Founder of BBC’s Sandesaya which made one of the earliest Sinhalese broadcasts possible over British radio and the first Deputy Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia- J.V. Fonseka had no parallels. Yet his contribution to Sri Lanka’s cultural firmament is sadly unsung. Sunday Island revisits the life and work of this gentle giant unknown to many today.
by Randima Attygalle
Prof. G.P. Malalasekera in his testimonial of his exceptionally gifted student J.V. Fonseka who graduated in 1931 from the Ceylon University College, stated: “academically, Mr. Fonseka is one of the best qualified of our graduates because, besides his knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit and allied cultures and civilizations, he has made a very good study of the Western classics and has read widely in many fields of learning.” The Principal of the Ceylon University College (present University of Colombo), Robert Marrs endorsed, “I have personally come into contact with his English which is of an unusually high quality… I can recommend him for a favourable consideration in any capacity in which his knowledge of the Eastern Classical languages and of Sinhalese and English will find a place.”
Marrs went on to say he sincerely hoped that whatever profession Fonseka selects, “he will find opportunities of bringing his language gifts to bear on inter-lingual problems of scholarship and literature.” This, J.V. Fonseka or JV/ JVF or ‘Fons’ as he came to be known among diverse circles, proved true.
Joseph Vincent Fonseka was born in Wewala, Piliyandala on May 29, 1908. He came from a long line of teachers of the Wanniarachchi and Samarakoon families of Kotte. His mother, Martha Alwis Samarakoon, was the headmistress of the Horetuduwa Maha Vidyalaya. His uncle was the well-known educationalist H.S. Perera and his cousin, the composer of the national anthem- Ananda Samarakoon. He entered Prince of Wales College Moratuwa from Horetuduwa Buddhist School, and later Ceylon University College. He passed his Inter-Arts Examination in 1926 in Latin, English, Sinhala and Logic. JV’s association with Kumaratunga Munidasa kindled his interest in Pali and Sanskrit which eventually made him lose interest in Latin and Greek. Having read for his B.A. Hons. Degree in Indo-Aryan Studies, JV won an open exhibition at the Final Examination which enabled him to go to England for his post-graduate studies.
Manel Tampoe writing to The Ceylon Daily News in July, 1979 after his death (on May 30, 1979) notes that ‘he belonged to a very small band of university men who in the 1920s, opted to swim against the tide and specialize in Sinhala and the oriental classics, when the majority devoted their energies to mastering Latin and Greek in addition to English.’ She notes that ‘in Mr. Fonseka’s case the choice was doubly remarkable, because he was very proficient in English from the outset…’
JV’s PhD research in the London University was on the Sinhala verb. His supervisor was Prof. R.L. Turner. Although he subsequently studied law, he never completed his finals. His stay in England extended to 23 years, out of which 15 were spent with the BBC. “My father was told he had got his BBC job on my birthday, March 18, 1942,” recounts his eldest daughter, Manel Fonseka. JV’s work at the BBC began with a bi-weekly newsletter- a commentary in Sinhalese on all aspects of British life and institutions and on matters affecting his home country, Ceylon, as viewed in the British press. Sandesaya which was broadcast over BBCs Eastern Service was founded by him shortly after the country gained Independence.
Prof. K.N.O Dharmadasa in his work on JV under the title- ‘The scholar who shunned the limelight: J.V. Fonseka’ in The Island, May 21, 1993, notes that the weekly broadcast from London was received by Radio Ceylon and relayed here every Tuesday evening. ‘It catered to the interests of the expatriates as well as the home listener. Tastefully selected Sinhala folk music added to the programme while its highlight was the London Liyuma or London Letter’ written and delivered by JVF.’ In JVs’ own words, Sandesaya ‘won a coveted popularity among Sinhalese listeners’. Comprising features, discussions, interviews, answers to listeners’ questions, into London Letter ‘were drawn week after week, Ceylonese of all walks of life from cooks and seamen to professors and prime minister, but more especially university students and teachers. I had thus maintained close and unbroken contact with Ceylon students.’
