Deshamanya Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda 17th Memorial Oration

August 1, 2014, Sri Lanka Foundation

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was deeply humbled by the invitation to deliver the 17th Deshamanya Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Oration. At the outset, let me thank the members of the Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Trust for the honor of the invitation. Let me express my appreciation to the Trust for deciding to celebrate the life of Prof. Kodagoda in this fitting manner—that of offering an immensely valuable platform to engage in public conversations.

A few decades ago, when I was a law student and then a young academic at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda was a huge star in the academic firmament of Sri Lanka. When I think of him, the image that comes to mind is that of a man with a larger than life personality, with a booming and authoritative voice, brilliantly accomplished not only in his chosen field of academic specialization, but also in a myriad other fields. He was the Dean of the venerable Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo and later the university’s Vice-Chancellor – dizzying heights for an academic.

However, as one coming from another academic discipline, the enduring image I have of him is that of Nandadasa Kodagoda, the public communicator par excellence. I still recall how enthralled I was watching his television programs on the Vanniyela Aththo community or on public health issues, his baritone beautifully modulated, his impeccable Sinhala diction flowing forth like rich honey. He was the quintessential inter-disciplinarian. He recognized no boundaries to knowledge. The study of the human body, of the aesthetic of language or of music, or of social anthropology were, I believe, interconnected parts of a larger whole for him. What fascinated me was his wide ranging intellectual curiosity. The education we received generally boxed everything into compartments. And so, to see a man of western medicine waxing eloquent about the cultural characteristics of an ancient community or the fine arts was truly inspiring. In retrospect, I think it was the likes of Prof. Kodagoda who taught us, wittingly or unwittingly, the value of inter-disciplinary education and the potential of academics to enrich the lives of people in a myriad ways.

I do have vivid memories of my first meeting with Professor Kodagoda. Emboldened by the post-graduate education she had received in a rather radical seat of learning in the US, the then recently returned young Udagama invited the eminent professor to speak to students in her human rights law class. The topic was how forensic sciences dealt with sexual violence. Well, as many of you can imagine it was a morning to remember! He patiently explained the scientific dimensions first and then regaled the class with anecdotes, some of which did not go down well with the gender sensibilities of the young academic. The expected combustion did not take place as the good professor dealt with dissenting views with charm and grace, never losing his cool. I could see that he tolerated the ‘impudence’ of the young academic with some amusement and a twinkle in his eye! The students learned a great lesson on how to agree to disagree irrespective of age, gender or seniority.

Professor Kodagoda’s journey from the small temple school in the village of Ahangama in the South to prestigious Nalanda and Mahinda Colleges on a government scholarship and then on to medical school and eventual great professional heights, in many respects, typifies the Sri Lankan success story of the early to mid-Twentieth Century. Such personalities of that era, more often than not, gracefully straddled the ways of rural Lanka with urban sophistication. They became fully bi-lingual, and in some instances tri-lingual. They were familiar with, and appreciated, both eastern and western thought. Professor Kodagoda’s appreciation of the ancient Ayurveda medical system and his serving on the Board of the Institute of Indigenous Studies, while rendering yeoman service to promote public education on western medical thought, is a reflection of that open mindset. Today, while there are many more avenues for educational and social advancement, one very rarely witnesses among the beneficiaries of those opportunities the mellow richness of thought, the learned qualities, the tolerance or the public service orientation which were integral parts of the combined world that the likes of Prof. Kodagoda inhabited.

In sum, I see the late Professor Kodagoda as a colorful, multi-faceted and multi-talented personality who contributed positively to Sri Lankan society in a great many ways. He was a fully engaged citizen who richly deserved the national honor “Deshamanya” (Pride of the Nation). It is that very idea of citizenship–specifically of civic engagement in Sri Lanka–that I wish to explore in this oration dedicated to the memory of the Late Prof. Kodagoda.

Why Focus on Civic Engagement?

My objective here is to engage in a conversation with you about how we in Sri Lanka view our role as citizens—i.e. our civic rights and responsibilities and whether we adequately engage in shaping decisions on matters of common concern to us. If we do, then what are the reasons that animate us? If not, what are the underlying reasons for civic disengagement and apathy? This, by no means is a presentation of scientific findings on any of those questions. I also am not a political scientist. I am first and foremost a citizen and then a student of public law. The purpose of this proposed conversation is to discuss with you certain observations on the topic and to nudge all of us into collective thinking and action. With those caveats let me proceed.

One could very well question the need to focus on the citizenry of Sri Lanka and how we participate in governance, when all important political decisions are made, and indeed political mischief is committed, by those in control of centers of State power. So, why not continue to study what politicians do and unearth the reasons as to why they do what they do? It seems to me that that approach is precisely the problem with our politics and our political culture.

