Connect with us


The Aftermath of Empire – Reappraisal and Reconciliation – (Part 2)



by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe*

Continued from last week

The author is an Honorary Professor at the University of Buckingham, UK, at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka, and also at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies in Sri Lanka.

He was a former Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, Staff Member of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, and former Professor at Cardiff University. He is a pioneer of the discipline of Astrobiology and the author of over 450 scientific papers and some 35 books.


Several generations of British historians, archaeologists and naturalists devoted their entire lives to tirelessly exploring the multiplicity of wonders of India. Studies of the subcontinent’s natural history, archaeology and anthropology are just a few scientific disciplines that enormously benefited from the imperial encounter. The introduction of greenhouses, zoological and botanic gardens to the Western world and much else came directly as a result of the colonial venture.

One discovery of great importance is worthy of mention. A large number of stone pillars and columns bearing mysterious inscriptions in a hitherto undeciphered Brahmi script had been scattered across the length and breadth of India and, rather strangely, gone unnoticed for centuries. In the 1830’s it was an English Philologist and scholar James Prinsep (1799-1840) who successfully deciphered these inscriptions. The edicts written in the Bhrami language mentioned a King Devanampriya Piyadasi which Prinsep had initially assumed was a Sri Lankan king. He was later to discover a Pali text from Sri Lanka from which he was able to connect the title Piyadasi with Ashoka, and thus was revealed for a first time a long-hidden secret of Indian history – the life and times of Emperor Ashoka who had reigned between 268 and 232 BCE. Ashoka is famous as the Indian monarch who became a Buddhist and unified a vast part of the Indian subcontinent into a single empire ruling it according to Buddhist principles. H.G. Wells in his “Outline of World History” said of Ashoka that amid tens of thousands of names of monarchs, “Ashoka shines, shines almost alone, a star”.

In the 1920’s it was again thanks to British archaeologists that we owe the next major discovery – the unravelling of the great Indus valley civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro which represents another long-hidden chapter in the prehistory of the Indian subcontinent stretching back to the third millennium BCE. We already had knowledge from Mesopotamian records of a vigorous trade in lapis lazuli that existed between empires in the Mesopotamia and India, but now we could link this precisely with the Indus valley civilizations.


Unravelling a Buddhist heritage

A few British Civil Servants who were posted in Ceylon in the 19th century became assiduous students of Buddhist texts and wrote extensively and enthusiastically about Buddhism. Thomas William Rhys David (1843-1922) was one such scholar who found himself posted as Government Agent near the historic ancient city of Anuradhapura. There he became actively involved in archaeological excavations that led to the discovery of a vast number of inscriptions and manuscripts relating to Buddhism and this triggered his interest. He soon became a formidable Pali scholar, translated many Buddhist Pali texts into English and also wrote extensive commentaries on Buddhism that are still being read today.

The colonial response to Buddhism on the whole had been positive throughout the time of the Empire. H.G. Wells (1866-1946) in his “Outline of World History” writes of Buddhism thus:

“Many of our best modern ideas are in closest harmony with it. All the miseries and discontents of life are due, he (the Buddha) taught, to selfishness. Selfishness takes three forms – one, the desire to satisfy the senses; second, the craving for immortality; and the third the desire for prosperity and worldliness. Before a man can become serene he must cease to live for his senses or himself. Then he merges into a great being. Buddha in a different language called men to self-forgetfulness five hundred years before Christ. In some ways he was nearer to us and our needs. Buddha was more lucid on our individual importance in service than Christ, and less ambiguous upon the question of personal immortality.”

The amazing degree of concordance between Buddha’s view of consciousness and modern post-Jungian ideas in psychology were discussed by me and Daisaku Ikeda in our dialogue many years ago. The practice of Buddhist meditation is becoming increasingly popular in the West today because of its potential to yield mental and physical health benefits. Such practices, however, are looked upon with suspicion by many – now and in the past – as heathen primitive rituals that challenge the cannon of Christian faith. Such a narrow view cannot be interpreted as being any other than a component of racial thinking that prevailed throughout the period of British imperialism and filters down even into our post-colonial modern era.