“My father began to lose his hair quite early and was not happy about it. He adapted something that Krishna Menon wore. He wore a cap outside and a black beret at home. (JV came to know Krishna Menon when supporting the Indian independence movement). My father used to travel to Bush House where the Overseas Section of the BBC was, by tube to Oxford Circus and walk from there. Every morning he’d cross paths with an Englishman who greeted him with “Salaam alai kum”. And my father simply responded “Alaikum salaam”. Just that, nothing more.
“The traditionally reserved Englishman was extending a warm hand of respect and friendship. And my father never disabused him, nor did it bother him being taken for a Muslim. Incidentally, there were several Muslim and Tamil law students sharing a house with him in my earliest years, one or two of whom became quite famous here. Crossette Thambiah was one who became a very close friend,” recollects Manel who goes on to add that her father used to interview many visiting Ceylonese icons such as Dr. Lester James Peries, L.T.P Manjusri, Deva Suriyasena, J.R. Jayewardene and many more. She also recounts that the celebrated artist Manjusri later did five paintings for the Fonseka family. “He also had friends through the BBC such as Paul Robeson, Dylan Thomas and Walter de La Mare.”
J.V. Fonseka, Manel Tampoe documents, ‘possessed the sophistication of outlook that made him acceptable to an institution such as the BBC’. Through his programme Sandesaya, he was ‘instrumental in influencing the style of many programmes of the old Radio Ceylon, by providing a model in such respect as dignified yet pleasantly informal tone and suitable diction and intonation,’ says the writer. JV is also credited for having deposited in London, every Sinhalese song that had been recorded here at home. Many songs which have disappeared forever from the Sri Lankan musical firmament have been preserved in London in the collection JV painstakingly built.
Thevis Guruge, Director General of the SLBC at the time of JV’s demise, who spoke at the funeral, remarked: ‘It was Mr. Fonseka who first conceived and put into practice the way to make a Sinhalese radio programme popular amongst listeners. He also made recordings of Sinhalese folk music and various other media, putting them into BBC archives; in this, he performed a valuable service.” Dr. J. Thilakasiri in a letter to JV in 1950 wrote, ‘having heard your newsletter consecutively for several weeks, I found that your style was easy and natural in contrast to the bombastic tone of the announcers of Radio Ceylon. The Oriental section here is in a mess and the quality of the programmes and talks is poor. So I didn’t hesitate to write to the Head of the Eastern Service (BBC) saying how useful the programme is and mentioning your fine newsletter etc. ending with the suggestion for providing an additional half-hour. A friend of mine- a lecturer in Sinhalese at the Varsity also finds your programme and talks interesting and refreshing in contrast to what we get here.’
In keeping with his “very retiring and self-effacing nature and extremely modest character,” daughter Manel notes, a great deal of her father’s writing was published anonymously. “At some stage he began sending articles, poetry, etc., to the press. In 1955, when we returned to Sri Lanka from England, my father’s close cousin, Ananda Samarakoon, told me that he and his brother Cyril, used to hang on the railings by Lake House on days they were expected to appear! He sometimes used the pen-name, ‘Enoch’. I think that must be an echo of Tennyson’s poem, Enoch Arden.” Her father wit
h ‘such a beautiful voice’ which Manel and her siblings were hardly conscious of as children, gifted to them the love of language. “In our childhood he read French, German and Italian to us. And my sisters remember, even now, some of the poetry of Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke.”
The coming together of her father and English mother, Lily Margaret Walker, 102 today, is rather extraordinary, says Manel. A blue-eyed blonde Lily was in her Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF) uniform on a station platform in 1939 when JV first saw her. “My mother was born in 1919 in London, daughter of an army officer. She was the eldest of five children and was taken out of school and set to work to help support four siblings. As the war was on the horizon she joined the WAAF. My father, usually reserved, but perhaps encouraged by the slight defrosting of the English during the tensions of war, was struck by this blonde, blue-eyed, young woman, standing all alone, went up to her and asked her what her uniform was. At the time my father was working at the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service where all students had to register to be available for assistance for air raid precaution.”
