Reviewing Neville Jayaweera’s Account of a Critical Phase in the Sinhala Tamil Conflict

Jaffna- “Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision” An autobiographical reflection by Neville Jayaweera

I> REVIEW ONE by R. M. B Senanayake, courtesy of The Island,  24th September 2014

We may ask the question what it is that Neville Jayaweera wants to convey to the public and to posterity through his autobiographical reflections? Direct or first-hand experiences of events impart a special depth as opposed to the third hand reports of the same events. Those of us who were Jayaweera’s contemporaries in the CCS in the 1960s, such as I, can confirm that his narration of those experiences in Reflections is generally a correct portrayal of the history of those times. One might not share all of his views, but his work is a sparkling revelation, full of spiritual substance, candour and intellectual depth.

What impressed me most in Neville Jayaweera’s (NJ hereafter) Reflections was his inherent sense of justice and fair play and, as Susil Sirivardena says in his Preface, his granite-hard commitment to conscience and humanistic values, He was influenced entirely by the Buddhist concepts of avijja (ignorance of things as they are) the yatharthaya and maya (illusions) and concludes that “within Buddha’s epistemology there is no room for ethnic divisions, for nationalisms or even for patriotism.”


Clearly, as the GA of Jaffna , between 1963-1966, Jayaweera’s values were rooted in the Sutras and in the true Abhidhamma of the Buddha and in the Brahma Viharas, but were light years away from the distorted values of the Mahavamsa and the nationalisms of Anagarika Dharmapala and of N.Q. Dias.

Marauders from Kalinga: Jayaweera refers to the marauding Kalinga King, Kalinga Magha, who invaded Sri Lanka and laid it waste, desecrating temples and dagabos in the Rajarata not sparing even the Ruwanvelisaya or the irrigation systems on which the ancient Sinhala civilization of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa was built. He displayed callous brutality in blinding and executing the incumbent ruler Parakrama Pandya. Jayaweera says the memory of such brutality is deeply ingrained in the collective subconscious of the Sinhala people and probably accounts for the prejudice they feel to the Tamils even today.

The brutality of the Maravar invaders has bequeathed the word “maravara balaya” to the Sinhala language to denote the power of brutality, extreme cruelty and intimidation displayed first by the Maravar warriors of Kalinga Magha. NJ cites several comparable cases from diverse cultures across the globe. Without condoning it, Jayaweera says that the brutality of the modern LTTE is only a manifestation of this historical barbarism of the Maravars.

3b - attacks on satyagrahis Tamil satyagrahis at Galle fAce Green attacked by Sinhala mob — From Victor Ivan: Paradise in Tears, 2008: Plate 226 

9b-- Sathyagraha –Victor 260 Police clearing entrance to Jaffna Kachcheri – From Victor Ivan, Paradise in Tears, No. 260

9a-police violence vs satyagrahis in JP  S. T. Arasu is being threatened in front of the kachcheri buildings by SL Navy troops, 14 April 1961 — Extracted from S. Ponniah, Satyagraha, 1963, by Rāsaratnam Krishnakumar

The Unfolding of the Conflict: NJ was handpicked by N.Q Dias, then Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and External Affairs to be the Government Agent of the Jaffna District. Jayaweera was known among his colleagues to be an efficient ‘no nonsense’ administrator with a strong authoritarian style. He took over in 1963 at a time when the Federal Party was agitating against the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy. Previously, Nissanka Wijeyeratne as the GA had dealt with the satyagrahis opposite the Jaffna Kachcheri in his own way. He had taken staff from Anuradhapura Kachcheri and sought to provoke the satyagrahis to violence by stone-throwing from the Residency Old Park!

NJ says that NQ commended to him the same strategy for handling the Tamil politicians who during this time were threatening to unleash a ‘Secessionist Movement’. It was to force “confrontations” upon them at every turn and establish the “absolute ascendancy of the State in every crisis created by them. There was to be no compromise. NJ challenged N.Q. Dias and asked how he could justify “confrontation” and “ascendency” over any group of people in the context of his professed commitment to the Dhamma.

