A Tamil Bishop and the Tamil Cause
"I’m a Tamil, I cannot be a Lakshman Wickremesinghe"

- Rt. Rev. Shantha Francis Bishop of Kurunegala


The Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala, the Rt Reverend Shantha Francis, has raised much controversy by enunciating what is seen by many to be an overtly pro-government political stand in a situation where many had come to expect Anglican Bishops to be critical of whatever government that may happen to be in power .One of his distinguished predecessors in the Diocese of Kurunegala,  Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe was a critic of the authoritarianism of the J.R. Jayewardene led UNP government even though his nephew (his brother Esmond’s son)  Ranil  Wickremesinghe was a cabinet member of the same government. Some even say that the cause of his death was a heart attack due to the angst caused by the 1983 July riots. Since then, Lakshman Wickremesinghe has been a role model for Anglican Bishops, many adopting a critical or at the very least, a lukewarm  posture towards the government in power whether UNP or SLFP. But Shantha Francis, the first Bishop from the Up-country Tamil community has broken with that tradition and struck out on his own path which he explained to the Sunday Island in the following interview.  

Shantha Francis
Bishop of Kurunegala

SI: It may be correct to say that you are the first person from the Up-country Tamil community to become a Bishop in the Anglican Church or perhaps any church in this country. As a person from the Tamil community, holding a high position, how would you assess the need for reconciliation between the Sinhala and Tamil communities in this country?

Bishop:  I believe that we will be ready for reconciliation if we are ready to reconcile with ourselves. Unfortunately, many people who are in the forefront, do not have this quality. This is where the president comes in. I see a very special quality in him – one who can promote reconciliation. This is why, gradually, Tamil people are rallying round him. He tries his best to establish a closer relationship with the Tamil people. We know that he speaks to common people as far as possible. At certain forums he speaks in Tamil and this is received very well by Tamil people. It is obvious if you see a video clip and see the expressions of Tamil people when they hear the president speaking to them in Tamil. Some are in tears, some are overjoyed. Some are amazed to hear the president of the country speaking to them in Tamil. That is the first step towards reconciliation. You learn each other’s language. Never before in this history of Sri Lanka have we had so much enthusiasm by ordinary Sinhala people to learn the Tamil language. When you go to any leading town, you see posters advertising Tamil language tuition classes. That is a very positive thing I find in the post war Sri Lankan situation.

SI: Obviously, what you have in mind in terms of reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese is different to what we hear on the political platform.  You are talking in terms of the Sinhalese and Tamils coming closer to one another as individuals. What about self rule, the devolution of power and all that?

Bishop: I don’t think such things promote reconciliation at all. Oneness and brotherhood is reconciliation for me.  We will have to learn to agree to disagree and to see individual differences in a community. One may be Tamil or Sinhala in terms of language and culture, but the Sri Lankan identity is very important. In Malaysia, Malay is the official language and you will have to learn Malay but all Malays also learn Tamil and English. When you enter that country, you feel there is oneness. People look different to each other physically but they can communicate in any language. That is the kind of reconciliation that I am looking forward to.

SI: In talking of Malaysia and oneness and all that, you speak as a member of the 60% of Tamils who live outside the Northern Province. You are not thinking of an exclusive Tamil enclave?

Bishop: No! Because I am from Kurunegala where 98% are Sinhala people and in my diocese, 67% are Sinhala speaking.  There is also a percentage of Tamils who only speak Sinhala.  I my case, my entire education was in Sinhala and I learnt Buddhism in school and I did optional Tamil. Living in that kind of environment, I don’t think I can limit myself to my own ethnic group.

The minority within the minority

SI: Over the past months and years, we have been hearing even from Anglican church circles, that democratic values are being eroded and that that there is no reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese and all that kind of thing. Do you subscribe to that view?

Bishop: There are countries that have had internal wars for just four or five years and they became unstable socially, politically and economically. But we must thank God, our leaders and our people that after 30 years of war, we are able to maintain stability. There have been problems, there have been crises. But we have to expect that in a time of war.  We have to collect whatever remains and work hard to building a new future.

SI: How do you do that? We hear cries for autonomy for the north. There is the demand for the greater devolution of power. That is what we hear in terms of Tamil politics. The leaders of your Up-country Tamil community obviously don’t see things that way. But when you look at the Tamil community in general, how would you see the future?

Bishop: if they want to use the same slogans, autonomy, self-rule and so on, we may walk into another crisis. I think many leaders in this country have realised this. It is only a minority within the minority who still think in such terms. During the war there was the cry for self-rule. But I don’t think the present generation thinks in those terms.

SI: But if you look at the voting pattern in the recent past in the Tamil majority North as well as the Tamil areas of the East, they seem to be voting very clearly for a particular agenda – the agenda of the Tamil National Alliance. So how would you explain that in terms of what you said earlier?

