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A Tribute to Three ‘Golden Age’ Dons with Great Respect

By Shelton Gunaratne, professor of mass communications emeritus, Philip Fernando, journalist and author, and Thalif Deen, UN Bureau Chief, Inter Press Service News Agency

Three erudite dons who inspired the University campus during the ‘50s and the ‘60s, the Golden Age of Peradeniya, is the subject of this tribute by three former students: a Buddhist, a Catholic and a Muslim, all domiciled in the United States. We wish this effort will promote greater harmony among Sri Lankan communities as we describe the intellectual debt we owe the three great Tamil dons who taught by example, as well as insight.

All three of us began our professional lives as Lake House journalists during the halcyon days long gone by. We drew heavily from what the three dons brought to the classrooms during our impressionable and hectic sojourn over half a century ago at the salubrious Peradeniya campus. This is our special tribute to political scientist A. J. Wilson, historian Sinnappah Arasaratnam, and economic historian "Tawney" Rajaratnam.

Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson (1928-2000) was some 10-12 years older than we when he became the founding chair of political science at the then University of Ceylon. Everyone knew that he was the son-in-law of the Federal Party leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, and students paid close attention to how he interpreted political theory.

His methodical lectures, delivered in a cool and shy fashion, were seemingly crafted to suit a book manuscript, although none materialized until he immigrated to Canada to head the political science department at the University of New Brunswick in 1972.

Two years later, he published his popular textbook Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947-1973 (London: Macmillan). A second edition extended the coverage to 1979. In 1975, Cambridge University Press published his book on the Sri Lanka general election of May 1970 titled Electoral politics in an emergent state.

When J. R. Jayewardene became the first executive president of Sri Lanka, Wilson became an unofficial constitutional adviser to the new president. In his book, The Break-Up of Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict (London: Hurst, 1988), Wilson says he often visited Sri Lanka and got to know Jayewardene quite well during this period. However, this experience may have pushed him towards a pro-Eelam stance, seemingly untraceable in the lectures he delivered at Peradeniya. In this book, Wilson had virtually climbed a notch or two towards being a full-throated Eelam supporter as seen by this quote:

"My experience in the mediatory process (1978-83) and as an inside observer of Sinhalese political behavior (1948-87) has convinced me that the Tamil militant groups now provide an alternative leadership to the Tamil people. In the eyes of the militant sections, the civilian leadership failed in its policies when it resorted to Parliament and negotiations. The war may take several years for a final decision. The longer it takes, the more likely is it that a separate state will emerge."

He went on: "In the interim it is probable that patchwork compromises will be implemented, with New Delhi acting as a monitoring agent, but this cannot continue forever. Compromise agreements will, as history has repeatedly shown, not been honored on a permanent basis. The war will be resumed. The partition of Ceylon is already a fact of history."

In the final decade of his life, Wilson continued to arouse Tamil nationalism. Although scholars and journalists are cautioned against writing about their close relatives for it’s difficult for them to be neutral analysts, Wilson challenged axiology by writing a political biography of his famous father-in-law, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism, 1947-1977 (University of Hawaii Press, 1994). Again, in the year of his death, he published another book Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism: Its origins and development in the 19th and 20th centuries (London: Hurst, 2000).

We believe that the Wilson of the Golden Age of the University of Ceylon morphed into a Tamil national activist, a far cry from Wilson the erudite lecturer who influenced our careers and lives. One of us spent almost four years with Wilson (three studying political theory and one studying government). He showed us then how to be meticulously thorough in our work and to be balanced in our analyses—principles that he later relaxed with the changes in the political environment in Sri Lanka.

Reportedly, he felt disappointed with what he saw and experienced during the language riots of the late ‘50s, when he felt that his home, near Marrs Hall, lacked adequate security. Following his encounter with JR’s modus operandi, he apparently identified his own feeling of insecurity (despite his move to Canada) with the demand for an Eelam.

Wilson’s expertise in political science would not foresee the final debacle of the Eelam fantasy. But that does not erase our fond memories of an intellectual giant.

Sinnappah Arasaratnam (1930-1998) had already published, under the auspices of the Netherlands Institute for International Cultural Relations, a specialized book titled Dutch power in Ceylon, 1658-1687 by the time we had the privilege of attending his superb classes on the colonial history of Ceylon. We were excited to read how this young local historian had interpreted the Dutch period together with his colleague K. W. Goonewardena, whose book The foundation of Dutch power in Ceylon, 1638-1658 was also published in the Netherlands in 1958. Both were doctoral dissertations submitted to the University of London.

Unfortunately, the competition between these two scholars stopped right there. Goonewardena did not publish any other books while Arasaratnam followed Wrigins’ advice, and extended his investigation of Dutch colonialism from the initial focus on 30 years to a span of 200 years over his lifetime, and published the book Ceylon and the Dutch, 1600-1800: External influences and internal change in early modern Sri Lanka (Brookfield, VT: Variorum) in 1996.

In 1961, Arasaratnam left Peradeniya to take up a lectureship in Indian Studies at the University of Malaya, and seven years later he rose to the rank of professor of history. He published a monograph on Indian festivals in Malaya (University of Malaya, 1966), as well as a book titled Indians in Malaysia and Singapore (Oxford University Press, 1970), which received many laudatory reviews.

Arasaratnam migrated to Australia, where a second professorship in history was awaiting him at the University of New England in 1973. There, he worked on three historical explorations related to his native Jaffna: Christianity, traditional cultures, and nationalism: The South Asian experience (Jaffna College, 1978); Historical foundation of the economy of the Tamils of north Sri Lanka (Jaffna: Kanthalakam, 1982); and Sri Lanka after independence: Nationalism, communalism, and nation building (University of Madras, 1986).

During the last decade of his life, he focused on the maritime trade and commerce of the Europeans, and produced three books: Maritime India in the seventeenth century (Oxford University Press, 1994); Maritime trade, society and European influence in South Asia, 1600-1800 (Variorum, 1995); and Maritime commerce and English power: Southeast India, 1750-1800 (Variorum, 1996). These books were related to an earlier publication titled Merchants, companies, and commerce on the Coromandel Coast, 1650-1740 (Oxford University Press, 1986).

Although Arasaratnam’s scholarship was exemplary, the foci of his books had only limited appeal to many. We believe that his concise 182-page historical perspective of his native country titled Ceylon, which Prentice-Hall published in 1964, was his best contribution to the general public.

Selvaratnam "Tawney" Rajaratnam (1928-2008) was a long-time economics lecturer who acquired the nickname "Tawney" for frequently quoting from Professor R. H. Tawney’s 1920 book Acquisitive Society, a notable work on the rise of capitalism in Protestant England. He was renowned for his knowledge of the economic history of England. He entered the lecture hall without even a scrap of paper, and rattled away dates with a vengeance as he walked to and fro with a slight stoop.

To many of us who studied economics at Peradeniya, Rajaratnam was the friendly lecturer in contrast to some of the more aloof gurus who dominated the faculty at that time. He joined the economics department of the University of Jaffna in 1978, and became its professor and head. He also served as the dean of the Faculty of Arts of the University in the late ‘70s.

In 1981, he became the head of the University College of Batticaloa, which later became the Eastern University of Sri Lanka (EUSL). Ten years later, he left Sri Lanka to reside in the United Kingdom. One of us saw him last in England in December 2001 at Harrow on the Hill.

Rajaratnam exemplified the best behavior of an intellectual giant. He eagerly engaged in debate and dialogue, and disarmed both friend and foe with his characteristic smile. He has influenced our lives. However, unlike Wilson and Arasaratnam, he did not publish any books.

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