By Rajan Hoole –
Modern capitalism is a powerful idea born in the revolutionary climate of 17th century England. Economic activity was secularised by being freed from the sanctions of the King and the Church. Ownership of property, the means of production and economic transactions in general were made subject to the rigours of the rule of law, which, in theory at least, recognised no race or religion.
It multiplied the production of wealth at the cost of exacerbating poverty. It gave a fillip to the expansion of empire. The ideology of capitalism helped to consolidate empire by the formation of an elite in the colonies having an economic stake in it.
This was the context in which the Low Country Sinhalese capitalist class, largely based in the maritime region in the south-west, had its origins. Kumari Jayawardena in her essay Ethinic consciousness in Sri Lanka: Continuity and Change traces their source of wealth to liquor renting, graphite mining and plantations. They revived Buddhism and patronised it to consolidate their social position and to further their interests. A rehabilitated Kelaniya Temple thus projected the power ambitions of the Wijewardene family.
Photo – SWRD Bandaranaike and DS Senanayake
Thus even as powerful a high priest of Kelaniya as Buddha Rakkhita derived his power not so much from his own merits as from the interests of his patrons whom he served. It points to the power of the Buddhist clergy and prelacy in Sri Lanka being a myth, and a useful one at that. It is in the very nature of capitalism that religious institutions were found useful, but they were not allowed to interfere significantly in policy decisions touching on matters political and economic. This can be seen in the experience of the English Revolution.
In his book Puritanism and Revolution, Christopher Hill observes of the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660:
“ …the authority first of the King, then of Parliament was challenged in the name of the people; the social justification of all private property was called into question; and specu- lation about the nature of the state and the rights of the people went to lengths which ul- timately terrified the victorious Parliamentar- ians into recalling the King, House of Lords, and bishops to help them maintain law and order.”
Parliament had rebelled against Charles I mainly over control of economic prerogatives and decision-making and won. Puritan religious sentiment was freely and even unscrupulously employed in propaganda against King and Church. But after eleven years of republican government under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament found that King and Church were useful as a buttress against the more radical revolutionary movements. The latter had in fact carried to extremes the same arguments used by the ruling class against the King and against church property.
The transformation of England from the time of Charles I to the emerging capitalist society of post-Restoration times is captured in Archbishop William Temple’s words about his forerunner: “Archbishop Laud owed much of his unpopularity with the section of society then represented in Parliament to his vigourous action, often high- handed, in checking the robbery of the poor by the encroachment of landlords and the ‘enclosing‘ of common lands. He stood for the older ethics of a peasant civilisation.” Laud too, with his King, Charles I, was executed after a political trial involving the blatant use of perjury.
Lord Macaulay (in The History of England) described the role of the post Restoration Angli- can clergyman in these terms: “…he held and taught the doctrines of indefeasible hereditary right, of passive obedience, and of non-resistance in all their crude absurdity. Having been long engaged in a petty war with neighbouring dissenters, he too often hated them for the wrongs he had done them...”
The sketch above illustrates the limits to the power of organised religion in a society undergoing capitalist transformation. It is after all a society in which the initiative and control over economic activity, means of propaganda and formulation of ideology, have all undergone a crucial shift towards the entrepreneurial classes. A closer look at the role of the Buddhist religious hierarchy in Sri Lanka will show that neither in origin nor in function is their present role independent of the sources of wealth, whether private or state. How does one then explain their role?
English capitalism owed something of its success to the fact that to some extent it succeeded in keeping religious and ethnic prejudices from subverting commercial opportunities. Huguenots expelled from France on account of their Calvinism, Jews seeking refuge from persecution in continental Europe and Scottish intellects and enterprise advanced the interests of English capital.
It is apparent from Kumari Jayawardena’s work that towards the end of the 19th century Buddhism was co-opted into a new ideology of Sinhalese-Buddhism that was originally directed by its sponsors against business competition from Indian and Moor firms. This ideology was silent about the British. The most vocal exponent of this ideology at the turn of the 19th century was Anagarika Dharmapala, Buddhist revivalist and son of the Pettah merchant H. Don Carolis. His teachings took the form of xenophobia directed against ‘aliens’ in general except the British, and temporarily excluded the native- born Tamils.
