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Hector Abhayavardhana: The wise elder of the Left

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by Ajith Samaranayake

(This article was first written to commemorate the 87th birthday of Hector Abhayavardhana and is reproduced from the “Daily News” of January 5th 2006 to honour the life and memory of the veteran LSSP theoretician who passed away yesterday)

At the age of 87 today Hector Abhayavardhana is the last of the great stalwarts of the Lanka Samasamaja party, at 70 the country’s oldest and first organised political party whose history has been indissolubly linked to Sri Lanka’s politics since its birth.

As the foremost theoretician of the LSSP a writer and newspaper editor Hector Abhayavardhana has had a ringside view of all major Contemporary political, social and economic developments. He has been a major force in the coalition partnership of the SLFP and the LSSP over the years.

Now with 70 years of political experience behind him (he joined the Ceylon University College at the age of 17) Hector although now out of the hurly burly of the arena still contemplates the realities of the day with all the distilled wisdom of a sagacious elder who has gone through the mill and seen it all and seen it whole.

Biography

Hector Abhayavardhana’s biography can be read as a parable of the birth and evolution of the English-educated middle class produced by British Colonialism following the Colebrook – Cameron reforms of 1832, that class which in collaboration with the British and later in succession to them was to keep the wheels of the colonial administration rolling.

He was born on January 5, 1919 in a vicarage in Kandy where his maternal grand father was the Anglican pastor. He was the eldest child of Hector Wilfred and Mary Millicent Abeywardena. (Hector was to later revert to the phonefically correct version of his name.)

On both his father’s and mother’s side the family’s roots can be traced back to Galle and coming from the privileged Goyigama caste and Christianity, the religion of the Establishment, the family belonged to the influential privileged class of the day.

His father joined Government service and rose to be Chief Clerk of the Governor’s Office under Governor Stubbs (1933-1937) whose name survives to this day on account of the Boxing Shield named after him.

Childhood

Hector’s childhood then was typical of the westernised middle-class of that gathering twilight of colonialism. As a boy he was taught ‘Good King Wenceslaus’ to sing solo in a Christmas carol and he recalls his voice and nerves letting him down on his debut.
He began his schooling in 1923 at St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia close to his home at Station Boad and won a first division in the London Matriculation examination. As part of his extra-curricular activities he also won the schools’ Broadcasting Competition.
Upbringing

Hector’s upbringing then was typical of the colonial middle-class of the day and being anglicised both in cultural values as well as religion he was at two removes from the generality of the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist middle-class of the times.

But if this was his childhood and young adulthood he was soon to break loose from these ancestral ties and taboos and strike out on a distinctive path of his own. Aided by the writings of such iconoclastic intellectual mentors as H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw.

Hector at the age of fifteen renounced Christianity and became an atheist. His gravitation to Marxism was to complete his rebellion against the doddering old gods of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and seal his intellectual maturity.

Stirred

Hector was 16 years old when the LSSP was formed in December 1935 Although he was unaware of it at that time. The year after he joined the University College, Ceylon’s only University then and popularly known as the varsity.

Like most politically-conscious people of the time he was stirred by the Bracegirdle episode where the Colonial Government sought to depot Anthony Lister Mark Bracegirdle an Australian tea planter who had joined the LSSP and was engaged in anti-imperialist agitation on the tea estates, the citadel of colonial capital.

The LSSP challenged the Governor’s deportation order and Bracegirdle went into hiding. Hector’s first exposure to radical politics was at a mass meeting at Galle Face Green where Bracegirdle made a dramatic appearance and a stirring speech before being whisked away into hiding. The Governor was Sir Reginald Stubbs and Hector’s father was the Chief Clerk in his office. The son’s dissident politics was certainly taking an interesting turn.

Political development

After this Hector’s political development gathered steady momentum. He invited Dr. Colvin R. de Silva to address the Mount Lavinia Debating Society of which he was a live wire at what turned out to be a public meeting.

He joined the LSSP and his first direct involvement in the party was when he was assigned work in the underground network which the party was preparing in anticipation of its proscription and the arrest of its leaders which duly took place in June 1940.

Active LSSPer

Although early in his early twenties Hector was already very active in the party so that when the proscription came he was among those who fled to India to continue political work there.

There they formed the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India and in these hectic political struggles Hector came into his element as a writer and his two pamphlets ‘The Saboteur Strategy of the Constructive Programme’ and on the Quit India Movement of the Congress Party were seminal theoretical works of the time.

Since then Hector has been rightly recognised as a keen political analyst, an outstanding authority on India and a major writer on the left.

Second home

Although all the main LSSP leaders returned to Ceylon after the grant of nominal political Independence Hector remained there till 1960 which makes India his second home.

He is credited with laying the ideological and theoretical foundations of the SLFP-LSSP Coalition of June 1964.

Later under the United Front Government of the SLFP – LSSP – CP formed in July 1970 Hector served as Chairman of the People’s Bank and worked closely with his comrade Dr. N.M. Perera the Finance Minister.

Political analyst

As a political analyst, thinker and writer Hector’s contribution to political literature and raising the political consciousness of the masses has been considerable. His experiences shed light on a wide spectrum of Sri Lankan politics sometimes hidden from the public gaze.

Of him one time Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Gopalkrishna Gandhi said in a tribute on his 80th birthday: “There was in him a combination of mental attributes and approaches that struck one as being profound without being ponderous; and as being intelligent in a way qualitatively different from cerebral ‘smartness.’

Sri Lankan that he was, Hector knew India better than the Indians present (at a symposium) and could discuss the internal politics of the countries represented in a manner his listeners found sobering.

In the observations he made Hector struck a balance between universal principles and the specificities of nation, society and group.”

(Note: Some of the biographical details have been extracted from the essay ‘Hector Abhayavardhana: A Biographical Sketch’ by Rajan Philips in the volume of ‘Sri Lanka: Global Challenges and National Crises,’ proceedings of the Hector Abhayavardhana felicitation symposium 1999 and published by the Ecumenical Association for Study and Dialogue and the Social Scientists’ Association 2001)

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