By Uditha Devapriya –
1832, 1910, 1931, 1948, 1956, and 1972: it is in these years that we see a transition in Sri Lanka’s position from a plantation economy to a semi-responsible government to a dominion and finally, with the United Front’s victory, to a republic. Taken in isolation, these represent little to nothing, but it is only when we stop to consider that the attainment of independence in Sri Lanka was free of the turmoil and conflict which other European colonies in Asia faced that we realise how smooth, flexible, and almost consciously driven the struggle for freedom was here. The view that in Sri Lanka independence was handed on a platter rather than won is mischievously simplistic since, as Malinda Seneviratne once noted, it trivialises the immense hardships that the Buddhist clergy, the peasantry, and the left had to endure. I consider the historical route to independence here to thus have been easy and complex, easy because the bourgeoisie favoured a constitutional struggle as opposed to a political one and they were the ones calling the shots, and complex because there was opposition, mainly from the left, to not just colonial rule but also those who favoured a constitutional struggle.
In Sri Lanka, as with most other European colonies in Asia, the gaining of independence was inextricably linked to the rise of a national and, in certain cases, nationalist elite. Whatever their ideological affiliations would have been, by the early 20th century they were on the side of reform. Kumari Jayawardena in her studies of the bourgeoisie in British Ceylon noted that the elite were divided between three groups: the conservatives who sided with the British by virtue of the similarity of economic interests between them and officials; the moderates who vied for greater representation in the legislature, not out of a need for radical change but out of class interests which brought them into contact and conflict with colonial officials; and the radicals who, hailing from the same class the moderates had hailed from, advocated changes that the moderates were not able, much less willing, to support.
Given the amorphous nature of the bourgeoisie, it’s difficult to ascertain when the process of obtaining independence for Sri Lanka really began. Most historians would put the date at the time of the Donoughmore Commission, but that called for a new constitutional structure that limited the notion of independence to one framed in terms of progress from semi-responsible status to self-government. The leaders in the Ceylon National Congress saw no urgent need to expedite the process because they felt that agitating for anything more would compel not just disagreement but also resistance from the colonial office.
Whether this was an unfounded, unjustifiable fear or whether it was borne out of pragmatic considerations we will never know for sure, particularly given the more militant freedom struggles that were taking place pretty much everywhere else in the region, but the outcome of this was to make the struggle in Sri Lanka much more peaceable and pacifist, and almost servile, in the face of British economic and political power. Not surprisingly, Donoughmore revealed the cleavages among the elite: from the old guard, who opposed self-government for the country, to the new middle class, who favoured it but as vehemently opposed universal suffrage, to the radicals led by A. E. Goonesinghe, who felt that the suffrage was a necessary prerequisite to the achievement of self-government.
The Donoughmore period culminated with the granting of universal franchise in 1931, a right that was more imposed on than granted to the people because, to put it bluntly and succinctly, the British had little to lose even from such a significant political development. Ceylon was safer territory on which the right to vote could be conceded, partly because of the size and partly, and perhaps more significantly, because of the entrenchment of a dependent elite class on whom fell the responsibility of “representing” the people. When you consider the fact that even at the turn of the 19th century officials were praising local representatives who could hardly string two words together but whose loyalty to the British Crown was unimpeachable, the franchise appears in a less revolutionary light than it would at first glance suggest: leftist critics would have said, as indeed they did, that it was no more than a legal fiction that left in place the same elitist hierarchies which had prevailed before. Unfortunately for the left, it was in ideological disarray; not until the leadership passed from Goonesinghe to the Young Turks – Philip, N. M., and Colvin – would a semblance of unity emerge.
On the other hand, if the left even at this infertile stage represented the most sensible, secular, and rational ideological movement to wield the independence struggle, they were playing the most thankless role they could have played at a time when the bourgeoisie had relegated them to the rear of that struggle. Again, ideological disarray was to blame. But the fact that the left could propound an alternative theory of independence which envisaged a complete break from the bonds of servitude with the British, if not a more radical one than the Soulbury proposals two decades later, means that the view of Soulbury and Donoughmore as inevitable processes in the long road to independence doesn’t hold much water. The roots of the struggle preceded these two documents; indeed, they even preceded the 20th century.
