20 April, 2024


A Footnote To Rajan Philips’s ‘Post-Tsunami Debacle And Post-War Aggravations’

By Tissa Jayatilaka –

Tissa Jayatilaka

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!

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Thank you Tissa.
    Two nations and two languages is the solution

    • 0

      Thanks Tissa for this informative piece on the decline of Sri Lanka’s once mighty, principled Old Left. The Old Left truly let Sri Lanka down. Despite having massive sympathy in the population for their ideals. They wasted every opportunity for narrow, opportunitic gains. And continue to do so. Leaving the left leaning Sri Lankan population helpless.

      Move on buddy.

      There has been enough blood shed for your silly pipe dream. All for nothing.

      There will be many languages, religions, political streams etc…etc.

      However, there will be only one nation. The Sri Lankan rainbow nation.

      All for one. One for all. Equal before the law. Period.


      PS: If it is too much for your Tamil ethno-nationalist/racist mindset to process, I truly feel sorry for you. But, that’s all I will do for a racist. Be they Sinhalese, Tamil, Mulsim or any other.

  • 3

    Sinhalisation in action – http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=9607

    Elephant Pass to be rebuilt and renamed by SLA
    Sri Lanka’s Education Minister has plans to renovate the Elephant Pass railway station and to rename it to the Sinhalese ‘Senahasaka Thotupola’, reports Sunday Times (Sri Lanka).

    A significant marker in the Tamil homeland, Aanaiyuravu or Elephant Pass, serves as a gateway to the Jaffna peninsula from Kilinochchi.

    The project, like many other large-scale schemes in Sri Lanka, is likely to be undertaken by the Sri Lankan army as the newspaper reports the ministry “is now in consultation with the Sri Lanka Army to ascertain whether its engineering troops can undertake the construction of the railway station.”

    • 0

      Senahasaka Thotupola is the original name dating back to days of the Rajarata kingdom, long before Tamils invaded the island. It is therefore appropriate that the original name be re-introduced. The way forward is to have two official languages – Sinhala and English, and accomodating minority languages (with reasonable use).Since the large minority group, the Tamils dispersed throughout the island and increasing Sinhalese presence in the NP and EP, this minority group will easily have access to interpreters to conduct business in Sinhalese, or if they choose to, in English. Better facilities should be made available in those areas to teach Sinhala. This is already happening in the hill country amongst the minority population who have an excellent command of Sinhala language and proud to use.

      • 4

        Banda took us on that path – and as a consequence we are now exporting maids to middle east and coolies to Korea, instead of the past history of accountants, doctors and lawyers and other professionals to the most developed nations.

        And the “swabasha” ecstasy has now been shamelessly subsumed by Korean and Chinese teachings to kids to prepare them for more coolie jobs in the far east for ever to come – is that the best the country can do for its most important potential resources of the future.

  • 2

    This is already happening in the hill country amongst the minority population who have an excellent command of Sinhala language and proud to use.

    If you allow the minorities to TALK FREELY expressing their true feelings, they will tell you whether they are PROUD to speak in sinhala!!
    It is a disadvantage for them to be educated in SINHALA ONLY, which has no value outside the wretched country!!!

  • 2

    Tissa, you may have some nostalgic misgivings in the inglorious demise of the old left in Sri Lanka. I am not. To this date I haven’t come across a single left leaning politician in Sri Lanka worthy of plaudits. They were for most part con artists and opportunists. Even the JVP purportedly claiming to be communist turned out to be nothing more than a ragtag cowardly bunch who were no less Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists than what the present GOSL is.

    • 0

      BBS Rep,

      How would you describe/characterise Tamil ethno-nationalists?


  • 4

    Lal’s comment above says “Senahasaka Totupola” is a usage from Rajarata times. Let’s say OK, for argument’s sake. If it was, so what? Why should we bring back a name from the past? What is wrong with Elephant Pass?

    Lal also talks about Tamils as invaders. Mr Lal, Invasions are not the reason why Tamils are here. Whether you like it or not, they are part of the island’s demography from pre-historic times. They are people of this country. This country is theirs as much as it is yours and mine. Is that too complex for you to understand?

    And what’s more Mr Lal, Tamils have rights, just like you and I. More news for you, unlike the Sinhala modayas, the Tamils are getting about their job intelligently, with people like Chief Minister Wignesharan and Member of Parliament Sumanthiran leading them. When the pathetic GL Pieris is acting like clown of diplomacy, Wigneshwaran and Sumanthiran are acting like princes of diplomacy. They are gaining the admiration of the world.

    And Mr Lal, I notice you want two official languages, Sinhala and English. How generous of you! But, are you not missing something? Or are you joking? If you answer “no” to both, from what planet are you?

  • 4

    “The betrayal of the left parties

    Founded in 1935, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Ceylonese section of the Fourth International from 1940 onwards, was the first party to demand the independence of the country from British imperialism. From its foundation, it developed significant work in the mass movements and trade unions. The second biggest party on the island in terms of size, the LSSP was the main workers’ party and also the main opposition party in parliament until the emergence of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

    A multi-ethnic and multi-cultural party, it included among its members militants of different languages, religions, genders and castes. Its activists fought attacks on workers whatever they were, as well as the inter-communal divisions of the working class. Thus, after independence, the first UNP government voted through the Citizenship Act rendering the plantation Tamils stateless, the LSSP was one of only two parties which opposed it. The party denounced a racist decree, directed against the working class and damaging to democracy.

