A man for the rule of law he did much for our motherland, here and abroad
H.L. de Silva
It is always an honour to remember a good citizen. It is particularly gratifying to pay homage to a fellow countryman and a patriot of exceptional ability, knowledge and intellect, like H.L. de Silva. There are many reasons for that feeling. You have three eminent speakers today who, I am certain, will speak eloquently to that sentiment. Before I invite them to speak please permit me to make two brief remarks in that regard.
Firstly, to say that H.L. de Silva was one of the most outstanding intellectual power houses in the legal norm setting and practice in SL, would of course be saying the obvious. His colleague and friend S.L. Gunasekera, who is also one of your speakers today, described him as among the last of the greats at the Bar.
We came to know H.L. de Silva and his family when he arrived in New York as our Ambassador to United Nations during the mid 1990s. As Ambassador H.L. went about the business of representing Sri Lanka at the United Nations, the epicentre of multilateral diplomacy. The personal admiration I always had for H.L. de Silva rapidly grew into a friendship, an association characterized by a great deal of common ground in matters of national interest and mutual professional respect.
This was a time when the hot spots of the nascent Diaspora groups that would later turn hostile to Sri Lankan interests, were emerging in the West, particularly in North America. In this backdrop, Ambassador H.L. was in the forefront articulating Sri Lanka’s national interests at different forums at the UN and in other opinion-making bodies in the western world. He did this with the same vigour, skill and commitment with which he argued the interests of his clients, back home. The intellectual depth, analytical skill, knowledge and experience H.L.brought to bear on his legal work here and diplomatic work abroad indeed represented a rare tool box any professional could dream of.
Even rarer was H.L.de Silva’s ability to do all that with a great sense of humility and discretion. In dealing with a multitude of issues on the multilateral agenda at the UN in New York ranging from human rights to terrorism or from sustainable development to humanitarian intervention, H.L. discussed his approach and ideas with us, the career officers, worked on his drafting tirelessly until it became an H.L. de Silva brand product and presented his case substantively and cogently. But he never crowed about what he did in the diplomatic arena. Nor did he believe in the mega-pixel diplomacy we see today, that would embarrass his interlocutor even though he would engage them intensely and substantively within the appropriate forum.
This is quite a contrast to the currently popular models and practices of ‘outpouring’ diplomacy. He instead held that diplomacy by definition is discreet business, and that it has no room for loose- tongued polemics that could of course facilitate political brownies but would do little or nothing to promote national interest.
Embedded in him was a deep sense of citizenship with all it entails -- rights, responsibilities, equity, fairness, justice and above all decency. To try to integrate all that good stuff into an inherently fallible human being can be a humbling experience. H.L.de Silva showed us that it is doable though. It was a rewarding and pleasant personal experience to work with, associate and befriend such a man- a citizen par excellence, and an iconic public servant. Hence my personal gratification for being here today.
Secondly even as we remember the persona of H.L.de Silva , we will also be well advised to remember the powerful message he left behind for us, that is the imperative of the Rule of law, a subject to which H.L.de Silva dedicated almost a lifetime.
What I would call H.L. de Silva’s valedictory volume—the valuable book titled ‘A Nation in Conflict’- which he completed just before he took leave of us, he articulated a clear message about the centrality of the respect for the Rule of Law in ensuring the well being of the nation, its security, integrity and image. This is no easy task even under ideal circumstances. In the highly polarized post conflict environment we find ourselves in today, it will indeed be prudent to heed H.L. de Silva’s call for the respect for the rule of law by all. This is necessary if we are to successfully invest the sacrifices made by the fellow citizens, the brave soldiers and innocent civilians alike, in a process of peace building in order to ensure that we are a nation at peace with itself.
Sri Lanka has a long history of democracy. Recently we have seen democracy making history in some other countries of Asia, and Africa and even in Europe. They have chosen the rule of law in place of the rule of men. We had made that choice much earlier and nurtured it thanks to the enlightened contributions of the likes of H. L. de Silva. The best tribute we can pay to such sons of the soil is for all of us , those who govern and those governed, to recommit ourselves to say an unequivocal yes to the ‘force of rule’ and say a firm no to the ‘rule of force’.
