By Vishwamithra –
Mudiyanse stepped out to his unkempt front lawn, if you could call it a lawn. Yet the delicate touch of the morning dew added a tender tad to the coarseness of the patches of grass that sparsely populated the front yard. A shack of a house which was a home to Mudiyanse’s family stood in the middle of twenty plus perches of state-land, granted to him in the nineteen hundred and eighties by the Swarnabhumi program; its disorganized order might be a jarring sight to the eyes, but the moisture of the dew was more of a soothing balm to his tired and weary feet which had not felt the comfort of footwear for decades.
Mudiyanse works as a day laborer, lending his bodily strength to many jobs available in the adjacent township that came about with the development of the region thanks to a new garment factory. It was inaugurated with much fanfare. Political leadership in the country at the time had laid emphasis on opening new vistas for the economic growth in the rural regions. As a result of one of those landmark development programs launched by the government of the era, a garment factory came up, whose private money went in as investment. Mudiyanse did not know the investment part, nor would he care. His education level reached just the level of reading and writing. And it was a stretch.
Almost all the village damsels who did not have the fortune of continuing schooling beyond fifth standard and who were in that employable age are now employed in the Garment Factory. The hamlet did not have any bus service prior to the establishment of the new venture. Now a bus is running, not only to transport the women who had found work in the factory, but also for the general transport, a service which was not available in the village until the factory was established.
Life is hard in these far-out corners of Sri Lanka. From sunrise to sunset, the struggle looms larger than an average Sri Lankan could cope with; the hamlet was located in the heartland, in the intermediate zone; sun was not very cruel as in the arid zone but rain too was not frequent as in the wet and fertile districts. This harsh reality may not be limited to a third world country like Sri Lana. Even in most developed countries, there exist isolated pockets of communities living on the edge of nowhere. The difference, however, is the political environment, its relevance, its adverse or favorable effects or the total absence of any political influence, on decisions on matters of daily significance for the families that live among these communities.
Especially in South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives, except perhaps Bhutan, politics has been playing a critical role in man’s socioeconomic and cultural growth and decline. Being introduced by the British Raj nearly a century ago into a democratic way of electing men and women into power, governance became accepted as an integral part of social climbing for the rich and educated. As was evidenced in the early twentieth century, the elites amongst the majority Sinhalese and as well as other minority communities (Tamils, Muslims and Burgher), specifically among Northern Tamils, were opposed to granting of universal franchise to all men and women over 21 years of age.
Schools in Ceylon from 1814 to 1897
Since July 25. 1814, when the first ever school was established, (Richmond College, Galle) up to late November, of 1899, sixty three (63) schools were established in Ceylon. Of the 63 schools, nearly 40%, 24 in all, were located either in the Jaffna peninsula or in Trincomalee or Batticaloa districts in the North East. The first Sinhalese Buddhist school, Ananda College, Maradana, was established only in November 1886. Out of these 63 schools only six, less than 1%, could be called Sinhalese Buddhist schools. The anomaly was so stark and forbidding in the context of the demographics of the country. The schools established outside the North and North East, of the thirty none (39), thirty three (85%) were established by non-Buddhist institutions, by the Catholic or other Christian-denomination Churches.
My writings in the past have always been secular in genre and most critical of all organized religion and extremist-thinking. Yet one simply cannot disregard bare-bone facts. The incongruities that existed, or created by the then power-holders, became a ready election-tool in the hands of the greedy politicians who were backed by Buddhist fundamentalists at the time. Tamil riots which were not a factor prior to 1956, became not only a polarizing instrument, it extended its reach far beyond 1956, all the way up to the present day.
When one attempts to trace the origins of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide, instead of getting lost in the pages of Mahawamsa, the Great Chronicle, one has merely to pay close attention to the 450 years of colonial rule in Ceylon, from 1496 to 1948. At the bottom of the problems faced by Ceylon today are these glaring deficiencies in our education system. Successive governments have failed and the efforts of the elites of Ceylon have succeeded in grand fashion. Keep the poor uneducated and avail themselves of all the modern amenities. Such heartless abnormalities in the Swabhasha education policy obviously made room for the continuation of the cultural contradictions the two major ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamils, were entrenched in. As much as the base of any political movement lends itself to the drive of any chosen ideological agenda, it’s the leadership of each movement that provides the intellectual and educated dimension of the movement.
As a matter of recorded historical fact, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a prominent leader of ‘Jaffna Tamils’, as they were referred to at the time, spoke against granting of universal franchise to all citizens in Ceylon in 1931. However, Sri Ramanathan might have had some other ulterior intention in making such submissions. He knew that the decisive advantage the then Tamil population enjoyed would instantly disappear and the great majority of Sinhalese Buddhists would gain a permanent edge over Tamils and Ceylon Tamils; both Jaffna and Hill Country varieties would be thrown into a long-lasting insignificance in relation to election of Members of Parliament. What seemed to be an argument for elitism in fact, was a decisive foreclosing one for the rule of authentic majority rule. Evaporation of predominance of the Tamil community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gradually became part of the established order.
The polarization of Ceylonese polity absorbed this old phenomenon garbed in new clothing as a driving force on election platforms from both fringes of the spectrum. Ceylonese leaders, since Independence, resorted to visiting these vagrant methods of electioneering; in order to keep their base satisfied, they employed the dubious fashions of politicking; they kept on catering for the enhancement of their respective political strategies by weaponizing the racial and ethnic differences among the people at large. It was indeed a tragic turn of historical occurrence.
Whether it was Mudiyanse in the hill country or Sivanesan in Jaffna, Suleiman in Kalmunai or Darmadasa in the Deep South, these subtle facets in Ceylon’s politics, the consequences of wrong decisions taken at the wrong time in the historical evolution our collective society, began to manifest themselves only later the twentieth century. Unfortunately, these manifestations blew up in the harshest possible ways and in hasher material conditions. Repeat of ethnic riots during the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties climaxing in a 27-year old war was a cruel reminder of the failures of our political leaders of all sides. Yet Sri Lanka kept turning out most unpatriotic political leaders who called themselves as most patriotic. Such an incandescent irony is evident in every facet of our social, cultural and professional lives.
All politicians have an uncanny way of worming themselves inside the skin of the voter. When their vested interests are intertwined with the policies which his or her government is eager to put into action, the gullibility and lack of sophisticated and educated disposition of the average voter comes to play a very crucial role. One of the main features of this process is its full or partial implementation is irrevocably tied up with the financial gains the politician stands to harvest. This process, on the one hand rewarding the politician and punishing the voter on the other, is being facilitated by a visibly porous system that allows politicians pass through. Especially, Cabinet Ministers, who are the ultimate decision makers of the various projects and programs which involve a great deal of cash changing hands, become all too powerful.
Family dynasties such as the Bandaranaikes and the Rajapaksas are just a reflection of this wicked process.
With the setting of the sun, Mudiyanse comes back to his abode; he cannot watch television because he didn’t have one; he has not developed any other hobbies or pastime activities. He longs for the cooling touch of the cold water on his body after a hard day’s work. His children are already asleep, his wife’s chores have not yet ended for the day. She has to prepare the next day’s meals for the two children, son and daughter, who had to take their meals to school. Mudiyanse walks once again to the outer doorway of the home, he sits on the floor plastered with cow dung, and he begins to weep. From DS Senanayake to the charlatan who occupies the Presidential throne today, they all have let Mudiyanse, Sivanesan, Suleiman and Darmadasa down.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org