Photo courtesy of Nazly Ahmed

I was introduced to the existence of a publicly shared negative attitude towards S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike for the first time at a book launch in Colombo several years ago. The author had decided to present the themes and style of her book through the dramatization of certain scenes from it. One of these scenes portrayed S.W.R.D. on his death bed, having just been shot on the verandah of his home by a person dressed in the robes of a Buddhist monk. The actor used a rich, plummy British accent, which induced much merriment in the assembled self-proclaimed lovers of the arts that evening. The presentation was a caricature; S.W.R.D. did not speak in such an exaggerated, upper class English accent so many years after returning from his studies in England.

Mocking a man on his death bed could be seen as rather a crude and mannerless thing to do, and although it seemed surprisingly vulgar to me, it was in fact a good introduction to the highly personalized, irresponsible and careless way in which people’s characters are routinely assassinated in this country.

Despite being immortalized in the form of statuary within the BMICH and outside the Presidential Secretariat, here was a man being laughed at by a group of people decades after his death in a way, at that time, I had not seen happening to the elected leader of any country.

Since then, of course, we have seen the way that the 45th President of the United States was pursued by the media, who threw off any restraint or attempt to present a balanced and unbiased presentation of the surreal events in North America’s seat of power. Publications like The New Yorker became almost unreadable because of the hatred and contempt visible in every article of its contents towards Donald Trump and his dynastic ambitions.

On Galle Face Green, where peaceful protestors have occupied public space to call for the resignation of the current government, the personal disrespect shown to the president has eclipsed anything I have ever seen or heard before. The statue of S.W.R.D. seemed to stand amazed amid the performances of anger, revenge, accusation, contempt and grief for losses of loved ones that are taking place around his plinth. Even ritual public exorcisms are being performed to free the country of its karmic distress.

Sri Lankan people tend to personalize their politics. And this is a national trait that I think should be re-evaluated. Why are the Bandaranaikes – and especially S.W.R.D. – blamed so much and so often for what the country has become when it is clear by now that other leaders have acted in many ways – both overtly and covertly – that have greatly damaged and impoverished the country?

The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 was a piece of legislation. Like any piece of legislation, it can be repealed or amended to better reflect the wishes of the people. And it could have been repealed or amended at any time since 1956.

For 74 years, it has not. Successive governments across the spectrum of politics have not succeeded in summoning the collective will to pass such amendments and make them law. At its core, the majoritarian bias of the act, the way it excludes the Tamil language and subjugates those who speak it into secondary citizenship status, is fundamentally flawed. It has been seen as an expedient political choice, made with a short term perspective of its consequences.

In 1958, the year before S.W.R.D. was assassinated, parts of the “disastrous” act were reversed in a “Sinhala Only, Tamil Also” attempt at amendment and greater ethnic parity via the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. That same year, pogroms fueled by toxic Sinhala Buddhist nationalism were launched against Tamilians and an emergency was declared in the country. Nearly 30 years later, in 1987, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution stated that the official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala while Tamil shall also be an official language with English as a link language.

The fact that S.W.R.D. is seen as a key factor in the passing of the act was symbolically shown in the tying of a black blindfold around the face of the statue of him standing outside the Presidential Secretariat. Next to him a large sign was erected saying, “Wake Up” in all three language. This occurred on April 29 and photographs of it and comments circulated on social media. Social media figures have for the past several months been selectively citing only S.W.R.D. as the sole architect of the “disastrous” Sinhala Only policy. Education is needed.

Majoritarian politics has been played for 74 years, in bloody and terrible ways, by opportunistic people, many of whom have brazenly showed no sincere feeling for this country despite taking oaths to serve in its highest positions of responsibility. Can S.W.R.D. be solely blamed for all of this? It doesn’t really seem fair.

S.W.R.D. is a name which is associated with ad hominem attacks. People foam at the mouth when his family name is mentioned, making assumptions often without investigating the facts of what has actually been said or done, and he himself is spoken of as if this one piece of legislation was the sum total of his life’s contribution. The focus is on the person, or what people think they know of the person, and not on the crucial systemic issues of governance.

If we want better governance, in 2022, we should as a people educate ourselves to govern our own – often manipulated – impulses on the one hand to elevate and worship our leaders, and on the other to denigrate them and drag them in the dust. Why not wake from our extremist stupor and interrogate the myths with which we have comforted ourselves through the devastations inflicted by multiple colonization? Why not make the decision that it’s just not only “Sinhala Only” anymore and make space for the co-existence of other citizens with equivalent centers of self?

In that context, it’s really important that the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New year rituals of boiling the milk and asking for blessing and prosperity were publicly performed in the protest space. Singing the national anthem in Sinhala was an important part of asserting the patriotism and national pride of the protestors, who from the start of the protests in March have refused to be portrayed as marginalized and lawless rebels. The Tamil version of the National anthem should also have been sung, and was on the next day.

I am informed that 90 percent of the protestors are Sinhala language speakers and from non-elite backgrounds. What has been happening organically in the people’s peaceful protests directly challenges the official narrative. That is why I would suggest that the focus of the movement should be on creation rather than destruction: the demand for just and effective structures and processes of governance rather than overthrowing regimes or revenge and retribution against individuals.

The additional challenge is the Sri Lankan appetite for spice in their news, gossip and scandal as well as their food. They add curry to everything, even bolognaise sauce and roast chicken rub. For example, in a widely shared and approved Facebook post recently, I saw cited as fact an inaccurate anecdote about SWRD.

On Sunday, April 17, a month ago, it was stated:

“When SWRD declared ‘Sinhala Only’ in 1956, he was asked ‘What about the Burghers, how will they cope?’ Banda famously replied ‘Well they can Burgher off’. And they did! They never stood up and protested, because no one else stood with them. They were on their own and so they left in droves, depriving this country of their awesome culture, music, education, traditions, food. What a loss for Sri Lanka!”