For far too long, we have been obsessed with the study and analysis of the doings and the idiosyncrasies of the political elite. We thoroughly scrutinize their public statements, autobiographies (though there are very few in Sri Lanka) and biographies and so on. Just as much as history is written and seen through the prism of elite actors, so also in our study of contemporary politics our focus is almost entirely on the political movers and shakers. Will politician A fall out with politician B? If so, what will happen to the government and the making of policy X ? That is how our political discourse goes. It is almost by chance we discover that they are nothing but political creatures of our own making. We have voted for them, sometimes lionized them and acknowledged them (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) as our political leaders who can show us the way forward. That they are our political representatives who are there to do our bidding is, well, mostly a secondary thought. What all of the above means is that the sense we have of our own political agency is minimal.

As the analyses we make is premised on democratic governance, is it not equally, if not more, important to turn the searchlight on us, the citizens, in whom sovereignty lies under our Constitution? Is it not pertinent to ask ourselves the questions as to what extent we fashion policies through democratic participation?; Do we have faith in our democratic entitlements and powers?; Do we have the confidence that we can positively change policies and practices that affect us through the use of those powers?; Do we possess the necessary knowledge and skills for such purposes?; Or, are we content to be mere political instruments that are occasionally cajoled into taking sides during election time by those who nurse political ambitions?

Those are important questions we have to address if we are invested in the idea of a meaningful democratic future for Sri Lanka. As the purpose of this address could be misunderstood, let me state categorically that shifting the focus on the citizenry and on civic values and engagement is not to exonerate public representatives from abuse of authority or relieve them of their sacred duty to govern in a democratic and decent manner. Indeed, if any politician were to maintain by way of defence that abuse of authority and misrule by the political establishment takes place because of a weak citizenry, such a position must be dismissed as cynical and irresponsible nonsense. Anyone holding elected office, or is expecting to seek such office, should know better.

Do We Possess a Democratic Ethos?

As we all know, Universal adult franchise was introduced to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1931 by the British colonial authorities through the progressive Donoughmore Reforms. We were one of the first colonies in the British Empire to be granted universal adult franchise. Since then we have changed governments only through electoral politics, even during periods of tremendous political violence and upheaval. One could well maintain that there are three pillars that have sustained and shaped modern Sri Lankan society—universal adult franchise, the public education system and the public healthcare system (in my opinion, the latter two being more pivotal than the first). As we have had a long history of multi-party electoral politics and of democratic institutions (what Robert Dhal calls ‘polyarchy’[1]), could we say that we Sri Lankans have developed an abiding liberal democratic ethos over the decades?

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘ethos’ as –“The characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations”. So then, are our attitudes and aspirations animated by democratic values such as free speech and expression, the right of dissent, the right to information, freedom of association and assembly, the right to claim our rights through democratic institutions? On the other hand, if our thoughts, actions and ideals are animated by other values (e.g. those that make us ask for ‘favours’ from political patrons), what are they? Or, is it the case that democratic values and non-democratic values exist side by side to be used selectively as the occasion suits? Investigating the political value base of Sri Lankan society in a nuanced and comprehensive manner is going to be a vast future research endeavour, but that must be done. The results will reveal quite a lot about ourselves and also perhaps explain the enormous contradictions we see in our literate society.

Even in the absence of comprehensive scientific findings, what we experience or observe on a daily basis are common enough for us to come to at least some initial conclusions about our political values that inform our responses to issues of concern. Let me present some of my own observations/experiences to illustrate the point. Please recognize that these situations are being recounted not in a spirit of ridiculing the parties concerned, but in order to recognize certain ground realities:

i)               A working class mother complains that the principal and teachers of her child’s school constantly ask for money for various purposes. This time the complaint is that each child is required to bring Rs. 2000/- to paint the class. There are 48 students in the class, and the collection then will be Rs. 96,000/-. “How can painting the class cost so much?” the mother asks me. “We don’t know how they spend the money” she laments. When asked what the PTA is doing about it, she says that nobody wants to question the teachers for fear of the child being ill-treated. “Api bhayay (we are fearful/afraid)” she says. “So, what we all do is keep quiet. Each parent is only concerned about one’s own child. Because we are not together the teachers constantly exploit our silence”.

ii)              I am at a human rights education program in a school in the North Central province. The students and the teachers, a lively group, ask me during the tea break whether I can please request the MP, who had been invited by the principal to the event, whether they could be given a good science laboratory and a library. So, why don’t they ask him—after all the MP is from their area? “ Appo api bhayay” comes the answer. “Because you are from the university he will not scold you.”

iii)            A group of academics complains that irregular appointments are being made in their university because of political influence. Another complaint is that an irregular extension of service has been made, again through political interference. So what are they going to do about those irregularities? In the first instance, the academics say that their group is pressing ahead with their complaint, but they lament that there is very little support from other academics as they are very worried about their promotions, scholarships and leave and so on (i.e.“we don’t want to get into trouble” response). In the latter case, I was told that most staff members of the faculty concerned feel that as it is difficult to fight “these political cases”, what they want to do is to also ask for similar extensions of service for everybody. In other words, their position is– if you cannot beat them, join them.

