Scholarship on Death Row | Sunday Observer

Scholarship on Death Row

Lakmini Indika Bamunusinghe
Lakmini Indika Bamunusinghe

The four ceiling fans, at full speed, didn’t cool down the hot room but,from time to time,a welcome breeze would blow in through the wide-open door, ruffling the leaves of a Bo-tree that stood just outside and swaying the orange and yellow coloured tissue paper decorations that were put up for this year’s Vesak in May. A man in a white shirt and white shorts was busy stamping on pink cards next to a typewriter, and another, dressed similarly, helped a man in uniform to look through a Sinhala newspaper. Another officer was filling up a log book.

This was when 34-year-old Bamunusinghe Arachchige Lakmini Indika Bamunusinghe, known to all as ‘Indika’, walked in. Clad in a white shirt tied in the front with two cords, a white sarong and black bata slippers, carrying two ‘CR’note books and a volume on the life of social revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Indika looked determined.

The officers nodded at him acknowledging his presence. He smiled back. If it had been anyone else, his books would have been remarked on, in this environment of the Welikada Prison- especially for an inmate on Death Row.

But not with Indika and not that day. On that day, Indika seemed as ‘revolutionary’ as the political hero he was reading about. Just the day before, Thursday, July 11, 2019, Indika had made history by becoming the first prison inmate to get a Master’s Degree in Sri Lanka, and the fifth in the world. He was also Sri Lanka’s first prison inmate to get a bachelor’s degree several years ago.

“I don’t know what life has in store for me, but I wanted to leave a legacy,” Indika said earnestly during the interview. What motivated this man in the prime of life, but with death by hanging possibly awaiting him, to take up a long term study course like a Master’s?

He wanted to give hope and encouragement to his fellow prison inmates to work hard to reach their own goals despite being cut off from the rest of the world by thick off white walls.

He earned his Master’s at the University of Kelaniya in Social Science, Combined Social Sciences,Social Culture, Social Research, and Contemporary Social Science. Now sitting for the MPhil also at the same university he is focusing on ‘Sri Lanka’s gang crimes and new trends’ for his thesis.

Indika’s view is that there is no large scale ‘organised crime’ in Sri Lanka. But there are, he acknowledged, four types of crime that show some characteristics of what is called‘organised crime’. They are heroin peddling, illegal arms trade, human trafficking and white-collar crimes where the pawns pay the price for a bigger man’s deed.

What concerns Indika, a convict-now-turned-student of crime, is the rising number of gang crime in Sri Lanka. And, as he now prepares to begin further education in Death Row, he hopes to explore the effect of gang crime on the whole island. The Government has promised to fund the further studies of this defier of the death sentence. Even as he continues his wait in the shadow of death, Indika is ready to persevere and proceed further in his studies.

Photographs from the graduation at the BMICH, the day before, shows a suitably cloaked Indika accepting his certificate with a wide smile on his face. More photos from the event, taken later that day, depict a different picture. A deep frown had replaced the vibrant smile as he posed alongside his loved ones and well-wishers.

It was a bittersweet moment for him. “I was happy and sad at the same time. I was happy about my achievements and sad about having to come back to prison.” It was all overwhelming.

Indika, a former Sub Inspector of Police, is on Death Row for his alleged involvement in the murder of businessman Mohamed Siyam in 2013. He was 28 years old when he was given the death sentence.

He was arrested just 13 days after he got registered to the woman he had loved for 10 years - Nayana. Undeterred by the conviction of her loved one, Nayana then played a vital role in Indika’s educational achievements. Indika, at the same time, has appealed the court’s conviction.

Even as Indika continued his incarceration somewhat sheltered by Sri Lanka’s moratorium on the death penalty, debate around the death penalty was suddenly re-ignited with President Maithripala Sirisena’s announcement that it will be re-instated. Thus, confronted as he was with a looming threat of extinction, Indika however, persisted with his studies.

