Can we look back with pride at what we achieved during the past 70 years after independence in 1948 February? What’s our balance sheet like in terms of 70 years of socio- economic development, democracy and political stability?

We lived through two armed insurrections in the South. That ended up paving the way for a very repressive State thereafter. The first 35 years after independence, there were two communal massacres against Tamil people, the second in July 1983 being inhuman and savage, then an ethnic war that lasted 25 years. We are now locked in a “decade of refusal” in accepting and finding answers for the agonising wounds of that bloody war.  

All through these 70 years we have made generations live on borrowed money turning the country into a long term debtor of over Rs. 9 Trillion. In the process, we have widened the gap between the urban rich and rural poor with the richest 10% of the population earning an average monthly income of Rs. 220197 as against the average monthly income of Rs. 9916 for the poorest 20%. During the past 40 years, we have liberalised this economy. It is run by the very corrupt, in turn rendering the whole political establishment and every State agency including law enforcement and the judiciary inefficient, inept and corrupt. With corrupt political parties, we have reduced every democratic structure and tradition into procedural democratic rituals.

That seems to be the balance sheet at the end of 7 decades of our own elected rule after the British left us to ourselves. A balance sheet that proves we have failed miserably in ruling ourselves.     

We have failed in the two most important national issues that should have been high priority at independence. One, in establishing a nation State that could accommodate ethno-religious and linguistic diversity. A State for multicultural diversity that everyone could call his or her own. We failed, or rather did not accept it as politically important to establish a nation State for all to be treated as equals. This ignorance in developing an inclusive, plural and a secular State dragged us into war. The Muslim community was also locked into a new conflict that polarises an already fractured society. Two, we have not been able to plan a decent market- based economy that could effectively facilitate the growth of a strong and a healthy economy. One that can provide comfortable quality living to the vast majority with democratic and socially accountable governance. Afford social security for those who cannot sustain basics in life. Inability to work on a sound economy leaves 70 per cent of the population, especially the rural society with huge anomalies and heavy economic discrimination alongside a growing “filthy rich” that has led to a serious breakdown of ethics, morals and social values.

To begin independence, we were gifted with a bi-cameral Parliament elected on universal franchise in the elections held from 23 August to 20 September 1947. That Parliament was to take over governance from 04 February 1948. We had by then used the franchise twice before to elect State Councils in 1931 and then in 1936. The next State Council election that should have been held in 1941 was not held for two reasons. One was the Second World War that kept Ceylon under Japanese threat. The other was manoeuvres by the Colombo elite in negotiating independence with total support given to the British war efforts in Colombo.

The only political party that worked with the fledgling urban working class, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1940 expelled the minority group which supported the British war efforts and declared World War II as imperial war. The expelled minority group worked as the United Socialist Party that later became the Communist Party of Ceylon affiliated to the Communist International. The LSSP was banned, its leadership arrested and jailed in Bogambara. The party continued work as an underground organisation with a broader outlook than campaigning for independence. They thus crossed to India (then undivided) to establish the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI). Their political reading from an international Trotskyite stand point was that with World War II the imperialist powers can be defeated in the Indian sub continent if there is found a “working class revolutionary party”, a necessary pre- condition for Ceylon to free itself from British colonial rule. Sadly, that reading was too far-fetched for both India and Ceylon and the end of World War II left them divided not into two, but into three.

All other players involved in negotiating independence did not believe in people as their strength and was very different to the Indian freedom struggle. The freedom struggle led by the Indian National Congress brought together the diversity of India into a single national fold. There was the Bengali renaissance movement led by Rabindranath Tagore that created much intellectual social discourse and a Hindu reformist movement inspired by Sri Ramakrishna and his pupil Swami Vivekananda that led to intellectual dialogue in society more popularly called Hindu Revivalism. These intellectual social interventions in fact had their impact in British intellectual forums too.

There was also the Dravidian Movement in the South, begun as the “Self Respect Movement” against Tamil Brahminism led by S.Ramanathan and “Periyar” Ramasamy in 1921. This anti caste movement later developed into a broad Dravidian people’s movement calling for equality. All these social movements and the debates they helped create in society not only mobilised a rich social layer across India, but also nourished the Indian national movement for independence.

