by Jayantha Somasundaram
If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
Perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music that he hears,
However measured or far away. – Henry Thoreau (1854)
Last month the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the country’s oldest political movement, celebrated its 70th anniversary. The founding generation of Sama Samajists encountered a world that was vastly different from our’s.
Hector Abhayavardhana (5 January 1919 – 22 September, 2012)
It was a world rigidly stratified by social class and caste hierarchy. It was a world in which it was seditious to question the legitimacy of European colonial rule. It was a world that was so steeped in tradition and conservatism that it was revolutionary to even contemplate change.
Paradoxically it was also an age of excitement. It was a time of war, a time of economic upheaval, a time of anti-imperialist struggle and a time of revolution. It was an age when it was easy to be filled with a sense of expectation, a sense of romance and a sense of heroism.
Hector Abhayavardhana who turns 87 on January 5, is the last remaining Sama Samajist of its early years.
He was born in an Anglican vicarage in Kandy where his maternal grandfather, Rev. Amarasekera was Minister. His father Hector Wilfred Abeywardena was Chief Clerk in Governor Regional Stubs office. His middle class Govigama Protestant heritage meant that Hector belonged to a privileged strata in society.
Hector received an exclusive education, in English, at the premier Anglican Public School, St. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. He then proceeded to the Ceylon University College where he continued his liberal arts studies and to the Colombo Law College, where the Ceylonese elite were groomed for their places within British Ceylon.
Hector turned his back on this path, rejecting the very foundations of the system that offered position and privilege to aspiring young Ceylonese.
He opposed British rule as well as capitalism, the economic system that propelled colonialism.
Through the most radical political movement of his day, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, he threw in his lot with the under-privileged the exploited and the marginalised. He committed himself to champion the cause of the voiceless ,regardless of race, religion or caste. He identified not only with resistance movement in his own country, but gave his best years in the service of the struggle in India. Such non sectarian internationalism is the highest expression of radicalism.
In 1935 while the LSSP was taking shape, Hector Abhayavardhana was still a student at St. Thomas’. In his English class, he along with his fellow matriculation student, were posed the following question by their teacher W. T. Keeble: Would you have been better off under your own king? In responding to this question Hector began to address the issue of nationalism and his own status under British colonial rule.
His views were also influences by a relative, George Amerasinghe who was an admirer of Gandhi and the Indian Congress. Through him Hector began to follow events in the Madras Hindu a newspaper he still subscribes to.
At about this time Hector also began to purchase publication of Harold Laski’s Left Book Club through which he was introduced to critical views prevailing in Europe. These influences together fashioned a sense of nationalism which was strongly internalises and secular, looking to the Indian resistance movement and the Russian Revolution as models.
Hector Abhayayvardhana attended his first LSSP rally at Galle Face Green on May 5, 1937, when the party dramatically surfaced Bracegirdle whom the colonial Police had been desperately searching for.
His political consciousness continued to grow as he entered University College and came under the influence of Lyn Ludowyke and Dric d’ Souza, teachers who had Marxist sympathies. While seeking out the company of dissenters like E. R. S. R. Coomaraswamy at the Varsity, Hector also launched a discussion group, the Mount Lavinia Literary Society, which had among its guest speakers Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and J. R. Jayewardene.
Hector Abhayavardhana was recruited to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1940 by Esmond Wickremesinghe, an activist among university students.
Hector became part of the clandestine section of the LSSP that was established to work underground in the event the party was proscribed. His task was to maintain a safe house for Leslie Goonewardene who headed the clandestine wing.
The Indian Years
In June 1940 the colonial authorities proscribed the LSSP and arrested its leaders: Dr. N. M. Perera, Philip Gunawardene, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and Edmund Samarakkody.
In the wake of the Easter Sunday Japanese air raid in 1942, the imprisoned Sama Samajists escaped from Bogambara Prison Kandy, and along with Leslie and Vivienne Goonewardene who had been operating underground, made their way to India. Hector Abhayavardhana joined them in India and worked with his fellow Sama Samaja exiles until July 1943 when he along with Dr. N. M. Perera and Philip Goonewardene were arrested in Bombay and deported to Colombo.
Released on bail Hector disguised himself as an Anglican clergyman and took a ride on an RAF plane to Bangalore. He made his way to Baroda where he worked with a group of anti-British agitators who kept him under cover in a slum. Here, he contracted smallpox which nearly killed him. After he recovered, Hector went north to Calcutta from where most of the Sama Samajists operate until the end of the war.
Hector Abhayavardhana was among four Sama Samajists who remained in India after the war. He engaged in both party work and political journalism all over India. After some time in Bombay working on the fortnightly New Spark, Hector moved first to Madras where he became General Secretary of the Socialist Party which came out of the 1948 merger of the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma (BLPI) and the Congress Socialist Party.
