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The birth of a tragedy

Print edition : Mar 07, 1998 T+T-

Since Sri Lanka's Independence 50 years ago, two competing visions of a modern state, grounded in separate and unmediated ethnic interests, have informed the nation's peculiar path of decolonisation.

SALMAN RUSHDIE'S characters in the fictionalised account of India after Independence, The Midnight's Children, were born at the moment of India's Independence at midnight on August 15, 1947. My own samsaric encounter with the political independence of my country has been slightly different. I was not born when the Union Jack was lowered and the Lion's Flag hoisted in Colombo, on February 4, 1948. I was born two years later, in 1950.

Yet, in a political and historical sense my own biography of the past 48 years has been closely intertwined with the 50-year biography of post-colonial Sri Lanka. I grew up in the early 1950s in the relative peace of an isolated Sinhalese village. As a six-year-old child, I learnt about the assassination of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, and political assassinations were to constitute a major facet of my country's politics since I reached the age of 38. As an eight-year-old child, I learnt about the differences between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities; then, of course, even the everyday events of my entire adult life were to be governed by Sinhala-Tamil conflictual politics. I came of age in the radical 1960s while being fed, looked after and educated by one of the best welfare states in the developing world. The welfare state, which also stood as an obstacle to significant economic growth, produced from among its own children a generation of bewildered idealists. Being one among them I ran away from home, became a modern anarchist, tried my hand at revolution and along with my generation paid a heavy price for that misadventure. Then in the twilight of my youth, in the 1980s, I witnessed how my country all of a sudden began to lose all its idealism and hope while aggression, hostility, ethnic self-righteousness, brutality and violence were welcomed with fervour by all those who mattered in shaping Sri Lanka's political future. At present I am watching, not with pleasure, how Sri Lanka is running deeper and deeper into its decades-old crisis. In despair, I read the poetry of despair. As I recently read in a poem by Pakistan's Kishwar Naheed, "I and my country were born together - We lost our sight in childhood."

THE story of Sri Lanka's 50 years of independence is also the story of how a new nation-state lost its sight as well as innocence in childhood and went awry in adulthood. Initially, only a few people sighted this birth of an unfolding tragedy. In 1956, when Sinhalese was made the official language, Colvin. R. De Silva, a Marxist parliamentarian at that time, summed it up pithily: "Two languages, one country; one language: two countries." Then, in the 1960s, Howard Wriggins, the American diplomat-turned-scholar, titled his study of Sri Lankan politics after independence, Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation.

Sri Lanka's Independence of 1948 was unique in the ex-colonial South Asia; it was not an achievement gained after a long and arduous nationalist struggle as in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Rather, Sri Lanka's Independence was 'granted' by the British, once a decision was made to part with the 'Jewel in the Crown', British India. Sri Lanka's nationalist leaders were constitutionalist lobbyists at their best; practising a highly legalistic form of nationalist agitation, they were more inclined towards constitutional reform negotiations to obtain the status of a responsible government than extra-institutional mobilisation directed towards achieving swaraj. Then, of course, the post-War Labour Government had decided to de-colonise the Empire by leaving the South Asian sub-continent. By a stroke of fate, Sri Lanka became a direct beneficiary of the epoch-making independence struggle of the people across the Palk Straits. It then was not an accident that February 4, 1948 fell less than a year after August 14 and 15 of 1947, the Independence days of India and Pakistan.

