By Vishwamithra –
“Human misery must somewhere have a stop; there is no wind that always blows a storm.” ~Euripides
Human misery is an unequaled equalizer. Its presence, almost in every corner in this vast and speckled globe, is reminding each of us that human life could be incredibly unfair. The unending drama mostly ends in unspeakable tragedy. Many sagas remain untold and concealed behind a mist of unevenness. Since the dawn of time, since the Neanderthals hazarded out of the caves, man has travelled a long path and its winding way has taken him along, making him, sometimes gravely frail and others extremely proud and brave. Those who end up being brave had gone through this and endured many a hardship and adversity; they had withstood the ridicule of many and a rare tribute of a few. Yet man has advanced to the point where he is today. But the advancement has mainly been in the accumulation of material wealth and worldly pleasures.
That process of accumulation has not been made at no cheap price. What man has sacrificed to make that process possible was mainly facilitated by his own inherent avarice. The same curiosity that prompted the ancient Neanderthal to venture outside his cave has turned into a more self-centered pursuit of bare and unpretentious greed. That greed was provided space and time by his drive to accumulate power over his fellow individuals and those who engaged in this enterprise are called leaders and those leaders are the politicians today. Avarice, greed and self-centered ambition then overrode that ingenuity of intellectual curiosity albeit all religious teachers preached the grave consequences, both in terms of material and spiritual sense. Man who once worshipped an unseen and unknown entity called ‘God’ then began worshipping those ‘Gods’ who are among them, visible, felt and touched in flesh and bone.
Today’s politicians all over the world, some elected by the people and others who usurped that power of a politician by violent revolutions or bloodless coup d’états, are no exception to that rule. A new culture that was building over the last few decades in Sri Lanka has entrapped the imagination and lives of the masses. A collective submission of mind and heart to these vultures of power, politicians, has caused the creative mind to be one of apathetic instrument at the ease and fancy of politicians. Its manifest display of apathy and submission then gave rise to a false belief that this new culture of accumulation of wealth and power by whatever means is real and acceptable.
Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, in “The discovery of India”, penning in some of the best English prose, a description of the Indian middle classes of the early 1900s, more especially the new petty bourgeoisie, writes thus: ‘Custom-ridden, they were born old, yet they were without the old culture. Modern thought attracted them, but they lacked its inner content, the modern social and scientific consciousness’. (Source: The Discovery of India, page 360). Nehru’s description of the 1900’s Indian petty bourgeoisie suits ideally the Sri Lankan middle class.
The Sri Lankan middle class emerged in the mid-1900s; its progress from the mercantilist-class to a modern middle-class is fundamentally a progression from a feudal system that was inherently more caste-ridden than class-oriented; its subservience to the old British masters and its stout allegiance to their language and education system made it harder for any patriotic transformation as was the demand from the vernacular-speaking Sinhalese Buddhists who comprise nearly three fourths of the country. The widening gulf between these two significant segments of the local population was at first too latent to the Sinhalese leaders in the country, except of course, for one particular rising star- S W R D Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike’s allegiance to this rural class, either middle or poor, although seemed to be a deeply seated belief and trust in uplift of that segment of our population, later proved to be a mere ladder for his personal political climb. Yet after coming to power in 1956, his implementation of the Swabhasha and nationalization programs indicated that his commitment to his rhetoric was not all that untrustworthy. But intervening ethnic violence and his withdrawal from the notorious BC Pact (Bandaranaike/Chelvanayakam Pact) signed with S J V Chelvanayakam, the then leader of the Federal Party, facilitated the portrayal of SWRD as a weak-kneed leader who would not go the extra mile to uphold his promises. This characteristic of SWRD is extensively described by James Manor in his biography of Bandaranaike, ‘Expedient Utopian’ that ‘Bandaranaike’s actions did not meet his lofty rhetoric on the political platform. This trait is however, not limited to Bandaranaike. Almost all our politicians are of the same despicable strain.
Quite apart from his apathy towards this gulf between his rhetoric and action, Bandaranaike is also responsible for introducing ‘lack of accountability’ amongst his own ranks. (e.g. Buddharakkhitha-Wimala Wijeywardene saga and not taking action against Wimala W). This lack of accountability on the part of the country’s leaders permeated to his lower ranks and then to the country at large. Dedicating the country to the common man is not giving way to the ruffians and hooligans who started behaving like political carnivores inside and outside Parliament. The sad irony is that this unruly and obscene conduct is continuing to date. The common man has some unbelievable commitment to the lofty ideals of life; his values, more often than not, could surpass those of the so-called sophisticated pukka- sahibs in Colombo. Yet when lack of education is combined with a misplaced sense of ‘commonness’, what arises is an utterly vulnerable sense of freedom, a ‘freedom of the wild ass’. Bandaranaike also gave rise to that ‘freedom of the wild ass’, which today’s politicians treat as a passport to indulge in the most dishonest and nihilistic acts of corruption. Seeds of an immoral and degenerate culture that later blossomed out took deep root.
That is the culture which is being cultivated and cherished by all our politicians of today. This melancholic social dynamic has been primarily instrumental in shaping the character and demeanor of the average politician, from the Pradesheeya Sabha member to a Minister. Furthermore, when strains and residue of that culture creep down to the civil service which is responsible for implementing government policies and programs, the totality of a nation changes. We are witnessing the repercussions of that change. It is not only injurious to the lives of the people, it is also dangerous to a progressing socio-economic organism of a community that is struggling to rise from the debris of a thirty-year war.
What has befallen is a transformation of a society from a loosely trending, woven-traditions and practices into a ‘culture’ of more lasting and enduring genus. Culture is not a loose concept. It is a collective expression of a people in joy or in grief, in pain or pleasure and in submission or defiance. That collective expression of a people is more enduring than the material wealth and power man has amassed over the centuries. Yet, when faced with destruction or displacement, the old gives way to the new, slowly at the beginning and then at an accelerated pace at its vanishing end. Its significance and inherent influence cannot be overstated nor its elemental fragility understated.
Today we are saddled with that culture: one of corruption, nepotism, bribery, dishonesty and maddening apathy. Changing the guard does not seem to be sufficient, for it seems extremely hard for the new guard to protect the gates of government against a marauding army of corrupt and corrupting forces of yesterday. Nevertheless, what has been passed down to the new government needs to be wiped out without mercy, without taking any prisoners. It is easier said than done. There is no two third’s majority in the House of Parliament; there is no overwhelming stamp from the majority of Sinhalese Buddhists. The country, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and its religious leaders are preoccupied with so-called ‘love for the soldiers’ and a sense of pseudo-patriotism has enveloped them like enslaved prisoners in a crowded, rusty gaol.
The current set of politicians, both government and opposition ranks, are woefully unaware of the obliteration of the very fabric of our national heritage this new culture is causing. A strategic insight needs to be attempted without any delay. For that, an iron will is a prerequisite. Both President and Prime Minister need to agree that the damage that the culture of corruption is causing can and should be replaced, at least some meaningful first steps need to be taken in that direction. Wallowing in the depths of despair and desperation is childish and would be counterproductive.
‘This man has overcome two of the greatest failings in human nature -he knows neither fear nor hatred’, mused Winston Churchill about Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. To earn such unmatched tribute, Nehru must have been an exceptional leader in his time. Sri Lanka needs such a leader, a man who knows neither fear nor hatred.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org