Colombo Telegraph

Patriotism & Skewed Histories

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Authoritarianism and the Crisis of Identity -I

…the secret of Gandhi’s greatness lay not in the absence of human failings and foibles, but in his inner restlessness, ceaseless striving and intense involvement in the problems of mankind. He was not a slave to ideas and concepts, [which] were for him also aids in grappling with human problems, and were to be reconsidered if they did not work” – P.C. Joshi, in Gandhi and Nehru

You are fanning the worst of sentimental flames. We can fight on political ideologies, on economic principles, but when it comes to rousing people to a state of mass hysteria on issues like language, religion and race, there is no knowing where it will end. If Honourable Members had seen the spectacle I witnessed on Sunday at the Town Hall grounds, they would have been ashamed of themselves. They would have felt sorry for the future of this country… it is not enough for us merely to mouth phrases and say that the minority communities have nothing to fear from the majority community; that in the past we have got on well, and that we will get on in the same old way. That is not enough today… Today we have to do something positive to allay those fears that are increasing.. . if we do not take a positive stand, we will continue to give room for Sinhalese chauvinists to do what damage they can”. – Dr. N. M. Perera, LSSP leader, in the Ceylon House of Representatives on 19th October 1955. The reference is to a meeting of the Tri Sinhala Peramuna.

*Photo – The whisky-drinking Kelaniya High Priest Buddharakkhita who was close to Wimala Wijewardene, the widow of the author of ‘The Revolt in the Temple’, had helped S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to power in 1956 on the ‘Sinhala Only’ cry.

With the coming of independence from Britain in 1948, power was ceded to the colonial elite, and it could not have been otherwise. For it is they who had the education, and the skills in administration and government. Being in a privileged class cannot do much harm if one has the humility to recognise that it is not divinely ordained, and that if one went far enough back in one’s lineage, one is likely to discover that such privilege often came into the family through dubious means. Nevertheless, the future good of the country depended on whether this class could produce leaders of vision to steer a course that would ensure justice and stability.

During the Indian struggle for example, Jawaharlal Nehru, a member of the colonial elite spent his breaks in prison contemplating and writing, formulating a vision for India. In his classic Glimpses of World History, written in prison in the early 1930s, he tries to make the reader understand India’s place in the wider heritage of mankind. In the chapter on the Indian Mutiny of 1857, he places it as a lost cause, ‘the last flicker of feudal India’, despite the heroic resistance to the British in many parts of the sub-continent; a lost cause, against the industrial might, organisational skill and unscrupulousness of British power.

Thus to those of Nehru’s way of thinking, the future good of India, a political entity of British creation, lay in being forward-looking, drawing the best from mankind’s heritage, while being true to her own spiritual legacy. There was no going back to feudalism. Great men and women, and visionaries from all parts of India – Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Subramaniya Bharathi among them – helped to lay secure foundations for independent India. An India having the ideals to continue the struggle against bigotry in its various forms.

This country did not go through that process of nation building, thereby acquiring the values to sustain its independence. A ruling class that was rather deferential to British power, and comfortable in its own dominance, did not have the values to negotiate the challenges of independence. In the absence of a vision and controlling values, faced with the challenge of obtaining votes, it became easy for politicians from this class to look back to a reconstituted past. They went on to don the mantles of feudal heroes which ill-fitted them.

In a far-reaching manner, the past colonial rulers, especially the British, had determined the constituents of the post-independence ruling class. Governor Brownrigg’s declaration of 21st November 1818, a year after the British had suppressed the Kandyan rebellion, listed 15 Kandyan nobles who were to be rewarded by the British for their support and services to the British crown. Those who took part in or aided the rebellion were to be punished with the loss of their lands and titles.

Among those rewarded were the chiefs Ratwatte and Mahawalatenna, listed along with Eknelligodde Dissave. The latter’s services to the British had been recorded with some embarrassment by John Davy (An Account of the Interior of Ceylon). To Eknelligodde was attributed the devastation of Lower Uva, whose men ‘supported by a small party of our [British] troops’ showed ‘their zeal [for the British] by their depredations’. Not all the chiefs rewarded would have gone to such an extreme, but many would rather have decided on pragmatic grounds, after judging the resistance of the rebels to be a lost cause.

J.P. Lewis in his Manual of the Vanni Districts (1895) refers to the violent and extortionate conduct of one Bulankulame Dissave (Chieftain) whose appointment to that post in 1815 was a reward for having supported the British. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and President J.R. Jayewardene were both descendants of persons rewarded for services to the Dutch or British rulers or both. Not surprisingly, it is such families who came to form the ruling class in post-independence Ceylon, and one does not quarrel with that.

What has been dangerous in politics is the manner in which they have used the past.

