Innocence about what was going on in Sri Lanka did not in fact last very long. Though the country had seemed full of hope after the economic reforms introduced by the Jayewardene government in 1977, by 1980 the flip side of the reforms was evident. In July there occurred the General Strike that was dealt with, not so much firmly, as brutally.
That particular episode did not worry me unduly, for it seemed to me that an elected government had every right to try out new policies. If the opposition decided on violent confrontation, government was entitled to respond. The relentless critiques of my uncle Lakshman however, Chairman by then I think of the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to being Bishop of Kurunagala, made me realize that the government’s response was disproportionate. Perhaps as a mark of what still interested me most, what brought home to me most vividly the determination of the government to use violence to crush even mild opposition was the manhandling of Prof Sarachchandra, when he was to deliver a lecture that would have been simply mildly critical of government policies.
Lakshman was more concerned by then about what was going on in the North. Though initially I had thought he was being dramatic in predicting civil war if the government did not moderate its violence, it gradually became clear that Jayewardene’s policies were almost deliberately provocative. I only properly understood the situation however in 1981, when I went to lecture at Jaffna University shortly after government goons had set fire to the Public Library. The bitter anguish of the students who insisted on taking me to see the burnt out shell made me realize the great gulf the government had created in trying to impose its will on the North.
By then I was a strong critic of the government, though it had been a different issue that had finally decided me. This was the taking away of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, after trumped up charges were declared proven by a kangaroo court Jayewardene had established. By then he was subverting regularly the new Constitution he had introduced in 1978 by which he had made himself an Executive President. Countermanding by Constitutional Amendment a ruling of the Court of Appeal in favour of Mrs Bandaranaike, he proceeded to strip her of her Civic Rights for seven years. I had seen the proceedings in Parliament on that day, October 16th 1980, and I still remember the horror of nearly all the Members of Parliament present baying for blood. The TULF I should note had left the Chamber, on the grounds that this was not a matter that affected them, an approach that I think proved counter-productive for them as for the country as a whole.
I was so moved that I felt I had to protest in some way. I therefore resigned from my post at Peradeniya. It was a quixotic gesture, but I have never regretted it. It was true, as was pointed out at the time, that I could afford to resign, but I was sorry that others who were in the same position kept quiet, even though many realized that what Jayewardene had done was outrageous. The assumption however was that this was an isolated incident, and I could not understand how otherwise intelligent people could not see that this was all part of a coherent pattern that could only bring disaster. Even Chanaka Amaratunga, normally a pillar of political principle, thought the matter trivial, though he granted that it was totally undemocratic.
Vindication however came a couple of years later, when he decided that Jayewardene’s infamous referendum to continue for six years more with the Parliament in which he had a two thirds majority was unacceptable. Even more satisfying was the comment then of W J Fernando, a Civil Servant who had been badly treated by the Bandaranaike government in 1970, and who had then become a solid supporter of the UNP. He told me that I had been right, and he and his friends completely wrong.
Resignation brought with it some loneliness. Colombo society was totally enamoured of Jayewardene and his government, and I was considered some sort of aberration. My parents made no criticism, but they were surprised, and clearly thought I had been extravagant. Only Lakshman I think was actually pleased with what I had done.
Not having a job did not particularly worry me, because by then I had begun to teach privately. Initially I had thought it improper, when for instance students at Kelaniya wanted help, but Richard convinced me that some of the teaching at the University itself was so dull and uninspiring that it would be wicked to refuse. I was also deeply impressed by a girl who wanted to apply to Cambridge, which I thought ambitious given the state of education in schools. But her mother, Mrs Deraniyagala, convinced me, and I found teaching Sonali, an enormous pleasure. Her eyes would light up at particularly fascinating poems that we explored together, and I was not at all surprised when she got a place. She married an Englishman, but was not lost to us totally, for she continued to work on Sri Lanka, and indeed Dayan Jayatilleka told me that she had been heavily involved in insurrectionary politics towards the end of the decade.
I did attend the wedding, but then lost touch with her and the family. Sometime in 2004 however I met her mother at a party, and her eyes gleamed as Sonali’s used to do, when she said that the family would be coming to Sri Lanka for Christmas, and they were planning a trip in Yala. The next I heard was that they had been caught in the tsunami, and Sonali’s husband and children and her parents had all died. She had survived. I wanted to see her, but was told she did not want to meet anyone,
I also continued on a Visiting basis at Peradeniya, since I had agreed to continue till they found a replacement. However, when it became clear after a couple of months that they were in no hurry to do this, and I heard that it was claimed I had regretted my decision and was trying to stay on, I told the Vice-Chancellor it was time I gave up. Most irritating was the fact that I taught as many hours as I had done previously, but the pay I received for hourly work was a fraction of the salary.
I had also by then been invited to a meeting of the Christian Conference of Asia, Fr Lionel Pieris who lived next door, the unworldly son of Harold Pieris, having decided that I must be suitably radical. I finally left the university then in February 1981, and went abroad for the first time since my return to Colombo, first to Singapore, where I stayed for the last time in Adam Park with Justice Kulasekaram, my father’s old friend. From there I went on to Kuala Lumpur where the Conference was, and then took a train to Bangkok, to stay with a friend.
I had been told there might be bandits en route, but the Thais at the Conference said the only danger was from the soldiers supposed to guard the train, who might decide to dress up as bandits. Fortunately that did not happen.