Photo courtesy of The Hindu

Sri Lanka celebrates its 75th independence day today. The event has provoked much debate and discussion. Coming on top of the worst financial crisis in the country’s post-independence history, it coincides with a government that remains too far removed from public opinion, indeed the citizenry. This is ironic in a context where independence is supposed to signify the popular will. If colonial rule represents the antithesis of that will, then any government that distances itself from it becomes no better. In that sense, there appears to be very little to commemorate, leave alone celebrate.

However, there is always room for reflection. Seventy five years is a long time. Sri Lanka has been through a lot. It has been through thick and thin, it has oscillated between extremes. There has never been a lack of colour or spectacle even if that has come at the cost of policies and principles. Moreover, if a country’s democratic credentials are contingent on how often it overthrows one regime and elects another Sri Lanka remains, then as now, an electoral democracy. Those reflecting on independence would add to this achievement the many social indicators in which we have surpassed our neighbours, as well as our social welfare schemes. By all accounts, these are just causes for righteous pride.

It would be easy to fault commentators for being too optimistic here. Yet at a time of bleak despair, there is no alternative to optimism. Indeed, that oft quoted system change we have been clamouring for may turn out to be another mirage. But the truth is that even within the system we have, there is room for change. However, whatever hope we can entertain for our future depends, more than anything else, on an honest appraisal of the past. To find out how we can all ensure a better future for ourselves, to make sure that we do not end the next 75 years with another set of failures on the political and economic front, we thus need to go back and examine what went wrong and how we can set it right.

I think the first thing we must be honest about, before we get to the corrupt political elite or the much derided 225, would be the fact that February 4, 1948, does not constitute the independence we think we celebrate that day. As a number of scholars, mainly from the Marxist left but also from other political and ideological lineages, have pointed out, the Soulbury Constitution symbolised the triumph of a colonial bourgeoisie and its campaign for constitutional reform. Historians like K.M. de Silva have argued that when compared with independence struggles in the rest of the region, the transfer of power in Ceylon was more peaceful and hence exemplary. But in the context of a country trying to free itself from 150 years of colonialism, peaceful transfers would hardly have sufficed.

What is missing in analyses of Sri Lanka’s independence struggle is the class factor. Taking that factor into consideration, it’s clear that the campaign for self-rule in Sri Lanka was carried out within certain limits. It was dominated by the middle class, the bourgeoisie. How this class came to dominate that struggle is easy. With the defeat of the 1848 rebellion, a rebellion that brought together peasant interests and a section of an articulate middle class, the Ceylonese bourgeoisie went on to identify their interests with the colonial state. This was facilitated above all else by the decision of the colonial state to shift its strategy from bureaucratic rule to co-opting the middle class. By the beginning of the 20th century, that middle class had been co-opted so well that they identified their interests with that of the state. This was admitted by James Peiris in as late as 1908.

However, even the most subservient elites agitate for greater representation. That is what the colonial bourgeoisie started doing in the latter part of the 19th century, which led to calls for constitutional reforms in the early part of the 20th. Granted, these calls may have been radical for their critics in the colonial state. But they were hardly felt by the masses. The colonial bourgeoisie did not bother themselves about the latter. If at all, they were opposed to granting more rights, including voting rights, to them. It is a historical irony that the elite had to be pushed into granting such rights to the public, by the very government from which they were demanding greater representation. They may have been inspired by liberal enlightenment ideals in their campaigns, but they were hardly radical; as one of their emissaries, E.W. Perera, put it in 1926, “I am an old fashioned liberal.”