Last week the Parliament presented a motion to gazette the ‘Abolishing of the Death Penalty Bill’,and the Supreme Court earlier this month granted interim relief in a petition to delay the implementation of the penalty till October this year. The petition was filed by a death row inmate who was due to be executed if the death sentence was carried out in accordance with the President’s wishes.

The country’s prisons, now known as ‘correctional institutes’, house over 24,000 prisoners. Of them 471 inmates are convicted and are in Death Row. The number includes six women. Another 736 death row inmates have appealed.

Nayana refuses to even contemplate that her husband will be hanged by the State one day. She has worked tirelessly to help Indika come this far.

She is paying off a loan of Rs. 1 million she took to pay for Indika’s tuition fees, books, any photocopy material, a laptop and four recorders. Every Sunday she would sit in class alongside future graduates, who were in reality Indika’s batch mates recording, taking down notes and seeking clarifications for Indika’s queries from lecturers and making sure he had all of them at least by the next day. All of this was made possible by the prison authorities who had obtained approval from the university for this unique master’s exam exercise. .

“I can’t express my happiness in words. I did all of this because I know he (Indika) has a lot to offer to this world. He will do great things,” Nayana told the Sunday Observer.

After working five days a week and sitting one day in class Nayana said she was too exhausted to pursue a degree of her own. “He will do it for both of us,” she said.

There’s also another person who is celebrating Indika’s accomplishments along with her. Commissioner of Prisons (Rehabilitation) Chandana Ekanayake, who was then a senior Superintendent at the Welikada Prison, ensured that Indika had at least the basic facilities to do his studies.

Under his guidance a desk and a reading lamp was set up in Indika’s cell. He also got involved in getting permission to make necessary arrangements for Indika to sit for exams inside the prison.

“He is leaving a legacy behind. He showed the world that anyone can achieve anything with the least of facilities if that person had the determination,” Commissioner Ekanayake said whose vision is that ‘knowledge is power’.

Indika understands the power of knowledge too. So do his fellow inmates who would not talk loud or engage in their usual fun activities when he was studying for an exam. Indika said they were the best friends he could ask for.

“It was not my solo effort. I had an inmate teaching me English, and another- a former lecturer- helping me with social science. They were all very supportive and not one put me down. They were all humane,” Indika stressed. He knows that they would have been at his graduation if they had been given the chance, to cheer him as he stepped on stage to get his certificate.

Another personal idol that Indika missed on that historic day was his mother who had passed away in 2016 from health complications. After he was convicted his mother came to visit him at least seven times. She would always ask him if he ate on time, and then ask him to be happy and study. His father does not speak to him anymore. His brother didn’t come to the graduation too. Nayana was there, beaming in all the photographs taken that day.

Indika hopes to go home one day. If he does not, he wants the world to know three things he learned during his journey.

One is that life does not end with death, and a person needs to constantly grow to take it to the next realm of existence. A second lesson is that it does not matter what one has already, because a strong mind will help to achieve much. A third lesson is to set an example to others to also leave an inspiring story behind for others to learn from.

The Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) Chairman, Attorney Senaka Perera ,noted that Indika had already become a crusader for prison inmates. He said that Indika’s story was changing the debate over the death penalty, and helping all to understand the value of a person. Perera said the country was trying to revive a system that is rejected by the modern world.

Indika’s idea about the death penalty is a more holistic one. Though he does not want to go against President Sirisena’s vision, he thoroughly believes in second chances.

“If the Buddha was able to rehabilitate Angulimala who killed 999 people, why can’t our prison system rehabilitate and send back a positively-oriented inmate into society?” he asked.

Indika hopes that his interview with the Sunday Observer will take his message of gratitude to the following people he wanted listed: President Maithripala Sirisena, Secretary to President Janaka Ranawaka, Western Province Fisheries Minister Upul (who came to his graduation), politician Yasapala Koralage from the Western Province, ‘Janaka Aiyya’ from his village, all his lecturers and the Vice Chancellor of the University, and, his wife Nayana for helping him get this far.

His future plans, even as he waits in Death Row, is to obtain a PhD and to represent Sri Lanka in boxing at the SAARC Games.