bar remains apolitical and stands up for the rule of law without fear or favour.

The last year has been a tough one, to say the least, and it is commendable that the BASL throughout this period was actively involved in finding solutions to ongoing problems, and was supportive of its members, the judicial administrative staff and litigants. You have done a great job, and I hope to see the good work continue.

The legal profession is one which has no equal. I say this because, there rests on the profession and with it the Bar Association a heavy responsibility to the citizens of this country, and to the country itself. It has a vital role in protecting the rule of law, maintaining the independence of the judiciary and protecting the sovereignty of the country. This responsibility is not a passive one, it is a positive one where there is a need for the legal profession to be at the forefront of positive social change.

To put this in context, as Judge Sanji Monageng, the First Vice-President of the International Criminal Court, in a speech delivered at the The Hague, on 20 November 2012 stated that:

“…the rule of law and the proper administration of justice, of which an independent judiciary and legal profession are prerequisites, play a central role in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

This role has been universally recognized even by the United Nations as enunciated in Principle 16 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

Lawyers therefore form a core part of the judicial arm of the state. It would be easy to assume by its very wording that the judicial arm consists of judges and courts, but that assumption would be far from the truth. After all, what would be the use of the biggest courthouses or the best judges if the parties can’t be heard? Lawyers are by their very nature officers of court and on many levels the gatekeepers to justice.

The journal article titled “ABA Canons of Professional Ethics” published by the American Bar Association, addressed this very important point. It stated that:

“the stability of Courts and of all departments of government rests upon the approval of the people, it is peculiarly essential that the system for establishing and dispensing Justice be developed to a high point of efficiency and so maintained that the public shall have absolute confidence in the integrity and impartiality of its administration. The future of the Republic, to a great extent, depends upon our maintenance of Justice pure and unsullied.

Thus, the role of a lawyer is not merely one of representing or advising clients for payment. It comes with a high level of responsibility, an overriding need for ethical behaviour, a sense of justice and a national duty. There is an overarching need for the public to have confidence and trust that justice is dispensed from the justice system. In this context, the legal profession has a duty of instilling and maintaining this public confidence and trust in the system.

Looking at the rich history of the legal profession in Sri Lanka, we can be proud of its independence, its contribution to legal jurisprudence and the persons who have come from it over the decades. We have produced world-class lawyers, jurists and judges and have contributed at a disproportionately high level to international law considering the size of our profession.

It would be easy to rest on these laurels and reminisce, and also to be content with the legal profession and the justice administration system as it currently stands, but I believe we need to have a serious reality check. I wasn’t certain that today would be the most suitable place to bring this up, but this is the first opportunity I am getting to talk to my colleagues, the representatives of the judiciary and the official and unofficial bar at the same forum. Therefore, I did not want to miss this opportunity to discuss what, in my opinion, should be front and centre of our journey over the next few years.

As I have mentioned before,

-the average time to enforce a contract in Sri Lanka is 1318 days

-We have been ranked 161 out of 189 countries for the enforcement of contracts

-Our legal system is ranked 5th out of 8 in South Asia.

-Land, Partition and Testamentary cases on average take a generation to be settled.

-A criminal trial takes on average 9 ½ years to conclude in the High Court.

-A criminal matter on average will take a year to be fixed for appeal and 3-4 years for the said appeal to be completed.

We are all very aware that the underlying issues in delay, amongst other matters, is the sheer number of cases before court, and the massive backlog which in turn has resulted in litigation stagnating.

At the end of 2019, there were a total of 766,784 cases pending in our courts, and we had approximately 350 judges to hear these cases. Let us ask ourselves the obvious question – how on earth is an individual judge supposed to manage such a caseload? Even if they were to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week there would be no logical way to get through this backlog within any reasonable period of time. The outdated laws and the lack of appetite for innovative steps and technological advancement has only served to make matters worse.

This overburdening of judges is reflected in our score on the ‘judges per 1 million population’ index. Countries such as Russia have 242 judges per 1 million population, Germany has 230 and Thailand has 68. India which has been relentlessly criticized for its low number of judges has 20 per million. And our number? 15. Just 15 judges per million population. A reflection of how much of a monumental and humanly impossible task we are expecting our current judiciary to achieve.

