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The Hurs: A Criminalized Tribe in Pakistan



Meeting president-to-be of Afghanistan and an eight-hour drive to deliver a cake

by Jayantha Perera

From 1991 to 1996, I was the Socio-Economist of the World Bank’s Indus River Left Bank Outfall Drain Project in Sind Province of Pakistan. The Pakistan Government in 1994 proposed to the World Bank to build a reservoir in the swamp-filled depression called Makhi Dhand in central Sind. The project objectives were to encourage irrigated agriculture among scattered, mobile communities and to develop one of the most backward areas in Sind. The name of the proposed reservoir was Chortiari, and my task was to conduct a socio-economic survey among the affected communities and prepare a resettlement and income improvement plan.

In early 1995, Asraf Ghani, a resettlement specialist of the World Bank (who later became the President of Afghanistan), visited the project area on a mission. I met him at Sanghar, a local town not far from Makhi Dhand. Ghani had brought several pieces of hand-held GPS machines. I was mesmerized when he demonstrated how to use GPS to record houses, farms, small ponds, and patches of forest. The field team, Ghani, and I traveled to the Chortiari area by two four-wheel drive jeeps, mainly through high savannah grass.

Upon arrival, Ghani called an impromptu meeting in the shade of the only tall tree in the vicinity. From there, we could see only about ten meters because of the savannah grass that surrounded us. It was a sunny hot day. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the temperature was about 50 centigrade. I was afraid that I might catch the ‘laughing sickness’ – heat attack on jaw movements creating an impression of a laughing person. After the discussion, Ghani wanted to know roughly how many households would be affected by the reservoir. The local irrigation officials were clueless. Then he asked them how many families were in the settlement where we stood. The officials talked to each other but could not even provide an estimate. Ghani climbed the tree with his shoes and scanned the surrounding area. He came down and declared that the village where we were might have about 35 households (after the survey, the final tally of the affected households was 38). We spent an hour discussing the main topics of the socio-economic study and how to deal with non-titled farmers’ claims and absentee landlords in our survey.

After the meeting, I drove back to Hyderabad with Ghani. We discussed the history of Makhi Dhand and its role in various anti-colonial uprisings, its relationship with Afghanistan during the Kalifat movement in Sind. He was happy that he could help the most miserable and backward community in Makhi Dhand escape poverty and marginalized life. I told Ghani that I would stay in the project area with the field team for three weeks. He cautioned me to be safe from dacoits who kidnapped people for ransom.

Sir Edward Cox, in 1909 said that notorious criminals found refuge in its secret recesses because villagers were in sympathy with those ‘Robin Hoods’ and supplied food and other necessities. In 1995, Makhi Dhand had the same notoriety. Then it was known as the breeding ground of dacoits and other ‘miscreants.’ The households were scattered in far apart settlements, and settlers were subsistence farmers and herdsmen. There were no schools or a hospital in Makhi Dhand. The settlers had to go to the nearest town Sanghar for medical help.

The survey team stayed at a semi-abandoned guest house built in the 1890s. The house did not have doors or windows and was built on the principle of cross ventilation. There were two dirty punkas (cloth fans) hanging from the roof in a bedroom and dining area. A cook and a punka vallah (fan operator) arrived from Sanghar to serve us. The punka vallah was a lazy man and pulled the fans for us for about two hours just after dinner. As a result, we suffered through the night the unbearable heat, mosquitos, and other insects. The punka vallah disappeared soon at 10 pm and re-emerged only in the morning. The cook was a fine man with a Sindi cap and a well-preened large mustache. He dressed differently from the punka vallah. He served us parathas with fried okra and local fish for all three meals.

The survey team members were from Sanghar town and knew important personalities in the project area. One of them was the Pir, who lived in Chortiari. His name was Variyam Fakkir. Variyam told me that although people treated him as a Pir, he was only a second-tier Sufi saint who had not yet reached the full Pirhood. He was a religious and political leader. People in the area venerated him as a Sufi saint. He occupied a large land area in Chortiari, and his followers cultivated the land as his haris (tenants).

In the mid-19th century, Pir Wazir claimed that he was a direct descendant of holy men in Arabia. They were the members of the Sufi faction of Islam. He organized the residents in Makhi Dhand and Thar Pakar desert into a close-knit brotherhood called Jamiat. The Jamiat had two tiers: salims – the ordinary people who venerated the Pir and depended on him for their subsistence; second, farqis – diehard Pir followers who formed an anti-colonial revolutionary group called ‘Hur.’ Hur membership in the early 20th century spread to Thar Pakar desert, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Bengal. At that time, devoted landowners and big cattle herders in rural Sind supported the movement. Such supporters were known as khalifas.

Variyam’s great grand uncle in the 1910s and his grand uncle in the 1940s had led the Hur revolts against the British and served long jail sentences. His grand-uncle, Pir Pagaro, went to the gallows in 1943 for high treason. After the Independence of Pakistan, salims and farqis joined together, dropped their resistance to the state, and became settled farmers and cattle herders. Variyam became a strong ‘vote bank.’ No regional or national political party could ignore him in local and general elections.

