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Independence arrived in South Asia steeped in blood, trauma and resistance. A fierce independence struggle permeated Indian consciousness; a massive civil disobedience campaign birthed the world’s largest democracy. But the partition of India and Pakistan, the secessionist struggles from Assam to Punjab and the reality of entrenched casteism and socioeconomic inequalities all signaled a violent and traumatic origin story for the newly independent states.

Sri Lanka’s story stands in contrast to that of its closest neighbors. A few months following the creation of modern India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s “peaceful transfer of power” took place on February 4, 1948.  Lacking an organized anti-colonial movement, Sri Lanka appeared to simply follow the natural succession of decolonization set forth by its fiery Indian precedent. Political power was transferred to the hands of an anglicanized, established elite class in what has largely been documented as a contractual arrangement between the British and our first political leaders. For the British, Sri Lanka became its model colony and Sri Lanka would continue to uphold the political and economic structures of its colonial vanguard.

Sri Lanka’s independence was inherited from above, not forged from below.

At least, this is the popular narrative we hear of our independence. Ceylon remained under dominion status until 1972 and awaiting the establishment of the (democratic socialist) Republic of Sri Lanka, Ceylon grappled with its delimited independence. By all accounts, Sri Lanka’s independence appeared rather anticlimactic.

But the newly independent Ceylon was not a product of a lackluster, revolution-less people free-riding the momentum of India’s independence movement. Nor did our independence period signal a “peaceful” transfer of power, for as we now know a Buddhist nationalist revival was well underway, setting the stage for a violent majoritarianism that continues today.

Towards independence 

D.S. Senanayake and the moderate reformers of the Ceylon National Congress delivered independence to Ceylon. But for the class that Senanayake represented – propertied, educated and English-speaking – much of their interests had already been secured prior to independence. The goal of limited franchise, political concessions and permission to run general elections had all been achieved by 1931. For Senanayake and the Congress, limited political freedom within the imperialist structure was sufficient.

No leader comparable to the likes of Gandhi, Ambedkar or even Jawaharlal Nehru yielded charismatic force over the masses as they did in India. But to argue that Sri Lanka totally lacked anti-colonial fervor is a gross misrepresentation of the centuries of resistance predating 1948.

The British government had successfully crushed the bulk of peasant revolutions, the most notable perhaps being the 1818 Uva rebellion. The 1848 Matale rebellion acted as a precursor to our modern independence movement and the last mass organized resistance under British rule. As the British perfected strategies of coercive force and divisive politics, they subdued the potential for mass resistance by the end of the 19th century.

But the sheer scale of Britain’s plantation capitalism in Sri Lanka (an economic model that would be maintained by the post-colonial government) had produced a rural class that frequently engaged in acts of mass and everyday resistance. Our knowledge of Tamil estate workers at this time is limited, given that the estate sector was confined to conditions similar to serfdom. What we do know, however, is that the British went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the isolation of this community out of fear of potential mutiny. For every well documented tale of resistance, we must question the struggles we don’t hear about and why. The legacies of Tamil resistance under colonialism are not dissimilar to the continued struggles of Tamil women today in the Northeast, who have led acts of protest for 1900 consecutive days and counting.

By the 20th century, Ceylon’s urban centers also developed various anti-colonial and anti-capital movements. The rise of leftist movements, most of which were forced underground, represented attempts both by workers and students to organize. The Ceylon Labor Union, for example, organized a general strike of 20,000 workers in Colombo in 1923, setting off a wave of strikes demanding labor rights in the new industrial capital. The Youth Leagues, composed of foreign and locally educated young activists, championed universal suffrage, workers’ rights and self-rule and remained deeply critical of the Congress’ imperialist sympathies. Perhaps one of their most famous campaigns, the Suriya Mal movement, was launched to sell suriya flowers to honor Sri Lankan veterans serving the British forces in World War I. The Youth Leagues would go on to form the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) to undertake the anti-imperialist, nationalist struggle and address the crippling conditions of capitalism.

The other side of resistance

But fractures within the political left curtailed the rise of an organized anti-colonial front. The Ceylon Labor Union became embroiled in racism against Tamils and by the 1930s had disintegrated, even assisting employers in breaking up strikes in return for union recognition. The Youth Leagues, rife with internal dispute and contradiction, were also effectively sidelined. And while the LSSP rose in opposition to the Ceylon National Congress, its co-optation by major political parties in the 1960s has left it in the position it is today – a fringe party holding exactly one seat in parliament.

