The cherished Maya Angelou wrote once in her famous poem ‘Caged Bird’:
[T]he caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Freedom. That is what one associates with independence. Freedom from alien subjugation, domination and exploitation. Christian List and Laura Valentini write in a recent paper that freedom must be understood as ‘[i]ndependence. Like republican freedom, it demands the robust absence of relevant constraints on action. Unlike republican, and like liberal freedom, it is not moralised’.
My beloved father remembered very well that he, born in 1943, had to observe the flag ceremony in his early childhood when he went to nursery. He had to sing ‘God Bless the King’ and salute the Union Jack. Sri Lankans sang the British national anthem even after ‘Independence’, until it was replaced by Sinhala text in the 1950s. My father, however, never understood the concept of paying respect to a foreign flag and an old white man who warmed the throne in a distant palace – only then being replaced by a flag that shows a lion holding the sword towards the green and orange stripes (which represent the Tamil and Muslim) minorities and a Sinhala national anthem. Early moments in his childhood and youth determined his fate to become Vannai Ananthan.
I, as his son, gaze at this island now. As Sri Lanka celebrates its 70th Independence Day today, on the 4th of February 2018, I wonder: did the country and its people, however, really attain independence on that day and ever after? Did all the people living in Sri Lanka become truly independent, empowered and sovereign citizens? I will explore and explain here that Sri Lanka gained formalised independence in 1948, only to be the eventual springboard for the elaboration of a Sinhala nation state. The Soulbury Constitution, the country’s first post-colonial constitution with poor human rights protection, was a document drafted by the British to suit the country’s elite. Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham ascertains:
[I]n contrast to the fissiparous tensions that characterised the colonial experience in India, the small island of Sri Lanka seemed to gently and courteously accomplish its own independence with the minimum of fuss on 4 February 1948. (…) In fact many ‘dignified’ elements of British culture remained. ‘God Save the King’ was retained as the National Anthem, the Union Jack flew next to the Lion flag on public buildings, Imperial Honours were still bestowed, Sri Lankan debutantes were still presented at Buckingham Palace – and there were also key personnel who stayed in their posts and thus ensured a smooth and reassuring transition.
February 4 – The enabling moment of Sinhala majoritaranism
D.B.S. Jeyaraj writes that ‘[T]he modern Ceylonese nation itself was a colonial construct. It was the British who integrated different territories under their control into a single entity and set up a unified administration for the country.’ This is indeed true. The Kandyan Convention 1815 laid the groundwork for the country as we know it today. The 4th of February 1948 and the transition of power to the privileged few, however, was an early chapter in the Sinhala nation state creation. D.S. Senanayake became the chosen one to lead the country. He, I argue, is unfairly attributed by Sir Charles Jeffries to be the incomparable statesman and navigator. He wrote in his book ‘Ceylon – the Path to Independence’ that it was the trust the British put in Senanayake to craft a common nation, home to all. This was a naïve, if not a reckless assumption. It was the same D.S. Senanayake who oversaw the Gal Oya Scheme that initiated the colonisation of Tamil lands and it was the same D.S. Senanayake who was part of the country’s first inter-ethnic riots between the Sinhala and Muslims in 1915. Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham explains further that:
[S]ri Lanka’s elite operated British institutions in an anachronistic eighteenth-century manner such as in having a patronage based Cabinet dominated by its prime ministerial leader/patron rather than by collegial attitudes or values. The weakness of party institutionalisation and the ambiguity in the constitutional arrangements laid the foundations for future political conflict and marginalisation of segments of society.
However, I argue that the 4th of February was only the springboard to build a Sinhala-Buddhist ethnocratic nation state order. Sri Lanka’s process of becoming a Sinhala nation state was a process in the making, starting with the Citzenship Act 1948, rendering Indian Tamils stateless. The previous constitutions of the country, in particular the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission and the Donoughmore Constitution (despite all their progressive facets) formalised identities and entrenched suspicion among communal lines. Sinhala-Buddhism ideology was exploited for the furtherance and entrenchment of political power. As Kumari Jayawardena asserts:
[T]he differing ethnic and religious groups, composed of persons who had made their pile and were in search of ‘identity’ emerged to assert their superiority, exclusiveness and a right to a place in the sun. The most assertive was the majority Sinhala community, which developed a consciousness of beings ‘sons of the soil’, positioning itself against minorities (regarded as ‘aliens’) and more importantly, making claims to represent the ‘nation,’ while critically commenting on foreign rule.
The election victory of SWRD Bandaranaike on the 10th of April 1956, who had readily understood and exploited the growing Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism in the country, provided the groundwork for the adoption of the First Republican Constitution in 1972 (and later the Second Republican Constitution in 1978). To this end, the 10th of April 1956 was the harbinger of the 22nd of May 1972, the true independence of Sinhala nation state with its first autochthonous prime document that crowned the Sinhala-Buddhist as -self-perceived- heirs and sons-of soil of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile it was the day of continued marginalisation of the minority communities, being doomed to be second-class citizens.