Sri Lanka's so-called non-violent path to Independence in 1948 has given rise to a myth, popularised mostly by secondary school text-book writers. Every school child is taught that the Sri Lankan people got their independence without shedding a single drop of blood. In a way, the British colonial rulers did not cause much shedding of blood, as they did in India or Africa, during their one-and-half century stay in Sri Lanka. The annexation of the island's coastal areas from the Dutch in 1796 was more the result of a change in the military balance in Europe than a war of conquest. Similarly, the capture of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 was made relatively easy because of the confluence of interests between the renegade Kandyan aristocracy and the British administrators in Colombo. Soon after the conquest of Kandy, there were two rebellions against British rule, one in 1818 and the other in 1848. In terms of their social origins, the two rebellions came from two different social strata; the first was largely resistance by the disillusioned Kandyan aristocracy while the participants in the second were the impoverished Kandyan peasantry. Both rebellions were suppressed in blood. However, between 1815 and 1915 the colony remained relatively peaceful. It was also the period during which the colonial plantation economy took firm root, the administrative system enveloped the entire island and a local bourgeoisie and the middle classes emerged in the new social structure. During the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915 violence did occur, yet Sri Lanka did not experience a massacre that was equivalent in severity and magnitude to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. This led to another colonial and academic myth about Sri Lanka under the British - a 'model colony'.

The nationalist historiography, however, has its own reading of Sri Lanka's independence struggle, which is also taught to every school child. As this particular historical analysis posits, after the Sinhalese heroism in battle against the colonial rule was suppressed twice in the early and mid-19th century, a religio-cultural renaissance began in the second half of the same century centered on Buddhist revivalism. It defied and challenged both European culture and Christianity. Contemporary Sinhalese nationalist historians call this revivalism, a search for a truly national identity by a subjugated nation that was seeking its own cultural and spiritual emancipation.

Quite interestingly, when a political agitation for constitutional reforms earnestly began in the early 20th century, the mass potential of the Sinhalese cultural revivalist movement had already elapsed. Space for public activity had shifted from religion and culture to constitutional reforms and the civic leadership from middle class vernacular intelligentsia to patrician notables. Members of a class of land-owning and professional gentry, these notables were the top-most layer of the native Sri Lankan society. The 'nationalist' leaders, both Sinhala and Tamil, formed the Ceylon National Congress in 1919 as a joint front to agitate for reforms, but the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic rivalry soon took over the Congress agenda and competitive ethnic politics began to characterise the entire nationalist reform movement in the decades to follow. Communalist political agendas aimed at securing more power for the Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders in the colonial legislature were so rigid that the Donoughmore Commission, which came to Ceylon in 1929 to report on constitutional reforms, described the Sri Lankan variety of communalism as "a canker on the body politic eating deeper and deeper into the vital energies of the people."

WHY is it that Sri Lanka did not produce a mass nationalist struggle for complete independence from the British? In Sri Lanka, answers to this question are always formulated by contrasting Sri Lanka's nationalist politics with the Indian experience. In India, as this explanation goes, the Indian National Congress mobilised the masses for complete independence and the nationalist movement of the elite linked itself with the struggle of the peasant and working class masses through the medium of Gandhian politics of defiance and resistance. Another contrast with India, often made by Sri Lankan Marxists, is that while India under colonial capitalism had produced a relatively mature 'national bourgeoisie' with a capacity to resist the colonial power, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie was weak, underdeveloped and as a class totally dependent on the colonial economy and culture. A remark often made by observers from the sub-continent who visit Colombo may perhaps add another perspective to this argument; the Sri Lankan elite, even today, constitutes the most 'British' of the South Asian elites.

With retrospective historical insights, one may argue today that the absence of a militant anti-colonial movement in the immediate pre-independence decades was not necessarily a negative feature. After the 1920s, the elite politics was conducted exclusively on communalist terms. The introduction of universal adult franchise in 1931 further added to the ethnicisation of elite political practices, because in the absence of an advanced civil society, ethnic fears and prejudices, rather than party programmes, appeared to be more attractive to professional politicians. As the research work of such scholars as Jane Russel, Michael Roberts and Nira Wickremasinghe demonstrate, the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic bifurcation of political leaders pursued no other mode of mobilisation than making appeals to the most sectarian of racist impulses they themselves had constructed. In case Sinhala and Tamil patrician elites succeeded in mobilising the masses as well on such emotive platforms of ethnic enmity, the Independence of 1948 would have easily been preceded by a bloodbath as was the case in India and Pakistan in 1947. For this failure at least, history may perhaps forgive the weak, dependent and thoroughly conservative colonial bourgeoisie of Sri Lanka and its political leaders.