The residents in the Chortiari project area were proud people. They delighted in talking about their past adventures and bravery, including their century-long resistance (1850 to 1948) to British administration, especially to its Police and armed forces. The residents ascribed their current rampant poverty and marginalized status to the imposition of the Criminalized Tribes Ordinance in 1871. The British used the law and its regulations to control the Hur movement, restrict residents’ freedom, control Pirs, and destroy their property, crops, and animals.

After sunset we lay on charpoys (cots) in Variyam’s compound and listened to his breathtaking stories while drinking hot tea and munching local sweets. We were happy to lie down on charpoys (cots) with rough hemp ropes interwoven into small squares to enjoy the cool desert breeze. After sunset, the compound was dark and we could not see each other. I was scared of dacoits and I thought that they would emerge from the tall grass to kidnap us. Variyam assured us that nothing would happen to us because we were his guests.

In the evenings, a giant comet covered a part of the dark sky. Variyam interpreted its presence as a bad omen and predicted that India might attack Pakistan. He wanted to know when the Chotiari reservoir would be built. Variyam lamented that the construction of the tank would wipe out old archeological ruins and the thick forest cover that sustains local communities for many centuries. He wanted to know our “genuine” thoughts about the proposed reservoir. He told us that he could stop the project overnight by calling his followers to boycott the survey. He laughingly said that dacoits might kidnap me for a ransom of Rs one million because that was the prize the dacoits would demand for a kidnapped foreigner.

I explained to Variyam that when irrigation water is supplied from the reservoir, the people could form into settled agricultural communities. Irrigation water supplies would enable them to cultivate at least two crops a year, giving them a regular household income throughout the year. As part of the project, I told him that basic facilities such as roads, schools, and hospitals would be constructed. Each evening, he repeated his concerns about the state encroachment into the Hur territory. He explained that the British established permanent settlements under the 1871 Act by bringing loyal tribes and communities from Punjab, Rajasthan, and Bengal. In addition, the movement of original inhabitants was restricted, and army posts were erected to supervise them. In some locations, villagers were relocated into new settlements. They could not leave without a pass, and the army roll-called twice daily to check their movements. The justification for such draconian rules was to prevent evil characters from visiting the rebellious Hurs. He wondered whether the same would happen to the Hurs with the World Bank project.

Variyam loved to dramatize from his charpoy how his grand-uncle, as a 12-year boy, led the Hur uprising in the 1930s. In the 1920s, the British found it difficult to maintain law and order in Makhi Dhand. His grand-uncle and followers openly challenged the British rule in Sind. He imitated how the cannons boomed and the sound of firing machine guns. The Delhi Government dispatched platoons of soldiers to Sind to control chaos and Hur attacks on Police stations and government offices. The young Piro Pagaro organized his followers in Thar Pakar and in central Sind and continued to harass the government until the British captured him in 1927. Ali Jinnah, a famous lawyer from Bombay (the future founding father of Pakistan), defended him at a session court in Karachi. He pointed out to the judge that with the imposed draconian laws, the Hur people could not live in Makhi Dhand as ‘human beings.’ The court sentenced the young man to eight years in prison.

When released from prison in 1936, Pir Pagaro rekindled the revolutionary zest among his followers and declared war against the British. The British declared martial law in 1942 and introduced the ‘Special Hur Act’ to deal with ‘miscreants’ under the martial law. Variyam told us that the army and the air force did not spare even their pots and pans after dynamiting and looting their communities. They raided their cattle and goats and stole their gold jewelry. He could not continue his talk as he was distraught, and on several occasions, he wiped his eyes with his shawl. He told us with a broken voice that the British hanged the Pir in 1943 at the Hyderabad jail with several other Hur leaders.

We walked to village settlements with a local guide through tall savannah grass. At some settlements, there were only three or four households. They were poor and hardly had any food at home. Questions about their income, expenditure, and livelihoods did not make sense to them. Most residents wanted to believe that they were pastoralists who moved from one place to another with their cattle. They pointed out that the idea of land ownership is alien to their culture.

Most villagers first refused to talk to us, but when we told them that we were their Pir’s friends, they accepted us and responded to our questions. A man told us not to waste time visiting houses because each household had the same story of poverty, discrimination, and wounded pride. Several old people were waiting for the second coming of Pir Pagaro, who sacrificed his life to redeem the Hurs from their agony and destitution. In that context, they were worried about development programs that the project planned to start in the area with the involvement of the state and the World Bank. One man told us that a descendant of Pir Pagaro in the future would bring sweeping changes including independence and economic prosperity to Makhi Dhand. He opined our patchwork of development might betray his grand plan.

The government officials, who had refused to join the survey, told us that the residents including Variyam did not own any land in the area. The British had confiscated all Hur land under martial law in the early 1940s. In this context, they queried why the state should compensate for the land taken from Hurs for the reservoir. This was the critical issue that I had to deal with in formulating the resettlement and income improvement plan.

