The unique thirties that shaped the nation | Sunday Observer

The unique thirties that shaped the nation

25 October, 2020

In the thirties Ceylon, as it was known then, entered into a unique phase in the history of the nation. For the first time it was ushered into the age of mass politics. Never before were the masses ever given a direct say in running the affairs of the state. This gift to the people – some may not consider it a good thing – came through the Donoughmore Constitution which was introduced in 1931. As I said earlier, it was a daring experiment in which all issues that questioned the ability of the masses to make wise political decisions for their own good and that of the nation as a whole were thrown into the winds and empowered with universal franchise to elect representatives of their choice to make decisions on their behalf. We made history by being the first nation in the Asia – Pacific region (including Australia) to stand out as an exemplary democracy (better than even the Greek city states of Athens) where every adult (over 21), irrespective of qualifications, wealth, gender, status, caste or creed had the equal rights to vote in selecting their rulers, even though under a colonial administration.

The beginning of the age of the masses undoubtedly was a historic watershed that launched a new political culture which governs the nation to this day and, of course, the days to come. It, of course, undercut the elitist power and privileges, particularly, those of the casteist elite of Jaffna, who opposed it tooth and nail.

The culture of mass politics, which empowered the marginalised majority to put pressure on the state through their elected representatives, brought with it concepts of equality, justice, and liberty packed with a force of the vote. It also lessened to a considerable extent elitism out of the political process. Liberal democracy of the elite which emphasised individual rights was forced to acknowledge the collective rights of the masses. Defining individual rights and collective rights became a central issue in the post-Donoughmore period.

The thirties were also a time when colonialism was dying and the unborn nation was struggling to find its way into the future. It was a time when mass politics needed leadership and institutional organisation. Mass politics in the thirties was essentially centred around nationalism. It was in this milieu that two overwhelming ideologies emerged to influence the course of events with a critical force. One came from the indispensable past organised as the Sinhala Mahajana Sabha (SMS) and the other came from the West in the form of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Both stepped into the political arena as organised political fronts in 1935.

Both were nationalists with two different emphases. SMS was rooted in the soil. It derived its strength from the historical forces that were struggling to regain its traditional place lodged in the hearts and minds of the people. The Marxist ideology of the LSSP came from the Western universities aiming to change the course of the nation in the direction of a secular millennium run by revolutionary workers. SMS targeted primarily the alien imperialist in partnership with the local nationalist elite.

The Marxists, on the other hand, went all out to attack the imperialists plus what they considered to be their local collaborators, or the compradors, in the rising new class, most of whom were in the forefront of the nationalist movement.

Both came at the time when the doors opened for the masses to enter the political process. Apart from A. E. Goonesinha’s Labour Union Sri Lanka’s politics was confined to mainly elitist families of the Kandyan aristocracy, Low-country Sinhalese and the Jaffna Tamils.

Ceylon National Congress

Their forum was the Ceylon National Congress (CNC), consisting mainly of English-speaking elite transiting from semi-feudal castes into the new middle class adapting to market forces and modern governance introduced by the British colonial masters. Though the CNC was meant to be based on the Indian National Congress it did not take on the British imperialists like the Indians with satyagrahas, boycotts, confrontational protest marches, and aggressive nationalism of radicals ranging from non-violent Gandhi to fire-brands like Subhas Chandra Bose.

The local Congressmen operated within three parameters: 1. writing memorials to the Secretary of State to the Colonies arguing why the Ceylonese should be given more power to govern themselves; 2. leading deputations to London to make representations directly to the Colonial Secretary without going through the medium of the Governor appointed to represent the Queen / King of England and 3. holding public meetings to mobilise public opinion to convince the British that the Congressmen were not effete lotus-eaters making irritating noises in ivory towers.

The history of constitution-making can be traced back to the early twenties when the memorialists initiated their correspondence with the Colonial Secretariat pressing for greater devolution of power to the elected representatives. This was a kind of quiet diplomacy as opposed to the high drama of the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi and Nehru. Despite their tame approach the memorialists of the CNC succeeded in pushing the British administration to the decisive moment in 1931 when the Donoughmore Commission offered a measure of self-government to the elected representatives in the State Council.

This opened the passage for mass politics. When the Donoughmore Constitution enshrined universal franchise, which empowered the masses with political power they never had before, it also created the environment for mass leaders to rise and take command of political movements. Organised political movements proliferated in the age of the masses and it continues to this day. This was the penultimate stage for 1948. After the Donoughmore Constitution came the Soulbury Commissioners, after which came Independence.