iv)             Students complain to a Head of Department that it is very difficult to understand the lectures of a particular lecturer. Have they spoken to the lecturer about it? “No, we are scared” they say “the lecturer will take it out on us”. So, why don’t they go in a large group? “Very few will join us, and only those few who will go will get penalized”.

v)              Academics and other professionals stating at meetings, seminars and even in the classroom that “it [whatever matter under discussion] is a controversial issue, I do not want to comment on that”.

vi)             I ask a member of the legal profession why he had accepted an appointment to an independent commission when the appointment was clearly unconstitutional as it was made without adhering to the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution. “What can I do when the highest in the land appoints me?” was his response. He studiously avoids answering the question on the legality of the appointment. Then he chastises me –“The problem with you Deepika is that you live in an ideal world; we don’t”.

vii)           Some years ago, an environmental organization came forward to petition the courts about a powerful generator that had been installed by a private company in a residential area, causing severe health problems due to noise pollution. As public interest litigation is of narrow scope under the law of Sri Lanka, they solicited volunteers from the neighbourhood to be petitioners. Although almost everybody in the neighbourhood complained of the noise, hardly anyone wanted to join in as petitioners. But when the organization persisted and won the case, they all were delighted. Human rights lawyers too, I am sure, could provide many such examples.

viii)          We all know that sexual harassment, or “eve teasing” as they say in India, is rampant in our public transport system. But very few women, who are harassed, will raise cries or complain. My students tell me that it is so, because most of the time other passengers not only do not support the victim, but they look at her as if she is the guilty party. Now that I too constantly commute to Peradeniya, I can confirm what they say. “Speaking up is wrong” is the general message one gets—“just why can’t you put up with it and save everybody the embarrassment of a public spectacle”.

ix)             A CEO of a company that is a giant in the retail business tells a university audience that compared to consumers elsewhere, Sri Lankan consumers are a meek lot. “We get away with a lot” he says.

I am certain that almost all of you can relate to the instances and responses I have recounted. Commonly recurring responses to the query about inaction are: “we are fearful”, “we don’t want to get penalized”, “we don’t get the support of others, so we too keep quiet”. Let me add another response I keep hearing often—“ Well, you can afford to dissent or talk about controversial matters because you are a human rights person. But if we say that it will not go down well (with the authorities)”. My response to the last is that all in a democracy are expected to be “human rights persons”.

This ever-present “fear psychosis” and the failure to mobilize around common causes have to be further explored. My observation is that expressions of fear are of two types: one is about fear to personal security, and the other is about fear of losing benefits or entitlements such as one’s job, promotions, titles and perks. Fear that is entertained is perhaps amplified by the knowledge that others will not come to one’s assistance and also the lack of faith in institutions and processes that are expected to provide remedies. It is also clearly the case that we suffer from the described “fear psychosis” because our democratic orientation is very weak. If we were fully convinced of the critical value of freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in a democracy, we would not fail so often to take collective action in the face of violations of our rights and liberties.

Of course, during the many cycles of violence our country has gone through, thousands were victims of violence unleashed by all parties concerned, be it torture, abductions, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. It is also no secret that the dismal state of the rule of law in the country does not inspire confidence in the citizenry to seek protection through the law. While there is merit to those arguments, we must also seriously give thought to the consequences of remaining passive. In the long run, are we not saving our individual interests through passivity by sacrificing the future of a nation? It would be rather preposterous to suggest that citizens should be engaged only when the zone is clear.

One can cite many comparative instances in which citizen action prevailed over entrenched authoritarianism and violence. Some of the best examples that come to mind are the Arab Spring, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, people’s resistance against the apartheid régime in South Africa and the generals in Burma and how the people of India valiantly resisted the state of emergency declared during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure in 1975. If the Indian citizenry caved in to authoritarianism then, the India of today would have been a very different one. It also must be said that a healthy democracy depends not only on large scale people’s movements; but on the everyday small steps that we take individually and collectively to articulate our ideas and views, question what is illegal and assist others who have been victimized to obtain redress.

In many public institutions in Sri Lanka, including the higher education sector, there is grave concern that deliberative bodies have fallen silent. There is a sullen deference to authority citing some of the above reasons, but the dissent and discontent that is not articulated are palpable. The end result of this silence is that decision-making happens almost by default without the benefit of a process of informed deliberation. The entrenchment of authoritarianism through this silent disengagement is all too obvious. Yet, the erosion continues unabated.

Of course, you may rightly pose the question as to why instances of successful public interventions are not been recounted here. The truth is that such instances, are very few and far between. The two recent examples that come to mind are the FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) campaign to improve the education sector, which almost turned into a social movement, and secondly the campaign launched by the Allied Health Sciences Students to obtain a better quality degree. My observation is that there is more successful citizen mobilization and intervention among the working class communities than among the middle or upper classes. We all know that democracy thrives with an enlightened middle-class. But most middle class civic bodies—such as chambers of commerce and professional bodies– are disengaged from public issues. It is indeed a welcome change to see the Bar Association of Sri Lanka at present being very active on behalf of the rule of law and the right and liberties of the people.

