The ‘Post-colonial Grip’ and ‘Class Domination’: Sinhalese Upper and Middle Classes

Image courtesy Thuppahi’s blog

At a time where there is much discussion on how the Western powers are dominating the world, in particular the global South including countries such as Sri Lanka, it is important to examine how other forms of domination in the post-colonial era have replaced the domination created by such powers during the colonial era.  Such domination essentially involves local mechanisms of command and control aligned with international dimensions. In this paper I am looking at the concept of class domination.  In a previous paper, I examined the concept of caste domination (See Ground Views 30.01.2014).  Internal domination cannot be substituted with external domination, as some writers tend to do.  They need to be looked at as two different constructs while giving due regard to their intrinsic characteristics and relationships.  To understand how class domination is constructed and maintained, we have to look at the nature of class composition, class dynamics, class relations as well as who belong in each class?  Changing nature of classes and class segments/fractions also has to be considered. This paper focuses on the upper and middle classes in Sri Lanka with an emphasis on the domination thesis.

Critical examination of domination-subordination is important because of its relevance to various intellectual discourses on equality, social justice, human rights and even issues of poverty, alienation and exclusion.  For example, some may tend to explain poverty as a condition one is born into due to poverty cycles in families, communities, groups, castes, and classes etc. not realising that it is a socially, economically and politically constructed concept and a condition. Socio-political, economic, and cultural systems can keep producing poverty due to the constant ‘extraction of surplus labour’ in terms of profits and ‘the appropriation/alienation of the wealth of a nation’.  This process of extraction and appropriation in the Marxist sense produce ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Societies also produce unique discourses as to why this happens, and when it happens what to do?  Class obligations are also devised in order to address disparities resulting from the extraction and appropriation processes e.g. various acts of philanthropy.  With post-colonisation processes (popularly known as independence), those who appropriate the wealth of nations and extract surplus labour have changed hands.  New arrangements have been devised and new arguments to justify these have also been created by using modern technology, business terminologies, and knowledge devices.  In order to find out how the global economy is interlinked with those at the helm of corporate sectors and public spheres, one has to critically look at the ways and means of creating and perpetuating internal dominations of various sorts.

There have been numerous sociological writings in various forms about the Sinhalese middle class, including some doctoral theses about the nature and dynamics of class and class relations in Sri Lanka, e.g. Siri Hettige, K.T.Silva, Kumari Jayewardene.  Some classic Sinhala novels have also articulated the changing nature of Sinhalese classes, e.g. Gamperaliya by Martin Wickramasinghe, novels by Gunadasa Amarasekera.  Examining this topic can be rewarding at a time like today because of the socio-political roles that the middle class play or not play, out migration of middle class professionals, the role they play in the country’s development and Buddhist activities.  It is also a topic of interest because Sri Lanka’s higher education systems continue to produce graduates in key disciplines many of who in turn become professionals, activists, and leaders in various fields.  I myself am someone who travelled this path from small beginnings to be an academic at University of Peradeniya (until 1986) and then the University of New England, Australia-since 1990.  Life, research and work in the two countries provide me a unique vantage point to comment on the topic.

There is considerable debate and discussion among Sociologists about the definition of class and class fractions within class, particularly middle class (MC).  Some divide MC to two segments as ‘upper’ and ‘lower’.  Professionals with other assets and income sources belong in the former.  School teachers, clerks, policemen and even soldiers with only a single or double income can belong in the latter. Income and occupation are key markers of class along with other assets a person or family hold. A debate existed in the sociology literature as to where the small businessmen or farmers with land belong?  These occupations were considered as displaying petty-bourgeoisie (capitalist) characteristics as their aim is to produce a profit from their activities in contrast to someone who is only earning an income from a job in the government or private sector.  Those earning an income from a job are characterised as ‘labouring class’ also because they serve the interests of capital, e.g. tea plantation workers.  Many of them can belong in the working class.

Class-consciousness is an important dimension in class discussions.  Because the mere fact that someone belongs in a given class does not mean that he/she carries relevant class-consciousness.  Various ideologies operational in a given society can inculcate a different consciousness among the middle or working class, e.g religious, ethnic, political ideologies. Nonetheless, middle class consciousness or mentality is generally capitalist or bourgeoisie, meaning many tend to value an economic system based on capitalist logic, i.e. invest and make profits by employing labour and machinery.  This underlying mentality or consciousness is then mixed with the trappings of middle class life style reflected in such things as modern cars, houses, mini estates and bungalows, education of children in English medium schools or abroad, dress, Use of English language, modern household contents, use of maids and other domestic servants.

During the British colonial period, the Sinhalese middle class was bifurcated into two segments, i.e. English speaking and Sinhala speaking.  The English-speaking segment had the opportunity to obtain an English medium school education, to attend University of Ceylon or another English University in the UK, or indeed to obtain a professional qualification from either Ceylon or Britain.  Many in this segment were able to enter Ceylon administrative service, become lawyers and doctors, priests or academics.  Some were converted to Christianity or Catholicism.  They maintained close professional and more importantly social relations with the officials of the British administration and/or commercial and agricultural establishments run by the British nationals in Ceylon.  Sporting and club activities of various sorts became meeting grounds if not the churches.  This close relationship offered them various privileges in terms of accumulating wealth and power, mostly bureaucratic power.  A small group of families in this category who styled themselves along English lifestyle, tastes and manners entered the political scene also starting from the state legislature. With the changes introduced to language and cultural policy in 1956 by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike government, some from this segment, mainly Burghers, ended up in Australia during and after the White Australia policy fearing discrimination and disadvantage with a Sinhalese led, highly nationalistic government.

The nature of Sinhala speaking segment of the middle class during the British colonial period is not a subject that I have special expertise on.  Readers can go to various historical sources to discover aspects of this segment.  The introduction of free education – following Kannangara education reforms, the conversion of the language of administration and instruction in educational institutions to Sinhala, expansion of school education to rural areas, increased mobility of young people from rural areas to the city, opening of university education to those from rural areas on the basis of a district quota system, making university education available through mother tongue, translation of English reference books to Sinhala, etc. allowed many Sinhala speaking persons from middle class –both upper and lower- to enter universities and pursue courses of study in not only medicine and engineering but also economics, sociology, commerce, accountancy and more. The government bureaucracy – mainly on the basis of political recommendations, absorbed many of these graduates.  When mega-scale development projects like Mahaweli river development was in progress, many engineers, settlement officers and the like found employment there.

One obvious fact about this segment is that English became their second language. They would learn English at the university, through private tuition classes or indeed self-study.  I myself learned English this way at the University of Ceylon through the English sub-department led by Dr. Abrew and also through a range of private tuition classes in Kandy and Gampaha (for 6 months).  Their English accent is quite different from those in the English-speaking segment.  Grammar is also problematic, so was the writing. Nonetheless they acquired a working knowledge of English language sufficient to get by in terms of academic or professional demands of the day.

While the influence of English speaking segment was decreasing in time to come, the influence of Sinhala speaking segment increased during the 70s, 80s and 90s.  This was because many entered Sri Lanka administration service and associated services in the central bank etc. to become influential bureaucrats, government consultants or advisors, and in some cases politicians from both major parties and alliances. Others became entrepreneurs. Significant number of this segment received their education in city based premiere high schools such as Ananda, Nalanda, Royal, St. Thomas in Colombo or Trinity, Kingswood, Dharmaraja in Kandy or Mahinda in Galle.  A few of these high schools followed a very Buddhist ethos, e.g. Ananda or Nalanda but others continued their school traditions in sports etc. that they inherited from the colonial times.  Through the old boys and girls networks alumni within and outside Sri Lanka maintained close contacts.  However, many members of the segment received their education in rural high schools. Thus they bring in a peasant outlook into their thinking and activities when they enter the university or professions elsewhere which in time to come changes to a more urbane outlook in some cases.  This dichotomy between rural and urban exists in subtle forms in the lives of adult members of this segment and even their children to some extent.

