Featured image courtesy Sri Lanka Brief

This fascinating autobiography of Vijaya Vidyasagara edited by Skantha Kumar and Marshal Fernando and published by the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue is excellent reading. Priced at Rs. 500/- and covering 300 pages this book is a very good buy for any reader interested in Sri Lankan society and politics. Having known Vijaya and associated with him and the Christian Workers Fellowship (CWF) for over half a century, I found the book difficult to put down. I read it from cover to cover within a few days. Vijaya was also the founder editor of the Christian Worker, an excellent quarterly, now defunct.

Of the three annexes, the first covers the founding of the Christian Workers Conference in 1958 and sets out the rationale and ideology of the CWF (then known as the Christian Workers Conference). Its value as presenting a Christian perspective on social economic and political problems is timeless. Annexe-II covers resolutions adopted at CWF conferences in 1974 and 1975 and gives temporal relevance to the objectives set out in annexe-1 in the context of developments up to the mid-70s. Annexe-III covers the development of the trade union movement in Sri Lanka, in historical perspective as around the end of the 20th Century. If the focus of annexe I is on principles, that of annexe II and III is on real politics of recent decades. What of the future? But exploration of that question is surely beyond the scope of an autobiography.

The main text ends abruptly and disappointingly with Vijaya’s transfer to the Inland Revenue Office, Anuradhapura Branch. The reasons given by the editors for the incomplete finish of the book, viz. to present it to Vijaya on his 86th birthday, is not convincing. The footnotes and references are adequate. A potent factor for this abrupt end may be Vijaya’s disenchantment with political developments, particularly, with the ideological drift of Lanka Sama Samagist Party (LSSP), the political party to which he has been unfailingly faithful.

These development affected the impact of the CWF on national policies, on trade unions and on public perceptions of the ideology of the CWF. These contradictions compelled awareness on those of us involved in the CWF, whether centrally or peripherally, as to what we could be achieved peacefully, lawfully and democratically; the harsh reality, was surfacing.

We were becoming painfully aware that the revolutionary changes sought to be achieved could only be realised through a revolutionary uprising, involving a large measure of violence. A pacifist ahimsaic approach would not be adequate. The various institutions exercising power would resist violently and could not be overthrown without counter-violence. Throughout the narrative, Vijaya has been espousing non-violence and, mostly, even non-confrontation. For example even while championing worker’s rights, his social interaction with top management remained remarkably cordial. Did Vijaya sense that further progress required a fundamentally different strategy to that adopted so far?

Coalition politics has often been the bane of the left in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Until independence and up to the 50’s the two major Marxist parties, LSSP and CP were widely admired even by non-Marxists like myself for their ideological integrity and championing of noble causes. In the 1956 General election, they had a no contest pact with the SLFP but kept out of coalition government, preserving their ideological integrity. They also enjoyed good relationships with Tamil political parties of the North and East and of the Hill Country. This was the position until their fateful decision in 1963, when they accepted ministerial portfolios. It was never quite the same thereafter.

There were similarities and dissimilarities with Indian Marxist parties, which frequently convened coalition state governments, in Kerala and West Bengal, but never accepted portfolios in government, that they did not control. Their position was that if they did, they would have to accept the policies of the dominant non-Marxist parties in those coalitions in Kerala, West Bengal or elsewhere. They feared that those policies would eventually become the policies of their parties, seriously undermining their integrity. In fact on one occasion the Indian National Congress sought desperately to form a National Government in Delhi, for which they needed the support of the Indian Marxist parties. They offered the office of Prime Minister of India to Basu, then leader of the Indian communist party in West Bengal. That party rejected that offer for the reasons set out above. In Sri Lanka, 1963 marked the turning point in that the LSSP compromised by accepting ministerial portfolios in an SLFP led government. That government was short lived, but the damage had been done.

Their entry into the Coalition in 1963 was sealed by their abandoning their long standing position in favour of both Sinhala & Tamil as Official Languages and choosing, instead to accept Sinhala as the only Official Language. When the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP) led by Phillip Gunewardene accepted ministerial portfolios in the 1950s, they were already on their way out of politics. They were seen as opportunists and their hold on the left was fast dwindling. But when the LSSP and CP crossed over, they represented the main body of Sri Lankan Marxists. This crossover was a tragedy. Predictably, these parties began to splinter and a succession of crossovers and defections followed. Those Marxists who remained loyal to their tradition became marginalised and have since remained in the periphery of Sri Lankan politics.

These were developments that those of us associated with the CWF should have anticipated, but mostly did not. In fact the CWF made some temporary gains from coalition politics due to their association with th CP, LSSP and left minded Cabinet ministers. But with their exit from the coalition in the mid 1970s these gains virtually disappeared. The LSSP & CP had lost their ideological pre-eminence and were in danger of following the footsteps of Phillip Gunewardene and the VLSSP. This also affected the integrity of the CWF. Its leaders got demoralised, notably Vijaya. The political party that he was faithfully supporting from the days of his youth as well as the organization that he founded, were both declining in relevance and reputation. The LSSP lives on but with its reputation tarnished; the CWF had flourished for three decades but was becoming a shadow of what it had been.

