By Mohamed Harees –
The Declaration of Independence is among the most profoundly interpreted and fiercely discussed topics in modern history. Although Independence remains a sacred and an emotive concept, it still remains a poorly understood one to numerous people. When the UN was founded in 1945, some 750 million people, nearly a third of the world’s population, lived in Territories that were dependent on colonial Powers. Today, fewer than 2 million people live under colonial rule in the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories. The wave of decolonization, which changed the face of the planet, was born with the UN and represents the world body’s first great success. Since the creation of the United Nations, 80 former colonies have gained their independence. As a result of decolonization many countries became independent and joined the UN.
In the case of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), after colonial rulers Portuguese and the Dutch left, the British came to control coastal Sri Lanka in an era when the internal politics of the Kandyan Kingdom were in a state of crisis, due to the growing rift between the native aristocracy and the Nayakkars. The British signed the Kandyan Convention in 1815, with the Kandyan disawes (the powerful nobility in charge of running the provinces) which made Kandy a protectorate, preserving its system of government and customs. Consequent to a breakthrough for the path back to self-determination, with the appointment of British socialist Sidney Webb as the British Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, there was the establishment of the Donoughmore Commission, which effected a new constitution for Sri Lanka in 1931. The constitution aimed to address the unique multi-cultural challenges Ceylon then faced. Ceylon also had universal suffrage before even the UK and the USA.
Moving further on, by 1947 the new Soulbury Constitution came into effect, with general Elections being held, and DS Senanayake was appointed the first Prime Minister. Sri Lanka gained independence within the British Commonwealth on the 4th of February, 1948. Gaining freedom was the joint effort of all communities, all of whom subscribed to the idea of an independent Ceylon, on the basis of equal rights to all and not on a majoritarian platform. Then, Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972, finally becoming ‘fully independent’ and severing all constitutional links with the United Kingdom, including the shared monarch and the authority of the Privy council. This 1972, incidentally withdrew the Section 29 clause in the Soulbury constitution which granted some safeguards for minority rights.
This Independence Day on the 4th February has since been commemorated for the last 70 years with a national but politicized event in Colombo and many religious events marking the day. But, apart of this day being a national holiday, to what extent has this D day being a day of reflection for Sri Lankans across communities, as the country commemorates the 71st year of Independence from British colonial rule.? Has it been of any good for the people of Sri Lanka yearning for an inclusive and socially just country where all of them can live and reap its’ fruits of progress as equal citizens after this so-called Independence? After all, political leaders of all communities practically chipped in, to make it a reality.
Sometime back, when an African friend was asked: “When do you celebrate your Independence Day?”, he, without hesitation or bitterness, said: “We don’t celebrate our Independence Day… it is meaningless”. Although I then found it difficult to digest his answer, I however tried to reflect on the Independence fallacy focusing my attention to Sri Lanka. Ceylon Independence Day is depicted as a milestone separating two periods: the colonial era of oppression and impoverishment AND the independence era of freedom and ‘our brand of progress’. Further, through subtle and not so subtle indoctrination, Independence day also became indivisibly connected with the way we think about ourselves so much so that our own concept of our Lankan –ness can only be understood only in relation to colonialism, the struggle against colonialism and eventual independence. Thus, our identity became inextricably linked to our Independence.
After seven decades of Independence, we have come to see Independence as an essential marker of our Lankan-ness. To our utter disappointment, even after 71 years, independence did not however bring socio-political freedom or economic progress; only disaster after disaster in these areas. There is a poignant lament expressed by writers and analysts about the collapse of the vision of equality and prosperity which inspired the Independence struggle. But no one has questioned the validity of the Independence Day and exposed its’ cultural, political and psychological underpinnings and associations as false. Yet, this falsehood has been maintained year after year over the Post- Independence period in our history.
Every Independence Day, national and local political leaders in the tongue in the cheek fashion engage in national events and other symbolic functions as the nation get suffocated by its’ own un-doings. We hoist and wave our national flags while the very lofty ideals like equality, justice and fair-play symbolized in them are being blatantly desecrated. As the national leaders hasten to stress their resolve and their commitment to national reconciliation and Lankan-ness, the governments of the day have been violating them with impunity using racism as a tool to achieve power. They have been allowing extremist groups to roam the streets freely to engage in the infamous 1983 Anti Tamil pogrom, Aluthgama and Digana anti-Muslim communal violence. They were certainly being shameful episodes in our Post Independent history. As our leaders talk of social justice and stress on the need to eliminate poverty and inequality, the equality gap has been widening as never before while the corrupt top has been squandering millions of public money to fatten their nests. Rule of law has become ineffective with some are more equal than others.
S.J. Thambiah, in his lucidly written book, “Sri Lanka–Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy”, says: A Small Island of many people, whose political machinery is running down in an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism. The hopes of yesterday…have (thus) become fast evaporating fantasies’. Thus, even as many colonised nations in our neighbourhood showing sure signs of advancement, Sri Lanka sadly has been lagging behind . No doubt, for many Sri Lankans, the brand of politics which replaced the colonisers has been far worse, which makes many Sri Lankan to question the very concept of Independence thrust on them. They believe that many Brown Saahibs with Western mentality replaced the colonisers after independence. Today, as the social media exposed, even the national flags which the people proudly wave, are made in China. The reality is that Sri Lanka is not yet independent to stand on its’ own , being compelled to work particularly to Western and now to Chinese agenda and interests ,which nations have taken undue advantage from the vulnerability of this strategically important Island nation and its’ corrupt self-conceited rulers.
