By Ravi Perera –
“He did nothing common or mean, upon that memorable scene…” – Andrew Marvell
SWRD Bandaranaike, one of our most controversial Prime Ministers is commonly credited with the aphorism “a river does not flow backwards”. Since on our gravity bound planet no human being from the time of Adam to now has observed a river flowing backwards one might think such an example somewhat superfluous. The Prime Minister was at pains to make the point that social “development” is progressive, a proposition he would have been hard put to maintain in spheres such as public morality and corruption in our society today. But as busy as he was then in the midst of a much heralded labour to bring forth the “era of the common man” (1956-60) Bandaranaike can be forgiven for the use of a weak cliché to make a point.
On the other hand, certain commentators have in recent times advanced a revisionist history according to which Bandaranaike was not the principal driver of the flow of events in that era but was very much inspired, influenced and guided by persons such as D. A. Rajapaksa of Southern fame, the clear paucity in evidence of a pivotal role in the form of writings or speeches of such politicians notwithstanding. We of course have to concede that such a scenario is not an impossibility given that broad intellectual capabilities are least of the qualifications for leadership in our country. In view of these diverse theories on our not too distant history, we must await a thorough and objective study of the complex social, political and personality influences that led to the ushering of the ‘common man’s era’.
The distance of five decades from those frenetic days, when evidently the river of social evolution flowed rapidly, has given us sufficient perspective to view those events dispassionately. By way of comparing and contrasting we also have the report cards of several other former British colonies in the region such as India, Pakistan Singapore and Malaysia. It is noteworthy that some of these countries did not emulate our governing philosophies and methods and are today in terms of economic achievements much ahead of us. In terms of political and social stability too they seem stronger.
What exactly was meant by the term “common man “still remains imprecisely defined at best .Was it an economic definition given to describe a lower income group? Did it mean a socially backward segment disadvantaged by various factors? Or was it a simple case of the average, or even less than that, being put on a pedestal? Obviously, we mean here an average quality in a general sense, including in aspect, attitudes and even sensitivities. Looking at today’s leaders of the movement formally initiated by SWRD Bandaranaike , from Chandrika Bandaranaike to Mahinda Rajapaksa, from Mervyn Silva to Wimal Weerawansa , assuming they are genuine representatives of the definition, one is still left to wonder what the common factor is.
On the other hand, could it be that the very opposite of what the English poet Andrew Marvell meant when he penned those famous lines in “Upon Cromwell’s return” has become the standard of the Common man’s era? Have common and mean thoughts and actions come to represent a not so memorable scene?
By all accounts SWRD Bandaranaike, whether you like him or not, was an exceptionally gifted person. Just glancing through his collected essays and speeches we get the sense of a well-bred man of culture and learning, nothing common or mean. To illustrate we reproduce below a few lines taken randomly from some of his many essays.
“One thing about Oxford that always makes me marvel is the richness and variety of the activities that are crammed within its narrow confines. It is a little world, and a very complete world, of its own. In my last article I gave a glimpse of the scholarly side of Oxford life. The sporting side, in its own way, is quite as wide and as satisfying.”- Another colour in the dome of university life
“An old Ceylon friend, who met me in England, remarked with disappointment that I did not appear to possess the much famed Oxford accent or manner. ‘ No’ I replied ‘But I believe there are a few young men at Oxford who have acquired my accent and manner’ “- Lloyd George thrills the Union
“On my return, I lingered on Magdalen Bridge. The typical English scene, subdued and mellow in the evening light, faded from my eyes, and the glare and dust of my own country took its place: blue skies and dancing sunlight, with a white road winding amidst coconut groves and green paddy fields; dark, cool nights with star be-jeweled skies, alive with cries of innumerable crickets; the pathetic, huddled village huts, the dirt, the poverty, the disease. My country, my people.”- I leave the place of many memories
“I must say that I stand firm by the democratic parliamentary form of government, and I am sure that the vast majority of you do likewise. The attitude of this government to local bodies is dealing a grievous blow to the very principle of democracy in this country” The voice of the people must be heard-1953
“More than any other Asian country that recently regained its freedom; the circumstances in Ceylon were favouable for the achievement of rapid progress and development. Unlike in many other Asian countries the war had not produced conditions of confusion and devastation: indeed far from causing us damage, the war had greatly improved our economic position” – Some thoughts on independence day-1955
“We have reason to be grateful to Ponnambalam Arunachalam. He was the first Ceylonese to enter that citadel of British Bureaucracy, the Civil Service, through the open door of competition. Arunachalam’s long, efficient and distinguished service as a civil servant was a matter of great pride and solace to his countrymen” –Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam-1953
“Nehru is one of the few statesmen of the world who have a background of culture and learning, and who are thinkers besides being also men of action. Such men are necessary as leaders, particularly at a troubled period of world history such as this”- Birthday Tribute to Nehru 1959
As we argued Bandaranaike’s political legacy will forever remain controversial. A country which was so favourably placed at independence was turned into one of the most troubled nations during the stewardship of our early governments. But the man’s personal qualities, borne out by his speeches, writings as well as conduct as a public figure is a pride to this day to a nation yet functioning far from its full potential. Even his most intractable critics never accused Bandarnaike of corruption or violence of any sort. One cannot even conceive of crime or bribery in whatever form in such a character. There are no allegations that he abused power, exploited the public service or used public assets for personal or political purposes. You have to only study the freedom enjoyed by the media then, which was often vitriolic towards him, to have a measure of the man.
Many things that happen openly now would have been considered to be in bad taste by him. It is not said by anybody that he interfered in an improper way with the independence of public servants or government organs. We have not heard of a single family member whom Bandaranaike imposed on us. The river flowed that way only later.
How a political movement launched by a man with high ideals developed by the world’s best in both culture and thought can end up so warped and corrupted is one of the several tragedies of our times. It was these great ideals that a young Bandaranaike imbibed as a student that apparently led him to a career in politics. As was the general case then, he not only enriched the field of politics with his rich personality but also put his own money where his mouth was. There is no doubt that had he not taken to politics Bandaranaike would have been a much wealthier man. But the result of all that labour and investment that went into creating the common man’s era now seems definable only as a reign of thoughts and acts both common and mean.
It is true that a river cannot resist gravity and will not therefore flow backwards. But even a clever man like SWRD Bandaranaike could not have anticipated the sharp bend the river has taken since of late.