By Vishwamithra1984 –
“In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?” – Saint Augustine
Thirty seven years ago, in 1977, when the country was in the grip of a rule by one single Family, the Bandaranaikes, the country chose in an overwhelming manner to dispel that ‘Family’ from power. The scourge of the Family Tree was most starkly and succinctly illustrated in the political booklet by the name “Scourge of the Seven Years” (Hath vasaka saapaya) and each time a new edition was printed, it was sold out within a very short time, in fact within a few weeks. Those who subscribe to the thinking that Sri Lankans, as a whole, are quite used to and well entrenched in embracing ‘family rule’ as a form of governance from ancient times of Kings and Queens, are merely offering excuses for their own subservient attitudes and social serfdom and political impotence. Sri Lankans as a nation might tolerate family rule if that family rule is in the exclusive interest of the subjects; if on the contrary, that family rule is established and perpetuated solely for the purposes of extending its power, influence and hold over the nation’s wealth and other treasures, both material and human, then that patience of the subject people would not last.
Sri Lanka seems to be fast approaching that precise threshold today- bidding adieu to family rule and embracing a more participatory way of governance. Taken in that context, the statement issued by Karu Jayasuriya, Chairman of the Leadership Council of the United National Party (UNP) is most relevant and to the point, so to speak. Whether the United National Party in particular and the Opposition as a whole are ready and willing to take the fight to the people and confront the challenges hurled at them by a governing clique that is motivated and determined to cling on to power at whatever cost is another question altogether and that question could be answered only by those who occupy those Opposition benches today.
Nevertheless, this notion of accepting the rule by one single clan whose kith and kin are spread out in a wildly disproportionate manner in the governing apparatus and paying puja to those who wield that power in the name of ‘the land, the race and the faith’, is a dangerous symptom of a decaying society. Human society has taken many a progressive stride since the feudal days when power was transferred from father to son of the same family. The serfdom of non-power-wielding people during the feudal system days and the hegemony of the walawwas of the moneyed landed proprietors have long gone to the dustbin of history. The very notion of Common Man, which began first as a slogan but yet blossomed out to be a vibrant social force in the mid- Nineteen Fifties in Ceylon, has taken deep root in the psyche of the people. Although time and time again our people have shown socio-political cowardice, it would be amazing to find out, when the real time comes to decide, whether they are willing to go any further down the same subservient path as a self-respecting people enraptured in a bogus sense of patriotism and sugar-coated economic development.
Bandaranaike clan and its family hegemony
Sri Lanka as an independent nation experienced the demonic effects of ‘Family Rule’ for the first time during the second run of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government from 1970 to 1977. The Bandaranaike family dynasty that started with the assassination S W R D and with power being bestowed on Mrs. Bandaranaike by the leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party began a storied saga of family bandyism that is continuing to this very day. Though she was democratically elected as the country’s leader, she began her second time in power as if it was her legitimate ‘entitlement’ to concentrate power around herself and her immediate kith and kin. In fact this writer penned a column (“Entitlement Syndrome, the scourge of Sri Lanka”, August 8, 2013) under a different pen name- Vishnugupta- sometime back in a different publication. Mrs. Bandaranaike was in fact infatuated with the entitlement sense and she deliberately and intentionally nurtured and nursed her son Anura to assume the mantle of leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Anura too responded willingly with the aid of some lackeys and close cohorts of his own by displaying all distasteful characteristics of a prodigal son. Anura’s conduct as an heir apparent had manifested itself long before he entered into electoral politics. In that column the writer wrote thus: “All the while, the general membership of the SLFP too acted most subserviently, a trait that is very much in evidence even today, and embraced Anura and thereafter Chandrika as the logical successors to the throne. However, during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s time, the entitlement syndrome spread its virus right throughout her blood-relations. Some of the most lucrative government jobs were held by members of the Bandaranaike or Ratwatte clans.”