When it was learnt in Ceylon that JV would be leaving the BBC, Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi, Chief Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia immediately canvassed for him to be invited to be the Deputy Editor. Having heard of the paradise of his childhood, Ceylon was a dream for his England-born children. “Both we and he were rudely awakened when we actually came,” recollects Manel. She adds that at first her father rejected the idea of returning home when the invitation came, but her mother who had heard such wonderful things about the country for years, urged him to take it up. “I was devastated at the idea of leaving everything I knew and loved. Plus, we had just seen Elephant Walk and I thought cholera stalked the country. But it was decided. My father wrote and accepted, said when exactly he would be arriving and that he would report to work the next day which he did! And then began a very difficult time for all of us.”
Crowds gathered to welcome JV of Sandesaya fame at the Colombo harbour when he arrived with his family in 1955. As JV’s wife Lily who was fondly called ‘Nikki’ recounted in her communication years later, ‘every relative who could make the journey to Colombo was either on the ship or waiting dockside. Press and Radio were there in force. We were garlanded.’ Among the bevy of relatives was Ananda Samarakoon to greet the family so warmly, says Manel. “My father started work the very next day and my mother and the three children were left with his sister in her house in Kotte which appeared to be a jungle to us at that time! Having been wrenched from everything familiar to us in England, we suffered culture shock for quite a while. The bright side was when the Sinhala Encyclopaedia office was transferred to the glorious Peradeniya campus.”
The Sinhala Encyclopaedia became JVs life. ‘If one were to drop in at the Encyclopaedia office at any time of the day, even during lunch or tea breaks, he was invariably seated at his desk,’ documents Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa, recollecting his Peradeniya days in the late 50s and 60s when the Sinhala Encyclopaedia was housed in the back rooms of an old building which had been used by the South Asia Command during the war. ‘JVF joined the Sinhala Encyclopaedia when he was 47-years old. His maturity in age, learning and experience would have enhanced the quality of his contribution to the project.’
Prof. H.L. Seneviratne, an assistant editor at the Encyclopaedia who was supervised by JV, writing to Manel Fonseka notes that JV expected ‘stellar performance’ from all assistant editors who specialized in different fields, but never used any compulsion. ‘He was the gentlest of supervisors, and had profound confidence in his assistant editors He himself was deeply committed to work and cheerfully embraced the task of going through and editing the writings of each and every assistant editor, not to mention the commissioned articles from outside specialists. Personally he was extremely kind to his employees ranging from the assistant editors to minor employees.’
Prof. Seneviratne further notes that the only personal matter he recalls JV mentioning to him, ‘which he did with sadness and a sense of rightly felt injustice,’ was the government’s decision to change the opening line of the national anthem composed by his cousin. Ananda Samarakoon’s death soon after was attributed to this act of the government done for superstitious reasons – Namo namo maatha was changed to Sri Lanka maatha in the belief that the former was ‘inauspicious’. “Knowing my father’s complete lack of superstition, I am certain he was disgusted and probably angry about the changing of the original words,” says Manel.
In 1973, although JV retired as the Deputy Editor at 65, after many extensions, he continued to be an external editor up to his death. In November, 1973, Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi, Chief Editor, wrote to Dr N.M. Perera, the Minister of Finance, urging a further extension. ‘It is by no means easy to find a substitute for Mr. Fonseka… it is men of Mr. Fonseka’s calibre whom we should have on the editorial staff of an encyclopaedia.’
JV who was responsible for most of the actual work of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia was lauded for his ‘singular devotion’ by many of his colleagues. D. P. Ponnamperuma who had worked under him for many years as Senior Assistant Editor wrote: ‘He was not an administrator of service but an example of service. He cared little for his own rights, higher wages or security of service and we now recall instances when he faced even criticism on account of this…Until he was bed-ridden he carried the Sinhala Encyclopaedia not only in his heart but on his shoulders too.
