Wither a community of principled men and women
There is an understandably widespread and deeply felt anxiety that politicians are incapable and unwilling to pull the country out of the mess it’s in. Apart from their evident incompetence, there are two other reasons for the reluctance. (a) They will not willingly abandon the ingrained habit of looting the country and (b) they will be the first casualties of the subsequent clean up necessary to re-build systems.
In other words, the political class is not in the business of performing hara kiri!
So where does one begin? As always, at the beginning.
The country is in a parlous state, some would argue, due to the virtual absence of men and women in the present and a few past generations who can stand up to authority and hold politicians to account. A government minister (ethnically Sinhalese) touched on the matter while addressing school children last year. “We must build a new generation of people in our country”, he exclaimed,“who do not prostrate and worship those in official authority”.
That’s not a novel idea. Twenty-two years ago, in 1997 a former ambassador (ethnically Sinhalese) had lamented: “the country is in shambles”. According to him, the “tragedy is that society as a whole has failed to throw up a community of principled men [and women] who can stand up to our rampaging politicians and put them in their place.” With evident anguish he called for “men who can think deeply and feel deeply”.
The “tragedy” he bemoans, however, did not appear overnight out of thin air. It has a tortuous history from the eve of Independence, in 1948.
The feudalist landed elite, led by Prime Minister DS Senanayake (ethnically Sinhalese) unveiled the grand design of rebuilding the fabled Irrigation Civilisation (see Part II)of the Sinhalese nation through State-assisted land colonisation under the LDO schemes and State-financed reconstruction and expansion of irrigation infrastructures. That Irrigation Civilisation has yet to see the light of day because it is ecologically unviable, given the country’s population density and commercial agriculture. What’s worse, the peasant proprietor scheme was in fact crafted primarily to neutralise challenges from landless peasants, dodge broad based industrialisation and simultaneously stymie the Left. They arrested domestic agriculture’s market oriented growth and mired it in a stagnant, semi-feudalist pit.
The flip side of reclaiming the Irrigation Civilisation was to salvage the language of the Sinhalese people by replacing English with Sinhala as official language. That too was to be similarly regressive.
The anglicised Sinhalese elite, led by Senanayake and his cohorts including JR Jayewardene and SWRD.Bandaranaike (both ethnically Sinhalese), was groomed by the colonial English medium education system and, therefore, the elite was functionally illiterate in Sinhala.
A shift to Sinhala as official language would have made the elite dysfunctional and undermined its own domination. The Sinhalese elite, like elites everywhere and always, obviously had no intention whatsoever of voluntarily relinquishing its power and privileges, of committing political suicide!
Sinhala as official language was a political project of leading members of the elite who had one eye firmly fixed on grabbing electoral advantage in the fast approaching transfer of power from the British colonial regime to the Ceylonese elite. The official-language issue became entangled in the power struggle to claim the mantle of Sinhalese-nationalist hero.
In 1943 Jayewardene pandered to the spreading Sinhalese-nationalist mood and proposed “making Sinhalese as the official language of Ceylon”. Bandaranaike, however, sat on the fence: “a change-over,” he intoned, “from English language to one or more of our languages is a very desirable step.”
“Chanakya” Senanayake evidently sensed the power play by Jayewardene and Bandaranaike to snatch his (Senanayake’s) crown and then, inevitably, put his son and heir apparentDudley out to grass. So Senanayake, who had leaned on the extremely retrogressive Lebensraumideology in his LDO Sinhalese colonisations,deftly turned into a statesman to neutralise Jayewardene’s ploy, declaring: “The essential task is to build up a nation, and build up a nation not with one language, but with two.”He prompted his ally V.Nalliah to propose the amendment making both Sinhala and Tamil official languages and the motion was adopted; predictably Senanayake did not implement the amended motion.
