“Today from the point of view of the institutional basis, Sri Lanka is in a worse position than it was at the beginning of its adventure out of colonial times. In that context merely to be brooding on what those political leaders said or did in that early period will not throw very much light on finding the way out of the present situation.”
It can be said that the beginning of the twentieth century was a period of primary schooling in Sri Lankan politics. Particularly since 1931 with the introduction of adult franchise some people emerged from within Sri Lankan society who aspired to play roles of leadership in the political life of the country. None of them were prepared for the role as the country had been ruled by foreign powers for a long period. Anyway, prior to that, the idea of exercising political power through representative was not known in Sri Lanka. Politically speaking all the people who became willing candidates for this role were completely new to the game.
Most came from elite families who had acquired power and position during the reign of the colonial rulers. Had the colonial status continued for longer, many of them would have played no other role than being civil servants for the British administration. However, the new opportunity that emerged during this period allowed them to rise above being civil servants and to become leaders.
Everything was new and among these new things the way to get to power through elections was a fascinating issue which meant that everyone had to find out how to encourage the people to vote for them. The problem was that on this issue there was no previous experience, no traditions nor any old practices to go by.
One easy way to popularity was through the family name. The families that had been controlling large areas through feudal ownership of land had the best chance for such popularity. The family name alone was sufficient enough advertising. A few others established themselves through their businesses and a very few through their professions.
The only group that was to come to some extent from outside that circle, but not completely, was those who represented labour and their popularity depended on their influence amongst the workers in different sectors. This group was more open to new ideas and the experiences outside the country.
But it was the majority of these representatives who had to find ways to ‘catch votes’ as it is said in popular parlance. Many things have been written about the various personalities and their attempts at this. Basically, it is not far from the truth to say that all these people were novices, experimenting with various ways to get enough votes to get to parliament or at the very least, into local government.
It is these early searches to gain political recognition so as to be able to catch votes that constitutes the primary school age of Sri Lankan political life.
Today, looking back into what many of these people did during this time various theories have been developed as to the causes of the present day problems and conflicts in the country. Sometime some of these personalities, the ones who are more prominent, are seen as the architects of doom for the nation.
Perhaps purely as a matter of the memory of these times some of these recollections are valid and have some degree of validity in interpreting the meanings of many of the contemporary developments.
However, in judging these personalities and the adventures they engaged in, mostly for the purpose of self promotion, it is necessary to permit some space to the understanding of the confusion of the beginners and amateurs in a new field of action. This new field of activity carried with it enormous responsibilities, unlike perhaps other fields of beginnings, such for example, initiations into new games, the theatre and even some businesses and the like. Political action is an area so completely different to all other fields of action and perhaps the beginners and the amateurs in this field may not have appreciated the consequences of their actions. They may not have even been in a position to make such an appreciation.
As those who took responsibility for political actions in the past were foreigners representing colonial interests these beginners did not have local experiences from the immediate past to reflect upon on the consequences of political actions. They were ‘doing’ and ‘learning’ at the same time.
Many did not have very much time to learn as through the very consequences of their own actions they were thrown out of the political scene in a short period of time. Many a politician of this time had short spans of influence. Only a few lingered for long.
Today what is left as a legacy is this state of chaotic confusion of a new generation of politicians who tried to act and to articulate problems in the manner they thought suitable at the time.
Unfortunately some of those actions and articulated thoughts of the moments acquired for some others a theoretical formulation for the future. They developed dogmas out of statements and actions done by the leaders of this early period which, rather than being a dogma for all time, was only an expression of their own confusion during this early period.
This whole exercise, which happened during the early period of democracy in the country, needs to be gone into in much greater detail in any attempt to uncover the extent of the seriousness, or the absence of seriousness, of the things said and done during this period. However, in passing it can be said that what, in the most recent decades, different proponents of various issues relating to the racial confrontations have treated as authoritative positions from the leaders of this early period, were in fact, the expressions of limited value by these new adventurers in the field of Sri Lankan politics.
