At a research conference on contemporary political affairs of South Asia conducted in Delhi some years ago, an elderly scholar of global repute said: “In independent India’s first parliament, there were forty-two authors of important writings but my friends (stage-whisper following a theatrical pause) in the present Lōk Sabha, it would be difficult to find forty-two who have read a book”.
This hyperbolic show of cynical contempt came to mind when, a few days ago, I received a copy of Wimal Weerawansa’s recently published Sinhalese monograph because, barring the occasional newspaper commentary on current affairs, there has only been a barely perceptible scattering of books authored by those in parliamentary politics over the 70-year spell of independent Sri Lanka. Works comparable in content and intent to, say, D.S. Senanayake’s Agriculture and Patriotism, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s Spinning Wheel and the Paddy Field, Wilmot A. Perera’s Problems of Rural Ceylonor S.A. Wickremasinghe’s Path Ahead, have remained a distant memory. Thus, with several thought-provoking publications already to his credit, Weerawansa ranks among the rare exceptions of the recent past.
It is the glowing tribute in the ‘Foreword’ by our illustrious writer Gunadasa Amarasekara that has served as the impulse for me to begin reading Ratata Uvamanā Vamawithout delay instead of depositing it among my souvenirs. That turned out to be an absorbing experience on the basis of which I have no hesitation in stating that Weerawansa’s book is featured by a level of clarity of thought, scholarly erudition and potential impact seldom seen in Sinhala writings of this type of ‘non-fiction’ works including those that have come my way in the form of manuscripts for review and post-graduate dissertations for evaluation. It is this fact that impels me to write the present review. My objective is to introduce to our bilingual readership a work vitally relevant to an understanding of the deepening crisis of governance which, in the absence of a genuine coalescence of socialist and nationalist forces, will imperil the very survival of Sri Lanka.
At the outset of his discourse, Weerawansa indicates where he stands in our spectrum of political ideology by reiterating his ardent commitment to a socialist path of development which is based, not upon any doctrinal ism or dogma, but on the social-welfare paradigms of the indigenous civilisation of Sri Lanka maintained over several millennia until its contamination by European colonial intrusions of late-medieval times. According to Weerawansa (to continue my paraphrase in highly condensed form), while the ‘Old Left’ lost its way in its rigid adherence to one or another interpretation of Marxism and eventually became an appendage of neo-liberal ideology propagated by the global superpowers, the JVP which acquired a dominant position in Sri Lanka’s ‘Left’ during the recent decades has opted for a show of conducting a fierce”anti-corruption struggle” in preference to the traditional “anti-imperialist struggle” prescribed in Marxist theory, has also ended up entangled in the same camp as the Colombo-based NGO mafia lucratively serving the interests of the major Western powers while maintaining a façade of radicalism and impartiality by performing, in day-to-day local politics, a supposedly constructive role dealing mainly with ephemeral issues.
In a short review conforming to the usual newspaper length-specifications, it is not possible to provide a summary of the contents of this tightly packed volume. What Weerawansa has done in a series of impressionist sweeps begins with a brief introduction to ‘Imperialism’ and the origin of modern ‘Nation-States’ in which he has captured in essence the scramble among imperial powers, then and now, for subjugating Sri Lanka mainly for the immeasurable value of the island as a prime ‘locational’ resource. Of special interest in this section of the monograph is the analysis of how this scramble resonates at present in the geopolitical interactions of the NATO super-powers and the Asian regional powers, the predatory interests especially of the former and of Modi’s India being camouflaged by bogus humanitarian concerns. Thereafter, Weerawansa proceeds to furnish glimpses of the ‘revolutionary socialist’ experiences of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, highlighting their achievements and failures (in the case of the USSR, its collapse) with references mainly to the contrasting durability of their civilisational paradigms of governance.
In my assessment, Weerawansa’s vivid portrayal of the harmony between the social-welfare paradigms of Thēravāda Buddhist teachings and the principles of equity and distributive justice inherent in socialism is one of the most appealing sections of this volume
It is in the next four chapters of his book that the author comes to grips with the thematic essence of his discourse. Commencing with a critique of the ‘Left’ as represented by the JVP in Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics, he has proceeded to forcefully argue that its present leadership, in its preoccupation with the pursuit of short-term personal gain, has lost the capacity to grasp the nature of the prevailing threats to our nation, not realising that the role it has opted to perform has the effect of reinforcing such threats. What I see in this section of the discourse is a reasoned appeal for course-correction, rather than a confrontational condemnation̶ a plea addressed to the ‘Left’ ̶ in which the author has highlighted:(a) the diverse forms of insidious external support received by the LTTE in its secessionist campaign, (b) the sustained ‘human rights’ onslaught against Sri Lanka after the demise of the battle-field leadership of the LTTE, (c) the continuing ‘neo-liberal’ hostility towards the Sangha and its role in our arena of politics and (d) the ongoing attempts to denigrate the normative social-welfare paradigms of Buddhism as practiced down the ages in Sri Lanka.
