by DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
“In the way of resistance, there were few lonely voices…In the main, though, the foreigner took the Ceylonese upper class by the scruff of its neck…It was a class therefore destined for a rude shock…Meanwhile the masses lay dormant; watching, waiting, resentful.”
(Mervyn de Silva, “1956: The Cultural Revolution That Shook the Left”, Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16th 1967)
Mervyn de Silva
Radhika Coomaraswamy tellingly observes that Mervyn de Silva was “the greatest journalist that Sri Lanka ever produced.” (Introduction: A Tribute to Mervyn de Silva, Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva, ICES, Colombo, 2001). In a serendipitous synchronicity, Mervyn de Silva’s birthday, Sept 5th, was separated by only a few days from that of the political party he supported and was identified with but never joined—the SLFP, which was born on September 2nd, though in a different year and decade.
Mervyn and his close friend Haris Hulugalle, son of the distinguished editor and ambassador HAJ Hulugalle, always lamented a peculiar absence in the SLFP: that of a modern, internationalist, supportive intelligentsia. Mervyn observed that the educated elite was divided between the rightwing UNP and the Marxist Left, and that those first rate intellectuals who supported or were actively involved with SLFP-led coalitions came from the Left, beginning with those who supported Philip Gunawardena’s MEP. He was troubled by the absence, unique in Sri Lanka and in sharp contrast to the Congress Party of India and the People’s Party of Pakistan, of a modern intelligentsia to support the moderate nationalist SLFP.
He saw this in deeper systemic terms: the Center did not have its own intellectual and policy elite equal to that of the Right and Left. He was doubly concerned that this would diminish the capacity of the moderate center to generate its own ideology as well as state cadre (most especially in the Foreign Service, which he saw as pro-UNP/pro-West dominated), and undermine the ability of the long term, for the center to sustain itself; for the center “to hold” (in the Yeatsian sense).
Mervyn’s political discourse can be triangulated within three points of preoccupation: the UNP, the SLFP and the struggle of the Nonaligned/the global South. In his discourse, the first two i.e. the national factors, were situated against the backdrop of the third, i.e. the international.
The point of departure was Mervyn’s definition of and attitude to the Establishment, the Right, represented by the UNP.
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