Encounters with Mervyn de Silva, 1960s-1980s

Michael Roberts, drafted September 2010

The odd story about former undergraduate Mervyn de Silva would be retailed around the corridors of Peradeniya campus when I was residing there as an undergraduate from 1957, an indication that he had etched his mark in campus memories. But I never encountered him or his work till I was a lecturer much later in the 1960s and 1970s when I was teaching in the Department of History from 1966 and became heavily involved in the discussions of the Ceylon Studies Seminar from 1969.

 As its foundational Director-Dogsbody I was intimately involved in tis operations.  The Ceylon Studies Seminar was a discussion group that debated a wide range of issues concerned with Sri Lanka’s history, sociology and politics and thus encompassed development studies. It was interdisciplinary in the best tradition and its seminars depended on pre-circulated (cyclostyled) papers, though occasional talks were also encompassed.Given that I had never involved myself in political debates as an undergraduate, these engagements influenced my growing awareness of Sri Lanka’s political scenario. My awakening was further stimulated by three other processes: (A) my researches into the development of “Ceylonese nationalism” in the British period;[1] and (B) its adjunct, the rise of the “Ceylonese middle class” conceptualised as two strata, the “national and local elites”;[2] (C) my taped interviews with both politicians and retired and/or senior Sri Lankan administrators in what is known as the Roberts Oral History Project.[3]

Invariably this meant an abiding and riveting discussion of what some political commentators referred to as “the revolution of 1956.” The electoral transformation of that year, as we all know, was a landmark in Sri Lanka’s history because of the combination of forces that effected the shift and because of its reverberating impact on subsequent developments – an impact that sharpened the ethnic divides and is now imprinted within the “Mahinda Chintanaya” and today’s political shibboleths.

 As a leading journalist and eventually as an editor at Lake House, Mervyn de Silva was at the cutting edge of public debates on the topic. His article, “1956: the Cultural Revolution that shook the Left,” in the Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition of 16 May 1967 was a significant contribution to these reviews: because of his network of contacts and his intimate knowledge of political gossip as well as the Sri Lankan political dispensation, this essay was not just another piece of flippant journalism.

It was among the reviews that directed one of my ventures into this realm, namely, “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956,” which appeared first as a Ceylon Studies Seminar paper on 30 August 1970 (no. 11 in the 1969/70 series).[4] Here, I deployed my historical researches to elaborate upon the political lineages connecting the resurgence of Sinhala nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with those of the late 1940s and 1950s that were central to the transformations of 1956. The focus was not only on ideological currents, but also on class forces. The essay challenged one the prevailing theses associated with such writers as Doric de Souza, Sarachchcndra and Arasaratnam that held that the class forces of 1956 were a totally new phenomenon.[5] That venture on my part later promoted another article on “The 1956 Generations: After and Before,” one that overlapped with the previous one, but also incorporated new dimensions.

Throughout this stage 1966 to 1970 I never met Mervyn. Our first face-to-face meeting was in Chicago at some point in 1971. I was parked there as a Fulbright Fellow when I received a call from Mervyn or someone acting upon his behalf because he was on a sponsored tour of USA and could present a seminar. The South Asia Program at the University of Chicago was then (as it is still) at the cutting edge of American research on Asia, so their directors jumped at the opportunity to hear one of the island’s leading journalists.

My memory fails and I cannot recall the details of the seminar, but since this visit was a little while after the abortive JVP insurrection of April 1971 this topic must have been the central focus. Needless to say, in our intense private discussions I eagerly tapped Mervyn for more information.

One facet of this exchange I do recall. I asked him if the JVP leadership would be executed in the summary manner that occurred in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. He was quite sure they would not be treated in this manner and was clearly of the opinion that such a course should never be considered. He was on the mark. One could further suggest that his thinking then was on the same plane as that of the Bandaranaike clan and the Left leadership in the United Front Coalition of the 1970s. As we know now, in comparative hindsight informed by more recent developments, after the state forces suppressed the poorly organised insurrection with considerable ferocity, the government was relatively restrained and lenient in its treatment of the insurgents. The leadership was brought to trial; suspects deemed fringe personnel were released from jail after a year or two; and middle-range participants in prison had rehabilitation programmes and were able to sit for their examinations. Indeed, I was subsequently recruited to travel to Pallekele Open Prison on voluntary duty to teach Gamini Keerawella and a couple other lads sitting for their university examinations.