So let us remember H. L. de Silva, a total citizen, whose work of a lifetime was dedicated to a rule-based way forward for this land traumatized by a twofold conflict—a conflict of arms and a conflict of parochial political interests.
(Extracts from a memorial event held at the BCIS on May 4)
A devastating critic who inspired many of us
A generation slowly fades away. The death of Victor Walatara last Tuesday is the latest marker in fixing the boundaries of the Sri Lankan intellectual landscape of the 1950s and 60s as represented in a small way by successive sixth forms of the time at the school by the sea.
As the most influential literature teacher in what STC called its Upper School, Victor was preceded by his illustrious predecessor Dick Hensman. Like Dick, Victor was not just a teacher: he was a philosopher, a mentor, a guru. In his engagement with his sixth formers he brought to the classroom and his favourite venue, the Library, as he did to the Literary and Debating Society, and the editorial discussions of the college magazine, a critical sensibility and philosophical and moral values: the social and literary qualities, that influenced a whole generation of Sri Lankans in public and intellectual life.
Whenever I am exposed to various educational environments in other parts of the world, I think how fortunate we were, in schools like ours, to have such a rounded development. The range and personalities of our teachers were extraordinary. Victor Walatara was a principal intellectual undercurrent beneath it all. In our college form days, when we were often left to our own devices, he was still a bit of a lone and reticent flag bearer, but his impact on students and teachers was always powerful. Later on, I think, he was a major influence on school policy.
As a guide, Victor was a devastating critic. Trained in the Scrutiny-Leavis-Ludowyk school of Practical Criticism in the English Department at Peradeniya, he was amongst the first ‘deconstructionists’ I encountered. Victor would focus on a single word and tear an essay to shreds. But one came away not put down but exhilarated – he set the bar high and the challenge was exciting. Some years later we became friends. He had left his position at the school -- in disappointment or boredom -- and become the manager of the Lake House Bookshop.
He spent a few months with me in England during my early days as a university teacher and researcher. We chatted for nights on end, staying up till dawn, endless cigarettes, coffee, ideas, and gossip.
When I finally returned home in the 70s, his bookshop office and Beach Road home in Mount Lavinia were regular haunts.
Victor was one of the motivating personalities behind my writing career, publishing two of my most read books: Sri Lanka-Island Civilisation and Rock and Wall Paintings. His bookshop office was a meeting point for a wide range of people, his old university colleagues, former students, regular book hunters and persons he described with his characteristic gravity as ‘the serious reader’.
When I returned in 2002 from a long assignment abroad, he had retired, moved, as I recall, with his family to a house they had built far inland in Ratmalana off Attidiya Road. He became progressively reclusive, and was reluctant to get involved in editing projects that I thought could have been a new chapter in his life, most suited to his remarkable and under-utilised abilities and experience. He was a perfect editor but only one project took off. Those were days without email and his house was not easy for a messenger or student to find.
Although often humorous and supportive, Victor was also sceptical and cynical. He saw through any bogus façade or posturing, and frequently painted a grey picture of life. Now, in retirement, his acidity had increased but had also softened. I had many suggestions but he just couldn’t be bothered. The last time I spoke with him, months ago, he mentioned his illness. As I could not easily go myself I asked an equally dear mutual friend from schooldays to make what was for that friend too a long overdue visit to Victor, to see how he was doing and to give him our greetings.
It was with great sadness that old friends heard of Victor’s passing away, many of us some days after it happened. Although he had turned his back on creative ambition, and never pushed forward his remarkable qualities, he had achieved much in the people he influenced and the work he had equipped them to do. I don’t think Victor had any religious beliefs, but if he were able to view his death he would be the first to say that after a long life, he has been liberated from ‘the tragedy of existence and the agony of the senses’.
He brought a breath of fresh air to us at Kingswood College
Ainslie (A.P.) Samarajiva who passed away recently began his career as a teacher when I was a student in the senior classes of Kingswood College, Kandy. He came to the school fresh from the University of Ceylon and quickly established himself as one of the best if not the best of a batch of new teachers who came to the school, some from India and some like Ainslie Samarajiva from Sri Lanka’s own university.
At the time he came to Kingswood the teaching fraternity in the senior classes of the school was in a state, bordering on a crisis of confidence. Students from the school fared badly at the senior public examinations, especially at the University Entrance and Higher School Certificate examinations, if not year after year, at least all too frequently for the good of the school and of its students in the senior classes.
