By Rajaratnam Rukshan –
The Postcolonial Sri Lanka has become worse than what it was during Colonial Period: The Sorrow History of How February 4th – the Day of Independence to the Sinhalese has Turned Out to be a Black Day to the Tamils
Sri Lanka has completed a postcolonial era of 70 years, after being freed from the fetters of the colonial rule and she is currently entering the 71st year. We Sri Lankans, who incessantly boast about Sri Lanka’s achievement of independence are not in the least interested to recall the history of the past 71 years, during which the foundation had been laid for the never-ending ethnic conflict. It is, in fact, very unfortunate to note that the same day, which is the day of independence to one particular ethic group has turned out to be a black day to another. Although the British colonial rule (1796 – 1948) had helped to strengthen the ethnic identity of the two main ethnic groups, the changes in the economic structure introduced by the British during this period had an impact on the ethnic relationships between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. This was the cause for affecting the postcolonial relationships between the two main ethnic groups that had been historically interacting socially, economically and politically well with each other. In spite of the fact that such a foundation for ethnic disharmony was laid during the British colonial period, no one would deny the truth that it was only during the postcolonial period, the ethnic conflict has escalated into frequent acts of violence. This article is attempting to analyse from the point of view of the Tamils, the basics that led to their desperate plight during this postcolonial period of 71 years.
Is it Liberation or Political Independence?
February 4th is nationally considered as the day Sri Lanka gained independence. From the point of view of colonialism, this could also be recognized the first day of the postcolonial era. When we review the past political history, the latter description seems more appropriate than the previous one. This is because independence differs from political liberation. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the country liberated itself from the British colonialism and thereafter entered into the postcolonial structure.
The fact that a country liberates itself from colonial rule means that it has reached the important stage of autonomy. This is quite evident from the initiatives for development that are being under taken by those countries which achieved political independence. Generally speaking, this could be also inferred from the history of the Asian, African and Latin American countries which after their political liberation paved the way for their people to enjoy the fruits of independence. However, on the contrary, it is unfortunate to observe that ethnic conflicts have erupted in those countries recently liberated from colonialism. In these countries, the majority communities after gaining political authority have started discriminating against the ethnic minorities. Sri Lanka is no exception to such a behaviour. The history of the island’s ethnic conflict proves that such a situation has prevented its people from enjoying the fruits of independence or the self-governing structure.
In fact, Sri Lanka has failed in transforming its liberation gained from colonialism in 1948, “independently” as its own independence. This is quite evident from the series of actions that India – our neighbouring country – had taken in developing itself. Within a short period of its liberation from colonialism, a part of India separated itself from the sub-continent and came to be known as Pakistan. As a follow up, the important task that India undertook was the establishment of a Constitutional Council, designing a suitable constitution and the declaration of India a Republic. The dawn of independence was spoilt by its inevitable partition that led to the formation of Pakistan. Remembering such an undesirable experience and having unshakable faith in the concept of unity “we Indians,” in 1956, the country establishes linguistic states i.e. states based on the language spoken by a group of its people, with the intention of avoiding further division of the country. The demand for separation lost its vigour ever since, and the concept of national integration has steadily gained ground.
India’s struggle against colonialism differed from Sri Lanka’s approach, in the same way as that of the success of India’s postcolonial history in considering its independence as its treasured possession. Even though there existed difference of opinion among those freedom fighters of India, in respect of independent India all of them had a clear view. In other words, what they wanted was that by gaining political freedom India should be liberated from the experiences of its colonial history and postcolonial aspirations of India should be entirely free from their colonial characteristics. This was the reason why India declared itself a Republic soon after it was liberated from colonialism and started building up nationalism by establishing state based on respective languages, with the view to prevent separatism.
Whereas in respect of Sri Lankan leaders – whether they are the leaders of the Sinhala majority community or the leaders of the minority Tamil community – they have failed in fulfilling this historical obligation. This historical failure commences from the struggle for Sri Lanka’s independence. Unlike Indian leaders, the Sri Lankan leaders led their movement with the objective of achieving self-government under the British imperialism. Their objective was to bring about changes in the functioning government as well as in the administration in a peaceful way and through Constitutional changes. Hence the Sri Lankan leaders did not adopt the strategy of the Indian leaders who opposed the British colonialists and strove to gain independence. They preferred to gain self-rule without antagonising the British colonial rulers. In other words, the Sri Lankan leaders did not even think of demanding the British to quit Sri Lanka.
