( Devasarana, has been Yohan’s dream and life)
Sevaka Yohan Devananda was laid to rest in his “nest”, the grounds of Devasarana in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegela district. There is no doubt that the ground that welcomed each morning with smell of Sepalika flowers would have warmly welcomed his body.
I first heard of Fr. Yohan from my mother in 1971. He had gone to visit my house with members of the community protection front, during the time I and my sister were in prison in relation to the 1971 revolution. Ms. Suriya Wickramasinghe was also part of that team. He had gone several times after that too. Due to his personality, my mother had given the name of Yohan to a son born to our family’s second generation.
He introduced himself as “Sevaka (one at service / servant) and one of his greatest examples was his determination to continue his mission despite setbacks and failures. To my knowledge, he never regretted choosing social service as his life journey.
He was born into a rich elite family. After receiving higher education in England, Yohan came back to Sri Lanka, let go of his properties and wealth and joined priesthood in company of Fr. Lakshan Wickramasinghe. Later, Lakshman Wickramasinghe went onto become the Bishop of Kurunegela diocese and became a prominent religious leader who had progressive positions on social problems.
A Christian Ashram with a local flavor was started in late 1950s at the Yakkala junction in Ibbagamuwa with leadership of Yohan. According to him, Devasaranaya was built based on Christian, Buddhist and Marxist dialogue.
Instead of trousers and shirt, he wore white sarong and a short white shirt. To my knowledge, he used a simple clothe bag till his last days. During active life, he had faith in revolutionary potential of rural people. But he tried to be an ordinary person amongst them.
In his own style, he was sometimes a leader and sometimes an ordinary member in struggles for social justice. He loved the idiom “we will grow in each other’s shelter”.
It is said that we should praise the positive things in a person after his / her death, and leave it to God to inquire into wrongs and weaknesses. There must also be criticisms of Yohan, as a human being. We should not be surprised at such criticisms, specially when we consider his broad involvement in the early days of NGOs.
But none of those criticisms could deny the services rendered by Yohan to people’s movements and progressive initiatives in Sri Lanka. He is an unforgettable mark in recent democratic struggles in our country.
He had been influenced by struggle to overturn high caste (or use Brahmin for bamunu kulaya?) in 1956 and vibrations of the 1971 revolution, due to his social sensitivities.
Dewasaranaya joined the experiments of collective farms in Puttalam and Kurunegela districts by youth who were released after detention in relation to their involvement in the 1971 revolution. Although this experiment failed, it helped develop a network of youth who were part of the 1971 revolution. Devasaranaya was in a way central hub of this network. Such persons who were trying to learn from the defeat of the 1971 revolution and gone onto organize farmers, became a bridge between the All Ceylon Farmers Federation, Dewasaranaya and Yohan.
Afterwards, Yohan played a decisive role in making the then weak All Ceylon Farmers Federation a strong force in 1980-2000. For some time, the newspaper “Goviya (farmer)” was printed and distributed by Yohan and Dewasaranaya.
By this time, Dewasaranaya had become a leading NGO and international agencies that supported it were also those with progressive aims.
Yohan was also active in solidarity networks that were built after the defeat of the major strike of 1981. He gave life to all island movement to get jobs for strikers, along with Ven. Batapola Anomadassi of the Batapola temple. Ven. Anomadassi, a Buddhist Monk with socialist background and revolutionary leadership, was a frequent visitor to Dewasaranaya.
Yohan and Dewasaranaya also contributed to start the Progressive Women’s Front, which later became the Women’s Development Foundation. Equality between men and women was a key theme and focus for Yohan.
Yohan also spent a lot of his time to build bridges of understanding between North and South. Just before the anti Tamil pogrom of 1983, a booklet titled “war or peace” was printed and distributed, as a collective effort, with leadership of Yohan. It’s valuable resource for ethnic harmony, which is worthwhile to read even today.
Yohan also actively intervened in creating a Sri Lankan dialogue between liberation theology and Marxism.
During the repressive period of 1988-1990, protection offered by Dewasaranaya, helped save the life of hundreds of peace activists who were targets of hit lists of the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV) / Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Along with Yohan, the late Sarath Fernando took leadership in this initiative.
Yohan also joined protests we organized against the Rajapakse regime in 2007-2009, despite being sick. I saw a photograph of Yohan marching at the forefront of a protest against the abduction and brutal assault of journalist Poddala Jayantha in June 2009.
He never refrained from supporting a struggle due to personal or ideological reasons. He also had a habit of visiting houses to look into wellbeing of different people. That is why we must not allow the example of people like Yohan to end by his death, at a time when solidarity is expressed more often through a SMS and social service has become a profession.
This note is a tribute to that example.
(This is a translation of a Sinhala language article appeared in weekly Sinhala newspaper)