Reflections on Past History with An Eye on Nation-Building Today

victor ivan 33 Victor Ivan, ...being the text of a talk delivered at a Seminar in Colombo on “Peace and Reconciliation & Nation-Building”, organized by the Association for Social Development and held at Organization of professional Associations Auditorium, Colombo, on July 10, 2016.

In my speech, I propose to discuss the problem of Nation Building in the context of Sri Lanka. I also wish to examine the reasons that helped India to succeed in nation-building while Sri Lanka failed. In modern terms, a nation can be broadly defined as a mass of people consisting of one or more races, castes, religions and languages, associated with a particular territory or country, sufficiently bonded by a strong and common sense of “belonging” to that territory. First_Cabinet_of_Ceylon++ The first Cabinet of Ceylon 1948The emergence of modern “States” and modern “Nations” which are essential for the beneficial existence of the former is an outcome of the historical process that paralleled capitalist transformation which occurred in the face of the decline of the ancient feudalism. The emergence of capitalism in Europe can be considered as a natural outcome of the crumbling of feudalism caused by the intensification of internal rifts and strife that grew within the system itself. But, in countries like Sri Lanka which were under colonial rule, the situation was different. Emergence of the capitalist system in these countries was a direct outcome of the influence of the colonial administration.

The Nation states that emerged in Europe did not have a need for nation-building on a planned basis. The emergence of Nations and Nation States in those countries can be considered as an outcome of great events that took place over a period of nearly three centuries and the renaissance associated with it.

The great schism in the Catholic Church, decline of the monopolistic power enjoyed by theology over a long period, great developments in science, revolt against feudal system, phenomenal growth in the spheres of Politics, Philosophy, and Art, the decay of the feudal monarchies, the birth of representative governments and the industrial revolution were among several important events that led to make Europe into nations that think intelligently and in keeping with modern trends.

However, in countries like Sri Lanka which were under colonial rule, no such changes occurred corresponding to the emergence of capitalism. People of Sri Lanka did not revolt against the feudal system or the system of feudal monarchy. The people who lived in those days were not even aware of the great upheavals such as British, American and the French revolutions. It was after over one hundred years of their occurrence that we came to know of such great social upheavals.

The introduction of a plantation economy in Sri Lanka during the British Colonial rule resulted in the elimination of the feudal system and the country being eventually transformed into a capitalist system. Along with this, a central system of administration and a judicial system embracing the whole island came into being. The whole country was co-ordinated and connected into one single entity by linking remote areas through roads, railway and communication networks. In this special backdrop a situation more or less similar to that of nation states in Europe was created. Nevertheless, there was no potential for spontaneous emergence of a new or a homogenous nation in Sri Lanka as happened in Europe.

The factors such as the abolition of the rajakariya system which served as the main foundation of caste system, disintegration of feudal bonds to the land, introduction of a legal system in which everybody was acknowledged as equal and expansion of school education created a strong background conducive to creating a new nation if it were so desired. However, this background alone is not adequate for a new nation to emerge on its own. It remained a thing to be achieved consciously and through concrete effort. Making this historical task a reality was the responsibility of the movement for an independent Ceylon and its leaders.

The challenge of nation building did not remain an issue confined only to then Ceylon. It was a common issue encountered by all countries which gained independence after long years of colonial rule. India, our immediate neighbour too, had to face this problem. Though India was relatively a large country compared to Sri Lanka and was with a capitalist system firmly established, India still had similarities with then Ceylon in the way the nation states were been formed.

Both countries had faced with the political challenge of gaining independence from British colonial rule. The question of how a nation state could be built can be reckoned as the most important and complex challenge that the independence movements and their leaders of the two countries faced, if they were seriously concerned in fortifying the nation state inherited from the British. Obviously, the task would have been harder and more formidable for India than for Ceylon.

In terms of the extent of land there was a vast difference between the two countries. The land area of Sri Lanka was 65,610 sq.kms while that of India remained at 3,287,781 sq.kms. The difference in population was huge with India having 300 mn people while that of then Ceylon was only 06 mn. As far as the number of castes, languages and tribes were concerned, India had a complex and multifarious situation. Sri Lanka had only less than 10 social divisions falling into categories of castes and tribes. India has more than a hundred such social groups. Sri Lanka had only 03 languages while India has 847 languages including regional dialects. In comparison with Sri Lanka, the question of nation building remained a very complex issue in India. Nevertheless, India was able to resolve the issue quite successfully. We in Sri Lanka were unable to find a solution despite our issue being relatively simpler compared to the complexity that India encountered.

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It is important to understand why the independent movement of then Ceylon and its leaders failed to resolve the question of building the nation while Indian leaders were able to resolve it successfully despite the abounding multifarious complexities.

As far as class background and level of education were concerned, in both countries, there was similarity between leaders of the religious renaissance movement and the independence movement that followed. Yet, their visions were poles apart.