This is reflected in the close relationship Sri Lanka maintained with Britain during the postcolonial “honeymoon period” and in the type of foreign policy formulated by it. As an example for this, the Defence and the Foreign Affairs agreement entered into by Sri Lanka with the British government could be quoted. This Defence Agreement paved the way for Britain and Sri Lanka by (i) helping each other in those area of mutual interest; (ii) Sri Lankan government obtaining advice from Britain in those matters pertaining its security; (iii) Britain providing training and military aids to the Sri Lankan security forces; (iv) Sri Lankan government providing facilities and military bases to Britain. In fact, this agreement produced the right conditions for the British security forces to occupy the strategically important Katunayake Airport and the Trincomalee natural harbour.
Similarly, in the External Affairs Agreement too, the two governments had reached an agreement on the following matters: (i) Observation of the principles and practices of the Commonwealth; (ii) Exchange of High Commissioners; (iii) In any foreign country where Sri Lanka had no diplomatic representation, the British government would, if so requested by the government of Sri Lanka, arrange for its representatives to act on behalf of Sri Lanka; (iv) The British government would lend its full support to any application by Sri Lanka for membership of the UN. The important aspect of the External Affairs Agreement was that opportunity was afforded to Sri Lanka to represent it in those countries where it had no diplomatic representatives. Such state of affairs illustrates the fact that even after Sri Lanka was supposed to have gained independence, the interference of Britain continued to persist.
The direct influence of Britain continued to exist from the time Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike assumed power in 1956 till the British troops were asked to withdraw from the two military bases. At the same time, politically Sri Lanka carried out its governance in accordance with the Constitution drafted by Lord Soulbury of Britain. Till the government of the United Front under the leadership of SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) introduced and implemented the first Republican Constitution on the 22nd of May 1972, Sri Lanka adhered to the Constitution designed by Britain for almost 24 years during the postcolonial period.
Truly speaking, all these political events pinpoint to us what Sri Lanka gained in 1948 was not independence in a very real sense, but liberation only. We are bound to arrive at this conclusion because Sri Lanka was under the influence of Britain for a reasonable period of time, even after the so-called independence of 1948, as indicated by the above quoted historical evidence. This indicates the lack of farsightedness among the Sri Lankan leaders.
The National Problem
Even though the divide and rule policy of the British colonialists was the cause for the state of conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils – the two major ethnic groups – the leaders of the Sinhala majority made use of this political divide for their benefit and began adopting anti-Tamil policies that would facilitate the building up of the Sinhala – Buddhist country. This had inevitably led to the situation in which the minorities of Sri Lanka had been forced to the state of second class citizens and thus the ethnic problem was created. Rather than saying that the problem appeared, the usage of the term “created” would be more appropriate.
It was in the year 1948 – the year of achievement of the so-called independence – the foundation was laid for the national problem that remains insolvable to date. In 1948, when Sri Lanka attempted to draw a definition to identify her own citizens, the upcountry Tamils of Indian origin were not considered as Sri Lankans. The government of Mr. DS Senanayake confirmed this by passing, in parliament, of the Citizenship Act of 1948 and Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949. This was identified well in time by many as a sign that forecasted the manner the Sri Lankan Tamils were going to be treated by the majority communities. On account of this, some members of the Tamil Congress who strongly condemned this sort of ethnic discrimination, formed the Federal Party under the leadership of Mr. SJV Chelvanayakam. Issues in respect of governance and Constitution that were raised by the Federal Party that was formed in 1949 still remain unsolved (failure on the part of the leaders of the Sinhala majority to approach the problems of the Tamils genuinely, lack of unity among Tamil leaders, inconsistencies in the policies of the Tamil political parties, the rousing of anti-communal feelings by the Sinhala Chauvinists are some of the reasons for such a situation. These factors have to be analysed comprehensively).
