By Dr Dayan Jayatilleka
Five years after the thirty years war we are in a time of transition to a termination. It can go either way: tenuous equilibrium and a modus vivendi or a bloody tragedy as finale. The foreseeable future of Sri Lanka will depend on the Mahinda-Modi equation. There are at least two broad scenarios.
Scenario I: Soft Landing
The Sinhala/Southern Establishment seizes the opening provided by an incoming Modi administration with a shared or compatible ideological morphology, comprehends that a strategic rapprochement with Delhi represents the last chance of stopping an externally driven or backed separation of the North and East, and pays the minimum price for such a rapprochement in the form of the full implementation of the 13th amendment within a compressed time frame. Colombo is back under the umbrella of a Delhi-Beijing condominium (as May 2009 in Geneva), instead of being a target of a Washington-London-Delhi axis. Intrusive accountability is warded off in March 2015, the crisis is managed, the conflict pre-empted. Sri Lanka is out of the bunker and back in the world.
Scenario 2: Big Bang
The non-implementation of 13A within a limited time horizon and the continuing institutional siege of the Northern Provincial Council leave a political vacuum in which non-violent agitation by civil society led by the youth cause a confrontation with and a crackdown by the state. Delhi supports a hard-line resolution in the UNHRC, Geneva in March 2015, which commences the countdown.
Tamil Nadu attempts to get back in the main political game through a surge of agitation. Chennai unrest tempts Modi into playing Indira Gandhi, who was dubbed the Empress of India after she created Bangladesh. Sri Lanka is truncated by external power projection with sufficient back-up from world opinion.
The boundaries of the Sri Lankan state are no longer co-extensive with the natural boundaries of the island, and may never be again. Anti-minority pogroms in the South cause external military intervention and the installation of a puppet Sinhala administration (Ranil-CBK-Mangala, with SF as nationalist fig-leaf). A permanent civil war rages in the south between the anarcho-nihilistic Sinhala insurgency and the puppet administration. Eventually the Sinhala-Buddhist Taliban prevails. After a Kosovo-like period as a protectorate, Sri Lanka’s Tamil North and part of its East go independent.
Those who understand that the LLRC reforms constitute an exit from the crisis and wish to see the speedy implementation of the report’s recommendations must ask the question as to what is blocking it: ‘what is the main impediment?’ To my mind, that obstacle, which is far older than the Rajapaksa administration, is the ghost of an earlier Commission and its report which had been perhaps the single most influential in the history of independent Sri Lanka.
The Greek educated St. Paul released the Jesus movement and message from its confines as a radical faction within Judaism and turned into a universal doctrine, faith and community. For Christianity to flourish it had to be liberated from the specific destiny of the Jewish race.
The author/s of the Mahavamsa inverted the role of St Paul: he/they took the universal doctrine of the Buddha and identified it with the destiny of an ethno-linguistic group on one small island. St Paul turned Christianity into a transcendent and overarching doctrine and project. The Mahawamsa de-universalized and diminished Buddhism, Sinhalising it and marooning it on the island, while elsewhere it was being enriched and enlarged by transmission through the great ancient metropolitan civilizations of Asia: India, China and Japan. The de-universalised and ethnicized Buddhism of the Mahawamsa was revived in the 20th century as an ideology by Anagarika Dharmapala, and his ideological progeny.
The elements and later the forces pushing for that Commission were those whose ideological father figure was Anagarika Dharmapala. His project was defeated in a crossfire: on one flank was the integrationist liberal-conservatism of the Ceylon National Congress and its breakaway successor the United National Party of the strategically sagacious DS Senanayake (supported by DR Wijewardena and his powerful Lake House press) and on the other flank, the anti-imperialist Left.
At the General Election of 1947 which was the antechamber of Independence, the UNP and the Left emerged as two powerful contending blocs, with independent progressives and moderates coming third. Of enormous significance was that at this high point of anti-colonial consciousness, there was no representation of the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic project for which there was no political space in the country. In less than a decade that would change dramatically.
The 60th anniversary of the commencement of the ideologico-institutional process which produced the Report of that Commission falls this year. It is the Report of the Buddhist Commission convened by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress under the leadership of Prof Gunapala Malalasekara and LH Mettananda in 1954, which launched its final product early in that most decisive of years, 1956.
This report preceded the victory of SWRD Bandaranaike. Though it was ostensibly about Buddhist “grievances”, it was not animated by the Buddhist spirit of tolerance and universality. It was a strident and truculent Report, much more about the Sinhala-Buddhist project of hegemony over the state, the educational system and the shape of post-colonial Ceylon than about the upliftment of Buddhism. It was the birth or rebirth in independent Ceylon, of Ethno-political Buddhism.
The report called for the adoption of ‘Sinhala Only’ i.e. of Sinhala as the sole Official language (a slogan unrelated to the Buddha Dhamma), advocated the takeover of private schools and many more policies which shaped Sri Lanka in the decades that followed, changing the ethos of independent Ceylon, creating the crucible that scorched and cracked open Ceylonese society along ethno-lingual and ethno-religious lines, alienated the ethnic and religious minorities, dismantled the English-educated high quality human resource base that put the country ahead of much of Asia, constricted the prospects for sustainable economic growth and employment creation, set off a flood of emigration, levelled down standards in the name of affirmative action, and cumulatively created the slaughterhouse that consumed hundreds of thousands of Sinhala and Tamil youth in civil wars, North and South.
