Story of five generations messing up 24-years in “independent” Ceylon and 50-years in Sri Lanka

 With independence the government was expected to embrace all the 7.2 million People with diverse cultural identities as equals, but it did not.

by Kusal Perera

“In spite of the reverses which the ideal of One Ceylon, Free Ceylon, has received recently we hold our faith in it. The conception of a free country where politics is free from the ideas of race and caste calls for courage and imagination and true statesmanship. We shall not subscribe to anything less than that, for nothing less will save Ceylon”. – Handy Perinbanayagam

Grumblings against this government preparing for Independence Day celebrations on 04 February is blamed as waste of money when the economy is bankrupt. “People are hungry. What celebrations?” goes the argument. Complaints of bankruptcy, 74 years after independence with every government accused of failure is what should be dug deep. What in fact was the responsibility of the People who were declared independent, 74 years ago?

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this to say almost 25 years after independence. “The consensus that the government represented, embraced only a small fraction of the population—the English-educated Westernized elite groups that shared the values on which the structure was founded. To the great mass of Sinhalese- and Tamil-educated residents and unschooled citizens, these values appeared irrelevant and incomprehensible.” 

With independence the government was expected to embrace all the 7.2 million People with diverse cultural identities as equals, but it did not. The “State”g declared independent did not include and treat all Citizens as equal. When a government embraces a select privileged few though elected by a majority, the responsibility of establishing a secular, inclusive and an independent “Nation State” is violated.

Total lack of any serious and collective social campaign that generated a social consensus on an “Independent Nation State”, resulted in leaving backdoor negotiations for independence with the “English-educated Westernized elite groups”.  Exception was the Jaffna Students’ Congress formed in 1924 and metamorphosed into Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC) in 1929 with Perinbanayagam as its ideological leader. They stood for “Poorna Swaraj” defined as “total national independence” for “One Ceylon and Free Ceylon”. It was on this very principled stand the JYC opposed the Donoughmore Commission proposals as “not going far enough in the direction of self-government”. They therefore called for a very successful boycott of the 1931 State Council elections in North and East.     

Pro-Sinhala politics held sway through all negotiations for independence and that did not alter with D.S. Senanayake government adopting two bills in parliament in 1948 to “de-citizenise and dis-franchise” the plantation Tamil labour. Plantation labour then constituted nearly 800,000 or nearly 11 per cent as a minority in a population of 7.2 million.

During the first 30 years after independence, governments were not lobbied by even the educated and the intelligentsia to establish an inclusive, pluralistic nation State. Instead, governments were elected to feed the people. Governments were therefore ousted for not “making life easy” for the larger majority, who were poor and lower middleclass wage earners. 

During the next 40 plus years to date, the political culture rotted worse in a free market economy with voters turned selfish, self-seeking. competing consumers. Ethics and morals discarded as irrelevant for democratic representation and daily life, they ganged behind individual politicians for favours, positions, political power and shady deals. The “educated” urban middleclass voters were no different. “Next government” was only spoken about when the urban middleclass wanted the existing government ousted on their petty terms but with no alternate programme offered.

Leaving aside the discussion on what economic model could best deliver socio-economic aspirations of the people for a moment, the firm and forgone conclusion is, all through 74 years we have not addressed the basic issue that should have been addressed; establishing an inclusive, independent, sovereign “nation State” for a culturally diverse polity.

Senanayake created a precedent in the first parliament itself, openly violating the responsibility of working towards an inclusive nation State. Creating distrust among the Tamil society, he and his government was instrumental in breaking up the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) in 1950 to form the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), popularly called the Federal Party (FP). In turn it strengthened the Sinhala-Buddhist resolve in establishing their dominance in the State with Bandaranayake’s Sinhala Maha Sabha dissociating itself from the UNP in 1951 to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

What was unmistakably clear by then and thereafter is that no political leadership including the politically aggressive traditional “Left” ever realised the necessity of politically working towards a secular, democratic Nation State. Democratic and fundamental rights of citizens necessary for a democratic nation State were never in the political agenda of any political party. For the first time ’71 insurgency threw open the curtain on arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture, and rights of detainees. They were taken up by Ms. Sooriya Wickramasinghe, with Senior Advocates Desmond Fernando and Bala Tampoe the trade unionist who intervened on behalf of the accused youth. Sooriya and Desmond in 1971 established the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) to campaign for “rights” with Amnesty International support. CRM was the first social organisation in Sri Lanka to advocate human rights.