Although there are multiple factors behind the protracted conflict in Sri Lanka, we can categorise the causes of the conflict into two major groups. They are: (1) the ethnic discrimination and (2) the fear of extinction. The ethnic discrimination and the fear of extinction are common in most of the social conflicts, especially the ones that are defined by ethnic factors. Firstly, both parties mutually accused each other. On the Tamil side, they made the allegation that Sinhala only cabinet of 1936, Citizenship Act of 1948 and 1949, ‘state sponsored colonization schemes’ which were initiated by the first Sri Lankan government under DS Senanayake’s premiership and Sinhala Only Act of 1956 were the efforts for marginalizing the Tamils. On the other hand, the minority complex suffered by the Sinhala people, especially during the colonial era, is evident from the claim that they were discriminated by the British rulers with the able assistance of the Tamils, who, in the eyes of the Sinhalese, were collaborating with the colonial masters. The Tamils indeed enjoyed equal status with the Sinhalese and, to a certain extent, assumed the role of the dominant group during the colonial era. Another factor that contributed to this Sinhala perception of discrimination was what was called the unequal share the Tamils had enjoyed in public sector employment.
Secondly, in Sri Lanka not only the minority communities, but also the majority Sinhala people have the fear of extinction. The Sinhalese are considered generally as a majority with minority complex, as they comprehend their relations with the Tamil community in general and the conflict in particular through regional lenses. Relationship between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where about sixty million Tamils share cultural, religious and linguistic commonalities with the Tamils in Sri Lanka, was strong enough to make the Sinhalese feel insecure. The Sinhalese were apprehensive that they could be reduced to an insignificant entity in view of the fact of the combined strength of these two Tamil groups. The Sinhalese are considered generally as a majority with minority complex, as they comprehend their relations with the Tamil community in general and the conflict in particular through regional lenses. For example, De Silva (1986) clearly points out: The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils takes on an unusual complexity. It is much more than a conflict between a majority and minority or indeed a conflict between two minorities. The conflict is between a majority with a minority complex, and a minority with yearning for majority status, a minority with a majority complex (1986: 368).
Therefore, the Citizenship Act of 1948 – 49 and the state sponsored settlements of Sinhala people in the areas where Tamils were dominant are applied together as tool of the “fear of extinction” by successive governments. The Tamils believed that the settlements were aimed at causing a demographic change and thus reducing the Tamil majority in the Northern and Eastern provinces that were considered as fundamental for their survival as an ethnic group.
India tried hard to build up the one nation – namely India – after learning the lesson from the separation it experienced in the aftermath of its independence, whereas Sri Lanka failed to adopt the same practice. On the contrary, the government of Sri Lanka that declared a particular ethnic group as not its citizens in 1948, continued to create such a divide among the other communities of Sri Lanka too. As stated above, in 1956 India introduced the system of lingual states with the intention of saving the country from further division; but in the same year and from the time of formation of the government of the United People’s Front by Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike, the chauvinism of the ethnic majority community had become the basis of the nationalistic ideology. The passing of Sinhala Only Act that could lead to the division of the country and the creation of the feeling among the Tamils that Sri Lanka is not their native country constitute the foremost illustration of the chauvinism of the Sinhala majority. This could be regarded as a significant milestone in the national problem of Sri Lanka. The passing of the reasonable use of Tamil Act in the postcolonial parliament and the subsequent inability on the part of the government to execute this act was a more cruel action than that of Sinhala Only Act. These Acts constitute an important turning point in the history of Sri Lanka and its ethnic conflict. The government’s inability to find a clear and suitable solution to the national problem continues as a curse for ever.
Thereafter, Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike, who came to power with the help of main leftist parties declared Sri Lanka a Republic in 1972 and through the development of the first Republican Constitution of Sri Lanka she created an impression that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala – Buddhist country. Subsequently, the United National Party that came to power exacerbated this conflict situation and converted into a civil war. After 1983, the UNP and the SLFP that came to power one after the other did the service of dragging on this national problem without arriving at a meaningful solution.