Bishop: If you take the history of this kind of elections, people do not vote for policies. It’s usually a matter of identity. Emotions play a major role too.  I don’t think you can come to a conclusion with that kind of election result. We know how elections are manipulated in those areas. I still feel that we can look forward to a country where these two communities – when I say two communities, there are actually four Tamil speaking communities, the Northern, mainly Jaffna  Tamils, the Eastern mainly Batticaloa Tamils, the Up-country Tamils and the Tamil speaking Muslims .  Their issues are different, educational levels are different. But still I think that these groups can fall in line with the majority community.

SI: When you speak in terms of falling in line, that smacks of capitulation.

Bishop: In a way. But what I am trying to say is that the Up-country Tamils, never wanted self-rule. They always wanted to become part and parcel of this nation.  That is what I meant in terms of falling in line.  With regard to the Tamil people of the north and east, they never had the opportunity to mix with the Sinhala people because of the geographical isolation.  When you go to Jaffna, the general idea is that you can trust anybody except a Sinhalese.  In Batticaloa also you hear this all the time where they say, don’t go and do business with a Sinhalese, don’t go and marry a Sinhalese because you can’t trust them. That kind of attitude is because they have not moved with the Sinhalese. That’s very unfortunate.

SI: If we take our minds back to 1983 and even before that, I remember when I was schooling in Kandy in 1977, some of my schoolmates who were upcountry Tamils had their houses burnt.  In 1983, in Badulla where we lived at that time, all the Tamil businesses were burnt to the ground even though they belonged to Indian Tamils who had nothing to do with what was going on in the north.  The upcountry Tamils never asked for self rule, there was no terrorist movement among them, but they were attacked nevertheless. Aren’t you embittered by such experiences?

Bishop: We have come to understand that in the 1970s and 80s, for the average Sinhalese, a Tamil was a Tamil. They never saw a difference between northern Tamils and Indian Tamils. But now there is this awareness.  In the Kandy area, it was the market people who led the attacks. Decent Sinhala people went to the refugee camps and helped the Tamils.  Many of them were taken back to their own homes. Some began to ask themselves why are we attacking these people? They are part and parcel of our society. Another thing was that in the upcountry schools at that time, there were a greater number of teachers from Jaffna and Batticaloa and these people had a very negative influence on upcountry students.   I have had this problem in our churches. Children would come and complain to our Sunday school teachers that this or that teacher said we must fight, there is no other way; we can’t live with the Sinhalese. Sinhala people are bad. 

But now there are very few teachers from  Jaffna and Batticaloa. We have our own teachers now and their attitude is different. What they say is that we have to be with the majority community. There is now a rule to say that all Tamil students must learn Sinhala and all Sinhala students should learn Tamil. There are still a few people who discourage Tamil children from learning Sinhala and all those people are from the North and East. But the upcountry Tamil teachers always encourage their students to learn Sinhala.

SI: some time ago, when I told an Indian diplomat that the Indian Tamils have never been inclined towards radicalism, what he said was that "Oh they approach the problem from the point of view of supplicants."  As a person from that community how would you respond to such a portrayal of your community?

Bishop: That is being very unreasonable to the upcountry Tamil community. We have always worked hard to be together. I know the mind of the upcountry Tamils.

Tamil Bishop among Sinhala Christians

SI: As is the practice in your church, Bishops are elected. The other candidates for the same post were all Sinhalese. But those who voted you in were mainly Sinhalese. Are you being influenced by the fact that a predominantly Sinhala constituency elevated you, a Tamil, to the highest position you can possibly hold?

Bishop: A Bishop’s election is in some ways similar to other elections. People go from parish to parish to promote their own candidate. There was a particular group that went to all the Sinhala parishes and said "Don’t elect a Tamil as a Bishop". They were speaking to the wardens of parishes in the rural areas.  An elderly ex-school principal had told this group, "If you don’t like so and so, you can find some other reason like his administrative ability but don’t bring in his ethnicity, because he has worked in these areas and we like him."  

There is a village called Talampitiya where both Buddhists and Christians live and the Temple is located next to the church.  When I was working there, the chief incumbent of the temple knew I love imbul-kiributh. So whenever he got imbul-kiribath for his morning meal, he used to call me and say "Pujakathuma enna imbul-kiribath thiyenawa." There was that kind of closeness between us.  He too had called this group and told them that he has no right to interfere in church matters, but that he can talk about the village community and that they should not bring ethnic differences into the village community.

SI: So that makes you both a product and a symbol of Tamil-Sinhala reconciliation at least in your diocese?

