By H.L. Seneviratne –
Shortly after the MEP coalition led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike trounced the UNP in the general election of 1956, novelist and scholar Martin Wickramasinghe wrote an essay titled Bamunu Kulaye Bindavatima (The Collapse of the Brahmin Clique), which has since become a classic. There is much in that essay that I heartily disagree with, but the socio-political scene it examines bears striking resemblance to the present. The Rajapaksa regime, consisting of family, clan and cronies is sociologically a new Bamunu Kulaya that parallels its the pre-1956 prototype.
In a nutshell, what Wickremasinghe says is as follows. All cultures, however “advanced” or “primitive”, are equal in status. Out of their ignorance of this fact, the entrenched political class of the pre-1956 era thought of their western derived culture as superior to the indigenous. The resulting derogatory view of indigenous culture and arrogance towards the people backlashed in1956 to produce their precipitous downfall.
All I want to do in this short article is to apply Wickremasinghe’s theory to the present Bamunu Kulaya. While Wickremasinghe was no friend of British rule, his critique was not primarily aimed at our colonial masters who left a decade before the 1956 election. He in fact has some kind words for them, especially the professional bureaucrats of the late colonial era, for their accommodation of indigenous culture. Instead, his critique, which is by no means mild, is directed towards the local imitators of western culture, on whom the finer aspects of western culture were lost. This class internalized and manifested in their vulgar behavior only the most superficial attributes of western culture, namely, its crass materialism and excessive indulgence. They were drunk with power, and with alcohol, and lost touch with reality. The excessive wealth and luxury of this class was offensive to the sensibilities of a people nurtured for centuries in the “middle path”. In sum, according to Wickremasinghe, it was the insensitivity of the pre-1956 regime to the values and culture of the people that led to its Humpty-Dumpty style collapse.
The 1956 opposition campaign seized upon a party hosted by Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala as its star example of the decadence and vulgarity of the Bamunu Kulaya. The central dish at this party was a veal roast that the opposition media promptly christened a “burnt calf” (pulussapu vahu patiyek), an idea abhorrent to most Buddhists. This became a defining symbol of the opposition campaign and was followed by another, a depiction of the electoral contest as a Mara Yuddhaya, the war between the compassionate Buddha and the evil Mara. These two symbols were cleverly blended together by a cartoonist of the opposition campaign. Among the items depicted were the derided “baal natum” (ball room dancing) and the “burnt calf”.
Whereas the pre-1956 Bamunu Kulaya derived their exclusivism from their perceived location in western culture, the present Bamunu Kulaya finds its source in the “defeat of terrorism” which they have appropriated exclusively for themselves, ignoring and even punishing other claimants. They have defined this victory as a license to eat, drink and be merry, amass wealth by means foul or fair, oppress the poor, sell national assets, commit any illegality with impunity, and in general, do as they please in anything and everything, with no one allowed to ask any questions.
The Rajapaksa governance embraces the worst of the pre-1956 Bamunu Kulaya culture with none of its positives, like the rule of law, an independent public service, or an independent judiciary. Even the most cursory glance at the policies and activities of the regime will show that there is plenty in it to ensure a repetition of 1956.
Wickremasinghe mentions how, despite the fact that Sinhala people were not averse to modest drinking and minor gambling, they nurtured a deep distaste for dealing with alcohol and organised gambling, both tabooed livelihoods in Buddhism. Similarly, while the ordinary villager is by no means a prude, he is uncomfortable with western forms of communal dancing or entertainment based dancing where the female could be presented as licentious. The regime itself is aware of this, and exploited it as illustrated in its sloganist public face of “eradicating alcoholism” (matata tita). But at the same time it has issued, as part of its patronage system, more liquor licenses than any previous regime.
Large scale gambling in the form of casinos, is very much part of the regime’s patronage system and economic development plan. Performing female dancers are very much part of the casino culture. To crown it all, we have the night car races staged by a company owned by none other than the president’s son who is also a member of parliament. Reportedly, these races, and the accompanying partying and dancing were held in the vicinity of the sacred space of the Temple of the Tooth. If Wickramasinghe’s reasoning is correct, such desecration would deeply and irreparably wound the regime’s reputation among the large majority of the rural voters. These are exactly the kinds of things the vast majority of the Sinhala voters associated with the pre-1956 Bamunu Kulaya, spurring them to defeat it decisively.
Other reminiscences of the pre-1956 Bamunu Kulaya include derogatory statements made by prominent members of the regime, the most recent of which is a statement allegedly made by the Minister for Higher Education. According to reports, the minister stated on television that on January 8th, the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga should be stripped naked and dragged in the streets. In its ferocity and hatred this remark is reminiscent of the notorious statement allegedly made by the pre-1956 Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala that Buddhist monks who have taken to politics should be smeared with tar (tara gaanna) and buried alive (hitavapas gahanna).
So far we have considered only the culture and values that Wickremasinghe has in mind when he attributes the collapse of the Bamunu Kulaya to these values. These are values going back centuries. But our value system has also been enriched in recent times by the incorporation of the values of intercultural modernity. The fact that they are relatively recent additions and that they may be derived from foreign sources does not make them any less indigenous. Thus our traditional values like compassion, kindness, tolerance and equanimity are added to by our recently acquired values of democracy and good governance. Just as the Rajapaksa regime has violated the most basic of our traditional values while giving them lip service, it has also violated all our recently acquired values of democracy and good governance.
If we accept Wickremasinghe’s theory, the regime’s record in the value and cultural sphere alone is enough to ensure a comfortable victory for the Common Candidate. But, that is not all. We have a whole lot more in the areas of social and economic activity, foreign policy, governance and so forth where the record of the Rajapaksa regime is dismal.
Further, it is hard to believe that the people can be fooled to such an extent they will not see through the violation of election laws, the misuse of state resources, the monopolization of the media, harassment of the opposition campaign and other acts that offend their sense of decency and fair play. Slogans of nation, identity and triumphalism will sway people for a time, but not forever. We must give some credence to Wickremasinghe’s statement that the average villager does not uncritically accept even the Buddha’s word. Even though Buddhism in our society is largely ritualistic, its profound ethical content must have some effect on its adherents. When we add together all of the above, and dare to assume a free and fair election, there can be little doubt that we are about to witness a landslide collapse of the present Bamunu Kulaya.
Even a bare victory will give us ample reason to be pleased as a nation. It would mean that representative government empowering the citizen to change his/her government, if necessary at every election, has become an organic component of our culture and value system, and that the recent past was a mere aberration or a bad dream.