These indicators are not just an academic exercise – they reflect the ground reality of the current state of the administration of justice in our country. On a domestic level, the results are quite obvious – how many times have we advised clients at consultations that they need to be ready for a ‘long-haul’ case, and in response to the question ‘how long?’ we have replied ‘years.’ We have been within this system for as long as we can remember, the fact that a case takes years, or the fact that the dates between two trial dates is months does not seem the least bit abnormal to us. We have become desensitized to the plight of our litigants and we do not feel the sting unless it’s one of our own personal cases.


This level of delay and inefficiency are not only inconvenient and unfair to the citizens, they have far reaching implications for the future of this Country. Investors are apprehensive about trusting their money in a place with high risk of loss in case of a dispute. Market research of the region prior to any investment would result in investors flocking to the countries high on these indexes, thus we are losing in the long term and we are losing big. Our neighbours understood this early on and started their own competitive drive to rank higher on these indexes and bring the issue of delay and inefficiency of the justice system under control. Take Pakistan for example – in 2018, they were ranked 147 in the ease of doing business index. By 2019, they managed to get to 136. However, from 2019 to 2020 they jumped a staggering 28 places and were ranked 108. This is a clear display of how commitment, focus and drive towards fixing the legal system can result in unthinkable results within a short period of time.

India too has been taking some dynamic strides in its modernization drive. It adopted e-filing earlier on during the pandemic and has commenced a push for digitization of its judicial administration system. In terms of corporate or connected litigation, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs has digitized its entire process and database to the extent that certified copies of Company documents can be obtained through an online process which is admissible evidence in Court.

The United Kingdom is establishing Online Courts which initially was due to the pandemic but will most certainly continue to develop and grow. They also started night sessions for Court hearings to clear the backlog.

In the last few years, Chinese courts have seen rapid developments in online dispute resolution platforms, specialized Internet courts, and the wide use of Artificial Intelligence across the case management and adjudication process in civil and criminal proceedings. They have also adopted other new technologies such as distributed ledgers, blockchain and smart contracts solutions which have been developed and rolled out in specialized courts.

Over the course of 2019, the Estonian Ministry of Justice developed and piloted an artificial intelligence software to hear and decide on small claims disputes less than €7,000.

This is the rapid level at which the other countries have progressed whilst we are still at a stage where cases in the District Court get postponed on multiple occasions, sometimes over a year because summons had not been served on the Post Office so that an employee can give evidence on one postal article receipt to establish that the letter of demand had been sent. Is that not, for lack of a better word, absurd?

Ever since I have taken over the office of the Minister of Justice one common issue is that most of who I meet, across the social and economic spectrum has a complaint about a case which has been pending for years. The Ministry is inundated almost every day with letters by litigants from all over the country complaining about laws’ delays.

We have been comfortable with the status quo for decades, and it’s time we realized that the status quo is just not working. Not only is it not giving any positive results, its actually dragging us backwards by destroying the public trust and confidence that is a pre-requisite for the judicial administration system of the country to function.

We must find a way out of this. It is time that we in Sri Lanka take a page out the books of these countries. It is encouraging that over the last few months we have taken steps towards achieving this. The E-hearing rules issued by the Supreme Court, the provisions made for E-filing as well as the adoption of giving bail online by the Magistrate’s Court are important steps in the right direction. This, however, is not going to be enough. It is vital that we look at a complete structural change from end to end and roll it out in a targeted and efficient way. We have to stop looking at the legal profession as one which exists solely for the sustenance of its members, but as one which plays a much more important role as a public centric body which is driving the justice system forward – one which is ready to innovate, to evolve and to take the right decisions at the right time to create a paradigm shift in the administration of justice. This shift should not be merely one which is a marginal improvement of numbers and statistics – it should be a shift which is felt at the ground level. One where litigants feel that litigation will bring them justice, and it will bring it to them faster than before.

Hence, it is a priority of the government to roll out a holistic solution to this perennial problem of laws’ delays and to resolve this issue.

One which would be a game-changer is to put in motion a practical strategy to take a massive leap in the efficiency of hearing cases. Sri Lanka has close to 800,000 pending cases at the moment and there is no strategy for them in terms of time to conclude. We have to bring in a practical timeline for a disposal of a case and work backwards and put the pieces of the puzzle together to achieve that goal. The future of litigation is in smaller smart courts which can parallelly hear a multitude of cases in a single location, whilst also allocating specific time slots for cases to avoid unnecessary delay to the litigant and lawyer.

