Fifty nine years of independence: some reflections

By Rajan Philips

At fifty nine Sri Lanka is both old and young. It has a much longer history than its years of independence would suggest. Indeed, the island has too much history for too little geography, and therefore too many unnecessary problems. It is also a young country, much younger in terms of demographics than the working of the human biological clock that at fifty nine would already be winding down. A full quarter of Lanka’s 20 million people are under thirteen years of age, nearly one half under 25 years, and close to two thirds are below 35 years. A young country with young life expectations and attendant challenges, but paradoxically sacrificing a disproportionate number of its youth to the all consuming political fratricide that has been on a roll since 1983, perhaps since 1971.

After independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has neither been able to shake off the shackles of history nor to effectively meet the expectations of its young population. Calling Sri Lanka a failed state would be more emotional than analytical, but one has to strive hard to compose a convincing success story about the country based on its political and economic performances after independence. The pathetic failure to properly manage the tsunami reconstruction works and the rehabilitation of the tsunami victims is the latest symptom of our continuing malaise.

Even our generally remarkable achievements in social welfare are being vitiated by the pressures of globalization and the never ending ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka has high rates of life expectancy, comparable to developed countries, for both men (71 years) and women (77 years), but faces enormous challenges in youth unemployment, social and physical infrastructure deficits, regional disparity and rural poverty.

[A scene on Trincomalee-Anuradhapura highway in Ratmale – Pic: HumanityAshore]

Yet, many sections of the population have experienced socially mobility and cultural contentment. Although the opportunities and outlets for their talents and creativity have been limited, Sri Lankans have done well whenever they were able to find such opportunities and outlets. One such opportunity and outlet where all Sri Lankans have been united in appreciating the accomplishments of their compatriots is in the game of cricket, the most positive legacy of colonialism to South Asia. But cricket itself has not been spared the ordeals of political interference and mismanagement, and kudos to our merry band of cricketers who have surpassed everyone’s expectations despite the roadblocks and distractions they have had to encounter.

The inability of the country to absorb and employ its own qualified and employable population has led to massive exodus of its professional classes since the 1960s, and the current export of young women and men as domestics and workers to Malaysia and the Middle East. Sri Lanka probably has the highest per capita rate in the world for losing high caliber academics, doctors and engineers to other countries.

When Sri Lanka became independent, I.D.S. Weerawardena, the political scientist, pointed to the then prevailing high rate of employment of domestic servants as a disturbing sign of social and economic backwardness. Now sixty years later, and thirty years of them under the much vaunted open economy, the country is exporting maids to the world. Sri Lankan women workers carry the proverbial double burden, not only as homemakers but also as wage workers. Women are the principal workforce in the three main sources of national income: the tea plantations, the garment industry, and foreign employment remittances. Women, mostly poor women in the hinterland, also carry the material and emotional burdens of sacrificing their husbands, fathers and brothers to the war.

The South Asian Family

In the South Asian family, Sri Lanka is bigger than Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives, may be performing better than Pakistan and Bangladesh, but cannot claim to have progressed to the same qualitative extent as India in regard to (a) consolidation as a nation-state, (b) the establishment of a consistently liberal democratic and constitutional polity, and (c) the foundation and takeoff of the national economy.

The partition of British India was a huge betrayal of the subcontinent’s freedom struggle and fatally wounded the newly created West and East wings of Pakistan, with the latter separating almost in a preordained manner into Bangladesh within twenty five years of British departure. For India, as it turned out, the partition proved to be a blessing in disguise, particularly in consolidating the residual but still massive nation-state. While immeasurably weakening the cause of the Muslims, the partition increased the “specific weight” of the Southern States, as Hector Abhayavardhana used to put it, and prevented a north-south schism of the Indian nation-state.

The Congress Party became the sole inheritor of the mantle of the independence struggle and party of government of indepent India. It acquired a near unanimous support in the country in setting up and delivering on the agenda of national unity, constitutional government and planned economic development. Rather triumphantly, Jawaharlal Nehru declared that “India is the Congress, and the Congress is India”, and the equation held until his death in 1964, quite productively for India. More important, the builders who came later, despite the not infrequent deviations and malpractices, have by and large kept faith with the hopes expectations of the founding fathers.

The Indian political and constitutional system has not only survived but remarkably matured in the face many challenges: the reorganization of state boundaries, the disintegration of the Congress and the emergence of regional political parties, the egotistical and centralizing spell of Indira Gandhi, the crises in Punjab and Assam, as well as the more recent asecular, Hinduthva madness of the BJP. The Indian economy is growing from strength to strength as the two Asian giants, China and India, are fundamentally changing the balance of forces in the world economy.

Reversals and Reciprocals

In contrast, Sri Lanka’s problems are the result of what the country did not have and what its political leaders failed to do or did wrongfully. The task of national unification at the time of independence was not a serious challenge in Sri Lanka and therefore did not necessitate a substantial political response unlike in India. All that was done was elitist patching up in Colombo and national unity was taken too much for granted. The celebration of national identities and symbols was systematically discouraged during the first years of independence by the superficially westernized elites and the stage was set for the eruption of conflicting ethnic identities from 1956 onward.

Neither did Sri Lanka have a vehicle like the Indian Congress to manage its transition from colonial rule to home rule. The Ceylon National Congress, a mendicant apology in the best of times, was long gone, and the United National Party that formed the first government had been hurriedly cobbled together primarily to contest the 1947 election. It was not a mass or broad based party, like the Indian Congress, but a collection of notables around the core of a father figure (D.S. Senanayake), his son, and his cousins and nephews.

However, as the island’s first Prime Minister, Mr. D.S. Senanayake did grow in stature in office and would have left a more durable founding legacy but for his machinations to ensure that he would be succeeded by his son, Dudley Senanayake. This led to the breakaway of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike from the government, and the deceased father was succeeded first by his son and then by his blundering nephew, Sir John Kotelawela. The Senanayake-Bandaaranaike schism would plague the country for decades to come, feudalizing its politics and maligning its constitutional development.

Both D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had a more inclusive concept of a Sri Lankan nation than what had been deduced from their rather aberrational acts, namely, the disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils under the former in 1949, and the latter’s Sinhala Only Act in 1956. They both tried to compensate for these aberrations; to wit, Senanayake’s rapprochement with G.G. Ponnambalam and his inflexible support for the use of both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, as well as Bandaranaike’s formal agreement with S.J.V. Chelvanayakam in regard to regional autonomy and Tamil language rights.

Tragically, these inclusive positions of the two leaders were recklessly jettisoned by their successors, John Kotelawela (1953-1956) and Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1960-1965 and 1970-1977) who succeeded her slain husband as his residual heir. The former clownishly turned the language question into political hara-kiri, while the latter could not understand the need for structural solutions to minority claims that her late, lamented husband had the capacity to envision. She simplistically thought that having Tamil and Muslim friends and co-opting them for concessions was all that was needed to address the political concerns of the minorities. These reversals in the South have been duly reciprocated in the North over time by the rise of separatism and the abandonment of the ideal of a united but restructured Lanka that Ponnambalam, Chelvanayakam and practically every Tamil born before 1956 genuinely believed in.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Print this page