by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“….the purpose is not really to indict the past, but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic present”. Wole Soyinka (Nobel Speech – 1986)
Independent Ceylon was just a few months old when she won her first ever silver medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.
For the new nation it would have been a proud moment; and a propitious omen of triumphs to come.
At that time, in this place, reasons for optimism abounded. Young Ceylon was better placed than most – if not all – other newly independent nations. We enjoyed universal franchise, free education and health systems, a comprehensive welfare scheme and an ample foreign exchange surplus. We did not have to endure a brutally bloody civil conflict of the sort our giant neighbour, India, had experienced. Compared to most of our Third World brethren, we had a populace which was better educated and healthier, functioning institutions (including an independent bureaucracy and a top-notch judiciary) and civil cohesion.
There was every reason to believe in a peaceful and prosperous future. There was every reason to think that Duncan White’s Olympic Silver would be followed by many more Silvers, Golds and Bronzes.
The omens were wrong. It would take Lanka 50 plus 2 years to win her next Olympic medal – Susanthika Jayasinghe’s Bronze which was upgraded, subsequently, to a Silver. Since then it has been downhill again, with an abysmal performance at the London 2012 Olympics marking a fresh nadir.
We had the potential to become the Switzerland of the Third World. Switzerland houses three ethno-linguistic groups (Italian, French and German) and owns a history marred by violence. Yet it did succeed in leaving its past behind, in the past, and marching into an infinitely more felicitous future.
The tiny landlocked nation, unaided by any colonial exploitation, became a haven of safety and prosperity in a tumultuous Europe.
In 1948, as Ceylon celebrated her first Olympic triumph, there was no reason to regard a similar achievement beyond her reach.
Independent Ceylon had two choices. One was to go back to the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ past to reclaim lost ancient glories. The other was to move forward while forging a brand new Lankan identity.
For a few years it seemed as if Ceylon had opted for the second course. But even in those comparatively saner years, the signs of the coming dissolution became evident through the enactment of the Citizenship Act. A partisan-political measure masquerading under a nationalist guise, it deprived hundreds of thousands of plantation Tamils of voting rights and degraded them into non-citizens.
The left parties had a strong presence in the plantations. And the plantation workers, the wretched of the Lankan earth, unsurprisingly felt a natural affinity with the left, which, at that stage of its existence, was anti-racist and supported the rights of all working men and women irrespective of their ethnic origin or religious beliefs. In the 1947 election, Plantation Tamils won 7 seats and “influenced the decision in 20 other constituencies in all of which a majority of them had cast their votes for candidates opposing the UNP – mostly Marxist candidates or their sympathisers” (Electoral Politics in an Emergent State – AJ Wilson).
For the UNP this class-based alliance posed a serious politico-electoral threat. Its response was not to try to win over the plantation Tamils but to disenfranchise them, en masse. Their gambit worked. The UNP increased its “share of seats from 41 in 1947 to 54 in 1952 while the Left-wing strength fell from 20 to 13” (ibid). This Senanayake-Bandaranaike joint venture had the backing of the main Tamil party, the Tamil Congress (a small group led by SJV Chelvanayagam opposed the measure and the TC’s decision to join the UNP administration and broke away from the parent party).
Did the Tamil Congress fear a left victory at a future election as much as the UNP? Did caste factors contribute to this fear? Did a majority of Tamil leaders support this discriminatory piece of legislation because they believed that a left-wing government would ignite caste discontent in the North and encourage the oppressed caste Tamils to fight for equality?
Did they fear a class-caste alliance between the South and the North, between poor Sinhalese and oppressed Tamils? Did they think that it made excellent sense from a caste perspective to disenfranchise the plantation Tamils who occupied the nether regions of the caste-hierarchy?
Be that as it may, those Tamil leaders who backed this unjust and anti-democratic measure obviously did not understand the danger it portended. They did not have the foresight to realise that this measure contained within itself the germs of other discriminatory measures, starting with Sinhala Only.
They did not have the intelligence to understand that excluding an entire community because they were ‘new-comers’ to Lanka opened the floodgates of exclusionary nation-building. They failed to comprehend that all minorities would be endangered if the Mahawamsa mindset, which regarded Lanka as the chosen land of Buddhism and the Sinhalese as the people chosen to protect it, became dominant.
It was just a matter of time before another Sinhala leader thought of using Sinhala racism to boost his political future. And that moment came less than a decade later when SWRD Bandaranaike, at the head of his newly formed SLFP, started looking about for a fast track to power.