Meanwhile, there was also a minor stream of swarajists associated with the Left and radical nationalism. The Left programme was for an anti-imperialist struggle, combined with social revolution. Most fascinating, however, were the radical Sinhala nationalists who were largely inspired by Indian nationalist struggle, particularly by its militant Bengali version. Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose were their role models. Led by a group of Left-oriented intellectual monks, these radical nationalists took the unusually courageous step of making a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) for Sri Lanka in 1946, perhaps the last radically progressive action associated with Sri Lanka's Buddhist nationalists.

The absence of ethnic violence at the moment of Independence constituted what one may call the Sri Lankan exceptionalism in South Asia. In Sri Lanka, there was no Mahatma Gandhi to be gunned down; a two-nation theory of state formation had not yet evolved. Nor was there a modern philosopher-statesman to make political poetry out of the midnight symbolism of destiny and freedom. Independence in February 1948 was mainly an official exercise of, to use historian Kingsley de Silva's phrase, 'transfer of power.' And power was transferred to a stratum of city-dwelling gentry who had been fairly well-schooled in the politics of sectarian competition, yet possessed only a poor vision for their own role in effecting a meaningful political change in a plural society.

The first 10 years of independence were crucial to the shaping of the future path of Sri Lanka, because that was the period in which the independent country began to show symptoms of losing sight of the future. The ideology of counter-pluralism so ardently built up during the previous two decades by the Ceylon National Congress headed by D.S. Senanayake and the Sinhala Maha Sabha of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike guided the behaviour of the new state soon after power was transferred. The fear of Indians swamping the island, a theme that gave much rhetorical energy to Congress and Sabha politicians in the pre-independence years, was translated into legislative practice by the new, independent Parliament with the citizenship law of 1948. While this legislation was meant to exclude from citizenship nearly half a million Tamil plantation workers, a subsequent election law enacted in 1949 deprived them of franchise rights as well. This Sinhala majoritarian assertion in the wake of Independence immediately gave rise to a Tamil minoritarian assertion around the demand for a federal state on the assumption that Tamil fears expressed earlier of eventual Sinhalese domination of state power had been proved. Thus, within two years of Independence, Sri Lanka's quest for nation-building led itself to two tracks - a Sinhala track and a Tamil track - which were never to meet throughout the following 50 years.

It is these two competing visions of a modern Sri Lankan state, grounded on separate and unmediated ethnic interests, that have informed the island's peculiar path of de-colonisation. And indeed, if both the Sinhalese and Tamil societies failed to give rise to an anti-colonial mass struggle in the pre-independence period, within five to six years of Independence they discovered the enemy within the territorial borders of the island so that the unspent political energies could now be marshalled for what may be termed post-colonial nationalism. As the Sri Lankan experience clearly demonstrated, post-colonial nationalism was also a peculiar process of decolonisation in which gaining access to, and the control of, state power was seen as the prime mechanism for correcting injustices suffered by the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community during the pre-independence colonial period.

De-colonisation in ex-colonial societies has always been a nationalist endeavour. Anti-colonial nationalisms have been generally constructed with the notions of establishing political sovereignty for communities that had come to see themselves through the modern political category of the nation. But the combination of de-colonisation and post-colonial nationalisms in Sri Lanka have had another feature which began to crystallise itself in the early 1950s. We may call it the displacement of the enemy. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalists viewed the minority Tamils and Christians as beneficiaries of the British colonial rule and therefore their political project enunciated the position that de-colonisation would mean the political and cultural empowerment of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority. In this framework, the post-independence empowerment of the Sinhala-Buddhist society was a post-colonial negotiation with the colonial past. Meanwhile, the de-colonisation project of Tamil nationalism had a different approach to the issue of post-independent empowerment. It was grounded on the belief that before the colonial advent, Tamils in the North-East had been a separate sovereign entity and that any post-independence political arrangement, to be meaningful to Tamils, would ensure accommodation of that sovereignty in the form of regional autonomy. And the Tamil nationalists began to use the formulation, 'Sinhalese imperialism', as early as the 1950s, pointing to their belief that the independence of 1948 benefited only the Sinhalese.

