Speech delivered by Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama at the 30th commemoration of Vijaya Kumaratunga at the BMICH recently
I consider myself to be very fortunate for being called upon to speak a few words about our friend the late Vijaya Kumaratunga, undoubtedly the most popular actor and the most popular politician 30 years ago. All of us present here today are his friends and those who loved him.
Horrendous though it was, I see Vijaya’s assassination, in a certain sense, as the enactment of a farce. I say so, without any sense of levity, because those who perpetrated that crime because of a point of view held dearly by Vijaya, themselves came round to that point of view a few years later. They accepted the idea held by Vijaya, which apparently motivated them to assassinate him.
There was a lot of conflict engendered by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was brought forth at that time. However, the people who were responsible for the assassination accepted the relevant constitutional changes as time passed, accepted the Provincial Council system and even got themselves elected members of those Councils. They thereby proved, as a philosopher has said, that sometimes a farce is enacted in this world. But we must talk about something more serious today.
Vijaya Kumaratunga was assassinated because it was considered necessary to ‘assassinate’ a certain idea. I don’t think the assassins were satisfied with simply eliminating a man physically – a man who was a popular cinema actor, a very popular person in his own right and an extremely cordial individual. They wanted to kill an idea. What was that idea? At a time when in this country people were shooting each other and killing each other, Vijaya Kumaratunga stood up as a beacon of peace and amity and said loud and clear that everyone born in this country must live in brotherhood without distinctions of race, religion or caste.
He said that through our dedicated effort, we can create a haven of peace and amity. He also gave out the message to the world at large that even if we had to give our life for building up such a country, without racial, religious or caste discord, a country where everyone has the opportunity to achieve of his best, that would not be too much of a sacrifice.
There is a widely held belief that a country possesses value, that a country has a future only when there are people ready to sacrifice their lives for such a beautiful, civilized and splendid cause. Many wise men have said so. A country faces difficulties if there are no people in times of darkness ready to swim against the tide. That history will someday honour such action, that such action will earn respect and affection someday, the people present here today is the living proof.
Vijaya made that sacrifice not just for his wife, children and his friends. Something that he often said was that only through preserving our humaneness will there be a future for the country. He has given that positive message. I think that message is still necessary for this country not only after 30 years. Even after 300 years, it will still be valid.
I reflected on this matter from the angle of politics as well as philosophy. According to Marxism, there is a bourgeoisie – a middle class. After independence, there were two social groupings in this country. One was the comprador bourgeoisie. That class enjoyed various benefits under the colonial structure – earned commissions, rents, profits etc. in the colonial economy.
Mr Bandaranaike made room in 1956 for a national bourgeoisie to flourish as an alternative. So, there existed that traditional conflict between the western oriented comprador class and the national bourgeoisie. At the same time, there manifested itself two groups within the national bourgeoisie itself. Especially in traditional societies, those belonging to retrograde sections always look towards the past.
There may be some good in looking at the past. The past does have some value. However, we need to reflect whether everything in the past is relevant to the present day. I don’t think this excessive obsession with the past is a good thing. The country cannot go forward that way. Problems which existed in the past would tend to re-generate conflict in the present day.
While that tendency is there, there is also an alternative progressive national bourgeoisie. How can that progressive national bourgeoisie advance? How can they be given a prominent place in society? There we have again to turn to Marxism. There was controversy on this matter even within Marxism. Marx said that on the basis of the economic infrastructure, a superstructure arises. The arts, drama, and more than everything – religion, belong to that superstructure.
However later Marxist theoreticians like Gramsci postulated that the superstructure is equally important as the economic factors. They opined that the superstructure also independently impacts on and influences behavior, motivations and indeed economic processes itself.
What we need to remember is that Vijaya Kumaratunga was able, through his art, music and drama located in that superstructure, to analyse and portray the nature of the economic structure itself. Therefore, even more than it being a case of, the base being reflected in the superstructure, Vijaya was able to promote and propagate ideals of humaneness and of equality, out of the essential empathy enshrined in the philosophy underlying all art, as well as the inborn nature of his own personal self.
Even philosophically, that is important. Many see only the conflict in the infrastructure below. Like Vijaya Kumaratunga did, we ought to bring to prominence certain values obtaining in the superstructure that I mentioned. How do we move forward towards the future in this complex structure? Specifically, how do we entice the nationalist bourgeoisie to the progressive side?
I think we can learn from the Vijaya’s course of action how we may move in the present era, preserving humaneness, while respecting the past but not importing old conflicts to the modern world. Vijaya used the popularity he gained through the cinema to noble ends, while others prostituted their abilities to promote retrograde ideas.
Many people think that Sinhala art, Sinhala drama, Sinhala poetry et al are devoted only to the past. If you read a Sinhala newspaper, there would be many accounts of what happened in the Dutugemunu period, about battles fought, people being killed and so forth. However, there is yet another national tendency superseding the aforesaid one. That is the progressive national tendency. That tendency, while acquiring popularity among the people, tries to take the people forward to an advanced path of progress, making use of that selfsame popularity. That is something very important in the world today.
There is a book by Lenin titled ‘What is to be done?’ What should we do in the present circumstances? What is our heritage? What is our future? How should we reflect on these matters and make use of the national identity to build a just society? Vijaya reflected how we may move forward in this direction using the popularity he gained in the cinema. More than us, Madam Chandrika knows best about that aspect.
When we go back and reflect upon what Vijaya said from time to time, we see that the questions of human rights and equality of treatment, came to engage his mind more and more. I remember that at a time when terrorist activity was at its height in Jaffna, when it was a matter of life and death to be there, Vijaya Kumaratunga went to Jaffna and met one of the Tiger leaders, Rahim, an old boy of my own school Trinity College.
It was a tremendous feat of courage for Vijaya to have gone to Jaffna at the time, a time fraught with extreme danger, and to have visited a Kovil and addressed the Tamil people at a public meeting. That was an act of heroism.
As Sri Lankans we have a good history. We have a history of working together without distinctions of race, religion and caste. Inspired by that thought, all of us present here today must take it to heart to go forward to join a new struggle to build a new just society. If on the contrary, we allow a new racial war to emerge, there will be tremendous destruction.
In a way it is difficult for such things to happen in the modern world. The society that was there 30 or 60 years ago no longer exists. Actors do not exercise the authority they once had. Television did not exist then. At that time, iconic actors commanded great attention. I don’t think such iconic figures any longer exist either in the cinema or the television. We must realize that those larger than life figures of 30 years ago are no longer there. We can learn much for the future through such changes.
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