The class-consciousness of this Sinhala speaking segment is apparent to varying degrees depending on all these roots, influences, and experiences. A few are active in the political scene.  Many hold political views but they express them in private occasions with friends and family only fearing that the chances of promotions etc. will be in jeopardy if they speak out e.g. those in the central and provincial bureaucracies.  These range from supporting the government of the day to being highly critical.  Yet another group supports working class political parties or trade union activities. The Sinhala-speaking segment engages in Sinhala cultural activities including drama, religious ceremonies and rituals, social events like weddings and funerals, trips within and beyond Sri Lanka, as well as reading primarily Sinhala newspapers and TV shows like teledramas.  Some are active in alumni organisations. They connect with the rest of society in real and symbolic terms via these activities. By and large, the large majority are apolitical, working hard to improve their lot in life and ensure their children’s future prosperity.  It is this manifestly ‘apolitical character’ of the majority of Sinhala speaking middle class that allows professional politicians from the political class (who have middle class origins but move up quickly to the upper class once in power) to speak on their behalf, represent them in parliament and elsewhere, and make claims on their behalf also. In fact there is a competition among professional politicians to convince this segment that their political agenda is the right one and for this purpose they are willing and able to spend millions of rupees during campaigns.  Their own deep roots in the cities and villages, kin groups, friendship groups, professions help them in this task.

If there is any ideology influencing this segment, it is basically ethnic and religious, i.e. Sinhala Buddhist or nationalistic –defined as the love of the country and its history.  They not only want the unity of the country preserved, but also support the armed forces and the political leaders –while carrying some mild criticisms depending on the issue whether it is corruption, maladministration, or inter ethnic equality or reconciliation.  They are extremely nationalistic also.  A rare few hold liberal ideas based on a deep understanding of the meaning of Western democracy.  But the majority have not inherited the concepts, traditions or institutional knowledge from Sri Lanka’s democratic governance system that existed immediately before and after the independence in 1948.  This is partly the failure of school education system.  Partly it is also the result of failing mainstream political parties, and to some extent the media.  The war with the LTTE since 1983 and the violence ensued also played a major role in hardening attitudes about governance, devolution, and even democracy.

The lack of deep knowledge and understanding about the meaning of true democracy gained from Sri Lanka’s past by the Sinhala speaking segment of the middle class is a severe blow to rejuvenating it in the post-conflict era coupled with the apolitical nature described above.

In the political arena, in particular national arena, the role of upper middle class is critical. Political leadership is reflective of mainly the upper class and to some extent upper middle class.  Even if some enters politics from upper middle class beginnings, they quickly develop to be members of the ‘upper class’ exercising not only political control but also social control on many fronts. They develop their economic bases systematically while strengthening international links substantially.  Thus the Cultural Revolution that started in 1956 has continued until now with ups and downs in one form or another facilitating the elevation of many individuals from average backgrounds to the professions including politics.  There is no reason to believe that it will not continue into the future also. The lower middle class segment is more important in the national legislature and the provincial governments in Sinhala speaking areas. However, most in the provincial governments follow party lines. To my knowledge, a very few or no independents have entered them.  This reflects badly on the nature of electoral representation in the country.

The English-speaking segment has also been emboldened increasingly due to the expansion of international schools and the availability of English medium education offered by foreign institutions abroad and within the country itself.  This trend has been visible since the expansion of Sri Lankan diaspora on one hand and the deliberate expansion of higher education and vocational education by countries in the English-speaking world. Some of the graduates from overseas education institutions return but many chose to stay overseas as liberal immigration policies in destination countries allow them to do so.  Given the expanding nature of the global economy and the corporate sector employment opportunities are also available for these graduates to find work.  Nonetheless, the ability of such graduates to navigate two or more systems in the corporate world –whether it is finance, accounting, business, tourism, or health – and the cultural capital accumulated has allowed them to be in a slightly more advantageous position compared to the Sinhala speaking segment of the middle class. Their education shows some global characteristics and acquired knowledge also is potentially applicable in a diverse country contexts.  Some join the UN system or the NGO system.  Their political influence is not yet clear-cut but in time to come their influence in the professional world can be crucial if the country further develops along the neoliberal model.