An important aspect of NQ’s provocative strategy was to implement Sinhala as the official language throughout the Tamil majority areas. Naturally, there was tremendous opposition to it from the Tamil political parties. It was perhaps NQ’s perception that confrontation would fit in with NJ’s reputation as a domineering character, which was then also the perception among the Jaffna public. But there was another side to NJ’s character which the world including N.Q Dias had not suspected; another personality rooted in gentle values and which NJ refers to as the Yogi within him, as opposed to the Commissar, which was all that the world saw in him. The ‘Yogi’ resolved that the NQ Dias strategy was evil.

The “Reasonable Use of Tamil” law had been passed although not gazetted. NJ canvassed against NQ’s strategy with Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. There is a brilliant passage in Jayaweera’s Reflections where, in the presence of the Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, Jayaweera asks N. Q., “Sir, how would you like it to have your children’s marriage certificates issued to them in Tamil, or your own death certificate issued to your children in Tamil”. N.Q. fiddled with his wristwatch strap for want of words. But seeing the logic of Jayaweera’s reasoning, Mrs B authorized him to change course and allow the three language policy including Tamil, in the Northern Province long before Tamil was incorporated in the Constitution through the 13th Amendment of 1987, NJ convinced the Prime Minister that NQ’s strategy was faulty and obtained her approval to pursue his own strategy, of “consultation, compromise and conciliation” instead of confrontation.

Jayaweera’s admiration for NQ: However NJ has great admiration for NQ Dias as a man with foresight. He had visualized the Tamils taking to arms and prepared for the eventuality by establishing military camps in the North. Anticipating the opposition of the Tamil political leaders to the establishment of such military camps he camouflaged his motive by ascribing the need for such military camps to counter the smuggling of goods and people illicitly from Tamil Nadu. The present regime is carrying out NQ’s strategy probably assuming that there will be resurgence of armed conflict.

NJ claims that his own strategy of consultation and compromise produced better relations between the Tamils and the government, which made it possible for Dudley Senanayake, the next Prime Minister, to enter into the Chelvanayakam- Dudley Senanayake Accord. Unfortunately that too had to be scuttled owing to the opposition of the Buddhist monks.

The subsequent history of the conflict: NJ analyses how the conflict was transformed from a conflict between the Sinhala Buddhists and the bourgeois Vellalar Tamils of the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress, to one in which the Tamils came to be represented by the non-Vellalars who outnumbered the Vellalars. How did the Vellalars lose control? He describes the traditional social exploitation of the non-Vellalars through stringent caste discrimination through the ages. The first expression of the non- Vellalars bid to change the status quo was the agitation for Temple entry. Non-Vellalars were not allowed to enter the Temples reserved for the Vellalars. NJ not only acknowledged the agitation of the non-Vellalar underclass, but decided to do something to alleviate their suffering. Jayaweera researched the Vellalar claim that Hinduism validated the caste system and disproved it.

Vide the Appendix to the book he points out that the social prohibition of entry into Temples was a violation of the “Prevention of Civil Disabilities Act of 1957.” The non-Vellalars decided to storm the famous Maviddapuram temple putting an end to thousands of years of discrimination.

New Tamil leadership: But with this new empowerment of the non-Vellalars, a new Tamil political leadership of the non-Vellalars emerged and paved the way for Prabhakaran as the leader of the new Tamil Nationalism. The non-Vellalars had suffered not only socially but economically too, being shut out from the lucrative professions owing to lack of land and education. They ascribed their economic grievances to discrimination against them not only by upper caste Vellalars but also by the Sinhala dominated State. They had no faith in the Sri Lankan State or the Sinhala people. They believed only in armed struggle to win their rights in a separate Tamil state – Eelam, . So those who wanted a bourgeois democratic solution had to be eliminated. Several Vellalar political leaders were killed and Prabhakaran became the undisputed leader in the struggle. NJ observes ominously that these non-Vellalars had much more in common with Tamil Nadu than the Vellalar bourgeoisie.

