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Starting work at WHO in Geneva with the Community Based Rehabilitation Project



(Excerpted from Memories that linger: My journey in the world of disability by Padmani Mendis)

All arrangements were made for travel on May 14. In those days the Swiss visa was obtained over the counter. Flights were frequent. Ticketing by Swiss Air was quick and easy. And made easier by an accessible manager. Punctual departure, smooth take off, much napping on the flight, it did not seem long before I awoke to hear our arrival in Geneva being announced.

As I looked out of the window dawn was just breaking. And what an astounding scenic feast awaited my eyes. The glow of the early sunrise bathing over beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks of all shapes and sizes stretching out forever. And the culmination of it – Mont Blanc rising majestically above them in all its glorious purity. So wondrous was the site that the pilot took us round twice over so we could drink in that vista. He took us as close as he could safely take us, so close that one felt one could almost touch the glorious mountain. It was a brief but exceptional experience never to be had again in all my flights over those Swiss mountains.

Thank you, Captain. I can still see Mont Blanc as it was that beautiful morning in May even as I write about it here, 43 years later.

In Geneva, I met Gunnel for the first time and we connected immediately. It was as though we had known each other forever. She and Einar were friends already, having worked together in Gothenburg, she as Head of Occupational Therapy and he as the Internal Medicine Specialist in charge of the Department of Rehabilitation. The three of us spent but little time on pleasantries and sat down together immediately to start our work on developing “Community Oriented Rehabilitation”. In this we were being very Swedish – time is too precious to be wasted.

We spent much time discussing the possible strategy that Einar had conceived and how it could be put on the ground. Then Einar would go off to attend to his other responsibilities in the unit while Gunnel and I actually started putting the ideas we had developed down on paper. Over the next few years we would be together in Geneva like this may be a couple of times a year, sharing our field experiences and our real-life learning. Using that to improve our materials and setting ever higher our goals aimed at a better life for disabled people.

And then to go away again to carry out more evaluation and gain more learning.

Community-Based Rehabilitation or CBR

During one such discussion in the early days we knew we had not got something quite right. “Orienting” rehabilitation to communities does not go quite far enough, we agreed. What we were discussing was something far deeper, penetrating the communities in which disabled people lived, promoting ownership of the rehabilitation process by those community members and disabled people together. For we knew from our own experiences and discussions with others that change would come only with ownership of, and responsibility for, the process of change.

Then Eureka! We got it right. Rehabilitation must be based in the Community we exclaimed almost together. It must be part of the fabric of each community. What we are talking about is Community-Based Rehabilitation. And so the term was born. Einar immediately went further. Ever the innovator, “We can shorten it to CBR,” he said.

And that is how the world came to know it – CBR, at that time as it does today.

The use of the word “based” had also another very important implication. We knew that all rehabilitation tasks could not be carried out at the community level. Support from outside would no doubt be required to assist them to solve those problems that they could not solve by themselves. The term CBR implied that a supporting structure was called for.


Einar had come to take up his post at WHO some four years earlier. His high level of intellect and intensively scientific mind is combined with an unlimited visionary outlook. All of which makes him a truly unique individual. For disability globally he was the right man at the right time at the right job. His concern was for the poor and the needy, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the neglected.

And that concern knew no bounds. Son of a Swedish Bishop, he grew up when poverty was the norm in Sweden. Before the Swedes discovered the value of the abundance of trees that nature had blessed their land with. He told me how he would see individuals rummaging in garbage bins where he grew up in Stockholm in the same way he saw people now in the poorer countries that he visited.

He was a sensitive individual. It was no surprise that he made it his first priority when he came to WHO to address the issues related to disabled people in developing countries. Issues of discrimination, disregard and destitution.

To understand these issues deeply, he selected a few countries to visit. Important to him was to reach rural areas where those most in need lived, to talk with them and their family members and others who lived in their neighbourhood. This gave him an understanding of how such people dealt with their problems and took steps to overcome them in the here and now. Because these people just had to. Life would have not been possible had they not.

One such country he chose to visit was in the Middle East. A recent disaster was created when poisoned cooking oil had been consumed by a significant section of the population. Many people, including a large number of children, had been paralysed by the poison. Various parts of their body had been affected. As a result, some had been unable to walk, others to move their legs or trunks, still others to use their arms. Einar was struck by the resilience of these people whose lives had been shattered by the cooking oil. The disaster impacted heavily on the severe financial and other difficulties most faced. It impacted on their day to day living and on their quality of life.