One day, I completed an interview with a family before four pm in a remote settlement. I waited with the translator for other team members to return to walk back to the guest house about seven miles from that location. Two unknown young men emerged from the forest and walked towards us. They talked to the translator for a few minutes. Then they approached me and asked what was I doing in their settlement? The translator translated the question and winked at me. I did not know why he winked at me. I told them that we were doing a survey before building a reservoir in the area to irrigate their fields.

One man raised his voice and asked me, “have you obtained our permission to build a tank on our land?”

“Yes, we have already talked to your Pir and several settlers, and they think the project would be beneficial for them,” I told him.

“But you did not talk to us about the reservoir?” He retorted.

“It is our plan to talk to all households before planning the reservoir,” I told him.

The two men talked again with the translator.

The translator told me, “please be careful with these two fellows. They can harm us.”

I smiled and asked him, “where are their guns if they are dacoits?”

My response annoyed the translator. He talked to the two men again. All three laughed, and one man went to a nearby hut and came back with an AK-47 rifle.

The translator told me, “didn’t I tell you to be careful. Now they have an AK-47 rifle. They can take us whereever they wanted to go. Especially they might like to take you with them to get a ransom.”

Fortunately, at that time, the other team members returned. One of them recognized one of the two men. They talked to each other and shook hands. Before leaving us, the gunmen told me through the translator, “do not roam in our area after two pm.” I asked him why. The translator said that “dacoits get active then, and you might meet them on the road as you did this afternoon.”

I told Variyam about my encounter with the dacoits. He thought for a minute. In a sad voice, he said to me that “the problem with my people is their impatience and foolishness in making enemies from outside.” He asked me not to report the incident to the Police or to the officials at Sangar or Hyderabad. He reassured us that no one would harm us while we were in Makhi Dand. In the same evening, he organized a musical party for us and served delicious food. The songs focused on Hurs’ bravery, purity of Sufism, the pan-regional spread of the Hur brotherhood. Sometimes, the singer cried and waited for the audience to respond to his wailing.

I sat next to Variyam, and he told me how his father organized similar evenings and got a special cake from Bombay called ‘Bombay cake’ for such occasions. He vividly remembered the cake. It had a generous sprinkle of dried raisins on top of it and its crust was thick and hard. He said that he had not seen a Bombay cake for about 30 years. He asked me to get a Bombay cake for him. I asked a friend in Bombay to bring a Bombay cake for me when he visited his uncle in Karachi. After three months, my friend delivered a Bombay cake to my residence in Hyderabad.

The cake was large. It was nicely wrapped in a box. My friend told me that the cake would stay fresh for two weeks as a ‘dry’ cake. Purkahn, my driver, and I drove eight hours with the cake to Chortiari. Variyam was delighted to see me and the cake. We ate a small piece of the cake, and I saw tears in his eyes. He wanted me to come back to Chortiari so that he could tell me the whole story of the Hurs. I promised that I would visit him again, and left his house with a feeling of respect and gratitude.

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Some wistful memories of the Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital



by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

The Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital with its imposing architecture is an iconic landmark in Colombo. It faces the Lipton Circus, the roundabout named to remember Ceylon Tea that became famous all around the globe. This is now called the De Soysa Circus named after the philanthropist and entrepreneur Charles Henry de Soysa who also has the De Soysa Maternity Hospital named after him. The Victoria Memorial hospital established in 1906 was named to honour Queen Victoria and her Diamond Jubilee that was celebrated in 1897.

This red-brick colonial building was designed by Edward Skinner, a British born Architect who emigrated to Ceylon circa 1894. The red bricks used in its construction gives it a grand and distinctive appearance. The history of red bricks dates back to the 12th century in Central and North-Western Europe. Many of the famous 19th century hospitals in London were made of red bricks like the University College Hospital and the Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Skinner designed several recognisable buildings in Colombo including parts of the Galle Face Hotel, Cargills, Victoria Masonic Temple, Wesley College, Lloyds Building in the Fort, and St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk in Galle Road Colombo. Although the Gothic Revival in Western architecture survived into the 20th Century, Edward Skinner most appropriately, decided on an Indo-Saracenic model for the hospital. The design and construction of the domes are reminiscent of the architecture of the Mughal period. The doors and windows have neat and stylish polychrome brick arches. Architecturally it can more than hold its own against the best of that period in the world.

The wife of the British Governor of the time, Lady Ridgway, laid the foundation For the Victoria Eye Hospital in 1903. It was opened for business with great optimism two years later. The cost of the building was divided equally between the government and the Anglophile general public. In 1905 it was considered the best in the colonies. It is now part of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka.

My earliest connection with the eye hospital was in 1952. I was far too young to appreciate its formal beauty. The world was a totally different place then. The veteran politician Dudley Senanayake was our Prime Minister. The doyen of cricket, F.C de Saram, captained the All-Ceylon team. I was then a scraggy kid in the boarding at Wesley College. Cricket occupied much of my mind and a great deal of my free time. I couldn’t read the blackboard in class and complained to the school Matron. She sent me with a chaperone to the Victoria Eye Hospital. I recall a young doctor’s questions about my vision. It amused him no end when I said I couldn’t see the blackboard nor the cricket ball. From then on, I began to wear glasses. Although I could read the blackboard, it never improved my cricket.