Buddhist cosmology

In matters relating to cosmology and life in the Universe ideas from Buddhist as well as earlier Vedic traditions have run contrary to the canonical Western world-view. For instance, in the cosmology described in the Anguttara Nikaya (a Buddhist text dated at around the 1st century BCE) it is stated thus:

“As far as these suns and moons revolve, shedding their light in space, so far extends the thousand-fold world system. In it there are a thousand suns, a thousand moons, a thousand inhabited Earths and a thousand heavenly bodies. This is called the thousand-fold minor world system….”

It then goes on to define a hierarchy of world systems, referring to the entire universe as “this sphere of million, million world systems”. Similar views do not dominate scientific thinking in Europe until after the Copernican revolution in the 17th century of the common era. Today, with the recent discoveries of exoplanets in the past decade, the total number of exoplanetary systems in our Milky Way galaxy alone is estimated to exceed 100 billion.

As far back as the first millennium BCE a school of atomism similar to that of Democritus was founded in India, the most important proponent of this school being a philosopher named Kanada (600 BCE). The idea was that atoms are point-sized, indivisible and eternal, each possessing a distinct property and individuality. These concepts were developed further by a burgeoning Buddhist school of atomism that flourished in the 7th century CE.

Aryabhata (476-550CE) was perhaps the first Indian astronomer in the modern mould who discovered an approximation of pi to six significant figures and also correctly maintained that the planets and the Moon shine by reflected sunlight. He also correctly inferred from observations that the daily motion of the stars in the celestial sphere is due to Earth’s rotation about its axis.

From both archaeological and later historical evidence there is no doubt that high levels of advancement in science and technology had been achieved in India long before Aryabhata going back to at least the second millennium before the common era. Vedic Sanskrit texts dated at the 8th century BCE refer to Pythagorean triples (eg. (3,4,5 (5,12,13), (8,15,17)) and display a knowledge of Pythagoras theorem. One of the earliest Indian astronomical texts (Vedānga Jyotiṣa) dates from 1400–1200 BCE, with the currently extant form dating possibly from 700–600 BCE. This latter timespan also corresponds to the dating of the most ancient known “university” in the world, Takshashila in India, which was a centre first of Hindu and later Buddhist scholarship.


Ayurveda and plant-based pharmaceuticals

Developments in the field of ayurvedic plant-based medicine, and including reports of surgical interventions, have been recorded in a variety of sources from the earliest times. In one of the Ashokan pillars (272-231BCE), to which I have already referred, an edict reads: “Everywhere King Piyadasi (Ashoka) erected two kinds of hospitals, hospitals for people and hospitals for animals. Where there were no healing herbs for people and animals, he ordered that they be bought and planted.” There also exist many thousands of ayurvedic texts both in India and Sri Lanka with extensive lists of medicinal herbs and their alleged benefits for curing various ailments. The result of four centuries of colonial rule has unfortunately been to relegate this vast legacy to the “archive of curiosity”.

The few ayurvedic physicians who now practice in India and Sri Lanka still rely on time-hallowed anecdotal accounts of the efficacy of their plant-based medicines. The correct procedure will be for western science to fully explore these claims with chemical analysis and trials, but this has not yet been done. It should be recalled in this context that many drugs currently used in western medicine are indeed derived from plants – aspirin, quinine, digitalis, morphine, codeine – are just a few. It is hard to imagine the medical legacy that would follow from a complete investigation of the thousands of claimed herbal remedies that still remain unexamined.


Transition from ancient to modern science

I have already mentioned the knowledge of land surveying technologies and irrigation schemes that was evident in the Indus valley civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa; and these and other technological developments have also been found elsewhere in India and in neighbouring Sri Lanka throughout the period from the beginning of the common era until the time of the arrival of the British in 1600CE.