Once the enemy was discovered within, it was relatively easy for both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist projects to assume a somewhat mass character within just ten years of Sri Lanka's independence. With this qualitative transition, the leadership of the two nationalist mobilisations was passed onto new actors. The social composition of new forces of post-colonial Sinhala nationalism was totally different from the Anglicised Sinhala elite that negotiated the transfer of power from the British. The leadership of the new Sinhala nationalist forces emerged from among the vernacular intelligentsia of the urban as well as semi-rural intermediate classes, the latter being the social core of the new mobilisation. Tamil nationalism too underwent a significant transition. While a new party called the Federal Party was formed in 1952, the notion of national self-determination was introduced to the Tamil nationalist discourse. The new forces also shifted their focus away from business and professional Tamil elites in Colombo to middle class social groups in the Tamil districts of the North and East. Making Sinhala the official language in 1956 and the ethnic riots of 1958 - the two moments that decisively defined subsequent Sinhala-Tamil relations as well as the majoritarian nature of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state - were events, the historical meaning of which could be discerned only in the context of the social transition of post-colonial Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms.

When the question of state power became so crucial and central to Sinhala and Tamil nationalist goals in the post-Independence phase, political accommodation between the two became excruciatingly painful and difficult. The fate of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1958, the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1966, the District Development Councils scheme of 1982 and the Provincial Councils system of 1987 demonstrates, in varying degrees, what one may call the reform-resistant character of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state. It is perhaps a political irony that only post-colonial Tamil nationalism, precisely because it was a nationalism of an ethnic minority, could present a state-reform perspective for a pluralistic polity. The Tamil federalist demand, if we detach it from its avowedly ethnic overtones, can be seen as the most important political intervention in order to make the post-colonial Sri Lankan state modern, more democratic and pluralistic. But the federalist demand touched the very essence of the question of the state and it could only further strengthen the unitarist impulses of Sinhala nationalist politics. Given the fact that post-colonial Sri Lanka's ruling class has been an ethnic Sinhalese ruling class, the task of reforming the state remains incomplete. The whole experience of the 1972 and 1978 constitutions was one of institution-wrecking and not institution-building - in essence, counter-reformist. The puzzle of ethnicised democracy in Sri Lanka is that even purely legislative attempts towards pluralistic reform measures would require and generate generalised political violence as witnessed in 1987-88. Or, if violence is not resorted to by a reform-minded regime, as is the case today in Sri Lanka, the reform process will have to go through a long journey, running the risk of ending up in futility.

Looking back at the past 50 years through the prism of Sri Lanka's crisis today, it is amazing to realise that political institution-building, in order to facilitate the management of ethnic relations, did not enter the thinking of the ruling elites for almost 40 years. Almost all legislative and constitutional attempts made during those four decades in the sphere of ethnic relations by all regimes resulted in destroying the space for pluralistic institution-building. The blame should be shared by both Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders whose short-term visions, however just they may have appeared at one time or another for their own ethnic communities, could not make up a collective and sustainable long-term vision for Sri Lanka. The first meaningful framework of institution-building was introduced in 1987 with the establishment of provincial councils. The irony was that even that measure was forced on the Jayewardene regime by the Indian state amidst much resistance by the majority of political forces.

Why this hard-headed political conservatism? Why this monumental blindness to future? Is it because the Sri Lankan state lost its sight in childhood? Blind to the future, the Sri Lankan state has grown up during the past 50 years in a self-made political culture of resistance to reform.

Jayadeva Uyangoda is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Colombo.