Sri Lanka’s transition to a supposedly modern laissez-faire secular State was begun with the enactment of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission in 1832. The assumption underlying this view is the myth, indulged today by mainstream and popular historians alike, that prior to the Commission the country’s administrative machinery was in dire need of modernisation from outside. The British envisioned an administrative machinery in the hands of a bureaucratic elite which enacted colonial filtration theory so pivotal to the running of these colonies: a differentiation, in treatment and privilege, between the few whose emulation of Western values automatically put them in a favourable position, and the many who, particularly in the upcountry, were backward and illiterate and had few prospects for their future. In the 1880s, when the debate over opening schools cropped up, representatives denounced suggestions made to increase access to education among the peasantry on the grounds that it would drive the children of the peasantry away from agriculture and labour; the situation was such that by 1906 the State was spending almost as much on technical education (Rs. 59,829) as it was on the acquisition of a piece of land for Royal College (Rs. 47,850).
British officials saw in the elite the “brazen wheels” on which the hands of government could operate, and after following a policy of manning the government with only Europeans, they began manning them with the bourgeoisie. Two qualifications were deemed essential: fluency in English and conversion to Christianity. The latter was a cosmetic: unlike in the Portuguese and Dutch eras, Christianisation was considered to be less important than Westernisation, and the former was important insofar as the objectives of the latter – emulation of and servility to Western values – could be met. The former, however, was vital to the administration, and to this end Colebrooke and Cameron recommended a volte-face with regard to British policy on pressing issues such as education and the management of temple lands.
This interpretation of the Commission is in line with most modern interpretations of it: it was an instrument by which the colonial government turned the country into a class, and caste, filtered society. Commentators and popular historians, many of them leftists, today see in it a harsh but at one point necessary historical development which broke up feudal relations in the country, an observation made by Marx himself in 1853 with regard to the Charter Act of India. Marx was quite nuanced: he saw in colonial rule in India a means of stamping out “this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life” that was a staple of India’s “barbarous egoism” and “unbounded forces of destruction”, but in the revolution unleashed by the British he saw a “brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldiers.” The revolution had been necessary, but it was one led by industrialists and financiers.
Colebrooke and Cameron shaped, and altered, the course of the independence movement in a way few historians, much less writers such as me, have appreciated. What these reforms did was to subjugate the Kandyan peasantry and clergy, who from 1815 had instigated rebellions against the colonial government, to a state of unparalleled penury and depression. The Waste Land Ordinances and the Temple Land Ordinances, the latter of which breached the promise made by officials to the chief incumbents of viharas and devales in the Kandyan Convention, reduced the Kandyans to abject poverty: backward, illiterate, and left with very few prospects for their future, their rebelliousness sizzled off after the 1848 uprising; the fact that they had to choose as their leader for the latter a karava carpenter from Moratuwa, rather than a person of their social standing, shows that the natural leadership had been wiped off.
In fact the brutal putting down of the rebellion had the effect of snuffing out the last vestiges of resistance to British rule in the upcountry. The rebellion itself may not have spread with as much intensity as it did were it not for the economic downturns and the imposition of onerous taxes by the Torrington administration; unlike the insurrections that had broken out earlier, in 1848 the main reasons for rebellion were economic rather than cultural. There was an implicit cultural factor woven into it, but this was essentially a secondary concern. The first uprising since the enactment of the reforms of the 1830s, it became the first revolt of its kind in British Ceylon. Obviously it signalled something: the changing economic and social landscape in the country had changed the basis for resistance to colonial rule. That the course of the struggle for independence had changed was a corollary to this: from now on, it could be fought most effectively by the bourgeoisie, while the Legislative Council would be the stadium where the fight for greater representation, self-government, and the like could be taken up.
If the situation was not quite the same in India, there were despite this certain parallels, such as the entrenchment in the wake of the Charter Act of a local elite that sided with the British against the mutineers of 1857. But in India the initial attitude of subservience to British values was to change considerably in the latter part of the century: the Bengali Renaissance was led by descendants of the same elite who, in post-1853 British India, had allied with the colonisers against the radicals. In Sri Lanka the trajectory was a little different, though essentially the same: given the lack of any pronounced emphasis on Christianisation, the Buddhists among the bourgeoisie, who had adopted Anglicanism for the sake of upward mobility, were able to extend their patronage to the tide of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. A similar trend would be seen among Jaffna Tamils and Moors.
