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Why Sirimavo refused to visit Jaffna after 1964 cyclone

By Neville Jayaweera

In the last week of December 1964 a cyclone of unprecedented ferocity devastated the Northern Province. The fishing villages of Myliddy, Kankesanturai, Point Pedro, Nargakovil and several areas within the Jaffna district were reduced to a wilderness of sand dunes, stagnant salt water and windswept debris. In the Myliddy fishing village alone, several hundreds lost their lives at sea. The Collector of Ramnad District in SE Tamil Nadu (India) contacted me to say that over 200 bodies had been washed ashore there and he had no alternative but to order mass cremations on the sea shore in order to halt the spread of disease. Throughout the Jaffna District the Kalavoham crop ( the main paddy crop ) was wiped out and hundreds of fishing boats were reduced to matchwood. The distress was appalling.

TCNJ0118.jpgWhen the cyclone struck, my wife and I were in Colombo on Christmas vacation and I had no way of returning to station. The Palaly Airport had been rendered unserviceable and it took me 36 hours, making tortuous detours along the way, round fallen trees and broken culverts, through Puttalam and Anuradhapura, to get back to Jaffna. Eventually, it was R. M. B. Senanayake, my colleague and GA of Vavuniya, who helped my wife and me to get back to base, by placing at our disposal a Land Rover and a driver.

On reaching Jaffna I found conditions were horrendous. Our resources were limited, having no heavy machinery for clearing roads and for rescuing people buried under fallen houses. Everything had to be done by hand and we were hard put to it, to bring relief and succour to hundreds of sorrowing families. All public services, particularly the PWD and the Irrigation Department, and my DROs and village headmen, suspended their normal work and mobilising to a man, struggled valiantly to bring some order out of the chaos. One of the first services to be restored was the telephone link to Colombo.

Call to the Prime Minister

In a personal call I made to Mrs. Bandaranaike at Temple Tress, giving her the grim picture, I pleaded that she should visit the devastated areas immediately. I told her that she should demonstrate to the people of Jaffna that she was indeed the Prime Minister of the whole country and that the Tamil people were as much her people as were the people in the South. I also pointed out that it was a magnificent opportunity for her to heal the long running wounds and to make a new beginning. She listened to me without betraying any feeling and said she will consult her advisors and let me know.

Not content with my personal pleas to the Prime Minister, I also asked my brother Stanley Jayaweera who had close personal links to her, to impress on her the utmost need for her to visit her people in Jaffna at this time of their dire need. Stanley had done exactly as I had asked him to, but her rejoinder to him shattered me.

Referring to the effigy burning that accompanied the abortive Secessionist Campaign an year earlier, she had said,

"Huh! Why should I go to them now, if they burnt my effigy a few months ago. If they did not want me then they must not expect me to come to them now."

Her response filled me with dismay and a deep sadness. It was not just that she failed to respond to her people’s anguish, but the realisation dawned on me that Sri Lanka as a nation had no leader. It was as if the Prime Minister of the country had consciously renounced responsibility for one fourth of her country’s population! Not least, the high esteem in which I had held her after meeting her on several occasions, plummeted.

The US Ambassador Cecil Lyon and the Canadian High Commissioner James George, both sent personal emissaries to condole with the people of Jaffna, and proffer whatever help was within their means to render. I realized of course that their gestures were expressions of goodwill, rather than concrete offers of assistance.

Having decided not to visit her people in their distress, the Prime Minister opted to send the Governor General, William Gopallawa and her Perm. Secr. Mr. N. Q. Dias, along with General Udugama and Admiral Rajan Kadirgamar, to deputize for her. It was a delegation which, though high on rank and heavily weighted with brass, was politically offensive, for what could be more insensitive than sending N. Q. Dias and General Udugama, both names that were symbols of oppression in the minds of the Tamil people, to represent her! The response of the local people was eloquent and scathing. As the Governor General’s convoy drove slowly through all the devastated areas, literally not one local, not even one of the grieving widows, stepped out to meet them. The silence was eerie and overpowering. It was like driving through a graveyard.