In pursuance of this, we are determined to double the number of judges within the next 5 years. As you are aware, the House of Justice project was launched a few weeks ago, and we hope to have the first tower constructed within a short period of time. Pre-trial procedure is to be streamlined and revamped so that it would serve a key factor in cutting down litigation time. The establishment of a ‘Small Claims Court’ is being planned and Debt Conciliation and mediation are being considered as mainstream solutions working in tandem with the courts. One of the vital reforms that are coming in is Digitization and Court automation which is currently at the procurement stage.

There has also been key progress made over the last few months. The increase of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges was the first such increase in over 40 years. Justice sector reform has been allocated a record 20 billion from the budget which reflects the largest ever commitment by a government towards the reform of the justice sector. Just earlier this week I was informed by the Government Analyst’s Department that the backlog of outstanding reports numbering approximately 8000 had been cleared in the four months even in the midst of the pandemic due to a multi-pronged approach which we have introduced since then. The measures taken include increasing the cadre, working on two shifts, digitizing the expertise from other institutions and dedicated supervision by a sector specialist.

What this shows is that with commitment, a steel will and the ability to get out of your comfort zone unthinkable results can be achieved within very short periods of time. We should no longer think of fixing this system as a long drawn out, arduous process for our successors to deal with – we have to think of it as something we are capable of doing here and now.

It’s time we looked at moving away from our all too familiar 9.30 or 10.00 am start in Court where everyone sits around waiting for the case to be taken up. This is just not sustainable anymore, and it seriously cuts into the lawyers’ and litigants’ productivity. We should not be afraid to innovate and think out-of-the-box in terms of how we can solve the issues that are being faced – its time we look at case management and allocation of time slots for hearings. Its time we that we hear cases online and embrace technology to shorten delays in matters such as serving of summons and the proving of documents. We must think about reforming our legal system as a whole to be more technological – from sharing calendars to determine the dates of a hearing to the maintenance of records, we need to reduce the dependency on manual processes. Its time we adopted procedures and techniques such as skeleton arguments to cut down the time taken for a hearing. These are all steps that other countries have taken, for which they have been rewarded with judicial administration systems that have pushed their countries forward. My question to you is, If Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and so many others can reinvent themselves, why can’t we?

These reforms will be far reaching, and if they are seen through will permanently change the landscape of the profession and this country. We need to make this happen, and for that we need to work together towards this common goal. The process may not be a walk in the park, and it would certainly have some initial creases that to be ironed out, but if we can commit to what is needed to be done, I am certain we can pull this off. I am aware that the best of ideas and progress can fall to abeyance if you have to swim against the tide, which is why I hope that the bar and its members will cooperate with us to achieve this.

The road to make these changes may test our will, may require us to get out of our comfort zone, to go that extra mile and to commit to breaking the status quo.

Let us be remembered as the generation of lawyers and judges that took this country to the next level and the ones that put our justice system on the map. We have the opportunity to make the paradigm shift, and we must go for it with our heart and soul.

Let’s get this done.

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Murders, exhumations, sacking: hence never a dull day in Paradise



Greatly saddened and given to discussion were Cass and her batch of friends on reading about the death of a 42-year-old Tamil domestic servant come to slave in a rich home in Colombo to support her very poor family in far-away Badulla. She worked at the home of teledrama producer cum businesswoman Sudharma Nethicumara. We have seen and read about this near socialite who was often featured in newspapers, and who, some time ago, invited the then First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa as chief guest for a film event.

The very unfortunate servant was accused of stealing a gold ring of Mrs Nethicumara’s. We friends imagined how in high dudgeon the rich lady would have summoned the police pronto and ordered the arrest of the by now petrified with fear ‘Letchimi’. That was on May 11. We wonder whether she was even questioned before she was forced away; guilty before proven thus on the word of the powerful employer. Cass makes bold to add the epithet ‘heartless’ here. And now three poor innocent children are without their mother.

The woman died after being admitted to hospital having complained she suffered difficulty in breathing. The life of a young mother given to compensate for a lost ring which could very well have been misplaced by the owner and not been stolen. Power, influence, greed, affluence – against stark poverty, ignorance and helplessness with no one to intervene. The IGP ordered the Police Special Investigation Unit to conduct an investigation; this prompted by suspicion raised by the Tamil woman’s relatives and other parties, the newspaper reported. Were the ‘other parties’ good Samaritans moved like Cass and her friends by this sad tragedy?