When the British arrived in India the difference in technological development between Britain and the subcontinent was arguably marginal. Handlooms and weaving technology that were developed and used in Bengal made India (run by the Moghuls) one of the richest countries of the world at this time. In a real sense it could be maintained that the technological advancement of the West took place at the cost of the continued impoverishment of India.

From the beginning of the 20th century many Indian scientists who were trained in British Universities and laboratories made highly significant contributions to the progress of science furthering the dominant scientific paradigms of Western science. A common feature of all these scientists is that their corpus of work supported and did not in any way challenge the major accepted paradigms of the day. Their achievements were thus thought to be a continuing tribute to the prevailing and predominant traditions of western science, and so were readily acknowledged and rewarded. However serious difficulties can arise whenever an ethnically non-European scientist hailing from an ex-colony dares to challenge a reigning paradigm of Western science.


Clash of Orthodoxy and Heresy

It should occasion no surprise to find that most important advances in science with regard to fundamental of issues concerning the Universe and Life have always been subject to cultural and religious constraints. Thus, in the 19th century the unfolding facts of geology that yielded an age of the Earth of some 4 billon years came into sharp conflict with Biblical chronologies of mere thousands of years, and this had initially caused great angst in some circles. Likewise, the facts of biological evolution that were unravelled after Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 continued to disturb conventional beliefs for several decades.

As already mentioned Buddhist and earlier Vedic cosmologies can be interpreted as being consistent with many aspects of modern and post-modern scientific thought. There are also fundamental differences that can cause consternation in a Western scientific context. In Vedic cosmology the universe is thought to be infinite in spatial extent and cyclic in time– strikingly reminiscent of the modern versions of oscillating universe models. In this context it is worth noting that the currently favoured Big-Bang theory of the Universe with an age of 13.8 billion years is by no means absolutely proved. The very recent discovery of a galaxy designated GN-z11 located at a distance of 13.4 billion light years (implying its formation just 420 million years after the posited Big Bang origin of the Universe) poses serious problems for the current consensus view of cosmology.

Recently Nobel Laureate Roger Penrose has come in among the select band of dissenters from the standard view of a unique Big Bang origin of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago. In a theory called the “conformal cyclic cosmology” Penrose postulates that the universe undergoes an infinite number of cycles in which the Big Bang event 13.8 billion years ago is the most recent cycle of which we are a part – a result strikingly in accord with ancient Vedic and Indian cosmology.


The inescapable fact of Panspermia

Finally, I turn to the age-old problem of our own origins – how we, humans and indeed all of life, came to be. This question has been approached in a multitude of different ways, embracing superstition, religion, philosophy and eventually science. The ideas that prevailed throughout ancient India involved the concept of life being an integral part of the structure of the universe – a view closely aligned to the ideas of panspermia discussed in the West by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxoragas of Clazomenae who lived around 500BCE. Panspermia implies that “seeds of life” are eternally present in the cosmos and take root whenever and wherever the condition permit.

This concept was vigorously rejected in the Western tradition in favour of the ideas of the more influential Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 3rd century BCE. Aristotle proposed instead that life must arise from non-living inorganic matter whenever the right conditions prevailed, and he cited many instances that were incorrectly regarded as supportive evidence, the most graphic being the statement of “fireflies emerging from a mixture of warm earth and morning dew”. Over a millennium and a half later Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1272) essentially co-opted Aristotelian philosophy into church doctrine, so that dissent from any component of it thereafter was effectively construed as heresy. The Aristotlean doctrine of “Spontaneous Generation” was transformed into “Abiogenesis” in modern terms and continues to dominate Western science almost to the present day.