The government of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa that was voted to power in 2005, fought the last stage of the war and ended it by killing Velupillai Prabaharan, the leader of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on the 18th of May 2009. Although it was alleged that various forms of human rights violation had taken place in the conflict zone during the last stage of the war, no suitable solution for such violation or for the sensitive political issues has been found. Not even attempts are made to resolve them. From the beginning of the postcolonial period the political problems confronting the ethnic minorities, anti-minority policies adopted by various governments, the fact that the minorities have been treated as second class citizens, violation of human rights they experienced in the last stage of the war and the political issues faced by them in the aftermath of the war remain unsolved to date and as a result of which they are unable to enjoy their freedom in full.
Necessity for a Change in the Way of Thinking
The fundamental mistake in comprehending the independence of Sri Lanka and the manner in which the political leaders handled it has undermined the history of this country and transformed the history of independence into a history of sorrow and disappointment to its people. This is why the postcolonial history leads us to realise that the national problem is insolvable. Against this backdrop, the error committed in the assessment of the postcolonial thoughts becomes crystal clear.
The leaders of Sri Lanka, though freed from British colonialism, were not willing to free themselves from the British colonial thinking. They followed what was left behind by the British and functioned with the same colonial attitude even in the postcolonial period. This attitude still persists as the basis for the discriminating outlook as majority and minority. In the postcolonial era, our leader tried to adopt this ideology of colonialism as the national political principle. This attempt failed miserable and it is a pity that it has turned out to be the sorrowful history of independence Sri Lanka.
As a result of this, the liberation from colonial rule has not paved the way for independence for all the communities and this fact has been proved by the history of the past 70 years. Although independence has been granted to countries such as Sri Lanka, India etc. by Britain, there is a difference in the way each gained its independence and their subsequent approach to independence. Although India gained independence during the same period as Sri Lanka, it has made a concerted effort to build up the nation by recruiting people from all its communities to the national troops, establishing lingual states, confirming multicultural representation in cultural activities and giving equal importance to the political parties in the periphery. On the contrary, Sri Lanka carried out its political activities, being influenced by the colonial concept of majority – minority and thus blackened the history of its independence.
Political leaders influenced by such a thinking compensated their inferiority complex by propagating ill-feeling among Sri Lanka’s different ethnic communities. The past history of this island has successfully propagated mutual antagonism between the two ethnic groups and as a result of this, they have started to consider each other as enemies. Naturally this has escalated the feeling of suspicion between the two communities. This feeling of suspicion has to be eradicated and a new spirit of reconciliation has to be brought about between them. This is an urgent need of the hour. In order to get rid of this feeling of suspicion and bring about long-lasting peace and reconciliation between the two ethnic communities, a change in the way of thinking is indispensable. Otherwise, solving the national problem would be a daydream.
Unlike the political trend that started questioning the status of the language and finally created the unfortunate situation of demanding separation, a united Sri Lanka has to be built up in future, where the two communities could be able to live peacefully and amicably. Tolerance and mutual understanding have to be promoted between the two communities and to achieve this, there should be a frank discussion of the problems faced by them without any hidden agenda or prejudice. The media should help to carry out this historical obligation and avoid creating suspicions between communities through their task of reporting. Such a change in thinking should take place among the people as well as the political leaders. Only then a long-lasting reconciliation and a forum for the resolution of the national problem could be achieved. Otherwise the tendency to view the day of independence as a black day is going to last forever.
Sri Lanka has failed to transform its liberation from colonialism into people’s independence. Those governments which ruled this country one after another in the postcolonial era have failed to drive into the minds of the people, the concept of considering Sri Lanka as their own country. As long as our rulers are unable to get rid of the political concepts inherited from the British colonialism, the long-lasting national problem is not going to be solved, even though the war has ended. Our Tamil and Sinhala leaders have utilised the communalism that originated from the British colonialism to take this country to the brink of disaster. The postcolonial history should be always a history of liberation from the ideology of colonialism. Otherwise it would not be possible to resolve the national problem or to cherish the liberation from the British colonialism as true independence by the entire population of Sri Lanka. All of us shall determine the historical obligation of re-writing the history of Sri Lankan independence as a history of contentment and happiness.
*Rajaratnam Rukshan – Visiting Lecturer, Dept. of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo