By Sumith Ariyasinghe –
A conspicuous Sinhala right wing preoccupation, both in an outside the government, is to attribute all ills that beset Sri Lanka as being rooted in colonialism and its “exploitation”. Among most of these groups the condemnation of colonialism is harsh and expresses a deep-lying hatred and lust for revenge. The public expression of these strong negative emotions poison the receptive audiences, who most often are the under-privileged rural youth, who do not have the benefit of a proper education that would give them the ability to critically evaluate this onslaught. Those rural youth who somehow manage to further their education bring along the prejudices they thus acquire to their undergraduate lives and beyond. The universities themselves have declined precipitously as reflected in widespread local opinion as well international ratings. We thus have a vicious circle of economic and intellectual poverty, and we have a growing number of those who believe that our problems are the direct result of “colonial exploitation”. Part of the anti-colonial rhetoric is a condemnation of the west and its culture labelled “Judeo-Christian”. Never mind that the positions of power and influence the leaders of these groups enjoy are owed to their “Judeo-Christian” education. By denying the same education to the youth of the rural poor, these leaders are ensuring the dominance and security of their class, and their offspring who were or are being educated abroad in these same Judeo-Christian western countries.
The insistent resort to reminding the gullible that all our problems are the result of colonial exploitation is however an excellent opiate to keep the masses of the people enslaved, and denied of means to improve their state. It is an effective device to stand in the way of the ordinary people achieving their goals of advancement for themselves and their children. The obverse of attacking colonialism is the harking back to a golden past now lost, along with an alleged uniqueness of being Sinhala, called “Sinhalatva” by the leadership of these groups, and apeykama or “our-ness” by their cheap journalist minions. These terms in essence depict a tribal identity, now enhanced by the arrogance of “winning the war” and “eradicating terrorism”. “Sinhalatva” is clearly a plagiarization of “Hindutva”, the Hindu fundamentalist label for latter’s alleged uniqueness that has led to violence in India, including the tearing down of the Babri Masjid in 1992, on the excuse that the location of the historic mosque is the Hindu god Rama’s birthplace. It expresses the power fantasy of the Sinhalatva leadership, and their lack of hesitation to resort to violence to achieve their goal.
The obsession with colonialism also functions in providing these groups with a ready-made enemy indispensable for the perpetration of their untruths. Originally carried by the Sinhala extremists, the anti-colonial obsession has, in the aftermath of the war, successfully extended itself beyond this core to include a broad spectrum of people embracing a “patriotism” and a Motherlandism identified with blind loyalty to the ruling clique: if you are pro-regime you are a patriot and a lover of the Motherland, if you are anti-regime you are a traitor. Post war Motherlandism has conferred on the bogeyman of colonialism a new concreteness and stature. It is the new opiate that the regime in power has preeminently appropriated for itself, in particular in its definition of patriotism as loyalty to itself. Motherlandism, like the national anthem, expresses a fixation on the mother that constitutes part and parcel of the deeper-lying maladies of the culture. We have a parallel in the fixation on the Father and the Fatherland in the dictatorships of Russia and Nazi Germany. The inability to pragmatically accept the historical and sociological fact of colonialism must have deep psychological roots in the aberrations of the ideologues of these groups. But having come into being and spread on to occupy the minds of specific social strata, this inability has assumed a sociological form that has now engulfed the state, with its propaganda machinery turning it into a red herring on the one hand and opiate on the other.
No one in his or her proper senses would accept, far less defend, colonialism. However, a healthy understanding of colonialism requires that we adopt an objective and rational perspective on it. First, like good Buddhists, we must take a “cause and effect” view of colonialism. The “cause” of colonialism is not one but many. It is true the colonizers had superior arms, which was one reason for their success. But the main factor that contributed to colonial dominance was our “culture”, our particular culture of politics based on intrigue. The Sinhala extremist glorification of Sri Lanka as a “unitary” (ekeeya) state notwithstanding, there was never any lasting unitary state in Sri Lanka until the British occupation. We were unable to contain and defeat the onslaught of the colonizers because we were factionalized and fragmented into different “kingdoms”, and we curried favour with the foreigners, plotting against each other, sometimes brother against brother, and father against son and vice versa.
The bottom line is, if we find ourselves colonized for whatever reason, it is childish to be grumbling about it. Instead, the healthy response is to be vigilant and try and put the colonialist regime to our best advantage. We have excellent examples of this. I will mention two. First, in the last decades of colonial rule, the Buddhist monks of the Vidyodaya monastic college in Colombo got for themselves the attention of the British colonial government by means of their positive contributions to society, both in education and their movement for rural development. The approach of these monks was so civil and diplomatic that the colonial government ended up supporting the college, and the colonial Governor considered it an honour and his official duty to preside over its annual graduation ceremonial.