Attempts to re-examine panspermia in the West began in earnest with the French biologist Louis Pasteur in the early 1860’s. Pasteur showed in the laboratory what was already known for larger visible life forms – that life is always derived from pre-existing life of a similar kind. This casual chain of events – life-from-life – is true not only for lifeforms existing today but it is also true throughout the entire record of fossilised life on the Earth. The question that next arises is: when and where this connection cease to operate. The answer could be never – so this then naturally leads to panspermia.

Following the experiments of Pasteur, panspermia came at last to be championed by many contemporary physicists in the late 19th century.

Lord Kelvin declared: “Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive. This seems to me to be as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation….”

And the German physicist Herman von Helmholtz wrote in 1874:

“It appears to me a fully correct scientific procedure, if all our attempts fail to cause the production of organisms from non-living matter, to raise the question whether life has ever arisen, whether seeds have not been carried from one planet to another…”.

A similar position was also championed a few years later by the Nobel prize-winning Chemist Svante Arrhenius in his 1908 book Worlds in the Making. But all this enthusiasm was transient. On the basis of poorly designed experiments concerning limits to the viability of microbes in space, the situation soon reverted, and spontaneous generation and abiogenesis came back into vogue.

In the past five decades abiogenesis was confronted with a formidable array of new facts from astronomy, geology, space science and molecular biology, all of which challenged its validity. On the other hand, an ever-increasing number of predictions of panspermia has come to be verified to an astounding degree of precision. Wrong theories do not perform in this way, so it soon became amply clear that panspermia’s star was on the ascendant! The sociology of science now took over: the triumphs of panspermia over rival models began to irritate an ever-increasing body of scientists. This was aggravated by the fact that all attempts to demonstrate the validity of abiogenesis in the most advanced laboratories in the world consistently led to dismal failure.

The trajectory of panspermia from its early roots in the Vedas through to Anaxoragas in the 5th century BCE and into modern times is sketched in Fig.4. The last phase following on from Pasteur led up to the work of the present writer, Fred Hoyle and many collaborators. This unfolding scientific drama is well-documented in a very large number of scientific papers and recent books.

What I would like to reiterate by way of conclusion is that the body of objective scientific evidence in favour of cometary panspermia and against abiogenesis is now compelling and overwhelming. The main reason that this new world view has yet to enter mainstream thinking, and even become more widely known, may be simply because its principal proponent (the present writer) is seen as a heathen and a former colonial subject. In what could be seen as the most egregious travesty of justice serious attempts are being made to “steal” our well-documented priority on these ideas in recent publication of similar ideas but with a deliberate omission of any reference to pioneering work over the past 40 years. In my view overt racism including antagonism for what is seen to be an alien concept is the only conceivable explanation for this conduct. This explanation also provides the only reason for why a long-overdue paradigm shift from planet-centred life to cosmic-centred life – a paradigm shift which is potentially of the most profound importance across the whole of science – is being delayed.

The long colonial encounter between “West” and “East” that began in the 15th and 16th centuries ending barely seven decades ago has in every sense shaped the modern world. Many scars have been left, however, and a priority of the ongoing decolonisation process must not only be to expand on the legacy of this long experience but also to heal its wounds.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *





by Jehan Perera

A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.

The government has addressed the immediate causes that brought the people out on to the streets. The crippling shortages of vehicle fuel and cooking gas that caused long lines stretching for kilometers are not to be seen. There is enough to go around now as the demand for these basic commodities has dropped considerably following the tripling of their prices. There is an outward appearance of normalcy that belies the economic difficulties that the masses of people are facing. The three-wheel driver lamented that his monthly electricity bill of Rs 700 was now Rs 3200 which made keeping his refrigerator unaffordable. Government officers on fixed incomes are struggling to survive having pawned their jewellery and mortgaged their lands for survival. Those who can leave the country seem to be leaving.

