Gerald H Peiris. Island, 3 April 2018,where the title is “The Pursuit of Scholarly Excellence: Professor Kingsley M. de Silva’s Impact on University Education”
“Honour whom honour is due” (Epistle to the Romans, Holy Bible)
Professor Kingsley de Silva resigned from the academic staff of the University of Peradeniya in 1995. That premature retirement must have been a painful termination of a cherished institutional link, made in the context of those in charge of university affairs at that time making it difficult for him to continue in university service without jeopardising his research commitments.
Moreover, following that enforced resignation, the university continued to ignore his unparalleled scholarly achievements. In the more prestigious universities I have worked at (including our own, albeit in a sporadic manner), the production of an important work of research by a member of its staff is given due recognition, typically in the form of a felicitatory book-launch. Over the past sixty years Kingsley de Silva has produced at least twenty publications acclaimed as major works of research in the academia outside our country especially in the form of reviews in prestigious journals, but evoking no such response from his former colleagues here. Sadly, some of the more important among such publications have not even been acquired by our library which, in accordance with a dormant statute, is mandated as one of the two ‘deposit libraries’ of Sri Lanka. So, from such a perspective, the present felicitation represents a very special occasion for which the Vice-Chancellor and some of his colleagues in the University Council deserve our utmost gratitude for their initiative to rectify a lapse that has persisted over several decades.
Kingsley de Silva could, in many ways, be seen as epitomising an all too rare fulfilment of the ideals of university education envisioned by those at the vanguard of Sri Lanka’s national university movement of the 1930s and the ’40s. Inspired as most of them were by liberal traditions of higher learning, they expected the products of their own university to be men and women of “enlightened and civilised intelligence… with a thirst for knowledge and a passionate commitment to the pursuit of scholarly excellence”.
Beginnings of an exemplary university career
Kingsley de Silva gained admission to the University of Ceylon in 1951 when its Faculty of Arts was still in Colombo. In the following year, he was in the first batch of students to be transferred to the newly- established venue of the national university at Peradeniya. Thereafter, climaxing his undergraduate career with First Class Honours, earned seemingly with effortless ease, he was recruited to the academic staff of the university in 1957. The degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of London obtained in 1961, once again with no great strain, marked the beginning of a trail-blazing career in research. For him, the doctoral thesis (Social Policy and Missionary Organisations in Ceylon, 1840-1855), published in 1965 under the sponsorship of the Royal Commonwealth Society, was a task completed, “not to be dipped into time and again for recycling contents as journal articles” – the frequent donnish practice even in the halcyon Jennings era, according to an observation of consummate cynicism by the late Professor ‘Lyn’ Ludowyk. Instead Kingsley shifted his focus to various other facets of ‘Colonial Ceylon’ such as constitutional reform, land policy, immigration of plantation workers, and indigenous resistance to alien rule.
Collective research projects: Hallmark of a university
Carefully planned major research projects of continuity and lasting impact, often involving interdisciplinary collaboration, is a feature that distinguishes the more prestigious seats of higher learning from institutions that produce reports on current affairs supposedly based on hurriedly conducted investigations. This observation constitutes the backdrop against which one of the important strands of Kingsley de Silva’s career record must be placed.
In recognition of the progress that featured the early phase of Kingsley’s academic career, the university offered him in 1967 a specially instituted Chair of Sri Lanka History, withstanding the fierce opposition of Minister of Education of that time who was known to have treated the concept of university autonomy with contempt. The main impulse for that offer was the expectation that it would, among other things, revitalise the then moribund project embarked upon by the university in the early 1950s to produce an authoritative ‘History’, emulating the monumental collective scholarly efforts such as The Cambridge History of India. As it turned out Kingsley achieved much more than what was expected. In the daunting task of working towards the completion of the ‘university history project’ he was able to mobilise the talents of a dynamic group of scholars – most of them, his former students – employ his expertise to ensure quality and the desired comprehensiveness of coverage, and produce within an amazingly short spell, what critics came to acclaim as the seminal work on Sri Lanka under British Rule (University of Ceylon History of Ceylon, Volume 3, 1973).
This was only the first demonstration of Kingsley’s capacity to inspire and guide collaborative effort, and to perform a catalytic role vis-à-vis research in the Faculty of Arts at Peradeniya. Thereafter, although the impact of Portuguese and Dutch rule over the coastal lowlands of Sri Lanka continued to receive the attention of several of our reputed historians, they were not inclined to take up the challenge of coordinating the production of a comprehensive synthesis of research on that period. Thus, it was following the lapse of more than twenty years after the publishing of ‘Volume 3’, that Kingsley was called upon by the university to produce the University of Sri Lanka History of Sri Lanka Volume 2 (1995).
Meanwhile, with his editorial guidance and with an input of his own research, there was further efflorescence of multidisciplinary teamwork at Peradeniya embracing inter-faculty collaboration. The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, launched in 1958 with its editorial duties entrusted to nine senior dons representing the entire range of disciplines in the twin faculties of ‘Arts’ and ‘Humanities’ of that time, and with Ivor Jennings, E. R. Leach, N. M. Perera, T. Nadaraja and S. Paranavithana (to name only a few) among the galaxy of scholars contributing to its first volume. It was when what started with that bang was heading towards a whimper – attributable to the adverse impact of excessive government interventions on university affairs – that Kingsley took over the editorship of this journal. Undaunted by the challenge of reversing the prevailing trend he found it necessary to eliminate the gaps in its existing series of issues and initiate a ‘New Series’ which attracted the writings of an expanding community of scholars engaged in ‘Sri Lanka Studies’ here and abroad some of whom also benefited enormously from his editorial guidance.
Sri Lanka: A Survey (1977) was another product of teamwork on a wide range of contemporary affairs in the fields of Humanities and the Social Sciences to which Kingsley provided leadership. It was acclaimed in several reviews published in prestigious journals as the best general work on contemporary affairs of the country.
His sponsorship of multidisciplinary research within our university continued into later times as evidenced by publications such as Women at the Crossroads: A Sri Lankan Perspective (1990), The Vanishing Aborigines: Sri Lanka’s Veddas in Transition (1990) The University System of Sri Lanka: Vision and Reality (1995), Studies on the Press in Sri Lanka and South Asia (1997), Women and Politics in Sri Lanka: A Comparative Perspective (1999), and the delightful Peradeniya:Memories of a University (1997) containing alumnae reminiscences of those “baked” in their youth at our university at different stages of its vicissitudinous history, the “icing” added elsewhere in adulthood.
It should be recapitulated that the aforementioned contributions to the promotion of scholarship at Peradeniya were accompanied by Kingsley’s own prolific output of research, with A History of Sri Lanka (1981) representing what could be regarded as the crowning achievement among his many writings in History up to that time. We should also recall that the works referred to above (along with his journal articles too numerous for specific mention) were produced at a time of political instability and economic hardship in the country, when research funding was virtually non-existent, when even writing paper was scarce, and when those endowed with extraordinary scholarly skills were leaving Sri Lanka in droves in search of greener pastures.
A dynamic international research centre
The founding of the ‘International Centre for Ethnic Studies’ (ICES) in 1982 with Kingsley de Silva as its Executive Director, seen in retrospect as a landmark event in the development of social sciences research in Sri Lanka, was also of significance from the perspective of its impact upon Kingsley’s own output of research. Two distinct changes deserve special mention here. First, there were the new opportunities for research he was able to develop in the Kandy Branch of the ICES, mainly in the form of enhanced resources; links with research institutions outside Sri Lanka; a reader-friendly ‘Social Sciences’ library, rich in content, especially in respect of prompt acquisition of acclaimed publications including journals such as the Economic and Political Weekly, The Hindu, and the Tamil Times (a feature in which the mammoth Peradeniya University library has been woefully deficient); and a dedicated support staff. These had the effect of accelerating what was already a breath-taking pace of work. In addition, given the commitment of the ICES to issues of ethnic relations, and its multidisciplinary matrix of manpower, there was a distinct shift in Kingsley’s own research focus towards contemporary affairs of governance, not exclusively those of Sri Lanka, but embracing a much wider international field.
Relentless enrichment of knowledge
His own writings since the early 1980s, considered collectively, indicate an eclectic coverage of issues in the broad field of ‘governance’. This was not an abandonment of History for, apart from the historical perspective found in almost all his writings, Kingsley, while devoting much of his attention to issues of contemporary politics, continued to produce major works in the discipline of History – especially the substantially enlarged version the history of Sri Lanka published in 2005 as A History of Sri Lanka (Penguin), and the two-volume study of documents on British Ceylon in the End of the Empire series of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies of the University of London. These apart, a thorough mastery of contemporary Sri Lankan affairs with an exquisite blend of History, Political Science and International Affairs is also seen in several other monographs which he has authored/edited – The “Traditional Homelands” of the Tamils: Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: a Historical Appraisal (ICES), Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-Ethnic Societies (University Press of America), Religion, Nationalism and the State (University of Florida), Internationalisation of Ethnic Conflict (Pinter, London), Regional Powers and Small State Security: India & Sri Lanka (Woodrow Wilson International Center), Sri Lanka: Problems of Governance (Centre for Policy Research, Delhi), Reaping the Whirlwind, and Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE (both published by Penguin), Corruption in South Asia (ICES), and Managing Group Grievances and Internal Conflict: Sri Lanka (Clingendael, Netherlands).
Kingsley’s persistent commitment to research has found expression in the past two years in a series of publications on Sri Lanka – The Island Story: A Short History of Sri Lanka (2017), Sri Lanka: The Recent Past (2018), and DS The Life of D. S. Senanayake, Sri Lanka’s First Prime Minister (2016), and a two-volume work on political history of Sri Lanka since independence Sri Lanka: Come Wind, Come Weather (ICES) in 2015 and 2016. These compact works, though perhaps targeted mainly at a readership of educated layman here and abroad, are rich in content, especially on those who have figured prominently in our national elite in politics, education, diplomatic services, and government administration. Among his works at this stage The Making of a Historian: A Memoir (2017) stands apart from those referred to above in the sense that it contains a frank and vivid recollection of what he has observed on life around him from early childhood up to about the end of the 20th century but only a few brief and self-effacing references to his own unique achievements. The autobiographical snippets are almost totally confined to the final phase of his tenure as the Chief Executive Officer of the ICES.
An overhaul of the university governance
Over a part of his career Kingsley was intimately associated with policy formulation in Sri Lanka’s higher education. The legislation promulgated in 1978 to disband the centrally controlled, monolithic administrative structure of university governance established in 1972, and to replace it with a multi-university system under the general control of a ‘University Grants Commission’, with each university accorded a measure of academic freedom and autonomy – an ideal that has been more or less totally abandoned, ironically, by a succession of politically rapacious academicians – was based on a set of comprehensive proposals submitted by Kingsley to the political party elected to office in 1977. As a member of the University Grants Commission established under this legislation, he devoted attention to a range of important issues in higher education ̶ in particular, those concerning curricular reforms and the modalities of student admission to the universities with an unswerving commitment to the all-important objective of raising the quality of learning, teaching and research at our universities. He was also able to facilitate a great leap forward in the development of faculty infrastructure at Peradeniya. Several of his major writings on aspects of higher education in Sri Lanka could be considered as representing the coalescence of his interests in the history of modern educational development in Sri Lanka and the experiences gained through his involvement with university governance during the 1980s.
Co-author of a major political biography
It is well known that Kingsley de Silva was a personal friend of the late President J.R. Jayewardene whose biography ̶ one of the most detailed and incisively critical studies on the politics of modern Sri Lanka ̶ was co-authored by him. What is perhaps less well known is that this friendship was not a fawning “electoral bandwagon” type of link which dons sometimes tend to develop with the politically powerful, invariably for their own career advancement. Kingsley’s association with JR began, in fact, in the mid-1960s, and flourished through many vicissitudes of JR’s career, and remained as close as it ever was until the time of JR’s death several years after his retirement from active politics. The similarities in political outlook and the shared interest in History could well have been the main ingredients of that friendship. But what cemented it, above all else, was JR’s respect for Kingsley’s scholarship and intellect, and the fact that he found in Kingsley a person on whom he could place unreserved confidence and trust even when they held sharply divergent views, as they did, for instance, on the decision to conduct the referendum of 1982, and the province-based system of ‘devolution’ of the cancerous ‘13th Amendment’. The veteran politician that JR was, he is also likely to have found it unusual that Kingsley expected nothing in return for himself through their association other than the privilege of giving advice when consulted on matters of vital concern to the country, always maintaining low profile. We are aware, in fact, that diplomatic posts and national honours offered by JR and some of his successors were turned down by Kingsley.
“In praise and blame the wise are unshaken” (Dhammapada)
The esteem and regard with which Kingsley de Silva is held outside Sri Lanka are amply borne out by the impressive array of honour and other forms of recognition bestowed upon him at various stages of his career. He has served as the President of the International Association of Historians of Asia. Among the formal honours of which he has been a recipient are ‘The Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize’ awarded in 2002, the degree of ‘Doctor of Letters’ awarded by the University of London, the appointment as Chancellor of our university here, and highest national civilian honour of Dēshamānya, awarded by the President of Sri Lanka in 2017.
A felicitation of Professor Kingsley de Silva intended to convey the gratitude and admiration of the University of Peradeniya for his uniquely significant academic achievements and his resolute commitments to the interests of our nation, had been scheduled for 28 March 2019. But it had to be postponed due to the passing away of his wife, Chandra, a few days earlier. A biography of D. S. Senanayake by Professor de Silva, and its Sinhala version by Professor K. N. O. Dharmadasa were also to be ceremonially launched at that event. The essay reproduced below is the transcript of a presentation at that gathering.