And yet these people had, to a large extent, reduced this impact by overcoming the effects the poison had on their bodies. Spending time with these people, Einar saw how mothers had made bars in their garden using branches of trees so that their children could hold onto them, use their legs to make them stronger and be able to walk again. He saw adults using suitably-shaped tree branches as crutches to enable them to walk and attend to farming. He talked with others who had been unable to move about make simple trolleys on which they could get to where they wanted, even involving themselves in trading.

In other countries he visited he met people who were deaf communicating with neighbours and others in their villages using simple signs which they had developed themselves. He saw blind people moving around the neighbourhood with a stick to guide them so that they were not isolated at home.

These visits constituted valuable learning for Einar. The learning converted into a seed from which grew the strategy that the world came to know and practice as Community-Based Rehabilitation or CBR.

Putting Learning into Practice and the Role of SIDA

Now he had to put the ideas he derived from the learning he acquired to WHO and get approval for action. Protocol required that he prepare an analysis of the situation of disabled people in developing countries to justify the recommendations he would make to WHO for a policy change. Preparing the policy document was a long process.

It was ultimately approved by WHO in 1978. The new policy direction was at that time called “Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation”. Later the programme name was changed to “Rehabilitation”.

Once approval was obtained, Einar had to seek extra budgetary funding to set in motion the beginnings of policy implementation. The Swedish International Development Agency or SIDA was particularly partial to the less fortunate in this world. The WHO’s new policy direction was attractive to them and they came to be a partner of the rehabilitation programme for the next decade or so. It is thanks to SIDA that Community-Based Rehabilitation was developed globally benefiting so many disabled people and their families throughout the developing world.

And it is also thanks to SIDA that Einar, Gunnel and I were now together in Geneva working on the CBR strategy and drafting a Manual that would start putting this policy into action. Then having done this, we would evaluate the practice of these in the field. Development of the CBR strategy with the Manual and its evaluation took until 1989. The Manual called “Training in the Community for People with Disabilities” became an official WHO publication that year. It was said by WHO some years ago that this Manual had been translated into over sixty languages and used in over 100 countries.

First Tasks

Carrying out these first tasks in Geneva in 1979 was no easy job. Drafting a Manual was arduous and exhausting. The first step was involving as many people as was practically possible and with them, collecting information. For this the assistance provided by a volunteer was invaluable. She had space in our room, joined us at our desk and sent off letters to as many sources as she could contact in any and every part of the world to seek their views on a possible strategy and its implementation.

Then she collated and tabulated the replies she received. Helen was from Australia. Her husband, a medical specialist was on contract to WHO for two years. Helen, herself a medical specialist but with no formal job had time on her hands, some of which she spent willingly with us.

As for Gunnel and me, one of our earliest tasks was to go round the “House” as the headquarters was often referred to. We met divisional heads and other officials in those departments that were relevant to disability and to what we were doing. These included for example mental health, accident prevention, blindness and deafness prevention, nursing, medical education and so on.

The response of most was seldom a positive or an encouraging one. Many were frankly discouraging. Some indicating that the idea of introducing rehabilitation strategies at community level was sheer madness. Which had Gunnel and I sometimes return to our room, close the door and shed buckets of tears. What were these people telling us? Did they not understand, not care? Where were we going?

Together we shared a strong belief with Einar that this was definitely the way to go and with this shared belief we overcame all obstacles. I recall one outstanding personality who gave us his wholehearted support from the word go. He was Jean Jacques Gilbert or JJ, a specialist in Medical Education and Head of that Department. He had done pioneering work in objectives-based teaching and evaluation of learning and was continuing to develop materials for medical education on these lines.

Einar and he shared a relationship based on mutual respect; each had an independent spirit and confidence in what the other was doing. Gunnel and I believed that what brought them together also was the antipathy to them shown by other professionals in the House. We believed also that the antipathy was a result of some envy of the intellectual and visionary capacity and the pioneering spirit demonstrated by both JJ and Einar.

