By Basil Fernando –
From the people’s point of view, the period that followed from 1931 to the present time could be said to be a period of political innocence. People lived for centuries under the rule of kings. Society at the time was almost totally agricultural. Most peoples’ lives were lived out in one village. Each village consisted of a small community which since the POLONARUVA period was divided to a great extent by a division into caste. But, from an abstract point of view, a village as a whole constituted one community.
This situation basically begins to change with the British takeover particularly after the Colebrook-Cameron Commission reforms. It attempted to establish a system of administration modeled on the concepts of administrations promoted during the time by the White House.
Then the economy also changed. For the first time commercial aspects were introduced for tea and rubber. Such plantations and their products were basically for the purpose of export. Road systems and railway systems developed which broke the isolation of the villagers. It also improved transportation of people into various parts of the country. This ended the type of individuals whose sole existence consisted of living within one village.
By 1931, people had some little knowledge about the idea of representatives. But, those representatives from among the upper classes were in fact working within the overall control of the colonial power. Therefore, it could be argued that until 1931 the large body of people in the country did not have any idea of representative governance.
In the early decades that passed after 1931, people were gradually learning about electing their own representatives. And how Government was carried out through the legislative, executive and judiciary branches. The problem that next surfaced was not of such great complexity as they were to become in the later decades.
Development of trade unions as an organized force and the development of political parties, which were engaged in competition for gaining political power, also gradually became part of the local experience. The highpoint of conflict that arose from this new situation could be symbolized by the 1953 Hartal Strike. It almost brought the whole nation, for a brief period of one day, in conflict with the Government. The Government was so panicked that the entire cabinet sought refuge in a ship, fearing the possibility of a political take over. That reflected on the one hand, the innocence of the people and their leaders who led the Hartal as well as those in the Government who saw in a normal protest movement the possibility of a transfer of power.
This environment of innocence begins to change particularly from the 1958 riots and the emergency followed by the 1962 coup attempt but above all by the Peoples’ Liberation Front (JVP) insurrection of 1971.
These events and those which were to follow ended the political innocence. Peoples’ minds absorbed the highly violent events where heavy amounts of bloodshed became a normal part of life. And this extended later to another JVP insurrection, the long period of conflict with the LTTE and finally into April 21, the Easter Sunday events which shocked the nation more than any other time. Not that the number of deaths were higher than on other occasions like the JVP uprisings and the conflict with the LTTE. Compared with them the number of deaths were less. However, the mystery behind the April 21 attack has shaken the nation far more than all other events that happened in the past.
This simply means that the period of the innocence of the peoples’ political life is now over. How this change of perceptions and the emotional and the mental outlook of the people will be reflected is yet to be seen.
An expression of the loss of innocence and the understanding of the complex problem of dictatorship plus the heavyweight surveillance of people was reflected in the 2015 January elections. The ideals behind the move of the 6 million people who voted for a new government showed an understanding of the great danger looming over them and their will to intervene to stop it.
The outcome of the change they brought about was soon to be reflected as not a confirmation of their ideals and the pursuit of the way they wanted their government to be. It was a mere repetition of what happened in the past with a slight difference. It was the absence of a direct dictatorship and heavy surveillance machinery. These had silenced all critics, particularly the journalists and others who were outspoken during previous regimes.
Conflict with the ideals and problems arising from this realization is a byproduct. The result of the manner in which people who have lost their innocence and who are trying to enter into the political arena in order to correct wrongs have to face. These could be seen from what was perceived from around the world where such changes have taken place.
Now, as the younger generation in the country comes into their adulthood, they can exercise their voting rights and exert their influence without that sense of innocence which past generations had. They are skeptical about anyone who claims to have a right to become their representative or to hold higher posts within the Government. This skepticism itself is a positive outcome which accompanies the loss of innocence. This is the time that there needs to be the highest possible opportunities for ordinary people to express their misgivings and their skepticism. And hold on to reveal to the world how difficult it will be to convince them of the good intentions of those who are seeking power. If this expression is provided with opportunities for sharing of ideas, the following could occur. Many visiting problems of the country such as deep indebtedness, substantial lawlessness, widespread corruption, absence of non-working protective mechanisms and the like would become opportunities. Not just a few, but a large number of people will begin to express their ideas, their misgivings and their skepticism coupled most importantly with their HOPES.
Therefore, this is a time more than ever before, where there is a need for more serious involvement by the country’s intellectuals. A need to trust the people, to trust that they are capable of understanding complex problems, to trust they wish to listen to worthwhile reflections with the hope that they would themselves respond to these inputs. An intellectual contribution which can raise a higher discourse among the people, who are in search of solutions to the problems they are fully aware of, is the need of the hour. It is for the intellectuals, professionals and anyone who has thought things through on what has befallen the country to provide their insights. Make them available to the people so that they themselves will contribute to that discourse. And from that certain outcomes may develop which may help to resolve present problems.
The people who have lost their innocence will not tolerate impositions from the top because they see it has lost its legitimacy to rule. Creating a sense of authority on the basis of the moral justification of political perspectives is now inevitable.