DB Dhanapala on LH Mettananda in his book Among those Present, 1962
OF COURSE, L.H. Mettananda is a fanatic. Anybody who dares to talk of Buddhist’s rights in a Buddhist country is bound to be called a fanatic bent on disturbing the peace and rousing up religious feelings.
A general amiable amnesia about the inequities perpetrated on Buddhists and Hindu’s during the past four hundred years will make us gentlemen of tolerance and broadness of outlook.
The Patricians must not be disturbed in their afternoon siesta of complacency by a cacophony of clamouring for the restoration of Buddhist’s rights. For the sake of harmony, no word of protest should be voiced lest a nation’s conscience be awakened. Mettananda’s vitriolic voice should not mar the mysterious march of Christian domination in the Army, the Navy the Police, the Civil Service and the general administration.
These unseemly outcries seem so inartistic. They jar on the refined, delicate, feelings of those with turned up noses sweating in tweed suits and kneeling at high altars. It is so appallingly vulgar.
Mettananda cannot care less. A plague on all your sense of good taste. He cares tuppense for your finer sensibilities and refinements. He is proud of his vulgarity. He is not ashamed of hurting those who choose to get hurt.
He opens cupboards and shows you skeletons. He parts catholic curtains and shows you filing cabinets and petitions in modern offices working overtime to bring about acts of God under suspicious circumstances.
He has all the percentages worked out, the names in neat lists and all instances tabulated. Everything is nicely taped out. He has all the quotations noted down.
His facts cannot be questioned. Verifications makes the charges all the more virulent.
He is the lone crusader who does not sheath his sword. He is the boor who walks in to the drawing room with muddy shoes. He is the fanatic who made fanatism fantastic.
He catches the rulers dealing in short weights to Buddhists. He rings the coins always whenever Buddhists get change. His voice is insistent, insolent and almost instinctive.
He cares not on whose corns he tramples. He is unconcerned whose conscience he pricks. He does not mind what you call him, what you think of him and who you think you are.
He has to be heard. That is all that matters.
But those that matter do not hear him much and those that hear him do not matter much. That is Mettananda’s tragedy.
But nobody ever doubts his sincerity, his honesty, his earnestness.
Here is a man who has no axes to grind. He is devoid of ambition. If he has nothing to lose, he has nothing to gain for himself either.
His honesty of purpose rises above our horizon like the rock of Sigiriya over the landscape it dominates. No one can question his sincerity.
Having no political ambitions himself, he is eternally searching for the right man who will give unto the Buddhists that which is theirs by rights, reserving for Caesar what is his.
When Bandaranaike was in search of supporters to beat his drum, Mettananda moved in with gusto. He organized thousands of Bhikkus to walk from door to door reading choice extracts from the Buddhist Commission’s Report and denouncing the UNP. He carried on a whirlwind campaign throughout the country, reviving hopes in the breast of Buddhists and painting Bandaranaike as a new hero born to right wrongs suffered by Buddhists.
In 1956 when Bandaranaike won the General Election, he thought Mettananda would get in to the spirit of practical politics and be satisfied with the fun he had had plus an Ambassadorial job and not bother about his blessed Buddhists any more.
But Mettananda is made of sterner stuff. He spurned efforts to placate him with cushy jobs and spoke out loud and bold once again about the unredressed grievances of the Buddhists. Bandaranaike turned round and called Mettananda a madman. This man with a load of grievances was only amused. He lost hope and began another search.
Then who should come along but our friend Phillip Gunawardene, his lips full of promises and his heart full of vengeance.
Mettananda adopted Phillip as he had earlier taken over Bandaranaike and scoured the country with battle cries. But Phillip by trying to make Mettananda a minor prophet in his hierarchy of the hustings could hardly make enough of an impression. Mettananda’s words were sincere it was true. But the big question remained: were Phillip’s intentions honest?
Mettananda was himself in for a rude shock when immediately after the March 1960 Election Phillip without any reference to Mettananda issued a declaration that showed him in his true colours.
Mettananda perhaps was relieved that by the merest chance the horse he had wrongly backed had not won.
But there is no bitterness in this crusader out to build once again an El Dorado for Buddhists in this green and pleasant land. In the July 1960 General Election, he once again backed Mrs. Bandaranaike in a quiet but more efficient manner.
He sits in his Nawala house a lone man surrounded by unfulfilled hopes, unsatisfied desires of the majority of this land. But there is iron in his spirit that refuses to waver, to give up the fight.
He is a hermit with a home, a big prophet with a small pension.
His wants are a few, his tastes simple. His smile is benign and reminds me of a grey eminence of intrinsic worth.
He waits patiently for the day of deliverance after a long, long period of occupation of the country by those whom he considers aliens in their own land.
He does not give up the ghost.
Ever moving in mysterious diverse ways, he guides a set of quiet people with determined chins and tight lips to whom he has become a god in flesh and blood.
In his person he combines a force of more than half a dozen Buddhist Congresses and a hundred Y.M.B.A.’s put together.
In the eyes of the country he is one of the honest men we have yet left. He is a power ever to be reckoned with.
When working as a teacher for over twenty-five years at Ananda and Dharmaraja, he became Principal of Ananda. One never thought that this Latin Scholar would become such a crusader in the near future as we saw him organizing carnivals, flattering the rich and begging for donations to build up a great school after it had almost been reduced to ashes. Then no work of criticism passed his lips.