Gunnel and I also grew a relationship of mutual respect with JJ. Over the next few years on our many stints in Geneva, Gunnel and I often turned to him for advice when we were stuck. The materials we developed were for self-learning, objectives-based and facilitated self-evaluation. So JJ’s advice was invaluable.

For me from Sri Lanka, his manner was sometimes embarrassing. Being a Frenchman and a gallant one at that, he would insist on greeting me by raising my hand to kiss the back of it with a bow, a real old-fashioned French style of greeting. This happened even when we met on a corridor. Strangely enough he never did that with Gunnel and that made me wonder, why not?

Gunnel and I experienced interactions within the House that resulted in both highs and lows for us. Neither of us liked the atmosphere that prevailed within it at that time, perhaps because we were women consultants, a relative rarity. But we loved our work and nothing could keep us away from that House.

Gathering More Information to Complete a Draft

Our initial work of gathering views and recommendations extended beyond the House to other institutions in Geneva. These included ILO, the International Labour Organisation, where we met Mr. Brown, a chubby, pleasant individual from England. He was supportive of our work from the time we told him of it. He cooperated with us to develop the strategy and evaluated those sections that were relevant to work, particularly the module on income generation.

Mr. Brown was responsible for having ILO formally recognised as a co-producer of the draft Manual with the ILO logo alongside that of WHO on the cover. So did UNDP, UNICEF and UNESCO have their logos on the cover.

Gunnel and I also visited UNESCO in Paris to meet Lena Saleh from Jordan. Lena was the single worker in the Special Education Section as it was then called, fighting a lone battle to improve the education of disabled children. The way she fought this battle alone was by producing booklets and other material for distribution and use in developing countries. One person alone in Paris reaching and impacting the right to education of many thousands of children and their teachers who were far away. Einar and Lena were good friends, their common approach to work bringing them together.

The Manual “Training in the Community for People with Disabilities”: Knowledge is Power

The WHO Manual “Training in the Community for People with Disabilities” or TCPD contains knowledge, and Knowledge is Power. This is the overall, the primary purpose of the Manual. That disabled people, their families and their communities will have power; power in their own hands to change their situations. Today we call this empowerment. That word empowerment was not used then, but here was the concept of empowerment in practice.

In the absence of knowledge together with the power to use it and to know how to use it, no change is possible. The overall design and content of the Manual has therefore a dual role: one, how to change their situation which was called the CBR strategy, and two, the CBR technology. The technology was actions made possible with knowledge and skills. The Manual has also built into it a monitoring and evaluation system to check that both are working.

A term that was not used at the time the Manual was first drafted, was community mobilisation. But this process of community mobilisation is the foundation of CBR. It is described in the Manual as including the following: bringing members of a community together, enabling them to talk about any problems within their group related to disability, discussing the resources they themselves had to deal with such problems and what more they may need, making available to them the knowledge and skills they need to do these, providing them with the support they needed and making all this sustainable.

In a nutshell, this is the CBR process. The Manual was not designed for professionals. It was essentially for CBR implementation within rural communities. With some adaptations it was also used in urban communities

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Understanding policy of neutrality



Yuan Wang 5, Chinese research and survey vessel, at the Hambantota port in August, 2022.

by Neville Ladduwahetty

In order to assuage the apprehensions of India regarding the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel Shi Yang 6 to Sri Lanka, an informed source of the National Aquatic Resources Research Agency (NARA) is reported to have said “a team of officials from the NARA would board Shi Yang 6 to observe research activities”. This act is “widely seen by Sri Lankan interlocutors as an attempt by the Government to signal to the countries which are at loggerheads with China that Sri Lanka is privy to what is transpiring in the whole process and to make sure that it will pose no security threat to any third country” (Daily Mirror, September 19, 2023).

Continuing the above DM report states: “Sri Lanka advocates a neutral foreign policy. However, India, Japan and the United States are skeptical about Chinese maritime activities in the Sri Lankan territorial waters since they fear that it is part of a major effort by China to systematically map the seabed across the vast swath of the Indian Ocean. They fear hydrographic data, collected in the process, can be used for security related purposes later …. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka insists that it is a neutral venue to all countries, and won’t allow its territory, be it sea, air space or land to be used against the security interests of another country, particularly India” (Ibid).