The point here is that Sinhala as official language was a political football kicked around by the anglicised Sinhalese elite and Bandaranaike, who had his finger on the rural Sinhalese pulse, scored in 1956 when he enacted Sinhala as the sole official language, popularly known as the “Sinhala-Only” policy.
He packaged the alleged changeover to Sinhala, in anti-colonial rhetoric of rectifying historical wrongs inflicted by colonialism upon the Sinhalese people and culture. However, to maintain the domination by the anglicised Sinhalese elite he belonged to, the complete changeover to Sinhala he alleged was more rhetoric than fact.That was to pile more damage upon the destruction colonialism had wrought.
If “Sinhala-Only” harvested votes of broad swaths of the Sinhalese population, it alsowas a crude instrument to gradually squeeze Tamils out of employment in the public sector, including State Corporations and armed forces, on grounds they lacked proficiency in Sinhala. (The impact on Tamils will be discussed later.)
Anglicised Sinhalese who lacked or were unable to gain proficiency in Sinhala also fell victims; they became collateral damage – unanticipated fallout of the myopic policy.
The principle gainers were the Sinhalese middle classes– both upper and lower segments – who competed against Tamils in the same labour market; they clearly benefited as Tamil participation in the pubic sector dwindled to fewer than five per cent.
The Sinhala-Tamil confrontation over language overshadowed, and detracted from, how “Sinhala-Only” policy cut the ground out from under the feet of the vast majority of Sinhalese who belonged to the lower-middle and working classes – the much-lauded “common man” – roughly estimated to be about 70 per cent of the Sinhalese population.
More to the point, what was its effect on the rural Sinhalese youth?
The alleged change to Sinhala conveyed a duplicitous but multifaceted message: the English language – the Kaduwa (literally, the sword; metaphorically, power) – has been dethroned; education in the Sinhala language medium is more than sufficient to achieve economic success and social status; and that proficiency in English is largely redundant.
Carried away by the heady nationalism of welcoming a Sinhalese Dawn, the teaching of English as a compulsory second language was rapidly discontinued. English language was removed from the list of compulsory subjects in public examinations; and government schools all but dismantled its teaching – with devastating consequences.
Numerous English language teachers (including a few of our relatives) with decades of experience were made redundant; many of them took wing in search of employment to countries as diverse as Brunei and Zambia, which welcomed them with open arms.
Neither did most university faculties require students in the Sinhala and Tamil language streams to be proficient in English. In contrast, Indian universities we know of put incoming undergraduates through an intensive course in English so that they may access knowledge production on a global scale.
The first post-Bandaranaike generation of Sinhalese youth pouring out of schools and universities throughout the 1960s confronted the staggering reality of Language Apartheid: the anglicised political class corralled the rural youth in the “Sinhala-Only” dead end of the underclass and dominated over it ruthlessly as ever; simultaneously the Sinhalese upper and upper-middle classes ensured their own children, enrolled in elite schools, were proficient in English and could access prestigious foreign universities.
Lucrative economic opportunities in the professions – science, medicine, engineering and so on – and upward social mobility pivotally depended upon a good working knowledge of the English language, as it was before Sinhala was declared the sole official language in 1956. But the anglicised Sinhalese elite eliminated the slim chance of gaining proficiency in English as the compulsory second language that had been available under the pre-1956 education system.
The non-English speakingyouth discovered Sinhala-in-24-hours is an unconscionable fraud; that theKaduwastill ruled, symbolising the economic exploitation and social exclusion of the Sinhalese masses.
The post-Bandaranaike rural generation deeply resented the betrayal and, logically, should have launched a sustained long-term campaign for universal English literacy. They did not.
Instead it dug itself deeper into the “Sinhala-Only” quagmire. It sought political power to de-throne English. The path through the ballot box was a non-starter, given the stranglehold the two major political parties of the Sinhalese elite have on the electoral process.