I saw the Victoria Memorial Eye hospital everyday when I was a medical student in the 1960’s and this exemplary building is now deeply rooted in my memory. By then the Ophthalmology Services had moved to the brand-new hospital just around the corner from the old. The New National Eye Hospital of Colombo was established in 1962 to cater to the growing demands of the 20th century. Everything was moved to the new site, lock stock and barrel. In the melee the new relegated the old to near obscurity. The old Victoria Memorial Hospital, although parts of it were allowed to be derelict, continued to provide a service. There was an ever-increasing demand for space in healthcare. In 1967, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake opened the Accident Service in the Victoria Memorial Hospital.

When I worked at the Central Blood Bank in Colombo in the early 1970’s the Victoria Memorial Hospital housed the Accident Service of the General Hospital Colombo. it was a part of my duties to cover the blood transfusion work of the Accident Unit at night when the full time Medical Officer was away. I remember there was an ornate wooden staircase with beautiful carvings leading up to my office. The office was a single room with high ceilings and two large windows in front facing Ward Place. There were lovely views of the red Leyland buses and the slow traffic that chugged around the Lipton Circus. I could see Peking Hotel which was beautifully lit which has now given way to Rajya Osu Sala. The rear wall had beautiful decorative wood panelling and I did my work in Victorian splendour.

My sojourn at the Accident Service was an enjoyable one as most of the doctors who worked there were known to me. We were all young and idealistic. I soon got used to the buzz and the rush of adrenaline with the arrival of the ambulances. In those distant days the sirens and the flashing lights were less conspicuous. At times there was a sense of dread, and an expectation of a life-defining situation. I saw for myself the tragic drama that unfolded day after day and the weeping and the wailing that followed. It was a most humbling experience. We were in the habit of chatting away late into the night when there were gaps in the busy workload supported by multiple cups of coffee and tea. I look back on those years with great nostalgia of the friendship and the warmth that prevailed despite the sleepless nights.

Typical of Victorian buildings the hospital was a rabbit warren of narrow corridors and a multitude of rooms and recesses. At night much of it was dark and unlit. in the gloom they become ominous passageways. There is a strange belief which is universal that most old buildings were haunted. There were stories abound of mysterious happenings at night. Some believed the hospital was haunted by ghostly figures. The doctors who slept in that building have heard strange noises and others spoke of seeing humanoid figures appearing through closed doors. I slept in a dimly lit room in the Blood Bank. In all my years I never saw or heard anything untoward except the occasional cries of pain or screams of despair from the Accident Service which was right below me.

The Victoria Eye Hospital was built when architects created buildings for their elegance and beauty while making it functional and fit for purpose. On my occasional visits to Sri Lanka, I was appalled by the disdain shown to this landmark building in later years. There were large advertising billboards and hawker stalls covering the grandeur and the magnificence of its redbrick façade. The splendid entrance gates and the elegant porch are not in use any more. Disuse, disrespect, and decay seemed everywhere and I feared may even destroy this forever. I am reliably informed and delighted to hear that the hospital remains a part of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka and has a Burns Unit, Surgical Theatres and also some Neuro Surgical Services.

As a medical student in the early 1960’s I had the good fortune to learn my trade in the new eye hospital. The post-World War II era is known as the age of brutalist concrete when beauty gave way to the cheap and cheerful. The 1960’s however was a time of enormous socio-political change which was reflected in the architecture of the time. Even if the designs were not pleasing to the eye they were practical and functional. Although the New Eye Hospital looked a huge block of concrete it was a state-of-the-art hospital with a modern layout and the very latest of facilities. With large wards, better lighting and fine operating facilities this was a far better working environment for the healthcare professionals. The design enabled the seamless interaction between clinicians, patients and students. The spacious waiting rooms and large airy areas dedicated for Out-Patient Clinics made it so much better for the public. I remember with affection the dedication of the eye surgeons and the high quality of the care they provided.

I am overwhelmed by a heady rush of history when I see the old hospital now. The Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital indeed is a part of our colonial past. Time catches up with all, but the past will always be present in our lives. Although well over a hundred years old, even now when the sunlight catches the paintwork the building looks a masterpiece. The hospital should be listed and preserved for posterity.

Edward Skinner was a brilliant architect. His wisdom and designs won him the admiration of the City and was popular and much sought after in Ceylon. He had his offices in the Colombo Fort. When he was recently married, he had a cycle accident and suffered with concussion from which he never fully recovered. Sadly, Edward Skinner took his own life by hanging in his own office in the Colombo Fort on Boxing Day in 1910. The stunning designs he created in prestigious buildings in Colombo will remain as monuments for his superb architectural ability. Part of him will forever remain in the Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital. He died, far too young, at the age of 41 years when he had so much to offer this wonderful world.

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The United States and social democracy



by Kumar David

The Scandinavian countries are held up as models of social democracy. The distribution of wealth and after-tax income is more egalitarian than elsewhere, freedom of expression, the press and religious rights are not restricted, the people choose their governments at free and fair elections and there is uninhibited licence in sex related frolics. Conversely, purist-leftists point out that the “economic system” throughout Scandinavia is capitalist; big enterprises and the commanding heights of industry and commerce are the property of a shy bourgeoisie. Production, reproduction and appropriation of surplus value conform to textbook definitions of capitalism. Both sides of have their point, but Scandinavia is not my topic today, it is the United States not so much for its intrinsic interest but because change there will inevitably spark global trends.