In brackets one is tempted to note here that the state response under the UF Coalition in 1971 et seq was less severe than that of the state forces under the UNP in 1987/89. But, then, one can also raise the speculative theory that a summary execution of the JVP leadership in 1971 may well have prevented a second uprising in 1987-89. Hmmmm.


Discussing the issues raised in the paragraph above with Mervyn would have been fascinating. I leave it to son Dayan to explore the topic in debate with a Mervyn resurrected listening or responding as offsider aiding a fruitful path of reflection of the “What IF” type.

Having jumped into the 1980s, let me return to the 1970s and another encounter with Mervyn. This was a verbal stoush. The context was provided by the enforced ‘reform’ of the university education sector by the UF government in directions involving federation and greater central control. At Peradeniya University a combination of academics from both Left and Right had the effrontery to present an Open Letter of Protest in the newspapers elaborating a dissenting position. I was among those who signed this document.

As an Editor at Lake House Mervyn was among those whose comments were ill-disposed towards Peradeniya and academics in general. At this stage, around the year 1974, severe bouts of ragging were exposed by Arjuna Aluvihare and some brave doctors at the Kandy Hospital. I decided to write an Open letter in criticism of ragging practice. This caused intense anxiety in home circles because university students could make life a misery to those ranged against them. After a serious discussion at the house of the Labrooys, knowledgeable and trusted family friends, my wife was persuaded to take on the risk. If our university house was located in the centre of the campus rather than at distant Augusta Hill, this step may not have been taken. Such anxieties are not incidental: they point to the principle “ūta guti denna oney” that was pervasive in Sri Lankan politics from the 1950s if not earlier, a form of vengeance that operated at many levels and directed the activities of many factions, a tendency that was getting worse by the year.[6] And still looms over the horizon in more severe ways.[7]

Decision taken I utilised the good offices of Hector Abhayavardhana[8] to ensure that it could breach the protective fortress of the newspapers and appear in the public realm. But my Letter also made the mistake of criticising Mervyn de Silva, editor. I cannot recall all the details, but know that I presented his writings on related topics of higher education as that of a “yo-yo,” in effect saying that he was not consistent and running with both hares and hounds.

The problem in tackling an editor is that he has the last word. Mervyn responded in disparaging word. The details have disappeared from my memory, but I recollect that it was a slashing critique.

One type of slash –“hack” as we would have said in Peradeniya jargon — was the ridicule of the academic convention of using footnote citations. There was a deep animus towards footnotes and citations revealed here by Mervyn.

This is not mere quibble. Both journalese and academic interventions may address serious topics in measured manner; and contribute meaningfully to a readership’s understanding of events; but news-editors simply do not allow for footnote formatting or many embedded citations. They prefer sharp prose and short essays. They dismiss the clutter of appendage.[9]

So, the issue I raise here centres upon the differences, amidst overlaps and cross-fertilisation, between the manner in which journalists and academics present their political analysis of the public realm. Good journalese is usually superior to the presentations of prosaic common-o-garden-academics. In part this is because their prose is more readable; but in part it is because they are well-connected and have access regularly to information from key political figures. Again, investigative journalists sometimes provide ground-breaking information.

But their refusal of reference and cross-reference, what does that entail? It blocks follow-up by those readers, whether fellow-journalists, academics or citizen-investigators, who would like to pursue a topic in depth. Their immediacy of writing at the coalface is not backed up by encouragement of further pursuit by grounded lead to other essays or books. Since the proof is in the pudding, this my article on Mervyn provides illustrations of consolidation and aids through the use of footnote citations.