Kumari Jayewardena observes for example that Dharmapala frequently made disparaging remarks against Indian workers, writing for example in 1902, that “under the English administration, the out-castes of South India are allowed to immigrate into the Island”. In fact in his works he wrote that a good Sinhalese- Buddhist should use a fork and knife and toilet paper.
The semi-legendary victories of ancient Sinhalese kings against foreign invasions were adduced in campaigns against foreign traders. Dharmapala wrote after the Sinhalese–Muslim riots of 1915 that the peaceful Sinhalese “can no longer bear the insult of the alien. The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor people. The causes are economic and spiritual.”
In mobilising a following to consolidate the social position of the proponents of the Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology, with the twin aims of political power and commercial expansion, it was natural for them to co-opt other sections of the country. Two such sections were the Kandyan Sinhalese and a section of the Sinhalese working class.
In the Kandyan region itself the reaction to Low Country Sinhalese small traders was often sharp. The following remarks by S.D. Mahawalatenna, Chief Headman in charge of the Kadawata and Meda Korales in the Ratnapura District, appeared in the Ceylon Census of 1901 (p.115 of Appendix in Vol.1):
“The relation of the low-country Sinhalese man to the Kandyan is the same as that of the foreign born Tamil, Moor or Malay. He comes and goes…The low-country man comes and sticks on. He flourishes in any soil and in any clime; he is a sort of human parasite. Given time and opportunity he will, as it were, absorb the Kandyan, leaving him neither his lands, nor his chattels, nor even his independence. Very soon the Kandyan landlord, who at first befriended the stranger, the low-country man, and lodged him, tenanted him and patronised him, owing to certain circumstances, changes place with the latter. By degrees the plot thickens till at last the low-country man becomes the landlord and the Kandyan the tenant…”
The Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology succeeded to a considerable extent in co-opting the Kandyan elite. A part of this process of co- optation was the re-direction of Sinhalese ire against foreign workers – the Malayali urban workers and the Tamil plantation labour in the Kandyan country.
This Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology, by the 1930s, had begun to draw inspiration from German Nazism. For example, Kumari Jayewardena gives an account of how A.E. Goonesingha, the leader of the Ceylon Labour Union launched a campaign against Malayali workers, which became virulent in the late 1930s. The same leader had sponsored ethnic unity in the 1920s. In the context of the economic depression of the 1930s, the slogan became one of Malayalis (from Kerala) stealing Sinhalese jobs. Kumari Jayewardena cites a letter in Goonesinha’s journal Viraya (17.4.1936), which called for a leader of the Sinhalese like Hitler, whose policies were said to be saving the Aryan race from degeneration.
It was not just Goonesingha, but also D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike whose brand of nationalism drew inspiration from Nazism. For example, Kumari Jayewardena cites an important occasion, Traditional New Year’s day in 1939, when D.S. Senanayake was the chief guest on Goonesingha’s platform. Senanayake said:
“We are one blood and one nation. We are a chosen people. The Buddha said that his religion would last 5500 years. That means that we, as the custodians of that religion, shall last as long” (CDN 17.4.1939). The occasion symbolised the union between the nationalist Right and a segment of labour.
By 1939, we also see a change in Bandaranaike from the liberal who stood for federalism in 1929. At a public speech in Balapitiya, he said: “I am prepared to sacrifice my life for the sake of my community, the Sinhalese. If anybody were to try to hinder our progress, I am determined to see that he is taught a lesson he will never forget” (The Hindu Organ, Jaffna, 26th January 1939). At the end of the meeting, a Mrs. Srimathie Abeygunawardena “likened Mr. Bandaranaike to Hitler and appealed to the Sinhalese community to give him every possible assistance to reach the goal of freedom.”
In the kind of impact Bandaranaike was having, we see a germ of what would develop into anti-Tamil violence in 1956 and 1958 during his premiership.
One sees therefore where Sinhalese- Buddhism had, one might say, almost inevitably, arrived, since the beginning of Dharmapala’s career. By a different route Sinhalese-Buddhism had arrived at positions close to Nazi fascism, and especially in the 1930s – the depression years – was closely inspired by the latter’s transient success in reviving Germany’s industrial and military might. It is no co-incidence that the contemporary Hindu extremist group RSS in North India drew similar inspiration from Nazism.