Sri Lanka is indeed encouraged and heartened by the stand the country has taken to exercise its rights in keeping with its stated policy of Neutrality backed up by provisions of Internationally accepted Customary Law relating to entitlements, such as exploring within Exclusive Economic Zones of Coastal states. However, this stand could be strengthened by incorporating provisions of International Law as stated in Part V of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea presented below.

By incorporating these provisions into the Corpus of Domestic Law, Sri Lanka would be in a much stronger position to exercise its sovereign rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone by way of imposing penalties on those who violate its provisions and in particular those who engage in illegal fishing and destroying natural resources by the fishing crafts of India and other countries.


Rights, jurisdiction and duties of the coastal State in the exclusive economic zone

1. In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:

(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting conserving and managing the natural resources» whether living or non-living» of the waters superjacent to the sea-bed and of the sea-bed and its subsoil» and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone such as the production of energy from the water currents and winds

(b) jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:

(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures:

(ii) marine scientific research:

(iii) the protection and preservation of the marine environment:

(c) other rights and duties provided for in this Convention.

2. In exercising its rights and performing its duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone the coastal State shall have due regard to the rights and duties of other States and shall act in a manner compatible with the provisions of this Convention.

3. The rights set out in this article with respect to the sea-bed and subsoil shall be exercised in accordance with Part VI.


A top source that is considered to be familiar with Indian affairs is reported to have stated: “Sri Lanka’s neutral position is acceptable but it is doubtful for India whether Sri Lanka being economically weak, has the strength to maintain such an approach” (Ibid), and cited the example of India purchasing fuel from Russia despite objections by the United States. That top source has forgotten that India despite its power, once “invaded” Sri Lanka hoping to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka and was compelled to return in shame having failed to fulfill its mission.

According to him “India can act in this way because it is powerful enough to resist any pressure…”. For India to buy oil from Russia despite objections from the U.S. means that these objections are relatively benign because the U.S. needs India as part of QUAD to counter China. However, this being a commercial arrangement, it cannot be compared with the legacy of despicable acts repeatedly committed against humanity of weaker States by so called “powerful states” in the pursuit of their interests.

It is evident that the “top source” is unaware that the International Order does not make a difference between “powerful states” and the rest, because one of the principal pillars on which the United Nations Charter rests states in Article 2 (1) that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.

Furthermore, Principles and Duties of a Neutral State are based on International Customary Law, which in its Introduction states: “The sources of the international law of neutrality are customary international law and, for certain questions, international treaties, in particular the Paris Declaration of 1856, the 1907 Hague Convention No. V respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land, the 1907 Hague Convention No. XIII concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I of 1977 (ICRC Publication June 2022).

Despite the existence of such International provisions “powerful states” have not hesitated to brazenly flout its provisions in the pursuit of their interests most of which are warped imaginations.

For instance, it was India that imposed its will on Sri Lanka when it forced Sri Lanka to accept the 13th Amendment; an act that denied Sri Lanka the fundamental right of self-determination enshrined in Article 1 (2) of the Charter of the United Nations that state:

“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. This Amendment crafted by India compels Sri Lanka to adopt devolution to Provinces as a form of internal government to satisfy the imaginations of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. This was violently rejected by the People when it was first introduced and ironically even after more than three decades continues to be rejected not only by the majority but also by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Despite such rejections, India keeps insisting the Sri Lanka should live by its provisions; the latest being at the ongoing General Assembly Secessions in New York.

Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka has to come up with an innovative strategy within the provisions of the Constitution to get free of 13A because its entrenched contradictions hinder peripheral development. What is most objectionable about devolution as a concept is that it fosters the operation of Central Government and Provincial Government functions simultaneously that often are at variance thus perpetuating disparities within and among Provinces amounting to entrenching discrimination among the Peoples; a fact that is starkly evident among the States in India and other countries that have divested Central power.

Another practice adopted by “powerful” India is to overlook the violations committed by the Fishing community in Tamil Nadu at the expense of the Fishing community in Sri Lanka, by robbing the maritime resources and vandalizing the marine environment by resorting to bottom trawling within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone notwithstanding the fact that it is a violation of Article 56 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead of raising such issues at bilateral meetings, despite the presence of the Minister of Fisheries, Sri Lanka has been trapped into commitment to issues of connectivity that bolster India’s influence over Sri Lanka.


