By Vinod Moonesinghe –
For once, I find myself agreeing with Sharmini Serasinghe. She entitles her open letter to minister Mangala Samaraweera (Colombo Telegraph, 27 January) “4th February 2019 – Celebrating 71 Years Of What?”, and I should tend to agree that there is nothing to celebrate.
In the first place, “Independence Day” is a misnomer. What Sri Lanka achieved on 4 February 1948 was not independence, but a slightly modified form of imperialist rule. Even in purely legal terms, Sri Lanka became a Dominion Realm, which meant we were subordinate to England. The King of England continued to be the King of Ceylon, and his daughter continued as Queen afterwards. Technically, they should have been King George IV and Queen Elizabeth I – because Lanka never had a George I and II or an Elizabeth I – but they kept their English numbers, because the de facto position was that they were our monarchs by virtue of being monarchs of England.
Sri Lanka’s final court of appeal remained the English monarch’s Privy Council, able to overturn the decisions of the Supreme Court. The most celebrated instance of this occurred after the only real coup d’etat to be attempted in this island, that of 1961, when Privy Council overturned the convictions of the participants.
Sri Lanka also remained bound to Britain by various treaties and other, not overtly visible ties. Of course the most obvious, the British military bases on the island, ensured that it could be kept in line. Apart from the naval base (HMS Highflyer) at Trincomalee and RAF Negombo at Katunayake, British forces were scattered over Sri Lanka in various warlike installations. Perhaps the English used their power most blatantly when they continued to occupy their signals intelligence station on the Anderson Golf Links, but failed to inform the Government of Ceylon as to its real purpose.
The people of Sri Lanka saw the practical effects of the continued British military occupation, when the entire cabinet of Sri Lanka sought refuge from the masses during the 1953 Hartal – on the British destroyer HMS Newfoundland. This situation only changed in 1957, when the government of SWRD Bandaranaike forced the British to remove their bases – a process completed only in 1962, with the evacuation of Kotugoda, Welisara and Perkar.
Even more than the military occupation of Sri Lanka, the economic subjugation of the country continued long after 1948. Unlike the Portuguese and Dutch, the English did not come to Sri Lanka for cinnamon (the value of which had diminished) but due to the strategic position of the country vis-à-vis India. In order to pay for the colony’s upkeep, they decided to grow coffee here, and expropriated the common and forest land of the peasantry for the purpose. The very same government officials, from the Governor, military commander and Chief Justice down, responsible for expropriating the peasants’ land, sold it to themselves at 5 shillings per acre. Thus, from the very first, government interests intertwined themselves with planter interests, and the inseparability of the two came to be known as the “Plantation Raj”.
The degree to which the colonial state subordinated itself to the interests of the British estate companies may be seen in the development of Colombo port. In the mid-19th century, Galle was the biggest port in the island, and the most important between Aden and Singapore. It lay close to the sea route and was a hub for shipping from Europe to India’s eastern seaboard, the Far East and Australia. Even the Admiralty wanted to develop Galle, due to its proximity to the sea route. However, the Colombo was far closer to the coffee plantations, so the government developed Colombo rather than Galle, although it cost more than twice as much.
The plantation system introduced to this country had little to do with modern capitalism, being a slightly more advanced version of the slave plantations of the West Indies, which were consciously copied by the planters. The indentured labourers brought over from India were debt peons, forever enslaved; whereas the plantations had very little capital input. At the same time, peasant agriculture became more backward under colonial rule, since the source of the farmers’ surplus for the market, the common and forest (hence chena) land, had been expropriated. Colonialism deepened the backwardness of the agricultural economy. This backwardness also persisted beyond 1948.
A covert form of colonial economic control persisted well past 1948. All government overseas purchases continued to be handled by the Crown Agents for the Colonies, a statutory corporation under the Colonial Office (later under the Ministry of International Development).
During the sale of expropriated land, locals, mainly from the strata from which the colonial state recruited its Native headmen, as well as traders and arrack rentiers, purchased about a third of crown grants – although in much smaller parcels than their British counterparts. Their interests thus intertwined themselves with the interests of the British planters, and the comprador elite’s identification with colonialism became entrenched. The servile nature of the elite was perhaps the strongest form of dependence which persisted past 1948.
The commitment of the elite to colonial economic forms has dragged back the economy. Even when the colonial governments, due to the exigencies of war, tried to promote a degree of industrialisation in the 1940s, the elite refused to dirty its collective hand. Indeed, following 1948, the post-colonial, colonialist regime dismantled the industries which the British had started; a pattern followed by the comprador elite ever since.
Yet another form of colonisation was through the Roman principle of divide et impera, or divide and rule, a strategy honed by the British empire from the Plantation of Ireland onwards. They undermined the steadfast loyalty of the people of Jaffna to the Kandyan Kingdom (mentioned by North in a minute to the English East India Company in 1800), by the use of (mainly American) missionaries to educate the Northern Tamil elite and grant them a privileged position, second only to that of the Dutch Burghers. They enhanced the economic and political status of a stratum of Muslim landowner/moneylenders (Hambaya meant “trader”) – which they supplemented using South Indian Chetties, who also handled the Opium trade – and held the impoverished peasantry in debt. They tried very hard to attract Chinese, Bharathas and other Indians to become small-scale land owners, but failed. They nearly substituted Chinese for Indian Tamils in the plantations.
The status of Ceylon as a politically dependent Commonwealth Realm remained unchanged until 1972, when Sri Lanka became a republic. The economic independence of Sri Lanka remains to be achieved and, although the 1956-77 period saw progress, but the following period saw the gains reversed. The country’s economy remains mercantile rather than industrial, agriculture remains backward. The legacy of the British-induced ethnic divisions remains. Estate nationalisation and the land reform saw the destruction of the Plantation Raj, but the post-1977 reaction introduced the Trading Raj in its stead. The subaltern, landowner and trade-based comprador class remains a rentier class, although no longer land-owning – the share and money markets have replaced agricultural land as their source of wealth.
As an aside, Serasinghe says “the British fled our shores for their dear lives,” implying that they were very happy to leave. Mainstream Sri Lankan “history” does suggest that the English left voluntarily. They did not. On the contrary, they only “left” because they had to.
I believe it was Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke who pointed out to them that if they did not confer Dominion status, there would be a revolution – and the spectre of the Left haunted them in a way unthinkable today. They had to leave because their position had been made untenable by events in India – such as the mutinies in the Sepoy Army – caused by agitation in which Sri Lankan leftists such as Philip Gunawardena and NM Perera had taken part. A wave of strikes and other protests greeted their return to the island. I have heard that on Wewessa estate the workers formed a “soviet”, although I cannot confirm this.
And, as detailed above, they never really “left”. Sri Lanka’s journey of the last 71 years has been a struggle to remove the effects of colonialism from our polity. The barrier to removing that colonial inheritance, the yoke of under-development, has been the very stratum of comprador rentiers to which Serasinghe belongs. Far from being “voiceless and faceless”, as Serasinghe contends, they hold the economic and social power of this country, and hold a substantial part of the political power.
The true “voiceless and faceless” are the farmers and workers, who owe nothing to Serasinghe’s class for their wellbeing. And they will almost all agree that their situation is far better than it was before 1948. So perhaps we really do have reason to celebrate: the reduction in infant and maternal mortality; the increase in literacy (especially among the estate population); and access to potable water and electricity; roads, schools, hospitals.
And is it not ironic that Serasinghe calls President Sirisena a “traitor”, when she herself regrets the departure of the British colonialists, who left a ruined country in their wake?