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India, Sri Lanka and the Legacy of the British Empire:Review of Harshan Kumarasingham’s A Political Legacy of the British Empire

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Kalana Senaratne

In our long discussions about Sri Lanka’s post-independence political history, India’s large shadow falls inevitably upon us, bringing with it a curious and mixed effect; it is both alarming and inspiring at times, but also quite disheartening and dispiriting on other occasions. We were both part of the British Empire, both Mother Lanka and Mother India, but an analysis of our respective post-colonial histories shows the contrast; and as a consequence, there is, somewhere in the air, a sense of jealousy too, drifting from here to there. How differently have we grown since then, how strangely have we acted and reacted, and in what mysterious and frightening ways have our paths crossed over the past few decades?

It is the crucial first decade of this post-independence story which forms the central topic of Harshan Kumarasingham’s wonderful work, entitled: A Political Legacy of the British Empire: Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka. Published in 2013, the book examines this first decade of, what Kumarasingham calls, the two “Eastminsters”; i.e. countries which altered and adapted the Westminster system to suit their own soil while maintaining core Westminster institutions and conventions (p. VIII). The emphasis placed on this first decade is most apt, for he correctly considers those years to be forming the “critical juncture period” which led to “path dependent” outcomes. Certainly, the manner in which the political leaders intervened in the political affairs of their respective countries has come to have a lasting effect.

Kumarasingham’s argument, or its main thrust, may not be new. But I thought that the strength of his work lies in two factors: firstly, it lies in his emphasis on the critical first decade after independence, in showing how vital that period was in shaping the political and constitutional futures of the post-colonial state; and secondly, it lies in his engagement with both the Indian and Sri Lankan cases concerning this critical first decade, which, as constitutional law scholars who have reviewed the book point out, is one of the first studies to do so. Kumarasingham’s book is an essential read, and precisely because of that, I do not wish to review it in any extensive manner. I will only highlight a few bits and pieces from his work, selectively chosen, before concluding with a few personal observations relating to the book’s overarching theme.


Kumarasingham devotes the first few chapters to an examination of India.

He points out how according to many observers, India in 1947, was considered to have many of the conditions necessary to bring about a demise of its democratic institutions (p. 29). But the Indian leadership did much to retain “the governmental essence and structure of the departed imperial power system”, but most crucially, with an “Indian interpretation” (p. 26). It was the work of an elite which ensured India got constitutional democracy: it was a top-down affair (p. 33). Interestingly, there was in this process the creative use of Indian historical culture, rather than the historical culture of the British, to justify Westminster institutions (p. 34).

The discussion on how Indian leaders and constitutional experts worked to adapt the Westminster tradition and institutions, the deliberate attempt made by them to avoid the creation of an American-style Presidency, and the seriousness with which Indian leaders sought to promote secularism, provide useful lessons. In discussing these many aspects, Kumarasingham also sets out a fascinating discussion about one of the principal protagonists of this story; Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.

His pre-eminent role in Indian politics, that one-man show he came to play especially from the beginning of the 1950s, comes about largely due to the death of Gandhi and Sardar Patel (p. 57). However, Jawaharlal was, at least to my limited knowledge, a jewel-like and mysterious figure. He was a man who had developed a vision for his country and its many peoples, and who had written so elegantly about it. He was also a curious mix of many worlds. Nehru “was quick to dispense with any outward sartorial sycophancy of British culture, preferring Indian dress very early in his political career. Intellectually, however, he gleefully drew upon Western thought.” (p. 50-51).

Kumarasingham also devotes a chapter (chapter 4) to a most important discussion concerning Indian federalism, a structure which is “unquestionably distinctive” (p. 90). The history behind the formation of this structure – the existence of numerous autonomous entities, the role of the Indian Princes who ruled over those territories (and the developments surrounding the formation in 1921 of the Chamber of Princes), the impact of the rise of Gandhi and the Congress party and the resultant decline of the Princes – is fascinating. Kumarasingham also states that along with the commitment to provide for local autonomy, there was also an avoidance of the formation of a loose-federation. Both Patel and Nehru were keen on ensuring that Paramountcy of the Centre was established to prevent any disintegration (p. 96-97). In this regard, Kumarasingham quotes Dr. Ambedkar who informed the Assembly in November 1948 how the draft Indian Constitution “can be both unitary as well as federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances” (p. 105).

And yet, India’s initial commitment to the federal idea came from one of the most visionary and secular political leaderships in Asia (or in the world, too?). This enabled them to develop that necessary trust and confidence, wherein a centre strong enough to resist secession was not viewed with extreme suspicion by the constituent states. It was a leadership which was accommodating, and flexible in the face of self-determination demands (p. 109). Hence its ability to uphold the “ideal of a composite nation with a cooperative federalism protected and conserved by the centre” (p. 112).