It is easy to judge Mrs. Bandaranaike as unforgiving, petty, petulant and paranoid, all of which she probably was, but I also believe that her reaction was symptomatic of a deeper malaise and that she was manifesting attributes that were more than merely personal to her. She was also a creature and victim of a cultural ethos, deeply rooted in her history, of which she was not even aware, which of course does not exculpate her, but helps us to understand the problem at a more complex level. The capacity to transcend peer pressure and one’s inherited culture, and construct one’s own cultural environment based on a set of universal values, such as the Brahma Viharas or the Fruits of the Spirit, ( love, kindness, forgiveness, equanimity, joy and peace) is vouchsafed only to a minuscule few, and clearly Mrs Banadaranike was not one of the few.

Consciousness and the constitution

The disturbing thought began to dawn on me that, none of the politicians of Sri Lanka, whether Sinhala or Tamil, seemed able to transcend their cultural conditioning and historical memories. Worse still, none of them seemed to have any concept of a fully integrated and harmonious Sri Lankan nation, and much less, of how to achieve it, the operative concept here being "nation". Most of them had a vibrant sense of Sinhalaness on one hand, or of Tamilness on the other, but both sides lacked a sense of a Sri Lankaness as a common ground. They seemed to ignore the stark facts of history, which, whether they liked it or not, had over the centuries, constituted Sri Lanka as a mosaic of diverse ethnic groups and religions. That mosaic was a given and irreversible. What Sri Lanka seemed to lack were leaders who could weld those diverse groups into a harmonious polity.

The politicians of all parties, both in the North as well as in the South seemed to reduce the problem of nation building to a constitutional issue - should Sri Lanka have a Unitary Constitution or a Federal Constitution. They did not see nation building as having to do with the more fundamental question of raising consciousness, and forgot that in the absence of a unified consciousness, constitutions by themselves cannot integrate a society, whatever checks and balances may be built into them.

Since the close of WW2 all constitutions dispensed by experts all over the world and handed down to former colonies by the erstwhile masters disappeared from the political landscape within a few decades, proving that, to really work, a constitution must embody the consciousness of the whole national community. The primary task facing a nation’s leaders must therefore be to help develop that consciousness as a necessary condition of a constitution’s viability.

Building a deseeya cintanaya

Building a consciousness of nationhood, or a deseeya cintanaya, is not a responsibility that can be left to politicians and constitutional lawyers. A deseeya chintanaya cannot be legislated, nor can it be secured through structural changes. Unlike a jathika cintanaya, whether Sinhala or Dhamila, which have roots reaching back over two thousand years, the seeds of a deseeya cintanaya have yet to be planted.

It is pre-eminently an educational task, to be initiated at the level of our schools. It requires a new way of looking at history, and helping young minds climb out of the constraints placed on their understanding by the sectarian myths, legends, and memories that are embedded in their ancient chronicles, whether they relate to their Aryan origins or to their Dravidian origins. This does not mean that children should be ignorant of, much less that they should reject, their rich historical inheritance, but that they should acquire a more global view of history and be equipped with a critical sense that will enable them to stand back and look at their respective narratives more objectively.

Building a deseeya chintanaya is a task that also devolves on Civil Society - on artists, novelists and poets, on intellectuals, on film producers, on writers of lyrics and songs, on religious leaders, and on the NGO network. Most of all, it is a task that should be undertaken by newspapers and journalists, who rather than sow to sectarian emotions, should open the minds of their readers to a broader and deeper vision of social reality.

On the other hand, if these agents of Civil Society are themselves not imbued with a deseeya chintanaya, no amount of constitution making and no amount of structural surgery can ever achieve it.

The point I am trying to make here is that our preoccupation with constitution making, whether to have a Unitary or a Federal constitution, whether to devolve and how much to devolve, misses the point. In fact, they are escape routes from reality. The reality is that in the absence of a consciousness of nationhood, constitution making is a spurious game. Constitutions do not create social reality but only reflect it. On this point I also demur from classical Marxist theory which claims that economic relations are the primary determinants of social and political relations. Marxists forget that even bringing social and political relations into sync with the underlying economic relations requires the re-engineering of consciousness, or as Paulo Frère pointed out, the "consciencetisation" of the people, which is a rather convoluted form of saying that transforming the consciousness of the people is primary.

