Veteran public servant Eric J. de Silva has taken time to pen some of his experiences in the service in a brief publication titled ‘A Peep Into the Past: Stories from the Life of a Public Servant’ released recently. It is not an autobiography but some selected incidents during his career which culminated in being the Education Secretary before leaving for a position at UNESCO.
He has experience in both Sri Lanka and abroad as a developmental bureaucrat handling human resource development. His lenience into this area of public service is not a surprise because he had graduated from Ceylon University with an honours degree in economics in 1958. But most of the work commenced by public servants is left unfinished because they are transferred from place to place frequently on service needs.
One time Finance Secretary Charitha Ratwatte has noted this perennial deficiency in Sri Lanka’s public service in his foreword to the publication as follows: “Eric’s work on education policy, vocational training, at the Ministry of Education and Labour, and the training of public officers at SLIDA can be described as unfinished symphonies. It is a pity that he could not spend more time at SLIDA which plays a critical role in the training of the Administrative and Planning Services. In the same way, that it is a great pity that Life Skills (on which Eric worked) is no longer a part of secondary education. The lack of vocational skills and the negative attitude to ‘blue collar’ technical work is a major constraint to the country’s development, especially at a time like this when we are trying to come out of the dislocation caused by the Covid pandemic” (p iv).
Importance of personal capital
The book contains 15 stories picked up by Eric in his long career as a public servant. They are not connected to each other but present random incidents which readers can enjoy as different stories. He had served several governments of different hues from 1960 till his retirement in mid-1980s. It demonstrates his recognised impartiality and demonstrated professionalism in serving different political masters.
When one serves in any organisation, he or she accumulates what is known as ‘personal capital’, an indicator of trust and confidence which others have reposed in him. Eric had accumulated a plenty of personal capital recognised by Sri Lankan political leaders as well as international organisations. The selected stories in the book are demonstrative of how he had accumulated his personal capital. If one learns from his bad experiences, that is the best teacher one could have.
Demonstration of economic wisdom
The story on how Eric tried to cut the travel time when travelling from Polonnaruwa to Kandy by getting into a friend’s car without knowing that he did not have a driving license is a lesson on economics. The unlicensed driver had driven the car into a trench and Eric had to spend one and a half days on the road whereas he could have reached Kandy in a few hours had he used the public transport. ‘When people make choices without adequate information, they are bound to make losses’ is a basic lesson that we learn in economics.
The significance of accumulating personal capital in one’s professional life is demonstrated by the story on his entanglement in an election petition. The petitioner had tried to establish in the Supreme Court that Eric as the counting officer had a dereliction of his duty when he refused a request for a recount because he and his wife who was also an election officer were in a hurry to go back to tend to their baby child. When this was suggested by the petitioner’s lawyer, Eric had turned to the two Supreme Court Judges and told them sternly that there were enough people to look after the daughter at home and they accepted the election duty because they could spend long hours outside the house. It was his words versus the highly plausible claim of the petitioner. The learned judges had decided to go by him and dismissed the case. That was the beauty of the trust and confidence he had built throughout his career.
All stories narrated by Eric in his collection are important and interesting reading. Out of them, the most relevant to today’s context is the story on how Sirimavo Bandaranaike, three times Prime Minister elected by popular vote, handled the alleged insultation to the Buddha by Sri Lanka’s foremost writer Martin Wickremesinghe in his novel titled Bavatharanaya. This story should be a useful learning experience to the rulers today because it shows how a true statesman wisely handled the agitations made by some powerful sections in Sri Lanka’s society that Bavatharanaya, a novel of immense creativity, should be banned and legal action should be taken to Sri Lanka’s greatest writer at the time. To do justice to Eric, I reproduce his story mostly as he has narrated it.
A PM willing to listen
This is what Eric says about Sirimavo: “What became clear to me during these interactions (with Sirimavo) was that the PM did not want her officials to say ‘yes’ to everything she said, and that she wanted them to say what they honestly felt about a matter to enable her to take what she considered was the right decision. Contrary to popular belief, she was always amenable to good advice and was prepared to listen to the pros and cons of a matter, once she knew that the advice was well meant” (p 23). This does not mean that Eric had a bias for Sirimavo. He had narrated similar experiences which he had with other politicians with whom had worked.
Alleged defaming of the Buddha
Now back to Bavatharanaya episode. It is a novel penned by Martin Wickremesinghe based on the lay life of the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha. Since it is a novel, he had taken liberty to portray the story creatively deviating from the established life story in the mainstream Buddhist literature. This is what had angered some section of powerful Buddhists who did not understand the difference between a creative work and a religiously established life story. For them, Wickremesinghe had insulted the Buddha and, hence, the government should ban the book which in practice amounted to imposing a legal penalty on the writer.
