22 September, 2020

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Dominion Status, The Lost Independence

By H.L. Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne

Nationalism, especially in its manifestation as anti-colonialism, is of universal appeal among those who have endured colonial domination. This is legitimate, but a proper understanding of this requires a closer look. Two dimensions are of particular importance. First, not all colonialisms are equal. The severity of their oppression varies according to the particular political cultures of the colonizers, which themselves have varied according to time. In general, early colonial rule has been more oppressive and more characterized by atrocities than late colonial rule. Second, different strata of the colonized feel its hegemony differently. Typically it is the elites among the colonized who feel the burden colonialism. Sections of these elites could adapt and become local agents of the colonialist, but large segments of elite populations will remain alienated and become fertile ground for the cultivation of nationalisms. The ordinary people who constitute the majority are oblivious to colonial domination for the simple reason that they have been always oppressed, making little difference as to whether the oppressor is colonialist rather than indigenous. Indeed, for them the colonial oppressor could well be the lesser evil.

A particular feature of anti- colonialist nationalism is its inability to recognize the beneficial effects of colonial rule, irrespective of the interests and motivation of the colonizer in bringing about such effects. Typically the colonized nations, at the time of colonization, have exhibited social and political features that are culture-bound and “pre-modern” in the sense of being untouched by modern ideas about the individual and society. Our contemporarily fashionable ideas about diversity notwithstanding, it is necessary to introduce value judgment and state, for example, that individual freedom is more valuable than its absence. Using this criterion and continuing the same example, we can say that wherever colonialism sought to institutionalize the idea of individual freedom it was engaging in a beneficial act.

independenceday_1948 colombotelegraphThis way of looking at colonialism also involves the need for us to accommodate a pragmatism in our social and political understanding of it. Stated differently, we must realize that while colonialism was a bad experience, it belongs to the past, and it serves no useful purpose to keep complaining about it. Worse, it is positively unhealthy to imagine that the former colonial powers are eternally lurking in the background to pounce on us at any time. That this is a bogey is well known, but belief in it persists because it is continually re-iterated by wily politicians and other interested parties for their own benefit. The persistence of this bogey means that we have been unable to summon the pragmatism necessary to make use of the benefits of colonialism. It’s an inability rooted in the false nationalism of wily politicians intent on using the bogey for their private political gain. This inability led us to forgo the benefit of our original independence package, Dominion Status, when we replaced the 1948 constitution with that of 1972.

Dominion Status is usually described as full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations. The ceremonial head of the state was a Governor-General appointed by the elected Prime Minister who along with the elected parliament (House of Representatives) was the centre of power. One other feature of Dominion Status was the privilege of judicial appeal to the Privy Council of the UK available to citizens of Ceylon.

The basic premise on which 1972 constitution was justified was the achievement of “true independence”. For it was claimed that the Dominion Status gained in February 1948 was not “full independence”. The LSSP leader Tissa Vitarana has been claiming credit for his party for bringing about “full independence” by introducing the 1972 constitution. Mr Vitarana seems to little realize that it was the 1972 constitution, with its politicization of the public service and its abandonment of secularism, that laid the foundation for the horrendous deterioration of the country’s overall political culture during the Rajapaksa regime. The politicization of the public service signified a return to national culture, the age-old indigenous custom of officials being considered personal servants of the ruler. And, giving a “special place” to Buddhism harked back to the pre-colonial age in which kingship was intertwined with the institutions of religion, which meant mutually beneficial validation of each other by two main oppressors of the people, the king and the monastic establishment.

Rationally viewed however, contrary to Tissa Vitarana’s ideologically derived prejudices, Dominion Status would have stood the people in better stead, and it would therefore have been in the national interest to have retained that state. The privilege of appeal to the Privy Council that Dominion Status conferred would have spared us the politicization of the judiciary that reached its ugliest form during the Rajapaksa regime. The argument of the LSSP that Dominion status was not true freedom was ironical. The right of appeal to the Privy Council could have acted as a deterrent to the oppression of the people by means of the abuse of power that took place with increasing incidence since the change of constitution in 1972, and most blatantly during the Rajapaksa regime. And, as implied in the recent Groundviews article Eastminster by H.Kumarasingham, had we retained Dominion Status, our judges would have been part of a pool of distinguished jurists of the Commonwealth, bringing us a step closer to becoming partners in the historical process of global internationalism we have been witnessing since the World War II.

