By Sumith Ariyasinghe –
Mr Sajeeva Samaranayake’s recent article (CT April 28, 2013) on the Kelaniya Declaration merits a longer response than is practical under “Comments”. This document is a unilateral declaration of independence by the monks of the Vidyalankara monastic college at Kelaniya in January 1947. The British government had already decided to grant independence to Ceylon, and it was to be ceremonially effected a year later, on February 4th, 1948. The intention of the Declaration was to derive independence from what the monks considered its authentic source, namely the people as represented by the Buddhist Monastic Order (Sangha) rather than an Act of the British Parliament resulting from an agreement between the British government and the Ceylonese leadership. The latter was not considered to be true or full independence by these monks and other radical nationalist groups. Samaranayake attaches great political and moral significance to the document, considering it “a declaration of high principles as a guide post and reference point in our continuing search for political adulthood”. He further considers it “clearly ahead of its time”. His reasons for this high valuation are that it envisages “true independence” and it “speaks for the rights of all the people of the country” and for “a single nation”, transcending the Buddhist clergy’s traditionally exclusive identification with Sinhala Buddhists.
“Comments” on Samaranayake’s article in the CT show that many readers were impressed. I am not only unimpressed, but contend that the Declaration is not what it seems, and what it really represents has caused great harm to our nation, leading us to a protracted civil war and other evils, not the least of which is the government we are saddled with today. In my view, far from being a statement of lofty intentions, the Declaration was a publicity stunt engineered by the Left, in particular by the LSSP, in its attempt to challenge the dominant political clique at the time that became the UNP. Several capable young scholar monks of Vidyalankara were sympathisers if not members of the LSSP or the CP, and it is they, and not the totality of the Vidyalankara monks that made the Declaration, although they managed to gain the consent, enthusiastic or lukewarm, of some senior monks, most importantly the erudite Principal of the College, Kirivattuduve Pragnarama. It is highly unlikely that the monks wrote the Declaration. It was probably written by the LSSP, the monks merely translating it into Sinhala, a language in which the LSSP leadership had only shouting proficiency. It is however possible that the monks were consulted in the process of writing it. Its lapidary articulation suggests that it is the work of a mind familiar with or trained in constitution making and law. It is no accident that the 1972 constitution drafted by Colvin R de Silva incorporates the basic ideas of the Declaration, in particular its derivation of sovereignty.
If we read the Declaration as a free standing document, that is, with no reference to the rest of the literature with which it is inextricably linked, especially a second Declaration made by the same monks on the heels of the first, and with no reference to the social and political context of the time, the Declaration does sound impressive. But that is really the problem, because it is precisely in relation to the linked literature, especially the second Declaration that ensued, and the broader socio-political context alone that we can properly understand the Declaration. Seen thus, the Declaration is no more than a preamble to its twin, the second Declaration. Declared by the same monks at the same place a few weeks after the first, it does not take a great deal of insight to see that the two are related. The first Declaration prepares the ground by spelling out, in the lofty terms that understandably impressed our writer and readers, the case for not just independence (which was imminent anyway), but a certain specific kind of independence. And the second Declaration elevates the monks to the status of ideal agents and carriers of that particular kind of independence. Thus, the two Declarations reflect the status and power aspirations of these political monks. Underlying these aspirations and legitimizing them is the idea of return to a utopian Buddhist state that allegedly existed prior to the arrival of the European conquerers. Empowered by a brilliant re-articulation of the monk’s political role by Walpola Rahula, these monks eventually evolved into an influential monastic upper class of wheelers and dealers, of which the robed marauders of the Bodu Bala Sena are the latest mutation.
In this perspective, the Declaration emerges in its true colours, not as a lofty and inspiring national document, but as just another example of empty words so familiar to us from our standard political talk high on precept and abysmal on practice. I would in fact argue that it’s worse than empty words. Because, the Declaration’s denunciation of colonialism has led to a pathological antipathy towards the west in general that has been detrimental to the national interest and exploited by all nationalist groups for narrow political advantage. The latter is an exercise the present regime is doing with great skill as we can see, for example, in the antics of Wimal Weerawansa, and the numerous theories of western conspiracies against Sri Lanka, which serve to camouflage the regime’s ubiquitous failings. Irrespective of how and why we were colonized, and the merits and demerits of colonialism, the reality is that we did go under colonial rule. Given that reality, the rational attitude, and that in keeping with the national interest, would have been to use the colonial experience to our best advantage. The scholar monks of the sister college of these monks, those of the Vidyodaya monastic college at Maligakanda, Maradana, adopted this more rational, realistic, and indeed more Buddhist attitude, much to their and the country’s advantage. The latter attitude should have been carefully nurtured and allowed to thrive and bear fruit, which would have brought us to a happy, peaceful, inclusive, prosperous, broad minded and modern society, but that was unfortunately nipped in the bud by the narrow Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of these monks associated with the Declarations.
