Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunagala from 1962 to 1983, died 30 years ago, on October 23rd. He was undoubtedly the most impressive Anglican Bishop Sri Lanka has produced, and with every year that passes his stature seems to grow.
Much has been written about him recently, most notably in Rajan Hoole’s detailed assessment of what happened in July 1983. Hoole shows how those events contributed to his premature death for, though he had a heart condition and had been advised to take things slow, he threw himself into trying to assuage the hurt felt by Tamils who had suffered in the state sponsored attacked on them.
He had been in England in July, taking the much needed break his doctors had advised, and trying to set down his thoughts on an oriental view of Christianity. In the last conversation we had, on the phone for I got to England on the day he was due to leave, he assured me that he would take things slow, in trying first to understand what had happened, and how the social dispensation into which he had been born had turned rabid. But seeing the suffering and the bewilderment, he did not rest, being the first Sinhalese dignitary to go up to Jaffna to apologize for what had happened.
Tissa Jayatilaka, in writing on the 30th anniversary of his last Pastoral address, on September 23rd 1983, captures the anguish he felt, and his almost desperate effort to restore a sense of balance based on fundamental principles of decency. But he was full of grief, and soon after that he was admitted to hospital. He sent word for me, on the day I got back, to come and see him, but his mother, my grandmother, told he to wait till he was better. I suspect she knew that emotions might be heightened when we met, given the anger we had both felt at the manner in which the Jayewardene government had conducted itself on this issue.
But even in what was supposed to be isolation, he continued to feel and to worry, and on October 23rd he died. He was just 56 years old.
Though his anguish about the violence the government had unleashed against Tamils, in 1977 and in 1981 and most horrendously in 1983, led to his most distinctive political role, he had been involved in passionate criticism in other contexts too. He would have been horrified therefore at the facile account of his activism put forward recently by the latest Bishop of Kurunagala, Shantha Francis whom he had consecrated as a priest in 1978.
Bishop Francis is reported to have said that, ‘I cannot be a Lakshman Wickremesinghe. He belonged to a leading Sinhala family and he felt that he must speak of the rights of the Tamils. In my case, I’m a Tamil, so my duty towards reconciliation is the other way around. I must understand the Sinhala Buddhist majority community and I must build up some link there.’
This is misrepresentation, whether deliberate or not, of the way Bishop Lakshman functioned. He believed that he had to speak of the rights of everyone, and his first active intervention in politics was with regard to the youngsters involved in the JVP insurrection of 1981. It was because of what he felt was the excesses of government in controlling that insurrection that he was a founder member, along with Prof Sarachchandra, of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka. And after the Jayewardene government came to power, his first major criticism of it came with his support for the strikers of July 1980 who he felt had been beaten into submission.
It was salutary then that his letter to the Times, following the 1982 referendum which the British establishment had welcomed, was republished recently, reminding us of the breadth of his political understanding and involvement. He strove to be objective in his assessments of events though he believed that, as a churchman, his duty as he put it was to afflict the comfortable while comforting the wicked.
But, as I wrote in the New Lankan Review in 1983 in a tribute that was republished in 2008 in Lest We Forget: the tragedy of July 1983 that I brought out while heading the Sri Lankan Peace Secretariat, to remind us of the main catalyst for the tragedy that the country was facing –
‘his radicalism was balanced, and subject to basic general moral principles. Thus, he in no way condones the violence of the insurgents of 1971, in his moving plea on their behalf, ‘Emergency Regulations – For Whose Benefit?’, the first pronouncement on the subject by a nonpolitical public figure, a parallel to his being the first such figure of any consequence to visit the Jaffna Peninsula after the violence in 1983. At the same time, in criticizing violence, he does recognize that where the young turn to violence it is the responsibility of the authorities to appreciate that there must be good reason for this, and to look into their grievances; and also that excessive and unnecessary recourse to violence by authority combating violence only exacerbates the situation while taking away from the moral status of what is being defended.
His last Pastoral letter, which received a lot of publicity after his death, takes up a number of these factors: the absolute rejection of violence and terrorism, along with a plea for the powerful to unbend, for strength to be exercised on behalf of the oppressed and suffering. More importantly perhaps it asserts a profound concept of responsibility and moral awareness. Lakshman was one of the few adults of his generation who was ready and willing to apologize to anyone, whatever their relative status, if he felt he were wrong; he was also anxious to consider carefully whether he were wrong, to weigh issues on their merits rather than in terms of consequences, real or imagined, adverse or otherwise, for those involved. Where so many people in authority are eager to blame others, to claim they did not know, that saboteurs are responsible, Lakshman lays down through an unassailable argument the need for a national apology to those who suffered for the violence that occurred. It is not a question of collective guilt; that he shows is untenable in his argument against those who attribute such guilt to those who suffered; but he proclaims a need for collective remorse by virtue of the claims of the individual to a common humanity and, where relevant, to a religious inspiration.
Naturally this, the most important part of the letter, is truncated in most of the newspapers. Whether in any case any notice will be taken is a moot point. He is no longer around to afflict the comfortable, and the sentiments his death arouses are not likely to carry far. Yet the comfort provided to the afflicted will endure. The numerous tributes that are written would testify to what has been achieved, even if the actions and arguments did not speak for themselves.’