The LSSP and other champions of the 1972 constitution also charged that Dominion Status compromised the country’s sovereignty. This is not a valid argument. To begin with, the “sovereignty” that these champions talk about is one whose shelf life has expired. The theory of sovereignty was a justification of the nation state, which has now entered the historical phase of loosing its cogency, and is not defensible anymore in its pristine sense of totality, indivisibility, inalienability and so forth. Due to the advances in technology, even the US, the generally acknowledged sole super power of the world, does not have the sovereign ability to prevent others “interfering” in their affairs, as the recent hacking of the SONY computers illustrate. And we Sri Lankans had a taste of what our sovereignty is like when the Indians air-dropped packages on our soil, and later simply walked in, leaving us impotent do anything about it. What this means is that sovereignty is not absolute, but comes in different sizes, the big nations having a lot of it and smaller nations a lot less.

Besides, those countries of the former British empire that now enjoy Dominion or similar status, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are for that reason not any less sovereign than any other sovereign nation. The same is true of even a very small nation like the southern Caribbean island of Aruba. The fact that Aruba is ceremonially part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands does not mean it is any less “sovereign” than the Netherlands itself or any other nation. Stripped of their fig leafs, these theories are nothing but cheap nationalisms advanced by their progenitors to further their own political agendas. These cheap nationalists, whether they are the “traditional” Sanga, Veda, Guru elite or the urban English educated variety, are united by their shared propensity use of nationalism to perpetuate their hegemony the end result of which is the immiseration of the poor.

Dominion Status would have helped foster better economic and cultural ties with the UK that in turn would have helped our economy and our education system, including favourable access for our students to the education system of the UK. In particular, we could have been the beneficiary of development aid, both in terms of investment and technical know how. That this kind of anti-colonialism is a cheap political ploy of their champions is well demonstrated in the way in which the Rajapaksa regime antagonized our most favourable allies in the west, forging links instead with dictatorships and banana republics.

It is encouraging to find that the newly elected government seems to adopt a more pragmatic attitude to this question. Let us hope that this is not a false start.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    2

    While I agree that rhetoric of anti-colonialism or bloated ‘nationalism’ in that respect is quite out of date or detrimental, I cannot agree that threats or influences of ‘neo-colonialism’ is completely absent to day. It could have even come from a country like China. Sri Lanka in fact was at the verge of that. National independence is still a valid concept. Of course it is relative and conditional in practice.

    I can agree with many criticisms of the 1972 constitution particularly of its institutionalization of the ethno-religious dominance of the majority. I was a strong critic even at that time as a young lecturer. However, its fault was not about its move away from the dominion status or becoming a republic. Even Australia is again thinking about becoming a republic. Just because of Rajapaksa regime’s follies I don’t think people should move to the other extreme.

    What we require are a balanced foreign policy and pragmatic foreign relations.

    • 7
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      I like the following statements from the author:

      ” And, giving a “special place” to Buddhism harked back to the pre-colonial age in which kingship was intertwined with the institutions of religion, which meant mutually beneficial validation of each other by two main oppressors of the people, the king and the monastic establishment.”

      The institutions of religion, I agree are oppressors of people:

      Remember what the Catholic Church did to Galileo and others who advanced scientific knowledge?

      Institutionalized Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or any other – they all oppress people in subtle ways.

      • 7
        1

        Excellent Article!

        European Colonialism is an easy scapegoat and DISTRACTION from Internal Colonialism in countries in Africa and Asia that have had independence for 50 years or more. Local elites who practice internal colonialism against their own populations, distract the masses they oppress with the colonialism discourse to justify oppression of minorities..

        Pseudo intellectuals like Dayan jayatillaka also use false anti colonial nationlism to justify INTERNAL COLONIALISM and State Terrorism against minority populations..