Bishop: Yes. When Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe appointed me as a young curate to the parishes in the area, he used to always write in my appointment letter "Demala vunath" and say that "Though he is a Tamil, he is Sinhala speaking".  This used to irritate me. People became aware that I am a Tamil because of that appointment letter as it is read in church.  In the early days, elderly parishioners, people like school teachers used to come and tell me the correct pronunciation of a word and generally correct my Sinhala. During the 1977 riots, I was in one of those villages and I was very well protected by the people of the area.  One night at around 10.00 pm at the height of the riots - we had no electricity at that time - I noticed a man on a tree in the garden.  I thought I was going to be attacked. I went to the temple next door and told the Buddhist monk. He came with a torch and ordered the man to come down from the tree. It turned out to be a Sinhala Buddhist man from the village who said that a group of villagers were taking turns guarding the church to ensure that nobody attacked me and that he was doing his turn.  That incident made me feel that I belonged there.  This background helped me resolve a long standing problem in Kandy after I became Bishop. St Paul’s Church is located next to the Dalada Maligawa and in close proximity to the Vishnu and Kataragama devales. When a funeral occurs, the body is brought to the church. Recently, the Nilame of the devale, came to see me and said that when a dead body is brought to the church, the devale next door has to perform purification rites before the usual religious ceremonies can be held. He didn’t tell me anything except for asking me how we can help them? I took the decision that dead bodies should not be brought to St Paul’s hereafter. Some parishioners opposed this decision saying there was no other place. So we repaired and extended the chapel at the Mahaiyawa general cemetery and we now place the bodies of the deceased in that chapel.

SI: You have broken with a long standing tradition at St Paul’s to keep the Buddhists and Hindus happy.  Is that cooperation or capitulation?

Bishop: That is cooperation.  There are other more serious issues. Previous bishops felt that they should change the wordings of our Sinhala liturgy. So where we used the word ‘thuthi deema’  earlier, we started using the term ‘pin deema’. It was deemed that this would give the religion an indigenous touch.  Great Bishops, like Lakshman Wickremesinghe and Lakdasa de Mel, introduced this. Now however, scholarly Buddhist monks, tell me that they feel uncomfortable when they hear words like ‘pin deema’ and ‘maithriya’ from me. They say, those phrases have traditionally been Buddhist words. We have discussed this matter among our clergymen and we have now recommended to the Church of Ceylon that words like ‘pin deema’ and ‘maitriya’ be removed from our Sinhala liturgy and the words used earlier like ‘tuthi deema’ and ‘premaya’ be used once again.

SI: Up-country Tamils are only marginally less numerous than the northern province Tamils, but in this country, Tamil politics has always been dominated by the northern minority.

Bishop:  In 2011, when the Ban Ki Moon advisory report on Sri Lanka was released, I made a very strong statement against it, saying that this is Sri Lanka and that we will manage our own affairs. There was a negative reaction to that in some Tamil parishes. There is a Tamil parish in Kandy consisting mainly of traders of Indian origin.  Soon after the service, some parishioners came and spoke to me and one of the teachers said "You have no right to make such a statement." So I pointed out that he can speak like that as an individual. But I speak as your leader, as a leader, my country comes first.  If anybody comes and interferes in a negative manner in the affairs of my country, I will definitely respond strongly.  I was able to convince the parishioners who were there but not this particular young man. I later found he was a product of Jaffna University.

SI:  Some people compare you with Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe and they say that your occupying the chair that was once his, must be making Lakshman Wikremesinghe turn in his grave.  How would you see your ministry in contrast to that of Laskhman Wickremesinghe?

Bishop: Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe was always aware of the rights of the minorities in this country.  He belonged to a leading Sinhala family and he felt that he must speak of the rights of the Tamils. In my case, I’m a Tamil, so my duty towards reconciliation is the other way around. I must understand the Sinhala Buddhist majority community and I must build up some link there.  I cannot be a Lakshman Wickremesinghe.

SI: Going by the precedent set by some of your predecessors, do you think a Bishop is called upon to be anti-establishment or at least not seen to be speaking well of the government or its leaders?

Bishop: I have been arguing about this very strongly even before I became Bishop. The president is an elected person. He is elected by the majority of the voters of this country.  My policy has been once you appoint a person, he should be supported 100% otherwise he can’t do his job properly.  Unfortunately, most of the church leaders have been adopting this negative attitude. But I feel that wherever the government does something good, we have to give them due credit.  After a recent TV interview, some wrote in saying that I had betrayed the Tamil cause.  I asked one person who spoke to me on the phone from Dehiwela how I had betrayed the Tamil cause. He said that I am praising the president. So I asked him how does that become anti-Tamil,  and I told him that I had always stood for being united, and living together as Sri Lankans. Then he said "Your predecessors were not like that". To which I readily agreed and told him that "I am like this".

SI: Whether you praise the president or not, you will still be Bishop.  Wouldn’t it be easier to swim with the tide, not ruffle any feathers, and live out your term in this position? You are now striking a discordant note, some people are disturbed and you are taking flak.

Bishop: As a religious leader, it is my duty to work towards a country with a new vision. Otherwise we may be leading the coming generation into another war. Whether I become popular or not, it is my duty to voice this opinion.  Let us learn each other’s languages and learn to live together. There are people with extreme views who say, no we have to be separate, and that you have to be always critical of the rulers, but I cannot be that.  

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