Often various statements and actions of Sinhala and Tamil leaders are cited as the beginnings of the contemporary conflicts. Some of these leaders are even thought of as having contributed to the development of various political tendencies of the latter times with deliberate intent.
As long as history is interpreted in this manner with quotes and photographs of various actions, giving them far greater significance than expressions of amateurish political leaders who were in that position simply because of the historical times of the transition of power that was taking place in the country, their confusion would be treated as a permanent legacy in which all others who were to come later, are trapped.
There are further reasons to treat the politics of this earlier period with even less significance due to many factors that have changed within Sri Lanka since that period. Some of those factors are as follows:
a. Most of the people who belonged to the voter category from all sectors of society were less literate than their successors. Sri Lanka today is a highly literate society and the political literacy is enhanced by the fact that most people can interact with society in their own local languages. The emergence of Sinhalese and Tamil as languages used in social communication makes the people who live now so different to those who lived within Sri Lanka before. The magnitude of this change needs to be grasped in relation to all political issues but particularly in contrasting the early part of the democratic age from the present. The cumulative effect of massive experimentation in communication in which large masses participate necessarily creates new mentalities and attitudes.
How will the people who lived under different influences and outlooks and have different capacities of articulation look into whatever their particular leaders said around the mid twentieth century is worth considering in evaluating the impact of those earlier generation leaders on the present.
b. The entire world today is witnessing the greatest communication change that has ever been experienced by human kind. There is no way for anyone to push this change back except by way of some global catastrophe like a nuclear war. No political thought of the last century will fail to be reviewed under the present communication context. Certainly the type of political discourse that took place in that early part of the new period took place in a communication context which is far different from today. Therefore the relevance of all those debates will become even lesser and the greater winds of communicated experience will bear down on what is happening now and what is to come.
It is in the light of these tremendous developments that Sri Lanka’s early period experiences, the primary school experience as it were, turned out to be a retreat rather than advancement by the latter part of the century. The paranoid political leaders of the early generation who came to realise their limitations and their failures, instead of retiring from politics tried to destroy the very foundations on which they stood. From confusion they walked to chaos. The 1978 Constitution in particular was a regression from the primary school to the kindergarten. And in that process there were quarrels in which confusion and chaos only contributed to bloodshed, disorder and lawlessness.
While there has been a great deal written and discussed on the early period of local political experience in the early part of the twentieth century, very little is written and discussed about the political experimentation that took place at the latter part of the twentieth century, particularly since the political experiments of the governments that were elected in 1970 and 1977. Political leaders who were getting old, disenchanted and frustrated made new experiments mostly based on considerations of their failures. The present day politics is shaped by these latter day experiences in the last three decades of the twentieth century. That was a period of destruction that somehow the Sri Lankan critics and observers feel reluctant to examine. How did Sri Lankan politics retreat from its primary school age to kindergarten? This is an issue that is inescapable although attempts to come to terms with this period are not adequate.
Today from the point of view of the institutional basis, Sri Lanka is in a worse position than it was at the beginning of its adventure out of colonial times. In that context merely to be brooding on what those political leaders said or did in that early period will not throw very much light on finding the way out of the present situation.
This does not mean that there is not some value from the point of view of memory and remembrance to look into the events of that early period’s, sayings and the like; it may even serve a greater purpose if those deeds and words are critically examined in their historical context.
However, those who are alive now have a greater experience of local politics to reflect upon in the attempt to develop new ideas and strategies for the future. Having one’s own country experience, however bad that experience is to reflect upon, helps in evaluating other experiences and assimilating whatever that might be beneficial from those other experiences. It is contemporary thought and action that needs to be developed in order to come up with solutions to the problems that are faced now. It is political action for a new period that is needed. That is the challenge for all Sri Lankans, whatever particular identity they claim they belong to.