The government has also shown it is prepared to use the security system to its maximum. This has won some supporters especially among the upper social classes and ethnic minorities who are always worried whether mobs of the under classes will invade their neighborhoods and subject them to looting and violence. After becoming president, President Wickremesinghe showed his resolve in bringing the protest movement to heel by sending the police to break it up and arrest the leaders. Protestors have been warned that their protests should not inconvenience the general public.

Those who do not heed the police guidelines have found themselves being tear-gassed, baton-charged and arrested. In contrast to the heyday of the protest movement a year ago, any voice of public dissent is liable to be quickly suppressed. A case in point would be that of the unfortunate hooter. As reported extensively in the media, a government minister who was laying a foundation stone for a religious shrine was hooted by a businessman who was travelling in his vehicle. The media reported that “the police acted swiftly, pursuing and apprehending the suspect. He will now be produced before the court for obstructing a religious ceremony.”


The contrast with what happened a year ago could not be more stark. The main slogans of the Aragalaya protests was to arrest the rogues who had bankrupted the country and compel them to bring back to the country their ill-gotten gains. The draft Anti-Terrorist law that has been approved by the Cabinet to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is, in many ways, a more repressive law that will encompass a much wider swathe of social and political life. Clause 105 in it defines a “person” who can be taken into custody under this law to mean an individual, an association, organisation or body of persons.” Readers of George Orwell’s classic novel of authoritarian government, “1984” would feel a chill if that new law is passed when they think of protesting against the government.

A key demand of the protest movement last year was the demand for “system change.” At its core this was a desperate call for a change of government that had bankrupted the country and accountability and punishment for those who had impoverished the people by their mis-governance, corruption and indifference to the people’s plight. Another terminology for “systems change” would be to say that the people called for a new “social contract.” The notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled was developed over four centuries ago in Europe by Enlightenment era thinkers such as by John Locke in England and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France who gave the name “The Social Contract” to his 1762 book.

The social contract theorists argued that people left the state of nature where without government life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (as described by their predecessor Thomas Hobbes). People entered into a social contract with those who would govern them. In terms of the social contract, the people would give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection and order by the government. In modern democracies, people elect their representatives who form the government of the day and look after the best interests of the people. But in March 2022, the people of Sri Lanka felt hat their government had not lived up to the social contract and demanded they leave office and return their ill-gotten gains.


Those who continue to come out on the streets in protest demand elections and also demand to know why the government has not made efforts to bring back the money that was stolen. What is visible at the present time is that most of the government members who were responsible leaders of the previous government continue to remain in positions of power, either frontally or behind the scenes. There continue to be allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In one appalling instance, two government ministers resigned from a watchdog committee they were appointed to. They complained that they were not getting the information they required to play their assigned roles.

Sri Lanka has yet to address the monumental failure of government that took place in the early part of 2022 that plunged the country from a middle income level to a low income level. When the people went out on to the streets to protest and call for a “systems change” they were demanding that the government should step down and go. But it did not go and instead re-arranged itself and continues to be in power. Much to the chagrin of the protest movement, the government they wanted to go has grown stronger under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and is ignoring the demand for “system change” and those who call for local government elections which are overdue.

Speaking to students at Harvard University last week through the internet, President Wickremesinghe made it known that the government would abide by the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the elections. A confrontation involving the three branches of government would signify a “systems breakdown” in place of the “systems change” that people fought for a year ago. The president has also taken pride in announcing that the government will soon be passing into law the best anti-corruption legislation in South Asia in parliament soon. If the president’s vision of sustainable political stability and economic recovery is not to be a re-enactment of the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, there needs to indeed be a “systems change”, a plan for the future prepared in consultation with the opposition and civil society and a new “social contract” in which elections would be the first step.

Continue Reading


Free Education, Social Welfare and the IMF Programme



by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Sri Lanka’s seventeenth IMF agreement sealed last week may well prove to be the most devastating one of them all. The reason is that the agreement comes along with Sri Lanka having defaulted on its external debt for the first time in its history. The IMF amounts to being the arbiter of the debt restructuring process with Sri Lanka’s external creditors, which will provide considerable leverage for Sri Lanka to be held accountable to IMF conditionalities.