Demystifying the Buddha
In the introduction to Bavatharanaya, Wickremesinghe had confessed that his intention of writing the novel was to demystify the life story of the Buddha corrupted by the rising Brahmanical tradition which had been discarded by the Buddha himself. This reminded us of the lectures delivered to us by Rev. Prof. Kotagama Vachissara at the old Vidyodaya University in 1967 when he taught us Buddhist Civilisation. He said: “Children,” the fond way he addressed us. “If we don’t remove this mysticism from the Buddha’s life, we can’t prepare Buddhism for the 21st century’s science-based world.” He was the most vehement critic of the mysticism added to Buddha and Buddhist practices of the day. Six years later, Sri Lanka’s greatest writer had completed what the learned Reverend could not accomplish because of his untimely death.
Critics of Bavatharanaya
The book had been a bestseller and within four months, the second edition had also been out. By that time, says Eric, powerful Buddhist scholarly monks and lay Buddhist leaders had begun a campaign against the book. They included Rev. Yakkaduwe Pragnarama of Vidyalankara Pirivena and Rev. Pallewela Saddhathissa of Vidyodaya Pirivena and Sir Senarath Gunawardhana and Sir Cyril de Zoyza. They were soon joined by Mahanayaka Thero of Asgiriya Chapter who had made a personal representation to Sirimavo on the need for banning Bavatharanaya.
When the campaign gathered momentum, political parties opposed to the government first joined it followed by some government side members later. It was now a mass campaign against a single writer. Aganuwara Eksath Baudhdha Bala Mandalay had even demanded that Wickremesinghe should be arrested, tried in courts, and put behind bars.
Subsuming the supporters’ voice
However, there were some leading figures who had opposed to the banning of the book. Writers like Ediriweera Sarachchandra, and Gunadasa Amarasekera, and Buddhist scholars like Rev. Prof. Moratuwe Sasanarathana of Vidyalankara Campus and Ven. Akuretiye Amarawansa of Vidyaloka Pirivena had expressed support for the book claiming that there was no insultation to the Buddha as argued by the critics. But their voice was subsumed by the loud campaign against the book. The writer Martin Wickremesinghe had been helpless in this situation.
Hilarious claims by some critics
There had been some hilarious claims too. A UNP member of the Colombo Municipal Council had revealed that Wickremesinghe had written the book after taking vodka when he visited USSR. Hence, for him, it was a Marxist plot to destroy Buddhism. Says Eric about Martin Wickremesinghe’s response: “While all this was being said, the wise old sage remained unmoved maintaining a stoic silence giving expression to the great Buddhist virtue of Upeksha”.
Eric’s involvement in Bavatharanaya fiasco
Eric got involved in the Bavatharanaya row in 1974 when he was attached to the Ministry of Defence as its Senior Assistant Secretary in charge of defence activities. The Secretary was W.T. Jayasinghe, known as WT. When the pressure was intense on Sirimavo by the campaigners demanding the banning of Bavatharanaya and placing Wickremesinghe behind bars, WT speculated that at any time the PM might ask him to take suitable action under emergency laws. He had asked Eric to prepare a Gazette Notification to that effect so that when Sirimavo gave instructions, they were ready to go into action. But Eric thought otherwise. His Peradeniya training had disciplined him not to take harsh action without studying an issue properly. He had asked for time from WT so that he could study the subject more intensely and submit a comprehensive report.
Says Eric: “On my way back to home, I went to M D Gunasena in Pettah and bought a copy of the book. Having got home, I turned the pages of the book to find that it was not going to be easy reading after a hard day’s work in office. Those who have read it will agree that Bavatharanaya is no Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya, Yuganthaya, or any other novel written by its illustrious author. But I had given an undertaking to the Secretary and had a tight target to keep. After an early dinner, I sat down to my task in earnest having explained to my wife the nature of the ordeal I had inflicted on myself. It is no reflection on the book if I were to say it induced sleep to my weary eyes more than once despite the plentiful sips of coffee, and I wondered whether this by itself was a point in favour of not banning the book at all” (p 26).
After reading the book, Eric had found that there was nothing in it that called for a ban. It was a bold attempt at demystifying the life of the Buddha which was a necessity. Since the book was tough reading, even those who had demanded its banning may not have read it or understood it if they had read it to a finish. Says Eric: “I was convinced that banning the book was counter-productive even from the point of view of those who wanted it banned, as people would want to get hold of a copy to somehow to see what exactly led to the ban and thus increase its readership” (p 27).
So, Eric put his ideas into paper in the form of a report and submitted to WT following the normal procedure. WT, having read it, had not wanted Eric to change it but submitted to Sirimavo as it was. Eric had waited patiently for the ruling of Sirimavo on the issue. Eric says that “Later in the day, the Secretary conveyed to me the happy news that the Prime Minister had very carefully read my note and not only agreed with my recommendation but had expressed appreciation of what I had done” (p 27).
Thus, Sirimavo had decided not to ban Bavatharanaya despite the pressure coming from even the Mahanayaka of Asgiriya and some leading members of the government.
Sirimavo is said to have been schooled only up to the 7th Standard. Yet, she had been a statesman who had not yielded to unreasonable demands of top people in the country. She could have got political mileage by banning Bavatharanaya but chose to make the correct decision based on the correct recommendation. This is a lesson which the educated political leaders of the day should learn from this so-called half-educated lady.