Sri Lanka

Lanka, in all its forms and manifestations, is close to us; closer than India. And this closeness, both physical and psychological, makes an ‘objective’ appreciation a difficult task, and we often become very critical of her. This is especially the case at present, when her nastiness is growing by the day and her ruthless eyes peep into us ever so often. After long years of war, one feels that the entire country is in need of some rehabilitation. So Kumarasingham’s analysis of the first decade of post-independence Sri Lanka is one which is of much relevance to us.

The second half of the book is devoted to an examination of the Sri Lankan case.

Kumarasingham’s story begins with the general observation that Sri Lanka did not have any serious signs of doom at the time she gained independence. But the very manner in which independence was sought and granted tells us much about the stuff that went into making Sri Lanka. For instance, that Sri Lanka’s independence was granted by an Order in Council and not an Act of Parliament, and as Sir Ivor Jennings had written, that Sri Lankan leaders had been more worried about the extra time it would have taken to achieve independence through an Act (p. 118), tells us much about our independence ‘struggle’ and the political elite of that era. And “Sri Lanka aimed to be a truly British Westminster and not an adapted Westminster”, partly also due to the fear of India coming to dominate the subcontinent (p. 120).

More critically, this would explain why Sri Lanka’s independence was, in many ways a “personal transaction between the British and D.S. Senanayake” (p. 142), Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister. In Sri Lanka too, like in India, it was an elite-centred affair; but unlike in India, Sri Lanka lacked visionary leaders, as well as a strong political party structure which consistently and continuously asserted the importance of independence. As Kumarasingham points out, the first decade after independence was “characterised by the novelty, incidence and irregular nature of parties” (p. 145); the parties lacked experience, and were dominated by their leaders. While the UNP was formed only in 1947, the Ceylon National Congress, formed in 1919, advocated independence only around 1942 (p. 131).

This also meant that in a small country like Sri Lanka, personalities came to play a large role. In this regard, Kumarasingham’s discussion of the politics of personalities is extremely interesting. Much of this discussion concerns the politics of succession; i.e. the move of the leadership baton from D.S. Senanayake to Dudley Senanayake, the resulting agony of Sir John Kotalawela, and the role of Lord Soulbury in ensuring that Dudley became Prime Minister (esp. p. 149-155). Also interesting is the role and influence Sir Oliver Goonetilleke played in Sri Lankan politics, especially as Governor during Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike’s premiership.

And finally, there was the issue of communalism (as discussed in chapter 7 entitled ‘Sri Lankan Communalism: A Canker Ignored?’). Kumarasingham raises the popular but correct argument that: “The inability of Sri Lankan governments in the first ten years to deal effectively with communalism, especially by utilizing some form of federalism or institutional guarantee to minorities, had a ratchet effect for later years when such options were not easily available to deal with ethnic divisions” (p. 172). The inability to creatively build on the Soulbury constitutional framework to suit the aspirations of the Tamil people was perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s greatest tragedies. But political tragedies don’t fall from the sky; they are the making of rulers and the people. So this failure says much about the Sri Lankan polity and psyche too.

This was also a period that gave birth to post-independence “ethnic outbidding” (p. 192). This, as we know, comes about largely from that (in)famous incident when Sir John Kotalawela does his u-turn regarding the language policy. Kumarasingham states that this “new Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism rapidly brought down the curtain of secular non-sectional nationalism that elites like D.S. Senanayake had idealistically draped over the nation” (p. 192). While the secular and non-sectional credentials of such leaders are always debatable issues, Kumarasingham’s overarching message is clear. The language issue, the Sinhala-only Act, was indeed a path-dependent event (p. 194). And the leaders concerned knew this all too well. As the Prime Minister, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, once reportedly said: “I have never found anything to excite the people in quite the way this language issue does” (quoted at p. 221). That excitement, many decades later, ended up in thousands of deaths and unimaginable destruction.

In the end, Kumarasingham appeared to sum up the gist of his message when writing the following:
“India, which had been predicted to fragment from the moment of its inception, while Sri Lanka was considered the ‘model’, has instead endured while Sri Lanka has faced the more serious and violent threat to its territorial integrity and national unity” (p. 225).


Colonialism came hundreds of years ago, and even though it left some decades back, there is something of it that has left a deep scar, a certain sense which evokes in us the impression that once colonized, things were never going to be the same again. We in small and less powerful countries like Sri Lanka feel it more, and that sense of insecurity is hardly ever felt or realized by the big powers, especially the old colonial powers. It is therefore well that we never forget or belittle the legacies of colonialism, or British imperialism.