Prime Minister DS Senanayake who knew that electoral democracy guaranteed the Sinhalese a built-in leadership role which should not be jeopardised by religious or linguistic sectarianism, refused to be persuaded to set up a Buddhist Commission of Inquiry.
With the death of DS Senanayake the project of familial succession within the UNP drove SWRD Bandaranaike into forming his own party.
The parallel error on the Left was the failure of the LSSP-CP to unite under its leadership and on a broad national-democratic electoral platform, all the forces, Sinhala and Tamil, South and North, that had participated in and supported the Hartal of August 1953.
These vast strategic mistakes by the Right and Left enabled the Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic project to make a comeback. By 1954, the neo-Dharmapalist project successfully re-emerged and gained strength with its adoption in 1955 by SWRD Bandaranaike (who at an earlier election in 1952, stood for Sinhala and Tamil as official languages).
Similarly the policies of appeasement of the LTTE of the Ranil-Chandrika years saw a powerful Sinhala Buddhist backlash, with the Soma Thero phenomenon, the JHU rise, attacks on Christian churches, the grenade attack on the Shah Rukh Khan show, the anti-conversion bill, and the Weerawansa-ist JVP surging in strength. Chandrika coquetted with and accommodated some of these forces to wrest back power in 2004, while Mahinda Rajapaksa did an SWRD ’56 in positioning himself in 2005 to surf this wave. Today, five years after the Thirty Years War and sixty years after the Buddhist Commission commenced sittings, the Rajapaksa regime is riding on its ideology and strategic programme while it is also their vulnerable hostage.
The sectarian Sinhala Buddhist nationalists of the post-independence generation took over a country and systems that constituted a shining jewel in Asia— indeed in the decolonized world—and distorted and wrecked it with their social resentments, reducing it to the shape and size of their own limitations and primitive parochial prejudices.
They handed down to us a toxic smouldering wreck, which significant swathes of world opinion that once applauded this country as a model of democracy and social welfare, now abhor. That post-independence generation of majoritarian nationalists is morally responsible for the decades-long funeral pyre that consumed a cluster of subsequent generations: my own (Kethesh Loganathan, Rajini Tiranagama, K Pathmanabha) and that just before (Vijaya Kumaratunga, Neelan Tiruchelvam) and after it (Daya Pathirana, KL Dharmasiri); the generations of our elder and younger brothers and sisters.
The least guilty and only heroic ones among that post-independence generation are the brave and brilliant handful, the products of Jennings-Ludowyk tutelage, who were to make their mark in the world, putting Ceylon/Sri Lanka on the map in many fields.
In his Foreword to his slender anthology of poetry ‘Time’s Confluence and other poems’, Godfrey Gunatilleke, an iconic member of that generation defines it slightly ruefully as the “small English educated class, a large part of whose emotional and intellectual life had been shaped by the culture in which that language had grown and developed”. He later refers to it as “the Sri Lankan English-educated community”.
Though they were the ‘golden generation’ which maintained universal standards and competed internationally, the very title of the University of Ceylon magazine of the early 1950s— “Krisis”— demonstrates that they were acutely possessed of a critical sensibility and a sense of crisis, eschewing a detached smugness that their talents, performance and socio-professional prospects warranted. They remained honourably dissentient down the decades while unambiguously committed to Sri Lanka, its national interest and its people.
And yet, this brilliant humanist and cosmopolitan intellectual elite lost the ‘culture wars’— unlike their counterparts in India and Singapore. Perhaps their defeat was inevitable given our social matrix or perhaps the defeat was precisely because they, unlike their Indian, Egyptian, Syrian and Singaporean counterparts, never fought back in the Culture Wars, in the cause of modernity—which would have required the elaboration of a popular modernity while preserving elite modernity.
The aim of the Buddhist Commission and those who drove it was to ‘re-found’ Sri Lanka, unravelling the negotiated compact contained in the Soulbury Commission. The real target of the Buddhist Commission was the Soulbury Commission, itself the product of the interface of the post WW II British progressive ethos of a labour Government and the Ceylonese elite led by DS Senanayaka. It was the Buddhist Commission report that hollowed the foundations of the Soulbury Commission’s product, the Constitution.
The two reports, the LLRC and the Buddhist Commission are utterly incompatible with each other.
The logic of the LLRC Report is one of integration on the basis of the elimination of discrimination, while the logic of the Buddhist Commission report of 1954 is one of domination based on discrimination. It is the shadow of that earlier report and its vision of and for the country that has dwarfed the LLRC Report and invisibly blocks its implementation. It is the ideology and project that issued from the Buddhist Commission Report and the persistence of that ideology— the refusal or inability to break from or transcend it— that has blocked the country’s post-war transition to a sustainable peace.
The post-Independence Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie which grew into the patriarchal Sinhala establishment with its rigid, ossified ideology of authoritarian hierarchy, inherited a flourishing oasis of a country and turned it into a wasteland. In the most bitter of ironies, it has created a Tamil Diaspora which is integrated into and influential in the First World, while the Sinhalese have been rendered incapable of contention by half a century of cultural, linguistic and religious in-breeding.
Despite the bold step taken by Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold the election to the NPC, it is the dominant ethos of counterreformation and the doctrine of ‘de-stabilize and roll back’, originating at least sixty years ago in that ‘re-founding moment’ of 1954-1956, that has frozen the Northern Provincial Council and stalled the LLRC reforms. The contemporary project of the National Security State is but the militarized, militaristic son of that earlier agenda.