If the above observation is correct, is it that the more literate and privileged classes in Sri Lanka have consciously abdicated their responsibilities toward democracy? Is it the case that greater possibilities of rapid social mobility in Sri Lanka, made even more rapid through political patronage and a liberalized economy, blind us to larger social issues? Whatever the causes are, it is hard to envisage us having well established democratic social movements here such as the right to information and anti-corruption movements or the massive “brave heart” campaign against sexual violence in India. Instead what have gained ground in Sri Lanka are movements based on ethno-religious nationalism.

Democracy & Civic Engagement 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘Democracy’ is derived from the Greek word demokratia. It is coined from the words demos (people) and kratia (power). In other words, it denotes people’s power—hence, “we the people”.

As we all know, the idea of democracy is premised on the principle of the will of the autonomous individual, who is a citizen of an organized political community (polis). Sovereign authority to govern is vested in the individual who is deemed all powerful. In other words, to use monarchical parlance, in a democracy it is us, the people, who are kings and queens and princes and princesses. We are supposed to be the prime movers and shakers who decide on our futures, our destinies. The design of democratic governance of a State, therefore, must have as its primary objective the serving of the will of the peoples—of course not only the will of those in privileged groups, but of all, recognizing the diversity and pluralism of aspirations among us.

The difference between democracy and forms of authoritarian governance is just that. In authoritarian systems, power is concentrated in an individual, such as in a hereditary monarch or a dictator, or in a group of persons, as in an oligarchy. Powers of governance or of decision making do not lie with the people in such a system—we are merely obedient subjects, dependent on the whims and fancies of those who posses power. It is precisely because of the stark difference between democracy and non-democratic political systems that the citizen’s role in a democracy—with attendant rights and duties—is of such vital importance.

Democratic constitutions are expected to establish institutions and systems of governance that function entirely on behalf of the people and which are accountable to the people so that our needs, rights and liberties are protected to a maximum. Fundamental features of liberal democratic governance such as separation of powers, checks and balances, protection of human rights, independence of the judiciary and the franchise are all expected to be a part of modern democratic constitutions for that reason. The overall expectation, however, is that the institutions and systems put in place will function optimally and effectively not on their own, but through active public opinion and scrutiny.

When one studies the evolution of democracy, however, the participatory role of the citizen has varied in different models of democracy. One could say that the citizen’s role was of primary importance in systems of direct democracy, i.e. assembly democracy, which prevailed in the Greek City States. Similarly, members of Buddhist Assemblies of yore were the primary participants in direct democracy practiced within those assemblies. Athenian democracy, which is considered to be strongest among the Greek city-states, was based on the idea of civic virtue—i.e. a citizen’s worth was measured not through wealth, education or social status, but through the level of civic participation in public matters. The celebrated funeral oration attributed to Pericles, a prominent Athenian citizen, declares that:

Here [in Athens] each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics—this is a particularity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.[2]

The concept of civic virtue was also very important in the later Renaissance Italian city-republics.

However, the idea of direct democracy gradually went into abeyance and its validity was questioned in view of the expansion of scope and size of the State. Could direct democracy function in States with larger populations? The answer was in the negative. The answer to that dilemma was provided by the rise of representative democracy in the Seventeenth Century, primarily through the work of English political philosopher John Locke (1634-1703). Locke was a contractarian who believed that the ideal form of government should be based on a social contract forged between the people and their representatives. In his celebrated work The Two Treatises of Government (1690) he presented the idea that sovereign powers lay in the people. The people should form a government by transferring some of their powers temporarily to their chosen representatives. They were, in turn, expected to attend to the needs of the people and protect their ‘life, liberty and property’. If the representatives did not fulfill their duties toward the people and violated their rights, then the people had the right to remove them from office. The idea of representative government was further developed by liberal philosophers, chief among who was John Stuart Mill (1806-73).

While representative government was a practically effective form of democracy in large States, it did eventually result in the dilution of active citizenship. People became active during election time and thereafter largely left governance to their elected representatives. Mill argued for the need to have a well informed citizenry which was very active in public life—in voting, in local government and jury service. Theorists like Barber have pointed to the need to entrench ‘strong democracy’, where a well-informed citizenry actively participates in public life because of a strong conviction in self-government, as opposed to what he calls ‘thin democracy’, where the citizens use democratic systems in a self-serving or instrumental manner.[3]

Although one can witness a downward trend in civic engagement all over the world, it is abundantly clear that at least a certain minimum level of civic participation is needed to sustain effective democratic governance. We do observe that in more mature democratic systems civic consciousness is still greatly valued and actively promoted. In aspiring democracies, we have seen remarkable spurts of citizen mobilization in recent times such as in North Africa, the Middle-East and Eastern Europe.

