By Vishwamithra –
“Ultimately, it is only a powerful civil society movement which can break the vicious cycle of corruption in any society.” ~ Prashant Bhushan
That morning the people rose to the unceasing ringing of bells. It was February 4th, 1948. Seventy four years ago, in every temple, church and in every Hindu Kovil the temple-keepers were busy, heralding a new era. An era of independence, liberty and self-governance was presumed to have dawned on Ceylon. From serfdom under the Portuguese, Dutch and the British colonial powers, Ceylon, the Teardrop of the Indian Ocean, once again rose to a breathtakingly beautiful sunrise with her wings unclipped and minds unshackled. That was seventy four years ago.
About sixteen months before that date, on the eve of India’s Independence, towards midnight on 14 August 1947, her first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his historic “Tryst with Destiny” speech in English-language to the Indian Constituent Assembly in Parliament. Nehru articulated on the aspects that transcended many internal divisions in India. He began his oration thus: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”. And India did indeed.
From Bòtale to Woodlands to Kandawela
Sixteen months later, the man who stood on the rostrum at the Independence square in Colombo 7 on that memorable day was no ‘Oxbridge’ savant. He did not possess the richness of Nehru’s English vocabulary. His education was limited to the eighth standard. But the mastery of knowledge and experience and proficiency of the local lifestyle and its inner content qualified him to lead a young democracy rooted in an ancient hydraulic civilization. His engagement in the agriculture field and its rapid development which he personally initiated during the preceding two decades as a member of both the Legislative and State Councils stood unequal among those who were credited with degrees in Oxford, Cambridge or London School of Economics. He gained preeminence in the ‘Taxila of Life’ and knew no bounds of common sense, political acumen and wisdom.
DS Senanayake hailed from Botale (pronounced like the Sinhala word for bottle), a village in Mirigama and rose to be a leader in the Temperance Movement, Ceylon National Congress and reached the summit of power as the first Prime Minister of Ceylon. His journey was not a rapid one. As a leader he always exercised supreme patience and maintained a balanced yet intrinsically radical approach to power politics. Steeped in rustic culture, DS merged his commonsensical demeanor with inborn self-confidence. As a result, he developed a quintessential sense of superiority. Yet his allegiance to what was British and colonial set him apart from those who shed those elements such as attire etc. to suit the prevailing sense of cosmetic patriotism. It was not only the ordinary folks who shivered in his presence; the rich and powerful dreaded to see him when summoned to his quarters.
When he formed the United National Party (UNP) on the eve of Ceylon gaining Independence, his balancing of conflicting interests in the larger community of Ceylonese was vivid in his deep-down judgment of all Ceylonese men and women as equals of the same family. Being devoid of ethnic or religious discrimination of whatever degree, DS’s value as a giant persona dominated the then Ceylonese passages of power. The UNP DS Senanayake formed was founded on solid economic principles and identified agriculture as the sector that needed the greatest of attention and investments. Even his land-policies were critically significant to the people’s wellbeing and fair distribution of the country’s assets. But one glaringly flawed policy decision his government took soon after Independence was the disenfranchising of the upcountry Tamils and that blatantly discriminatory policy-adoption created a tremendous disconnect between the country’s largest minority and overwhelming numbers of Sinhalese, especially Sinhalese Buddhists. The distrust so created between the UNP and Tamils continued long after D S’s demise.
Yet another flaw was, a manifestly regressive policy, that of nepotism. Instead of passing the baton on to the next senior man, Bandaranaike, he chose his own son Dudley and established a most injurious tradition of nepotism, the ruinous effects of which are still echoing in our political corridors.
Dudley’s leadership qualities were yet too premature to manifest themselves openly. As a result of the fall in the rubber prices in the world market, Ceylon had to confront a major foreign exchange issue leaving the then Finance Minister JR Jayewardene proposing to withdraw the free rice rations. This caused a breakdown of law and order in the wake of the leftists NM Perera, Philip Gunwardena and the rest calling for an Island wide Hartal, forcing Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to resign. Sir John Kotelawala became the next Prime Minister.