Then on to New Delhi where he was editor of the Socialist Appeal and contributor to the Hindustan Standard. Later at Ranmanohar Lohi’s request, he spent two years in Hyderabad editing Mankind. And then back to Delhi where he began the critical journal Maral, named after the mythical Indian bird that was able to sift milk from an admixture of water and milk. Each issue of Maral dealt with a different political theme, national or international.
Hector Abhayavardhana spent 18 years as a practical internationalist working with and for the people of India. In August 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the Quit India move, Hector along with Vivienne Goonewardene and Bernard Soysa were guests of honour in New Delhi.
In 1959 Hector Abhayavardhana married Kusala Fernando and returned to his homeland to begin a new chapter in his personal and political life. This was a period of political ferment. Both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party seemed to be discredited and in decline. The LSSP entered the March 1960 General Election confident of being returned to power.
Hector realised however that the LSSP had come to a fork on the political road. It could not operate as both a Parliamentary and revolutionary outfit. Given the weakness of the working class the party had to rethink its strategy.
Hector realised that despite the LSSP having taken principled stands on all major issues, despite unequivocally championing every worthwhile cause, its inability to secure power stemmed from a long history of fragmentation and emasculation of the working class.
It started in 1938 when Jawaharlal Nehru came to Sri Lanka to report on the status of the plantation workers of Indian origin. The LSSP pleaded with Nehru against the formation of a communal organisation for them, fearing it would open the door for these workers becoming pawns in racial politics.
They were prophetic: with the formation in 1939 of the Ceylon Indian Congress, the forerunner of the Ceylon Workers Congress, the stage was set for not only the injection of communalism into working class politics, but also the cynical disenfranchisement of the workers of Indian origin in order to weaken the Left movement.
“It is alleged,” says Hector, “that the presence of the Indian plantation workers on the electoral lists enabled them to return candidates of Indian decent to 7 parliamentary seats and influence the verdict in another 20 parliamentary constituencies, such that left-minded opponents of the UNP were returned at the 1947 election.”
The subsequent fragmentation of Sri Lanka politics along communal lines would proceed over the next half century. “By expelling the Indians the UNP hoped to ensure its majority,” explains Hector.
“Bandaranaike saw no reason why he should not collect his votes by advancing the interests of the Sinhalese majority community of the country. Chelvannayakam saw the necessity of constitutional reforms to ensure that the interests of the Tamils were protected. All of them would be benefited by spreading communal attitudes for the purpose of collecting votes.”
The plantation workers comprised half of all organised labour in the country.
By limiting them to trade union activities and denying them a stake in mainstream politics Sri Lanka’s working class was mortally weakened and divided. Unlike the plantation workers who were confined to their work environment and solely dependent for their livelihood on the sale of their labour, the urban worker was socially less homogenous.
Many of them do not live in the towns but commute from villages where they still had interests in small plots of agricultural land. Not only were they less dependent on the sale of their labour but within rural society they could aspire to middle class ambitions and status as small property owners.
Given the limited size of the urban working class, and given the weaknesses arising out of their social ambiguity, the doctrinaire policy of the Left of seeking to advance reforms through a party of politically conscious urban workers was in effect doomed.
According to Hector the left failed because they “persisted with the strategic line of mobilising the rural poor through a party based on the working class.
As Sri Lanka went through the tumultuous sixties, Hector realised the need to forge a united front with other progressive political forces in order to bring about changes that would improve the economic and political position of the weaker sections of society. Given the weak state of the economy this required a major role on the part of the Government, which needed to engage in the economy in order to deliver benefits to the people.
He promoted an alliance with the SLFP and the Communist Party, which finally emerged with the signing of the Common Programme in 1968. During the years the United Front was in opposition Hector launched the Socialist Study Circle where its future leaders were intellectually and politically groomed.
It served as a forum for the development of the ideas behind the far reaching political and economic reforms that would be introduced after 1970.
During those years he also brought out the political weekly. The Nation, to encourage serious discussion on current events. When the United Front was in office (1970-75) Hector served as Chairman of the Peoples’ Bank attempting to make available the finance that small enterprise needed for commerce, agriculture and industry. During this period the People’s Bank launched its monthly journal The Economic Review.
Hector retains his intellectual courage, willing to critically evaluate and even discard those concepts that have out-lived their validity. Nor have global events left Hector behind. He remains cognisant of trends and currents and does not shrink from formulating theories to explain them.
The passage of time and the impact of the years have changed little. Though physically confined Hector remains intellectually active and mobile. His passion for understanding the world around him, for analysing the course of events, and for questioning and challenging ideas remains unchanged.
(This article is reproduced from the “Daily News” of January 5th 2006 to honour the life and memory of Hector Abhayawardhana who passed away yesterday)