The two Declarations, taken together, are the charters and founding documents of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, and therefore represent the origin of our problems and our regression to mediaevalism. Although the first Declaration talks about “a single nation” and “the people”, the context and the actions that followed demonstrate clearly that these terms do not mean all the people as equal citizens of a “single nation”, but the Sinhala Buddhist people in a Sinhala Buddhist nation, with the minorities excluded or relegated to second class status. It is obvious that the pro Sinhala Buddhist Constitution of 1972 is rooted in these Declarations.
It’s the same monks who made the Declarations who a few years later formed the Eksat Bhikshu Peramuna (The United Bhikkhu Front) that more or less forced S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike to accept a majority hegemonic platform in the election campaign of 1956, the centerpiece of which was Sinhala Only. It is hard to imagine a piece of legislation more injurious to the idea of a “single nation”. We cannot accept, as Samaranayake does, the mere mention of “people” as meaning all the people of the island when the overwhelming evidence, literary and sociological, is for it to mean only some people, the Sinhala Buddhists. While some of these monks were close associates of the left parties, especially the LSSP in its glorious youth, they were at heart narrow and parochial nationalists, believing in a Sinhala Buddhist utopia. Deriving from the Sinhala-centred chronicle, the Mahavamsa, this utopia is also powerfully envisaged in the work of the nationalist leader Anagarika Dharmapala. The narrow Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the monks was made readily apparent when these “socialist” monks abandoned the left parties as soon as they found a nationalist alternative, that provided by Bandaranaike’s SLFP. Far from a “single nation” consisting of all ethnic and religious groups, the rallying cry of these monks, borrowed from Dharmapala, was “country, race and religion” (rata, jatiya, agama). While “jatiya” in Sinhala can mean “nation”, what these monks and their lay cohorts meant was race, far from anything like “a single nation”.
In his evaluation of the Declaration, Samaranayake resorts to the realm of the mystical. He talks about freedom having a “spiritual core” and as “men and women in robes in search of the truth … united with people of this country in their quest for true peace and happiness”. Behind this attempt to elevate the Declaration to a spiritual plane is the idea that pre-colonial Lanka was a paradise, in which the king and the monks and the people were united in a spiritual bond and lived in idyllic harmony. Even the great Ananda Coomaraswamy contributed to this fallacy by his romanticization of the pre-industrial world. Similarly, the world of contemporary Buddhist scholarship has been deluded at times into believing in a harmonious “Buddhist State”. We however know enough of the realities of pre-colonial Lanka to realise that it was a system of feudalistic, despotic rule in which the elites, including the monks, were partners with the despot in oppressing the masses of the people. The “hydraulic civilization” and the monumental stupas are built on the sweat of the oppressed, although tyrants take the credit for them, much like the state of affairs today. The “Ancient Compact” Samaranayake talks about is no more than the unfettered exploitation of the ordinary people by the despot and his feudal minions, a system duplicated at different levels of administration down to the village in which the village elites extracted the labour of the poor.
This is neither surprising nor confined to Lanka but is the story in all pre-modern systems. The first colonialists, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in their early rule were of the same mould, and undoubtedly committed atrocities. But in the late British period, starting about mid 19th century the colonial government, spurred by the rise of liberalism in their own backyard, gradually introduced reforms based on enlightened social ideas. Colonialism thus played a positive role in the lives of the ordinary masses. It is instructive for us to recall that in a classic essay on India, Karl Marx, no friend of colonialism, stated in no uncertain terms that whatever the crimes of England are, British rule in India was effecting a social revolution. The same is true of Lanka and all other colonies, and what these Declarations did was to lay the foundation for reversing that social revolution, and diverting the course of our history backwards, eventually to the mediaeval tyranny under which we are labouring today.
