By Emil van der Poorten –
I expect that today, February 4th, when I write this, is as good a time as any to hark back to the year, 1948, when this first became a day of significance in the Sri Lankan calendar.
As a tyke as I subsequently identified as being in the development phase of a contrarian, strongly influenced by my two almost-adult Trotskyist siblings much older than myself, I tended to take the popular leftist slogans of the time as being close to some kind of political gospel proclamation.
As I recall, while there were not as many lion flags in evidence as there seem to be in a time of “Sinha-Le”, there were more of these symbols of newly-emerging national pride than were usually displayed up to then.
Perhaps, the lack of foofaraw on the first independence days was because, unlike our neighbours in the giant subcontinent to our north we had not really had to struggle for our new-found political independence or what passed for that status. Ours had been a relatively sedate series of steps behind what became India and Pakistan, with the occasional hiccup such as the first communal riots in the early years of the 20th century. Mind you, it is not by accident that I do not give the Anagarika Dharmapala’s agitation a place in any such “struggle” for political independence because it has proved, if proof be needed, that it simply laid the foundation for something more insidious by far: “Sinhala Buddhist” chauvinism and the attendant bigotry and violence.
No, the “struggle” for political independence was driven more by the need of the local English-educated bourgeoisie to attain what they thought was their rightful place in the scheme of local things, piggy-backing on the struggles of those fighting the British raj in the earlier-mentioned sub-continent, many of whom paid with their lives for having the temerity to stand up to the Empire on which “the sun never set.”
The title of this column dates back to a booklet authored by, I believe, that pioneer firebrand Trotskyist, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, in which, if memory serves me right, he proceeded to dissect the brainchild of Ivor Jennings in the matter of constitution-making, claiming that it was little but window-dressing for the continuing imperial control that Clement Attlee’s Labour Governnment in Whitehall chose to practice in the outer reaches of the British empire. That control was epitomized by the fact that something like 90%+ of our foreign exchange earnings came out of the tea auctions conducted entirely in Mincing Lane in, (surprise! surprise!) London, England. A little story attached to that fact is that, when that most brash of Sri Lankan Prime Ministers, Sir John Lionel Kotelawala, was on one of his jaunts to the country in which he ultimately spent his retirement years, he expressed loud surprise at how very little Ceylon was being paid for a pound of tea and how much the British consumer was being charged for a cup of that brew that contained, at best, a teaspoon of that very product! The next day there was a significant expression of the displeasure of the British business community at such temerity on the part of a “colonial:” the price of Ceylon tea at the auctions in Mincing Lane took a precipitous dive without precedent! Lesson delivered, lesson learnt it seemed when, after some backroom “clarifications” things returned to normal and brash Prime Ministers ceased to make brash statements about the conduct of their Imperial “superiors!”
Anyway, the question that Colvin R. de Silva asked almost 70 years ago is still “the elephant in the room.”
We have had a series of governments ranging from that led by the relatively-staid D. S. Senanayake through his thoroughly decent son who was given to trying to play a straight bat on a rugby field, through the intellectually clever but principally-challenged S. W.R.D. Bandaranaike who, briar clenched between teeth and pedigreed Greyhounds trailing him in the control of some dog-minder, pushed open the door to what has become the “Sinha-Le” culture of early 21st Century Sri Lanka. He was swiftly followed by a woman who displayed what used to be termed “peasant cunning” though her blood-lines didn’t justify the appellation, trying to put in place a weird and wonderful combination of mediaeval governance and socialist dogma.
And then came Yankee Dick, the ultimate in U.S. Imperialist proxies. J.R. Jayewardene I found revolting even in the days when he was in the uppermost reaches of the United National Party and people like me were putting their existences in jeopardy by supporting that political entity. He created a client state of the worst of reactionary U.S. policy. Mind you, the bumbling “intellectuals” of the left – the Colvin R. De Silvas, the N. M.Pereras, the S. A. Wickramasinghes and Pieter Keunemans of the Sri Lanka of the 70s – created the total economic and political mess that was tailor-made for J. R. J to gallop into on his (slightly-soiled) white steed of capitalism proclaiming “economic freedom” and, literally, entreating the robber barons of international and local capitalism to take control. An invitation that they did not refuse, helped by their local proxies!
The return of the Bandaranaikes, followed by the monstrosity of the Rajapaksa Regime, has left what vestiges of national self-respect we still had at the inception of our emergence from British rule truly in tatters.
Colvin’s rhetorical question,” What independence for whom?” is still hanging in the air, unanswered except for, probably, the most jaundiced of responses: “The freedom of the wild ass,” where the most violent, whether in saffron-robes or out of them, have taken centre stage without seeming let or hindrance from a government that, if nothing else, professed a political piety without previous parallel.
But and let me end with a “but” with positive overtones, “Yahapalanaya” can still achieve even a small bit of what it promised in the matter of national decency, a return of good governance and justice in the courts of law, not merely legal machinations by those flitting in and out of governments and cabinets seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum of political principle. For even that dim promise to continue, the Maithripala/Ranil (MR2) regime has to get its political posterior in gear and start an internal cleansing process. The time is now and I do believe there are enough (even luke-warm) believers in the eternal verities in this hodge-podge of a ruling coalition to bring such a state of affairs to pass.
For our part, “the great unwashed” of this country – you and I – need to keep the pressure on what seem like invertebrates with a foot in every political camp to return this nation to the place it seemed destined for so many years ago. We can then provide the long-deceased Trotskyist with even a partially positive answer to the rhetorical question he put to this country almost three score and ten years ago!