The prevailing influence of Nazism in South Asia can also be seen in the Shiv Sena that was responsible for the 1992-93 anti-Muslim pogroms in Bombay. After being publicly named by concerned citizens and by the Justice Sri Krishna Commission, the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray proudly claimed responsibility for the destruction of lives and property, citing with approval Hitler’s treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. During the latter part of the 19th century a school of linguistic scholars led by Max Muller had identified Sinhalese along with Sanskrit and German as belonging to the Aryan group of languages. Although the identification has always been contested by eminent Sinhalese themselves, it fired popular imagination with the mystique of the Aryan race by equating language with ethnicity.
Thus Sinhalese-Buddhism shared with Nazi fascism a sense of victimhood amidst a sea of evil aliens (an idea already developed by Dharmapala), a mission to rectify this state of affairs, and especially when it had attained political power, a millennial vision (e.g. as Senanayake’s above). The three items quoted above suggest that Nazi inspiration was reaching its high tide in 1939 on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
One could not have been an admirer of Nazism without also approving their ideologically sanctioned violence against the helpless Jews by uniformed mobs. Apart from this, one cannot find any historical precedent in this country for the mob violence unleashed against the Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977,1981 and 1983 with the sanction of those in power. The destruction of Tamil-owned business premises was a key preoccupation of the mobs in 1977 and 1983 – a section of whom were in uniform. In their public statements just after the July 1983 violence (see Chapter 11), Ministers Athulathmudali and Wickremasinghe implicitly justified the destruction of Tamil premises as a move to rectify the disadvantages unfairly imposed on Sinhalese businessmen.
This was curious, and even suicidal, reasoning in a class that had opted for free- market economics through attracting global capital. One does not attract committed long- term foreign investment by burning the premises of one’s rivals with impunity.
Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology was thus instrumental in gravely impairing one of the most beneficial legacies of colonial rule – the rule of law. It killed, as it were, the goose that laid the golden egg. The ideology moulded in its shadow a group of politicians, businessmen and professionals who were singularly unimaginative and inept. It led to the debasement of national life at every level.
These developments also affected the image and content of Buddhism as a partner in this millennial ideology. By becoming linked to an ethnic group and the power ambitions of its ruling class patrons, this brand of Buddhism lost its universal appeal and moral content. It became a one-issue religion – that one being the Tamil issue. Buddhist clergy speaking on almost any other issue are frequently heard with indifference and bemusement. But when it comes to the Tamil question, a ritual hard-line is expected from them and is duly given wide publicity in the media.
The political leaders are then quick to point out that the Sinhalese are totally opposed to federalism. This is a unique role played in any country by the religious establishment. When a political leader prostrates himself before a Buddhist-prelate, it is a public transaction viewed with cynicism by both. It is also a ritual that they both find useful. The prelate enjoys symbolic power at the sufferance of the political leadership. At the same time intransigence on the Tamil issue, which the practical politician is loath to own up to, is voiced for him by the Buddhist establishment. This ritual hypocrisy that has become part of the political culture has made the Tamil question more difficult to resolve.
The millennial ideological assertion of the Sinhalese as being a chosen people (e.g. D.S. Senanayake above) with a mission to hold the entirety of this Island sacred to Buddhism, is one that all intelligent Sinhalese know to be hopelessly flawed. But that too has become part of the ritual hypocrisy. It has served as a useful justification for sending landless Sinhalese peasants as colonists to the arid North-East. This enabled the propertied class to hold on to huge landholdings in the fertile South and postpone land reform.
Although driven to the margins, there continued to be Buddhists who as individuals or organisations distanced themselves from the mainstream and tried to be true to the teachings of the Buddha. Kumari Jayewardena mentions the independent MP H. Sri Nissanka, a leading lay Buddhist, who opposed the Citizenship Bill that will be taken up next. Also opposed to the Bill was a group of 29 Buddhist monks in Gampola led by K. Indasara Thero who supported the rights of plantation workers of Indian origin.
*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