The old CNC, which chugged along from the twenties in its old fashion way, passed away noiselessly in the forties only to be reincarnated as the United National Party under the leadership of slow-but-steady D. S. Senanayake, the most brilliant political mind of his time who laid the solid democratic and multi-cultural foundations of the nation.

His genius for statecraft, particularly in navigating his way through Bandaranaikeism, Ponnambalamism and Marxism, -- the three forces rising as powerful movements of the nation – is yet to be equalled by his successors.

But it is the rise of Bandaranaike’s Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, Ponnambalam’s exploitation of the opportunistic and unjustified exploitation of the fears of Tamil minority and the pie-in-the-sky Marxism that coloured the convulsive days of the post-colonial era.

The Sinhala Maha Sabha and the Marxist LSSP were launched in 1935. Ponnambalam’s All-Ceylon Tamil Congress was established in 1944. All three interacted with each other in various ways, intersecting, intertwining, and inflaming each other in various stages, until all strands collectively contributed to drag the nation all the way to Nandikadal – that tragic journey of misguided history gone awry.

Miserable plight

I dealt with Ponnambalam and his self-serving, self-aggrandising and corrosive communal politics disguised as ‘Tamil nationalism’ by his apologists. The irony is that he never represented Tamil nationalism of the Tamil people which should have included all layers of Tamil people including the low-castes who were denied basic human rights. When Gandhi led the massive forces of Indian nationalism he went all out specifically to include all layers of Indian society, in particular the scheduled castes.

However, Ponnambalam’s marathon speech of nine hours accusing ‘the Sinhala state’ of discrimination against the Tamils (read Vellalas) never mentioned the miserable plight of the Tamil pariahs who were thrown out of Vellala society as being a subhuman species not fit for the likes of the superior Vellalas.

His idea of discrimination was the unsubstantiated accusation of the so-called ‘Sinhala state’ not giving a greater percentage of government jobs to the English-speaking Saivite Jaffna Vellalas. But he never included the Tamils who were denied a cup of water, the right to sit in buses, right to worship their common God in a common temple.

Even in the seventies the Pallars and Nalavars were not considered members of the Tamil community. According to Ponnambalam and his brand of ‘Tamil nationalists’, Tamils born in the wombs of Pallars and Nalavars were not accepted as Tamils. To be a Tamil you must be born in a Vellala womb impregnated by a Vellala lingam. So how valid are all the theories boosting Tamil identity politics and boasts of Tamil nationalism if it does not include a section of its own Tamil people? Can a nation exclude a segment of its own people?

Equal rights

Tamils are asking for equal rights with the Sinhalese to be a part of Sri Lanka. That is fair, legitimate and necessary. But why did the Tamils deliberately deny equal rights to their own kith and kin to prevent them being Tamils? Can there be a bigger crime than this for the Tamils: your own people denying the right to be Tamils? This is a crime worse than ethnic cleansing.

These are the Tamils who go around the world accusing the ‘Sinhala State’ of denying citizenship to imported S. Indian Tamil labourers to work in British plantations. But they had no compunction in denying their own kith and kin the right to be Tamils even though they were born and bred as Tamils and knew nothing else. And when they talked of ‘Tamil aspirations’ and ‘Tamil grievances’ they never meant the aspirations or the grievances of the Nalavars and Pallars to be accepted as Tamils, or to go to the same schools, or to bury their dead according to the Hindu custom of beating drums.

They referred only to the Vellala aspirations to rule Jaffna by Vellalas for the Vellalas. To all intents and purposes, ‘Tamil nationalism’ was a deceptive euphemism for elitist Vellala supremacy. It was also a naked grab for power by the Vellalas, of the Vellalas, for the Vellalas.

Jaffna basically was a Vellala domain in which Vellala supremacists ruled every aspect of life from the womb to the tomb. No socio-political event took place without the advice and consent of the Vellalas. Others did not have the demographic numbers, education, resources, influential network in the colonial and post-independent regimes, and the power points in the commanding heights of the administration, economy or politics to make things happen for them.

Faced with the invading forces of modernity creeping in to undermine their feudal and colonial privileges they were fighting on two fronts: 1. To maintain their supremacy over the low-castes challenging their authority internally and 2. To maintain their privileged position gained under the patronage of the colonial lasers in the public service and in the legislature externally.