The radicalised rural men and women reached out to the alternative path of armed struggle around the mid-1960s. They launched the 1971 Insurrection under the banner of the JVP (Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna) against the ruling United Front (UF) coalition regime led by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike; her husband S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had duped Sinhalese masses in 1956 with the promise to replace English with Sinhala in 24 hours, to wheedle votes!
In short, the first post-Bandaranaike rural Sinhalese generation went to the wall!
The Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led UF coalition crushed the Insurrection; it put to death a conservatively estimated twenty thousand young Sinhalese. The UF culled a majority of the politically conscious and intellectually active cream of the first post-Bandaranaike Sinhalese generationwho, if not for the chimera of a “Sinhala-Only” utopia, would in all likelihood have blossomed into the “community of principled men [and women]” the former ambassador yearned for.
There is more. Foreign entrepreneurs, attracted by Jayawardene’s 1978 Neo-Liberal economic policies, did not learn Sinhala as Bandaranaike had outlandishly predicted during an election rally in 1956 (see Part II)! Instead they insisted on proficiency in English as a necessary condition for employment, especially at managerial levels.
National entrepreneurs seeking to exploit new business avenues in the unfolding export-oriented open economy preferentially employed Sri Lankans, who possessed knowledge of English and so could communicate with, and function in, the fast integrating global economy.
Predictably hardly any attempt was made by the anglicised Sinhalese elite to promote universal English literacy in the country. Elites are not usually known for uplifting the masses!
Consequently the vast majority of the second post-Bandaranaike rural Sinhalese generation, of the 1970s and early 1980s, also lacked a working knowledge of English. Their Sinhala-medium education continued to funnel them into the non-English speaking underclass. They were virtually excluded from most of the sought-after employment and career opportunities and compelled to survive on the fringes of the expanding open economy.
Chastened by the debacle of the First Insurrection and increasingly aware of the indispensability of English proficiency, the second post-Bandaranaike generation of Sinhalese (non-English speaking) youth ought have strived for universal English literacy. In fact some leaders of that Insurrection (we know a few personally) fortified their knowledge of English while languishing in prison and their valued contribution in academia, media and so on are well known.
The cul-de-sacof Jathika Chinthanaya
The second generation may have prioritised English literacy; but they were derailed by the salvation promised by Jathika Chinthanaya, said to be an enlightened national (read Sinhalese) ideology allegedly rooted in an uncorrupted national consciousness of an idealised (Sinhalese) people unsullied by European colonial indoctrination.
However, Andre Gunder Frank’s acclaimed theory of Development of Underdevelopmentamply demonstrates that a pristine Sinhalese-Buddhist society untouched by colonialism is a delusion harboured by mentally challenged nationalists. No such social base exists and, therefore, the alleged survival of a corresponding ideological superstructure – an original, pure Sinhalese consciousness – is political fiction.
Jathika Chinthanaya was the cultural expression of the political “Sinhala-Only”. Both Jayawardene and Bandaranaike proclaimed Sinhala would replace English for the benefit of the people. Gunadasa Amerasekera imagined a Sinhalese consciousness replacing the colonised worldview; he “called for emancipation both physical and mental from West oriented thought process”. In neither case was the transformation expected to flow as a dialectical process in which, for example, the people hone an organic ideology in the crucible of anti-colonial power struggles, unseat the anglicised elite and make structural changes to society.
Instead, in both cases what pretended as a radical-populist measure soon revealed itself as national-chauvinism, which sucked the betrayed youth unwittingly deeper into the same linguistic swamp.
A Sinhalese intellectual Liyanage Amarakeerthi lauded Amerasekera as an “authentic intellectual” who towered above his peers. On the flip side, he explained, “Amarasekara spent about four decades trying to stuff [JVP leader] Wijeweera’s Marxist head – taking Wijeweera as a symbol of many others – with ‘national thought’ (Jathika Chinthanaya), and in the process, one could argue, Amarasekara effectively destroyed a courageous challenger to the Sri Lankan state if not the status quo of the Sinhala South”.