In my assessment, Weerawansa’s vivid portrayal of the harmony between the social-welfare paradigms of Thēravāda Buddhist teachings and the principles of equity and distributive justice inherent in socialism is one of the most appealing sections of this volume. Sri Lankan experiences demonstrate with clarity that deviations from our civilisational value framework under exogenous compulsions-ideological and material-have generated intense social unrest and instability in our country, similar to those witnessed in a series of Nation States of North Africa and the Middle East targeted by the duplicitous NATO efforts supposedly “to make the world safe for democracy”. The mass of empirical evidence presented in support of this assertion is, indeed, a cause of amazement when looked at in the context of the emotional and physical hardships of incarceration and political persecution suffered by the author during the writing of his discourse. It is also seen that his submissions constitute, in effect, an elucidation of Amarasekera’s Subhyathva Rājyaya Karā (Towards a Civilizational State), published last year, which pioneered the idea that the Sri Lankan ‘welfare state’ is a derivative of the intrinsic civilisational paradigms nurtured down the ages in our country, rather than a colonial implantation shaped by the utilitarian principle of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”.
It is for the purpose of substantiating the assertion of an absence of discordance between Marxist and Buddhist socio-political thought that Weerawansa has engaged in a relatively long presentation of comparative perspectives on a range of issues such as the nature of primitive man; origins of human social organisation; emergence of private property rights over sources of livelihood and its adverse social impact (crime, vice, violence avariciousness etc.); individualism and communitarianism; the evolution of government; and the curtailment of crime. Based as it is onboth extracts from a selection of early Buddhist texts and a few related commentaries of more recent times, as well as from some Marxist theoretical writings, I do not have the competence essential for an evaluation of this discussion from an academic perspective, especially a familiarity with the Buddhist texts referred to. But what I do see in it is both the ability of the author to communicate his thoughts with clarity, alongside a strengthening of his effort to convince those inclined towards our political ‘Left’ that their aims and aspirations will not be placed in jeopardy if they were to enter a viable and dynamic partnership with our nationalist forces in a concerted effort to lead the country towards the ideals of the ‘Civilisational State’.
The concluding segment of this volume provides additional insights on the obstacles that are in the way of infusing the ideals of the ‘Civilisational State’ to governance in our country mainly in the form of both ideological and economic counter-pressures as well as the highly portent processes of acculturation to which Sri Lanka is constantly exposed.
It is not surprising that this extraordinarily invaluable discourse is not entirely devoid of deficiencies. These I attribute to the constraints of imprisonment and a rush to publish-the latter probably driven by the looming political disasters in the form of misguided constitutional reforms and the wayward and short-sighted external relations.
For instance, the evidence pertaining to the accent on social welfare in Sri Lanka’s pre-modern governance could have been substantially enlarged and editorially rearranged for more forceful effect. More significant as a blemish in my view is that, unlike in Amarasekera’s treatise on the ‘Civilisational State’ (acknowledged by Weerawansa as a source of inspiration for his thinking), there is an absence in this discourse of an evidential substantiation of the view that the ideal of the ‘Civilisational State’ in Sri Lanka does not entail an infringement of the rights of those belonging toother religious faiths in our country. As categorically stated in Sŭbhyathva Rājyaya Karā, the pursuit of the ‘Civilisational State’ ideal does not involve either a devaluation of the contribution of religious minorities to the civilization of our country, or the abandonment of the hallmarks of inclusivism and tolerance of Buddhism as practiced (except by criminal elements) in this country, or a subordination of minority rights. This is a line of reasoning on which, I think, Weerawansa’s appeal to the ‘Left’, especially in the context of his socialist-nationalist mindset (magē vāma-jāthikavādī manasa) should have been elaborated.
Hopefully, that will be done in a revised and enlarge edition of his present discourse or as an aspect dealt with in his forthcoming volume, Yadæmin Bændi Akshara.
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