However, the critique of colonialism is inadequate, if one is more engaged with the internal politics of the post-colonial state. Critiquing the centrality of colonialism is necessary, but it was this colonialism – its structures and mindset – that in turn assisted the local elite, and successive generations of leaders, to maintain the status quo. This then calls for a sharp refocus on the domestic dimension. But here again, a measured approach is necessary. For the critique of colonialism and that of the local elite leadership, and the resultant nationalism that critique tends to generate, can very easily transform into an ethnically prejudicial, majoritarian form of nationalism. This is unfortunately, and quite often, the problem with the contemporary critique of British imperialism developed by nationalists representing the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community.

There is much that is quite relevant in the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist critique of British imperialism. For instance, the critique developed by the likes of Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera involves the critique of the political class that the British inspired and gave birth to in the country, often termed ‘agents’ or imitative leaders (anukaaraka nayakayan). After all, it is Kumarasingham who points out: “Sri Lanka’s elite, unlike their Indian counterparts, were happy to continue with the ‘dignified’ aspects of British monarchical culture and even wanted the country to be called the ‘Kingdom of Ceylon’, which the British thought ‘quite inappropriate.’” (p. 206). In addition, a somewhat careful and generous reading of the concept of Jathika Chinthanaya (loosely translated as ‘national thought’) would show that it is, at least in theory, not dismissive of everything foreign; that it encapsulates the idea of the need to selectively absorb even Western knowledge to suit local culture.

But this critique often degenerates into a harmful rhetoric, and there is a certain ferocious ethnic and religious bias which grips and takes hold of many of its most ardent advocates. This is perhaps inevitable, when the foundation upon which that nationalist discourse is built is one which imagines that while the Tamil and Muslim communities are distinct culturally, that their culture and distinctiveness is an outgrowth of Sinhala-Buddhist culture; peoples and cultures which have been nourished for thousands of years under the shade of the giant Sinhala-Buddhist tree. When this fantasy breaks down, and it necessarily does for it is an understanding shared only by them (and not by the Tamil and Muslim peoples), all manner of dangerous consequences flow.

There is, however, a different form of critique of the British legacy, developed by the likes of Judge CG Weeramantry; one which fuses a nationalist and internationalist outlook toward things. The critique of the British legacy he sets out in his memoirs (especially in ‘Volume I: The Sri Lankan Years’) is quite staggering. His critique is directed also at the brutal manner in which the British crushed the rebellions (such as of 1817). And some of his cosmopolitan admirers might be a little alarmed to note how very close Judge Weeramantry comes to the Sinhala-nationalist critique of British imperialism, when he writes the following about the broader Third World and of the Sri Lankan situation during independence: “Moreover, an elitist class was also left behind which assumed the reigns of rulership but was steeped in the cultural values of the ruling power and had largely lost touch with the grass roots and traditional values” (Memoirs, Vol. I, p. 86).

And yet, Judge Weeramantry’s is not a tasteless critique of everything British or foreign; there is much that he admires of different cultures and religions, and there is never that attempt to essentialize ‘traditional’ (or Sri Lankan, or Asian) values. There is also a very important self-critique, an honest appreciation of our own national weaknesses (especially in his 2005 work on Sri Lanka). It is a voice that most genuinely reaches out to the rest of religious and cultural groups within the country and more globally.

But it may be useful to problematize, to a certain degree, both these versions of critique, for it is necessary to adopt a sense of nationalism (and develop this into a broader internationalism) which is related to the present situation. For the present situation calls for a serious acknowledgment of the ethnic question, the Tamil question, and this dimension is lacking in many of the popular forms of nationalism developed by the Sinhala intelligentsia. While the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist critique ignores this aspect (and reduces a Tamil to a Sinhala Buddhist Tamil or a Muslim to a Sinhala Muslim), the Weeramantry-brand of nationalism adopts a kind of a ‘human rights-nationalism’ to address the Tamil issue. And I have often wondered quite respectfully that that is most suited to that era which Kumarasingham tackles in his book. To be sure, it is necessary; but also, inadequate.

One of our existential tasks then would be to see how we fuse the critique of British imperialism with a critique of ourselves, while synthesizing the nationalist (or, pluri-nationalist), secular and federal impulses to promote greater social justice to our constituent peoples; and to do so, by learning from the best of our own traditions and cultures, as well as from many others. That would only be a start, but a necessary one.

The strength and importance of Kumarasingham’s work lies in providing us with a glimpse of how that task failed in Sri Lanka, and how it did work to a considerable extent in India. India had its leaders, such as Nehru, to discover her. Sri Lanka, that sometimes beautiful, sometimes nasty and wayward going thing, is yet to be discovered in such manner. And it would be a good idea to do so before another big empire, with a red flag, does it for us.

[Kalana Senaratne holds a PhD in international law from the University of Hong Kong. Harshan Kumarasingham’s A Political Legacy of the British Empire: Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka (I.B. Tauris, 2013) is now available in Sri Lanka]

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