The ‘Sinhala Only’ marked the definitive abandonment of any attempt to create a new Lankan identity based on the equality of all Lankans. If the impulse for Sinhala Only had been Lankan nationalism, English should have been replaced not with Sinhala but with Sinhala and Tamil. By opting for Sinhala Only and by keeping it alive decade after decade, Colombo acted in the manner of a Colonial master towards Lankan Tamils. By presenting Sinhala Only as a sine-qua-non for socio-cultural de-colonisation, the idea was imprinted in the minds of the Tamils that they were no freer in independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka than they had been under the British. Little wonder the idea of their own country began to grow within the collective Tamil psyche.
Even if language parity was deemed too much, there were still half-way solutions which could have worked such as the reasonable use of Tamil. Sinhala could have been made the national language while giving Tamil official acceptance as a regional language. It could have been a win-win scenario. But SWRD Bandaranaike needed an issue which would help him to defeat both the UNP and the left; he needed to marry a racist nationalism to a racist socialism and create his own brand of national-socialism. Mr. Bandaranaike may have been a liberal at heart, but his desire to gain power at any cost to anyone was far stronger than his intellectual beliefs.
Incidentally the much vaunted 1956 Revolution did not succeed in bringing hitherto marginalised segments in society into the democratic mainstream, even as voters. This is evidenced by the fact that in 1956 the voter turnout was an unimpressive 69%; this was not only significantly lower than in 1952 (74%) but was also the lowest voter turnout in a national election held under conditions of normalcy.
What Sinhala Only did was to radically transform the character of the democratic mainstream – from multi-ethnic/religious to mono-ethnic/religious, as evidenced by the fact that within a decade of 1956 all the political parties in the South became vocal adherents of Sinhala Only.
Sinhala Only distorted democracy by recasting it as government of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of a primordial identity, thereby enabling the transformation of Lankan polity from a pluralist democracy into a majoritarian democracy. It even warped socialism by redefining class struggle as a struggle between the poor Sinhalese and rich/privileged Tamils/Muslims/Christians. It turned nation-building into a political war by the majority against minorities.
In the end, it paved the way for a 30 year war.
The first Lankan Olympian was a Burgher; the first Lankan Gold medallist at the Asian Games was a Tamil, Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham.
Their triumphs were indicative of what this country could have amounted to if she had not taken the wrong path towards racism and war.
Post-war we have another chance to redeem ourselves, to forge a genuinely Lankan identity. Will we take it? Or will we remake the same old mistakes?
A Sri Lankan identity, a Sri Lankan unity cannot be created by glossing over and denying the very real differences which exist in this country, and will continue to exist in this country.
Denying Lankan plurality means refusing to accept that different ethno-religious and socio-economic groups can have common interests as well as specific interests and, and even contradictory, interests.
Without accepting this reality, a strategy which seeks to balance the different interests or reconcile the conflictual one cannot be pursued. Without such a strategy the nation-building project cannot succeed.
The opening ceremony of the London Olympics has been praised for its pluralist, progressive and inclusionary nature. Such occasions have a political importance going beyond sports because they are indicative of dominant trends in and likely trajectories of societies. The analysis of the Lankan contribution to the opening ceremony of the Cricket World Cup in Bangladesh by Samanmalee Unantenna is of relevance in this regard: “After being entertained by energetic, vibrant displays from India and Bangladesh reflecting all the diversity and colour of those two countries as well as a spirit of fun and celebration, I waited in anticipation for the Sri Lankan slot. And what we got to my complete horror was a history lesson, Rajapakse style…. we had a re-enactment of something that looked like the arrival of Vijaya as chronicled in the Mahavamsa. In complete contrast to how India and Bangladesh presented themselves, as modern nations looking forward and gaining strength from celebrating the diversity of their peoples and cultures, Sri Lanka presented itself as looking back to history for inspiration (not in itself a bad thing) but a particular history that highlighted only the story of one of its communities”.
That spectacle is symbolic of the Sinhala supremacist attitude adopted by the Rajapaksas in their nation-building project. Their refusal to accept even the existence of an ethnic problem too is sourced in this Mahawamsa mindset. If Tamils are not co-owners of Sri Lanka, they do not have rights, including the right to make demands or to have problems.
A power hungry leader using Sinhala supremacism to boost his political project – does it not sound familiar?