Where there is no underlying consciousness of nationhood, constitutions and structures that claim to ensure it serve only to conceal its absence. They are merely forms without substance.

The missing X factor

So, what has been that absent X factor in shaping Sri Lanka’s consciousness as a nation? I believe that the missing X factor is leadership. More than any other single factor, it is leadership that catalyses separateness into unity, and conflict into harmony, and it requires a great leader to carry a society from tribalism to nationhood.

Sri Lanka’s inability to produce leaders who combined a great vision with moral stature, has been crucial. I believe that Sri Lanka’s leadership poverty, its lack of men and women who had caught the grander view, who could rise above the compulsions of opportunistic politics and who could envision the good of the whole country as opposed to the advantage of this or that ethnic group or this or that party, has been fundamental.

The primary commitment of the vast majority of our politicians has been to their respective sectarian constituencies, whether Sinhala or Tamil, rather than to the nation as a whole, and given Sri Lanka’s demographic structure, whoever stokes majoritarian emotions will always exercise power over the whole country, whereas whoever puts the nation first is likely to pass into political oblivion!

Ironically, as a nation, Sri Lanka has never had a constituency or a leader. This paradox can be resolved only under two conditions. Firstly, the people’s consciousness has to be raised and widened to encompass the whole nation as its domain, but since that is likely to take several decades, or even a century, rather than years, there must simultaneously emerge one or more leaders who can rise above their narrow constituency perspectives and be able to catalyze the fragmented ethnic and religious groups into a unity.

Concerning leadership

Broadly, there are two types of political leaders.

The commonest are those who have sensed the dominant mood of the people, the zeit geist, and ride it to power, like surfers ride the waves. They are the sectarian populists. Not being rooted in a set of values, and lacking a higher vision, they do not question the morality of the dominant mood, much less seek to transform it, and once ensconced in office, using all the state apparatus at their disposal, seek only to magnify it. Lacking moral goals higher than attaining or remaining in power, they are quite willing to sacrifice the nation and the long term good of the very people who brought them to power, at the altar of their ambitions. As they hurry the nation in a disintegrating downward spiral, their sectarian constituency cheers them on, and lacking any criteria by which to judge themselves or their constituency, they cease to be true leaders of the nation and become instead tribal chieftains.

The second type of leader is those who, having caught a vision of a civilized society, try to objectify it. Their take off point is not the mass but the vision, and their constant reference frame are the attributes of that higher moral order, viz .fundamental rights, righteousness, equality, justice, integrity, fairness, harmony and peace. The dominant paradigm will always resist any attempt by that higher order to intrude upon its sectarian domain, but the test of a great leader is his willingness to dilute into it those elevated attributes, so that they may start working as catalysts, like salt works in a bowl of soup. Seeing that there is a huge gap between the higher vision he is trying to objectify and the sectarian consciousness in which he is trapped, the great leader tries to bridge the gap by upgrading the latter. He starts paddling upstream, against the torrent. Sadly, such leaders belong to a miniscule minority.

My experiences in Jaffna in the mid 1960s prompted me that Sri Lanka was light years away from attaining nationhood, and the events of the decades that followed have fully confirmed that conviction. As I said earlier on, Mrs Bandaranaike’s refusal to visit her people in Jaffna in December 1964 when they were in deep distress, was more than a personal dereliction. It was symptomatic of a deep underlying national disorder. It is not without significance that since Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawela visited Jaffna in 1955, not a single incumbent Prime Minister or President, with the exception of Mr. Dudley Senanayake (n the 1965-70 govt.) has visited Jaffna. (I am open to be corrected here) It looks as if for over 55 years the Head of the Sri Lankan state has renounced responsibility for one quarter of the country’s people! Is it a wonder then that those who are thus disowned and renounced seek to set themselves up separately and go their own way?

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 to let them feel marginalized 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 realize that truth, and are willing to act on it, it will continue to be dismembered by conflict, long after the LTTE and Pirabhikaran have passed into history.

(Neville Jayaweera is a former Government Agent of Jaffna. The above article , extracted from his forthcoming book of memoirs, was published in the “Sunday Island” of Jan 18th 2009)

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