The latest form of democracy to emerge is what John Keane calls “monitory democracy”[4]—meaning the development of citizen’s initiatives for checking governmental excesses. The development of citizens’ initiatives on election monitoring and the right to information, citizen’s tribunals and community initiatives to check corruption are good examples of monitory democracy. India’s right to information movement, the Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaign and the all woman anti-corruption outfit “The Pink Brigade”[5] are people’s initiatives that have captured the imagination of people the world over. It is also the case that citizen activism has moved from national confines to reach global heights as in the anti-globalization campaigns in Seattle and elsewhere and in the form of international advocacy groups such as that use modern technology to achieve a global reach.

So, while there does appear to be a slump in civic engagement in many countries, yet there are also counter developments in various regions and, indeed, at the level of global citizenship that offer future promise.

For our purposes, we need to look at where Sri Lanka stands in regard to all those developments. Can we, who have had the right of universal adult franchise for 83 yeas and who are also heirs to the rich legacy of free education and public health care, and consequently who possess high social indicators, be satisfied that we are the driving force of governance in our country? Or are we contend to be mere subjects resigned to whatever destiny that is crafted by our representative guardians? If the answer to the first question is in the negative and the latter is answered in the positive, then the democratic scheme in the country is in crisis. It means that our success stories—that of high levels of literacy and social mobility and a long history of exercising the franchise have not been translated into an abiding democratic culture.

What Accounts for Strong Democratic Cultures?

A democratic culture by definition is one that is grounded in an entrenched democratic value base, or in other words, in an entrenched democratic ethos. So, what accounts for the fact that some societies seem to be more successful than others in sustaining democracy? That is a question that social anthropologists and political scientists are best qualified to answer.

What I wish to raise here is just one point for reflection—and that is whether or not the idea often expressed, both by politicians and some of our fellow citizens, that we cannot be expected to be exemplary democrats as we are not of the west (i.e. the Occident) is justified. A strong assumption that colors political thinking in non-western societies, including ours, is that democracy is a western invention as are human rights. Therefore, this transplanted value system, we are told, will take time to take root, if at all.

I do not agree with that position. To say that ideas of human liberty, human dignity and people friendly governance emanated only from the west is a frontal insult to all non-western societies. Equality–the most revolutionary political idea of human kind–freedom of thought and of expression, right of dissent, the right to a remedy, consultative forms of governance and religious pluralism are among democratic ideas that have been created by indigenous thinking and practiced in non-western societies for millennia. That fact is borne out by both eastern and western scholars. This does not mean to say that all eastern thought is democratic. Just like some forms of western philosophical thought, some eastern thought is also not compatible with democratic values.

In my opinion, what is perhaps exclusively western is the form of liberal democracy practiced today. The idea of government via a social contract, of separation of powers between three branches of government and of checks and balances, independence of the judiciary and so on could be argued to be inventions by western political thinkers. However, to say that democratic values and principles and, indeed the spirit of democracy, are all exclusively western is an absolute fallacy, in my opinion. Even if structures of modern governance are all western and are alien to us, why is it that we are unable to develop structures relevant to us and infuse governance with democratic values and traditions that are inherent in our cultures?

That makes me come to our giant neighbour India. How has India remained such a vibrant democracy? That is a question that often puzzles us. The enormity of its physical scale, coupled with its diversity and competing claims surely would make governance a nightmare? India’s modernity attempts to co-exist with its ancient past. The social and economic gaps are vast. The country abounds with various forms of conflicts. But yet, for all those internal contradictions and upheavals, India never ceases to amaze one with the robustness of civic engagement, the huge capacity of the people, irrespective of literacy levels or social status, to form social and political movements and prevail over government. Then there is the constant cacophony of voices articulating various ideas and demands. I always say that my civic senses come fully alive when in India. Recently, I had the privilege of teaching comparative constitutional law recently at a prestigious seat of legal education in Delhi. The vibrancy of student participation in the discussions and the vigour and passion with which they would articulate their viewpoints, and indeed dissent, were simply breath taking. The classroom was a riot and I simply loved it!

In his celebrated and engaging essay “The Argumentative Indian”[6] Professor Amartya Sen gives us some clues as to why India’s democracy is so vibrant. He points out that there is a long argumentative and deliberative tradition in India that celebrates diverse and unorthodox views, including dissent. He points to the enormous influence of the ancient Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana which articulate values more in a deliberative than prescriptive manner. In particular, he discusses at length the famous debate between Arjuna, the righteous warrior, and Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer (a human incarnation of Lord Krishna), in the Bh­agavad Gita, perhaps the most well-known section of the Mahabharata.

On the eve of the great battle between the honorable Pandavas and the rogue Kauravas, Arjuna expresses his remorse at the terrible consequences of war, although he concedes that the war is a just war. Krishna, engages Arjuna in a great debate in which Krishna urges Arjuna to heed his duty to engage in the just war and not be distracted by thoughts on the ensuing carnage. Krishna eventually prevails over Arjuna. Of course, modern sensibilities may not necessarily agree with the outcome of that debate, but what is celebrated about this episode in the Gita , aside from its poetic beauty, is the dialogical manner in which the tension between morality and duty is presented. Similarly, Prof. Sen points out that the key players in these great debates include powerful female characters such as Draupadi, the outspoken queen of King Yudisthira in the Mahabharatha, and also those belonging to what were considered to be lower rungs of the caste hierarchy.