‘One could say there isn’t a single article in the Sinhala Encylopaedia that had not been vetted by his pen. The loss his death left for the Sinhala Encyclopaedia is irreparable. It must be said that the whole nation is indebted to Mr. Fonseka for the success of this project. Educated Sinhala society should deeply regret its failure to show appreciation and felicitate the services of this silent patriotic scholar during his lifetime and it would be at least some consolation if the name of Mr. J.V Fonseka be immortalized with an honorary award or title even posthumously.’
Sadly, the nation is yet to see this unsung hero celebrated in the manner he truly deserved.
(Photo credit: Manel Fonseka)
Sri Lanka’s diplomatic synchronicity with Its neighbourhood
By Dr. Srimal Fernando
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has mainly been characterised by synchronising its policies with the multipolar system and balancing the foreign policy manifestation with outreach to different regions and regional groupings. Given the increased convergence of the strategic interests of Sri Lanka and its neighbours, the ever-changing geopolitical scope of the South Asian region has prompted Sri Lanka to forge closer neighbourhood ties. The rationale behind Sri Lanka’s synchronicity with its neighbours is clear, given that the neighbouring countries and regional organisations offer the potential for substantial growth and development. The benefits of accessing neighbouring markets are significant, particularly for Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has for years benefited from the welfare gains of its neighbourhood engagements, and there is a lot more it could still gain.
The focus on neighbourhood diplomacy is a striking feature of contemporary Sri Lankan foreign policy. Notably, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government considers neighbourhood diplomacy a strategic prerequisite for Sri Lanka and its economy. The need to re-establish Sri Lanka’s strategic place in the Indo pacific region has been a significant motivation for the Sri Lankan government. This has emphasised the reinvigoration of and strengthening ties with Asian neighbours including the member states of regional organisations such as SAARC, BIMSTEC, and ASEAN. These developments highlight the need for a proactive engagement with Sri Lanka’s neighbours.
Sri Lanka’s Diplomacy with Its Immediate Neighbourhood: India and the Other SAARC Member States.
India’s rising leadership role in the region, growing engagement with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is helping to protect the interests of India and Sri Lanka. Both these countries consider each other mutually important for geopolitical and strategic reasons. Under the new “India First” doctrine, Sri Lanka aims to further deepen its engagements with India and protect India’s strategic security interests. Therefore, Sri Lanka’s “India First” is a manifestation of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy from being western-oriented to being neighbourly. Moreover, India’s increased engagement with SAARC and other regional groupings such as ASEAN and BIMSTEC has helped protect the mutual interests of both India and Sri Lanka.
Equally, the strategic relations between Sri Lanka and other neighbouring nations such as Pakistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan have been steadily getting stronger. In this regard, the South Asian Free Trade Area agreement (SAFTA) offers potential for increasing the rate of bilateral trade between Sri Lanka and its SAARC partners. Sri Lanka has also entered into trading agreements such as the Pakistan – Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (PSFTA) and the Indo – Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA), which offers Sri Lanka access to India’s 1.3 billion consumer market. Sri Lanka has also initiated free trade agreement talks with other SAARC member states like Bangladesh and Nepal.
Engagements with other Asian partners: BIMSTEC AND ASEAN.
Broader engagements with other Asian partners such as the East Asian nations and BIMSTEC member states have also been a striking feature of Sri Lanka’s diplomacy. With the right balance, Sri Lanka’s engagements with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) stand to benefit the island nation both economically and strategically. Sri Lanka’s engagements with ASEAN and other Asian partners in the East received momentum under the 2015-2019 government here. Over the past few years, Sri Lanka has successfully established closer political and economic ties with ASEAN and other East Asian nations. Notably, Sri Lanka’s engagement with ASEAN and other East Asian partners is mainly driven by economic necessity. These Asian partners provide Sri Lanka with an opportunity to seek profitable economic engagements within the Asian neighbourhood.
Sri Lanka has also been actively engaged with The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and its member states since its establishment. Notably, the engagements between Sri Lanka and BIMSTEC further increased when the nation assumed the organisation’s chairmanship between 2018 and 2020. BIMSTEC has emerged as a key ally for the future of Sri Lanka’s economy. BIMSTEC is an important channel for economic engagements with neighbourhood value chains and production networks such as India, ASEAN, and Bangladesh.
