Another year. Another Independence Day. The term ‘Independence’, in this case, is a quintessential euphemism. That ‘Independence’ was ‘negotiated’ under very specific circumstances, in the backdrop of a shift in the Colonial Office’s policies towards neighbouring India. It was a ‘negotiation’ that took place between a political elite, all anglicised wealthy men, who looked up to Britain for almost everything. Theirs was a strategy of approaching the Colonial Office and playing a soft game, of using developments in the rest of the British Empire to obtain increased political autonomy – in other words – Dominion Status. Many of them had vehemently opposed progressive legislative developments of the previous decade, from universal suffrage to the Kannangara education reform. Their objective, let’s not forget, was to keep the Queen’s portrait on the wall, and get the photograph of one of them hung right below the Queen’s photo. Some Brits of the liberal ilk could then adumbrate that Ceylon was ready for democratic experimentation, a unique achievement in the non-white parts of the Empire, with a fine, perfectly anglicised political class, well-versed in democratic governance!
Come 1972, that political class succeeded in doing something they had anticipated for a good while, that of removing the Queen’s portrait from the wall, and instead, putting up the face of one of them in lieu of the Queen. The political class ensured that this ‘change’ would ensure that the ‘brown’ replacement will continue the colonizing queen’s ways (meaning, how a colonizer rules the colonized – a thesis on that in not required, right?) in ruling the land. Instead of a queen called Elizabeth, we then got a ‘king’ called William (and a queen, wielding real power under the tag ‘prime minister’, with the ‘right’ dynastic credentials, called Sirima who we called ‘Sirimavo’ out of respect of course).
Since then, the ride has been eventful, with a civil war – divide and rule being its root cause – plus the land resembling the stereotypical image of the so-called ‘third world’. The political leadership still carries itself like [British] royalty. The head of state still LOVES the former colonizers, and is simply ‘over the moon’ when his ex-Queen (or should I say his colonial-hangover-Queen of all times) removes her ceremonial gloves to shake hands with him.
Most importantly, the loyalty of the head of state to the British Crown is apparent in his unwavering devotion to Victorian values. A bra in public is scandalous. To the President, it is a matter of pride to admit in public that he personally ‘binned’ a proposal to repeal Victorian era sodomy laws (precisely Article 365 and 365A of the Penal Code) at no less a gathering than a cabinet meeting. This is how the head of state of the so-called ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka continues to hold in high regard a law that criminalises non-heterosexual sexualities. A law forcibly imposed upon the ‘Ceylonese’ under British rule, with no regard whatsoever for the local populations, traditions and protocols. An effort to ensure the fundamental rights of citizens irrespective of gender identity and sexual orientation has become a monumentally challenging venture in this independent republic.
The national ceremony of the Sri Lankan Independence Day, as some writers and bloggers have noted, is one that requires change, especially because much of it is anything but Sri Lankan. It is a display of the political class sitting comfortably, while children of ordinary people stand in the scorching Colombo sun, where imported weaponry is paraded (a symbol that carry threatening connotations to ethnic minorities, especially to the Tamils of the North and East- something to think about if reconciliation is a ‘real’ priority). It is also a display of British military traditions and paraphernalia, which are direct impositions of British rule. It is a ceremony at which the political class shows the world how they contribute to automobile industries in the West by purchasing super luxury armoured cars from Western manufacturers. In short, there is nothing in the ceremony that an independent sovereign state can be proud of. It is a replica of British ceremonies, somewhat blindly and unquestioningly appropriated to Sri Lanka. It is a ceremony by the political class, and for the political class.
All this leaves us with an independence that is in fact a continuing dependence. If there is a semblance of independence, its beneficiaries are the political class, and the political class alone. A substantive rethinking in terms of policy, practice, protocol and symbolism are all highly advisable if dividends of an independence, even in parsimonious scale, are to be shared, and if a truly ‘shared future’ for all Sri Lankans is to be envisaged.