Sen is also a great admirer of the Buddhist deliberative tradition in India. In the same essay “The Argumentative Indian”, he discusses at some length the contribution of the “Buddhist Councils” to India’s dialogic and democratic traditions. In particular, he refers to the third of the Councils held in the Third Century BCE in Pataliputra, the capital of the Ashokan Empire, believed to have been held under the patronage of the great Emperor himself. While the Councils were held after the death of Gautama Buddha in order to resolve disagreements over religious principles and practices, they also appear to have addressed social and civic issues through encouraging open dialogue. Of course, Buddha himself was a master of dialogic reasoning and set the standard to his followers by the deliberative manner in which he presented his discourses.

The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka was an avid promoter of public discussions and civic participation. He was committed to the principle that public discussion should take place without ill-will or rancour. He demanded, according to Sen ‘restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even on appropriate occasions’. He insisted that ‘other sects should be duly honored in every way on all occasions’. Certainly, a far cry from what passes off as Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka today.

It follows then that another great democratic tradition of India is the appreciation of pluralism. Despite the sectarian strife that flares up in India from time to time, it is inconceivable that the teeming masses of India would survive together for so long without an underlying acknowledgment of pluralism. That secularism has been adopted as a fundamental pillar of the Constitution of India is no surprise, Sen argues. Two of the greatest monarchs of India—the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka and the Moghal Emperor Akbar were proud flag bearers of that noble tradition. Sen traces the long history of religious diversity and tolerance in India, which provided vast public spaces for agnostics and atheists as well. Buddha, he correctly points out, was a non-believer who challenged the concept of God, but who nevertheless had a large following in a society that was traditionally theistic, or God-fearing.

Where there is religious pluralism, cultural pluralism too follows. Sen cites many examples of literary classics of India which appreciate the rich cultural diversity of the Sub-Continent, one of which is the great poet Kalidasa’s classic, the Meghaduta. In it, the wondering cloud, carrying a message from a lovelorn husband to his wife, celebrates the great beauty of the variety of customs and behaviour it observes down below as it floats onwards on its journey.

All those traditions, Sen argues, have captured the popular imagination of India, and have contributed to the continuing tradition of public reasoning and debate, of dissent and unorthodoxy, and the appreciation of pluralism. That has, in great measure, helped sustain democracy in that fascinating country. Certainly, one cannot forget how the vibrancy of the Indian Independence Movement and the constellation of extraordinary leaders it attracted helped consolidate democracy.

What of Sri Lanka? It could be said that Sri Lanka too is a beneficiary of a multitude of such democratic legacies. A small island nation, situated at the cross roads of the Indian Ocean, it attracted migration of various peoples to form an exotic potpourri of communities, some of who were assimilated into existing groups while others co-existed side by side. As Sri Lanka’s eminent anthropologist Prof. Gananath Obeysekere points out, ethnic and religious identities were fluid for a major part of the history of the country, with some possessing multiple identities. An interesting example cited by Obeysekere is King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782) who was “both a Buddhist and a Saivite [Hindu], a speaker of both languages and one who initiated a great revival of Buddhism that had a profound influence right down to the end of the 19th century”.[7]

Just as much as cultural pluralism was an established facet of Sri Lankan life for centuries, so also was the tradition of public debate and dialogic reasoning. Home to all the major religions in the world, Sri Lankan society has been enriched by the various strands of philosophic thought and traditions from South Asia and elsewhere. The overarching influence of the rationalist and intellectual tradition of Buddhism, however, in this multi-religious society is undeniable.

The dialectical conversation between Arahath Mahinda (thought to be the son of Emperor Ashoka) and King Devanam Piyatissa in the famous mango groves of Mihintale in the third century BCE, which as legend has it, resulted in the king’s conversion to and spread of Buddhism within the country marks a significant event that points to the appreciation of debate and reasoning. That Arahat Mahinda engaged the monarch in a debate is impressive. That I assume was the Buddhist tradition of discourse, no matter the social rank of the party. On the other hand, if a king was open to debate and challenge by a saffron robed ascetic who he did not know before, it is an indication of a tradition of openness and dialogue in that early Sri Lankan society.

Similarly, we have the example of the Milinda Prashnaya[8], the conversation between King Milinda and Nagasena, a scholar monk, thought to have been written about 500 years after the parinibbana of Buddha. There, the monk answers probing questions of the king on Buddhist doctrine. The monk insists that he will engage in the conversation only if the king wishes to engage as a scholar and not as a king. Scholars admit to mistakes and are keen on unraveling through reason, whereas kings do punish when they do not agree says Rev. Nagasena. The good king readily agrees. Thus, the two engage in spirals of philosophic conversation. It is said that this elegantly crafted work of Buddhist literature written in India and lost to the world for centuries, eventually surfaced in Sri Lanka and was held in such high esteem that King Kirti Sri Rajasinha got it translated into Sinhala in the eighteenth century.