What appears to have stuck, however, is the Buddhist revival movement that also emerges at this time. Largely credited to the life and work of Anagarika Dharmapala, the Buddhist revival sought to reinstate the primacy of Buddhism in cultural and social life. But unlike the labor protests, the anti-imperialist fervor of the youth leagues, or even the moderate democratic reforms of the Congress, Buddhist revival did not encompass a forward-thinking vision of transforming the state at independence. Rather, the Buddhist revival emphasized a fundamentalist return to the “past” for modern Sri Lanka. The notion of Sri Lanka as the custodian of Buddhism stroked the flames of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and set the stage for massive ethnic conflict.

The Buddhist Revival was not necessarily an anti-colonial front. Indeed, Dharmapala did not view Buddhism as a vehicle for political autonomy but rather as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. His close association with the British, including his residence in London in 1926, further complicates his relationship with the empire, which he himself did not view as inherently problematic.

Dharmapala’s role in Buddhist revival was also made possible by his joint efforts with American officers to Sri Lanka. Alongside Henry Steel Olcott, Dharmapala would go on to establish Buddhist schools in the country. And surely, Olcott’s interests as a former American military officer was not the decolonization of Asia. Rather, Olcott’s infatuation with Buddhism was a personal craze, an attempt to fix a Western gaze on the exotic and unknown religions of the East and motivated by his establishment of the Theosophical Society in New York city.

Dharmapala’s propagation of the temperance movement was again aided by the arrival of American temperance workers such as William E. Johnson.  Though Buddhist revival emerged in opposition to the imposition of Christianity and western virtues on Sri Lankan society, the movement also enabled anti-Christian actions against local Christian communities. Dharmapala’s revisionist histories would also serve to justify Sri Lanka as a Sinhala nation, frequently invoking the Mahavamsa (a political tact that continues today). The irony of Dharmapala’s praise of governance under the Sinhalese kings is, of course, that many of Sri Lanka’s kings were ethnically Tamil including the last Nayak kings of the Kandyan Kingdom. The Nayak kings not only played a central role in promoting the custodianship of Buddhism but also upheld Telugu and Tamil as official court languages.

Independence then and now

At independence, the fractured visions for a new Sri Lanka generated countless questions. Should the nation continue to function under its colonial warden? Will the new nation reject its legacies of imperialism and capitalism? Or should we turn to indigeneity to assert a national identity of Sri Lanka?

These questions continue to permeate Sri Lankan discourse. The 2022 aragalaya perhaps best exemplifies this. There were those who called for a radical vision to transform the state, to address issues of minority rights and postwar justice, to redistribute land and seek justice for missing persons. But the popular decline of the movement signals that, upon the formal resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the majority of aragalaya participants were content with a moderate solution of turnover in political office. And then, there were those who opposed aragalaya and its cross class, cross ethnic resistance.

Not all acts of resistance are emancipatory, progressive or transformative. Some call for a moderate, contractual settlement like Senanayake and the Congress or perhaps the masses who, after the mass protests of July 9, considered the work of the aragalaya to be over. Others may hold emancipatory goals but are either crushed for this reason or fall short in realizing such goals such as the plethora of leftist movements at independence or the continued work of unions, student groups and civil society organizations fighting for better governance in the country.

And some movements, as in the case of the Buddhist revival, are exclusionary, regressive and static. Unlike the very real threats of democratic backsliding, state violence and socioeconomic inequality, these movements fabricate threats of Buddhist extinction to assert ethnoreligious supremacy. It is not an act of resistance but a reaction to the possibility that a multi ethnic society could function without the sustained oppression of its minorities.

Seventy five years later and we are here. Free and unfree, politically active and docile, making sense of a bloody past and bleak future. On February 4, 2023, protestors gathered around the country to denounce the grotesque expense on a military parade for independence day celebrations. The Socialist Youth Student Front carried out silent protests to continue demanding government accountability. It seems that no matter where we are in history, and no matter how complicated our search for political change may be, our constant is our capacity to resist.