My friends Marjorie and Geoffrey in Orange County, California, are to all appearances fit, able and charming people. They down their beers, puff on their cigarettes, go for walks, drive two nice big SUVs and run a small business. But they collect social disability cheques of $600 a month each for some invisible frailty and their case is typical of maybe millions of others. Likewise the current labour shortage in the US is in part a constructed malaise. Small businesses cannot attract employees. People find it better to stay at home and collect unemployment benefits while others will only accept part-time jobs. You can get more by filing for part-time unemployment benefits and getting paid for half-day’s work. Small businesses say the problem is acute.

The shopping carts at Walmart, Cusco, Vons and such supermarkets are full to the brim and queues at checkout counters are long and slow. Some of this is thanks to huge Covid-relief monies pumped into personal bank accounts in recent months and therefore atypical. But obesity has been bursting at the seams for three decades. The point is that there is trickle down of material wealth to low-income classes in the US. This of course is not socialism but it keeps the wolf of revolution at bay. Still it’s an odd version of capitalism if you go by the classics. Sure, brash billionaires, coarse captains of giant technology companies and cigar chomping industrialists garner big profits and avoid tax using Pandora’s Box havens. America being what it is, matters soft and genteel in Scandinavia are loud and brash. It would be absurd to say that the same degree of income equity prevails in the US as in Scandinavia. Still the material lives of the four lowest (lower 80%) of the American income quintiles is not pitiable and not too far from Scandinavian averages.

Data for three countries a few years ago (comparative ratios have hardly changed):

In the Pie-chart of US GNP one might for simplicity imagine that federal and state government expenditure (16.6%) is spent mostly on the people (Medicare, social services, education and unemployment benefits) while conversely the 17.7% private domestic investment belongs to the rich (stock-market, new enterprises, grand houses). The big slice (68.5%) is consumption. One can conjecture (a bit risky but let me take the risk) that half of this is spent by the lower two-thirds of society and the other half by the top one-third. How much grand-crux wines can the rich consume and how many first-class air-tickets relish? Unless my guesswork is way out of order this means that 51% (16.6 + half of 68.5) is consumed by the lower two-thirds of society. What I am saying is that despite income inequality, the redistributive outcome of taxation and government support (above all health care) defuses pressure. [To pre-empt nit-pickers I need to admit that sales tax is carried mainly by the yako-classes and income tax is part paid by middle and lower-middle classes. Furthermore, government expenditure includes the likes of defence which hardly benefits the daily life of ordinary people].


Bar-chart 1 shows household income spread. This is not Scandinavian social democracy but neither is it grotesque inequality which will incite the masses to pour out on the streets pitchfork in hand. American capitalism keeps yakos in line by dishing out a share of the pie while ours do it by intoning hela jathika abimane.

Bar-chart 1

This is not to deny that the filthy rich are getting richer at everyone else’s expense – I have no quarrel with Thomas Piketty. Bar chart 2 shows that the top-5% of income “earners” have hogged the largest part of the gains in the last three decades. Nevertheless this has to be taken in the context of a general upward swing of median US household income in the last half-century, see Graph. This is partly because the global hegemony of the US dollar, abominations like the Vietnam War and stooge Latin American dictators for much of the Twentieth Century. All this allowed imperialist and neo-liberal transfer of value created elsewhere in the world to the US. Nevertheless being rich does contribute to social complacency and cools the ardour of the poorer classes.

Bar-chart 2

I have inflicted quite enough statistical injury and economic boredom on you for one Sunday. I move on by asserting that American democracy, battered though it has been in recent years by the far-right and by Trump’s antics, is durable. The power of the anti-vaccination lobby, though cerebrally retarded in the eyes of outsiders is grassroots, albeit cretin, populism in the terrain of America’s anything-goes democracy. Another example is that Black Rights Matter mobilisation in response to racist police brutality, actually consists of a majority of white marchers. The jealous independence of the judiciary is legendary. Determination to exert constitutional rights, despite grotesque displays like the freedom to run amok with guns, the right to infect others with Covid and such manifestations thought crazy elsewhere, are muscular exertions of spirited populism which would have had regimes reach for the machine gun in third world countries. For better for worse American populism is loud, brash and vibrant; it is not staid Scandinavia.


Lest you imagine I am composing a panegyric I must recount the grotesque underside of America, the hundreds of thousands of homeless street sleepers. Los Angeles has over 25,000 and New York even more; every big city has hundreds, some thousands. It is something you will not see in any European city or China, Korea or Hong Kong – perhaps a few psychologically disturbed people but not on a mass scale. Those who know Bombay or Calcutta are familiar with what I am saying on a much larger scale. But America is super rich so why you will ask aren’t a few thousand housing blocks being constructed, why is the state not funding a social welfare department? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. And the huge prison population – that’s a sign of social sickness.

