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An Appreciation of Professor Ranjith Amarasinghe

| by Laksiri Fernando

( July 30, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) I was sad to hear the passing away of Professor (Emeritus) Ranjith Amarasinghe, University of Peradeniya, a teacher and a friend, on Sunday the 27th. This sadness is shared by many of our friends and former colleagues who informed me of the sorrowful demise by email, Professors Gamini Samaranayake and Kalinga Tudor Silva in particular. Ranjith was ill only for a short while and then suddenly vanished from our presence. Even I was not aware of his illness. He will be intimately missed by his wife, Mallika, and two sons, Samanga and Dhanusha and Samanga’s family.

Personal Dedication

Prof. Ranjith was not a mere academic but a social activist without personal ambition. He performed his tasks whether as an academic or a social activist as if he was bound to do that duty by destiny. This is what I have seen in him mostly throughout my association with him since I first came to know him as one of my university teachers in political science in 1965 at the University of Peradeniya. He was a dedicated teacher. After my graduation we were friends and served in the same staff before I left for Geneva in 1984. I and my wife, Winitha, were privileged to have his and Mallika’s hospitality at their home at Sarasavi Uyana (University Gardens) many a time when we were visiting Sri Lanka between 1984 and 1997. It is the same quality of dedication to family and friends that we have seen in him. He was a good cook, and I relished to taste his home brewed Lovi (Flacourtia inermis) wine.
After returning back to Sri Lanka in 1997 my last close association with him was until 2005 as members of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Peace Negotiations and Constitutional Reform. Early 2005 I left again for two years on sabbatical and also disillusioned with the lack of progress on the peace front. He nevertheless dedicatedly continued until the end of the year. Thereafter, he was a founder and a Director along with Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne of the Institute for Constitutional Studies until his passing away this week. If he were living any longer he would have taken a prominent role in the ongoing movement for the abolition of the presidential system, I have no doubt.

Ranjith was a brilliant and a dedicated teacher not only for me but for many of the political scientists that the University of Peradeniya has produced. Many of them are professors today on their own right. His political science teachers were only one or two and the names of Professor A. Jeyeratnam Wislon and Dr. K. H. Jayasinghe naturally come to my mind. Professor Wiswa Warnapala as far as I know was his senior contemporary. However, his successors or students were many, rather a long list to mention even the illustrious ones by name. Those days, as there was no separate degree in political science and as it was a part of economics degree he was not only teaching for government students but also for economics students as well. Many of them or the batch that entered Peradeniya in 1964 who are celebrating the 50th Anniversary this year in September might be saddened to hear his demise. Among his economics teachers were many giants like Professors H. A. de S. Gunasekara, Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, F. R. Jayasuriya and Tony Rajaratnam. Professor Hewavitharana might be very sad to hear Ranjith’s demise.

Academic Achievements

To his academic credit, Ranjith obtained BA (Ceylon), B. Phil (York) and PhD (London) before venturing into broader areas of studies, research and social engagement. He could not be considered a politically neutral or an apolitical person. He was neither a political activist. His PhD thesis at the University of London was on “Trotskyism in Ceylon,” studying the ‘development, ideology and political role’ of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) between 1935 and 1964. 

This he converted into a popular and updated book published by the Social Scientists Association (1998 and 2000) titled rather in the reverse order or more appropriately as “Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka.” After G. J. Lerski’s “Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon” (1968) this was the most extensive study on the development of the LSSP and invariably of the Left party politics in the country. If Lerski traced the origins, Ranjith elaborated the development. Taking the LSSP joining a coalition government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1964 as a decisive departure, which some called a great betrayal, he examined the transformation of initial revolutionary idealism into regular parliamentary politics. Apart from joining a ‘bourgeoisie’ government, he showed that the LSSP’s politics was marked by a parliamentary orientation almost from the beginning influenced by British Fabianism and also Trotskyism. However, he has also traced the militant history of the party against colonialism and war, and after independence, in trade unionism and particularly during the Hartal of 1953.