While Sri Lanka appreciates and is proud of the position taken by NARA and the Government in respect of the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel, Sri Lanka has to exploit all International safeguards to overcome potential threats from the so called “powerful states”. In a background where “powerful states” would not miss an opportunity to exploit the circumstances in other States, countries such as Sri Lanka have to depend on the shield or weapon of international law to protect their interests.

Therefore, for them, it is the codified rule of the Rights and Duties of a Neutral State and the incorporation of the relevant provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea into Domestic Law or the fact that its provisions are part of Customary Law to protect its sovereign rights and enforce its interests in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Such material should form the framework of a Standard Operating Procedure as suggested in a previous article (Neutral Foreign Policy in Practice, August 22, 2023). A strengthened Sri Lanka would then be in a position to avail itself of the resources of the International Court of justice, as other countries have done to seek redress. Furthermore, since they are numerically greater, their strength lies in a Rules based World Order and not on “power”, irrespective of its source.

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Some buildings with their attributes gone forever



Rest houses were places we grew up with and most had existed during the later years of British rule in Ceylon. Counterpart in India was called a dakh bungalow, or so Cass remembers from staying overnight long ago in one in Sanchi. Rest houses were really what their name implied: places to rest in; mostly for government administrators when they travelled on government business termed circuits. There were the circuit bungalows too but they were in remote areas and with much less amenities.

The best-known rest houses were Nuwara Wewa and Tisa Wewa in Anuradhapura, the one jutting into the Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa, in Belihuloya, Ella, Hambantota Tissamaharama, Kankesanturai and Elephant Pass, and in Peradeniya, opposite the Botanical Gardens. They were well known for their gentlemanly keepers, most dressed in cloth and shirt, and the food served: excellent lunches with the invariable fried karola or hal messo; the wonderful coconut sambol and the fried red chillies which was not a usual homemade appetizer.

Now, most of these wonderful places of staying in comparatively cheap, are called resorts and expanded, losing the old-world charm, the warm welcoming ambience, and the spacious one storey roominess. They were tossed aside by hotels being constructed and so they too changed ‘shape’. One or two deteriorated – the Hambantota RH accompanied by the deterioration in standard of clientele too becoming more a water hole than temporary stay-in place. Some surpassed their previous selves like the Ella RH which was transformed to a high-end inn.

We often lunched and stayed in several times and remembered was the Peradeniya RH with its wide veranda with tables to lunch or dine at, looking across at the trees in the Gardens, particularly that variety which had red drooping down flowers bordered by bright red spathes which we called kukul kakul and even ate, delighting in its sour flavour. No more. None of the view of glorious nature; none of the almost al fresco lunching; none of the old-world charm and particular ambience of the old rest house. It has been rebuilt and ‘developed’ to a horrible state.

Change – for better, for worse

On a recent visit to Kandy after many years the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens was walked through, with plenty others, both local and foreign. One small niggle of doubt was the fee charged from foreigners Rs 3,500, Cass believes. Too excessive is her opinion particularly in comparison to what locals pay. We should not fleece foreigners though they are with dollars, pounds sterling, euros or whatever.

The gardens are excellently maintained; the orchid house glorious in its blooms and the banning of vehicular traffic very wise. Unlike many of our Buddhist places; visitors who found it difficult to walk much and toddlers were amply catered for by frequently running motorised open vehicles. The layout of the Gardens is almost the same as it was for many decades previous, but improved and maintained sprucely clean.

In sharp contrast was the Peradeniya Rest house. Cass forgot to note its name. The old building was so stately yet with a comforting, welcoming air about it. You usually parked yourself in the wide quarter-walled verandah at a table or in a comfy, un-upholstered chair. Now you are led to the first floor to a fully curtained room. Tall windows were all closed and the drawn curtains obliterated even a glimpse of the outside. Cass ordered rice and curry since she did not want a buffet lunch. Not possible to serve rice and curry a la carte was the waiter’s reply. Only Chinese dishes could be ordered. Cass was aghast.

Imagine not being able to order our basic meal in a restaurant that was a rest house previously with the reputation of serving the best rice ’n curry. You had to have the buffet if you wanted rice and curry; if you ordered your lunch it would be Chinese – fried rice, chopsuey, etc. Isn’t that a travesty? You are enclosed claustrophobically in a heavily curtained room with fans; cut off from fresh air and all the greenery around, and dictated to on what you eat. That is development for you!! Cass calls it mudalali aberration. The buffet was simple enough with a couple of additions like soup to a rice and curry meal costing 1800. Chinese was 1200.

