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8th August 1999

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A tribute to a scholar of our times

History and Politics: Millennial Perspectives
Essays in Honour of Kingsley de Silva.
Reviewed by Dr. Sarath Amunugama

Professor Kingsley de Silva is an emblematic figure, typifying the best of Sri Lankan university education. When the leaders of the national university movement of pre-independence Sri Lanka envisaged its products 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," they must have thought of graduates such as Kingsley de Silva. He has been continuously associated with Sri Lankan university life for close on 50 years as student, teacher, researcher, policy-maker and reformer. It is a record of service which has hardly ever been equalled both in this country and overseas.

The publication under review is a festschrift of 26 essays by his students, friends, colleagues- all admirers of Kingsley de Silva's magnificent endeavour. In both scope and quality these essays constitute a fitting tribute to a scholar whose meticulous research and lucidity of literary style have contributed much to our understanding of colonial and post-colonial history of Sri Lanka and South Asia.

There are three themes in this festschrift around which its essays are grouped. They are conceptual issues relating to problems of development in Third World countries, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and aspects of ethnic conflict in flashpoints of the subcontinent. All these themes, particularly the latter two, have been, in fact, the focus of many of Professor de Silva's writings.

Most of the essays on Sri Lankan subjects deal with political conflict particularly the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict with special emphasis on the role of Buddhist organisations. Essays by Sirima Kiribamune, Michael Roberts, K. N. O. Dharmadasa, Ananda Wickremeratne, Neelan Tiruchelvam and John Holt attempt to grapple with this question which has, unlike in the time of the studies by Gananath Obeyesekere and S. J. Tambiah, a few decades ago, become more complex and multi-faceted. Following Kingsley de Silva's recent criticism of Obeyesekere's concept of Protestant Buddhism primarily on the grounds of its ahistoricism, many other scholars have tended to delve into colonial and post-colonial history to test some of the sociological conclusions which set the stage of ethnic studies in Sri Lanka. However, while cultural factors among the Sinhalese have been emphasised, structural factors such as the forms of political representation have not been examined in detail. For example, while some commentators have referred to the consequences of majoritarianism, it was only Kingsley de Silva who has demonstrated the growing sectarianism and particularism as a result of the introduction of the so-called territorial constituencies which are, as Governor Henry McCallum pointed out to Whitehall, communal seats because of the ethnic composition of the electors. Thus, many Christian members of the first State Council suddenly saw the light and became Buddhists by the time of the elections for the second State Council in 1936. The shift of religion was followed by appeals to the religio-nationalist sentiments of the respective electorates.

While most of the contributors have drawn attention to this shift in general terms, we have yet to see a detailed analysis of the electoral workings at ground level the type of work which was initiated by Jannice Jiggins. Through the latter type of analysis we might have seen the societal underpinnings of voting patterns, and the combinations and decombinations of which, lead to policy changes at national level. What were the social factors which persuaded parties and their leaders to forsake common sense and set themselves on the path to ethnic conflict and economic disaster? How is it that at every decisive moment the Sri Lankan political system prevents a resolution of conflict?

As K. N. O. Dharmadasa, Ananda Wickremeratne and Michael Roberts mention, we are still at a loss to understand the detailed working of the Tamil electoral system. Though there have been a few studies by Hellman Rajanayagam, for example, we cannot trace the factors that led to the murderous assaults on both the radical and liberal wings of the Tamil parliamentary parties. My view is that our ethnic representational system though called "territorial representation" traps both Sinhalese and Tamil parties into extreme communalist positions, which is, in fact, a prediction that was offered to the somewhat naive Donoughmore and, later, Soulbury Commissions.

I remember Kingsley de Silva introducing to us when we were undergraduates at Peradeniya the writings of Geoffrey Barraclough. In his review of Churchill's History of the English-Speaking People, Barraclough states that the grandiose view of history is not only inaccurate but dangerous for an island nation. Sri Lanka has also had its share of grandiose and inaccurate histories.

It was Kingsley de Silva's magnificent task to bring us to our senses in his scholarly pursuit of history.

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