By Vishwamithra –
“Of all the varieties of virtues, liberalism is the most beloved.” ~Aristotle
A person open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values, that is the dictionary definition of a liberal. A liberal in the context of that definition would always find opposition and vehement resistance from those who are called conservatives. A conservative, a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics, at all times resists change; he is not only averse to change, he is fundamentally in denial of progressive ideas; he, in the writer’s opinion, is a great vehicle of resistance to human development. From Siddhartha Gautama to Socrates, Aristotle and Plato to Moses and Jesus Christ defied tradition and convention at the time and revolted against deeply held beliefs and superstitions. Their very appeal to the development of human thought and its relentless progress towards perfection had a novel and refreshing dynamic which eventually created a ‘religion’ or a philosophy which in turn created an untold number of devout followers.
Thereafter followed the corruption and contamination of the essence of the teachings. That sorrowful saga of adulteration has propelled human society to vastly expanding frontiers. Its expansion has embraced whatever that was available for easier assimilation of superstitions and blind following. Man’s inherent dependence for salvation on mystic and abstract existences of ‘gods’ and deities further helped to bury the fundamental purities of all religions and philosophies. Popular beliefs overtook intellectual curiosities. Propagation of beliefs in unseen gods paved the way for the rejection of elementary wisdom. It is in this context of rapidly advancing forces of corruption and contamination of original thoughts and ideals, one has to analyse and dissect the modern development of liberalism which has assumed novel intellectual dimensions.
In the West, especially in the United States and Western Europe, ‘liberalism’ is defined as a modern social force that is embracing all nuanced elements of human development in the fields of permissive and ‘free’ thinking. This fresh inquiry into the development of the human mind in its modern manifestations of unhinged expressions brought us the accommodation of human behaviors which were hereto rejected as ‘ungodly’, perverted and malignant. Hence the rejection of homosexuality, transgender conducts and lesbianism. But modern societies all over the Western world have chosen to legitimize and accept such behaviors as acceptable and tolerable. But liberalism in a political context is different in that the liberals are basically tolerant of the modern manifestations of liberal expression of human development. Their intrinsic belief in ‘social justice’ as an essential part of their political empowerment of the societies they claim to serve has an unmistakable appeal to the underprivileged and suppressed class of masses.
In that context of ‘political liberalism’, Sri Lanka has produced some leading politicians whose contributions to the development of a strong sense of ‘social justice’ and fair play. In Sri Lanka’s milieu, political liberalism is essentially based on one’s beliefs and actions on the assimilation of all communities and religions into one cohesive single community and the accommodation of the minorities and acceptance of their legitimate claims and struggle for their ‘rightful’ rights. Blind and insular adherence to the dominance of the majority and its willful suppression of a minority did not appeal to these liberal minds of the four political leaders I am writing about in today’s column.
Dudley Senanayake, S W R D Bandaranaike, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Gamini Dissanayake stand out as the only such leaders who chose to withstand the dominance of the ‘majority-thinking’ and extend quite a friendly and generous hand to the minorities in Sri Lanka and introduce structural and fundamental changes to the country’s governing system. Dudley Senanayake’s approach to the nation’s demands for social justice and his unmatched empathetic comportment qualifies him to be among this elite group of liberals in Sri Lanka. Dudley Senanayake’s engagement with the then Tamil leaders in the likes of Arunachalam Mahadeva, G G Ponnambalam, S J V Chelvanayakam, E M V Naganathan and Murugeysen Tiruchelvam was always in a very constructive fashion and he was known to be a personal friend of these Tamil giants of his era.
However, his personal relationships with Tamil leaders alone would not have sufficed to be a liberal. His engagement with the Federal Party as an equal partner in the coalition government in 1965 and the very introduction of the Dudley/Chelvanayakam Pact on the basis of devolution of powers may have brought unmitigated scorn from the Sinhalese chauvinists, yet his profound belief in equality to all communities made him a man of great honesty and human decency. Yet liberalism should not be limited to just talk and attempts to enact and legislate the necessary safeguards to the minorities. It resides in baring fruitful consequences. In that crucial story of political achievements, both Dudley Senanayake in 1965 and S W R D Bandaranaike in 1957 failed miserably.
S W R D Bandaranaike too, known to be an unadulterated liberal of the first half of the Twentieth Century, went thus far and no further. At the most crucial moment of political accommodation and granting equality to the minority communities, Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake pulled their punches and caved into the pressures of their respective electorates. When Bandaranaike, with all his liberal-minded, expansive political genius drafted the famous Bandaranaike/Chelva Pact (BC Pact), he never provided for the coming of the Sinhalese-Buddhist opposition to ‘liberal’ accommodations. That opposition buried the Pact and in a very expansive sense, his life too. The ‘Buddharakkhithas’ of the era were not ready for any ‘betrayal’ of ‘the land, the race and the faith’. The giant liberals of the time, Dudley Senanayake and S W R D Bandaranaike, caved into the pressures of the conservatives who dominated the mind and thought of the majority.
However, that caving-in did not classify Dudley and S W R D as non-liberals. But the lasting memory they created in the alert minds of the then Tamils was one of being let-down and betrayed. That sentiment among the Tamil leaders contributed to their personal assessment of the two Sinhalese leaders. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) too is known to be a liberal politician whose rhetorical declarations bordered on outright departure from the Sinhalese-dominant thinking at a time of military conflict between the two communities, Sinhalese and Tamils. Controversy was always part and parcel of the CBK aura and her constant conflicts with the majority community regarding the most significant national issue placed her in a precarious position. Yet she never caved in, for there was no occasion to do so. Her attempt to rebrand the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as a political entity which is tolerant of the minority interests did not achieve the desired results. CBK is a thoroughly forgettable liberal. Her continuous skirmishes with the media personnel and lackadaisical manner in which she administered the affairs of the country overshadowed the liberal attire she chose to wear.
Then there was Gamini Dissanayake. His deep-rooted beliefs in social justice and equality to all communities, whether on the basis of caste, creed or race, made him a politician who chose to stand alone in the midst of popular conservatives in his own party. R Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and even J R Jayewardene were never known to be liberals. Gamini’s involvement in the drafting of the Thirteenth Amendment and its inclusion as part of the Gandhi/Jayewardene Accord is beyond dispute. Describing the ultimate liberal, Leonard Bernstein who was one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history, said that ‘a liberal is a man or a woman or a child who looks forward to a better day, a more tranquil night, and a bright infinite future’. Gamini Dissanayake fits into this description not only in the sense of conception, but more in the eventual desired results he achieved in the real practice of liberalism.
Manifestation of liberalism in a politician, the sacrifice one needs to make in order to place that liberalism in a real litmus test in the unpredictable specter of politics, is indeed rare. But a very few politicians would go that extra mile in pursuit of his or her target. Despite the wrath of the Tamil community leaders mistakenly unleashed on Gamini Dissanayake as one of the leaders in the burning of the Jaffna library, Gamini Dissanayake easily surpasses as a supreme liberal of our time. His liberalism was not confined in a rhetorical cocoon; nor was it used as a tool to gain votes among the minority Tamils or Muslims.
Dudley Senanayake, S W R D Bandaranaike, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Gamini Dissanayake were the only recognizable liberals of our times. In a land known for its generous hospitality and broad acceptance of opposite views and opinions, it is strange that the conservative leaders of the land have prevailed in the context of elections. Their fear-centered political message has carried the day. A very few have dared to defy the norm. We should be thankful to the few.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org