Special committees

I am sure all adults of Sri Lanka object to President RW’s promise to set up a Parliamentary Committee to look into and report on the Easter Sunday suicide bombs in April 2019. A comment people make is that RW’s solution to any problem/matter is to appoint a committee; never mind the report and taking action.

You can bet your last thousand rupees that if a Parliamentary Committee is set up to report on the C4 documentary and its repercussions etc., all politicians will be exonerated and the ones who are pointed at as the accused, would be pronounced lily white. Zahran did it all by himself with ISIS control. We millions of Ordinaries too cry out against a fully local panel of investigators, and never a group of MPS.

A boxed news item on page 1 of The Island of Tuesday September 19 had this heading: CID takes over probe into gun attack on MP. The car with Anuradhapura District MP Uddika Premarathne was shot at. No one was injured. But quick as lightning, the Police handed over the hunt for perpetrators to the CID. They too will work overtime and catch the miscreants.

Good! But what happens over the several motorbike shootings and those guilty of distributing dangerous drugs and making this lovely island rotten with drug importers, peddlers and takers? Oh, those can be taken time over and never nail the guilty and punish them. Rather assist those caught and jailed to get out or at least attempt escape.

Heartwarming story

An Indian friend sent me this story which so gladdened my maternal heart. It is shared here so more mothers could feel appreciated.

Ninth Grader Ajunath Sindhu Vinayala of Trissur (Kerala), often heard his father brush his mother aside as “just a housewife. She does not work.” Ajunath was surprised because he never saw his mother not busy so he painted this picture (published with this article) depicting all the chores she did. His teacher sent it to the State govt office where it got selected as the cover for the 2021 gender budget document. The appreciative son with more of his pictures can be accessed on the Internet.

Almost all Sri Lankan mothers will agree with Cass that our sons and daughters are wonderfully grateful and caring people, with many living overseas but still visiting, transferring money and sending parcels of goodies and necessities. Bless them, we mothers/grandmothers chorus.

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Amunugama on Anagarika: A partial review



By Uditha Devapriya

In the course of his study of myths and legends, Bruce Kapferer observes that those who attempt to rationalise myths are as much in error as those who believe in their literal meaning. There are several points in his book with which I beg to differ, but I agree with this specific point. Myths have a logic and a life of their own, and any external compulsion to alter or rationalise them will be met with hostility. Kapferer’s other contention, that myths are continually being renewed and reborn, is also tenable. The narrative around which these myths revolve may stay the same, but the implications of such stories change from era to era. Millenarian platitudes about glorious pasts and histories, of utopic Edens before the Fall, whether in Buddhist or Christian societies, fall into that category.

I reflected on Kapferer when I reread Sarath Amunugama’s impressive book on Anagarika Dharmapala, The Lion’s Roar, the other day. Dharmapala has gone down as perhaps the most misunderstood national figure or figurehead in our history. For close to two centuries if not more, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe got a bad press as well, but thanks to recent forays by Gananath Obeyesekere, we have come to understand and, as a nation, identify with the tragic figure that he was. Dharmapala, however, is more complex, because his writings and speeches lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations: out of necessity, he made it a point to speak differently to different people. Ultimately, I believe all national figures end up being misunderstood. Dharmapala was no different.

What Amunugama tries to do in The Lion’s Roar is to present Dharmapala in a new light. As one reads through his book, one realises how predictably he has been presented until now. Most contemporary assessments of Anagarika Dharmapala place him at the forefront of the Buddhist Revival of the late 19th century. Though, in later years, he broke ranks with the organisation which gave the revival its impetus, the Theosophical Society, he nevertheless maintained contacts with it. Sociologists and anthropologists have presented the Revival as having been led by an emergent, nascent Buddhist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The latter were constantly frustrated in their efforts to join the ranks of the former, a point which more or less pitted them against foreign traders and minority groups.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Until now, social scientists have been content in casting Dharmapala as a messiah, of sorts, of this petty bourgeoisie. Dharmapala’s actions certainly did not endear him to the up-and-coming Sinhala bourgeoisie. Unlike his brothers Edmund and Charles, he was alienated from the many elite and bourgeois groups which formed the basis of later political associations, of which the most prominent would have to be the Ceylon National Congress. That may have been because of Dharmapala’s own background, which stood a tier or two below that of the Senanayakes and the Attygalles. Sarath Amunugama goes as far as to contend that the death of F. R. Senanayake in India closed the possibility of an open conflict between Dharmapala and these families. Yet even Senanayake’s death did not wholly foreclose these possibilities, as the many press campaigns against Dharmapala shows.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Is it accurate, then, to locate Dharmapala at that crucial juncture between the formation of the Theosophical Society, the beginning of the Buddhist Revival in the late 19th century, and the emergence of a weak but aspirant Buddhist petty bourgeoisie in the early 20th? This is how social scientists have generally viewed him, so far.