He was the exemplary Guru who evidently had no political opinions. While he never crawled before the high and mighty, he did not prod or probe either.
Once he retired from Ananda, all pent-up feelings, unexpressed grievances and bottled up bitterness seem to have made him into quite another man, a kind of reincarnation of the same old body of a new personality alive with character, pulsating with vigor and unreckoning of pace and energy.
This pedagogue who became a prophet is not without a peculiar sophistication.
Mixed with his load of grievances there is also a burden of suspicion. He walks warily, gingerly, carefully, always on the lookout for conspiracies, plots and mysteries.
If he has to walk on the carpet of a Catholic, he will be careful not to trip over the woven flowers!
If a Catholic asks him the time, Mettananda is apt to think there is some catch in it.
He is disgruntled as a petition, as decided as a Magistrate and as suspicious as a wife.
Of course, Mettananda is a fanatic if revolt without reward, battle without booty and enthusiasm without fulfilment can be summed up in a cheap epithet.
Very few things are achieved by people without fanatism (sic). The great thing is to keep one’s humanity along with one’s fanatism. And that Mettananda achieved in great measure.
If Mettananda examines Buddhist grievances with his magnifying glass without relating them to forces of history his impatience would burst out into religious war to the knife. But he knows more about the background than most of us. His humanity keeps his impatience under perfect control.
He knows that four centuries of Christian chronicity cannot be cured in four years of Buddhist balm.
But the effort is the great thing as far as he is concerned. And one honestly cannot say that his effort has been entirely in vain.
But on the other hand, if Christianity could only make this little headway for four centuries helped by the conquerors with bribes and sword, is it possible for it to make further progress in discriminations and inequities in the future when free democracy rules Ceylon?
Is it not wiser to allow it to fade away through disuse and indifference rather than fight it tooth and nail and perhaps putting it on guard and making it fight back from the last ditch.?
Of course, this is where most people disagree with Mettananda.
If he did not disagree, he would not be Mettananda, the fanatic who disgusts the refined, disturbs the complacent, jars the cultured, but inspires his followers.
This pix shows the Tamil leaders of the day participating in a peaceful satyagraha protest against the Sinhala Only bill in the heart of Colombo on Galle Face Green in 1956. At a further stage they were forcibly removed by Sinhala activists.
My Thoughts on this essay ….. Michael Roberts
DB Dhanapala’s prose is as arresting as punchy. The power is enhanced by his resort to one-line paragraphs. Wham! Bam! Wham!
But does the overall impact not endorse the political agitation of a Sinhala Buddhist fanatic? The fact that his targets, viz., the English-educated upper middle classes, had their shortcomings, does not endorse the extremes to which some of the Sinhala Buddhist campaigners went. These extremes included the downgrading of the other indigenous language, viz, Tamil, in the process of challenging the dominance of English. One illustration was seen in the decision by the MEP coalition led by Bandaranaike to use the sign “Sri” (in Sinhala) on all motor vehicles when it would not have required ingenuity to device a more benign method with calming ecumenical overtones.
So, the photograph of Mettananda stirring a mass of people at Galle Face Green in Colombo in support of Sinhala Only not long before Tamil politicians and satyagrahis assembled at the same location in protest against the Sinhala Only Act were forcibly removed can be linked – linked meaningfully and explosively — to the picture of Sinhalese pedestrians and passers-by assaulting and humiliating a lone Tamil pedestrian on Galle Road in 1958.
This was just one act among a varied cohort of humiliations, assaults and horrible killings that constituted the moment we should identify as the pogrom of 1958 (and not just “the 1958 riots”). It was the first of series, with the “riots of 1977” and the “pogrom of July 1983” compounding the processes which alienated the Tamils of Sri Lanka and generated strands of Tamil militancy which eventually peaked as the Tamil Tigers under one Pirapāharan –as Hitler a monster as Goebbels would have wished for.
Janaka Perera: “L. H. Mettananda. The Forgotten Buddhist Hero,” Daily News, 19 December 2017, https://www.dailynews.lk/2017/12/19/features/137714/lh-mettananda-forgotten-buddhist-hero
Anon: “Celebrating the Life and Work of L. H. Mettananda,” http://www.lhmettananda.com
Tarzie Vittachi: Emergency 1958: The Story of the 1958 Riots, London, Deutsch.
Michael Roberts: “Problems of Social Stratification and the Demarcation of National and Local Elites in British Ceylon” Journal of Asian Studies, 1974, vol 23: 549-577.
Michael Roberts: “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1973,” Nēthra, 6: 199-213.
Michael Roberts: Narrating Tamil Nationalism. Subjectivities & Issues, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications [a review essay reprinted from South Asia, 2004].
Michael Roberts: “Inspirations: Hero Figures And Hitler In Young Pirapāharan’s Thinking,” 10 February 2012, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/inspirations-hero-figures-and-hitler-in-young-pirapaharans-thinking/
Michael Roberts: Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vjitha Yapa Publications, 2014
Dayan Jayatilleka: “Prabhakaran as Neo-Nazi. A Short Response,” 5 February 2012, https://colombotelegraph.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/prabhakaran-as-neo-nazi-a-short-response/