By Uditha Devapriya –
Most discussions about independence centre on two questions: what we were before 1948, and what we became after 1948. Or to put it more clearly, what we are supposed to have been before 1948 and what we are supposed to have become after 1948, not just in political or economic terms, but in social and cultural terms also. Two perspectives stand out here, two camps or schools of thought: those who say we never won independence or never had to fight for it, and those who say that while we got it, we later squandered it. Each of these perspectives dovetails into the other. At the risk of simplification, I identify the first with the Marxist camp, the second with a more left-liberal middle-class camp.
The question of whether Sri Lanka ever gained independence, and won it, has never been resolved. It is best resolved by referring to the legal framework within which independence was granted. Did Dominion status approximate to freedom, or was it, as at least one scholar has observed, a cover for continued imperialist rule? By remaining subordinate to the British monarchy and by retaining the Privy Council has the country’s final court of appeal, it would seem that, on paper at least, we were subjugated, and that the leaders of the time seemed content in “sacrificing” two of the country’s most crucial administrative areas, defence and external relations, to British jurisdiction. But is this the total picture?
Mainstream historians absolve Sri Lanka’s founding fathers – in particular, D. S. Senanayake – on the grounds that these leaders oversaw a gradual transfer of power which smoothened the tensions and contradictions that broke independent India apart in the wake of its more violent struggles against British rule. Thus in his short political biography of the man, K. M. de Silva praises Senanayake for handling “among the most astute of negotiations” involving transfers of power from colonial rule “in South Asia.” One can argue, of course, that as far as “astute negotiations” go, South Asia didn’t exactly teem with successful transfers of power from colonial rule in the first place, but to me this is peripheral to a more important issue: that astute as these negotiations may have been, they underlay crucial questions regarding who the British wanted to take over from them, and who they did not.
Here we come to the Marxist perspective, which is one I generally accord with and which is shared even by certain non-Marxist scholars. At the time of independence Sri Lanka fit the mould of a classic plantation enclave, dependent on the export of primary commodities and lacking an industrial base. This distinguished it not just from more developed colonies, but also its immediate neighbour. Scholars have debated over the exact nature of the plantation economy, with S. B. D. de Silva (1982) taking the position that it was pre-capitalist and Asoka Bandarage (2020) arguing that it was capitalist. One of the most enduring myths about the colonial model from which we supposedly became “free” is that plantations modernised the country in terms of roads, railways, and infrastructure, a point with which both plantations-as-pre-capitalist and plantations-as-capitalist scholars beg to differ.
Dependent in the truest sense of the term, the colonial model produced a dependent elite. The roads, railways, and infrastructure, indeed the education system and judiciary, were all catered to and predicated on the plantations, which in turn entrenched this elite. James Manor has drawn a very important distinction between the colonial elite of most Afro-Asian countries and the colonial elite of Sri Lanka, insinuating, correctly in my opinion, that they were far more dependent and compradorist than their counterparts in India, Indonesia, and much of Africa, and needlessly so. This was largely because the British found them easier to manipulate than the bourgeoisie of neighbouring India, a phenomenon colonial era writers themselves have, not infrequently, commented on.
All this is to say that the dependent colonial model and the dependent elite it produced and entrenched found their way to head the transfer of power from British to indigenous rule. K. M. de Silva’s assertion that exogenous factors, particularly the fear of India, pushed the likes of Senanayake to pragmatically opt for the “home country” conceals just how dependent on colonial patronage the Sri Lankan (mainly Sinhala) bourgeoisie were.
Though historians place emphasis on the fear of India in justifying Senanayake’s decision to retain Britain in defence and external relations, a far more important factor was the Marxist movement. Vernon Mendis exonerates the first three UNP regimes – Senanayake père et fils and Kotelawala – and their attacks on Leftists and Leftist sympathisers on the grounds that Marxist politicians made statements that could be interpreted as invitations to Communist countries to intervene and interfere in the country’s domestic affairs. This is interesting, not just because it shows how even the most astute academics rationalise what were otherwise infringements of civil liberties – for they were just that, as James Manor has clearly shown – but also because it helps perpetuate the narrative that the transfer of power these leaders oversaw was the only transfer possible for Sri Lanka at that point.
The Marxist interpretation of independence is important because it hasn’t been highlighted quite as much it should. It lays emphasis on the economic as opposed to the purely political dimension of the transfer of power, on how the character of the colonial bourgeoisie had a profound say in that transfer. K. M. de Silva and Vernon Mendis – among several scholars –allege that the Marxist catcall of “fake independence” was doctrinaire, if not unfair, yet they don’t quite substantiate how, and why, it was unfair. De Silva tends to point at Senanayake’s multiracial conception of the State as one reason why he preferred the British to stay, yet he fails to exonerate – if not to discuss – Senanayake’s controversial decision to disenfranchise Indian plantation workers, a community that openly supported the Marxists, who were, for all intents and purposes, far more multiracial, multiethnic, and multiclass in their conception of the Sri Lankan State than the bourgeoisie ever were in theirs.
Insofar as their belief in the failure of independence is concerned, the Marxists don’t differ from the left-liberal camp that espouses the second perspective I outlined at the beginning. The latter argue, however, that independence was granted, if not won; it just so happened that later leaders squandered it. This interpretation is crass and, in its own way, classist. It has gained traction in popular culture because of who propounds it: a mostly lower middle-class that dominates the bilingual cultural sphere.
If Marxist scholars quote statistics in support of their view that Sri Lanka never achieved independence, the (lower) middle-class quote remarks by British governors and officials, out of context, about Sri Lanka not being ready for independence. This is another way of saying we would have been better under the British, a point which runs counter to common sense, but also the interests of those who make and repeatedly harp on it.
In 1948 we laid claim to a colonial plantation economy built on the alienation of peasant land and the hegemony of estate owners. Less than five percent of the country’s population spoke in English. The professions – medicine, law, and the Civil Service – were dominated by those who had attended elite schools and were distanced by virtue of their upbringing from the public. Hospitals were limited to the cities or the immediate periphery; infant mortality was worse than India’s. Central Colleges did exist, but few and far between relative to elite schools. The cultural sphere, meanwhile, had little non-elite representation.
In short there was very little opportunity for the Sinhala, Tamil, and bilingual lower middle-class to find its way up. If returning to the way things were back then is what lower middle-class critics of independence want, this is what they would have got, in all probability for a long time. Fortunately for us, it did not happen. The inevitable conclusion then is that it is the Marxists, not the left-liberals, who have got it right about independence, though both conclude it was a failure. The Marxists have scored it better when it comes to the question of whether independence was real or not. For them, it was not.
Just what does it mean to be independent? Is independence about celebration, merriment, and the unbridled happiness of being free? Is it about being who we are? If so, who should we be, and more importantly, who should we have become? These questions are valid, but to me they are secondary to a bigger question: are we free, and if not, why?