There is then the legend of the great Panadura Wadaya. The point I wish to make here is not about who won the debates, but it is that we have had a long tradition that greatly admired debate, public reasoning and dissent. Similarly, we have had a long history of standing up to tyranny and oppression.[9]

Given those rich legacies of free thinking, enquiry and challenge, why is it that we are so fearful and disengaged as citizens today? The great irony about the rather alarming level of civic disengagement is that it has set in, and has got worse, in the republican era. Of course, one could argue the State became very violent post-1971 and that democratic governance has seen a downward spiral since then. But the issue is whether there were sufficiently strong civic responses against rising authoritarianism and spirals of violence.

In my opinion, the catalog of people’s grievances on undemocratic governance in Sri Lanka is a long one: We have had two republican constitutions thrust on us within six years of each other with hardly any public consultations; the second republican Constitution thrust on us the executive presidency even before we could really debate the concept and understand what it would mean to governance and to our lives; more recently it was made monolithic by the Eighteenth Amendment rushed through Parliament as an urgent Bill; despite the powers of the executive presidency, spirals of political violence taking place both in the north-east and south of the country due to the failure of successive governments to find meaningful political solutions to grievances; the use of ethno-nationalist sentiments to entrench political power; the rising and unchecked tide of intolerance and sectarian violence even after the ending of the civil war in 2009 ; constant onslaughts on the independence of the judiciary and democratic institutions of the people; governance through emergency powers for nearly forty years coupled with the draconian provisions of the PTA; suppression of free expression and association through attacks on the free media and civic organizations; the steady erosion of the rule of law and the militarization of many spheres of civilian activity; and the entrenchment of patronage politics in place of participatory politics. Quite a long list! The sadness is that, in fact, the list is much longer.

We also have been subjected to a novel political lexicon that defeats our democratic rights–e.g. dissent = conspiracy; dissenter = traitor; one who agrees = patriot; motherland = political establishment. People’s responses range from outrage to mirth, and of course agreement by some, but overall, in my opinion we have not done enough to sufficiently challenge the serious threat this terminology poses to democracy in the country.

The emasculation of the idea of “we the people” can be seen all around us, if only we care to look. It was vividly brought home, at least to this citizen, when a few months ago she opened the daily news paper and saw a large photograph in the front page depicting a venerable school principal of a leading Colombo school struggling to get into a military uniform in full view of the cameras. She had just completed a military training program conducted for school principals. I was stunned. Would she have really agreed to this on her free will? I thought. Would she have wondered like many of her fellow citizens in Sri Lanka, “How can I refuse, because if I do I will surely get into trouble, and no one will be there to support me”?

Education to the Rescue?

I do believe that there is broad agreement that something is radically wrong with our political culture. Some people call it the “political rot”. But, as I stated at the beginning of this address, mostly we focus on the venality and callousness of the political establishment. Perhaps, just a few of us acknowledge the linkage between civic disengagement and the crisis in democracy in the country.

Be that as it may, there are many solutions suggested to correct the problematic trajectory of governance in the country. Almost all of them pertain to constitutional or legal reform, be it the abolition of the executive presidency, the re-introduction of the Seventeenth Amendment (to the 1978 Constitution), power sharing and reform of election laws. Even though a student of the law, I am very skeptical that constitutional and legal reform alone would succeed in democratizing our political system. Of course, good laws are essential. But laws, after all, are interpreted and implemented according to the socio-political ethos of a society. We see how laws, including the Constitution, are so blatantly violated with impunity today. So, without a change of the mindset can we expect deeply rooted change? I do not think so.

That is why I would put my stock in education. Real change can come only in the long term. As a society that has passionately invested in education as a social good, I think education has to be used as the primary tool for democratization harnessing existing democratic traditions. It is education, whether formal or informal, that can attempt to foster a relevant value-base or sharpen an existing value base. In well-established democracies the goals of the education system generally tend to go hand-in-hand with the country’s political and constitutional ideals. One can think of the models of education in the USA and Scandinavia as examples.