I also have a grouse which is personal. The spread of political correctness in priggish sections of society and in main-stream media is tiresome. I suggest that red-blooded persons ignore it and speak and act like normal humans. Some persons we are reminded are lesbian, homo, bi, auto or omnisexual, but what’s the need to insert sympathetic references to this at every turn of dialogue? Don’t retch but the latest 007 has become a pansy. And if you want to give the American accent a slip, welcome to the club.

But come on, this is all trivial stuff.

The unschooled and the intellectually handicapped imagine that socialism is only about rescuing the poor from material hardship, to hell with political and democratic rights. This twist gained currency because the great revolutions of the Twentieth Century were in dirt poor countries and the revolutionary state was compelled to prioritise “bread, land and peace” and to repel foreign aggressors. Fair enough, but states so conceived unavoidably turned out to be caricatures of socialism – say the USSR, China and Cuba. True they fed the masses but that’s only half the game, and indeed some capitalist ones have done well too – Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the Chinese province of Taiwan. You don’t need to consult the classics to be familiar with the axiom that socialism asserts it is a higher form of civilisation. Readers I am sure are familiar with “The freedom of each ensures the freedom of all”; “Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious”; “The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal”, and such aphorisms. Socialism sans democracy is an oxymoron.

You will appreciate where I am going. Socialism is not about bread alone but also about cognizance and liberty. But first I have more to say about bread in the United States. The Biden Administration, driven by the left-wing of the Democratic Party, is pushing the$3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act spending plan. Add to this the $1 trillion infrastructure bill already approved and it becomes a humongous $4.5 trillion programme. To give you an idea, of scale, the US spent $13 billion (about $ 160 billion in today’s money) on the Marshal Plan, an economic recovery programmes for Western Europe after World War II. The proposals American progressives are pushing is an order of magnitude larger in substance and in trickle down money. Republicans, big business and about 1,500 paid Congressional lobbyists are fighting it tooth and nail.

My conclusion is straightforward. It is easier for the United Sates to move towards socialism than for any other country including China. Regimes with a bogus ‘Democratic Socialist’ tag on their brand name are a hoax. America and China are the only countries which can serve as global prototypes. But since it is a truism that Socialism can only flourish on a world scale that means, right now, it’s Hobson’s choice. I am no starry-eyed dreamer unaware of the pernicious extension of the by no means forever bygone Cold War, nor the menace of another conceivable Hot War. The world is replete with dangerous neo-fascists; Trump has plenty of company. My purpose in this essay, nevertheless, is to remind readers of dimensions of this story other than the trite. I am confident that democracy will not die in the US short of civil war. It’s impossible to reverse history against mighty odds and proto-fascism will be destroyed in such a civil war. Hence, I have no option but to differ from my carousing buddy Vijaya Chandrasoma – “How Democracies Die”, Sunday Island 17 October – about the impending death of democracy in America. VC is familiar with Mark Twain’s quip re exaggerated announcements of his demise.

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by Sanjiva Senanayake



The first point that had to be proved by the prosecution beyond any doubt was that Somarama actually pulled the trigger. Without that the entire case, conspiracy and all, would fail.

Despite the large number of people present that morning, only three ‘eye-witnesses’ were called by the prosecution to establish that Somarama was the actual shooter. They were :

(a) the Buddhist monk Niwanthidiye Ananda (NA)

(b) one of his acolytes from Polonnaruwa named Wedage Piyadasa (WP) and

(c) a teacher named Wijekoon Wickramasinghe (WW)

The evidence of NA :

Ven. Ananda said that the PM, after finishing speaking with him, took a few steps toward Somarama and then turned back to inquire if Ananda was satisfied. He then went over and worshipped Somarama, who remained seated, and asked why he had come. Then the PM took a step backward. Ananda had turned round and bent down to collect his belongings when he heard two rapid gunshots. Somarama then pointed the revolver at Ananda who closed his eyes in terror. He then heard some more shots but didn’t see Gunaratne being injured. When he opened his eyes, he saw Somarama holding a revolver, biting his lip and with bulging eyes, follow the PM as he stumbled into the house. The monk did not say he actually saw Somarama firing the gun. In the Magistrate’s Court he had said “I did not see the actual act of firing. As I turned, I saw the accused holding a pistol in his hands levelled at the PM”.

Ananda then jumped over some flower pots into the garden, ran up to the main gate and shouted at the sentry there, grabbing him by the arm. He told the sentry that the PM was being shot and to protect him. Then as Ananda returned to the house, he saw the injured Gunaratne stagger out bleeding and he took him to the gate and requested bystanders to send him to hospital. He said he then went into the bedroom where the injured PM was lying and spent a few moments in contemplation until he heard a commotion in the central corridor outside the room. When he came out, he found a bleeding Somarama on the floor being assaulted and joined in by kicking and hitting him with his slippers. Somarama wanted some water and Ananda asked one of the servants to bring some. Before he could give the water, Somarama vomited blood and fainted. Then, when Ananda and one of his acolytes (Yatawara) were tying Somarama’s hands together, DIG Sidney De Zoysa turned up and ordered them to stop. Ananda then left and went to his temple in Kollupitiya.

