To an older generation of Sri Lankans the name Neville Jayaweera would need no introduction. Most of those who will ultimately read this book would do so, not so much for its provocative title, but more because Neville Jayaweera has written it. Jayaweera belonged to an elite corps of public servants designated “Civil Servants”, who [...]

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Jaffna-”Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision”

An autobiographical reflection by Neville Jayaweera. Reviewed by Anura Gunasekera

To an older generation of Sri Lankans the name Neville Jayaweera would need no introduction. Most of those who will ultimately read this book would do so, not so much for its provocative title, but more because Neville Jayaweera has written it.

Jayaweera belonged to an elite corps of public servants designated “Civil Servants”, who had been recruited through a notoriously difficult open competitive exam. Most of them had First or Second (Upper) degrees, and never numbered more than 150 officers out of a total public service of 250,000 at that time and were the crème de la crème of the University. In truth, they were the silent men behind the scenes who actually ran the country, at least pre-1970. Consequently, they tended to be arrogant and elitist, which made them unpopular with the new breed of post 1956 politicians. However, the majority of them were genuinely “civil”, “highly educated”, “cultured” and totally committed to the core principles of public service. It was an era when the term “Civil Servant” generally signified class and quality, efficiency, and integrity, a world apart from the public service of today.

Until the decline set in -post 1970-, the CCS epitomised scholarship and intellectual excellence, as illustrated by Jayaweera’s research on the Tamil caste system, carried out whilst meeting the exacting demands of being GA of Jaffna between 1963 and 1965. It is a body of work which further enriches a brilliant tradition of scholarship reaching back to the early nineteenth century, established by the works of Sir William Twynam, George Tourner, R.D. Childers, Rhys Davids, H.W.Codrington, Emerson Tennent and W.T. Stace, to mention just a few.

The Preface, by Susil Sirivardana, a colleague of Jayaweera’s in the service, and the Foreword by Dr. Michael Roberts, provide comprehensive analyses of the book’s contents. Therefore, this review seeks merely to direct the attention of the public to a publication which is a personal memoir, a political analysis of past events and, also, a prediction for the possible direction of future events.
In the context of the strife which has engulfed this country in the last three decades, this book is essential reading. It offers the personal point of view of a man, who was a protagonist in events in the North during a critical stage in the evolution of Sinhala/ Tamil relations, events which were accurate precursors of the nightmare to follow twenty years later. It is the recounting of recent Sri Lankan history by a man who was a ringside observer in its unfolding, and one who also made a significant personal contribution to the moulding of epochal events.

All conflicts, whether internecine, international or global, have long histories. Their evolution and development is very visible and, in a final analysis, traceable back to specific origins. Ours was homegrown, internecine and apart from intermittent external influences, particularly in the last three decades, internally generated and fuelled by knavish political policy and obduracy and hypocrisy on both sides. I would ask all readers to peruse the Prologue to this book with care and attention. It summarises, in logical and chronological sequence, why and how the conflict was inevitable.

As much as conflicts have histories of evolution, at any point in their development they are capable of being arrested and the core issues amenable to resolution, given intelligent and pragmatic decision making and integrity of political vision. As Jayaweera traces the history of our conflict, he also clearly highlights the wasted opportunities for resolving it; opportunities frittered away by successive governments and articulators of Tamil aspirations. Pirubhakaran, the LTTE and the ensuing carnage was the logical consequence of this intransigence and insincere posturing by both sides.

Many Sri Lankan governments in recent times, particularly the current one, have tried to portray the national conflict as mere terrorism against a democratically elected government. It is a convenient position to hold, in that it provides a justification for the military repression of reasonable dissent, even in the future. The dissent in the North did degenerate in to terrorism, practised occasionally by the state as well, but it was essentially ethnic in origin. Jayaweera’s book clearly places its ethnic nature and content in proper perspective.

The contribution made to the development of the conflict by the obduracy of decades of Sinhala leadership, accepted by some and denied by many, is projected by Jayaweera through many concrete and undeniable examples. However, what is more interesting, though perhaps less commonly discussed by political commentators, is Jayaweera’s analysis of the caste-conscious culture of the North, which posited the hegemony of the Vellalar segment in Northern society, which ultimately provoked the violent assertion of underclass discontent and aspirations.

As Susil Sirivardana writes in his preface,” Jayaweera’s work on the Tamil caste system and Hinduism is a monumental piece of research deserving recognition in its own right, as a substantial document that that adds lustre to the old CCS. Jayaweera has brought to the CCS a rare intellectuality and a spiritual depth that kept its reputation for class and quality aflutter, even as its great 150 year old tradition was being laid to rest by the new political culture”.

As Jayaweera says unequivocally, for four decades successive Sinhala governments have been negotiating on Tamils’ issues with the wrong Tamils. They spoke to the few highly educated, heavily Anglicised and privileged members of the Tamil ‘upper crust’, a small minority of Tamil society, perhaps in ignorance of the majority underclass segment which, in reality , was the true face of the problem. As he points out, the political frontline of the Tamil position then consisted of prominent Tamils who had migrated South decades before, and having profited immensely – socially, professionally and financially – by this move, become estranged from the realities of the issues of their less fortunate brethren in the North.

Jayaweera’s position on this issue is reinforced by his experiences in personal negotiations on behalf of this marginalised segment of Northern Tamil society, particularly in the “Temple Entry issue”, in which the privileged Tamil segment proved as intractable and as incapable of compromise, as successive Sinhala governments have been in the case of larger Tamil issues.