The failures of the colonial bourgeoisie were intimately linked to the fault-lines of the economy. Before the advent of European colonialism, Sri Lanka’s economy consisted of a number of industries including shipbuilding and gem mining. Like in India, the occupying European powers crippled these industries and turned the country into a typical plantation enclave. As Asoka Bandarage has noted in Colonialism in Sri Lanka: The Political Economy of the Kandyan Highlands, the upshot of it all was that the country’s resources were deployed exclusively on behalf of plantation interests while the government had to import everything else. This extended not just to manufactures but also to agriculture; when food shortages threatened to derail the country, for instance, plantation interests prevailed on the state to import rice rather than cultivate it. Needless to say, colonial policies neglected agriculture, and the peasantry, due to the intervention of these interests.

With investment concentrated in the plantations, there was little scope for expansion or growth in other sectors. Instead, as Kumari Jayawardena writes, “Whatever other industrial development that occurred was directly geared to economic activity in the plantations.” This led to two developments. First, the mainstay of the economy, the plantations, came to be dominated by British or foreign interests. This placed severe restrictions on the growth of a local bourgeoise, not least because the latter were debarred from obtaining credit and from other financial transactions. Second, and crucially, they were detached from science and technology. This meant that whatever aspirations they may have harboured were couched in the form of piecemeal reforms. Their clamour for representation would be circumscribed by these factors, and these in turn limited their progressive, radical potential.

Unlike in India, where despite colonial structures an assertive bourgeoisie could emerge, in Sri Lanka the bourgeoisie’s preferred methods of protest remained limited to the Ceylon National Congress. This in itself did not prevent other organisations from cropping up. Many of these other organisations, such as the Jaffna Youth Congress, advocated a multi ethnic and secular polity. These were to be the intellectual antecedents of the left movement. But without much support, they were doomed to peter out. The Congress itself became a pale replica of itself, particularly when the Sinhalese elite leadership, the bulk of whom as Hector Abhayavardhana pointed out “Consisted of small men with narrow vision”, began to pit Buddhist candidates at elections and brought religion into politics. This was done through F.R. Senanayake’s Mahajana Sabhas, and its outcome was the departure of all Tamil members from the Congress, including Ponnambalam Arunachalam.

Regi Siriwardena has noted that the deterioration of the polity from its essentially secular and multi ethnic character in 1948 to the chauvinist, intolerant aberration after 1956, may not have happened if the bourgeoisie were not so apathetic and indifferent to the plight of the masses. Yet the elite were not completely insensitive to the latter. As Dayan Jayatilleka has observed, the elite were not a modernising class. Culturally they were westernised but politically they were not above tapping into and exploiting majoritarian sentiment to win elections. It would do well to note here that British colonialism, no matter how progressive it may seem to those who romanticise it, did not do away with, nor was interested in doing away with, the feudal setup that had characterised society prior to 1815. As such the bourgeoisie which emerged after 1830 were superficially sophisticated but inherently bigoted and chauvinist. That is what explains D.S. Senanayake’s disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamil community after the 1947 election.

This is the main issue bedevilling the country: the inability of the political elite, whether from the colonial bourgeoisie or its successors, to lead a truly emancipatory programme to develop the country and uplift its people. The credit for seeing through such a programme in the colonial era must in that sense go to the left. In 1935 the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) unveiled its manifesto. Among its objectives were the socialisation of the means of production, the attainment of complete independence, and the abolition of all forms of inequality. Given the state of the economy at the time – a plantation enclave dependent on a few sectors – no other programme would have done. It is to the left’s credit that, upon coming to power after 1956, it instituted far reaching changes, such as the abolition of the headman’s post, which did realise that programme. Yet the campaign it began would slowly be throttled and stalled, often by the very parties they partnered with.

Today, as we celebrate 75 years as a free nation, we need to ask ourselves, are we truly free? In a context where austerity has become the norm and people are expected to play along with whatever those at the top throw at them, we need to ask ourselves, what more can be done? The future of this country depends more than ever on a deviation, if not a detour, to a more radical, progressive political programme. This does not necessarily have to be socialist. But it must deviate from the highly authoritarian framework within which this country, and its people, continue to suffer. With 75 years gone, it is hence time to look back, learn the lessons of the past and resolve to work for the future we deserve.