Sadly, after just over seven decades, it has been most unfortunate that all the people of Sri Lanka are yet to feel the inclusiveness and enjoyment of the various freedoms and rights enshrined in the country’s Constitution – particularly the right to being treated as equal citizens and freedom from want. For most part of our history, the people have been living in fear and insecurity specially those belonging to numerically lesser communities. The country, today thus remains deeply divided along communal lines, chronically corrupt official machinery, economically inefficient, heavily debt laden ( substantially debt laden to the Chinese), with leaders displaying political ‘clownism’, and country being subjected to international ridicule due to its’ swerving foreign policies. The national leaders who ruled Post- Independence Sri Lanka has not acted as national leaders. From SWRD’s lop sided Sinhala only policy, JRJ’s authoritarian rule, MR’s family led corrupt and racist based regime to Sirisena’s utter inept and clownish Presidency followed by Yahapalana fallacy, Sri Lanka has been a sad victim of short termism and opportunism. Minority parties too have not have had the benefit of pragmatic and far sighted leaders.
Peter Kloos in ‘Democracy, Civil War and the Demise of the Trias Politica in Sri Lanka’ aptly wrote “the introduction of the majoritarian model of democracy rule in Sri Lanka chosen already during the late-colonial period paved the way for political forms that were undemocratic in the moral sense of the term. In the end this led to violent opposition – and to dismantling of democracy…. The democratic process as a way of handling conflict failed and government rigidity led to violent opposition. The government answered in kind and in the ensuing life-and-death struggle began to manipulate both legislation and the judiciary, presumably to create greater freedom to fight its enemies. By doing so it contributed to further escalation of violence. Far-reaching decisions regarding the political process are based on political expediency rather than on fundamental discussions of democratic rule”.
We should not confuse, motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress. Yes! As we hasten to commemorate another anniversary of our Independence from the British masters, it is true enough that some material development is visibly seen in many fields and areas. But, as a nation 71 years after gaining Independence, we have failed in no uncertain terms to build our nation and progress in qualitative terms – to build a sense of common identity and a sense of unity. Majoritarian attitudes in statecraft, inability to accept the multi-cultural, multi-lingual reality of our nation and lack of political commitment in creating ‘Sri-Lankan-ness’ in our people have thus paved the way to the continuance of an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism since Independence.
Many broken promises given by political parties of all hues to resolve the national question, and their hypocrisy and corrupt outlook have been part of the process of degeneration of the political culture and today the political leadership of all communities have lost their credibility in the eyes of people. Democracy despite its’ widely acclaimed merits, has been a failure too. Still, there is no sign in the horizon that people are all much wiser now by the experience as not to repeat those historic blunders. Still , people are prepared to place their future in the hands of the same old political corrupts and clowns who had ruined the prospects of an inclusive and prosperous Sri Lanka. Still, those donning the saffron robes are calling the shots along the corridors of power.
Little can we achieve if we harp on narrow petty communal issues overlooking national imperatives, especially when we are in the process of formulating a new constitution. Little can we achieve if the rotten corrupt political culture is not changed. Little can we achieve if the people of this country do not support the civic minded forces which challenge the status quo and attempt to expose the fallacy of the idea of nationalism and the corrupt culture. Mere hoisting flags and singing anthems as well as listening to the hypocritical talk of those at the top on the Independence Day alone and then moving on will not solve the real problems people face in the contemporary Sri Lanka.
Moreover, little will we achieve if we do not give up colonial mentality – the belief that the cultural values of the colonizer are inherently superior to one’s own Acclaimed Afro-Caribbean writer and philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote; “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well”. Fanon’s advice is informed by his understanding that far long after independence, many previously colonised nations remain chained by the same chains that colonised them. There is thus a need to rediscover our most intimate selves and rid ourselves of mental attitudes and complexes and habits that colonization trapped us in for centuries.
When then can the people of Sri Lanka expect a regime that governs not in reaction to the past but in preparation for the future and see the seeds of a new possibility, of a world that is neither colonial nor postcolonial? Not until the people and the intellectuals in particular stand up and speak up demanding decisive social changes in society and force the hands of leaders to have the sense to build an inclusive nation founded on the bed rock of national reconciliation. Still, those who seek to promote the vision that Sri Lanka belongs to all who have made it their home are under attack by hawks on either side of the ethnic divide. Dialogue and discussion, not bloodshed and destruction, will prove to be final arbiters of our destinies. The current situation is depressing but there is certainly a light at the end of the dark tunnel. Sri Lanka needs to be re-structured and re-invented for its inevitable tryst with destiny. Otherwise the challenging task of building a new nation will still be unfinished business even a century after Independence.