We hope against hope that the enquiry will proceed justly and equitably with no giving into political or money clout. Also, if the woman was found to have succumbed to injuries, won’t the employer too have to be investigated? Some remedial steps have been taken. A Sub Inspector, two Police Sergeants and Constable have been interdicted and three other police officers including two women transferred. But the crux of the matter is the result of investigation into the cause of death of the woman.

Messengers found guilty The Island

of Tuesday May 23 carried the following headline “State Minister won’t be probed” with subheading: “Allowing Chinese carrying two passports to enter SL.” Monday’s TV news elaborated on this story: a Chinese person presented himself at the Katunayake Intl Airport Immigration Desk with two passports and when questioned, the Chinese turned unruly. As a TV newsreader reported: State Minister of Urban Development and Housing, Arundika Fernando, had allegedly intervened in the matter and requested the Chinese be allowed to enter the country.

Public Security Minister, Tiran Alles, announced at a media briefing that the immigration officers at Katunayake who were involved in the fracas would be questioned and dealt with suitably. When questioned about the State Minister Arundika Fernando’s involvement and probably being guilty of influencing the immigration officers, Minister Alles replied: “regardless of representations made by politicians, or anybody else, including the media, public officials have to carry out their duties and functions properly.

” Of course yes, but how about being coerced by a politician to act contrary to rules. Public officials are harassed by unscrupulous politicians and they do as told to save their jobs. Additionally how can a person who influenced the incorrect decision go scot free? He too is guilty. But we in this fair Isle invariably see the hapless messengers being caught, quartered and even slaughtered and interfering politicians and those with clout going completely free: the sender of the message escapes all censorship.

Another exhumation leading to … probably nothing

Courts have allowed the exhumation of the laid-to-rest body of Dinesh Schafter on May 25 to help investigators into his suspicious death in hospital after he was found strangled in his car in the deserted Kanatta cemetery premises. The death of this very humane businessman just before he enplaned for Britain sent shock waves around the country. Now another sacrilege. Bearable by his family and millions of Sri Lankans if some solid evidence is found to determine the cause of his death/brutal murder. We feel doubly sad about this bit of news since we are, justifiably sceptical and doubtful about the usefulness of this disturbance to a body laid to rest.

Cass says she is sceptical and yes without hope that the case will be brought to a close with the discovery of how he died, who murdered him and importantly who ordered the murder. It could prove how he was suffocated. Or, it could even prove he took his life, as rumour had it. But Cass repeats she is doubtful the case sees closure so that family, friends and even persons like Cass can feel sadness at the death but heave sighs of relief that the murderer/s and instigators are identified and will face due justice.

Scepticism, the lack of hope and doubts are because of sure-fire cases where exhumations proved useless, just further trauma to loved ones and disturbance to the dead. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s body was exhumed on Sept 27, 2016, seven years after his terrible assassination. Was there closure? Were the murderers and those who gave orders to murder named, blamed and punished? The same questions are asked about Wasim Thajudeen, whose body was exhumed on August 10, 2015. In this case, it was almost drawn to an end after much had happened before, including evidence made to disappear, etc. Then kaput.

What happened? To Cass’ jaundiced eye, ear, mind and the sense organs of millions of others, the intention to exhume was good; evidence would have been collected but within this evidence prominent names would have surfaced. So, a quick retreat; no more investigation, case closed again. All this suffering and no peace to even the dead, sorry – murdered. VVIP names must have cropped up. So shut the case immediately. Is it going to be a repetition with the case of much respected and much loved Dinesh Shafter?

Speak independently and out you go!

The Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) – Janaka Ratnayake – has been in hot water with his Minister and the government on various issues; even debarred from his own office, it being sealed and placed out of bounds. But he battled on. His latest ‘crime’ has been his criticising the electricity tariffs and saying that a 27% reduction could easily be implemented. Now, his continuing in his position is being debated in the public domain and scheduled for debate in Parliament on May 24. Cass lauds the Opposition parties who support Ratnayake and will vote against the motion brought forth in Parliament. She hurrrays the MPs who have spoken for the Chairman PUCSL. He seems to be one official who does what needs to be done in the service of the people and is no slipper licker or even Sir-er of those in power. May the nay votes exceed the SLPP aye votes for his dismissal from his post.

Indians and of Indian descent in the news

Prime Minister Modi has been given a rousing welcome to Australia and he will speak to a hugely packed audience in Sydney. The thought that flashes through the mind is that we were streets ahead of India just three decades ago. While India is being courted internationally and Modi feted, Sri Lanka is looked askance as a failed state; sparingly assisted and its people suffering immensely while those who pushed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean to penury and begging are continuing to live luxurious lives and bubbling with hope for future power.