Until the entry of the radicals led by A. E. Goonesinghe to the Council, however, there were no attempts made at securing any degree of self-government for the country. The bourgeoisie, even the old conservatives, had not really matured to a level where they could agitate for such measures. Given that these conservatives had pledged their allegiance to the colonial order even before the advent of the British, when they had been employed as minor officials under the Portuguese and the Dutch, it was probably too much to expect them, at a time when the government’s economic policies favoured them, to resist the status quo.
By the latter part of the 19th century, moreover, a new bourgeoisie had emerged. Wary of this new class as they were, the conservatives were compelled to compete with them. It was left to the radicals to fight for what the people wanted. Unfortunately or fortunately, by the turn of the century, the radicals, owing to ideological disarray, were in no shape to take on the role of the reformists: they were found in the press and the Buddhist revival, but these institutions and movements had their conservative sides as well. Most newspapers articulated a liberal or a pro-British editorial, and the Buddhist revival, particularly in the Donoughmore period, became prime ground for the moderates and born-again Buddhists.
The reforms of the 1830s had, a century later, thus brought the anti-colonial movement to the legislature. The cultural revival of the late 19th century had not had the result commentators would have expected of it: initially pitted against colonial rule, by the mid-20th century it was no longer seen as a threat to the status quo. This was primarily so because the leaders of the revival did not prioritise opposition to colonial rule as much as their predecessors, especially the incomparable A. E. Buultjens, had. The British could by now ease restrictions on displays of cultural and religious nationalism without much fear of resistance from them. Evangelical zeal had simmered down, and officials were in a position to not just allow, but also patronise, cultural works and artists. To a considerable extent, the revival of Orientalism in the European empires of Asia helped bring this shift about. Cultural nationalism, divorced from the political struggle, in the end displaced the latter, while the urbanisation of Buddhism and the patronage of the elite reduced the anti-imperialist content in the revival.
By the early 20th century, leadership of the resistance to colonial rule had largely passed over from the peasantry to the elite in the Legislative Council, governed within a constitutional rather than cultural framework. The bourgeoisie had to play a dual role: they had to agitate for greater self-government while protecting their privileges. They did this by spearheading the struggle for independence from a constitutional standpoint. Unlike the leftists and radicals who envisaged a complete break from the empire, the moderates were perfectly satisfied with constitutional reforms. Even on the question of the franchise, the moderates begrudgingly allowed for minor concessions, but once the British themselves had imposed or granted the franchise – it was more imposed on the people rather than granted to them, given the lack of interest among the representatives – they were willing to play along, though there were those, like E. W. Perera, who not only opposed political democratisation but also resigned from the Congress to express their dissatisfaction with reforms they had not called for.
The culmination of this was the riots of 1883: following the arrival of Colonel Olcott, and the publication of the official report on the riots which was seen to have favoured the Buddhists, the local Buddhist bourgeoisie became emboldened enough to seek more rights and greater representation for themselves. The British left this trend unchecked, though they ensured that at times of rebellion, like the 1915 riots, displays of cultural nationalism did not question the legitimacy of their rule. They event went to the extent of offering patronage to artists in the early part of the 20th century, for the simple reason that by then colonial officials had realised that cultural nationalism no longer posed a serious threat to their domination.
Moreover, unlike in India where, with the establishment of the Congress the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie joined hands against the Raj, in Ceylon the bourgeoisie monopolised the struggle right till the end. The petite bourgeoisie – shopkeepers, small time professionals, the clergy, ayurvedic physicians, and so on – were left with playing a servile role to the elite. The radicals, meanwhile, floundered due to ideological disagreement, though with the setting up of the LSSP in 1936 a movement to oppose the British as well as the constitutionalists in the Legislative Council had emerged and, for some time, unified. Cultural pride and populism could not have been the answer to the question of obtaining independence; the answer had to come from somewhere else, and for a long time, it was the left: probably the most secular and rational movement which could have wielded the struggle for freedom then.
If in here we see cultural nationalism precede political nationalism, a paradoxical situation in which the imperatives of political independence were relegated to the demands of cultural populism and the cultural revival was divorced from the political struggle, it’s because even at that point, the bourgeoisie, whatever their religious affiliations or beliefs may have been, were unable to question British economic superiority. Our independence struggle was thus in many ways different from India’s, where cultural nationalism preceded political struggles but where the political struggles brought together diverse contradictory strands of the elite, the petty bourgeoisie, and the proletariat in pursuit of economic-cultural independence. This is not to imply that the fight for freedom in our country was devoid of a proper leadership; only that it followed a course, and a destiny, largely not of its own.