A Man inspired, A Man who inspired: Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe

Michael Roberts originally written on 25 August 2008

Father Lakshman Wickremasinghe came into my life in a big way from 1958 at Peradeniya Campus. I was heavily involved in Student Christian Movement (SCM) activities then and Father Lak’s appointment as campus chaplain was a godsend to all of us in the SCM. As firm as energetic, never commandeering, but always persistent and organized, Father Lak, as we called him with some affection, proved an inspirational figure within the campus.

Though the Campus chaplaincy and Church was quite some distance away, a long trudge up hill and down, the Sunday services were a real drawcard. Bible study classes, mostly student led, were held in the tutorial rooms at the Arts Faculty, but also sometimes at the chaplaincy. Father Lak also made it a point to drop in occasionally at the weekly prayer meeting in Ramanathan Hall where I was housed. Looking back perhaps the most momentous step that occurred under his ‘regime’ was the initiation of mixed carol services with Tamil and Sinhala hymns among the usual English ones. This was in step with the socio-political transformations of that decade and our time. It was rendered all the more meaningful by the sheer beauty of hymnal expression, the arrangement of space and the religiosity of so many of the student regulars. Not all the bouquets were due to Father Lak in these works of ‘art, for the Christian student body had so many talented hands and minds, but he certainly drew the best out of people.

To me, then, Father Lak was both mentor and friend. Mark Cooray and I went to him when we decided to organize a going-away party and the chaplaincy below the church was readily loaned to us for the big event. And when as a temporary assistant lecturer, I was advised by Labby (WJF Labrooy to the world) to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, Father Lak was among those I named as a Referee (together with Labby, Leslie Handunge and one of my old schoolteachers, Miss Anghie). And when I was fortunate enough to secure the scholarship, it was to Father Lak that I went for advice on which hall to select. “Merton,” he said, a while giving me the name of Dr. Lucas, a Fellow there whom he knew well, in case my choice was approved. And so it was toMertonCollegeI went, a place of residence and collegial interaction, not least in the fields of rugger, cricket and soccer, that served me so well.

*  *   *   *   *  Later in the mid-1960s when I returned with my wife Shona to teach in the Department of History at Peradeniya “Bishop Lak”, as he had become after his consecration in 1962, used to drop by occasionally at our annexe in Siebel Place. This was Bishop Lak in his very best parish mode, a friend always. Though both of us were no longer practicing Christians, he never took an evangelistic line so that our chats were often about Sri Lankan affairs or about common friends, gossip one can say but the very best of amiable and concerned Sri Lankan gossip.

I was one of the Peradeniya mob involved in organizing the Ceylon Studies Seminar (CSS) series from 1969 onwards. These involved stirring discussions on Sri Lankan affairs on the basis of written academic papers. By 1972 several of us were alive to the sharpening of Sri Lankan Tamil sentiments and their profound sense of grievance – that is, the deterioration of ethnic political relations. Among the factors that were so central importance to SL Tamil fervour at that time was (a) the gerrymandering of University entrance results to the prestigious science areas through a process of standardization on top of a district quota system[i] and (b) the new republican constitution of 1972.

When, therefore, the CSS organized a half-day seminar to review the new constitutional arrangements, Bishop Lak was among those who made presentations — not only because he had intimate knowledge about the issues at hand and the inner workings of the lead-up process, but also because of his own disciplinary background in political science.

At about this point Jane Russell, postgraduate student at the History Department in Peradeniya, came back from a research stint in the Jaffna Peninsula and told me that there were some young men there who felt that their Tamil leaders (mostly with Colombo bases) had let them down. As far as they were concerned, the Tamils living in Colomboand its environs could die. I took this seriously. They had moved to the extreme pole and possessed the “power of polarity,” with its absence of ethical constraints because of its own motivating sense of righteousness.

There were yet other ominous signs.[ii] Despite dismissive opinions from voices within the campus, some of the leading CSS hands side-stepped this resistance and proceeded to organize a one-day seminar on “The Sinhala-Tamil Problem” in Colombo – sinceColombo was the hegemonic centre of the island where most far-reaching decisions were reached. If we wished to be heard, the attempt had to be inColombo.

