By 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.
This 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.