Then what has happened is the de-radicalization of a Marxist party under the influence of parliamentary politics that Robert Tucker discussed (The De-radicalization of Marxist Movements, 1967). It is interesting to note that a similar trajectory has been applied by two young researchers, Shathasiri Abeywarna and GDRUU Abeyrathne, whom I don’t know personally, to discuss the transformation of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into parliamentary politics recently. Interestingly, their work resonates Ranjith’s work and even titled as “Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of the JVP.”

When the Presidential Constitution was inaugurated in 1978 he was strongly critical of the system not because that the 1972 Constitution was ideal, but because of the dangers associated with the executive power shifting from Parliament to an all-powerful Executive President. His views were very close to what Dr. N. M. Perera expressed in his “Critical Analysis” of that Constitution. However, when the 13th Amendment was inaugurated in 1987, Ranjith was at the forefront among other academics, professionals, artists who openly supported the provincial council system and devolution of power. He was very close to late Dr. Newton Gunasinghe and Dr. Kumari Jayawardena in the activities of the Social Scientists Association (SSA) and in the activities of the Workers and Peasants Institute (WPI) which Newton Gunasinghe founded in Kandy.

Other Work

Since this period he has written on many subjects, all of which I don’t have ready access or clear track, but he became more and more involved in researching on the issues of ethnic reconciliation, provincial council system, devolution of power and constitutional reforms. He was associated with the National Integration Program Unit (NIPU) of the Ministry of National Integration during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first term of office. It is no wonder why and how he thereafter became very close to Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne in this venture. He was closely behind and extremely supportive of President CBK’s devolution package in 1995 until it became a new Draft Constitution in August 2000 through negotiations with the opposition UNP. It was disheartening for him that it was not successful when it was proposed as a Bill in Parliament. At least those days, the Parliament retained the upper hand and not the President. 

It was my observation that he was a supporter and even an advocate of a quasi-federal system for Sri Lanka. He considered a clear characterization of the state system as a unitary state in the constitution to be a major hindrance to a political resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. He was more inclined to its characterization as a ‘democratic republic consisting of state institutions of the center and of the regions/provinces.’ He also gave much emphasis in enhancing horizontal democratic institutions to the level of the grassroots and therefore interested in the enhancement of powers, functions and participation of the local government system.

Some of his publications on the subject of devolution and provincial council system includes “Devolution Experience in Sri Lanka, 1988-1998,” “Legislative Functions of Provincial Councils: Statute Making and Capacity Issues,” and “The Working of Provincial Councils: Centre/Province Relations.” In this respect he was very close to three other researchers, Professors N. Selvakkumaran, Tressie Leitan and A. M. Navaratna-Bandara.

Prof. Ranjith have had a vast international experience as a visiting scholar/professor particularly in the United States and Japan. He was a Japan Foundation Fellow. One of his rare publications was on “Enforcement of Environmental Law in Sri Lanka and Japan” (2002).” His demise might be crucially felt by the Department of Political Science and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya where he was Chair of Political Science (1998-2008) and the Dean of the Faculty (2003-2006). Outside the university confines he also served as a Consultant and a Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs during Minister DEW Gunasekera’s time and also served as the Director of the Peace Building Project.

Final Note

This personal appreciation is incomplete if I fail to conclude it with a comment on Prof. Ranjith’s family. I and my wife, Winitha, knew Mallika as a dedicated teacher at Hillwood College Kandy. We knew Samanga and Dhanusha, the two sons, when they were toddlers but not very much after they grew up, except Samanga briefly before he went overseas. I was delighted to learn through web searchers today that both have now grown up to carry forward the father’s mission perhaps in different forms. Samanga is already an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Bellevue University, USA, with his own publications clearly in line with his father. Dhanusha has taken a more socially engaged role in Sri Lanka, working as the Country Coordinator of the Education Lanka Foundation. In addition Dhanusha has his own research and publications. This is something perhaps Ranjith longed for. He was not a political activist, as I said before, but always had an inclination to render service to the society. “Education is not merely a passport for upward social mobility, it is primarily a social contract to serve the society.” He believed in this principle. 

May he attain Nibbana.

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