A Tribute to Dr A T Ariyaratne
By Jehan Perera
On Sunday, December 7, over 5000 people will come together at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium in Colombo to celebrate 50 years of service by the Sarvodaya Movement to Sri Lanka and its people. In the turbulent environment of Sri Lanka, with its multiple conflicts and wars, and its political power struggles, surviving 50 years as a people’s movement is a remarkable achievement. To survive for so long without compromising on fundamental principles is truly an achievement, and an inspiring example to be emulated by all those who strive for a strong civil society in Sri Lanka.
When he started the movement in 1958, Dr Ariyaratne said that schoolchildren from privileged backgrounds should get away from their classrooms and textbooks and get the opportunity to go into the poorer communities to learn from them, while working with them. Embedded in this social action was the concept of ‘Sarvodaya’, which is a word that was coined from the Sanskrit ‘Sarva’ meaning–All, and ‘Uthayam’ meaning Wellbeing–the “Wellbeing of All.” From a conflict resolution perspective, this is the master key to peaceful solutions, ones that are acceptable to all communities.
Today, this island in the Indian Ocean, which continues to captivate those who visit it from afar, appears trapped in a conflict with no end in sight. The basic concepts of Sarvodaya offer the best hope for the transformation of the country. Although non governmental and significantly foreign funded, the Sarvodaya Movement is unique among NGOs. It is not in the least alien to the people, but is a part of their culture at the same time as it seeks to transform it to a higher level.
For eight of those years I had the experience of being a full time member of the Sarvodaya Movement and working closely with its leader, the internationally recognized Dr A T Ariyaratne. Those years that spanned the period 1988 to 1995 included some of the cruelest in Sri Lanka’s recent history with the second JVP insurrection and the second Eelam war taking place simultaneously. The Sarvodaya Movement provided a safe haven to work for people’s welfare irrespective of ethnicity or political ideology in the midst of much violence and intimidation. Perhaps it was the Sarvodaya ethos that safeguarded nearly all of us during those terrible years.
Now two decades later, the centralization of power negates any pretense of devolution. In the meantime, the war and human suffering to keep the country from being divided is at its worst. Sri Lanka needs to find a better path to unity. The Sarvodaya philosophy of the Wellbeing of ALL provides the basis for constructive change that can end the war and bring good governance to the country. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the leaders must not mistrust the people. People can be trusted to choose what is right if they are provided with appropriate leadership and education. This is the calling of the Sarvodaya Movement and Dr Ariyaratne.
By the early 1970s, following the destruction caused by the first JVP insurrection, and anticipating the Tamil revolt, Dr Ariyaratne was saying that educational development by itself was not enough. There needed to be a transformation of society in its spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic and political aspects, which would realize the ideal of the devolution of power to the level of the smallest community unit, set out by Mahatma Gandhi to be that of a commonwealth of village republics.
Democracy is sometimes narrowly interpreted to mean government based on the votes of the majority. But the concept of Sarvodaya suggests that the meaning of democracy needs to be broadened to include the votes of all, where government will be neither for the majority or minority, but for all. This concept is not alien to Western democracy either, quintessentially defined by Abraham Lincoln to be government of the people, by the people, for the people, ALL the people. This is the crux of the solution to the ethnic conflict in our country. It is the way to overcome the alienation of the ethnic minorities, who feel unfairly dominated by ethnic majority rule.
The main challenge in social transformation is to be understood by the people and have them keeping pace with the processes of change. This was the basis of Mahatma Gandhi’s success. He was able to draw on traditional religious and cultural concepts to mobilise the Indian masses by using a language they could understand and relate to. So far, the task of building a people’s peace movement in Sri Lanka has been an elusive one. If any organization can replicate Gandhi’s success in Sri Lanka, it is Sarvodaya. The time is ripe to build a people’s movement for non violence and devolution as the way to a sustainable solution to our ethnic conflict.