I am, of course, not an expert in the philosophy of education. But as an academic and also as one who has both studied and taught in Sri Lanka and overseas, I wish to share some thoughts with you in that regard. When I say that the education system in Sri Lanka should be used as a change agent, I do not mean the formal education system as it exists today. The current education system, it seems to me, is the very anti-thesis of democratic education. Meeting the demands of the economy and the related employment market is the key goal, we are told. Science, mathematics, English and IT are emphasized with the social sciences downgraded as being almost irrelevant to the market. Fostering democratic values and a civic consciousness are, if at all, very peripheral to the major objectives. What is promoted now in World Bank parlance are “soft skills” (e.g. skills relating to communication, team work, organizing and also promoting ethnic harmony). Such skills are taught more through extra-curricular activities than as integral parts of the curriculum. The Social Studies curriculum at secondary education level has some lessons on the political system and the Constitution. Teaching is generally top-down and the classroom is still not an open space for challenging ideas and debate. Students spend a major portion of their time at cram shops—there’s hardly any time for anything else for them other than a tele-drama or two at the end of the day. Life’s worth is determined by exam results, even when you happen to be in grade five. Examinations are largely traumatic events, both for students and the parents. But everybody soldiers on expecting to achieve the Sri Lankan Dream.

Among those deemed the best and the brightest (based entirely on exam results) and who gain admission to our public university system, knowledge of current events, whether local or global is appallingly weak. Very rarely does one come across a student who reads a daily news paper or who is a keen observer of current events who can give you an informed analysis on a public issue. One gets blank stares when you refer to major public happenings such as the impeachment of the Chief Justice or the CHOGM conference. In one class of about 65 students it seemed that most had not heard of the Burgher community of Sri Lanka. When a question is asked about the political system of the country, there are many students who would say “ but we don’t know; we didn’t study political science for A Levels”. Hardly a system that educates for life, leave alone democracy! The youngsters are bright and have tremendous potential. But the system has let them down, together with the country, very badly.

In contrast, I found the US education system to be one which encourages experiential learning; is inter-disciplinary; is based on the Socratic method of deliberation in the class room; encourages free thinking; rewards unorthodoxy and outspokenness, volunteerism and civic duty; and assesses a whole range of skills before judging a student’s academic performance. Education is not the dreary process one has to go through for social advancement. The Constitutional principles of government, civil rights and civic obligations are brought to the attention of students at a very young age. As for Indian citizens, the moment of Independence from British colonialism and the founding of the new republic and its value base, is a defining core theme in the lives of US citizens.

Recently, our Department of Law joined via video link a global conversation with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice of the US Supreme Court. When she was asked for her thoughts on what a young lawyer should do to start up his/her career, I think she surprised a good section of the global audience. She advised that one of the key things to do is to join as many community organizations as possible and make oneself relevant to the community. That way, she said, one learns a lot about governance as well.

The influence of John Dewey on the US education system has been profound. Dewey (1859 – 1952) was the most influential US thinker on the philosophy of education in the twentieth century. In his authoritative work Democracy and Education (1916) he advocated the need to make democracy the central focus of the educational process. Education must address the individual as part of society and impart the necessary values and skills to strengthen that relationship. The idea of experiential learning, as opposed to theoretical learning, also stems from Dewey’s philosophical thought.

I also do believe that liberal arts education widely held in high esteem in the US has played a key role in advancing a democratic ethos within US society. It is also worth noting that in The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive Nation released in 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences emphasizes the need to focus on and invest in education in the humanities and the social sciences in order to sustain civic engagement and democratic leadership in the US while meeting modern challenges of all types. Sri Lankan policy-makers, on the other hand, keep reminding us of the futility of “arts education” as arts graduates are not employable. What a narrow vision of life, society and our collective future!

Finally, it does seem that democratizing the individual and a society is a whole process—not just about introducing a subject or two on civics and political science and tinkering with an already tired and socially irrelevant education system. We do have a lot of thinking to do on that score.


When the war ended five years ago, on the balmy shores of the Nanthikadal Lagoon, most Sri Lankans thought that it was a political watershed that would bring about change and a new beginning for a pluralist and democratic Sri Lanka. That moment has yet to happen. We are not only dealing with unresolved issues from the past but also with new demons such as religious bigotry. As we face the political cross roads we are at today, it is imperative that we reflect on our role as citizens and decide on whether we are going to wait for change, or recognize our power and worth as citizens and be the driving force of the new beginnings we wish for.

Stimulating thinking in that direction was the purpose of this address, and I hope I have succeeded in giving you some food for thought.

Let me leave you with the immortal words of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore from Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

 Thank you.


[1] Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics (Yale University Press: 1989) 218 -224.

[2] Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in Thucydides The Peleoponnesian War 145,147 quoted in Held, D. Models of Democracy (3d edn.) (Polity Press, 2006) 13-14.

[3] Barber, B. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (1984).

[4] John Keane The Life and Death of Democracy (Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.: 2009 ) Part Three on ‘Monitory Democracy” 585.

[5] See their website : accessed on 23/07/2014.

[6] Sen, A The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Penguin Books, London: 2005) 3.

[7] Obeyesekere, G. Buddhism, Political Violence and the Dilemmas of Democracy in Sri Lanka CSDS Occasional Paper (CSDS:2009) 1-16.

[8] Translation from Pali by T. W. Rhys Davids accessed at:

[9] See, e.g. Jayawardena, K Perpetual Ferment: Popular Revolts in Sri Lanka in the 18th & 19th Centuries (Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo: 2010).


Photo courtesy University of Colombo