Instead of speaking about the need to relieve oppression and poverty in all communities, they spoke about the oppression of the Sinhalese by all kinds of invaders and their resulting fall from ancient glory, and reclaimed for themselves the feudal status of being their champions. Even the heroism of the Kandyan rebellion accrues to them by glossing over its embarrassing aspects. For this backward looking brand of politics, history, the more ancient and more vague, the better. In its search for enemies of the Sinhalese Nation, Tamil invasions from India, Tamils in the plantations, Tamils in government service and Tamils in the commercial sector were all pointed to as a conspiracy against the Sinhalese.

Amidst this vote-catching propaganda, the fate of the Kandyans who had a genuine claim to patriotism, and had to lose everything to escape British wrath, went unnoticed. A case of disappearance recorded by us concerned Jayasekere, a carpenter in Pottuvil, who was then 74. His ancestor who was Nindagama Rala in Miyangoda, Southern Uva, had fled after the rebellion of 1817 and settled in Panama, south of Pottuvil, an area that remains very backward to this day. His daughter Kumarimenika had married Tharmaratnam, a Tamil. Tharmaratnam was taken in the notorious mass abductions by the STF and Police on 2nd August 1990, and disappeared. Jayasekere had to labour for the upkeep of his daughter and three grand children. The State which was in the hands of modern ‘patriots’ had for many years failed to respond to their appeals regarding the missing person. Jayasekere’s reality is very different to that of Deputy Defence Minister Ratwatte. One of the latter’s birthday observances was televised with a speech by a very nationalist monk, the proceedings giving him the heroic aura of a Dutugemunu or Prince Sapumal Kumariah from ancient and medieval history.

Of considerable significance in the fortunes of this country are the Wijewardenes of Kelaniya. Their antecedents go back to the colonial elite. The family, now Buddhists, had been in turn Roman Catholics, Calvinists and Anglicans with the transfer of power from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the British, and had acquired wealth through ‘less than pious business activities’. Mrs. Helena Wijewardene renovated the Buddhist temple at Kelaniya and her family became its patrons. J.R. Jayewardene who was brought up an Anglican was her eldest grandson through daughter Agnes, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, her great grand son through her son Don Richard. The latter was the founder of Lake House Newspapers – a powerful vehicle for family ambitions.

The Revolt in the Temple (1953) was an important piece of ideological writing by Helena W.’s son Don Charles, which appropriated for the Kelaniya Temple and the ‘Sinhalese Race’ a 2500 year history, and likewise by allusion for the Wijewardene family, the temple’s recent patrons. The destiny of the country and of the patrons of the temple was linked together by the writer in his eloquent slogan, “When Kelaniya fell, Lanka fell, when Kelaniya rose, Lanka rose.” Jayewardene discovered and published for the family an ancient and royal genealogy based on a dubious manuscript. (See The History of Kelaniya, Jonathan S. Walters, SSA.) The zeal of proselytes, with pretensions to an ancient legacy and a modern mission, rendered their politics highly combustible. The Revolt in the Temple, according to Walters, ‘constitutes a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to that historic mission and lays out Wijewardene’s blue-print for a post- independence Sinhala Buddhist state which has gradually become a reality.’

The whisky-drinking Kelaniya High Priest Buddharakkhita who was close to Wimala Wijewardene, the widow of the author of ‘The Revolt in the Temple’, had helped S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to power in 1956 on the ‘Sinhala Only’ cry. Chauvinist politics and commercial interests have always been close partners. It is said by contemporary observers that differences between Bandaranaike and Buddharakkhita had developed over the formers refusal to accommodate the business ambitions of a close relative of the latter. Later when Bandaranaike tried to accommodate the Tamils in a quasi- federal arrangement, Buddharakkhita orchestrated his assassination in 1959. Ironically, Wimala Wijewardene, at the close of her tempestuous political career as minister of health in the Bandaranaike government, turned to working for Back to the Bible. The monk-assassin Soma Rama, took Christian baptism before he was hanged.

The ideology of this family reverberates through the political career of Jayewardene from the 1940s and the actions of his son in the 80s as personal security advisor to the president. The other side of this politics was the nurturing of the Tamil Tigers. The very excesses of the supremacist ideology to which this family lent its weight, could not but lead to its discomfiture, resulting in previously unthinkable compromises to stay in power. Such was the social character of Ceylon’s ruling class.

A more imaginative ruling class would have found other means of getting votes from all the communities, rather than having to play the champions of one community and equally having to make enemies of the others. This avoidance of modern problems and taking liberties with the truth over presumptions about heroic pedigrees and historical grievances set the country on the course of tragedy. The ideology through which this politics was articulated contained in it a crisis of identity for the ruling class having its roots in the recent colonial past.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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