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Pursuing a Gandhian mission in Sri Lanka

B. Muralidhar Reddy

NGO committed to ideals and philosophy of Gandhiji celebrates his 139th birth anniversary

— Photo: By special arrangement

Gandhiji during his visit to Chilaw, Ceylon, in November 1927.

The war-torn citizens of Sri Lanka yearn for peace. But with the battles between the Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam reaching a critical phase, that hope seems elusive for now.

To provide a glimpse of what the prospect of peace holds, the Sri Lanka chapter of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre, a non-governmental organisation committed to spreading the ideals and philosophy of Gandhiji, has been gearing to celebrate his 139th birth anniversary in a befitting manner.

The sleepy coastal town of Chilaw, some 45 km from the Sri Lankan capital on the A-3 Colombo-Puttalam highway, echoed the spirit of Gandhiji on the evening of October 2.

The venue has a historical significance for Sri Lankans. During his one and only extensive visit to Ceylon from November 12 to December 2, 1927, on the invitation of Ceylonese freedom fighter C.E. Corea, Gandhiji left his footprints in and around Chilaw. He toured and spoke to the people of Chilaw and stayed for a few days in a Corea home called ‘Sigiriya’ in the heart of town. Such was the enthusiasm generated by his visit that a village near Chilaw by name Nainamadama was re-named ‘Swarajya Pura’.

The 22nd session of the Ceylon National Congress, the counterpart of the Indian National Congress, in 1942 was held at ‘Swarajya Pura’. Among other items on the agenda was a resolution authorising the All Ceylon Congress Committee to prepare a Constitution for a free Lanka. As a draft Constitution had already been introduced in the State Council by J.R. Jayawardene and H.A. Koattegoda seeking dominion status for Lanka, the Ceylon National Congress did not move further on the subject at Swarajya Pura.

Given the current political polarisation in Sri Lanka in the context of the ethnic divide and the war, the Sri Lanka chapter of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre believes that for the resolution of various issues confronting the country the ideals and philosophy of Gandhiji are more relevant today than ever before.

Mohammad Saleem, president of the Centre, says: “Let the political parties continue their quest for a political solution acceptable to all the stake-holders. However, we are convinced that a simultaneous pursuit of the Gandhian idea of independence at the bottom and Gram Rajya provides a way forward to the resolution of the conflict. Gandhian philosophy cuts across all divides and it is the need of the hour for Sri Lanka.”

He bemoans the fact that though Sri Lanka is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country and constitutionally the responsibility of preserving, protecting and assuring equal rights for all citizens is vested with the state, the mechanism of governance since independence has fallen short of that responsibility and contributed to dividing people on issues of language, religion and culture.

Mr. Saleem asserts: “Even after 60 years of Independence, the citizens of Sri Lanka have not been given a political environment to claim that the country belongs to all, and that in the country they can pursue their own life goals without fear of discrimination and marginalisation. The country has failed to derive complimentary benefits from the diverse ethnic, lingual, cultural and territorial strengths. Sixty years of self-rule has only brought to this country fear, suspicion, distrust and uncertainty. The people have become pawns in political games. They cry out for a miracle to change their pitiable condition. They cry out for a new environment of peace, equality and justice.”

Echoing the sentiments, Arjuna Hulagalle, a member of the core group of the Centre, says that the Gandhian wisdom that “independence must begin at the bottom… it follows therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs...” has great relevance in fostering inter-ethnic harmony and in bringing about a change from the present gloomy situation in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Hulagalle adds: “In this respect, direct support for community initiatives and people’s participation will be of significance, and provided the justification to establish the Mahatma Gandhi Centre.”

How does the Centre intend to go about attaining the goals it has set for itself? Both agree that while the Gandhian model of nation building and good governance is well known, the Centre is still in the process of firming up concrete proposals to adapt it to the Sri Lankan situation.

Mr. Hulagalle says: “At the moment we are still in the process of interaction with like-minded institutions and individuals to draw up a road map to carry forward the message of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Mr. Saleem says the Centre intends to pursue a programme under the theme ‘Nation Building and Good Governance.’ Here, community participation and empowerment will be encouraged by constituting a Grama Rajya system akin to the Gandhian panchayati raj.

He adds: “Everything that a village needs for its development is to be determined at that level, and people in some selected villages are establishing such a system voluntarily. To support Grama Rajya, the emphasis has to be on self-reliance to encourage activities to grow food and meet energy needs, alternative medicine and therapy and create public awareness and literacy to educate people of their civic rights and their right to information about the workings of any public office.”

Both Mr. Saleem and Mr. Hulagalle believe that the biggest capital the Gandhi Centre has is the “commitment and dedication of some people calling themselves friends of Mahatma Gandhi with a mission to improve the social and economic interactions on the basis of mutual trust and fellowship” among Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups.

Only time will tell whether the Centre will succeed in its endeavour in the nation where so many well-meaning initiatives and experiments have failed to take off due to the short-sighted policies of the political class and the ruthless brand of nationalism and terrorism indulged in by groups such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the LTTE.

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