DS Senanayake’s Life and Times by KM de Silva … hits the island roads

Press Release from the ICES at Kandy

The ceremonial launch of two publications of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES, Kandy) titled, respectively, as The Life of D. S. Senanayake (1884-1952): Sri Lanka’s First Prime Minister, by Prof. K. M. de Silva, and its Sinhala version,  D.S: Sri Lankaway Prathama Agraamaathya, by Professor K. N. O. Dharmadasa, was held in Kandy on 3 October 2019 in the presence of a large gathering invited by Prof. Upul Dissanayake, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, who sponsored the event in collaboration with the staff of the ICES.

Following a video sketch of Professor de Silva’s services to university education and his achievements as a university teacher, there was a series of oral presentations by several scholars of the Peradeniya University who dealt with different aspects of the unique and far-reaching services to the nation rendered by D. S. Senanayake. Prof. Dharmadasa in his presentation elaborated the significance of Prof. de Silva’s book as a major work of research, unprecedented in its detail and depth, which was essentially the reason for his being impelled to diffuse that knowledge among the Sinhala readership through a translation. Prof. C. M. Madduma Bandara, referred to D. S. Senanayake’s pioneering achievements in several facets of the emerging nationalist movement of Sri Lanka. He devoted special attention to the epoch-making transformations initiated by Senanayake in the field on agrarian affairs – especially irrigation and peasant farming – targeted mainly at the rural poor. Prof. Peiris’ presentation was featured by a focus on the invaluable lessons that could be drawn from the exemplary careers of D. S. Senanayake as delineated in the two volumes and of those of their authors, de Silva and Dharmadasa.


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Gerald Peiris:  “Professor Kingsley de Silva: His Services and Achievements“[1]

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 best 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.” These, of course, are the hallmarks of Kingsley’s career record.

Kingsley entered 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 campus at Peradeniya. Thereafter, climaxing an exceptionally brilliant undergraduate career with First Class Honours, earned seemingly with effortless ease, Kingsley joined 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.

Professor de Silva’s premature retirement in 1998 in response to a blatant act of politically motivated victimisation by the university authorities must surely have been a painful decision to terminate a cherished institutional link of almost half a century. It marked, however, a further intensification in his involvement in research both here in Sri Lanka as well as abroad.

During the early phase of his research career, his focus was on various aspects of ‘British Ceylon’. These included studies on education, constitutional reforms, land policy, immigration of plantation workers, and indigenous resistance to alien rule. In the context of the exponential expansion of the ‘Arts and Humanities’ at our universities since the early 1960s, and, more substantially, in recognition of the achievements that already featured Kingsley’s academic career, the university offered him a specially instituted Chair of Sri Lanka History in 1967. The impulse for this move was the expectation that it would, among other things, revitalise the then moribund project embarked upon by the university to produce an authoritative ‘History of Sri Lanka’. As it turned out, Kingsley in his new post accomplished much more than what was expected.

For instance, in the daunting task of working towards the completion of the ‘University of Ceylon History of Ceylon’ project, he was able to mobilise the talents of a dynamic group or scholars, employ his own expertise to ensure quality and comprehensiveness of coverage, and produce, within an amazingly short spell, what critics acclaimed as the seminal work on Sri Lanka under British Rule.  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. Under his editorship the Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies acquired greater vigour than ever before, attracting, in particular, the writings by the younger scholars at Peradeniya for many of which the editorial refinements which Kingsley provided were indispensable. Sri Lanka: A Survey, a work on contemporary affairs of the country, edited by Kingsley and published in 1977, was yet another collective scholarly effort, acclaimed in reviews authored by several eminent scholars. It should be recapitulated that these general contributions to the promotion of scholarship in the Arts Faculty at Peradeniya were accompanied by Kingsley’s own prolific output of research, with A History of Sri Lanka, published in 1981, representing what could be regarded as one of his major achievements. It should also be recalled that most of this work was done 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 with scholarly ability and promise were leaving the country in droves in search of greener pastures.

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 career. Two distinct changes deserve special mention here. First, the new opportunities for research developed in the ICES, mainly in the form of enhanced resources, links with research institutions outside Sri Lanka, and a dedicated support staff, had the effect of accelerating the pace of work to surpass that of any other institution of higher learning in the country. In addition, given the commitment of the ICES to issues of ethnic relations, and its multi-disciplinary 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 field.

