By Uditha Devapriya –
Recently I was asked to suggest a good tagline for Independence Day. The selling point was the main theme engendered by February 4, freedom. Such taglines, however, are notoriously difficult to come up with, so after days of thinking and scribbling, I was given an idea to pursue: instead of freedom, we’d opt for a different theme. That theme would be the perennial problem we encounter every February: the fact that we take our own Independence Day (and what it stands for) for granted. Put simply, our collective indifference. Needless to say, I loved it.
In the United States of America, schoolchildren are taught about Constitutional Law and the Founding Fathers through illustrated and easy to read guides. There are simplified versions of the Declaration of Freedom, annotated for the common reader, which are never out of print. Classrooms are littered (for the lack of a better term) with posters designed by students centring on what they think about Independence. Broadway directors turn the lives of the Founding Fathers into veritable musicals and Hollywood, time and time again, feature them as heroes. The last time I checked, Abraham Lincoln had become a vampire hunter.
What does independence mean for us, given that a few days from today we’ll be celebrating 69 years of it? Is it freedom or nidahasa, or is it what it literally means, svadinathvaya? If the latter is true, we have no reason for pride. We are not completely independent in the sense that we are part of this accursed reality (which we must acknowledge) called globalisation, but despite that a country can still claim self-sufficiency by realising its potential and making its leaders work for its people. In other words, independence is not just about nationalism and rhetoric, it’s also about working for the broader citizenry, eschewing ethnicity and faith. Unfortunately, we have not even achieved that.
Politically we have allowed our rulers to tinker with the democratic process. If 1956 signified a congruence of liberalism and ethno-nationalism (a paradox, certainly), it didn’t continue because of the structural flaws of a system that, to this day, entrenches the power of the privileged. Economically we have progressed from having Singapore use us as a model to having Singapore as a model. Culturally we are yet to claim an identity of our own, in part because our nationalists are tragically a hybridised lot, disdainful of Westernisation in public and enamoured of it in private.
All of this naturally begs the question: what SHOULD svadinathvaya entail? Do we take it literally and repudiate globalisation, or do we enjoy the latter while hypocritically celebrating self-sufficiency? The West, with the recent intrusion of rightwing political parties, is seeing a return to mercantilism and the form of capitalism that subsisted during the Industrial Revolution (indefensibly and manifestly privileging the pursuit of money over everything else). Does this mean that the East should follow suit?
The answer, I feel, will not be found by resorting to politics. It will be found by resorting to literature. I am thinking here of Rabindranath Tagore’s Ghare Baire (“The Home and the World”), which explores the rift between cosmetic nationalism and sobriety. The former, personified by Sandip (the nationalist), results in the destruction, while the latter, personified by Nikhil (the rationalist), results in progress. If we obtain an analogy here, we can surmise that the history of this country, after independence that is, has more or less been driven by the rift between the Sandips and the Nikhils in our Parliament and government.
To be sure, a country’s destiny can’t be reducible to what goes on in those two institutions, but given the structure of privilege we’ve let our representatives wallow in, there’s no point in claiming that power exists in the periphery. We can’t have the cake and eat it too, after all. If we elect idiots, we shall be ruled by idiots. That’s democracy for you today.
To this end, it’s pertinent to remember that a great many people of this country believe that independence was given to, and not won by, us. A rather crass generalisation to make, particularly since it trivialises those who actually fought for our freedom, but spot on if we relate it to the moment of independence, i.e. February 4, 1948. It doesn’t take one much time, after all, to read the likes of Kumari Jayawardena and conclude (rather depressingly) that most of those touted as heroes today were less concerned about achieving complete independence than about ensuring that the White Man handed over his mantle to the pukka sahib.
There’s no point dwelling on the past if we don’t anchor it for the future, no less a person than Martin Wickramasinghe informed us. But there’s no point thinking of the future without thinking of the past, a point that Wickramasinghe emphasised as well. If we decry English as a privileged tongue while secretly indulging in that same privilege, if we teach OTHER children to cherish the game pasale while ensuring by hook or crook that OUR children are admitted to elite institutions, where’s the freedom we should be embracing? Where’s the past we should be celebrating and the future we should be bracing ourselves for?
Forget that. Take another issue. How many of us are bothered to think about our history? How many of us are rooted enough to appreciate our methods of irrigation and our ancient civilisation without either degrading them as inferior or ballooning them as the greatest in the world? The former sentiment is echoed by the cosmopolitan, the latter by the cosmetic nationalist. If we are to claim independence, neither individual will do. And yet, we can concede that both of them have called the shots here, often clinching power and more often than not retaining power.
Should we stop hoping, then? I don’t think so. 1956 was a failed experiment, in that it won us neither the nationalism nor the liberalism its leader(s) espoused, but it happened nevertheless. Much of the foundation for a deshiya samajaya, let’s not forget, was laid with the revolution it wrought, so much so that not even the paradigm shift brought about after 1977 was enough to erode it. As Gunadasa Amarasekara aptly pointed out, our political structure, flawed as it is, was and is capable of throwing out a firm-footed and rooted nationalist leader. If we wait long enough, and if bad times worsen even more, that leader will not (I believe) be hard to enough. Not easy, yes. But not impossible either.
When Mahagama Sekara penned “Me Sinhala Apage Ratayi”, he was not writing about the Sinhala Buddhist identity per se. He was writing of the Siv Hela, the races that originally inhabited this island, whose heritage precedes even that of those who rant and rave over ethnic supremacy today. And yet, we are wont to trashing it as a chauvinist work of art. When Sunil Ariyaratne penned the Janaraja Geethaya, better known of course as “Api Okkoma Rajawaru” for our true independence day (May 22, 1972), we became the deciders of our own destiny, collectively and individually. The “we” was symbolic and telling: all of us, not just the majority. We should be forgiven for erring over Sekara’s immortal song, but we should not be forgiven for thinking that claiming independence (svadinathvaya) culturally has always been coterminous with claiming ethnic supremacy.
One final point. We were a matriarchal society before the British invaded us. We didn’t institutionalise patriarchy. The British did. Much of what can be considered as puritanical today, in our society, can be traced to laws drafted by the Victorians. To confuse the one for the other, to either conflate our identity with outdated Puritanism OR reject our puritanical strains on the (perceived) shortcomings of our country, is therefore wrong. To become free and independent, I believe we should do away or at least reform these laws. Otherwise, we will continue seeking shelter in artificial legal constructs to defend what is misconceived as our identity.
On this week of independence, therefore, let us resolve. Let us come with a proper tagline. Let us therefore wish, “Don’t just celebrate freedom, enjoy it!” Or to put it in a better way, “Love freedom.” If there is an advertisement for February 4, that’s the copy and tagline we should put out. For all to see.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com