Usually, religious movements precede agitations launched for political independence. In almost in every country under Colonial, rule that was that. So much so, the fundamental intellectual awakening and inspiration necessary for independence movements were kindled by religious movements. However, when compared to the Hindu and Muslim religious renaissance movements in India, the ideology and thinking that were promoted by those in Ceylon can be described as backward and retrogressive.

Leaders of Hindu and Muslim religious renaissance movements in India consisted of people who had correctly grasped the essence of the European renaissance movement. They did not consider the religion they believed as the only true religion. They did not adopt interpretations in creating divisions in other religions. Instead; they were more concerned about the need for reforming out-dated practices and rituals of their own religion which were not compatible with an emerging modern world. In fact, they appeared for religious reconciliation and amity. They can be considered as leaders full of humanitarian values.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the most acknowledged leader of the Hindu Renaissance Movement in Bengal was recognized as the embodiment of the Vishva Vyaapi Devavaadya (Universal Atheism). He described the Brahmo Samaj, an influential Bengali socio-religious reform movement which he founded .as a universal church. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the leader of the Islam Renaissance Movement in India, held the view that all religious beliefs are the same and it was the same religious teacher who had appeared in different forms in different communities. All recognized leaders of the Hindu Renaissance Movement were against the Hindu caste system. They were against the practice of “untouchability”, the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of birth into a particular caste and the system of child marriages. They favoured young widows remarrying. The religious renaissance movement in India can be considered more a movement which had placed a very high weightage on humanism than traditional religious beliefs. They can be described as a movement committed to promote the ideas that helped to bring about consensus among diverse groups and ensure national integration.

The Buddhist and Hindu Religious Renaissance Movement in Ceylon cannot be described as progressive. They were often critical of other religions and did not have a criticism of out dated elements in their own religion. Instead of promoting goodwill among different religions they promoted divisions and rifts among religions. Instead of creating peace among ethnic groups, they resorted to creating differences among them. In this respect Anagarika Dharmapala and Arumugam Navalar can be reckoned as two outstanding thinkers who had made the highest influence on the psyche of the modern Sinhala and Tamil people respectively. Both of them can be described as two leaders who fought resolutely and defiantly against Catholic/Christian domination that prevailed at that time and to change unpleasant treatments meted out to Buddhism and Hinduism under colonial rule.

Yet, the praxis of the two leaders and the activities they introduced in achieving their objectives were not conducive in promoting national unity. Instead, they led to create divisions among different social groups. During this time, the caste system enjoyed a considerable recognition. The hierarchical caste system not only divided the Sinhala and Tamil people into two distinct categories as “high” and “low”, but also acted in a sectarian manner in preventing social amity and productivity. Arumugam Navalar appeared for the preservation of the caste system. He opposed educating children of oppressed castes in the same class room with children of higher castes. Anagarika Dharmapala endured the caste system that prevailed not only in the Sinhala society but also in the Buddhist order of the Sangha. Except for Sinhala Buddhist people, there was no place for Tamils, Muslims, Burgers and even Sinhalese Christians and Catholics in the society he envisaged to build. He considered only Sinhala Buddhist people as important. The Sinhala Muslim riots in 1915 can be reckoned as an instance in which the religious and racial discriminatory passions had exploded in frenzied violence.

There was a vast difference between the praxis in gaining independence by the two independence movements of our two countries. More  after entering the phase of political reforms, post religious renaissance.

It is interesting to note that leaders of the Indian independence movement, throughout their struggle, had a very clear understanding and vision in how they would liberate India from British domination and also how to build the Indian nation to ensure a Nation State. But leaders in Ceylon who led the independence struggle lacked this understanding and vision. Their expectations were limited to a simple transfer of power. They did not have any knowledge whatsoever, about the problem of building the Sri Lankan Nation for the benefit of strengthening the nation state.

The Indian independence movement had clearly understood that building of the Indian nation necessitated the caste system and the division between the Hindus and Muslims must be abolished and equal rights and respect be granted to all Indians. They carried out well planned and massive ideological campaigns to raise public awareness on these issues; organized massive nonviolent resistance campaigns all over the country in front of Hindu temples protesting against preventing people of oppressed classes entering them. The ideological struggle carried through to promote tolerance between Hindus and Muslims made a strong influence on public life. Even the assassination of Mahathma Gandhi was an outcome of this movement.

Despite all these efforts, though they couldn’t prevent the bifurcation of India, they were able to retain a substantial share of the Muslim population in India which was very much more than the number that crossed over to the newly created Pakistan. The riots against Muslims had put the country in flames when Gandhi was assassinated. Since Gandhi’s death all communal flames have been doused. The only flame left was that which rose from his funeral pyre. With this, the process of nation building in India was accomplished to a great extent. The new constitution adopted thereafter ensured equal rights and recognition to all citizens alike.

Nevertheless, the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka, who appeared for independence, did not have a clear understanding about the nation state and the need for nation building. Some of them occasionally talked about a Ceylonese nation. Yet, none had any knowledge on how it was to be realized. Their knowledge was so scant that they did not have a proper awareness of even

human rights. The dialog on Human Rights in Sri Lanka comes to the forefront only during the decade of 1970s. But, the Indian independence movement was sensitive to this issue very much earlier and had even adopted a Human Rights Convention of its own as far back as 1936. This too reflects the paucity of knowledge of our leaders compared to those of India.