Jayaweera’s vision: Anyone seriously interested in understanding the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka should read Neville Jayaweera’s ” Exorcising the past and holding the vision -an autobiographical reflection on the ethnic conflict” . He has offered a solution based on liberal humanism and genuine Buddhist spiritual truths. He points out the need to start building a new consciousness of the “Nation” as opposed to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. We need to accept the fact that Tamils are closely related ethnically to the Sinhala and have at least 50% Sinhala genetic material in them since according to the Mahavamsa, Vijaya and his band of seven hundred men took Pandyan women as their wives.

If a Sinhala Buddhist leader wants to build a Sri Lankan nation as a solution to the ethnic conflict with the Tamils, he should read NJ’s book.

The Vellalar and Non-Vellalars are united in the Tamil Diaspora. He expects the re-emergence of the non-Vellalar radical leadership of the Tamil nationalist cause when the present bourgeois TNA leadership fails. He praises President MR for holding the elections to the Northern Provincial Council but faults him for not allowing it to function. He is highly critical of MR’s post war triumphalism as detrimental to the reconciliation process. The TNA may lose their political support to radical elements and there may be a resurgence of armed conflict. He thinks MR’s actions would lead ultimately to the partition of the island through Indian intervention.

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I> REVIEW TWO by Anura Gunasekera in The Island, 2 August 2014

To an older generation of Sri Lankans the name Neville Jayaweera would need no introduction. Most of those who will ultimately read this book, would do so, not so much for its provocative title, but more because Neville Jayaweera has written it. Jayaweera belonged to an elite corps of public servants designated “Civil Servants”, who had been recruited through a notoriously difficult open competitive exam. Most of them had First or Second (Upper) degrees, and never numbered more than 150 officers out of a total public service of 250,000 at that time and were the crème de la crème of the University. In truth, they were the silent men behind the scenes who actually ran the country, at least pre-1970. Consequently, they tended to be arrogant and elitist, which made them unpopular with the new breed of post-1956 politicians. However, the majority of them were genuinely “civil”, “highly educated”, “cultured” and totally committed to the core principles of public service. It was an era when the term “Civil Servant” generally signified class and quality, efficiency, and integrity, a world apart from the public service of today.

Until the decline set in post-1970, the CCS epitomized scholarship and intellectual excellence, as illustrated by Jayaweera’s research on the Tamil caste system, carried out whilst meeting the exacting demands of being GA of Jaffna between 1963 and 1965. It is a body of work which further enriches a brilliant tradition of scholarship reaching back to the early nineteenth century, established by the works of Sir William Twynam, George Tourner, R.D. Childers, Rhys Davids, H.W.Codrington, Emerson Tennent and and W.T. Stace, to mention just a few.

The Preface, by Susil Sirivardana, a colleague of Jayaweera’s in the Administrative Service, and the Foreword by Dr. Michael Roberts, provide comprehensive analyses of the book’s contents. Therefore, this review seeks merely to direct the attention of the public to a publication which is a personal memoir, a political analysis of past events and, also, a prediction for the possible direction of future events.

In the context of the strife which has engulfed this country in the last three decades, this book is essential reading. It offers the personal point of view of a man, who was a protagonist in events in the North during a critical stage in the evolution of Sinhala/Tamil relations, events which were accurate precursors of the nightmare to follow 20 years later. It is the recounting of recent Sri Lankan history by a man who was a ringside observer in its unfolding, and one who also made a significant personal contribution to the moulding of epochal events.

All conflicts, whether internecine, international or global, have long histories. Their evolution and development is very visible and, in a final analysis, traceable back to specific origins. Ours was homegrown, internecine and apart from intermittent external influences, particularly in the last three decades, internally generated and fueled by knavish political policy and obduracy and hypocrisy on both sides. I would ask all readers to peruse the Prologue to this book with care and attention. It summarizes, in logical and chronological sequence, why and how the conflict was inevitable.

As much as conflicts have histories of evolution, at any point in their development they are capable of being arrested and the core issues amenable to resolution, given intelligent and pragmatic decision making and integrity of political vision. As Jayaweera traces the history of our conflict, he also clearly highlights the wasted opportunities for resolving it; opportunities frittered away by successive governments and articulators of Tamil aspirations. Prabhakaran, the LTTE and the ensuing carnage was the logical consequence of this intransigence and insincere posturing by both sides.

