Karalasingham, the revolutionary

by Charita Wijeratne

Approaching politics in the North, the first images to appear, habitually, are of those who claim to a patent right of representing the Tamil people. Rather belatedly does one realize that the Tamil community has gifted to Sri Lanka noble men of calibre whose widened horizons enabled them to view the issues of the Tamil people as integral to the broader national issues and the struggle of progressives for social justice. Of those sages V. Karalasingham, whose death anniversary fell on September 8th, stands out as a colossus

In his day, he worked indefatigably to raise the level of social consciousness of the Tamil people, and of others, and draw them out of the quagmire of parochial politics. Through writings, public addresses and other means he tried hard to bring the Tamil people into the national movement against exploitation. His decision to contest S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the founding father of the Federal Party, in Point Pedro and the F.P. Stalwart Dharmalingam in Uduvil was a part of this campaign. In 1963 he published his provocative and challenging work the way out for the Tamil speaking people, in which he exposes the reality that their protracted struggle has failed to win their fundamental rights, because, it was waged as a solely Tamil affair and assumed an anti-Sinhala posture. An inevitable result was the corresponding inflammation of communal sentiments among the majority community. This narrow attitude eventually restricted successive governments from conceding even the limited concessions that they were inclined to. When the ED called upon the Tamil people to refrain from learning Sinhala, Karalasingham came out fiercely to denounce the move as an attempt to keep the Tamil commoners out of competitive job opportunities while the sons and daughters of the leaders were secretly getting tuition in Sinhala.

He appealed to the Tamil people to rely on and join hands with their true friends among workers, farmers and students in the south. The book insists that the fundamental rights of the Tamil People, and of other minorities, are integral to the manifesto of the struggle of progressive masses in the south. This, indeed, is an appropriate time for all Sri Lankans to read and re-read that monumental work which traces the real path to reconciliation.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the heroic struggle of its leaders to defend it from imperialist attacks inspired peoples in both industrialized countries and colonial countries. In Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, the advent of the plantation economy, accompanied by trade and commerce, and the emergence of an insipient native capitalist class led to the growth of a proletariat in the plantations and in Colombo. From those sources was born the first generation of revolutionaries who formed the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1935.

V. Karalasingham, born in July 1921,joined the LSSP in 1939 when he was only 18 years old. Preceding him his brother V. Balasingham, a brilliant student of history in the University College, had joined the LSSP but was sadly killed on the spot by an army truck during the war. Another brother was ‘lamp-posted’ by a LTTE kangaroo court. The youngest was a highly acclaimed English language teacher in Ananda College and all past Anandians never failed to pay homage at the feet of Thanabalasingham. At Ananda he was allowed especial privileges by the then Principal L. H. Mettananda. Karalasingham, or Karlo as he was lovingly called, abandoned his schooling for revolutionary politics, but was much later called to the bar as a Barrister in London.

Radical ideas,

Though born in Jaffna, Karlo attended schools in Kalutara, Pannipitiya and Colombo, because of his father’s transferable job. His student career in Ananda College may have inculcated in him radical ideas. But I remember Karlo telling me that at the Pannipitiya school he over heard a teacher explaining Prince Siddharatha’s renunciation and that the seed of that intriguing event imbedded in his subcouscience to nag him momentarily until he came to grips with Marx’s German Ideology. Whatever that be, his career in these schools must have led him later in life to rely on the youths from central colleges and universities to lead the revolution in Sri Lanka. So much so that he sat about with a crusading spirit to get Sinhala impressions of noteworthy books in English. I was ‘commanded’ to translate S.H. Carr’s What is History?, Isaac Deutscher’s The Unfinished Revolution, Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology and Plekhanov’s The materialist Interpretation of History. Sessions of reading back to him the translated manuscript were ordeals. Any ambiguity and he would flare up with substitutes and other interpretations. Once, when the term ‘saviour’ had been rendered as ‘gelavumkaru’ he went into spasms,charging me with abysmal ignorance of oriental concepts, and gave the ‘correct’ rendering as ‘chakravarthy’. I was flabbergasted, because, in common Sinhala usage chakravarthy meant a sort of emperor and I decided for once to assert my will and not to give in. Seeing my stubborn resistance he left the book and went into an ante-room. His compassionate wife gave me a consoling cup of tea. At the end of three weeks Karlo came to my office and placing a huge book in front of me sat down saying ‘I ordered it from India’. I opened the book titled Chakravarthy and true enough, it dealt with the concept of ‘chakaravarthy’, the saviour of mankind, and with diagrams to boot. I yielded, but when the book came out in print my version was there. Even among his comrades, Karlo was reputed for his remarkable impetuosity. Typical of West European classical Marxist Karlo went into polemics until he clinched the argument.

However, all that fire only amused everybody, because, he never had a trace of malice. He was the most humane and compassionate friend one could ever meet.

Younger fugitive

Karlo was the youngest fugitive of the Sri Lankans in Bombay-or Mumbai-during the war years, and was known as the ‘mascot of the Indo-Ceylon revolutionary leadership’. There he edited the journal Permanent Revolution, produced in Culcutta. Soon he was arrested in Bombay with Doric de Souza and deported for a stint in the Badulla prison.

In 1964 Karlo disagreed with the LSSP’s decision to join in a coalition with the SLFP and left the party with Edmond Samarakkody’s group. He published Politics of Coalition in which he predicted that Mrs. Bandaranaike will discard the LSSP ‘Like a squeezed lemon’. It became true in 1975. But all along, his idea had been to remain in the party and function as a separate platform. He left because he wanted to be with some advanced youth to save them from doom. His opportunity came when Edmond and Meril Fernando voted with the UNP to topple the coalition government. On coming back to the party Karlo justified this position by writing senile leftism.

Shocked and frustrated

Karlo was deeply shocked and frustrated when Soviet troops invaded Chekoslovakia in 1968 to crush the reform movement, and he wrote Chechoslovakia ’68. He disagreed with the manner in which the lake house group of newspapers was nationalised and brought under the sole control of the government, and he expressed his discontent by publishing the freedom of the Press. Karlo improved his Sinhala in the course of translating books. By a freak of things the first lawyer to address a jury in Sinhala happened to be a Tamil – V. Karalasingham, Attorney-at-Law.

As a member of the Political Bureau of the party Karlo used his position to implement a massive educational programme for the youths and workers. The content of the curriculum included history as an approach to Marxism. To him, revolution is to be the product of the highest consciousness of man.

Karlo left behind a daughter, Nina, named after the great revolutionary who demonstrated against the blood curdling tyranny of Stalin, and a son, Chakravarthy, named after the bitter controversy over the Sinhala impression of the term saviour.

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