    However, in 1956, the internal situation of the party had qualitatively evolved. Internal struggles and a first split in 1945 had weakened the party. The divergences mainly concerned the question of the construction of the party: branch of a South Asian party or party in the national framework. In 1950, after several years of political conflicts fed by personal rivalries and generational divergences, Philip Gunawardena, main founder of the LSSP, left the party and founded a new one, the Viplavakari – LSSP (LSSP-Revolutionary). A third of the party joined the VLSSP following the political reverse by the LSSP during the general elections of 1952. During the presidential election of 1956, the VLSSP allied with the Bandaranaike’s SLFP to form a coalition, the People’s United Front (MEP), which came first in the election. The VLSSP openly betrayed the workers by voting for the “Sinhala Only Act” with all the majority parties. Only the Tamil minority parties and the LSSP opposed it in parliament. The leader of the LSSP, Colvin R. de Silva, presciently observed that this law, which made Tamils second-class citizens, rested on a disastrous logic: “two languages, one nation; one language, two nations”.

    The passing of the “Sinhala Only Act” in 1956 was followed by strong protests from the Federal Party. In 1957, the SLFP in government and the Federal Party signed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam agreements promising a regional autonomy to the provinces of the north and east. Tamil, in particular, became the official language of the administration of these two regions. But the Sinhalese-chauvinist forces organised by the Buddhist monks, on whose support Bandaranaike had relied to gain power, launched a virulent campaign against this agreement. On April 9, 1958, the United Front of Monks (Eksath Bhikku Peramuna-EBP), an organisation of reactionary and racist Buddhist monks, besieged the residence of the prime minister. The same afternoon, one year after having signed it, Bandaranaike renounced the pact. Subsequent Tamil demonstrations in Jaffna were severely repressed by the police. In Colombo and other regions Sinhalese nationalists launched pogroms against the Tamils leading to criminal arson and murders organised in complete impunity by Sinhalese hooligans and thugs. The violence unleashed soon escaped any control but Bandaranaike refused to intervene for fear of upsetting the Sinhalese nationalists. In vain. In 1959, he was assassinated by a member of the EBP.

    The Buddhist monk making vows of abstinence and poverty gave way to a much less spiritual monk who used their traditional position to exercise power. Bandaranaike had utilised Sinhalese nationalism to come to power but he was incapable of detaching himself from it after he had succeeded in his aims. The Pandora’s box was opened, and it was impossible to contain the Sinhalese nationalist racist forces unleashed.

    The LSSP could have been an important element in opposing this nationalist and racist drift. Its strength rested in its ability to organise the masses at the rank and file. It had shown this during the organisation of an immense hartal[11] against the UNP government in 1953 which paralysed the country. Overwhelmed, the government took refuge on a ship. But when it was in a position of strength, the LSSP did not push the struggle to its advantage.[12]

    This positioning prefigured the capitulations to come. The working-class base of the party shrunk under the pressure of the inter-communal conflicts and the electoral successes of the SLFP destabilised the leadership of the LSSP. Defeat in the elections of 1960 disoriented the party. N. M. Perera, the main organiser of the LSSP’s mass work, proposed forming a coalition government with the SLFP, which was rejected by the majority of the party, but the LSSP parliamentary group supported the vote of confidence in the newly elected government against the “main enemy” of the UNP, which had continuously ruled Ceylan since 1948.[13] In 1964, Perera engaged the majority of the party in a coalition government with the SLFP and the Ceylon Communist Party,[14] the government being led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of the prime minister assassinated seven years earlier. The earlier political demands of the two left parties in favour of equal rights for the plantation Tamils and parity of status between Sinhalese and Tamil languages were put aside. In the same year, the LSSP was expelled from the Fourth International, which saw entry into the SLFP government as a political treason.

    A minority group around Bala Tampoe and Edmund Samarakkody continued to defend the traditional positions of the LSSP in the new party. But the only mass political party which had defended workers regardless of their ethnic origin had betrayed, leaving a political vacuum in the working class and strengthening Sinhalese nationalism.[15]

    In 1968, the SLFP, LSSP and CP formed the United Front that won the 1970 elections. The LSSP and CP, definitively converted to parliamentarism, justified this alliance by the desire to oppose the UNP, “the party of foreign and Ceylonese capitalist interests”, whereas the United Front campaigned for a policy of industrialisation through import substitution, the development of social protection and the nationalisation of the Bank of Ceylon, transport and the tea plantations.

    The policy of this government was however less progressive than it appeared. It was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who pushed further the political logic of discrimination against north-eastern origin and plantation Tamils to satisfy her electoral clientele. That had significant repercussions on the economic policy pursued. In a difficult economic conjuncture owing to the first generalised world recession in 1974-75, with an unprecedented increase in unemployment, the UF government sharpened discriminatory policies that were already in place and invented new ones: the “Sinhala Only Act” was used to exclude Tamils from the police, army, courts and governmental services in general; the policy of colonisation of Tamil areas was accentuated; the plantation Tamils were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to Tamil Nadu in India. Standardisation of access to universities, which was deeply discriminatory against part of the Tamil community, was imposed. This racist policy was implemented by parties who identified themselves with the workers’movement. How could the coming generations of young Tamils still have confidence in the left parties?

    All these discriminatory policies had the goal of transferring resources to the Sinhalese to the detriment of the Tamils. In 1971, however, the government faced a very significant insurrection from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a group made up of young Sinhalese living in the south of the country, mainly rural and members of the petty bourgeoisie. Such an uprising of youth, supposedly the main beneficiaries of the political measures taken, show how much the discrimination against the Tamils did not benefit the majority of Sinhalese and did not alleviate poverty and unemployment. The ruling coalition responded with a terrible repression. Several thousand youths were killed by the army and the police and more than 10,000 were jailed[16].

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