Many Sri Lankan governments in recent times, particularly the current one, have tried to portray the national conflict as mere terrorism against a democratically elected government. It is a convenient position to hold, in that it provides a justification for the military repression of reasonable dissent, even in the future. The dissent in the North did degenerate in to terrorism, practiced occasionally by the state as well, but it was essentially ethnic in origin. Jayaweera’s book clearly places its ethnic nature and content in proper perspective.

The contribution made to the development of conflict by the obduracy of decades of Sinhala leadership, accepted by some and denied by many, is projected by Jayaweera through many concrete and undeniable examples. However, what is more interesting, though perhaps less commonly discussed by political commentators, is Jayaweera’s analysis of the caste-conscious culture of the North, which posited the hegemony of the Vellala segment in Northern society, which ultimately provoked the violent assertion of underclass discontent and aspirations.

As Susil Sirivardana writes in his preface,” Jayaweera’s work on the Tamil caste system and Hinduism is a monumental piece of research deserving recognition in its own right, as a substantial document that that adds lustre to the old CCS. Jayaweera has brought to the CCS a rare intellectuality and a spiritual depth that kept its reputation for class and quality aflutter, even as its great 150 year old tradition was being laid to rest by the new political culture”.

As Jayaweera expresses unequivocally, for four decades successive Sinhala governments have been negotiating on Tamils’ issues with the wrong Tamils. They spoke to the few highly educated, heavily Anglicized and privileged members of the Tamil “upper crust”, a small minority of Tamil society, perhaps in ignorance of the majority underclass segment which, in reality , was the true face of the problem. As he points out, the political frontline of the Tamil position then consisted of prominent Tamils who had migrated South decades before, and having profited immensely – socially, professionally and financially – by this move, become estranged from the realities of the issues of their less fortunate brethren in the North.

Jayaweera’s position on this issue is reinforced by his experiences in personal negotiations on behalf of this marginalized segment of Northern Tamil society, particularly in the ” Temple Entry issue”, in which the privileged Tamil segment proved as intractable and as incapable of compromise, as successive Sinhala governments have been in the case of larger Tamil issues.

Memoirs of people who have occupied positions of power and influence, especially in the public sector, tend to be, not infrequently, justifications for their own questionable actions, vehicles for self –aggrandizement or a means for the sanctification of the disreputable conduct of their more powerful masters. This is a genre which has produced many tedious and sanitized portrayals of genuinely controversial personalities and tumultuous events. Therefore, It is a relief, and a pleasure, to read an account which is an objective and impartial presentation of events and people, delivered sans offense and with polish. Jayaweera has clearly proved that It is, indeed, possible to present painful truths without calling a spade a shovel.

In the re-telling of his personal experiences as a senior public servant, Jayaweera has woven a rich tapestry of places, people and events, lending perspective and historical and administrative background to an existing national profile. It is also an urgent plea to those who now make decisions, to re-think the ongoing political process, lest a fusion of emerging forces result, “in a threat to the government in Colombo, no less formidable than the threat that the LTTE has posed.” Notwithstanding current government perception, such a future threat may not be amenable to a military solution.

Apart from aspects related to the Sinhala – Tamil issue, Jayaweera opens interesting windows to other, equally significant events in recent Sri Lankan political history. His comments on the background to the emergence of the JVP and the relevance of the Official Languages Act is an aspect either neglected, or ascribed marginal importance by many political commentators, who generally tend to place weightage on the dialectical aspects of the JVP’s Marxian credo. The impact of the uncompromising implementation of the Official Languages Act on Sinhala/Tamil relations – notwithstanding the essential rationality of the Act- needs no elaboration. In this context, “Language as a Tool of Oppression,” is a very apt expression.