The new teachers were expected to help change all that, in a year or two. For the students including those of us who did not rely on the school’s teachers for their studies for public examinations, any change in the teaching staff was better than a continuation of the old system and some of the old teachers. Among the newcomers Ainslie Samarajiva was truly a breath of fresh air. It did not take him long to win the confidence of the students. To those of us in the higher classes it was clear that he was familiar with the old text books but what was equally important, he introduced us to books not regarded as texts for the public examinations.
I remember how familiar he was with the classics like G. M. Trevelyan’s History of England and H.A.L. Fisher’s History of Europe. The books on the history of India, then in use were not in the same class as those of Trevelyan and Fisher, but we read them carefully under his guidance as we did the few books available on the history of Sri Lanka. Apart from discussions he had with us on the contents of the books mentioned earlier, he took time for informal talks on the latest writings on both British and European history, and on Indian and Sri Lankan history.
At that time nobody really thought of private tuition and tutors. After a few weeks with Ainslie Samarajiva none of us ever thought of extra help with private tutors. He gave us confidence in ourselves and he responded to our cheerful self-confidence by taking care to warn us against over-confidence.
When the public examinations came along the students in the University Entrance and H.S.C. did very well. After a year or two, students from Kingswood were back at the University of Ceylon. A whole lot of the new teachers who came to the school at the same time as Ainslie Samarajiva have to take the credit for this. As for students in history and social sciences none did better for us than Ainslie Samarajiva.
As I left school and set out to go to Colombo and the University of Ceylon I recalled with gratitude his advice to his students at Kingswood—keep your essays as brief as possible and keep the language clear and simple. This sage advice stood with me as I made my way through the University of Ceylon (later the University of Peradeniya), as a student and later as a teacher.
K. M. de Silva
Socially attuned scholar who gave his students a solid academic grounding
PROFESSOR R. M. RANAWEERA BANDA
I met Ranaweera Banda in the early 1970s, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Peradeniya. As one of his sociology teachers, I noted his keenness and capacity to read books on the founding fathers of sociology. Because of a Swabhasa education, it was difficult for a young man like Ranaweera, who came from a rural background, to master English in order to read such books. But his determination drove him to work hard and achieve outstanding academic results.
In the 1980s I was again fortunate to work with him. At the time, he was a Master’s student at the University of Colombo, where he presented an analytical dissertation on rural credit and development. As one of his examiners, I was impressed with his maturity and deep knowledge.
I was living in New Delhi when Ranaweera entered Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1997 to read for an MPhil and a PhD in development sociology. He completed his MPhil in a short time and transferred to doctoral studies. For the third time, I was fortunate to work with him as one of his teachers.
His doctoral thesis was on “Cultural Dynamics and Expert Knowledge.” As one of his thesis examiners, I commented that his thesis made a substantial contribution to the understanding of how culture interacted with development. Certainly, it demonstrated his clear appreciation of the relationship of his own research to the sociology of development and the critique of knowledge in development and modernisation discourses.
I recommended that the thesis be published, as its empirical analysis of rural Sri Lanka’s economy, polity and culture was of great relevance to development policy and planning.
I had several long-term writing projects with Ranaweera, and one of them was to develop his PhD thesis into a book. I intend to complete the revision and rewriting of the book and publish it. Gravely ill and in great pain, he still displayed a desire to learn and debate on contemporary social issues. As recently as January 2012, he talked of writing a research piece on the paddy sector and its stagnation.
At our last meeting, he said he was well prepared to face his fate. He added that he had no regrets. This was because of the simple and honest life he had lived. Professor Ranaweera was a great teacher. His students knew he was dedicated to imparting his vast knowledge. They also knew that what they learned from him was the best sociology one could expect to learn at a university.
Teachers such as Professor Ranaweera are now rare at Sri Lankan universities, and he has certainly set an example. In addition to being a great scholar and a popular teacher, he was also a good administrator. At the University of Matara, as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, he performed his duties diligently and with great responsibility.
Professor Ranaweera was a loyal friend, a kind teacher, a loving husband and a devoted father. With his untimely death, Sri Lanka has lost an erudite scholar.
Dr. Jayantha Perera