Kotelawala, although a new face at the helm, hailed from the same social stock and was connected to old DS by way of the Attygalle family. Sir John was the son of Alice Kotelawala (nee Attygalle) who happened to be the elder sister of FR Senanayake’s (D S’s elder brother) wife. In a previous column I wrote extensively about this so-called ‘Attygalle Inheritance’. Power has now passed from Botale to Woodlands (Dudley’s residence in Borella) to Kandawela, Sir John’s Colombo residence.
From Kandawela to Rosmead Place to ‘Braemar’, Ward Place
Ascension of Sir John to leadership of the UNP and consequently to Premiership in Ceylon, notwithstanding a seemingly legitimate succession story, was an incongruity in the context of the sooner-to-be-prevalent Ceylonese mindset, is remarkable, to say the least. Influence of the Attygalle Inheritance aside, real political power residing in Colombo 7 and its immediate vicinity speaks volumes to the fact that the so-called Independence gained in 1948 was largely one enjoyed and exploited exclusively by those who graduated from the Mercantile class to the new Capitalist class in the evolution of Ceylon from Feudalism to the current socioeconomic station.
Nevertheless, Bandaranaike and his grossly nationalist policies spearheaded by Sinhala-only policy and accelerated hike towards socialist economic policies in the wake of the ’56 transformation, changed not only the prevailing economic conditions, it supplanted an utterly destructive mindset on the otherwise docile and traditional one the people of Ceylon were thereto known for. The ‘entitlement syndrome’ that used to dominate the pre-independence mindset took deep root during this period and the radically adverse consequences of this singularity are being felt even today.
Transfer of power from Kandawela to Rosmead Place, (in effect from Horagolla, Bandaranaike’s birthplace to Balangoda, Sirimavo’s birthplace) in one instance from husband to wife/widow), taken in the context of a practicing democracy, is remarkable. The psyche of serfdom of the greater majority of our people was visibly manifest in the successive election results. In other words, the plight of the nation is not only owing to the incapability, incapacity and corruption of our leaders, but also to a greater extent to the brazen nepotism and unquestioning fidelity of the voting adult.
It was against this unadulterated nepotism which was practiced by Sirimavo Bandaranaike with the intention of passing power from mother to son Anura Bandaranaike, that in 1977 JR Jayewardene launched his election campaign with the slogan ‘I have no prince to crown’ (Mata otunu palandanna kumarayek neta). The voters rejected the Bandaranaikes outright by handing JR and the UNP a five sixth majority in Parliamentary elections. J R Jayewardene was one politician against whom no critic could attach nepotism, although his younger brother HW Jayewardene, Queen’s Counsel (QC) was more than qualified to be in politics. On the other hand, it was JR who nominated R Premadasa, a full-blooded ‘Common Man’ for candidacy for President in 1988 disregarding the intentions of Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali.
From Ward Place to Keselwatte and back to Rosmead Place
R Premadasa was totally another cup of tea. Instead of directly identifying with the common man and the downtrodden segment of our population, he started rewriting his own history, portraying himself and his family pedigree as hailing from a different caste sect. Today’s Sri Lanka does not recognize caste as a classification for purposes of distribution of power, wealth and respect. Such rude and obscene classifications belonged to an age gone by. Yet Premadasa’s obsession with this element of sociocultural makeup had penetrated into his being and his behavior after assuming the office of Presidency was more or less dictated by that inferiority feeling he obviously experienced. It was indeed tragic.
But Premadasa’s contributions to the sustenance of the country’s economic boom and alleviation of poverty through his 100 garment factory program bore fruit and the poor man identified himself with him although he did not return the favor. That may be why some, especially those who hailed from the downtrodden classes, resorted to the most despicable act of lighting crackers at the news that he was assassinated by an LTTE assassin.