This callous jibe that operates to further denigrate the former prime minister reminds me of the quotation falsely ascribed to Marie Antoinette, that the starving poor of France could not afford bread, so “let them eat cake”.

In fact, S.W.R.D. was quoting.

The phrase “Burghering off to Australia” is the last line of a play titled “Fifty-Fifty” written by the Sri Lankan playwright H.C.N. de Lanerolle, and it is spoken by the character Dionysus  Sumanasekare, whose initials D.S. have generally been read as an allusion to D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

This was noted in an article by Wilfred Jayasuriya titled “Merging Literature and History”, which was published in The Sunday Observer on September 20, 2009. In the context of the fifty-fifty political debate that was current in the buildup to the drafting of the legislation, the character Dionysus asserts that he is even willing to give 100 percent representation in the State Council to minorities. Sumanasekere was thus presenting the ongoing debate about minority representation in dramatic form.

Anyone who used the term “Burghering off” after 1948 in Ceylon was re-phrasing in local and contemporary terms an expression that was habitually used by men in England and the Commonwealth countries of that era.

To be unaware of this cultural context is to enable the scapegoating and disproportionate blaming of S.W.R.D. for legislation which he himself tried to amend in his lifetime. When the statue of S.W.R.D. was blindfolded a few weeks ago, comments were made on social media by a number of activists and media figures which singled him out as the sole cause of all Sri Lanka’s political troubles and ethnic tensions for the past seven decades.

A commentator on Twitter stated that the Sinhala Only Act was ‘”the first step towards an inward looking nationalistic Sri Lanka that drove minorities away…Much of them were highly qualified public sector professionals who went on to build great lives in the West.”

Another activist posted photographs of a man in a sarong standing on the shoulders of the statue in the act of blindfolding it, and called S.W.R.D. “responsible for the disastrous Sinhala Only Act that set this + most of our recent history, in motion.”

Another activist, posting similar photographs of the same event, and calling S.W.R.D.  Bloody Banda declared, “Perhaps a noose would have been more apt for a man whose racist actions paved the way to brutal Tamil pogroms and a 30 year war!”

In October 1957, after a month of self-serving pro-nationalistic publicity, J.R. Jayewardene undertook a 72-mile march from Colombo to Kandy to oppose the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. Various dramatic performances were intended to be staged to invoke Buddhist blessings at the sacred Temple of the Tooth and to invite divine retribution against those seeking to make provision for the minorities through that pact.

This was performative Sinhala Buddhist nationalism designed to raise public opposition to the creation of regional councils and brazenly playing the racist majoritarian nationalistic card for political gain. This card was not played by S.W.R.D., but by Jayewardene and Senanayake, who headed the procession, and who later brought crowds of people to protest at Tintagel, S.W.R.D.’s private home in Colombo.

In 2022 to accuse SWRD for “creating the strategy that every Sri Lankan government has since used to their benefit” is to be either ignorant or careless of the other significant political agents who impacted the legislation.

Before scapegoating one man – which is easy to do but unjust and inaccurate – commentators should research the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact and see what was actually included in that important agreement by S.W.R.D., prior to the passing of the “disastrous Sinhala Only Act”. His own later attempts to pass legislation to bring into effect what had been lost by the deletion of the pact were constantly opposed by nationalists who did not want concessions to minorities being made.

At many stages along the journey towards full sovereignty and inclusive nationalism, mistakes and mis-steps were made and could have been amended. At this juncture, while looking at how we have reached this point, it would be wise not to blindfold ourselves to the real complexities of the issues that have brought us here. Simplification is an easy way out and short term, stop gap facile assumptions and reflex biased stereotyping of others are not going to serve any of us well today.

Does racism symbolically reside in a piece of statuary? Or in a piece of legislation? Or is it enshrined in the human heart and mind, toxically attached to inherited and unquestioned notions of nationalism? If we externalize and project it onto one person who is supposed to carry the sins of an entire race, does that free us or exonerate us collectively from our own failings?

We don’t have to look far to access another way of viewing S.W.R.D. In Wikipedia we are told that “Amid the growing opposition to the pact, Prime Minister Bandaranaike continued his efforts to convince the people of the country that it was the best solution to the communal problems of the country. He equated the pact to the Middle Way doctrine of Buddhism. However the (extremist nationalist) demonstrations continued, and came to a head on April 9, 1958, when approximately 100 Buddhist monks and 300 other people staged a protest on the lawn of Bandaranaike’s Rosemead Place residence.”

That lawn is paved over now and the residence is a boutique hotel. Not even a placard commemorates the place where SWRD was assassinated.

If we want to see the truth of our complex history, we need to not only wake up but to open our own eyes and see things as they are and not the way we have been told they are or may prefer them to be.

Applying logic and skepticism to an emotive issue is not easy but it is necessary. SWRD died before the Sinhala Only Act could be amended and in his absence he is an easy target to hang it on. But plenty of people endorsed it and profited from it.

I believe a closer look at the prevailing context in which the act was drafted and made into law will challenge the view of S.W.R.D as the sole person responsible for all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions and the uncaring architect of all our suffering.  At this stage, we need to develop the capacity to form a more complex and composite view of life, including history both political and personal. Black and white thinking, lifting up heroes one minute and destroying villains the next is childlike. Simplified versions of history and politics will not accurately represent or help us effectively navigate the reality we experience as we finally develop maturity and sovereignty as a nation.

Our wells have been poisoned. We need to dismantle the insidious dynamics that have set us against each other. To do so will be a true exorcism of what has bedevilled us.