The fallout of the IMF package will be wide and deep, greater than the Structural Adjustment Programm e with the IMF in the late 1970s, when our cherished social welfare system came under attack. In this Kuppi column, I address some of the dangers facing our education system. Education is inextricably linked to welfare and democracy, and in the years ahead the nexus of the IMF and the current avatar of the neoliberal state are likely to impose an authoritarian regime of dispossession. The future of Free Education in our country now depends on tremendous resistance by our students and teachers along with solidarity from all quarters of the working people.

Welfare and democracy

Social welfare in Sri Lanka reaches back to the 1940s. It included food subsides, free education and free healthcare, which were all universal schemes. The IMF packages and the World Bank programmes since the neoliberal turn in the late 1970s have consistently attempted to weaken such universal social welfare programs in the interest of creating a market economy, including through the commercialisation of education and healthcare. Neoliberal ideology privileges the individual, and by the same token places the entire burden of wellbeing on the individual. As the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who, along with US President Ronald Reagan, initiated the neoliberal age on a global scale—famously said, “there is no such thing as society”.

This rejection of society is at the heart of the attack on social welfare, as the IMF and World Bank are now in the process of changing the very idea of social welfare itself into a narrow concept of targeted cash transfer programmes. This attack on the social aspect of welfare entails both granting enormous discretionary power to those in power to determine which individuals can obtain minimal support, in addition to the monetisation of such entitlements, which over time would likely be reduced or inflated away.

Historically, universal social welfare came after the policy of universal adult franchise in 1931. Furthermore, universal free education policies, as they emerged in the mid-1940s, were framed in terms of strengthening the ability of Sri Lanka’s citizens to exercise power through their democracy. In this context, today’s attack on universal social welfare is a key part of the agenda of an illegitimate and undemocratic regime in power. Moreover, the regime’s vision of the education system derives from the IMF’s technocratic assumption that the goal should be to create subservient employees for a market economy, rather than democratic-minded people who can become agents of social, economic and political change.

Austerity, dispossession, and resistance

The attack on education is not only ideological, in terms of the neoliberal emphasis on individualism. The austerity measures that are inherent to the current IMF programme are also material. They are bound to reduce the allocations for education. The Government is being forced to find avenues to create a primary budget surplus by next year. This will further lead to initiatives for the commercialisation of education; for example, the expansion of fee-levying programs in the state university system, loan schemes for education, and the initiation of private educational institutions, including private universities.

The logic of the IMF programme and the unfolding developments will dispossess people of one of their most important social welfare entitlements: education. There is already evidence of rising school dropouts, of children not being sent regularly to school, children fainting at school due to the lack of food, and children having to labour for their existence. University students are finding transport costs unaffordable and even lunch packets are becoming out of their reach. These are the consequences of a contracting economy due to the austerity measures that have been imposed. Indeed, our economy has contracted by as much as a fifth over the last few years. The critical gains of social welfare made after the Great Depression of the 1930s in our country are now in danger of being completely rolled back because of the ongoing economic depression along with the IMF programme making it worse.

The dismal prospects for our country can only be addressed by solidarity and resistance. We need to regain our sense of social belonging, which was undone through the very attack by neoliberalism on the idea of society, while taking forward the struggle for democracy. The great struggles last year that dislodged an authoritarian populist president provide hope that despite decades of neoliberal policies, working people’s capacity to envision society, solidarity, and resistance are very much alive.

We are going through the most painful period of our postcolonial history. It is a moment in which, even as our economy is collapsing, our elite are working in cahoots with the IMF and global finance capital, which have achieved a stranglehold on us by leveraging the default and the bankrupt state of our country. In the context of this existential danger, for those of us concerned about safeguarding free education and, for that matter, any meaningful system of education, this time around that struggle must begin from a broader defence of social welfare and democracy.