        We need to acknowledge existance of internal colonialism in the counties of the Global South that have been independent from western imperial powers for over sixty years.

      • 3
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        In my opinion all religions are bunkum, except perhaps, Buddhism as it is more a philosophy. In a recent radio interview, Stephen Fry, the famous British comedian was asked what he would say to God, if he meets Him. Stephen said that he would call him a maniac for creating so much injustices in His world. Also, his creation of a fly that burrows into a child’s eyes and make the child blind, what was that all about? My sentiments exactly. I believe religions were created in medieval times as educators because there were no books or print. We don’t need them now unless you are looking for a phsychological crutch to lean onto when times are bad.

        • 0
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          Did you all watch the show PK . It is at the Majestic. it gives you an idea of the managers of religion and religion it self

      • 4
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        We should move to a secular Government. You want to practice your religion, go ahead, just don’t look to the Government for guidance. The one and only thing a Government should do when it comes to religion is to uphold the right to practice without fear of discrimination or defilement. Enough with providing Buddhism a ‘special place’ (coming from a practicing Buddhist). Religion should have no place in the Law. The malarkey of given a religion dominance over the others has caused enough strife.

    • 2
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      What we require is a new secular constitution. What’s the point in looking out when the house is crumbling from the inside? The follies of the Rajapaksa regime should be enough for people to say, ‘Never again!’ Never again will we allow one family to become so entrenched in the system. Never again can one person yield so much raw power. Never again will we allow our nation’s minorities be treated in such a way (this should have happened a long time ago). Never again will we allow such disgusting nepotism. Never again will we allow the integrity of Parliament be threatened by the Executive or even from inside. We need to hold our politician more accountable and they ought to learn that they are meant to serve not rule the People.

  • 7
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    The biggest mistake the British ever made in SL was to give us independence. In 1948 we went from the British frying pan into the Sinhala Buddhist fire, which culminated 67 years later with 10 years of a one family dictatorship. The real independence we go was on January 8th 2015 when this despotic family and their henchmen were kicked out. The minorities are the ones who lost the most when the British left. Hopefully things will change for the better under this new government. But I’m not holding my breath.

  • 3
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    Dr Fernando,

    “Even Australia is again thinking about becoming a republic” what have we achieved with our REPUBLIC?

    Are aborigines treated well in Austarlia?

    “move to the other extreme” What extreme?

    Most suffered with independence, republic,… ARE TAMILS.

    • 1
      5

      Tamils have made suffering into a art form and excel at it through communal minded politics. You have to thank the Tamil “trinity” (Ponna, Chelva and Sunda) for innovative racist politics handed down to the gullible followers. Get a life and enjoy the rest of the independence day!

      • 0
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        Disgusting mind

  • 3
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    Hear, hear!

    Completely agree with you on this matter. We should advocate a secular constitution, a complete separation of Church (Temple) and State. Buddhism should not be given priority, protection, or dominance in a free, diverse and democratic. And I’m speaking as a practicing Buddhist. We no longer live in a 100% Buddhist country and to believe otherwise is unacceptable and delusional. The Law of the land is supreme and the protectors of that should be the civil servants, police, and the legal fraternity not the monks. Religion shouldn’t look for protection from the state and should not be immune from the Law. Look at what happens when religion is granted protection. The fascist talk of the BBS which is a perverse and corrupt take of the Buddhist philosophy is a direct result of just that. Separating religion from the Law will not only protect the State but also the many religions in practice here. The 1972 constitution gave this special protection to Buddhism and since then it has served as catalyst for the downward spiral of the country and ‘quality’ of Buddhism in this country.

  • 2
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    A fine analysis, and educative. I wish articles like this are re-written ( Not just translated)in Sinhala and Tamil in a way that it is accessible, so that people seated at a roadside tea shops, at bus stops and such places can think about things differently after the cup of tea is over or by the time the bus arrives. If this kind of thinking enters the general consciousness how much more free we will be as individuals. Sovereignty must never be at the cost of reduced or lost socially responsible individual freedom.

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