For us of the CSS this was a massive logistical exercise. Father Kenneth Fernando provided the parish hall facilities at the Anglican Cathedral free of charge. The Marga Institute under Godfrey Gunatilleke and Chandra Soysa assisted and Mark Cooray at the Law College agreed to be chair.

From inadequate memory I can say that the seminar took place on either the 6th or 9th of October 1973. Though many politicians had been sent personal invitations, few turned up. Gamini Dissanayake and Premadasa Udagama, the latter with Kumar Rupesinghe in tow, were among the exceptions – present for a little while in the afternoon. It was evident, too, that the audience was disproportionately Tamil in composition, while the Sinhalese in the ‘crowd’ included quite a few Christians resident in Colombo (e.g. Elmo Wijesinghe, LSD and Sita Pieris). The Peradeniya contingent included foreigners within the study network such as Anthony Ellman, Janice Jiggins and Jane Russell. The conclusion one can draw is that the politically-active Sinhala people, including many Sinhala Buddhists, simply did not recognise the existence of a serious problem. They were sitting on a claymore mine and blissfully unaware of it.

The morning sessions involved a presentation of “Historical Perspectives” by C. R. De Silva[iii] of the History Department, Peradeniya and two presentations of Sinhalese and Tamil positions by Nissanka Wijeyeratne[iv] and Senator Tiruchelvam respectively. The afternoon sessions were devoted to what we called “Bridge-Building” and involved four speakers, viz., Neville Jayaweera, V. Karalasingham, Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe and myself.

Each collection of papers was followed by a controlled discussion. Members of the audience could come up to the platform and speak for a set period of time subject to Cooray’s control through a bell (to deter those prolix and excessive). This was the first (and last) time that I saw and heard such political figures as A. Amirthalingam, Sivasidamparam andN N. Sanmugathasan.

My recollections of this affair, of course, are disjointed and incomplete. But let me jot down some memories in point-form.

  • Karalasingham hectored the audience in booming voice – to the point where Anthony Ellman got up in disgust and left.
  • Shanmugaratnam stressed that all of us, then, were queuing for bread and that we did not do so as Sinhalese or Tamils – a point that drew a rousing cheer. But, on reflection, this was so silly. The wherewithal of life was (is) directed by economic opportunity and jobs and the fact remained that the Tamils were subject to some measure of discrimination in job opportunity, especially in the highly-valued (overvalued of course) government sector.
  • In the course of her comments Janice Jiggins put her foot in it when she referred to the Karaiyār “low castes” — drawing an immediate retort from a gentleman on the floor who shot up and interjected “take that back.” Jiggins was totally non-plussed. I quickly passed on a note to my left saying that she should re-phrase it to “non-Vellalar castes.” Later, and rather to my surprise, I discovered that the gentleman in question was not a Tamil, but a Sinhalese of Karava lineage, Jagath Wijayanayake,[v] a person who was passionately involved in pressing Karava history and its supposedly Kshātriya origins. As an aside, what is the moral here? The more we struggle over history the more complexity (and fantasy) that develops.
  • During his comment from the podium as floor, Amirthaligam fiercely reminded Wijeyeratne about the manner in which he, as GA and supremo in the Jaffna area during the 1960s, had reacted when a group of Tamil women had brought a tarantula in a bottle to display it as evidence – because it had been dropped among the female satyagraha protesters by a soldier. Wijeyeratne, we were told, had adopted an air of Buddhist compassion for animal life and exaggeratedly released the tarantula so that it could live.
  • At one point, Mano Singham, a young man who had been a Trinitian, made a stirring address[vi] where he reprimanded the senior generations for letting the situation deteriorate to its present state and warned all those present that the time for remedial action was in the here and now; or else…. This little speech was then seconded by a senior gentleman, Lionel Fernando, who had taught Singham. “Listen to that young man,” he affirmed.

*     *    *    *

So, now, some 35 years later, we are only too aware that we did not listen; or, rather, that those who listened and those who tried to avert the sharpening of conflict, failed in their efforts. With Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe this failure was not for want of trying. I came to know subsequently that he had battled continuously to get moderate voices on all sides of the three or four fences to come up with mediations. There are several untold stories here and I can only provide a glimpse of his untiring endeavours through a happenchance event in 1981. Let me take up this tale.