Championing a New Foreign Policy Model: The way forward
For Sri Lanka to reap the economic benefits of its diplomacy, the government should emphasise improving cooperation with neighbouring nations. Arguably, the nature of Sri Lanka’s relations with its immediate neighbours and other partners will go a long way in providing the much-needed impetus for Sri Lanka’s prosperity. Notably, the nature of relations with SAARC nations will determine Sri Lanka’s future in its pursuit of regional continuity, the promotion of Sri Lanka’s strategic interests, and strengthening each other’s economic prosperity. A good neighbourhood policy will undoubtedly help Sri Lanka exploit the vast economic opportunities presented by its neighbours.
About the Author
Dr. Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O. P Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union’
How confidence has been eroded
By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
On the threshold of the vote in Geneva, with disaster looming, I began to wonder at how Gotabaya Rajapaksa managed so soon to lose the confidence of the country when there was so much hope when he was elected. The Sugar Fiasco, if not quite in the league of the Bond Scam, suggests that corruption is beyond control. After the satisfactory control, initially, of the coronavirus danger, it burst forth through what seems confused reactions, including the preposterous flood of Ukranian tourists. Contradictory messages, with regard to cremation and burqas and even ages for vaccination, seem the hallmark of this government.
In the end, I think the President has to take responsibility for this mess, and I am sure, unless he is totally surrounded by sycophants, that he must realize where he could have done better. But at the same time, I do feel very sorry for him. As he must know, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and he seems to have a chain where there are hardly any links with any bearing capacity whatsoever.
I was struck by this the more when writing the series, I am now producing about the Lost Generations of the United National Party. I have been dealing for the last couple of months with those who came to prominence in the period of the long UNP government of 1977 to 1994, in terms of how and why they did not fulfil their promise.
Contrasting them with those given prominence in the current government, one realizes that now there is no promise at all. To take perhaps the most vital portfolio today we have Pavithra Wanniarachchi, a pleasant enough person but known best for her utter obsequiousness to Chandrika Kumaratunga to begin with, and then Mahinda Rajapaksa and now Gotabaya. One contrasts this with the independent integrity of Gamini Jayasuriya, the first Minister of Health in the Jayewardene government, who resigned from his ministerial position when he disagreed with government policy.
That will not happen with Pavithra, not only because she will not give up her position but also because she cannot understand what it means to disagree about policy. And as for the tremendous innovations Ranjith Atapattu, the Minister of Health who followed, engaged in, his building up of Primary Health Centres and the role of midwives, it is absurd to think of Pavithra having any ideas, let alone such good ones.
That contrast alone makes clear the pitiful position the current President is in. But it is also true that he does not seem to have tried to rise above it. This becomes clear when we consider one of the saddest elements in today’s politics, the enormous responsibilities entrusted to the Prime Minister.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was 74 when assumed the role which he had first occupied when he was 58. Now we all love and respect him, even my sister who scolded him roundly the last time she met him, when he was still President. But it is unfair to expect him now to be a creative Minister and, even if the President needs him as Prime Minister for reasons I need not go into now, to entrust Finance to him as well as Urban Development and Housing is just plain silly.
It is of course true that Ranasinghe Premadasa did have a couple of important portfolios when he became Prime Minister under JR, but he was in his early 50 s at the time. These included Housing and Construction, where he made his mark though he also did much in the field of Local Government. And he did not have the vital portfolio of Finance which was in the hands of Ronnie de Mel, another of those I wrote about, who achieved much for the country, though also sadly for himself. But he too was in his early 50 s at the time, and when he came back into executive office when he was in his seventies he did nothing of consequence.
I am not for a moment suggesting that 70 is too old for office. J R Jayewardene did do much when he became President at 71, and his ultimate failure had to do with his vindictive delusions of grandeur, not his age. But Mahinda Rajapaksa, having done wonders during his first term as President, showed that he was no longer capable of constructive measures when he was in his mid-sixties. To expect more from him a decade later is just plain silly.