Dharmapala himself may not have been conscious of his role here. Yet as Regi Siriwardena eloquently put it once, “[t]o say that any thinker or leader served the interests of a particular class is not necessarily to say that he was conscious of doing so, still less that he was hired or commanded by that class.” The ultimatum of social scientists and anthropologists, hence, seems to be that he became the ideological vehicle of these groups, that as the latter’s attitudes to foreigners and minorities hardened, they saw in him a definitive “ancestor from antiquity.”

Amunugama attempts to shed new light on Dharmapala’s followers and acolytes by bringing to the foreground groups which have been excluded from most contemporary assessments of Dharmapala’s life. Prime among them are what Amunugama sees as “subaltern” groups, among whom he includes the Sinhala working class. This working class, he contends rather convincingly, were swept away from their roots into the cities, where they confronted a new and different social order.

As they became more aware of the conditions of their existence and sought to transform them, they began to encounter foreign traders and minority groups, hired by the colonial government to counter the growing tide of trade unionism and Sinhala proletarian discontent. It is against this backdrop that they saw Dharmapala as a saviour, and not just a saviour, but someone they could call their own.

This is, to be sure, an intriguing point. Yet how “subaltern” were these classes Amunugama associates with Dharmapala? Without splitting hairs too much, I think we must bear two points in mind. The first is that, until the formation of a Left movement in the 1930s, no political association, however radical, envisioned a Ceylon falling outside of the orbit of the British Empire. This was as true of bourgeois reformist associations as it was of nationalist ideologues. Whatever “subaltern group” in Sri Lanka at this juncture saw things differently, in contrast to their mobilisation by the Left after 1935. In that sense Dharmapala fulfilled a role, however limited, for these groups. The Marxists could not have been more different to his ideology, as their struggles on behalf of Indian Tamil plantation workers showed. But then Dharmapala was no Marxist, even if a scion of his family – Anil Moonesinghe – made a seminal contribution to the Left movement of the country.

The second point recalls an observation Gananath Obeyesekere once made in relation to Dharmapala and his disciples: namely, that their attitudes to the Other – which Amunugama dwells on at considerable length in his remarkable study – were paradoxically activated by their alienation from their social and kinship groups. In their quest for “identity affirmation”, the Dharmapalists sought a negative identity for themselves, in relation to the Other.

I think that more or less explains the Sinhala working class’s affinity for Dharmapala, at a time of rising anger against foreign traders and minority groups, including the Malayalis. Such anger cannot be condoned, especially when it transforms into racialist feelings. But it helps explain why, in the absence of an anti-imperialist Left movement in the country, these groups could gravitate to nationalist figures – and why even as key a representative of the Sinhala working class movement as A. E. Gunasinha could invoke him in his struggles.

Does this necessarily mean Dharmapala’s politics were not anti-imperialist, or in the least radical? I think the jury is still out there, though I believe that Dharmapala’s emphasis on industrialisation has been missed out by those who see only his ranting against other social groups and ethnicities. Dharmapala once counted among his defenders a highly unlikely figure: Yohan Devananda.

Writing in the Lanka Guardian, in response to Regi Siriwardena, Devananda contended that Dharmapala “did perform an essential historical function in rousing the national consciousness against the foreigner.” I do not know what to make of this assertion, given that for Dharmapala’s followers, “the foreigner” has come to include all groups deemed “alien” in the country. But there is no doubt that he did, at the end of the day, serve a function. The question that countless scholars have raised, which Amunugama tries to answer, is exactly in whose interests he served that function.

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

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