The author is attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

Continue Reading


The Box of Delights – II



Seeing through testing times and future

Text of the keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences,

University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.

Sadly, too, the GELT materials we produced are now forgotten, though in the end they were taken up by Cambridge University Press in India and prescribed too at some Indian universities. But in this country producing materials is a way of making money and so, though three years ago the UGC asked about using our materials again, they were prevented from making use of these, and individual universities demanded autonomy and nothing went forward as swiftly as our poor youngsters needed.

Delay also affected the curriculum reform I initiated when I chaired the NIE AAB [Academic Affairs Board]. I had told the then Education Secretary Tara de Mel that we should move immediately, but for once that normally efficient lady was diffident, and said we should wait. Six months later she told me to go ahead, and we did, swiftly, but then Chandrika Kumaratunga lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness and the new President and his Minister simply did not understand the need for continuity, and the vital changes we had embarked on were forgotten.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa and Susil Premjayanth did continue with perhaps the most important initiative begun under Tara—the English medium in secondary schools in the government system. That had begun in 2001, but was sabotaged by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister at the end of that year. But his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, a former Vice-Chancellor of this University, was more enlightened, and ignored Ranil’s instructions that he halt the programme, and it continued. He was lucky not to be tear-gassed, but, in those days, there were some restraints on unbridled authority with the forces then more supportive of alternatives.

But the teacher training programme I had started with support from Paru and Oranee, had to stop. The NIE then took that over and completely destroyed the learner friendly approach we had initiated, with its hierarchy promoting formulas, such as three Ts and then five Es and seven Ks, gloriously asserted in lengthy sentences such as ‘Also the teacher should closely observe the children learning, identifying students’ activities, disabilities, providing feedback, developing the learning capacities of the students and making implements to extend the learning and teaching outside the classroom are some other tasks expected from the teacher.

As I commented on this in English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence?, ‘It might seem churlish to cavil about the two main verbs in this sentence, were this not an instructional guide to English teachers, with three language editors who have doubtless been well paid for their pains, or the lack of them.

Training then was in the hands of the NIE, and the programme began to flounder. But, fortunately, the contract to produce books had been for two years, and Nirmali continued in charge of this, so at least a good foundation was laid, though after that the Ministry and the NIE took over and the usual tedious stuff was reintroduced. Our efforts to introduce wider knowledge, and creative thinking, were abandoned totally, unsurprising given the ignorance I had found in those entrusted with producing textbooks at the NIE (which managed once to produce a history syllabus which left out the French and the Industrial Revolutions in the whole secondary school curriculum). Let me, to prove my point, give you an extract from what the NIE managed to produce

‘Red the story …

Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway have a nice time” bye.

So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys

She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted.

“He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail it’s marvellous”

“Monkey usually do that’

And, so it seems does the NIE, was my comment. Unfortunately, I cannot in a speech make clear the carelessness with regard to punctuation and spelling, but a printed version will show just how appalling the NIE usage of English is and the callousness of inflicting half-baked stuff on our children.

Despite all this English medium has survived, but that it could have done so much better is obvious from the continuing proliferation of private English medium schools. Interestingly, the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I met after many years, reminded me that in the early nineties he had wanted me to work at the Ministry to remedy the situation, but he had abandoned the effort when officials at the Ministry opposed this, understandably so given that I do not tolerate nonsense. And though Tara was made of sterner stuff, and did make use of my services, two changes of regime before things could be consolidated meant that our children still get short shrift as far as English Language Learning is concerned.

I have spoken thus far of English at university level and in schools. I have also worked on English for vocational training, first thirty years ago when the World University Service of Canada commissioned a basic textbook for those starting on vocational training, then more comprehensively when I chaired the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.