The lack of knowledge of political movements and their leaders of the problem itself was an important factor that caused to complicate and confound the question of nation building in Sri Lanka. At the initial stage, leaders of all ethnic groups were united under the banner of the Ceylon National Congress. This unity however soon disappeared, as leaders of the majority Sinhalese and those of minority Tamils and Muslims lacked an understanding of liberal provisions that could be adopted to safeguard minority rights in the face of majority power.

In 1833, under Colebrooke reforms, a system of Executive and Legislative Council was introduced and the Legislative Council comprised of 9 official members and 6 non official members. Three native officers were nominated based on ethnicity. The size of the population of each ethnic group was not taken into consideration in this regard. What was considered was the representation of each ethnic group in the Council which was expected to serve as an advisory body. If the establishment of this Council is treated as the primary phase of a process which was to evolve into a Parliamentary System of government in the future, then it would not be possible to prevent it evolving into a system that allocates seats in proportion to the population ratio of each ethnic group.

But Tamil leaders did not welcome that change. Their position was to have seats allocated on the ratio of 2 : 1. The Sinhala leaders were of the view that a system of Territorial/ Regional Representation would give more weight to minority groups. The approach of both groups was not in conformity with democracy.

The Tamil and Muslim leaders did not have an adequate understanding about democratic measures needed to safeguard minority rights in the face of the majority Sinhalese obtaining a large representation in proportion to the size of their population. On the other hand, even Sinhala leaders lacked the knowledge of the democratic solutions that can be adopted to dispel the distrust and fear that had been developing among minority groups. The 50-50 demand put forward by Snr. G.G. Ponnambalam is a good example that illustrates the complexity and anti democratic character of the approach that he adopted in this respect.

The rift that began in 1925 persisted as a permanent division until the gain of independence. Just as much as there existed confusion in the way the leaders of the minorities perceived this problem there existed a similar confusion in the way the Sinhalese leaders too viewed it. There was no support even from the “Left” movement in Sri Lanka to resolve this problem. They were more concerned about the “Class” factor than the “Nation”. In this backdrop, it is the “Jaffna Youth Association” that can be considered as the only organisation which was aware of the need for nation building. They appeared against the caste system and for the unity among all races. Yet, they disappeared as soon as they chose to act as a carbon copy of the Indian Congress.

Eventually, two social trends had emerged against the granting of independence to Ceylon. One consisted of the minority groups while the other was from the people of oppressed castes. The leaders of minority groups were afraid independence might create a situation of Sinhala domination in which they would be compelled to suffer. The leaders of the oppressed castes were afraid that it might create a domination of “Govigama” and “Vellala” castes thereby subjecting all others to pressures of these two hierarchical castes. Leaders of minority groups and those of oppressed castes made separate submissions of their grievances, first to the Donoughmore Commission and later to the Soulbury Commission. This reflects that apart from the problem of minority ethnic groups, there existed a problem of oppressed castes as well.

It is clear that Ceylon gained independence without having a solution for these two problems. Even after independence, no attempt was made to address these two problems, positively. Also the question of building the nation, i.e developing a “Sri Lankan” vision for a common nation state, with pervading co-operation of all ethnic and religious groups which was an essential prerequisite in establishing a nation state, was not addressed prior to gaining Independence. Nor attempt has been made to address the issue even during the post independent era.

Thereafter, minority groups and the people of oppressed castes had to live as second class citizens being deprived of equal rights and respect. This unpleasant situation invariably led the youth who had become victims of it to revolt against the system violently.

In the end, Ceylon gained independence without shedding a single drop of blood. Paradoxically, the country that gained independence without shedding blood, after 30 years of independence, turned into a country of incessant bloodshed which persisted for another 30 years consecutively. Failure to build a Sri Lankan nation can be considered the major factor that caused this blood bath.

Not only ethnicity, even the social stratification based on the caste system had a share in it. Wijeweera belonged to the “Karava” caste while Gamanayaka came from “Oli” caste. Prabhakaran hailed from “Karaiyar” caste and Thamil Chelvam belonged to the Barber caste. These two examples symbolize the impact of two major factors outlined above, on the whole crisis. In this crisis while ethnic revolts were open and explicit, the caste factor waged a “terrorist” war implicitly.

Now, even after a disastrous loss of a large number of lives, would it be possible for us to accomplish the task of nation building which we have desperately failed to achieve since independence? Do leaders of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities have courage, wisdom and discipline required for it? Will they be able to genuinely repent over the great destruction that they caused and will they commit themselves to educate their people enhancing knowledge and understanding of social integration and harmony which they badly need?

I leave the questions to you, for answers.


1 Comment

Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, democratic measures, economic processes, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, language policies, Left politics, life stories, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world affairs

One response to “Reflections on Past History with An Eye on Nation-Building Today

  1. Eddie Wijesuriya

    They look good. A little different to the present lot??

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