However, the police sentry, in his evidence, said that no monk ever came and spoke to him at the gate. Instead, he said that, when he came running toward the house on hearing the shots, an old gentleman pointed out Somarama as the assailant. Furthermore, DIG Sidney de Zoysa said under oath that there was no monk other than Somarama in the premises when he arrived. He also said that there were no signs of Somarama’s hands being tied, and that it was he who sent the injured Gunaratne to hospital.

The evidence of Wedage Piyadasa (WP) :

WP corroborated Ananda’s (NA) evidence on some of the main points including the version about alerting the sentry. WP had run out with NA soon after the shooting but then went out of the gate and did not return to the house thereafter. It is reasonable to expect WP to back up NA, a monk he was faithful to and on whose patronage he was dependent.

However, WP also said that Somarama deliberately aimed and fired at Gunaratne. It does seem strange though, that an assassin would take time off to shoot an innocent man while his prime quarry was getting away from him and escaping into the house. If the prosecution believed this story, they should probably have charged Somarama with the attempted murder of Gunaratne too.

The evidence of Wijekoon Wickremasinghe (WW) :

WW was standing in the other wing of the verandah from Somarama and his view was blocked by intervening bodies, including that of the PM. In the Magistrate’s Court, just a few months after the shooting, he had said, “I heard the shots from the direction where the Prime Minister and the monk in the corner were. I was unable to see anything at that time because my view was obstructed by the Prime Minister.”

However, his later evidence in the SC was very different. He said that, as the PM approached Somarama, the latter sprang up, took a few steps to his left (i.e. away from the garden) and started firing. By a happy coincidence, this alleged move by Somarama would have better placed him in WW’s line of sight. However, the likelihood of Somarama shooting after such a movement is cast in further doubt by forensic evidence, as explained below.

Furthermore, WW’s evidence in the SC contradicted the evidence of the other two, NA and WP, by saying that the PM did not reach, worship or speak with Somarama before the latter started shooting.

The evidence given by eye-witnesses, especially in circumstances where they themselves are in danger, and probably taking evasive action, can be somewhat unreliable. However, if the accounts of several eye-witnesses are also inconsistent with one another on major points, then the evidence becomes dubious. The reader can decide on the credibility of the evidence of these three eye-witnesses. There is plenty of authoritative material on the internet about the pros and cons of eye witnesses.

In summary, no clear, consistent, unambiguous eye-witness evidence was produced in the Supreme Court to definitively establish that anyone actually saw Somarama firing the weapon. The prosecution did not call more eye-witnesses from the long list of people interviewed by the police in order to establish guilt beyond any doubt and close the case out. It’s fair to assume that there were no such ‘reliable’ witnesses.


The forensic evidence that was presented at the trial, which is not dependent on any witness’s testimony, also raised a vital question. ASP Tyrrell Goonetilleke of the CID, who was at the scene within one hour of the shooting, made precise notes of the physical damage caused by the bullets in addition to other relevant facts. He noted that one bullet travelled almost at right angles to the line of the verandah, and went into the house. It pierced a glass pane of a French window separating the verandah from the hall inside, at a height of only 4 feet 3 inches above the verandah floor and hit the back wall of a second living room, well inside the house, at a height of 13 feet. Blood and fragments of flesh were found where it hit the wall confirming that it had struck the PM. Several people who were present had mentioned that the PM jerked his hand and cried out in pain soon after the first gunshot was heard.

The Judicial Medical Officer, Dr. W.D.L. Fernando, who examined the PM’s injuries on the day of the shooting described the related wound as follows –

1. A punctured lacerated wound on the back of the left wrist – an entrance wound

2. A punctured lacerated wound on the back of the left hand – an exit wound

Injuries (1) and (2) corresponded and were caused by the same bullet which passed only skin deep through the hand.

This was a relatively minor wound and, naturally, most of the attention was focused on the three bullets that entered the torso of the PM leading to his death. However, it is the first bullet fired that created most doubt about Somarama’s guilt. The injury caused by that first bullet, and its trajectory, is only compatible with the shot being fired from the garden outside, which was at a lower level than the verandah. There was never any suggestion of a scuffle, a second gunman or a second gun and the Government Analyst established that all six bullets were fired from the same revolver that was recovered at the scene.

The crucial question is, how could Somarama have fired that bullet from where he was seated and caused that injury to the PM, who was facing him in worship?

As for Wickremasinghe’s (WW’s) evidence, if Somarama stood up and moved to his left as the PM approached before shooting, the height and trajectory of the first bullet would be absolutely impossible for Somarama to achieve.


It is important to bear in mind that the onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused are guilty. Defence counsel do not have to prove that their clients are ‘not guilty’. The benefit of doubt goes to the accused. The accused are not even required to give evidence and, in this case, only Newton Perera testified, for reasons decided as advantageous by his counsel. However, Somarama made a statement from the Dock on which he was not open to cross-examination.