After the assassination of Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake was nominated as the UNP’s Presidential candidate and he too became a victim of Prabhakaran’s assassination squad. With the demise of Gamini, the UNP’s fate was sealed- game, set and match! Ranil Wickremesinghe’s rise to leadership of the UNP signaled the oncoming cascade of failure after failure. He lost more than twenty five (25) elections that included some local government elections too. But at the helm of the country was Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, arguably the second worst President in our history, second only to the Rajapaksa-combine.
From Rosmead Place to Meda Mulana (Beliatte) to Fifth Lane
Against many a pundit’s advice but bowing down to the cantankerous cabal of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Chandrika had to accommodate Mahinda Rajapaksa as her Prime Minister. When Tsunami hit the Island, while the whole of Sri Lanka was wailing, there was one family that enjoyed the byproducts of this great natural disaster. That was the Rajapaksa’s family. Via the ‘Helping Hambantota’ project, Mahinda managed to learn the fine art of scavenging- playing out public funds. A saga of unrestrained corruption, naked nepotism and public dishonesty began to unfold.
I do not wish to labor much on the current sociopolitical conditions as I have written many a column on this particular subject recently and I’m sure it must be still fresh in the reader’s mind. However, the demise of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s powers and the unexpected rise of Ranil Wickremesinghe deserve a couple sentences. The wheel has turned again and after seventy four years, through the wailing of the majority and for the joy of the Colombo 7 pukka sahibs, Ranil Wickremasinghe, one time traitor and other times lotus-eater of Sri Lanka’s politics has ascended to the throne. And his first act was to manhandle and imprison the protesters who were clamoring for a system change.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since the establishment of an independent Sri Lankan governance process. Many politicians including Prime Ministers, Ministers, Governor Generals and even Presidents have held their reign over an unsuspecting citizenry in respective times. While some have failed miserably in the execution of their office and discharge of the responsibilities, some select few engaged willfully in deliberate deception, consummate corruption and nefarious nepotism. Both the Rajapaksa siblings and Ranil Wickremesinghe fall into the second category. The country’s power has not really travelled on a linear line; it has merely going around a circle. For the time being it’s residing on the Fifth (5th) Lane. The chief occupant of the Fifth Lane residence is the ‘Joker’ of the Pack- Ranil Wickremesinghe, the unelected President.
The Royalists and Thomians (DS, Dudley and SWRD) have done hardly anything, except perhaps SWRD, who began an utterly destructive policy-implementation on ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, thereby deprived the majority of Sinhalese of a worthy English education. In addition, his pseudo ‘place under the sun’ for the ‘Common Man’ has done irreversible damage to the profession of politics whereby he encouraged the uneducated and unwise to enter into politics and desecrate a noble enterprise- politics. The man from Issipathana (Mahinda) taught others how to corrupt a system and the only Anandian (Gotabaya) deserted his office for the second time (first time was when he ran away from the Army), paving the way for another traitor of ‘Royal’ kind. The ‘Common Man’ (R Premadasa) who pretended that he studied at St Joseph’s but in actual fact was a student at St. Lawrence College, Maradana debased the office of Presidency by introducing a ‘thug culture’ into politics.
Yaso Hami in the rural country, Mohideen in the distant East and Natarajah in Jaffna are still waiting for the dawn of a new beginning. Their hopes and aspirations had had their cycle of occurrence. What was visibly real in April, May, June and July of this year has evaporated into thin air. That same air is now saturated with exhaling sighs of curse and dry tears; their cheeks and lips are parched and tongues locked; their collective life is beginning to settle down to an ominous breather. The Galleface Green has lost its charm and beauty without the Aragalakaruwos. Yaso Hami, Mohideen and Natarajah, all three, living in the parched and desolate arid zone, are silhouetted against the darkening, dimming skies, not yet bereft of hope. Every which way they look, they figure, it’s time they started dreaming again.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org