If you watched Rishi Sunak among top leaders of the world at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima and heard him deliver his address excellently, you would have shared pride with him and his Indian ancestors as a co-South Asian. But he faces a problem at home.

The Home Secretary of Britain, Suella Braverman, also of Indian descent, has landed herself in another tight spot and people of her own Party and others are thirsting for her blood; demanding she be relieved of her Cabinet post. She was caught speed driving and given a ticket which entailed she attend driving classes or sessions. She tried dodging it by sending an aide instead of her or to have the lessons on–line. No, and outing were the answers. She was made to leave by Ms Truss when she was PM for another misdemeanour. Then with Rishi Sunak succeeding her, he got Suella into his Cabinet. Now he faces the music and has to make a very difficult decision.

A spot of obscenity

Janet Daley writes in the Daily Telegraph of May 13: “America’s dream is dying. That is why Trump may still win. Class mobility is what built the United States. This is no more. The ex-president is master at channelling the anger of those left behind.” She goes on to make herself better understood, and I quote: “Among all the absurd delusional things that Donald Trump has said in his second incarnation as a prospective president, there is one statement which should – by all standards of conventional wisdom – have put an end to his campaign.

In his deposition for the civil case in which he was found guilty of sexually assaulting E Jean Carroll, he was asked to comment on the notorious Access Hollywood tape in which he is heard to say that powerful men were able to ‘grab women’ in their genitals (he used another word) with impunity. He explained that this was simply a historical truth: for millions of years it had been the case that male ‘stars’ could do whatever they wanted to women – and then he added ‘unfortunately or fortunately’…

Can you imagine any American politician (let alone a presidential candidate) or public figure – any celebrity in any sphere – saying that without his career being vapourised? So what is going on? There is clearly a significant proportion of the American population that not only rejects the Liberal consensus but is so enraged by it that it will enthusiastically support views that are brazenly offensive.”

No different in Sri Lanka with male dominance and license to act grossly. On that dubious note, Cass says bye for another week

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Popular Sinhala Cinema – III – Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka



by Laleen Jayamanne

( Continued From Wednesday)

The Multi-Ethnic fan base

Gamini Fonseka, who introduced action (fights) with a new image of proletarian muscular masculinity into Sinhala cinema, was loved by both the Sinhala and Tamil male films fans for those reasons. His film Sarungale, where he played a rather sedentary Tamil Clerk (he spoke Tamil), was especially significant in this cross-cultural context. I read an account of how Tamil fans surrounded him on a platform once, when he got off the Jaffna train to stretch his legs, while returning from the film shoot there. He is that rare Sinhala artiste who spoken of wanting to appeal to the Tamil audience as well.

I have read that Gamini visited Tamil cinema halls with his cinematographer to observe the responses of the fans to Indian super stars. The super star Gamini Fonseka’s film persona as well as his ethical values must be remembered here. When Gunaratnam was murdered there was fear that it was too dangerous to attend his funeral as one might also be targeted by the JVP. Siva Sivanathan who worked for Gunaratnam described how Gamini insisted on walking in the funeral procession with the family, to honor this visionary film producer who had contributed greatly to the development of Lankan cinema and industrial development more broadly and built so many bridges between the North and the South.

Siva Sivanandan’s long experience as a film director and distributor for Gunaratnam was appreciated by Nihalsinha, the General Manager of the SFC who then hired him as Assistant General Manager of the vital revenue generating distribution wing of the new institution. He worked with great success for ten years, before emigrating to Canada with his family. Somasiri Munasinghe, in his tribute to Svianandan after his recent death, says that he left behind a whole library of publications, rare journals, news-paper clippings, etc, all linked to the Lankan film industry and multi-ethnic history from its beginning.

In another country this invaluable collection would have been swiftly obtained by a university library in the interest of future research. I am hoping that it’s still not too late for this to happen through a Lankan University. If that were to happen and along with oral history interviews with the several generations of older journalists who grew up with those film songs and films or rediscovered them laters, then we might get a more nuanced understanding of what has been achieved by our robust and dedicated multi-ethnic artists and technicians, working together under great odds.

Understanding the historical diversity of Lankan popular hybrid traditions of mass culture especially, can offer a corrective to the darker and violently self-destructive actions of virulent Sinhala Nationalism pursuing cultural purity and burning down cinemas and studios owned by Tamils and in the process also destroying a large number of their own Sinhala films stored in these very studios.