The presentation of “The N.Q.Dias Factor,” as a pivotal force in moulding both national and foreign policy then, and as a forerunner to the current national political profile and foreign policy direction, is indeed fascinating. It may have been common knowledge in the corridors of power then but perhaps not publicly acknowledged; certainly, it is no longer known or has been forgotten. It was then an administrative milieu in which dedicated and competent bureaucrats advised politicians and, either for good or ill, actually guided the course of government policy. A perfect example is the then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike’s personal and secret authorization- in response to Jayaweera’s proposal- for the reversal of the Sinhala Only policy in the North. This three-language policy, unobtrusively launched and administered in the North by Jayaweera in 1963, was legitimized in 1987 through the 13th Amendment, but only after much blood-letting on both sides.

The publication of this book at this juncture in our political history is most timely as it carries an urgent plea for the Rulers, that we heed the lessons of history and re-envision the course for the future. The tragedy is that history is directional and the consequences of actions both predictable and inevitable. The insensitive implementation of the Sinhala only policy, as analyzed comprehensively by Jayaweera, clearly demonstrates the manner in which a policy designed to redress an imbalance between the English educated North and a similarly privileged Southern minority, and the majority Sinhala only South, did more to marginalize the intended beneficiaries and eventually contributed in a large measure to both the LTTE and the JVP uprisings.

Let me quote what I consider to be Neville’s core message: “More than the power it derives from an overwhelming superiority in numbers, what exalts any majority community, and endows it with a true greatness and moral authority, is its willingness to accord to all those other communities who lack the advantage of numbers, a status and dignity equal to its own, and never let them feel marginalized or disadvantaged because they are fewer in number, or because they are different in colour or beliefs.

Unless and until Sri Lanka can produce leaders who can realize that truth, and are willing to act on it, it will continue to be mired in conflict,” ( Page 175)

The reality is both the inability and the reluctance of our leaders to embrace that higher vision. Incontrovertible proof of such intransigence is the implicit support extended by the State to militant Sinhala-Buddhist fronts which are seeking to impose an apartheid between the majority and minority communities in this country, as cruel, senseless and as morally unacceptable as that which existed in South Africa.

In conclusion I quote another passage, a prophecy which warns of tragic consequences: “……Given the elements that comprise Mahinda Rajapaksa’s consciousness, such a transformation in the southern consciousness is not likely to happen. What is more likely is that Rajapaksa will stoke the southern supremacist consciousness and lead the country in a downward spiral in to a deeper and wider conflict. Rather than promote a transformation of consciousness leading to reconciliation and a new beginning, he might generate circumstances that will suck India in to the conflict again. If that happens, we might witness an outcome which successive governments in Colombo had fought a horrific 30 year war to avoid – namely, the eventual partition of Sri Lanka.” (page 220).

The present regime, having won a military conflict internally, is now besieged by forces which have internationalized the many immoral and amoral aspects of its post-victory conduct and style of governance. It is now fighting a war which it can never win militarily. May I, on my own, add that those who have their backs to the wall , are unable to read the writing on the wall.

For those serious readers who are genuinely interested in the evolution of the current Sri Lankan political profile, this book offers valuable substance. It is informative, educational and amusing, a combination of features only a clever writer can harness in their proper proportions. They are the views of a man who witnessed events from inside out, as against the professional political analyst who sees them from outside in. His positions are also supported by diligent, scholarly research and sources which are clearly both reliable and authoritative.

At a paltry Rs. 500/- per copy, the book is great value for money and is obtainable at “Ravaya”, 83, Piliyandala Rd., Maharagama ( Tel; 011-2896330/112-851672/73). Victor Ivan has provided a fine service to the discerning reading public of this country.


Filed under accountability, caste issues, democratic measures, historical interpretation, language policies, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

4 responses to “Reviewing Neville Jayaweera’s Account of a Critical Phase in the Sinhala Tamil Conflict

  1. Pingback: Jaffna. Exorcising the past and holding the vision | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. jay

    i went to Vijitha Yapa today to buy this book. It was not there. Is it not available in SL

  3. Wishwasara

    Dear Sir,

    As an employee of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, I greatly appreciate you and your precious tenure in office as first Director General of the SLBC. May Triple Gem bless you. I am looking for your book now.

    • Hugh

      The blessings of the Triple Gem will have no impact on him as he converted to Christianity many years ago and was employed by the World Council of Christian Churches.

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