There is no need to labour the point, for it is crystal clear we are dealing now with satyrs to the Hyperions of an earlier generation. But it is worth nothing also the contrast between Lalith Athulathmudali, whom I have also written about, and those who now have been entrusted with the responsibilities he fulfilled so well in Jayewardene’s government.
He was in charge of trade which has now been handed over to Bandula Gunawardena. He was in charge of Shipping which is now with Rohitha Abeyagunawardena. And six years after he was first a Minister he was entrusted with National Security whereas now, with the President in charge of Defence, we have Chamal Rajapaksa as State Minister of National Security and Sarath Weerasekera in his first Cabinet appointment, a few months after this Cabinet took over, being Minister of Public Security. The latter seems to be the front man for burqa policy at present.
I don’t suppose anyone will question Lalith Athulathmudali’s intelligence and efficiency, whereas the four Ministers inclusive of one State Minister who now fulfil the functions he managed on his own have between them not an iota of this skills and competence. But this is the material which Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has to work with.
Of course, wonderful material is not a guarantee of success, for we know that, though today’s leading politicians are not a patch on those whom J R Jayewardene had in his Cabinet, that government too brought the country to disaster, with dissent bursting into violence on all sides.
We know too that Ranasinghe Premadasa did very well in some particulars though he worked without some of the brightest stars of the preceding period. And then Mahinda Rajapaksa did a great job in his first term, again without many effective workers. So ultimately it is a question of leadership, and what is so very sad is that Gotabaya, whom one anticipated would be a great leader, has shown himself quite incapable of taking the country forward.
Conversely, though one does sympathize when looking at the material through which he has to work, one does feel too that he is not using the few capable people he has to the full. With regard for instance to Foreign Relations, Dinesh Gunawardena does seem to me a cut above JR’s Foreign Minister, ACS Hameed. And though Dinesh would not claim to be intellectually in the class of G L Peiris, he has a solid base of principle which should hold the country in good stead, which doubtless is why Uditha Devapriya, one of the brightest of our young journalists, characterizes him as the best Foreign Minister we have had in years.
It is tragic therefore that he seems to be floundering, not least because, as so many papers have highlighted in recent weeks, there seems to be no clear sense of direction in the Foreign Ministry. So what we have now is ridiculous efforts by a range of government commentators, including Dinesh and G L Peiris, to prove that we did not in fact suffer defeat in Geneva at the recent vote, a folly Devapriya duly chastizes.
So much verbiage that does not convince anyone is not the way forward for the country. What is needed now is concerted action to ensure that we do not suffer in the way the West has planned for us. But there are no signs of such planning, indeed there are no signs of anyone in authority with the capacity to engage in such planning. Jayantha Colombage, from the little I know of him, seems a decent man with some thinking capacity, but certainly not the thinking capacity or the experience to plan alone as say Lakshman Kadirgamar was capable of, or even Ravinatha Ariyasinha, constrained though the latter was by a host of silly or scheming Ministers. But there are no signs that he is talking to people who know better.
There are two obvious examples of people he and Dinesh together should consult. The most obvious is Dayan Jayatilleka, but since government is wary of him, I will talk first about Tamara Kunanayagam who understands the UN system backwards. Why Dinesh has not consulted her on how to cope with the next stage, which is the discussion in the General Assembly on the budget requested to destroy us, is beyond me. She has excellent relations with the Latin Americans, and indeed Mahinda Rajapaksa, when he sacked her, wanted to use her in Latin America but the mafia that then ran foreign relations stopped him. But even now it may not be too late to use the intelligence and experience she possesses, while also working out guidelines on how to do better in Africa, which too we have woefully neglected unlike in the glory days in Geneva from 2007 to 2009.