Having discovered that what were termed NVQ Levels 1 and 2, supposed to prepare youngsters for vocational training, hardly existed, I started Career Skills courses at those levels, to develop other soft skills and in particular English capacity, and these rapidly became the most popular courses in the system. After all, I had done a trawl and found that parents wanted something for their children to do in the fallow period after the Ordinary Level examination. Uniquely, Sri Lanka wastes the time of its youngsters by delaying the resumption of school, a boon to the tuition industry which embarks on recruitment and hooks youngsters for the next few years.

Needless to say, when I was sacked, the English courses were abolished, and successive Ministers of Education, who now have charge also of vocational education, bleat about the need for more English but do nothing to promote this. Least of all do they think of learning from the past, and far from reinventing the wheel, they simply talk about movement while allowing all means of transport to be dismantled, with parents and children who have been left in the lurch turning if they can to private education, tuition in particular.

As your former Vice-Chancellor perceptively put it, when I was last here, the education system is abandoned by those who have the means to pursue alternatives, and it is only the most deprived who cling to it. And whereas any country with a conscience would do its best by the deprived, decision makers in Sri Lanka do not care about them – like the Mr Lokubandara, who ranted against English in the state system and sent his son to an international school, and then when I reprimanded him told me sanctimoniously that it was his wife who had insisted on that.

Is there then no hope? I fear not, and now I can understand the despair of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s brilliant analysis of the failure of the British in imperialism, and her lament that “I thought there might be some changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly as it was when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”’ I rather fear then that your Vice-Chancellor’s observation will prove even more apposite in the years to come. There was a brief moment three years ago, when covid first hit us, when I thought the system would bestir itself to provide alternatives, but I fear nothing of the sort happened.

But let me end now with what should have happened. Given that the onset of covid saw closure of schools and institutions, there should have been efforts to develop curricula appropriate for a time when face to face contact would not be easy. And this required, as I started by saying, thinking as learners do, and tailoring the content of curricula, as well as systems to convey it, to the abilities of learners, not teachers.

This was particularly important in the context of 2020 in which learners had limited access to teachers. But our decision makers could not think on these lines, nor understand that the key to this was simple materials, that are not just user friendly but that will allow learners to gain not only knowledge but also relevant thinking skills on their own. Provision could and should have been made for guidance, but this had to be minimal, and also provided through small group clusters, where students could learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance at a higher level as available. I recall vividly the brilliant initiative of Oranee Jansz, in insisting that all GELT students not only did a project, but that they dramatized this. This proved a wonderful motivating factor, and students in the remotest of areas worked hard together, and the synergy they developed, to use one of Oranee’s favourite words, led to rapid learning by even those who had been initially very weak.

Such a system was especially important for youngsters in rural communities, and could have been activated in 2020, at a time when communication was difficult, and where the panacea authorities developed, of online contact, was not easy, and in many instances not even possible. But as I have noted, those rural communities are of no concern to our decision makers, whose main motivation is to have their children advance through educational systems different from those the majority of our children have to undergo. They are not at all like Oranee, or one of the academics I remember most fondly from my time at this university, Prof Wickremaarachchi, who started an accountancy course in English medium only, and noted that one had failed as a teacher if one’s students did not end up better than oneself.

To continue, in the midst of a country in a desperate plight, with the positives this university could develop, I will revert to the last time I was here, in December, and highlight again the initiative I mentioned when I began, to work through the national library system to promote English through entertainment for early learners. The project which has been developed suggests at last, after two decades, an effective approach to extending opportunities and means of learning.

This can easily be taken further, at all levels – and work on this has begun – to fill gaps that the state has sedulously ignored for several decades. Costs would be minimal, if only innovators such as the personnel here responsible for the initiative were given a free hand. I can only hope that, with the support of the hierarchy here, and the other players who have combined to take this forward, from the Governor of the Northern Province to the Chairman of the National Library Services Board, that this initiative will lead to the proliferation of user friendly materials and personnel able to use them productively.

Continue Reading