Colonial domination was replaced by majoritarian hegemony
The minorities in the country, never attained true freedom – their subjugation to an external ruler was only replaced by an internal ruler who validated his legitimacy by an ancient myth, the Mahavamsa. The election victory in 1956 that I had referred to in the previous section resumed a train of events, which had started with the Citizenship Act: the ‘Pro Sinhala Act’, the 1956 inter-ethnic riots, the 1958 inter-ethnic riots. The list can be continued to elucidate the growing display of Michel Foucault’s ‘biopower’: he held the view that -in biopolitics- the social body must ensure the maintenance of its survival and for this reason was entitled to kill others and wars were carried out to ensure the existence of the social body as such.
Sinhala-Buddhism as a state ideology is a continuous force that underpins rule – the First and Second Republican Constitutions were, as the late Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam formulated, ‘[instrumental] constitutions’, entrenching a majoritarian hegemony. Both constitutions stipulated and gave validity to the overarching narrative of the Sinhala-Buddhists, with the minorities being the inferior citizens in a virtual dominance of the majority. The events from Black July 1983 are a constant reminder of our darkest past. Sriskanda Rajah accurately sums up:
[T]o sum up, the use of the terror of ‘lawlessness’ in July 1983 paved the way for the state to not only assert the Mahavamsa based all-island sovereignty claim of the Sinhala Buddhist people and the power of death that they had over the Tamils, but also produced three effects of battle: the elimination of a section of the ‘enemy’ race; destruction and possession of parts of their properties; and the expulsion of a section of them from the Sinhala areas, and to an extent from the island’s shores.
The victory of the Sri Lankan army over the ferocious Tamil Tigers in 2009, bringing an end to the civil war of over 26 years was a catharsis moment for the Sinhala majority: the invocation of Duthugemmenu’s victory and, perhaps, the reclaiming of the desired land. Perhaps, the 18th of May 2009 was the renewal of the Sinhala independence of the 22nd of May 1972. Telling enough are the scenes of triumphant celebrations in Colombo in the aftermath of the victory. It was not only the celebration of war victory, it was the renaissance of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation state.
A home for many, but one nation to none
The current Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirisena is correct in one of his early presidential speeches that post-colonial constitutions have never unified the different ethnic communities. The Sri Lanka state is a violent Leviathan, using the powers vested in him to spread fear. In fear, there is no freedom. The existing emergency regulations permeate a continuing status quo, where suspicion towards any non-Sinhala-Buddhist is paramount (one may also think of the continued military presence in the public). Fear deprives us of freedom. If one visits the northern and eastern part of the country, the ethnic dominance through war memorials celebrates military victory in 2009 against the Tamil Tigers. This memorialising manner offers a particular perspective on the civil war. As Thyagi Ruwanpathirana writes for a paper of the Centre for Policy Alternatives:
[A]side from serving as spaces for photo opportunities for war tourists, they (i.e. the government) have had limited success beyond sidelining, isolating, discriminating, victimising, creating unease and further marginalising stakeholders in the communities in which they are located (and others geographically far removed), where the mourning of their own loved ones has been faced with sustained military obstruction. The enduring divisiveness and tensions between ethnic communities have been cemented through such monuments and they have the capacity to fuel further cycles of hate and revenge.
Sri Lanka is a divided country. During my youth I met and worked with Sri Lankan youth from all communities to engage in multicultural understanding of all communities who were from the island. I will, however, never forget an incident I came across in my fruitless endeavour: I was asked if I speak “Sri Lankan” by a Sinhala youth. I was confused and soon understood what this person’s thinking was; Sinhala equals being Sri Lankan. It was a pattern that I have seen and heard very often in Sri Lanka and abroad. Sri Lanka and its people never attained real freedom. The departure of the British was only replaced by the elitist domination of a Sinhala power group, whose ‘Machtgier’, i.e. thirst for power was hijacked by a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Sri Lanka, in its current state, evolved from an aristocratic democracy to a militarised ethnocracy, leaving limited space for minority rights to prosper, let alone integrating all communities to be part of one nation.
There is the first stanza of a beautiful Irish song by Michael McConnell, which my father taught me in early childhood. It captures the thirst for genuine freedom:
[W]hen apples still grow in September when blossoms still bloom on each tree
When leaves are still green in November it’s then that our land will be free
I wander her hills and her valleys and still through my sorrow I see
A land that has never known freedom, only her rivers run free
Sri Lanka may have gained today, 70 years ago, its first step towards its own independence after more than two hundred years of British rule. But the ‘independence’ never translated into true freedom for all people who consider the island as their home. Instead, the caged birds sing of freedom, gazing at the rivers that run free.
Editor’s Note: To view more content around 70 years of Independence, click here.