UNITED NATIONS -- When Patrice Lumumba, the first and only elected prime minister of the Congo, was assassinated in January 1961, the repercussions of the still unresolved killing were felt almost in the corridors of the usually-rebellious Marrs Hall dorm at Peradeniya.
The LSSP faction on campus, (generically known as Trotskyites), along with members of the Communist Party (read: Marxists), decided to hold a meeting in Kandy to denounce Lumumba's brutal murder.
Led by a vibrantly active Trotskyite group at Marrs (we were called Marrtians to distinguish ourselves from intergalactic Martians from the planet Mars), we marched all the way to Kandy carrying placards denouncing imperialism and shouting slogans against the Brits, the Portuguese and the Belgians -- all hardened colonialists of that era.
|Governor Ward’s statue in Kandy. Courtesy greatmirror.com
It was a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon and the marchers included a motley crowd of about a hundred self-styled leftists, socialists, liberalists, anarchists, atheists, elitists and Islamists, along with hardcore Marxists.
As a self-confessed Marxist myself, I was known to follow Groucho, not Karl. But that was another story.
Unbeknownst to most of us, one of the marchers, a Marrtian to boot, was carrying a shoulder bag apparently with a hidden weapon, as it later transpired.
The meeting was at the foot of the bronze statue of Governor Henry Ward majestically perched on a horse and holding an imperial sword: perhaps the ultimate symbol of colonialist pride.
After the customary speeches, both praising Lumumba and reviling colonialists (one of the speakers was a British lecturer on loan to the English department at that time), came the grand finale, even as speakers and demonstrators were drenched in a sudden blast of rain. But no one ran for shelter as they braved the heavy downpour.
One of the Trotskyite leaders, currently domiciled in Canada, unzipped the shoulder bag and pulled out the weapon meant to bring down the Ward statue: a heavy rope (or so he thought) traditionally used in a tug of war.
One of the marchers climbed onto the statue and placed the rope round Ward's neck, tightened the noose on the Governor, and threw the rest of the rope to the crowd below amidst loud cheers (but still with no cops in sight).
And then began the tug-o'-war (a popular sporting event at campus athletic meets those days); this time it was not Ramanathan vs Marcus Fernando, or Marrs vs Arunachalam, but Ward vs the Rest.
The "Rest" included some of the tough guys on campus -- award winning wrestlers, boxers, body builders and even a staggering array of muscle-bound finalists leftover from the "Mr Campus" contest.
But unfortunately, the campus supermen were no match for Ward, who stood still, while they heaved and heaved determined to bring down the statue in pelting rain. The Governor remained unmoved.
Suddenly, the rope snapped, as the entire tug-o'-war team collapsed on a rainy street much to the amusement of spectators watching the drama unfold before their eyes.
Score one for Governor Ward.
Frustrated at the inability to bring down an imposing symbol of colonialism, one of the marchers climbed the statue again, this time to twist the Governor's sword and bend it beyond recognition.
Score one for the Trotskyites and Marxists.
Mercifully, in the absence of any cops within hooting distance, no one was charged either with vandalism or attempting to destroy public property.
And thereby hangs a Campus tale...
(Deen, who graduated from the Peradeniya campus with a Bachelor's Degree in Economics and later a Master's Degree in Journalism at Columbia University in New York, is currently the UN Bureau Chief for Inter Press Service news agency)