My second example is the American occupation of Japan at the end of the World War II. Japan, a proud and powerful nation with a historic culture and civilization, was humiliated, but the people of Japan adopted a realistic attitude and made use of the reforms introduced by their American rulers to turn their country into the world’s greatest economic power. They achieved such success that, in the last decades of the 20th century, they were able to bring America to its knees economically. Their success was due entirely to their realistic and intelligent acceptance of the American occupation as an opportunity to build democratic institutions, good governance, an efficient system of education, a strong, vibrant economy, and in general remake their nation into a culturally unique yet modern nation. They were able to modernize without westernizing because they had a goal higher than personal aggrandizement, namely, the welfare of the nation as a whole, symbolized by the Emperor, who graciously played his part by accepting the role of the constitutional monarch, one of the reforms carried out by the American Occupation. In modernizing without westernizing, they didn’t let themselves be distracted by trivialities like wearing a “national” dress. They didn’t change their country’s international name to the indigenous Nippon, as our leaders did when they, for narrow political gain, replaced our country’s fine and pragmatic international name Ceylon with “Sri Lanka”. This in effect was to name the country after their party, the SLFP. The people never called their country “Sri Lanka”. They called Lanka in Sinhala and Ilangai in Tamil. We do come across “Sri Lanka”, but rarely, and only in the bombastic proclamations of tyrants. As with the other decisions the people of Japan took, the retention of the international name “Japan” was a pragmatic step that helped them in their heroic and astonishing regeneration. The people of Japan achieved all this without grumbling, without whining, and without melodramatic fasts unto death that turn into farts unto the living.
The chauvinist critics (as differentiated from reasoned critics) of colonialism also fail to realize an important factor, that there was no blanket “colonialism” that covered the entire period of colonial rule. While atrocities were committed in the early period of colonial rule, when we get to the late colonial period, we find the system of gradual representation reaching its peak with responsible government, and universal suffrage introduced in 1931. The imperial countries were themselves going through change and in the case of Britain there were strong movements toward liberalism as manifested, for example, in the gradual grant of self-government to the colonies. While economic activity benefited the colonial rulers, it was also beneficial to the country. Increasing numbers were employed in the emerging modern economy including its infra structure projects. These projects and the more direct economic activities were having social consequences that included the breakdown of traditional social, economic and geographical barriers. These developments contributed generally to the country’s welfare and progress.
The most important and the most radical contribution of British rule was the liberation of the individual from the shackles of feudalistic domination. This was enabled by the introduction of the rule of law in place of the will of a single ruler that by definition was arbitrary. Any traditional constraints on arbitrary rule were ritualistic and subject to ritual manipulation in favour of authority. The basis of the pre-colonial society was ascriptive status, which meant that caste, kinship and family mattered more than laws, and unequal treatment was the accepted principle, the large majority toiling for the minority that enjoyed the fruits of that toil. Besides, by the introduction of a modern rational bureaucracy, legal system, political system and modern commerce the British administration brought about an ethos of modernity and a modern cosmopolitan civility that the country was unable to generate within itself, despite such civility being present in Buddhism, the country’s professed religion, in both its ethics and the vinaya texts that formed the basis of monastic organization. That ethical and noble Buddhism was never practiced except perhaps by a few recluses. It was never generalized to the social and cultural order. What was generalized was a ritualism that propped up tyrannical rule, legitimized caste and other inequalities, and functioned as the opium of the people. We were never a society of Buddhists. We have always been a society of ritualists. At no period in our history did the urbane civility of Buddhism ever touch the culture.
The reforms brought about by British rule took a long time to become fully effective, and ascriptive status and privilege lingered on well into the time of independence. These have made a come back starting with the “People’s Government” of 1956 and have reached great heights at present, such great heights that a politician can get away scot free after having arbitrarily meted out on an officer of the state the feudal punishment of tying the latter to a tree. The numerous instances of impunity after the ascent of the present regime are well known.
It is here in fact that we can find the meaning and sociological significance of 1956, touted by nationalists and naively concluded by scholars as a liberation of the people led by its indigenous leadership. The reality is exactly the opposite. The indigenous leadership, sloganised in the 1956 election campaign as “Sanga Veda, Guru” (Buddhist monks, native physicians, vernacular teachers) but not limited to these, localized in the villages were in fact the immediately present and effective oppressors of the people consisting of the farming population and the “lower” castes. The rule of law introduced by the colonial administration dislodged the hold this elite had on the people. When these elites talk about colonial oppression, what they mean is this dislodgement and the resulting loss of their position of privilege. The vast majority of the people had nothing to loose but their chains. For the people, oppressed by the feudalistic indigenous elites, colonialism was not domination but liberation. This was so not just in Ceylon but wherever a modern liberal colonial power dislodged the hold the feudal overlords had on their peoples. It is no wonder that the Dalits (“untouchables”) of India consider the British rule to be the best thing that ever happened to them in all of history. Among other positive results of colonialism is the access we have to world knowledge through the English language.
We are not the only people to be colonized. In the long-term historical perspective, colonialism was part of the vast unravelling of a global movement at a certain point of time. Colonialism’s wars brought wealth and glory to some and caused damage, targeted and collateral, to others. That’s what all wars do, including our tragic civil war that ended in 2009. According to some allegations it caused the collateral damage of 40,000 deaths of Tamil citizens. Even if this figure is incorrect as the government claims, thousands were killed, and our hands are as tainted as those of the colonialist warmongers. If we are fated to be colonized, the rational, healthy and realistic approach is to accept it and use it to our best advantage as indeed the Vidyodaya monks and the Japanese people did.
Our nationalist extremists also forget that the imperialist societies themselves have gone through radical change and they have become liberal democracies that disapprove of colonialism as much as we do. Our former colonial masters, now liberal democracies, have only been too willing to support us, and we could have made better use of that than we have done so far. It is our un-Buddhist hatred and delusion that has prevented us from using our colonizers to our advantage. We must learn a lesson from the statesmanship of Mandela and Gandhi, and extend the hand of friendship to our former colonial masters. Whatever former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s faults are he was right to propose the celebration of the first European colonial contact five centuries ago. Pouncing on him for having said that only reveals our want of realism on the one hand, and the state of our mental health on the other. Colonialism is a part of our history and the intelligent choice is to make use of it.