He added: “Jathika Chinthanaya has ended up creating a kind of cultural relativism that easily translates into something like, ‘Humans in this country are only Sinhala Buddhists.’ That cultural relativism, instead of producing any Buddhist science or Buddhist theory of development, which takes the planet earth as our co-being rather than a bundle of nature to be mastered by modernity, has resulted in producing hypocritical middle class consumerists as social beings and racists as political beings.”
The youth sharpened their political teeth on two popular platforms. The anti-Kaduwarhetoric carried an undercurrent – but only a nebulous undercurrent, nothing more – of class-based antagonism to foreign capital and its domestic collaborative elements. The anti-Indian sentiments (New Delhi had by then overtly intervened in the Ceylon Tamil Question and imposed the 1987 Indo-Lanka Pact) in effect expressed the hostility towards Tamil Nadu: thus many Sinhalese nationalists demanded the rapid withdrawal of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in order, they claimed, to prevent the Indian soldiers (Sikhs, Gurkhas. etc) from forming sexual liaisons with Tamil women to spawn Tamil “Cholapattau[cubs]” – absurdly believing that Tamil Nadu is synonymous with India!
These confused political sentiments combined to form, in the Sinhalese nationalist mind, an anti-English and anti-Indian emotive amalgam. The politically active sections of the marginalised and deprived majority of that generation regrouped under the JVP, flexed their political muscle and demonstrated their street power between 1985 and 1988. They groped without success for an explanation for, and a way out, of the Linguistic Apartheid – of “Sinhala-Only” for the masses and English for the elite.
So that generation too went to the wall in the late 1980s.
The regimes of Presidents Jayawardene (who in 1944 was an early purveyor of the chimera of “Sinhala-Only”) and R.Premadasa struck back viciously between September 1988 and January 1990. Between them they culled a conservatively estimated sixty thousand to hundred thousand young men and women whose corpses were seen floating down rivers or consigned, presumably, to another set of mass graves. They are arguably the core of the politically committed and intellectually developed Sinhalese youth of the second post-Bandaranaike generation.
Surely, if not for “Sinhala-Only”, most of them would have matured into the “community of principled men [and women]” who could stand up to power that both the current minister and a former ambassador desperately sought.
But, one may ask, what of the upper and upper-middle class Sinhalese university academics in each generation? Why did they fail to throw up men and women of the calibre sought by the former ambassador?
One (by no means the only) reason is the 1972 “standardisation” – a supposed positive discrimination in reverse in favour of majority Sinhalese – that the terrified Sinhalese elite pushed through in the aftermath of the 1971 Insurrection to placate educated Sinhalese youth (see Part II). The government established ethnic quotas discriminating against Tamils in university admission; it was later camouflaged by so-called district-wise selection in favour of “disadvantaged” regions in the country combined with so-called merit and need bases. No prizes are offered for guessing which ethnic-majority regions are not disadvantaged!
In the academic field, State intervention in admissions through “standardisation” turned out to be the proverbial double-edged sword. It no doubt enabled a considerably greater number of Sinhalese students to enter universities than would otherwise been possible.
For that very reason, at least a majority of these students know their academic achievement was not the result of their scholarly prowess. Inevitably the intellectual calibre of the majority of Sinhalese graduates is wanting crucially in their own perception; and they are grateful for the “helping hand” extended by the State. Consequently, they woefully lack the unshakeable self-confidence and unflinching self-image that are products of achieving success solely on one’s own merit.
Anti-State issue-based agitation does episodically take place within universities. But that should not detract from the fundamental reality that generally speaking most university graduates and many faculty members are obliged to the State for their professional advancement; they are fundamentally subservient to the State and very unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them!
The smaller faction of Sinhalese academics functionally literate in English as well as their Sinhala-vernacular compatriots have been generally reticent to recognise the damaging effects of the Language Apartheid. The former perhaps largely don’t care; the latter are apparently hamstrung by regressive Jathika Chinthanaya!