While this family rule was being entrenched in the minds of the less educated and unsophisticated villager, one man in the Opposition used this same family rule story to his and his Party’s advantage. The man was J R Jayewardene and the Party was the UNP. It was in the midst of the campaign so effectively and professionally handled and spearheaded by J R that the aforementioned “Scourge of the Seven Years (Hath Vasaka Saapaya) booklet was launched. A political campaign so crafted to the minutest detail with each electorate having its own circle of lawyers, canvassers, public speakers and other former government servants visiting each and every home of each and every hamlet in the country, made it relatively easy for the would-be MP to plan and execute a winning election strategy. The people of Sri Lanka had to endure the scourge and plague of the Bandaranaike family rule only for seven years.
Present-day family rule
The present-day ruling clan is weaving an entirely different fabric of family rule. There does not appear a single alien strand nor a single foreign thread among the neatly woven tapestry of family rule. In addition to maintaining this close-knit fabric, any potential or real threat to the dominance of this rule is eliminated, banished or bought over by the clan. In reference to this extraordinary family rule the writer, in the same aforementioned column wrote this way: “They seem to have mastered the craft of family rule to an exact art and skill and the manning of even not-so-important government positions through their kith and kin is being accepted by their cohorts and henchmen as a matter of fact. The Rajapaksas have shown the country that accident of birth is no accident at all but a ‘divine right’, as Rudyard Kipling once described the burden of governing India by the British Empire.”
The country today is being engulfed by that family rule and it has lasted nine long years so far. However, unlike in the Bandaranaike days, today there are two starkly clear political advantages that the current set of rulers enjoys. Firstly the ’70-’77 economic cesspit that the country was dwelling in no longer applies and secondly the so-called ‘war-victory’ against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) that the ruling Goebbelses exploited to the hilt as a patriotic venture. The second reason is actually more powerful than the first one in that recurrence of economic disaster in the dimensions of the pre-’77 era is highly unlikely thanks mainly to the open economic policies introduced by the UNP regime in 1977. In addition, in no manner, shape or form can one understate or underestimate the overwhelming significance and the pardonable pride in the dismantling of the Tamil militancy in the North. In fact the entire country could be quite proud of that achievement albeit the credit of that victory has been denied to one of the most formidable figures who spearheaded that military victory- General Sarath Fonseka.
But unlike in the seventies, family bandyism has continued to eat into the ruling apparatus and has taken over the whole body politic of the land. What we are condemned to witness and endure today such as the extreme antics of the sons of some of the senior Ministers of the Government such as Ministers Keheliya Rambukwella, Maithripala Sirisena and Mervyn Silva are not the disease nor are they the symptoms; they are in fact some dangerous and even more lethal side-effects of this disease called family rule.
It may well be apt to refer to one of the groundbreaking stage dramas that came about in the early Nineteen Sixties. Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, the creator of Sinhabahu drama, wrote the immortal lyrics, describing the lamentable tale of the ‘generation gap’ that has tormented the human family for millennia of years and wrote thus: “Puthu senehe pithu hadha thulama misa netha puthun hadha thula randanne…” (Father’s love for the son resides in the spirit of the father, never in the son’s…). Taken in the context of the historical Sinhabahu story, Sarachchandra’s portrayal of fatherly love of ‘Sinhaya’ (Lion) for his only son Sinhabahu knew no bounds and it still generates, in the minds and hearts of the viewers of the drama, a pathos of empathy and heart wrenching even after half a century of its production, Sinhabahu continues to shatter box office records wherever and whenever it is staged, whether at Lionel Wendt theatre of Colombo Seven or a decrepit school hall in a remote village. Every father, now or in ancient times, might want to hand over power to his son. But unlike in ancient times, more participatory governance has become a reality and totalitarian fathers such as in Sinhaya in Sinhabahu would surely not fit into today’s realities.
That is why Karu Jayasuriya’s call is so vital and timely at a juncture such as the present day: “The Country or One Family?” You decide.