Founder of Sri Lanka's sarvodaya movement turns 80

A T Ariyaratne: conscience keeper of a bruised nation

By Nalaka Gunawardene
Published: Monday 21 November 2011

A T AriyaratneWhen A T Ariyanaratne, founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, turned 80 years on 5 November 2011, felicitations poured in from around the world. This spontaneous act was an indication—if any were needed—of how much and how widely he has touched the lives of millions.

For someone with a global stature, Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne is completely devoid of pomposity. In a career spanning six decades, he has received some three dozen awards and honours—including the Asian Nobel, Magsaysay award, for community leadership in 1969, honorary degrees and doctorates, and the highest national honour from his own country,  Srilankabhimanya (Pride of Sri Lanka). But he remains a simple and amiable man. He is still ‘AT’ to contemporaries, ‘Ari’ to us fellow travellers, and ‘Loku Sir’ (master) to all at Sarvodaya—the largest development organisation in Sri Lanka. The apolitical people’s movement has a presence in over 15,000 villages.

He always spoke for the 99 per cent

Ari is also our elder statesman of inclusive development. For over half a century, he and Sarvodaya have advocated a nuanced approach to overcoming poverty, illiteracy and various social exclusions. Unlike some die-hard activists, Ari doesn’t ask us to denounce materialism or revert to pre-industrial lifestyles. Instead, he seeks a world without extreme poverty or extreme affluence.

Suddenly, his quest for social justice and equality is resonating all over the world. In fact, Ari has been speaking out for the 99 per cent of the less privileged people decades before a movement by that name emerged in the West. In a sense, those occupying Wall Street and other centres of affluence are all children of Sarvodaya.

While Ari shares their moral outrage, his own strategy has been quite different. He didn’t occupy phycial spaces in his struggle; he went straight to the fount of all injustice—our minds.

Shared work, voluntary giving and sharing of resources form the bedrock of Sarvodaya’s approach to doing good, but these are not random acts of charity. They are all means to achieving the awakening of everyone—starting from the individual and family, and going up to village, national and global levels. There is strong spiritual base to Sarvodaya, albeit a non-doctrinal one. It is inspired by Buddhism, yet not deep-immersed in it.

Ari is the lead thinker of Sarvodaya. He has guided the movement from humble beginnings in 1958 to its globalised, internationally recognised level today. Luckily for everyone, Ari wasn’t just a deep thinker but also a practical and passionate activist. Early on, he struck a healthy balance between theory and practice.

Thanks to him, Sarvodaya’s vision is thoughtful without being pedantic; its work is systematic but not too bureaucratic. Sarvodaya staff and volunteers are not robotic do-gooders: they are motivated, disciplined and resourceful. At all levels, they know what to do, how – and more importantly, why.

In disaster and conflict

In Ari, we find elements of Mahatma Gandhi (non-violent pursuit of the greater good); the Dalai Lama (interpreting Buddhist philosophy for the modern world); Martin Luther King, Jr. (struggling for the rights and dignity of marginalised people); Nelson Mandela (nurturing democracy and healing society); and Jimmy Carter (globalism with a humanitarian agenda).

Yet Ari is more than the sum of these noble parts; he is his own unique visionary. Plus an adroit ‘re-mixer’ who constantly blends the best of East and West. He adapts our civilisational heritage to tackle the twenty first century’s anxieties and uncertainties. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t peddle simplistic solutions to today’s complex problems.

So how many lives has Sarvodaya saved over the past decades?

The movement’s wide-ranging social development programmes have improved the lives of millions through better health, nutrition, literacy and education. Its humanitarian programmes have literally made the difference between life and death in times of disaster or conflict.

When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck in December 2004, Ari and his team were the first to respond, reaching some affected communities within six hours; government relief efforts took two or more days. Sarvodaya maintained its non-partisan and humanitarian presence even during the height of hostilities between Lankan armed forces and Tamil Tigers in war-ravaged areas.

However, we must look deeper to discover Sarvodaya’s greatest accomplishment in preventive action. Consider the large number of Sarvodaya-affiliated young men and women who simply refused to join the Marxist insurrections in 1971 and 1987-89, and the separatist terror that triggered a civil war. If not for Sarvodaya’s positive engagement of youth, the death toll of our trinity of uprisings could have been far higher.

Sri Lanka's soft power

Ari’s global engagement has produced tangible results. Beginning in the mid 1960s, Ari travelled the globe, addressing numerous gatherings of academics, activists, development workers and politicians. His thinking influenced development and humanitarian policies. His vision inspired thousands of well-intended young people to pursue meaningful careers in the development and voluntary sectors. He gave focus and purpose to hapless UN officials trying to live up the UN Charter’s goals of peace, security and development.

With no official status or state resources, Ari has also done more to project a positive image of Sri Lanka than has our entire Foreign Service combined. Unlike career diplomats who feel the need to ‘lie abroad for their country’, Ari just speaks truth to power. He is always accommodating and open to dialogue, with none of the dogma and self-righteousness of our nationalists.

As the Sri Lankan state searches for ways to reposition itself in the world after three decades of war, it can perhaps learn a few lessons from Ari. Sarvodaya showcases the finest that Sri Lanka can offer the world intellectually, spiritually and culturally.

The movement epitomises Lankan soft power at its best: engaging the world on our own terms, and earning global goodwill for fresh thinking, principled positions and exemplary service or performance. Also in this select group—albeit for different reasons—are the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society and the cricket team. We must nurture many more.

Ari isn’t perfect—but I find his imperfections just as endearing. He trusts people too much, and hasn’t changed that trait even after many betrayals. He can be a bit naïve in believing that mass meditation by peace-loving men and women can dissuade warring politicians or rebels.

Speaking his mind has often landed Ari in trouble, but the man refuses to shut up. At 80, he still plays the role of that irrepressible little boy who had the courage to say the emperor was naked. He speaks not just for the voiceless majority, but also for many tongue-tied intellectuals who seek refuge in conformist—and cosy—silence.

Here is a recent example. In November 2010, Ari gave an outspoken submission to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) of Sri Lanka, set up by the president as part of the post-war healing process. Drawing on Sarvodaya’s many and varied experiences, he offered seven salient lessons for a more stable and prosperous future for all Lankans. We shall soon know if he was heard, when the commission report is released.

Sprinkled throughout his submission are profound insights and cautions not just for the current custodians of political power, but all of us who have entrusted them with that power. Here are a few striking quotes: Governments cannot legislate the feelings of people; the state should be sensitive to feelings, needs and aspirations of people in a plural society; militarisation of the country is not the answer; every non-Sri Lankan is not out to destabilise the country; treat the voluntary sector with respect and understanding; governments should never depend on corrupt people, thugs, criminals and lawless elements to come into power or remain in power.

Ari kept his best to the last: “If any government thinks that national problems could be solved by military might, bureaucratic control and media propaganda, hasty legislation, over-reliance on the Prevention of Terrorism Act and such other legislation, it is committing a grave mistake which will reverberate on the government later.”

No wonder his submission didn’t get much media coverage in Sri Lanka. It was just too hot to handle.

Do we—as citizens and voters—have the capacity to hear such distilled wisdom? It’s not good enough to celebrate Ari’s eight decades of life or hail him as the pride of Lanka.

Ari keeps speaking for many of us who don’t have the right words, or the courage—or both. He is the conscience-keeper of our bruised nation.

We ignore this little man at our own peril.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has long been a critical cheer-leader of Sarvodaya


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