The process that prevailed was for the prosecution to submit a list of names of witnesses at the beginning of the trial. If the prosecution chose not to call a witness in their list, the defence could do so, if it saw a specific advantage. However, the defence would then have to lead the evidence and lose the opportunity to re-examine the witness following examination by the other counsel. It was a risky move because there was no opportunity for the defence to counteract impressions created in the minds of the jury through the testimony of that witness during examination by the other counsel.

As the counsel representing Buddharakkitha said in his summing up –

“Although Mr. Chitty has told you that the defence could have called any prosecution witness it liked, there is a big difference between the prosecution calling such a witness and the defence doing so. The defence has no access to the information book or to statements made by witnesses to the police. Is it not a terrible risk for the defence to take, to call a prosecution witness when it has no access to these statements and no opportunity of examining the witness in advance?

Further, when the defence calls a prosecution witness, it cannot cross-examine him, as it could do if he were called by the prosecution.”

(Weeramantry – page 296)

It’s important to note that only the Judge and prosecution counsel had access to the police investigation notes (Information Book), which also included statements made by various individuals to the police.

Having the last word is of great value in court, as it is in life. This principle is also of great importance when it comes to deciding the order of the final addresses to the jury by counsel, which is then followed by the charge to the jury by the Judge. The process applicable in 1961 is succinctly explained by Weeramantry in his book as follows –

“The Ceylon Criminal Procedure Code lays down that counsel for the accused ordinarily enjoys the right of reply to the Crown. If, however, counsel for an accused calls evidence for the defence other than that of the accused himself, he loses that right and must address the jury before the Crown does so. Counsel for the 3rd, 4th and 5th accused, having called evidence on behalf of their respective clients, had therefore lost their right of reply and had, in consequence, to address before the Crown. Counsel for the 1st and 2nd accused, however, having called no evidence on behalf of his clients, preserved his right of reply.”

(Weeramantry – page 232)

Thus, the counsel who represented Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena had the opportunity to listen to the final summing up of all the other counsel and then tailor his address accordingly to have maximum impact on the minds of the members of the jury. It was a strategic decision that he took.

The final line up to address the jury, in order, was –

1. Counsel for Anura de Silva, the 3rd accused (K. Shinya).

2. Counsel for Talduwe Somarama, the 4th accused (Lucian Weeramantry)

3. Counsel for Newton Perera, the 5th accused (Nadesan Satyendra)

4. The Crown (George Chitty)

5. Counsel for Mapitigama Buddharakkitha and H.P. Jayawardena, the 1st and 2nd accused respectively (Phineas Quass)


The debate on the pros and cons of capital punishment during that period casts some light on the attitude and approach of the decision-makers on justice within the government toward the accused in this particular case.

PM Bandaranaike was firmly opposed to the death penalty. In May 1956, within weeks of his inauguration, a Bill titled Suspension of Capital Punishment was presented in Parliament and passed overwhelmingly with just one vote against it. However, it was defeated by a slight majority in the Senate. Bandaranaike persisted and finally the Suspension of Capital Punishment Act No. 20 of 1958 took effect on May 9, 1958. It was still ‘suspension’ and not ‘abolition’.

A Commission was then established in October 1958 by the Governor General to study and report on the advisability of the death penalty. It was headed by Dr. Norval Morris, an academic from Australia who was internationally known in the field of criminal law. The Morris Commission held intensive interviews and consultations, analysed relevant data regarding the efficacy of capital punishment in reducing crime and considered broader social and economic issues and implications. The subject even came up during the SC trial, and Justice T.S. Fernando himself mentioned that he appeared before the commissioners in strong support of the death penalty. The Commission’s report, recommending continuation of the suspension was issued in that fateful month – September 1959.

On October 2, 1959, within seven days of Mr. Bandaranaike’s passing, the suspension instituted by him was removed by an extraordinary gazette. Subsequently, the Suspension of Capital Punishment (Repeal) Act No. 25 of 1959 was passed in Parliament and took effect on December 2, 1959, even before the magisterial inquiry on the assassination had commenced. This new law reinstated the death penalty, retrospectively, for those found guilty of murder and repealed the previous legislation.

It is ironic that the death penalty was brought back specifically to hang the assailant for whom the PM had called for clemency from his death bed.

That was not all. By an oversight, the death penalty was only reintroduced for murder, and not conspiracy to murder, which meant that the first and second accused could not be executed. Thus, although death sentences were pronounced in the SC, the Court of Criminal Appeal altered their sentences to life imprisonment.

The government then came up with the Capital Punishment (Special Provisions) Bill which was scheduled for discussion in Parliament on January 18, 1962. It sought to retrospectively include the death penalty for conspiracy to murder, and annul the sentences of the Court of Criminal Appeal on Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena. Since it was clearly targeting the accused in the assassination of the PM, and not based on any general legal policy or principle, there were massive protests and opposition. Colvin R. De Silva called it ‘murder by statute’. Under pressure, the government withdrew the Bill one week later, on January 25.

The abortive coup d’état of January 27, 1962 followed a couple of days later and the government’s legal campaign shifted to another arena, where retrospective legislation was once again used.

However, Somarama’s fate had been sealed one week after the PM died, and he was hanged on July 6, 1962.


The writer can be contacted on this subject at

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