Paul Caspersz

Rev Fr Paul Caspersz 1925-2017| Photo Credit Satyodaya Kandy

Fr. Paul Caspersz was a Jesuit Priest who campaigned for the civil and economic rights of the Malaiyaha Thamil community in Sri Lanka. Following his Ordination in Naples, Italy in 1952 (at the age of 27 he was the youngest Jesuit priest in the world at the time), he read Political Science and Economics at Oxford University. After serving as a teacher and the school principal of Aloysius College Galle, he founded the Satyodaya Institute in Kandy under the patronage of Bishop Leo Nanayakkara in 1972. Satyodaya, which means “dawn of truth”, is a self-sustained center for social research and encounter, which to this day is a voluntary development organization, which provides basic services such as housing, water, sanitation, and educational and vocational training for the Plantation and other underprivileged communities in the upcountry region. Caspersz and Nanayakkara co-founded the institute as a way of addressing the humanitarian exigencies that came about through the 1972 and 1975 Land Reform measures that resulted in the institutionalized alienation of the predominantly Thamil plantation community. His vision for the center was to bring Thamil and Sinhala workers together in order to develop their lives and communities through self-sustainable means.

With the rising ethnic tensions in the country, Paul Caspersz’s work, expanded from economic and labor rights in the Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, to human rights connected to the ethno-political crises of the 1980s and beyond. In 1977, following the country wide anti-Thamil pogrom, he co-founded the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), a collective of activists and concerned citizens who actively campaigned against political inaction in times of terror and the adverse impacts of political action that compromised the rights of all citizens. According to one of his mentees, Rajan Phillips, “he was the moving force behind all the activities and initiatives of MIRJE, its fact finding missions to Jaffna, its publications and public communications to government and political leaders” during the Emergency rule of President J. R. Jayewardene. He also often proposed connections and similarities between Marxist ideology and the teachings of Christ in the gospel.

In his over 40 years of activism, Paul Caspersz published over 300 articles in journals and newspapers on topics varying from civil and economic rights of the Upcountry Plantation community to Marxist Liberation Theology. Some of his work (36) was published in his festschrift, A New Culture for a New Society: Selected Writings 1945-2005 in 2005. Most of his works are housed at the Rev Fr Paul Caspersz Memorial Library at Satyodaya in both published and manuscript form. He published most of his writings in the most widely circulated daily newspapers in Sri Lanka to create awareness among the general public, while some other articles were meant to challenge state leaders and state conduct in public forums.