These acts of profound violence are not simply the work of crazed mobs, as some say. They are simply the impoverished, poorly educated lumpen proletariat mostly, given electoral roles identifying Tamil property. They are the weaponised end in a long chain of command, activated by nationalist state policies and ideology of an ethno-nationalist state. This deeply rooted ideology treats minorities as second class citizens, a threat to the majority and therefore not part of the culture.

Sound of Pure Sinhala Bera

Ethnomusicological research into Lankan music, by foreign scholars and locals alike tend to follow the official ethno-nationalist narrative of a ‘Pure, Original Sinhala’ sound, say as in Kandyan drumming. It is then differentiated from the Southern, more hybridised Yakbera, for example. The researchers almost completely ignore the decisive influence of mass culture (Nurti plays, the vast reach of radio, gramophone records, films, cassettes, Television and the digital technology) in creating hybrid sonic worlds in this small island nation from the early 20th Century for over one hundred years.

The intellectual and political project of creating ‘pure traditions or apema sindu, rendered in the one correct, pure accent, (swara) of the Sinhala folk, their language and religion or music and films, ends up freezing traditions from evolving. Traditions need replenishing by being open to outside influences. Sound, even more than language itself, is fluid, never stable, given that the speed of sound (though not as fast as light), has the power to instantly penetrate us and vibrate our very nervous system directly like our drumming does.

It’s important to remember the historically informed important words of W.D. Amaradeva who, as a young violinist named Albert Perera, went to India with Baig Master and others to record music for Asokamala. This exposure led him to spend five years in India studying classical vocal raga music and the violin with a guru. It is after this rigorous training that he reinvented himself as Amaradeva. He said:

“Although we had a good folk culture, we did not have a developed musical tradition of our own. We did not have local musical instruments to play a melody even though we had a rich percussion tradition in Sri Lanka in the form of bera (drums).

But all instruments like the sitar, tabla and violin came from other countries. I wanted to fill this void. So, I started composing music for my country […] yet one cannot help being influenced by other types of music as well”.

Ranjith Kumara informed us that Baig Mater’s singing of Siri Buddhagaya was regularly heard all over the country, across villages and towns during Vesak and Sinhala new year festivities, played on the humble cassettes or blaring out on microphones at dansalas. Unlike Rukmani Devi’s voice, Baig Master’s voice was unmistakably accented with sonic traces of his mother tongue Urdu. And it remained so to the end. Would it not also be good then to hear Rukmani Devi sing that one Tamil song she is said to have recorded in a Tamil film and also hear Baig Master sing in Urdu or Tamil or HIndi (if there is a recording), during a national festive occasion? Perhaps at the Fourth of February independence celebration at Gall Face; a hybrid sonic gesture of reconciliation sanhindiyawa, mingling with the sounds of the Indian ocean.

After all, Baig Master did sing in Sinhala, at the 1948 Independence Day celebrations, with a sense of freedom in the air. This contemporary idea of ‘reconciliation’ was first created in South Africa after the white supremacist apartheid regime was defeated. But there was an allied concept essential to it, namely, ‘truth- telling’. The African leadership with Nelson Mandela thought there could be no reconciliation after such racial violence, without also acknowledging it truthfully and redressing the violence.

A Few Home-Truths

1.Sinhala Nationalists protested when the then Education Minister Badiuddin Mohamed arranged Baig Master to sing at the Non-Aligned Conference, saying he was not a Sinhala-Buddhist. When the minister threatened to resign, Mrs Bandranayake permitted him to sing to the gathering of world leaders among whom were Colonel Gaddafi, and other Arab and African Muslim leaders who received his Bodu Gee warmly.

2. When Baig Master performed for the Pakistani President Zia Ul Hak, he was so impressed that he wanted to take him back to Pakistan. When President Premadasa declined the offer, Zia arranged a tour in Pakistan for Master Baig.

3. He lived in a tiny overcrowded house and slept on the floor for forty years. As he lay dying in hospital, consoling his son Ishak, he had noted lightly that he finally had a bed!

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that D.S. Senanayaka (who later became the first Prime Minister), was the chief guest at the premier of Kadawuna Poronduwa (in January 1947 at the Kingsley cinema), as Minister of Agriculture and Lands and also Leader of the House under the State Council system of governance during the last stages of British rule. His presence along with business leaders denoted the importance of the event for Ceylon on the cusp of independence. Rukmani Devi, Eddie and BAW Jayamanne brothers and Mr Nayagam were celebrated for having dared to have produced the first film in Sinhala, under daunting conditions in India.