It is remarkable that aggressive anti-colonialist and post-colonialist nationalism is a pre-occupation of the educated indigenous elites of colonies and post-colonies. Other carriers of this genre of nationalism are the English educated elites who are the descendants and inheritors of these indigenous elites. The reason for their aggressive anti-colonialist nationalism is that it is the colonial power that deprived them of the feudalist licence to oppress the poor of their societies at will. As far as the majority who were born to poverty were concerned, colonialism was not oppression but liberation. Because, in the pre-colonial era these elites enjoyed hierarchical privileges and feudalist perquisites, and could abuse, abduct, kill, rape, plunder, imprison and more with impunity, being protected by their birthright, whereas a hungry commoner stealing a fruit could be punished with death. It was colonialism that introduced enlightened social ideas like individual rights, equality, the rule of law and universal suffrage, ideas that struck at the root of privilege and feudalist elitism. Here we are talking about some of Marx’s “social revolution”. These ideas of course are very much present in Buddhism. But that Buddhism, the Buddha’s Buddhism, never touched our culture, our Buddhism being a cultic ritualism, which the Buddha derided. To his credit Samaranayake concedes that these colonial derived ideas “represented modernity and the clear way forward”. But unfortunately he does not pursue that conviction to its logical end. After merely mentioning these ideas that “represented modernity” he re-enters his make believe world of ancient glory in which these monks represented something “more fundamental”. Closer examination shows that the “more fundamental” thing they represented is none other than the framework of unequal, feudalist, social relations.
The framers of the 1972 constitution think no end of the “true independence” it allegedly ushered, as we saw most recently in a boastful newspaper article by the LSSP leader Tissa Vitarana on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of that constitution. One criterion of “true independence” as suggested before, is the alleged derivation of power from the people rather than an Act of the British Parliament. This is purely a legal nicety that may be important to the elites, but meaningless for the ordinary working people. For the people, it is far more beneficial if, for example, we retained those vestiges of “false independence”, like the availability of appeal to the Privy Council, the presence of British bases, and a mutual defence agreement with Britain. Had our people been given the opportunity to retain the right of appeal to the Privy Council, chances are that the occasion for such appeal would never arise, because that opportunity itself would have acted as a deterrent to compromising the independence of the judiciary. Had we had British bases, the LTTE would never have been allowed to build a navy, to raise its violent head in the north and east and, for that matter, to gain the strength it altogether did. As far as individual freedoms, democracy and governance are concerned, one needs only to compare the era of late colonial rule with today’s tyranny that is upon us as a direct result of “true independence”.
One reason for the Declaration’s position, shared by the Left parties and some of the nationalist elites, that the impeding Independence of February 4, 1948 was not full independence was that it retained the British monarch as the head of the state, to be represented by a Governor-General. It strictly legal terms this is correct. But it is a legal nicety with no consequence for the sovereignty of the country. Some countries of the Commonwealth, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand have the British monarch as their ceremonial head of state, and are no less sovereign for that reason. For a period of 24 years, from 1948 until the coming into force of the Colvin R de Silva constitution of 1972, the head of the Ceylonese state, the Governor-General, was appointed by the king and Parliament of Britain. But the Governor-General was merely a ceremonial functionary, and his appointment by the king and Parliament of England was fictional. It was solely the prerogative of the elected government of Ceylon to appoint the Governor-General. Besides, some of our kings were of total or partial Indian origin, and unlike the British monarch or the Governor-General, they enjoyed real power. In hindsight, it is clear that this ceremonial link with Britain would have been beneficial to the country, although it pleased the egos of certain nationalist elites, and suited the designs of some wily politicians to ask for “true independence”, and claim credit for it. The abolition of this link is another example of our cultural inability to adopt the pragmatic, advantageous and statesman-like position when confronted with a choice.
It is appropriate here to make a brief reference to sovereignty. This was a useful concept at the birth of the nation-state, but has lost most of its applicability and moral validity since then. In a globalized world in which high technology can ignore political boundaries, no country is sovereign in the absolute legal sense in which it has been classically defined. Besides, on a different plane, that of power, some countries are more sovereign than others. Small, underdeveloped countries can yell sovereignty at the top of their voice, but in reality, when it come to a push, they have no sovereignty worth talking about as we know from the Indian airdrop and the subsequent appearance of the Indian army on our “sovereign” territory. Whatever sovereignty a small country enjoys is not the result of any recognition of such in the abstract, but the self-interest of potential violators. Among some of the former colonies including Sri Lanka, sovereignty has become a curtain to hide behind in the face of the international vigilance on governance and human rights, inevitable in the contemporary world system.
Samaranayake begins his article with the Declaration’s “high principles as a guide post and reference point in our continuing search for political adulthood”. The truth is that under late colonialism, we already had reached substantial political adulthood, and what the Declaration represents is a regression not just to political infancy but political imbecility.