Indeed several Sinhalese faculty members during discussions with us strongly argued that the government has the primary responsibility to employ graduates and educated youth. They seem generally unable to differentiate between (a) the State creating macro-economic conditions that promote investment and expand employment and (b) the government actually providing jobs!
It is futile to expect these psychologically emasculated academics to “stand up to our rampaging politicians and put them in their place”, as the former ambassador wished for. To be fair by the intellectuals, he slurs over the across-the-board State repression after 1971by the government he represented,
The same cannot be said of some independent thinkers mainly in the Arts and Journalism. The captivating Thespian Richard de Zoysa and firebrand editor Lasantha Wickrematunga stood up to power. They were brutally murdered; and scores of upright journalists and activists are in self-exile. Indeed when Richard was killed, a Sinhalese Liberal sanguinely said to us: “he must have done something wrong, no!”
The bulk of self-serving Civil Society – itself the product of the “Sinhala-Only” milieu – lacked backbone to speak truth to power, except to issue toothless “statements”. Their criticisms are “akin to being savaged by dead sheep” (to borrow a British parliamentarian’s acerbic phrase)!
This weak lateral political support is the main reason a minority of Sinhalese intellectuals who courageously stood up to be counted were isolated and cornered into silence; others emigrated to saner environs and most of their names adorn the numerous appeals made for good governance by Sri Lankans resident abroad.
Mother tongue vs English: a pseudo-nationalist dichotomy
Some are living in denial. Vinod Moonesinghe (ethnically Sinhalese), for example, made a virtue of a disaster. “Was it unreasonable’, he queried rhetorically, “for three quarters of the population to be able to conduct their communications with the government in their mother tongue?”But he does not explain whether that communication compelled the political class to reduce corruption, ensure rule of law and improve governance during the past five decades. If not, of what use was it?
Others who justify Sinhala-Only policy ask: what’s wrong in students learning in their mother tongue? Nothing wrong! Children should learn in their mother tongue. They have at least since the 1939 CWW Kanangara reforms.
Indeed, “Kannangara did not like English being an instrument of social stratification [but] he saw its value and sought to make it available to those who remained outside its reach. He, therefore, followed up his attempt to strengthen the teaching of the mother tongue in the English medium schools with an attempt to expand the teaching of English as a second language in the so-called vernacular or ‘swabhasha’ schools…Kannangara saw the need for a child to know both the mother tongue and English, and was for bilingualism rather than monolingualism.Though both the above measures brought very limited success, they provide a clear indication of the importance he placed on both the mother tongue and English.”
It is true that only a minority – about 15 per cent – could simultaneously acquire English proficiency at the time of Transfer of Power in 1948. As Kannangara had planned, the teaching of English as a compulsory second language should have been continued and extended over time to all schools while students schooled in their mother tongue.
But between 1944 and 1956 Jayawardene and Bandaranaike, driven by their tragically short sighted grab for votes and lunge for power, foisted the disastrous “Sinhala-Only” monolingualism that reversed Kannangara’s reforms and returned the country to the pre-1939 colonial Language Apartheid.Their policy in effect restricted proficiency in English predominantly to children of the upper-middle and upper classes while the teaching of English was phased out for the vast majority of the children from the lower-middle and working classes!
In short, Jayewardene and Bandaranaike together underdeveloped (in Gunder Frank’s terms) the education system. They put the country back by several decades and set the stage for civil wars in the south (and the north) at staggering human and material costs to the people. The overwhelming majority of today’s dysfunctional politicians, administrators and academics are the products of this ghastly mess!
Those who legitimately question this utterly backward policy and gross violation of the fundamental rights of students are derogatively labelled “neo-colonialists”by the myopic defenders of the indefensible “Sinhala-Only”!
A few colleagues asked us: what is the way out? Fortunately there is a glimmer of hope.