While the critics deplored the film’s dependence on Indian genres, the people, more receptive, gathered to see and hear it. It was screened in four cinemas in Colombo and in a large number of outer suburbs, while in Kandy, bus-loads of people arrived to view this historic film in a tent specially erected for the screening. Political patronage, Tamil entrepreneurship, Sinhala intellectual high disdain and robust popular mass appeal, were the jostling forces at play with the arrival of a multi-ethnic Lankan cinema and its film culture.

The journalist-cinephiles on the ITN programs were unanimous in their view that both Rukmani Devi and Baig Master did not receive the care and support they deserved as figures of national (and even Indian) recognition, especially during the vulnerable later stages of their lives. While issuing stamps in their honour is a good thing, it is quite insufficient, given the magnitude of the reach of their haunting voices which still resonate politically as well. But Amaradeva and others who created a Sinhala light classical tradition, combining the rich Indian raga melodic patterns with folk songs, received generous state patronage.

Baig Master’s song Buddhan Saranan Gachchami, with lyrics by Karunarathne Abeyesekera and music by Anil Bishwar (an Indian), was 12 mins and 45 seconds long and was first performed in the Hindi film Angulimala, funded by the Thai government. In Ceylon, it was dubbed into Sinhala and the local version of the song commissioned by Gunaratnam. The film was a major success and the song, one of the most frequently requested on Radio Ceylon, according to Ariyasiri Withanage.

He associated with him and arranged the many song recitals at which Master Baig was a popular attraction right across the Sinhala areas of the country, where most of the shows opened with this devotional song. Of the many Bodu Gee he sang this was the favourite. Some Buddhist priests valued him and engaged with him and attended his funeral. This singular song, a collaboration among Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist artists of India and Lanka, is an example of what can be created when we abandon the stifling dead-end idea of ‘cultural purity’ promulgated by the ethno-nationalist state.

Listening now (after the Aragalaya), to the voices of Rukmani Devi and Baig Master singing love duets and shoka gee in those sweetly naive films (Sarala chithrapata) of the early Sinhala cinema just might resonate in a different way (if freed of high critical disdain), suggestive of our intricate cultural interconnections with India.

Al Haj Mohideen Baig and Rukmani Devi, in their highly skilled capacity to cross-sonic traditions and cultures and create hybrid fields of music touching our hearts and minds (hurda gochara and bhuddhi gochara songs, in the wonderful coinage of Ranjan de Silva), are exemplary artists for a confidently multi-ethnic Lanka open to the many creative influences of the sonic worlds at large. (Concluded)

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New wine in old bottles: Anthropologising Sinhala middle-class



By Uditha Devapriya

Although it has always been something of a passing interest, anthropology has figured in my travels, studies, and writings over the last five years. My focus over these years has narrowed down to five areas: the different meanings that categories like race and ethnicity have acquired from the early historical period to the contemporary moment; the social, cultural, and political transformations of the colonial era, specifically the British Period and more specifically the early and middle British Periods; the folk revival of the mid-20th century, as exemplified by the work of Sunil Santha; the modern artistic and cultural movement, revolving around if not centring on the 43 Group; and the transformation or one could say transfiguration of social values that accompanied and continues to accompany the entry of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie to elite institutions.

Of these I would say that while the first four topics have engaged scholarly interest for years, if not decades, the fifth has not quite attracted the same interest. This may be because the topic is far more recent than the others. The Sinhala middle-class’s entry to elite institutions, specifically schools and the public sector or civil service, has been a fairly recent phenomenon: it can be dated, if at all, to the post-1956 period, when the language and education reforms undertaken by both SLFP and UNP governments – the former more than the latter – enabled a petty bourgeoisie to rise, if not to the top, then to the middle ranks of organisations that had been the preserve of a colonial elite and Anglicised middle-class for almost one and a half centuries.

My interest in this area grew because of two reasons. First, as a freelancer covering various school and commercial events, I inadvertently came face to face with people, particularly students and middle level executives and employees, whose values one simply could not associate with the history and character of the institutions they represented. That the most elite of schools in Colombo had sizeably non-English speaking populations did not, of course, come as a shock to me, yet it more or less fascinated me because of how such institutions continue to be associated with elite milieus and social classes. The reality is obviously much more different and complex, a fact I had to grapple with when it came to commercial firms and the country’s civil service as well.