There are links between the two segments also as much as there are differences and disparities.  This is a subject requiring further research and reflection.  How this plays out among the Tamil speaking population also requires further examination and comment.

The upper class (not the upper middle class) has entertained those moving upward from their upper middle class backgrounds but it is still characterised by English speaking and Sinhala Speaking (also for that matter Tamil speaking) members.  Most are from the political class, business class, the military, landed gentry or those who control large scale construction, media, other enterprises such as import-export, private hospitals, tourist resorts and hotels, national agencies of foreign companies, some professionals and even clergy.  Among them are also heads of various hierarchies and diplomats.  Status symbolism is a paramount feature of this class.  Not all members of this class are politicised but many have access to political leaders if need be.

Some in this class are those with lineage to Radala /Walavva families who were prominent during the British colonial era and earlier times.  But their influence has waned over the years in the politics of the country. Personal life style of members include chauffer driven cars, holiday houses in Nuwara Eliya, Kandy or other destinations, sets of domestic servants for cooking, cleaning, childcare, gardening etc., close kinship links with wealthy families and in some cases politically powerful families, education of children in sought after premiere city schools or overseas, and the conspicuous consumption in some cases.  Being bilingual (or even multilingual), a segment of this class displays cosmopolitan and refined characteristics.  Strong diaspora links exist with relatives, friends, and business partners who live in other countries (this is even stronger among the upper class Tamil or Muslim members extending to India, Pakistan and certain middle eastern countries).  Taken together, this class –though invisible to some extent- controls vast extents of land, businesses, enterprises, trade, etc. in the country. Some actually engage in ‘conspicuous consumption’. As the influence of old walavva families waned, new members, particularly from political and professional families who found new sources of wealth and power have been incorporated into this class. Thus there can be class fractions within the upper class –a subject requiring further investigation and clarification.

Though inner circles and families exert much influence, political leaders of mainstream parties need the assistance and active cooperation from all classes and their fractions ‘below the upper class’ in their electoral campaigns and party activities. Speakers, organisers, financiers and activists drawn from upper middle class complement those from the upper class. Those from the lower middle class and working class fill the rallies to form the audience.  Some poor individuals also attend such rallies.  Sri Lankan politics is overwhelmed by political discourses run through the ears of the masses via the media –print, TV and radio, and internet based papers. Main dichotomy is still about who won the war and eliminated terrorism, vast infrastructure and other development activities, who is better compared to the opposition, and who can safeguard the sovereignty of the country.  Money politics is abundantly visible as election campaigns are expensive affairs.  Vehicles, party offices, feeding party activists and officials, banners and posters, advertising in the media, building stages all cost enormous amounts of money.  Visibility among the voting public needs to be assured before the elections day through such means.  As opponents remove posters overnight or opponent’s posters are pasted on the existing ones, a constant flow of poster pasting has become necessary.  No wall, tree, or a bridge is spared in this poster pasting exercise.  It appears that the election campaigns have become Americanised!

After elections, the winning party or parties form an alliance to govern the country.  Influence of the upper class and upper middle class elements continue in every nook and corner but the majority of lower middle and working class supporters are by and large forgotten by the politicians once in power. They are only given what is their due by using the ‘katath bedana handa’ (the spoon used to deliver goods and services to the masses). The voters in these classes do not have an effective avenue of putting pressure on the politicians once they are in power until the next Election Day. This is because there are organised labour in the cities and tea plantations in the form of trade unions, yet in the rural areas such organisations are either lacking or ineffective. Instead what one finds is the operation of patron-client relations cutting across class lines. Thus the lower classes  leave governance to politicians –whether they perform the task satisfactorily or not. When frustrations build up due to the way the country is run by a particular set of politicians, the people resort to religious rituals or become silent observers.  A few engage in critical commentary on social occasions, among friends and family, or through the media. Some vote for the main opposition parties. Others join smaller parties such as the JVP, JHU and the like.

