By Basil Fernando –
We are living through perhaps the most significant days ever since our independence. Perhaps it goes also back a very much longer time. Rajapaksas in fact continued the legacy of careless and selfish ruling which is in fact very much rooted in what is usually called the political culture of Sri Lanka. In that culture, there was never any attachment to values of honesty, truth, accountability, and transparency; above all, this culture has no concept of justice.
Inequality and injustice have been considered a normal part of political life. In fact, from all civilized standards, this political culture is mean and even vulgar. In order to understand what we are trying to leave behind and trying to envisage what we want our future to be, we must understand the behavior of these people and the mentalities and behavior patterns they represented. Given below are some of the comments on what they were and how they destroyed the growth of Sri Lanka as a nation.
The characteristics of the kuleenas
The powerful group of people who had established themselves by the 10th century A.D were people who were based in particular localities. Locality maybe a village or a larger area than the village. At latter times, some of the kuleenas extended their localities to much larger areas. In these villages, they were the masters the kind of warlords who dominated the life of all the people in the area. All the people other than the kuleenas were called kulaheenas.
The major characteristic of the workings of the kuleenas was their manipulativeness. In order to appropriate land which belongs to others and to hold it for themselves, they had to engage in all kinds of intrigues. In order to get the people to work for them hardly for any regulations than subsistence, again they had to engage in intrigue and various forms of manipulative behavior. Besides this kind of benefit, they also gained every other benefit including the sexual favors obtained by force or by sheer duty of others to obey it, they again engaged in all kinds of manipulations. Other area of their manipulative behaviors was to prevent a resistance, any form of disobedience and also any forms of stealing from their properties. For all these methods that were developed was of the meanest types and they cleverly manipulated all these things in order to preserve their power and influence.
In the process of putting their manipulative schemes into power, they had to also act cruelly. External exhibitions of extraordinary forms of cruelty were a method of subjugating people. Even in the 1815 agreement between the British and the Sinhala leadership, one of the clauses that were included was the prohibition of all forma of physical punishment such as cutting of hands, legs, nose and all that type of punishments. These were the punishments that kuleenas had developed in order to demonstrate to their subordinates, that what would happen if anyone were to transgress the rules that have been imposed on them by their superiors but that was only one type of punishment.
There are other types of punishments which were of a very much more mean nature. If there was anyone that offended them, getting human excreta at their premises and other kinds of such ugly activities were also a part of the kuleena ideas of imposing humiliations and creating intimidation of people who are around them.
There are many modern-day instances where the reproduction of these kind of habits which were formed during this period are manifested. For example, even in the 21st century, there were instances when a journalist had offended some senior persons in the government. They were arrested and their legs were broken and then thrown on the road. This kind of breaking arms and legs were quite a part of the so-called practices of the period of kuleena domination. The ugliness to which kuleenas can descend in order to protect their properties and their families was unlimited. That unlimited nature was made possible by the fact that there was no authority above them. Though the king was above the kuleenas, the king was very much a prisoner of the very trap that the kuleenas were capable of playing on anybody. Beside that, the king was fully aware of the system by which the caste practices prevailed and it was with his consent that all that scheme of things were happening.
In order to behave in this manner, the males of the kuleena families had to show their power and strength in every possible way. For example, they will dress very different to the rest and they will walk in a manner that shows their dignity and their pride and they will demand the kind of gestures of respect from the population as they move around. As the people got used to this kind of gestures, even kneeling before them on the public roads and never raising before them on an equal status. Always bowing and remaining there physically below the height of the masters was a required behavior and the kuleenas saw that this kind of behavior was reinforced.
In maintaining this kind of a system, kuleenas became a kind of people who were completely incapable of critical thinking. Perhaps, this was something that has been carried into the local culture even up to now. The manipulativeness was regarded as a much higher quality than any kind of truthfulness or critical thought.
Critical thought requires a certain basic premises. One such premise is to accept at least in a theoretical form that people share a common humanity. There is a basic equality among the people and that this equality is very essential to develop any sense of critical respect for the opinion and ideas of others. The very idea of kuleena-kulaheena relationship is based on the ideal nature of the inequality. That inequality is a better form of principle for a social organization than equality is a fundamental principle of caste. Some try to describe this as a division of labor. However, within division of labor in the modern society, there is a recognition of equality of all. It is only a certain function that they have to do differently and that does not make them unequal. This inability to accept the principle of equality makes it impossible to develop a society. Thus, what we have within that caste-based society are divided small communities and not society bound together. This may explain why during all these years which is around the 8th century A.D to the 19th century, there was no development of a concept of a nation in Sri Lanka. At latter time, when the independence came in, where the local population was trying to write narratives which gave them some pride for the sake of building a new nation, they assumed that the idea of the nation was always represented within the local communities in Sri Lanka both in Sinhalese as well as Tamil people. In fact, what existed was caste communities. Kuleenas never thought themselves as a part of a nation. They wanted to appropriate everything for themselves whereas the ordinary people never thought of themselves as one group. According to their separate caste groups, they also considered that as their small community and the idea of a nation was not there.
Despite of British administration creating a centralized administrative system, it was not possible for the British to break this psychological and societal base and ways of thinking which has never developed the idea of solidarity of one people as one nation. So, the division goes far into many centuries and the fundamental division in Sri Lanka was not an ethnicity but the fundamental division was on the basis of caste. Even today, this remains so. Although the political discourse has aside the idea of ethnicity as a fundamental dividing line in Sri Lank, in fact the fundamental dividing line is the notions of separation written in terms of caste and division of people into different value. Some having a superior value and others having less value or no value at all. The idea of that ultimate sense all human beings have the same value is the foundation of a nation. Primarily, it is the foundation of a democratic nation and it is also the foundation for any society based on rule of law. Sri Lanka did not have a tradition which would easily assimilate the ideas of democracy and the rule of law. Thus, despite of British attempt to evolve a centralized administration and pave the path for a new nation, this was never realized and it was not possible to realize until fundamental changes happened in the mental outlook of the people themselves.
In the eyes of kuleenas, misappropriation is not an offense. Misappropriation is their birthright. They by their very nature have the right to take anybody’s things and make it their own. Accumulating wealth only for themselves and using it in any way they like is a cultural habit. While in modern days, people talk about a common property and things that belong to the state as those that belong to the entire people, this idea is completely alien to the kuleenas. This is why in the independence period we see the obstacles to development of a nation because the idea of national wealth, national treasury belonging to the entire people to be managed for the benefit of all the people, these notions remain those introduced by the British but which has not been assimilated and grounded into the local reality of Sri Lanka. Therefore, when the kuleenas steal all the resources of a nation, they are merely doing what they have been used to do for over 10 centuries.