Their defence was to demonise (1) the low-caste as evil forces, citing the Hindu script revised by Saivite Arumuka Navalar, a caste fanatic, and (2) the Sinhala-Buddhists as the bogeyman waiting to destroy the Tamils and their language. Ponnambalam gave leadership to these forces. He kicked off this anti-Sinhala campaign in Nawalapitiya in June 1939.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the newly formed Sinhala Maha Sabha, welcomed this speech. He publicly thanked Ponnambalam for helping him to open up new branches of SMS. And there was indeed a clamour to open up branches in the neighbouring towns of Matale, Nuwara Eliya, etc., after Ponnamabalam’s anti-Sinhala speech.

These two ideologies formed the thesis and the anti-thesis that fought for supremacy at the centre of Sri Lankan history in the post-independent era, though it is rather difficult to determine which is the thesis and which is the anti-thesis. What is clear is that Bandaranaike represented the grassroots forces that were grinding its way, slowly but surely, to claim its lost heritage. His target was the British not the Tamils or any other minority.

Ponnambalam’s main target, on the contrary, was to target the Sinhalese and was pressuring the British to give him disproportionate share of power and jobs for the Tamils to be equal with the Sinhalese. That is not nationalism.

That is communalism. There is no nationalism in trying to undercut the Sinhalese for the Tamils to get a disproportionate share of the cake. Nor did he ask for a separate state like Jinnah, or his rival S. J. V. Chelvanaykam. He did not even want federalism. He is on record saying that “Federalism is bad for Ceylon, and worse for the Tamils”. He was bent only on demonising the Sinhalese to prove that the Tamils deserve a greater share of power because they were superior.

In the end Ponnambalam’s communalism went nowhere. But he set the theme, the tone, the contents of hate, the direction and ideology on which Tamil moved inexorably later to its bitter end in Nandikadal. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, his jealous junior who broke away from his senior partner, was merely a more sophisticated manipulator of Tamil communalism.

Both together are responsible for misleading the Tamil people into the hell-hole in Nandikadal. Tamil aspirations and grievances did not refer to the suffering of the Tamils caused by centuries of Vellala oppression. It represented in the main the aspirations and the grievances of the Tamil Vellala elite aiming to acquire a disproportionate share of state jobs and privileges.

The Vellala hierarchy had set up the most inhuman casteist structure which had to be rooted out. Bandaranaike was the first to take up the challenge of dismantling the Vellala Pol Potism. Tamil nationalism reached its apex in the hands of Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Killing machine

It was not a Tamil state as claimed by the Tamil nationalists.. It was a killing machine set up to either slaughter or oppress the Tamils, Indians and Sri Lankans who opposed the illegitimate regime. . It was a reflection of the traditional Tamil fascist culture. For instance, ‘the Sinhala State’ fought the war with one hand tied to the back within a democratic framework and won. The Tamils fought with brutal force, under a fascist tyrant, and lost.

The forces of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism spearheaded by Bandaranaike have undergone many changes. But the foundations of his ideology survived as a dynamic force leaving all the others in tatters. The Marxists initially gathered momentum particularly among the English-educated elite and, of course, among the working class with Goonesinha fading away.

The Marxists and SMS began in 1935 to capture the same political territory. But it is the forces of nationalism led by Bandaranaike that remained as a viable force to this day.

The Marxists who made initial gains lost in the end. Why? Why did the two competing forces that began their journeys in the thirties collapse. One by one the political organisation that came in the thirties and forties lost their steam and faded away. Even the mighty UNP which began in the forties and set sail like the unsinkable Titanic went down unceremoniously.

Pol Potist fascism

The massive forces unleashed by Ponnambalam, which finally turned into Pol Potist fascism of Prabhakaran, sank in the murky water of Nandikadal. The best and the brightest in the Marxist movements withered instead of the state they hoped to destroy. Only the forces led by Bandaranaike, though altered by internal and external forces, have survived.

The latest victory of the Rajapaksas is the latest extension of the forces unleashed by Bandaranaike.

After all, the Rajapaksas and Bandaranaike set out together in the same journey when they left the UNP and formed the SLFP. And that union has surfaced again as the last remaining force that was born in the thirties. Bandaranaike was the most vilified Sinhala leader just not by the Westernised elite and the Tamils but even by his own family. The Rajapaksas who returned to the roots won. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism has survived despite being battered by internal and external storms. It is a subject that was hijacked by anti-Sinhala -Buddhists in privatised research centres run by NGOs and demonised as an evil force.

Unfortunately, some of the heads in academia too are partners in the crime of demonising Sinhala-Buddhism. It is not only fashionable but also profitable. They can rewrite history to suit their paymasters. But history has its own way of teaching lessons to the intellectual weirdos in academia who have yet to learn that history always wins in the end.