The birth of the CWF was in a earlier era when our Marxist parties were ideologically at their peak and were providing inspiration to left minded persons, particularly Christians, the world over. To quote Vijaya on the National question, particularly on the Language issue:

As far back as 1935 in the formation of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the Party’s position was that Sinhala and Tamil should first of all be used in the Lower Courts and gradually introduced to all government departments. This position was not only not opposed, but politicians of other ideologies including Mr. Bandaranaike said it was a good idea. Now they completely reversed their earlier position and took up the cry of ‘Sinhala Only” for wholly opportunistic reasons, thereby creating an unnecessary racist or communal issue.

‘NM’ moved a private members’ motion in parliament, proposing an amendment to the Constitution to provide for Sinhala and Tamil to be the State languages of Ceylon. In his speech he said that it was the vacillation by the government over the implementation of State Council motion of 1944 that was the root cause of all the present-day trouble. By advocating equality of status for both languages he referred to the risk the LSSP took in opposing the chauvinists. He said, “But our party has taken up a consistent attitude. Ever since our party was launched, we have never faltered or wavered from that position, because we felt that was the correct line to take. That position we still adhere to. However unpopular that line of action might be, I am convinced myself of the correctness of our attitude. It might mean going into the political wilderness for some time, but still we, the members of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, are prepared to face that. Let there be no mistake about it. For a just cause, for correct principles, for a correct political line, I think, it is fully worth it. The membership of this House is not the be-all of a political party (pp. 170-171).

When these right-wing forces using Sinhala Buddhist sentiments combined in the ‘national government’, there was perhaps some poetic justice when their opponents taunted them with cries of masala wade. Unfortunately an echo of this was also heard on the 1965 May Day procession of the combined forces of the SLFP, LSSP and CP, against this ‘national’ government. It is not strange therefore that the attempts of Dudley Senanayake to enter into another agreement with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam (‘Dudley Chelvanayakam Pact’), was also opposed by the anti-UNP forces; as much as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Agreement had been opposed earlier by the Bhikkus. These were costly mistakes for which the country is even now having to pay. The aspirations of the vast majority were mishandled by playing politics on the part of both the UNP and SLFP and reactionary forces, which has led to an unfortunate position in our inability to settle the national question. It is necessary to realise that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike won his victory at the polls in 1956 with considerable support from all sections of the minorities. However, it is regrettable that the SLFP government in implementing some necessary and desirable changes did so at times with a spirit of vindictiveness towards certain minorities and unbecoming of responsible statesmanship (pp. 181-182).

The Institution that Vijaya helped to found was, in his own words, designed to “Christianise Socialism and Socialise Christianity, not for the purpose of blunting one at the expense of the other but in sharpening the original revolutionary edge of both.” His book contain details some of the work done with these objectives. It is the early history of the CWF that I found most inspiring. I particularly appreciated the work done relating to the Harthal on August 12th 1953, and the work done in relation of the Rodiya community. I wish there had been a move to follow up on the latter. On the former, it is revealing, that there was potential for co-operation of the Marxist parties with the ITAK (Federal Party) led by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Ceylon Indian Congress led by K. Ramalingam. Unfortunately these two parties had been allowed to drift away from the LSSP and CP and, subsequently there has been very little contact. The parties concerned have all contributed to national disintegration.

On the Language issue Vijaya has been consistently critical of political leaders who promoted divisive policies. But he understates the depth of communalism among the population, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims. Perhaps, like employers, who try to impress on their staff that, “the customer is always right,” Vijaya, as a good Socialist, would have felt obliged to assert that the fault is not with the people but with the leaders who mislead them. Surely a more accurate analysis is that in every community there is a potent layer of communalism below the surface and which comes up when ever the conditions are favourable for such surfacing. We see this now in many countries of the West. Such racism has not been freshly minted but was always there just below the surface, waiting to be brought up by those who are skilled at it and when the socio-economic and political environment is favourable. An abundance of idealism cannot be faulted, but it needs to be tempered by hard realism.

The subject of Vijaya’s Memoirs relates to the role of Christianity and Socialism in the socio-economic and political future of our land and our people. The future is unending but memoirs need to end perhaps in the form of a postscript. Perhaps the ending could briefly spell out and analyse various options currently available and the likely consequences of each line of action. Vijaya’s perspectives on each of these would be of much of value and interest to readers and, indeed, to all of us. Vijaya’s life and work and the directions he had followed surely merited a more significant finale than a routine bureaucratic transfer from one Inland Revenue office to another. With or without such a postscript, the reader would find that this book is indeed true to Vijaya’s objective of Christianizing Socialism and Socialising Christianity through sharpening the original revolutionary edge of both. I have no hesitation in recommending this book as a valuable and innovative addition to the literature in this field.

Those who enjoyed this read, might find “Culture and Poverty in our neoliberal economy” and “S P Jeevanantham: Eminent teacher and social worker” enlightening.