By Tissa Jayatilaka –
Like all of my old Peradeniya friend Rajan Philips’s articles the above to which I offer a footnote, too, is lucid, intelligently provocative and incisive. There is, though one serious reservation that I have about it. Rajan has, perhaps out of his partiality to the ‘Old Left’, sought to glorify Dr. Colvin R. de Silva. In doing so, he has also sought to downplay what I like to term the decline and fall of the ‘Old Left’, especially in regard to its once principled and sacred stand on the parity of status for both Sinhala ad Tamil languages.
The quote attributed to Colvin in Rajan’s piece is slightly different from that which I recall. The words of Colvin that are etched in modern Sri Lanka’s history are:
One language, two nations; Two languages, one nation.
The above version echoes Benjamin Disraeli’s roman a’ these (a novel with a thesis) Sybil or The Two Nations (1845). Disraeli, in his novel, traces the plight of the working classes in England dealing with the ghastly and appalling conditions in which the majority of England’s working classes lived. It is a piece of writing that Colvin would doubtless have been quite familiar with and his quote may well have sprung from the title of Disraeli’s novel. I am not for a moment suggesting that Colvin could not have formulated his own thoughts without having to rely on Disraeli. Rather the point I wish to make is that we are often influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the writing of those we become familiar with in the course of our own reading. The Colvin of the above quote is the pre-1959 vintage Colvin of the ‘Old Left’, before the decline and fall of that group of once noble and principled politicians. What follows is some political history to substantiate my assessment of the fall also of the ‘Old Left’ to the lower depths of Sri Lanka’s murky politics.
Even before 1959, the government of S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike was in crisis. The pressure of ‘Sinhala Only’, bouts of communal violence arising from that tragically short-sighted policy, the failure of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, dissension verging on conspiracy both within and without the cabinet fuelled by an influential segment of the Buddhist clergy, had made Prime Minister Bandaranaike an isolated and vulnerable figure. The two main left parties, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP), which had preached revolution and which used to be ambivalent at best about parliamentary democracy, had by the end of 1959 opted for the latter. Over-estimating its perceived electoral strength, the ‘Old Left’ contested the first parliamentary election of 1960 and fared dismally. The UNP won the largest number of seats but it was a hung Parliament. It was at the second parliamentary election of 1960 that the ‘Old Left’ began flirting with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to enter into a coalition with that party (unkind critics refer to this as ‘the beginning of the clinging to the saree-pota of Mrs. Bandaranaike phase’ of the ‘Old Left’).
After the SLFP won in the second parliamentary election of 1960 and Mrs. Bandaranaike formed her government, Philip Gunawardane (by now of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna- MEP), Dr. S.A. Wickremesinghe (CP) and Dr. N.M. Perera (LSSP) then commenced talks to form a United Left Front (ULF) under their collective leadership. Philip, by the mid-1950s in teaming up with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to form the MEP, had opted for ‘Sinhala Only’. And he now had no intention of deviating from that stance and insisted that staying with ‘Sinhala Only’ was a non-negotiable pre-condition for forming the ULF. Colvin, NM et al compromised to accept this pre-condition whilst Edmund Samarakkody led a group who refused to do so. The latter eventually split from the LSSP over this tragi-sad political compromise.
The irony of it all was that by the time the ULF was formed in 1963, Philip Gunawardane had left in disagreement and the ULF was now left carrying the ‘Sinhala Only’ baby thereby turning its back on its past glory of parity of status for both languages! And, what was yet left of the ‘Old Left’, despite Felix Dias Bandaranaike-led SLFP rightwing opposition to it managed to grasp Mrs. Banadaranaike’s saree-pota (with a little bit of help from T.B. Ilangaratne and the left wing of the SLFP) firmly enough to enjoy the perks of office and a taste of political power in the short-lived United Front government of 1964. Soon the defection of the C.P. de Silva-led faction of the SLFP ensured the fall of the fledgling UF government.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of the decline and fall of the ‘Old Left’. Post-1965, this group descended further into political infamy by plugging the infamous ‘Masalavadai line’ opposing Dudley Senanayake’s efforts to find middle ground with the Federal Party. In 1972, with the promulgation of the First Republican Constitution with Colvin now as The Minister of Constitutional Affairs, the final nail on the coffin of ‘parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil languages’ was laid. It was in this very same Constitution that Buddhism was given ‘foremost place’ and virtually made the state religion thus adding religion also to the already potent mix of language and politics that have bedeviled Sri Lanka’s politics to-date. A few years later, in July 1977, nobody of the ‘Old Left’ was left in the Parliament of Sri Lanka. In 1977, for the first time since they first participated in electoral politics in our country, the giants of the ‘Old Left’ were thrown out by the voters. What a sad end to principled politics of the left in Sri Lanka that was!