My Indelible Memories ofthe Past and of Professor C L V (Lakshman) Jayathilake

During the proceedings, I decided to sit for the BSC Engineering Final Part II papers. I had completed all my engineering coursework, but not sat for the final exam. I knew, once convicted, it would take some time for us to gain our freedom. 

by Lionel Bopage 

I am extremely saddened by the news I heard this morning, that Emeritus Professor C L V (Lakshman) Jayathilake,a fellow of the Institute of Engineers, Sri Lanka,has succumbed to Covid and passed away.

He has impacted my life in many ways on several occasions.

When I was studying at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, he was a lecturer in the Mechanical Engineering Department. I was studying for a Mechanical and Electrical combined degree in engineering, a rare combination at the time.

Even in my pre-adolescent life, my interests in science and engineering ran parallel with my interests in politics. Since my childhood, I had wanted to be an engineer. At the same time, I was actively involved in politics of the left within the school and outside of it. In a way, it would have been my obsession with the materialist way of thinking that helped, not inconsiderably, my scientific thinking patterns.

At the university, I was an active member of the Socialist Society, led by comrade Nihal Dias, originally affiliated with the Ceylon Communist Party (Peking Wing) that was led by comrade Nagalingam Shanmugathasan. Later, due to the efforts of many of us, including late comrade Sarath Wijesinghe, the Socialist Society became non-party affiliated, but was still heavily influenced by Maoist political thoughts. As usual, I spent most of my extra time with those in the Arts and Science Faculties, mostly on the other side of the famous Akbar bridge linking the two banks of the Mahaweli river that runs through the campus grounds. At the same time, I was a diligent student, attending my lectures and doing my coursework.

Dr Jayathilake was our Thermodynamics lecturer. He held a BSc (Engineering) First Class Honours, a postgraduate Diploma of Imperial College and a PhD from the Imperial College, London.

One day, he called me into his office. I thought it had something to do with my attendance to lectures or coursework performance. Unexpectedly, he directly discussed my involvement in politics. He asked me why I was involved in politics. I clarified my thoughts and explained that although I could achieve many things in life as an individual, we could and should not forget the suffering of our fellow human beings. At the time, his way of thinking and mine did not coincide.

He thought, as an engineering student, I should not get involved in politics, mainly because engineers did not have an employment problem. Engineers would have employment opportunities for the years to come, was his view. I differed, and cited the medical students who had graduated and were still unemployed. In particular, Dr Jayathilake did not like me getting politically involved with the students in the Faculty of Arts. Late comrade Sarath Justin Fernando and I had assisted a strike led by the students of the Arts, Medical and Agriculture faculties. The strike was in support of several HSC students whose university admission was granted first, who were then replaced with some others who had received lower marks. The only engineering students who had supported the strike in public were the two of us and a few others. The faculty administration was not impressed with our political stand, obviously.

Dr Jayathilake knew that he was unable to convince me to give up politics, and had spoken to Professor Selvadurai Mahalingam, whoused to take our Mechanics of Machines lectures. We used to call him “Mr Vibration”. Despite his nickname, he was a well-recognised professional with a first-class in BSc (Engineering), a PhD from the University of Sheffield and a DSc (Engineering) from the University of London. He warned me that I should give up politics, and in a threatening way, told me that I should either do politics or become an engineer. A similar but gentle warning came from Professor J C V Chinnappa, who was the Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the time. I thought Professor Chinnappa displayed more empathy towards our stand. 

In 1971, the government at the time set up controversial legislation in the form of the Criminal Justice Commissions (CJC) Act, to convict us by reversing the principles of natural Justice applicable then. The CJC allowed evidence that would have otherwise been inadmissible in a court of law, and shiftedthe legal burden of proof away from the prosecutionon to the accused. The findings or sentences of the CJC were final and non-appealable. It was a political trial rather than a legal one.

During the proceedings, I decided to sit for the BSC Engineering Final Part II papers. I had completed all my engineering coursework, but not sat for the final exam. I knew, once convicted, it would take some time for us to gain our freedom. So, I made a request to Mr Bandula de Silva, who served as the Secretary to the CJC, to grant me permission to study for the final examination, and to advise the prison authorities to provide me the facilities to receive textbooks and any other assistance that were needed.