In 1981 I was in Sri Lankaon a year’s sabbatical study leave with my family and undertaking research on the city of Colombo.[vii] On the political front the UNP government of J. R. Jayewardene had proposed a system of district councils as a step towards the appeasement of the Tamils. While considered inadequate, the scheme was under serious consideration in certain Tamil quarters.

At this point Bisop Lak decided to assemble a small party of well-meaning individuals outside the formal political arena to sit down with him in Kurunegala so as to hammer out some practical ideas for this type of decentralization. A key figure in this effort was R. S. Wijeyesekere, a senior executive with Forbes & Walker.

Bishop Lak persuaded Professors K. Indrapala and Luther Jeyasingham to come down to Kurunegala for this workshop; while canvassing Neelan Tiruchelvam, Michael Roberts and XY a gentleman with links to the Indian Tamils and plantation people whose name I forget to join this venture. I persuaded him to invite Gerald Peiris fromPeradeniyaUniversityto attend.

As it happened, I went to Kurunegala a day earlier so I had a chance of chatting with Bishop Lak for a fair amount of time. It was then that the tale of (some of) his efforts to forge amiable discussions among well-meaning personnel in both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, among them several bhikkhus, unfolded, or rather, was unfolded. I now wish I had tape-recorded these details. Such commitment! Such an untiring and earnest pursuit of moderate politics! And so many well-intentioned people ready to support his work!

That workshop in Kurunegala – just one month or so after the shooting of a policeman at an election meeting in Jaffna involving V. Yogeshwaran (a Member of Parliament from the Tamil United Liberation Front) which in turn triggered reprisal attacks by policemen that saw the Jaffna Library burnt down – was as intense as it was rewarding to the participants. Thereafter, I spent week or so drafting a summary of the discussions.

This “report” was sent to Bishop Lak. I do not know whether he utilized it or not; and in what way he deployed it if at all (my copy is misplaced).[viii] It could be surmised that it went down in flames, metaphorically speaking, in the course of the burnings and killings of Black July 1983. And with that atrocious, obscene moment, Bishop Lak’s life-endeavour collapsed. His heart gave way.

[i] See the article by C. R. de Silva, entitled “The Impact of Nationalism on Education: The Schools Take-Over (1961) and the University Admissions Crisis, 1970-1975,” in Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka,Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 474-99.

[ii] See chapter 14, “A Biographical Episode,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood, 1994 and Roberts, “Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and Political Crisis, A Review Article”, Ethnic Studies Report, 1988, vol.  6: 40-62.

[iii] A funny sidelight: Dr Colvin R. de Silva had been sent an invitation and he got agitated when he saw our notice with its reference to a talk by “C. R. de Silva.” He sent us a telegram saying he was otherwise engaged.

[iv] Nissanka Wijeyeratne had been a senior administrator in the Ceylon civil service and been G. A. in the north at one time; but had then joined the United Left front and become a Minister in its cabinet; while his younger brother, Tissa Wijeyeratne, at one point an active member of the Ceylon Communist Party, was also a vocal figure in ULF circles in the 1970s.

[v] F. B. Jagath Wijayanayake was at one time the President of the Sri Lanka Kshātriya Association.

[vi] I thank Marshall Fernando for reminding me about this incident.

[vii] See my “The Two Faces of the Port City:  Colombo in Modern Times,” in Frank Broeze (ed.), Brides of the Ocean: Port Cities of Asia, 1500 to Modern Times, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1989a, pp. 173-87. This is also available in People Inbetween, (Sarvodaya, 1989) as chapter 7.

[viii] I also sent it to Gerald Peiris. I recall that he argued against the thrust of our decentralization suggestions. One ground was that decentralization meant more efficient victimization of people by local/regional politicians with power, including that of their goon squads. This stance on Peiris’s part is in line with his more recent opposition to federalism on a variety of grounds.


Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, life stories, politIcal discourse, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy

5 responses to “A Man inspired, A Man who inspired: Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe

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