With the advance of technology, with internet presentations and their cross-links, this problem is now being overcome even by journalists (though the lazy ones do not bother). I would find it fascinating, NOW, if I could meet up with Mervyn’s Ghost at some waterhole, say at the Capri, and discuss the potentialities of internet for his abiding engagements at the coalface of political events. He would undoubtedly be excited by the growth of citizen journalism of the type presented to Sri Lankan enthusiasts by the Sri Lanka Guardian, groundviews and transcurrents. If one could entice that old journo, David Jeyaraj, to join us, then, I would retire after just one drink (I get headaches with more) and let Mervyn’s Ghost and DBS jaw their way through the night with the requisite lubrication sustaining the jaw.


Arasaratnam, S. 1964 Ceylon, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall Inc

De Silva, Mervyn 1967 “1956: the cultural revolution that shook the Left,” Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, 16 May 1967.

De Souza, Doric 1961 “Parliamentary Democracy in Ceylon. Will it work? Where will it take us?” Young Socialists Part I, No. 1, July-Sept. 1961.

Jayatilleka, Dayan 1995 Sri Lanka. The Travails of a Democracy, Unfinished War, Protracted Crisis, Kandy: ICES.

 Roberts, Michael 1973 “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930,” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, Colombo Apothecaries Co., pp. 263-84.

Roberts, Michael 1974a “Fissures and Solidarities: Weaknesses within the Working Class Movement in the Early Twentieth Century,” Modern Ceylon Studies, vol. 5: 1-31.

Roberts, Michael 1974b “Labour and the Politics of Labour in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” review article, Modern Ceylon Studies, 5: 179-208.

Roberts, Michael 1974c “Problems of Social Stratification and the Demarcation of National and Local Elites in British Ceylon,” Journal of Asian Studies, August 1974, 23: 549-77.

Roberts, Michael 1977 Elites, Nationalisms and the Nationalist Movement in British Ceylon, in M. Roberts (ed.) Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon, 1929-1950, Vol I, Colombo: Department of National Archives.

Roberts, Michael 1978a “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, 12: 353-76.

Roberts, Michael 1978b “Reformism, Nationalism and Protest in British Ceylon: The Roots and Ingredients of Leadership,” in Rule, Protest, Identity, Aspects of Modern South Asia, ed. by Peter Robb and David Taylor, Centre of South Asian Studies, SOAS, Collected Papers on South Asia No. 1, London, pp. 259-80.

Roberts, Michael 1978c “1970 and Thereabout in Sri Lanka: The Politics of a General Election,” South Asia, n.s., 1: 90-101.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 1-90.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1981 The 1956 Generations: After and Before, Colombo, Evangel Press. G. C. Mendis Memorial Lecture for 1981 [reprinted in Roberts, Exploring confrontation, Harwood: Academic Press, 1994, Chap. 12].

Roberts, Michael 1985 ” ‘I shall have you slippered’: the General and the Particular in an Historical Conjuncture,” Social Analysis, 17: 17-48.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956” in K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, ed. by C.R. De Silva & Sirima Kiribamune, Peradeniya University, pp. 185-220.

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History, Reading: Harwood  Academic Publishers.

Sarachchandra, E. R. 1950 The Sinhalese Novel, Colombo: M. D. Gunasena and Co.

[1] Examples of some results are Roberts 1974a, 1974b, 1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1978c and 1979.

 [2] Illustrations of some results are Roberts 1973, 1974c, 1977 and 1982.

 [3] See http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/tapes-list.pdf and http://thuppahi.wordpress. com/ 2010/08/04/michael-roberts-papers-now-at-barr-smith-library-adelaide-university/

 [4] This article was eventually printed in 1989 in the K. W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume.

 [5] De Souza 1961: 22, 29; Arasaratnam 1964: 22 and Sarachchandra 1951. For elaboration of these details, see Roberts, 1981 and 1989.

 [6] For one illustration from the year 1929 and for the cultural expressions in the games known as buhukeliya and ankeliya, see Roberts 1985.

 [8] I had long interviews with Hector in the late 1960s and had become friends. I was able to secure funding from the Peoples’ Bank through his good offices n 1974 that enabled the Ceylon Studies Seminar organise a major conference on “Agriculture in the Economic Development of Sri Lanka” at Gannoruwa in August 1974.

 [9] Cf. Jayatilleka 1995.

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