Memoirs of people who have occupied positions of power and influence, especially in the public sector, tend to be, not infrequently, justifications for their own questionable actions, vehicles for self-aggrandisement or a means for the sanctification of the disreputable conduct of their more powerful masters. This is a genre which has produced many tedious and sanitised portrayals of genuinely controversial personalities and tumultuous events. Therefore, it is a relief, and a pleasure, to read an account which is an objective and impartial presentation of events and people, delivered sans offence and with polish. Jayaweera has clearly proved that it is, indeed, possible to present painful truths without calling a spade a shovel.

In the re-telling of his personal experiences as a senior public servant, Jayaweera has woven a rich tapestry of places, people and events, lending perspective and historical and administrative background to an existing national profile. It is also an urgent plea to those who now make decisions, to re-think the ongoing political process, lest a fusion of emerging forces result, “in a threat to the government in Colombo, no less formidable than the threat that the LTTE has posed”. Notwithstanding current government perception, such a future threat may not be amenable to a military solution.

Apart from aspects related to the Sinhala-Tamil issue, Jayaweera opens interesting windows to other, equally significant events in recent Sri Lankan political history. His comments on the background to the emergence of the JVP and the relevance of the Official Languages Act is an aspect either neglected, or ascribed marginal importance by many political commentators, who generally tend to place weightage on the dialectical aspects of the JVP’s Marxian credo. The impact of the uncompromising implementation of the Official Languages Act on Sinhala/Tamil relations – notwithstanding the essential rationality of the Act- needs no elaboration. In this context, “Language as a Tool of Oppression”, is a very apt expression.

The presentation of “The N.Q.Dias Factor “, as a pivotal force in moulding both national and foreign policy then, and as a forerunner to the current national political profile and foreign policy direction, is indeed fascinating. It may have been common knowledge in the corridors of power then but perhaps not publicly acknowledged; certainly, it is no longer known or has been forgotten. It was then an administrative milieu in which dedicated and competent bureaucrats advised politicians and, either for good or ill, actually guided the course of government policy. A perfect example is the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s personal and secret authorisation- in response to Jayaweera’s proposal- for the reversal of the Sinhala Only policy in the North. This three-language policy, unobtrusively launched and administered in the North by Jayaweera in 1963, was legitimised in 1987 through the 13th Amendment, but only after much blood-letting on both sides.

The publication of this book at this juncture in our political history is most timely as it carries an urgent plea for the Rulers, that we heed the lessons of history and re-envision the course for the future. The tragedy is that history is directional and the consequences of actions both predictable and inevitable. The insensitive implementation of the Sinhala only policy, as analyzed comprehensively by Jayaweera, clearly demonstrates the manner in which a policy designed to redress an imbalance between the English educated North and a similarly privileged Southern minority, and the majority Sinhala only South, did more to marginalise the intended beneficiaries and eventually contributed in large measure to both the LTTE and the JVP uprisings.

Let me quote what I consider to be Neville’s core message ;

“More than the power it derives from an overwhelming superiority in numbers, what exalts any majority community, and endows it with a true greatness and moral authority, is its willingness to accord to all those other communities who lack the advantage of numbers, a status and dignity equal to its own, and never let them feel marginalised or disadvantaged because they are fewer in number, or because they are different in colour or beliefs.

Unless and until Sri Lanka can produce leaders who can realise that truth, and are willing to act on it, it will continue to be mired in conflict,” ( Page 175)

The reality is both the inability and the reluctance of our leaders to embrace that higher vision. Incontrovertible proof of such intransigence is the implicit support extended by the State to militant Sinhala-Buddhist fronts which are seeking to impose an apartheid between the majority and minority communities in this country, as cruel, senseless and as morally unacceptable as that which existed in South Africa.

In conclusion I quote another passage, a prophecy which warns of tragic consequences;

“……Given the elements that comprise Mahinda Rajapaksa’s consciousness, such a transformation in the southern consciousness is not likely to happen. What is more likely is that Rajapaksa will stoke the southern supremacist consciousness and lead the country in a downward spiral in to a deeper and wider conflict. Rather than promote a transformation of consciousness leading to reconciliation and a new beginning, he might generate circumstances that will suck India in to the conflict again. If that happens, we might witness an outcome which successive governments in Colombo had fought a horrific thirty year war to avoid- namely, the eventual partition of Sri Lanka.” (page 220).

The present regime, having won a military conflict internally, is now besieged by forces which have internationalised the many immoral and amoral aspects of its post-victory conduct and style of governance. It is now fighting a war which it can never win militarily. May I, on my own, add that those who have their backs to the wall, are unable to read the writing on the wall.
For those serious readers who are genuinely interested in the evolution of the current Sri Lankan political profile, this book offers valuable substance. It is informative, educational and amusing, a combination of features only a clever writer can harness in their proper proportions. They are the views of a man who witnessed events from inside out, as against the professional political analyst who sees them from outside in. His positions are also supported by diligent, scholarly research and sources which are clearly both reliable and authoritative.

At a paltry Rs. 500/- per copy, the book is great value for money and is obtainable at “Ravaya”, 83, Piliyandala Rd., Maharagama ( Tel; 0112896330/112851672-73). Victor Ivan has provided a fine service to the discerning reading public of this country.

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