I cannot pass without mentioning with gratitude the assistance provided by late comrade M B Ratnayake,attorney at law, one time leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna,in helping me pursue my studies. He used to go to the People’s Publishing House in Colombo affiliated with the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (Moscow-wing) to buy relevant engineering textbooks in Applied Thermodynamics, Mathematics, Mechanics of Machines, Strength & Elasticity of Materials and Electrical Power. Those textbooks were all Russian publications, but cheaper to buy, and they all had the relevant syllabus material that used Russian symbols.

Yet, I did not have enough resources, such as thermodynamic tables, drawing instruments and slide rules etc. So, I wrote to the Dean of the Engineering Faculty- at the time it was Professor J C V Chinnappa. I did not get a response, but after several weeks, I received a pocket slide rule, tables of thermodynamic properties and a short note from Dr Jayathilake to say that if I needed anything else, to feel free to contact him. I know that nowadays they do not use slide rules and hard copy enthalpy entropy tables in engineering calculations due to digitisation, but I still keep them with me as memorabilia of my past and as a testament to the kindness of Dr Jayathilake.

Sometime in 1982, I handed over all my books, including the engineering text books I used while in prison and all my other books on literature and politics, to the Jaffna Library. Books were being collected in Colombo to replace the intellectual resources lost in 1981, when the Jaffna Public Library was set on fire by the goons organised by the government of the day.

When the CJC Act was repealed in 1977, we were released from prison. During one of my visits to Kandy, I visited the Engineering Faculty. Professor Jayathilake was the Dean of the Faculty then. We sat down for about two hours in his office, had tea and discussed the past and the politics. He revealed many aspects of his life during this memorable conversation; how he went to school somewhere in Agalawatte without shoes; that his father served as a liyana mahaththaya (a clerk) of a lawyer in the area. He explained how he got through the Grade 5 Scholarship Examination and subsequently got admitted to the Royal College in Colombo. His brother is Mr Bhadraji Mahinda Jayatilaka, a novelist, vocalist, and artist now residing in California, USA.

Even then he was very much interested in reforming the system of education in Sri Lanka. We had divergent views, his were reformist, mine were more systemic. Yet, he had an extensive understanding of the many issues that were prevailing in Sri Lanka. His knowledge about the correlations between the system of education, the issue of employment and youth discontent was broad. His fluency in Sinhala was excellent. However, later on, he associated closely with the regimes in power and was responsible for administering many institutions.

He had had a stellar career. He was made Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, then Dean of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Ruhuna, Chancellor of Wayamba University of Sri Lanka and Chancellor and Chairof the National Institute of Business Management. He had also served as Director General of the National Institute of Education and Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education. Then he served as Chair of the National Education Commission and the Presidential Commission on Youth. In the sphere of education, he proposed many reforms, but most of those reforms are yet to be implemented.

We had intermittent meetings and discussions in between. He wanted me to come and work for him, but I did not have much trust in the system he was working under, despite his keenness and sincere desire to do something constructive for the betterment of education and the difficult conditions the youth were facing and still sadly are.

Prior to the Presidential Elections in 2019, we started communicating with each other more frequently than before. He was a passionate, compassionate and energetic person. He wanted to contribute to the National Intellectuals Organisation (NIO) and the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (NPP). His close associate in this process was comrade J U Premasiri of the 1971 අප්‍රේල් සංසදය (April 1971 Forum). He invited me to work together to make this effort more successful. My emphasis was on making a viable third political alternative, that the people could place their trust on; an alternative- committed to working towards a better Sri Lanka by empowering everybody regardless of rank, income, culture or language to achieve social and economic justice.

While at the faculty of Engineering, our views were divergent, but over time I believe he came to better understand my political activism and position. Yes, we still differed in the way of addressing these perennial problems besetting the nations, in particular about whether it required reform or a complete overhaul of the system. Nevertheless, we had been much closer in recent years in terms of our thoughts than we had been before.

We convey our deepest condolences to Professor Jayathilake’s family and friends. Our thoughts are with them in this time of grief and sorrow. Our memories of him will live forever in our hearts.

Vale Professor C LV (Lakshman) Jayathilake.