Featured image courtesy Adithya Ailes/InterPress News

To understand the process of indirect colonisation of the non-white countries in Asia and Africa is to work through the splitting of society in two. When overwhelming power came externally to crush the natives and their identity, the stage was set for an unequal race by which a local elite would acquire the trappings of Western culture.

Colonies were selectively developed and the coloniser took what he needed and neglected the rest. The rural countryside was largely untouched by colonisation and its plantations, roads and railways and the supportive governmental structures.

In Sri Lanka the people never rejected monarchy on any constitutional grounds. The British simply exploited a situation to drive out a king who had become unpopular. There were no republican roots at the beginning. All the subsequent ideas about equality, rule of law, democracy and independence of the judiciary were imperial lessons. Social welfare in the 1930’s and 40’s was likewise a lesson derived from Socialist Britain. Our social welfare report in 1947 was written by the all-knowing Sir Ivor Jennings. In place of an organic society which had evolved through centuries we now had a British product – an institutionalised society lacking any of the attributes of freedom. The colonial legacies of formality, impersonality and superficiality would be used post 1948 to cover up this social death and functions and ceremonies would proliferate to normalize inequalities.

When the coloniser left in 1948 there were two societies – those who understood the language of governance (English) and those who did not. A simple change of governance into the vernacular merely inducted a few more outsiders into the elite class without changing the status based structure of society itself. Those who made it into the have’s conveniently forgot about the have nots. Just take a trip in public transport today to get this point directly.

A simple (but fundamental) task of decolonisation was to bring all citizens into one society and thus strengthen the social citizenship of the island. We struggled to make a reality of what remained a formal status of equality written into Constitutions and laws. This is because we had – with colonisation traded our free birth and equality for the pre-occupations with wealth, power and prestige. In Sri Lanka you must be ‘somebody’ (amongst a lot of nobodies) to be respected. If you look around the white skin remains extremely popular as well!

The social welfare state that emerged in the late colonial period was probably the last great achievement in the post 1815 modern period of governance ever. Nothing comparable was ever set up thereafter. It was an unsung social revolution completed by the liberal British and Sri Lankans with a great contribution by the local socialist leadership. Post 1948 politics in a globalised economy where we had to make it alone would undermine and dissolve this social commitment.

Thus, instead of creating one society we have institutionalised a dual economy after 1977 where the quality focused private sector would serve the urbanized middle classes and a quantity focused public sector would catch up the rest.

When fundamental rights and other human rights including rights of children and women were introduced into this divided society after 1977 it was like loading bottles of extra virgin coconut oil (concepts) into a lorry weighed down by coconuts (the real thing).

However, the Government had ways and means of diverting all these ‘rights’ into existing legal and administrative processes so that we could say that we are compliant in Geneva and New York. The international organisations were also content with this tokenism. And so, a happy era of human rights was to begin in Sri Lanka under the domination of neo-liberal goons, with a little hide and seek here and there, but little change for the suffering.

I fail to see how “human rights” can be a serious concept in a society where everyone, the government, society and the international promoters of human rights are all content to brush the issue of inequality and the structure of patronage that maintains it under the carpet. Of course the word is equally popular with both politicians (for NGO bashing) and the internationals (for trading their wares) but we remain a long way off track from the real thing.

When politics of welfare (practiced from 1931 to 1971) turned into politics of warfare from 1971 onwards the late colonial social welfare consensus based on a measure of fidelity to social equality would evaporate. It would be replaced by identity politics and individual rights in the new era of individualism and selfish politics to reduce the state into a communal state divided along ethnic and religious lines.

As we look back at 1977 the conclusion seems very clear. The decolonisation and social unification of Sri Lankan society was a pre-condition for the effective introduction of human rights. Without this sense of brotherhood, the Government and society would lack the capacity for absorbing human rights and all related concepts like child protection and the protection of vulnerable groups at a structural level. New-fangled ideas like networking and multi-disciplinary cooperation would not have a fertile soil to take root and grow within the vertical departmentalism of a traditional administration. The social distance between Government and society would weaken communication through top down meetings and monologues to prevent any real consensus and agreement as to problems or solutions. Let alone human rights what we can now see is a Government that is struggling to deliver on its core functions established under the Soulbury Constitution of 1948. The continuous pressure of international oversight coupled with chronic insecurity and instability within the Government has led to a situation of apathy, cynicism and hopelessness.

Human rights have become culturally determined as a blaming and punitive process that gives prominence to the police and courts. We are not receiving anything more edifying from Geneva either. It is consequently difficult to think how the perpetuation of this confusion can ever lead to the realisation of human rights in the future. Nothing but a social movement that speaks in the vernacular, will ensure that social change. The values of freedom and brotherhood must be internalized through criticism, struggle and a long march through institutions.

The international community for its part has been insensitive to the social implications of the failure of social citizenship. The post ‘77 era has been one of utter confusion sown by throwing down baskets of human rights upon a conflict ridden and divided society. It is this same society which has been ignored since the British period which keeps coming back to defeat the best laid plans of those who now shoulder the white man’s burden. Until we end this social distance and suspend all hierarchies to make sense of what is happening this merry go round will continue.

A people who lack full ownership of their own land will not be willing participants of “development.”

No less a person than the great Churchill made this confession about the Indians he purported to govern – too late in the day to make any difference for him – but at least we can learn from it now:

“When I was subaltern the Indian did not seem to me equal to the white man,” Churchill recalled in 1952. It was an attitude that, he had belatedly come to realize, had hurt the Raj.

Then he said something unlike anything he had ever said about India: “if we had made friends with them and taken them into our lives instead of restricting our intercourse to the political field, things might have been very different.” That regretful musing was a final landmark on a long journey. The opening that Gandhi had wanted had finally appeared – but too late for either of them.

Editor’s Note: Also read “Unpaid Care Work: The Overlooked Barrier in Women’s Economic Empowerment” and “Culture and Poverty in our Neo-Liberal Economy