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Mervyn De Silva’s Political Ideas and Values

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Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka


Mervyn de Silva

“Mervyn’s career as a journalist, as a literary critic, as a satirist, as a political commentator, as a broadcaster, both within the country and abroad, is without peer, either before or since and is not likely to be equaled for a long time to come, if at all.”
—Neville Jayaweera, The Island, Sept 8th 2002

“…Mervyn revealed dimensions to his personality in which there was a strong romantic strain. He had a feel for the heroic, the courageous, the brave and brainy anti-authoritarian protagonist.”

—P. Duleepkumar, Sunday Times, Sept 5th 1999


The volume entitled ‘TITO in the World Press: On the Occasion of the 80th Birthday’ was published by the Yugoslav review Borba.

The opening contribution to the volume published in 1972 in Belgrade was by Abraham Guillen, writing in the newspaper Marcha, in Uruguay. Guillen, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, was known as the ‘counselor’ and ‘strategist’ of the legendary Uruguayan urban guerrilla group, the Tupamaros, of which President Mujica was a leader as a young man and comrade-in-arms of the movement’s founder Raul Sendic.

The article on page 14 of the volume was by the most legendary journalist of the Arab world, Mohamed Hassanein Heykal of Egypt, writing in the famous paper he edited, Al Ahram.

Nikolai Podgorny, the President of the USSR was another contributor, writing in Pravda.

Luigi Longo, a founder member with Antonio Gramsci and Palomiro Togliatti and later, General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party and partisan fighter against Mussolini’s fascism contributed a piece on Tito to l’Unita.

One of the most famous Western journalists of the post war 20th century, CL Sulzberger contributed his piece in the pages of the New York Times, of course.

On page 30 of the volume is the editorial bearing the name Mervyn de Silva and appearing in the Daily News, Sri Lanka on May 19th 1972. (In an interesting symmetry, when he was unfairly dismissed from the editorship of the Daily News, the article in The Guardian, UK, described him as the Hassanein Heykal of Sri Lanka.)

The article on President Tito of Yugoslavia not only reveals Mervyn’s views on that great hero of 20th century history and founder leader of the Non-Aligned movement, but also Mervyn’s own values, especially in the field of world affairs.

“Once again the Yugoslav Parliament has honoured President Tito. The occasion this time was his 80th birthday, an event which is being celebrated throughout Yugoslavia with all the spontaneous warmth and admiration that is reserved only for a true national hero. This Tito certainly is.

A courageous patriot and partisan, he won the hearts of his people by his heroic role in the bloody struggle against Hitler and fascism. As a military strategist and statesman he played the game of war and politics with such exceptional skill and sagacity that Yugoslavia emerged from the war a free and independent nation. Soon the same courage and skill stood him and his country well when Yugoslavia was faced with the menacing challenge of Stalin’s expanding empire. That brave defiance gained Tito and Yugoslavia the undying regard of all independent nations, big and small. In these glorious beginnings and in such acts of patriotic spirit lies the secret of Tito’s enduring authority over his people. For more than a quarter century Tito has been Yugoslavia.

But Tito is more than the architect and master of Yugoslavia. He is a world figure, universally renowned and respected. If his stern sense of national independence made his foreign policy a model for other nations during and after the Cold war, his innovations in socialist practice (both in politics and in economics) have earned him the reputation of an ideological pioneer and experimenter.

The Third World has a special reason to regard him with affection. He was the first European of any standing to respond sincerely to the aspirations which swept the ex-colonial world after the war. This led him gradually to identify himself with the non-aligned community. And it was Yugoslavia’s capital which became the venue of the first non-aligned conference. With Nehru, Soekarno, Nasser and Nkrumah gone, Tito remains the dominant personality of this expanding international community.” (“Universally renowned and respected”, Mervyn de Silva, Daily News, May 19, 1972)

So, Mervyn’s identifiable values were: a courageous patriotism/patriotic spirit, anti-fascist struggle, a free and independent nation, a stern sense of national independence, innovative experiments in socialism, brave defiance, the Third World, the aspirations which swept the ex-colonial world after the war, the non-aligned community. To reiterate: courage and brave defiance in the service of national freedom and independence, patriotism, anti-fascism, innovative socialist experimentation, Third Worldism and nonalignment.

Those were some of Mervyn’s political ideas and values, but what of the values of Mervyn the man, as reflected in his life and witnessed by those close to him who had known him since his youth?

Writing in the Sunday Times of September 5th 1999, which would have been Mervyn’s 70th birthday had he lived for a few months more, his university friend PS Duleepkumar, founder of Accounting Systems and Services (and cousin of the iconic leftist Bala Tampoe) wrote of Mervyn with revealing insight:

“Mervyn’s brilliance as a journalist has been universally acclaimed and rightly so. The qualitative difference in Mervyn’s writing was I believe greatly due to his over-arching interest in international affairs and the width and the depth of his reading. He was able to interconnect events happening in different parts of the world in terms of a universal trend or in relation to a common principle. This enabled him to see the unfolding events in Sri Lanka objectively and in a wider perspective than most and made him much sought after by the diplomatic community. Mani Dixit, the former Indian High Commissioner, marked him as one of the best, if not the best, he had met on his numerous postings.

…There was a prophetic dimension to his writing. He was in the forefront of the thinking which mooted the significance of geopolitics in the conduct of foreign affairs. He emphasized the primacy of India in the structure of our foreign policy. The Tamil Nadu factor…

…In the Lanka Guardian which was his prime achievement, he was at pains to give weightage to the expression of the minority view on the vexed nationalities question.

…Mervyn revealed dimensions to his personality in which there was a strong romantic strain. He had a feel for the heroic, the courageous, the brave and brainy anti-authoritarian protagonist. General Giap and Che Guevara come to mind.

…We differed on many matters but talked the same language…Mervyn was completely unambitious in the best sense of the word. Never a seeker of vain glory, he was also oblivious to wealth and money. He lived to satisfy inner compulsions which were filtered by his reason and intelligence for a life of self-fulfillment in accordance with his outstanding talent.” (PS Duleepkumar, Sunday Times Plus, Sept 5th 1999)

Let us leave the penultimate word to Mervyn himself. What follows are the opening and closing paragraphs from the inaugural edition of the Lanka Guardian which he founded on May 1st 1978:

“The Lanka Guardian is primarily a journal of opinion. The proper functioning of a pluralist democracy presupposes the free interplay of diverse opinions. The freer and more active, the better…”

“…We have been advised to be lamps unto ourselves. The press in particular has been invited to light the path of our leaders. For common humanity the possibilities of personal salvation, so freely given to the artist and the saint, can only be enhanced by the larger endeavour of social emancipation. The act of informed discussion is itself a source of illumination.” (Mervyn de Silva, ‘Other News, Another Opinion’, Lanka Guardian Vol. 1, No 1, May 1st 1978)

Thus for Mervyn de Silva, the path of “personal salvation” runs through “social emancipation” which is the “larger endeavor” of the two, and to which one contributes the role and function of “illumination” by means of “informed discussion” which presupposes the “free and active interplay of diverse opinions” for which “pluralist democracy” is a precondition. In sum, social emancipation and pluralist democracy, or more intimately and inextricably, social emancipation through pluralist democracy.


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