‘Class domination’ by the upper class and upper middle class –including participants from lower middle class during election campaigns- is thus a significant phenomenon in contemporary society. Politicians become ‘the speakers’, claimants to all the knowledge/information, truth, power and wealth while the masses who belong to middle to lower classes become the disempowered audience and listeners. There are perpetual discourses, debates and discussions being broadcast by the politically powerful and those in the opposition parties targeted toward a captive audience. However, a significant number in the audience switch off such discourses, debates and discussions after a while as there is nothing new either in the justifications offered, what is being said or indeed due to the monotony and loudness of the messages and messengers. The public realise that old records are being played out with novel features.  As the old saying goes, new wine in old bottles.

Power and wealth–acquired directly and indirectly- makes the politicians a dominant segment of the upper and upper middle class when compared to others who only have wealth and status or professional skills and repute.  Apparent subjugation of hitherto semi-autonomous arenas such as universities, the media, police, judiciary or the security forces to the will of political leadership completes the circle of domination.  Thus there are ‘dominators’ and ‘dominated’ in the country.  The former category uses a range of instruments of power, knowledge and persuasion to achieve its objective of realising total power rather than relative power.  Under this situation, ‘the colonial grip’ that existed before independence has been replaced by what can be termed  ‘post colonial grip’ . Losers are the majority population at the bottom rung of society who don’t know what’s happening because of the uneven effect of powerful discourses being put through their ears by using mass media, political rallies and other shows.  Winners are the political class.

Thus class and political domination go hand in hand.  To get out of this situation of domination and be free, the masses in all classes need to first understand the nature of this ‘post-colonial grip’ and its bases carefully crafted by the political class over a period of time, how it disenfranchises and disempowers the population in the lower classes, and what to do to change the situation by transforming the self-serving political culture?  By the same token, one has to carefully examine the nature of contemporary surplus extraction and public wealth appropriation processes plus the causes and conditions of poverty.

This paper did not examine the nature and role of the corporate sector in any detail in relation to the class domination thesis. Nor did it examine the cultural or gender dimensions in depth. Instead it focused on the political and social dimensions of class domination. The former can indeed be other aspects that require considerable research, retrospection and commentary.

  • sajeeva samaranayake

    Thank you for this thoughtful and useful examination of the relations of domination. Have you seen any evidence of effective “cross cultural” dialogue and interrogation between the English educated and Sinhala educated Sinhalese where boundaries were crossed and mutual understanding furthered in the post 1948 era?

    • Siri Gamage

      Members of these two segments encounter each other in many places,e.g.politics,various professions, business, administration, higher education, diaspora. In Australia for example, the English speaking segment has its own temples, clubs and societies. Ceylon Society in Sydney, Sri Lanka Association of NSW . In Melbourne, Malvern Buddhist temple was known for English speaking Sinhalese. many subsequent temples were established by Sinhala speaking segment there. Similar story in Brisbane.Many Sinhala speaking segment members dud not feel comfortable going to Malvern temple. It was referred to as doctors temple. The point us that members of these two segments meet sometimes in various venues and contexts but to my knowledge instead of effective dialogue, there seems to be continuing segregation. subtle class differences expressed through language prevent close interaction between two segments. Rare examples of close interaction may be found though. I first wrote about this subject in the book Conflict and community in Sri Lanka edited by me and I b Watson, sage in the Kate 90s.

  • Akbo Rupasinghe

    This article is like looking in the mirror. Thank you. It seems that even in the pre-colonial era, the society was essentially divided in to the two segments of “dominators” and “dominated”. In the course of the world history this “dominator” – “dominated” division seems to have been dominating the dynamics of civilization. Thus it might be the case that it is THE element that keeps the civilization going forward. If such is the case, what should be sought, is the optimum structure of social responsibilities and ethics that minimizes the suffering of the humankind and the sustainability of the globe; what should be the corrective actions that require to take the current society to that path. So, I (like many) look forward to your complimentary analysis of other aspect you have mentioned in the final paragraph.

  • Jayalath

    A golden article . It is very well constructed with full of details how the class system work in Sri Lanka and else where .