It was thereafter a Section on “Fundamental Rights” (No.18) came to be included under Chapter VI in the first Republican Constitution of 1972 while also assuring the Sinhala-Buddhist hierarchy of special State patronage under Section 06 of Chapter II. Section 18 of the 1972 Constitution was later expanded as Article 14 in the second Republican Constitution of 1978 and did not fail to include Section 06 as Article 09 under Chapter II as well.

Despite human rights entering the political discourse in urban circles, political parties weaned themselves off from even the “touch and go” democracy there was in their organisations. That de-linked leaderships from responsibility to their scattered membership. No political party pledged thereafter to remove Article 09 of Chapter II to establish a secular democratic Nation State structured on ethnoreligious equality, civil liberties and human rights. All political parties in mainstream politics instead began competing for Sinhala-Buddhist votes, with presidential elections held nationally. The two main political contenders catered to the 70.2 percent Sinhala-Buddhist constituency to muster the largest possible vote bloc. All elections therefore were about political leaderships competing to be a better Sinhala-Buddhist leadership than the other.

Thus the 24-year history of “independent” Ceylon and the 50-year history of Sri Lanka prove the two main political parties on their own and in alliance with Sinhala groups and political clans have not taken responsibility for the task of “nation building” with an inclusive, independent State. They have only been catering to Sinhala-Buddhist sentiments and nurtured them to be extreme and violent, at the expense of Tamil and then Muslim minorities.

Tracking anti-minority politics of mainstream players since independence begins with the UNP government of PM Senanayake de-citizenising and dis-franchising plantation Tamil labour in 1948, followed by PM Bandaranayake legislating Sinhala as the “only official language” in 1956 and Tamil MPs protesting in Galle face green physically attacked by organised goons. That was followed again by the protest march to Kandy against the B-C Pact in 1957 led by J.R. Jayawardne. First anti-Tamil riots followed thereafter in 1958. Madam Bandaranayake’s government in 1962 deployed the military for the first time against peaceful civil disobedience campaign called for by the FP in North and East. Thereafter in 1968, the Opposition parties led by Madam B with SamaSamaja and Communist parties launched a protest march against provisions of the 1965 Dudley-Chelva Pact resulting in novice monk Dambarawe Rathanasara succumbing to shooting at Kollupitiya. After the 1970 elections Madam B’s coalition government with SamaSamaja and Communist parties left out Tamil representation from promulgating the 1972 Constitution that did away with provisions safeguarding minorities, classifying all as Citizens of Sri Lanka

After 1977 with Jayawardne heading the government, Sinhala racism was given a violent “Mathew-turn” with 1977 and 1979 Tamil riots, enactment of the PTA in 1979, massacre of Jaffna town and the burning down of the prestigious Jaffna library followed by the infamous Tamil pogrom in July 1983 that completely discarded the political responsibility of establishing a secular, inclusive and a pluralistic Nation State. It paved for armed Tamil rebellion for a separate Tamil State. Rest is all history with a protracted 26 year long civil war brought to an end on military exploits in 2009 May under Rajapaksa presidency and replacing the anti-Eelam campaign with a more violent extremist campaign against the Muslims.

In any country where political leaderships do not believe in respecting cultural diversity, and “social activists” do not challenge the sectarian, racist ideology of the dominant ethnoreligious majority, socio-economic development and prosperity has never been possible. In fact, neither prosperity nor democracy can ever be the luxury of the majority ethnoreligious community alone. Bankruptcy the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated during the past 02 years was growing and was inevitable. This bankruptcy cannot be answered by mere economic manoeuvrings as advised by “Experts”. This bankruptcy is not about economics per se, but about plurality, democracy and nation building with diversity and dignity and nothing less.

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