Dialectics for a fast evolving scenario
by Kumar David
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory; it is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a scholastic question”. Second Thesis on Feuerbach
Don’t turn away, this is not going to be a boring treatise in abstract Marxism. I will quickly get to my topic, which is that the political circumstances we are living through are evolving rapidly and we should be alert and adjust to changing situations. First however allow me a few paragraphs about Lenin’s most dynamic years, from February 1917 till he fell seriously ill in late 1921. He died in January 1924 due to complications from bullets lodged in him in Fanny Kaplan’s August 1918 assassination attempt. The February Revolution, (old Julian-style last week of February to early March, new Gregorian-style second week of March) took Lenin and the Bolshevik Party by surprise. When first the women and then the workers of Petrograd fired up leaderless demonstrations which overthrew the monarchy, the Bolsheviks who had prepared the proletariat for revolution for 30 years were stunned! Except Trotsky the general expectation among socialists was a Two Stage Revolution; first Tsarism would be replaced by the rule of the bourgeoisie, then it would be the turn of the subaltern classes – a common at the time static misreading of Marx’s dialectical thinking.
I see developments in Sri Lanka moving fast with unforeseen changes and a regime that most of us last year considered strong and stable, now tottering. Of course it’s going to fall tomorrow but it’s wobbling and the domestic environment is changing unpredictably. Catholics are visibly angry about an alleged “cover up of Easter bombing organisers” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA2Zl1mVrOo); the in the Buddhist clergy have counter-attacked the Cardinal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC0WcSiJiJs0). Farmers in several areas are on the warpath according to News First. Furthermore nobody foresaw in 2019 the havoc covid would wreak, and the ferocity of UNHRC denunciations was unexpected. It is true that red lights were flashing about debt servicing and that the economy was in hopeless straights, but the convergence of bad news has been more rapid than foreseen and the regime has quickly gone belly up. All who join a mission with a single simple objective, to protect democracy, perforce, have to adjust to a fast changing scenario. The ability to think and act on one’s feet is what makes Lenin of 1917-1921 interesting. He remains the star disciple of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a fifth century BC classic on strategy. While shifting and manoeuvring Lenin never lost sight of his final objectives. This is why I call him the dialectic on two feet.
Often in this column I have referred to the dialectic as the scientific method; true but how boring! Yes true enough Darwin, the best example in science was an assiduous and utterly trustworthy accumulator of data but with a mind that was alive to how phenomena change and evolve. Gautama Buddha pointed out that nothing is permanent and that all things are evolving but it took Darwin to work out the precise mechanisms by which this was happening in biology. Still, the dialectics of science and nature are slow moving. It is not exciting, it won’t keep you awake at night. Conversely, jumping from Two-Stage theory to instant proletarian revolution on April 1, 1917, capturing state power in October in defiance of scholastic Marxism, pushing back against attempts to militarise the trade unions and the refusal to give the Germans whole swathes of land so as to commit to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (on both Trotsky erred), and in 1921 forcing through the New Economic Policy, a key market oriented concession to capitalist farming, these were momentous strategic transitions, quite breathtaking.
Bearded boring Bolshies 100 years ago, what’s it got to do with us you ask? I’ll tell you. The commonality is that quite unexpectedly we find ourselves in a very fast changing scenario. Lenin in 1917-1922, was an embodiment of the dialectic because he was able to think on his feet and keep his side united using his singular ability to deal with a swift change while the other side (sides to be more accurate) were confused and splintered. This is a useful example for those who seek a democratic, plural and united Sri Lanka because to date this side (I call it ‘we’) have managed to keep our message consistent and united while the ‘other’ side is splintering. President Gota bemoans his unpopularity and his inability to address challenges because “there is no unity” or some such words. I don’t have a clue what skulduggery is going on within the Royal Rajapaksa dynasty, though now is just the right time to make visible adjustments. The public is persuaded that Gota failed because he is inexperienced and his inner circle is dumb; Mahinda and Basil deftly keep out of the limelight. Less and less do you hear from those you marvelled 18 months ago that Gota as the incarnation of a strong leader who would lead Lanka to harmony and splendour? Lee Kuan Yew was a frequently quoted prototype. Where have all those people gone? On the other hand the opposition to an authoritarian new constitution, to excessive deployment of retired military brass and those worried that democracy is under threat (harassment of rights workers, fear in the mind of critics, damaging the judiciary) have succeeded in retaining a degree of commonality.