It was very much later when the British negotiated independence for India that Ali Jinnah pressed for a separate Pakistan for Muslim people. Jinnah was determined to have a separate Muslim Pakistan rejecting all offers by the Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi for independence as “One India”. When India achieved independence, while Ali Jinnah broke off with East and West Pakistan, the rest from West Bengal to Gujarat, from Tamil Nadu to Punjab, diversity was intact with a single, secular, federated Indian State.

Ceylon had no such political experience. People, whether the Sinhala majority, Tamil and Muslim were not brought into the process of achieving independence. Independent “Ceylon” therefore was no country that had gone through the political process of forging a conscious people’s movement with intellectual debates for a “single, secular nation”. Colombo gatherings that discussed different status of accommodating themselves in Colonial rule, were elitist and believed they were capable of deciding the fate of this country. That was evident when all the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress made submissions to the Donoughmore Commission in 1927 arguing against universal franchise. It was A.E Gunasinghe who demanded universal franchise.

The more grounded campaigns of Henry Olcott and Helena Blavatski and Dharmapala’s appeals for cultural purity and supremacy were fundamentally Sinhala Buddhist revivalist campaigns. Bandaranayake’s departure from the Ceylon National Congress in 1934 to form the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1935 was basically the political extension of this Sinhala Buddhist revival. It was Bandaranayake’s Sinhala Maha Sabha that gave the Sinhala Trader and Business community the political leadership.

Ceylon remained a backward country in social structures, in culture and in social ideology that shaped its politics. A new cultural encroachment was only changing life patterns in the Western maritime areas, previously reshaped under Dutch rule. Railway and tarred road networks, the Radio Ceylon, printing and newspapers the British introduced had their share of influence more in the Western and South Western coast and in Jaffna peninsula.

These new introductions provided social space for collective thinking and organising. A.E Gunasinghe’s labour organisations and the Temperance Movement influenced by Dharmapala, the Jaffna Students Association and other independent associations, though elite and urban the women’s “Mahila Samithi”, the presence of theatre in Colombo, all were influenced by this new social space Ceylon came to accommodate and was also influenced by migration to Colombo that created a subaltern life in a growing city with new values and life style. These developments also had considerable influence from South Indian and Malaysian migrant life. So did Christianity and borrowed Victorian puritanical values.

This was very much a Colombo-centric social process. Trade and commerce did not dismantle land ownership based village relationships. Most cultivable land, especially paddy, remained with caste based temples and Buddhist monks and with feudal rural hierarchies, keeping communities subservient. Villages thus remained with caste affiliations. Formal education that was not uniform and with no set standards (until the Kannangara Reforms became effective in 1947) nevertheless helped increase literacy, and with the expansion of preventive health after the Malaria epidemic in late 1920s and early ’30s, helped improve sanitation and hygiene.

The Ceylon that was granted independence can be likened to an ancient Bo tree that had many Oak shoots grafted to its main trunk. The Bo tree did not and could not grow as it should. The Oak shoots did grow but not as a healthy new tree. This left Ceylon with urban trade and commerce in a cosmopolitan Colombo that accepted many new structural changes without any intellectual social assimilation. The result was that it left out real and serious social discourse on national aspirations and a socially consented leadership to navigate society on a modern futuristic path.

Political leadership was lobbied and determined by the majority Sinhala trader and business community in Colombo that believed they needed to have a dominant share of the market. The initial thinking was, they should be represented with adequate influence in the new self-rule system under the Soulbury Constitution. The Sinhala Maha Sabha therefore decided to be a partner in the new political party the U.N.P under the leadership of D.S. Senanayake. They achieved partial success after independence in disenfranchising the upcountry Indian origin Tamil labour in 1948 that allowed for greater Sinhala representation in the Central and Uva provinces. Thereafter the Sinhala Maha Sabha left the UNP to form their own S.L.F.P in 1951, led by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike. The push for more nationalistic politics pandering to Sinhala votes was the result.

Without any serious alternate proposals for socio-economic development other than standing for a welfare State, the LSSP and the CP piggybacked Bandaranayake’s SLFP projecting it as anti-UNP and progressive, despite its very sectarian, racist Sinhala Buddhist politics. The rest is history. We are still left without any serious discourse on the two main issues we left aside at independence, 70 years ago.

Editor’s Note: Click here for more content around Sri Lanka’s 70th Independence Day. Click here for our video series, exploring identity and belonging on Independence Day.