Second, my travels to villages and far-flung communities in the country opened me up to the immense complexity of the social relationships, values, and mores governing them, and how far removed the reality these communities live through every day is from what is usually assumed or one could say imagined about them. Steven Kemper ends the last chapter of his brilliant study of advertising in Sri Lanka by recounting the lives and details of two families from suburban Colombo.

One of these families trace their roots to Kandy, but have shifted to Colombo because one of their sons obtained admission to Royal College through a scholarship exam. Kemper, outsider though he is, grasps the significance of this achievement: the son, in effect, becomes for his parents a link to the city, and all that it represents. The upward aspiring Sinhala petty bourgeoisie has gained its place in the sun because elite institutions, in essence, have been opened for them.

Whether one can reduce such phenomena to the dynamics of a social milieu in pursuit of social advancement is of course highly debatable. My argument is that this is a two-way process: elite institutions have become more accessible for the petty bourgeoisie, and the petty bourgeoisie has become the new elite. They are, in effect, the new kingmakers: they have voted and brought to power both neoliberal and nationalist parties and presidential candidates. This places them in an interesting conundrum. Numerically they are stronger and more representative of the country than the elites that preceded them, but their willingness to adapt to and adopt elite attitudes has distanced them from the vast multitude of their countrymen. They are, in other words, conscious of their kinship with those below them on the social scale and their subservience, so to speak, to the urban middle-classes above them. In his introduction to Gamanaka Mula, Gunadasa Amarasekara critiques Martin Wickramasinghe for having focused more on the colonial bourgeoisie than the Sinhala middle-class. But Wickramasinghe does examine the latter in his Koggala Trilogy, and what is more examines their contradictory position in the colonial social order, specifically in the character of Aravinda, Malin Kabilana’s friend in Yuganthaya.

20th century Sinhala literature has not, I think, given us a more concrete, flesh-and-blood archetype of the Sinhala middle-class, with the pressures and paradoxes that continue to assail it even today, than Aravinda. In Yuganthaya Aravinda serves as a conscience for Malin Kabilana. But instead of appealing to Kabilana’s better instincts, Aravinda serves as a vessel for the colonial bourgeoisie.

At one point he implores Kabilana to abandon his radical politics and return to his father Simon’s class. In one particularly memorable and evocative episode – evocative in a Proustean sense – Aravinda smokes a cigar and dreams of living in a house in the Cinnamon Gardens. By this point we have been told of the immense hardships and difficulties his father had to wade through to educate his son and ensure a position for him. Yet Aravinda is not shown as bad or indifferent: he prescribes medicines free of charge for his villagers, to his father’s consternation.

Aravinda’s dilemma remains emblematic of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie both of his time and ours. This has spilt over to the cultural sphere as well, sometimes profoundly. Here the contradiction is between the cultural values on which the Sinhala rural petty bourgeoisie have been raised and the avowedly secular or non-Buddhist heritage of the elite institutions that have been opened for them. Perhaps no better example illustrates this more, for me, than a recent complaint, written by an Old Boy of an elite school and published in a prominent newspaper, that his school was becoming less secular and more ‘Sinhalised” and “Buddhicised.” These are pertinent concerns, especially in light of lingering fears of Sinhalisation and Buddhicisation in the country’s north and east.

Given these concerns, one is compelled to sympathise with the writer. But one is also forced to recognise the inevitability of such transformations, at a time when a mostly Sinhala and Buddhist petty bourgeoisie has entered these institutions. There is in any case an interesting afterword to this episode. When shown the article, a younger student from this same elite school, who is by his own definition a fervent Buddhist, questioned whether his school remained the preserve of the elite or whether it was a “school for the best.” He obviously associated “the best” with his milieu, the Sinhala and Buddhist middle-classes who have obtained entry to these institutions through merit-based examinations and assessments. His next point was even more interesting: that the best invariably are bringing with them what he calls “rural cultural values”, and that these, in effect, were shifting his school from its secular origins to a much more culturalised establishment.

Sociologists and anthropologists working in Sri Lanka, who are studying the Sinhala and Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, should I think take note of these observations. These should ideally form the basis of a study, a study that to me remains as relevant for our time as it is for all time, and indeed for all societies: the transformation of elite institutions at the hands of a nascent, emergent middle-class, in effect the new elites of countries such as ours.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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