The shot in the arm for ‘our’ side was the UNHRC Commissioner’s Report and the Geneva Resolution which has de facto created a united front of Sri Lankan domestic forces and international opinion. The uprising in Burma and the opposition to authoritarianism in Sri Lanka must not allow themselves to be intimidated by reactionary nationalists who shriek about foreign support and anti-national traitors. International assistance should be accepted on our terms and in any case democracy is a universal clause. Remember that when the Germans offered to transport Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in a sealed train (“Like a bacillus” in Churchill’s words) he did not hesitate for a moment to accept the offer. The rest is history. In Burma as in Sri Lanka the defeat of the Junta or the containment of an assault on democracy are transnational tasks. “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” when it is used to conceal the machinations of dictators.
You may recall Marx’s quip about standing Hegel on his head which in today’s language we would say has gone viral. It is about the relationship between real life on one hand and theories and philosophies on the other. Tamil agitation and at an extreme the LTTE was not an ideology of a separate state and Tamil cultural-civilisation finding expression in an uprising. Quite the converse, it was the practical conditions of a community creating such angst that it gave rise to extreme nationalism among a large number. That Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist extremism which is holding this country hostage is about ancient civilisation, about hela jathika abimane is humbug. There were class, economic, employment in the late colonial capitalist and state economies, and education sectors which turned Sinhala blood blue with national pride. The nationalists who pontificate the opposite need to be stood on their heads. This critique of what is called the idealism (Ideas and philosophy is what determines the principal features of the real, material world) is very well known now and I think modern bourgeois sociology goes a long way towards recognising it.
What is perhaps not quite so well appreciated is that Marx was more a pupil than a critique of Hegel (not the post-Hegel epigenomes of course) in respect of the dialectic. He speaks of Hegel as a “mighty thinker” in the 1873 post-face to capital I. Certainly spurned the “the ill-humoured, arrogant, and mediocre epigones” who treated Hegel like “dead dog”. What Marx took away from Hegel was how to understand change, the dynamics of how change progresses. The conflicts and compromises in real social and human relations which at times mediate and at times determine how the history of societies evolves. The sociological companion to Darwinian evolution.
We are now live in a fruit salad world of international relations where three powers will decide our fate – over which we have little control – India, China and the US. They are each no doubt pondering what to do about our fruitcake regime. Competition among them to one side, it is in the interests of all three to unscramble this tabbouleh and avert this country’s descent into a failed-state abyss, which thankfully we have still not reached. It is not possible that they each do not have calculations up their sleeves about how to sort out this mess but an initiative from the regime itself proposing a via media to the UNHRC and to the aforementioned powers as proof that Lanka will accept its reconciliation-accountability responsibilities and will maintain a foreign policy balance which will not discomfit any great power will ease a compromise.
The Double-Paksa (two Rajapaksa) regime must forget about enacting a divisive new constitution to claw power into the grasp of the Executive; if firing military sorts already hired for top slots is infeasible at least it must give an undertaking that there will be no more sounding brass speaking in garbled tongues; it must put scientists in charge of pandemic control and win, as Biden seems to be doing; dump this squalid and reckless foreign policy team; it must stop manipulating the judiciary and halt asinine Presidential Commission circuses; it must stop pandering to extremists since this impedes a deal with the minorities. All this is doable if the executive is restructured and a plural orientation is adopted. If the government wishes to pull itself up by its bootstraps it must undertake the policy changes outlined in this para, restructure its personnel, pray much harder and offer trays of mangoes to the deities superintending Sri Lanka. The $64K question is whether Gota has the appetite for this healthy and fruitful menu. Those with no confidence that Gota’s Executive, Mahinda’s government or Basil-in-waiting can extricate themselves from their predicaments, must plan and act on their own outside this purview. The sole self-imposed condition is that change must be constitutional; what’s the point of a fight for democracy if one begins by abrogating it?
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