First, it is refreshing to observe that an inkling of the enormity of the blunder perpetrated through “Sinhala-Only” is beginning to sink in. The enthusiastic practitioner of Jathika ChinthanayaGunadasa Amarasekera, who had contributed immensely to develop Sinhalese literature, backed “Sinhala-Only” to the hilt. But he twisted 180 degree in 1997 to blame “the failure of the ruling Anglophile establishment to impart a knowledge of English to the swabasha educated intelligentsia. Swabasha education and Sinhala as the official language has been made the excuse for the failure.”
He also sensed a deeper issue of underdevelopment. While condemning “English linguistic hegemony”, he added: “in a modernising trading economy that cannot be changed by the mere adoption of Sinhalese, Tamil and Arabic as official languages.”
Second, the embryonic realisation of the importance of universal English literacy is perhaps evident in the decision of the Department of Education to catch up lost time by re-starting the teaching of English language in government schools beginning with Grade One in January 1998. How far this intent has been put into practice and its degree of success is a largely matter of conjecture.
Fourth, there are attempts break the apparent conspiracy of silence among most of the Sinhalese intelligentsia. A Sinhalese post-graduate student, Anushka Kahandagama, at New Delhi’s South Asia University called a spade a spade. In her article “I’m A ‘Victim’ Of Sinhala Medium Education”,she courageously spoke out: “throughout my life, in studies as well as in carrier [sic], I have regret in not having the opportunity to learn in English medium. I have seen much potential in Sri Lankan students, which dissolves due to the lack of English language ability. We like it or not, English is the international language, and we have to accept it. The global knowledge production is basically in the English language, and we as students are incapable of competing on the global level, not because we lack intelligence, merely due to the lack of English language skills.”
She continued with stunning honesty: “The damage it did to my entire carrier [sic] is undoubtedly immense and can not be repaired, and I know that I am not alone in this disadvantage, but there are thousands of Sri Lankan students who are struggling to achieve their full potential with lack of English language skills.”
Another Sinhalese intellectual, Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda is contrite: “We owe you the youth a profound apology…for crippling and isolating you by the Crime of foisting our “National” Languages upon you, particularly the Sinhala medium products”.He did not explicitly extend the apology to Tamil and Muslim youth; nevertheless it’s a promising start!
Fifth, the market is responding to a rising demand for English proficiency by throwing up new international schools for the affluent Sinhalese middle class that made its fortunes primarily in the war economy from 1979 to 2009.
The solution to the country’s dilemma has to grow out of the Sinhalese intelligentsia’s realization of the grotesque errors of the past (a small beginning has been made by Amarakeerthi,Kahandagama and Pethiyagoda above) AND an uncompromising willingness to pay the price required for making serious course corrections.
However, on the long and arduous road ahead to recovery somesee the JVP, organised by the marginalised Sinhalese-Buddhist rural youth of the “Sinhala-Only” milieu, as the only option. The youth’s congenital influence is evident in the Front’s 2015 parliamentary election manifesto: the organisation’s political and economic perspectives pivot on uplifting the village, despite embellishments of promoting manufactures, social development and environmental protection.
The organisation’s overwhelmingly Sinhalese-Buddhist rural social base fashions and controls its anti-urban working class and anti-devolution worldview.A few JVP leaders speaking fluent English cannot mask the reality that the JVP is mired in DS Senanayake’s rural development and R Premadasa’s Gam Udawa (Village Reawakening); its leadership promises merely to do better.
In the era of late-capitalistglobalisation, JVP’s approach cannot be anything more than a game of smoke and mirrors, which can hardly remedy the Language Apartheid confronting the vast majority of the subsequent post-Bandaranaike generations of rural Sinhalese youth, from the late 1990s to the present. Most of them have again been “educated” to take their place in society as the non-English speaking underclass.
Would they too go to the wall? Time will tell!
* To be continued…..