This shift towards ‘governance’ was, of course, not an abandonment of History. For, apart from the historical perspective found in almost all his writings, Kingsley has, while devoting much of his attention to issues or contemporary politics, continued to produce major works in the discipline of History. These include the editing of  a volume covering  the period of Portuguese and Dutch rule over parts of the island as an addition to the aforesaid ‘University History Project’, 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. In my personal assessment, his revised and enlarged version of the History of Sri Lanka (2005) is an embodiment of an unparalleled level of refinement and expertise among writings of its genre.  A thorough mastery of contemporary Sri Lankan affairs with an exquisite blend of History and Political Science is also seen in many other monographs authored by Kingsley that were referred to in the ‘PowerPoint’ presentation at the beginning of this meeting.

His works of research since the early 1980s are too numerous for individual mention. By 2019 he had 38 volumes, and well over 110 journal articles and chapters of books.  The overwhelming majority of these publications were authored by him and a few were edited and/or co-authored with others. Many were published by prestigious firms.

That the ICES ranked among the most prestigious research institutes in South Asia also bears testimony to the scholarly excellence and the organisational acumen to which Kingsley has been providing leadership. The efforts by Kingsley and his colleagues enabled it to forge close links with several research institutes in the West and in the Indian sub-continent; host national and international conferences on a wide range of themes of global salience almost on a regular basis; co-ordinate major projects that encompass the whole of South Asia; conduct large-scale surveys; and sustain a record of research in the social sciences which none of the universities of Sri Lanka could match.

Over a part of his career Kingsley de Silva was intimately associated with policy formulation in Sri Lanka’s higher education, The legislation promulgated in 1978 to disband the existing, centrally controlled, monolithic administrative structure of university education, and to replace it with a multi-university system within which each university is vested with academic freedom and considerable autonomy, was based on a set of comprehensive proposals submitted by him 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. 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 educational development in Sri Lanka and the experiences gained through his involvement with university governance during the 1980s.

It is well known that Kingsley de Silva was a personal friend of the late President J. R. Jayewardene, whose political biography  ̶ one of the most detailed and incisively critical studies on the politics of modern Sri Lanka ̶   was very largely Kingsley’s work to which its co-author Howard Wriggins contributed. What is perhaps less well known is that this friendship was not an “electoral bandwagon” type of link which some of our dons tend to develop with the politically powerful, invariably for purposes of what they hope would facilitate personal upward mobility. 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 ingredients in this 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 on the decision to conduct the referendum of 1982. 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.

The esteem and regard with which Kingsley de Silva is held outside our country are amply borne out by the fellowships offered by several leading universities, the numerous invitations to highly exclusive international conferences and seminars. In my periodic links with universities abroad I gained the impression that some of Kingsley’s major works are used more widely abroad than in our own university. The impressive array of honours and other forms of recognition bestowed upon him at various stages of his career including the post of President of the International Association of Historians of Asia, the degree of Doctor of Letters awarded by the University of London, the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize awarded by the government of Japan, and (somewhat belatedly) the post of Chancellor of his own university.

As a researcher who has collaborated with Professor de Silva since the mid-1970s  ̶  probably longer than any other ̶  I should bare testimony to two of his prominent traits in both academic work and interpersonal relations. One of these is that he never attempts to impose his convictions on others who work with him. He was tolerant of dissent and of political convictions that were different to his own. The other is that, all along, he made no compromises whatever in his research on issues relating to the interests of Sri Lanka.

[1]. This tribute to Prof. Kingsley de Silva contains abridged and updated extracts of an ‘Introduction’ drafted by G. H. Peiris for the Editorial Board of the festschrift titled Millennium Perspectives – Essays in Honour of Kingsley de Silva (1999).


Filed under British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, constitutional amendments, democratic measures, economic processes, electoral structures, ethnicity, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, land policies, landscape wondrous, language policies, Left politics, life stories, modernity & modernization, nationalism, plural society, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes, World War II

2 responses to “DS Senanayake’s Life and Times by KM de Silva … hits the island roads

  1. Pingback: Exposing the Real Assassins of SWRD Bandaranaike – e-Con e-News

  2. Pingback: Professor KM de Silva’s Publications | Thuppahi's Blog

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