Bandaranaike — the Great Sinhala-Buddhist Liberal
Posted on March 23rd, 2013
H. L. D. Mahindapala
At the annual SLFP convention held in Kurunegala in 1959 Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was feeling the rising heat of the right-wing forces, within his own party, ganging up against him. There were several disaffected forces railing against him but the most vicious and deadly thrust was spearheaded by the business-oriented, right-wing Buddharakkita Thero, head of the Kelaniya Temple. His arrival at the Kurunegala session turned heads with all eyes focused on him. His muscular frame, dripping with energy, was covered in yellow robes baring the naked right shoulder of a heavy weight boxer. He walked in sure of himself as if he was the king-maker, exuding power and authority.
A tense feeling, arising out of a sense of impending crisis, dominated the sessions. The two leading newspaper groups, Lake House and the Times, were targeting Bandaranaike relentlessly. Radio Ceylon, the only state-run media, was no match to the private sector media. The Government Information Unit headed by his loyalist, Lionel Fernando, an ex-Times jounalist, too was ineffective in countering the anti-Bandaranaike media barrage. The right-wing Lake House papers virtually blanketed the nation. The Marxist Left was hammering him with unrelenting strikes in the port and mercantile sectors. In their usual deluded misreading of Marx they thought that they were spearheading the vanguard of the revolution by striking against the comprador mercantile houses in Colombo along with some remnants of feudalism in the plantation economy.
They were the Quixotes of Sri Lanka who were tilting at colonial mercantile houses owned by the local bourgeoisie and the last remnants of the dwindling British companies which they mistook for Bastilles of capitalism. Regular strikes at Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills, or mercantile houses in Colombo, or in the port made them feel like Trotsky at Petrograd in 1917 waging the good fight to take over the Winter Palace. Misguided by a misreading of Marx they collapsed eventually under the weight of their irrelevant theories that did not resonate with the historical aspiratons of the people. In the end it is the nation that had to pay for their delusional politics. Bandaranaike too was a victim of their bogus theories that never worked for them or the nation. Bandaranaike was a man besieged, standing all alone, fighting with his back to wall with whatever resources he had which was miniscule, compared the massive forces of the right, the left and the English-speaking Westernized elite ranged against him.
In those heady days, the right-wing UNP, manned by J. R. Jayewardne in the absence of Dudley Senanayake who had left the party, was waiting eagerly in the wings to get back into the seats of power which they thought was rightly theirs in perpetuity. Ananda Tissa de Alwis, the right-hand man of JR and ex-journalist of Lake House, was arguing that it was the first-past-the post electoral system that defeated the UNP and not the millions who voted for them in 1956. This is one of the main reasons why the UNP went for the proportional voting system later. JR and Ananda were quite sure that the electoral voting system would return the UNP next time round. The Left, on the other hand, thought that if they got rid of Bandaranaike the people would automatically turn to them and not go back to the UNP. Their political weapon was to mount waves of strikes to paralyse Bandaranaike’s administration. And the gossip going round swore that Buddharaikkita Thero was told by an astrologer that after the death of Bandaranaike a woman would come into power and he read it as Vimala Wijewardene, the Minister of Health, who was also known to be his mistress. This suggests that astrological predictions can be correct but those who interpret it get it wrong because the woman who came into power was Bandaranaike’s wife and not Buddharakkita’s mistress.
Getting back to the Kurunegala session, while the anti-Bandaranaike forces were ganging up inside the convention C. A. S. (“Sinhala”) Marikkar, Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, created a momentary diversion by arriving on the back of an elephant. It was a bit of comic relief. He was addicted to publicity. Once he rang his Lake House contact and complained seriously: “Mokadda ishay, api ganna cartoon ekakwath naha nay than?” (What I say, there isn’t even a cartoon about me now?)
The morning session, however, was gruelling with the right-wing forces demanding their pound of flesh. Buddharakkita & Co were cocky arguing that it was their balavegaya (force) — Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (People’s United Front) — that brought Bandaranaike into power and, therefore, he owed everything to them. Buddharakkita was out to break Bandaranaike, one way or another, if his demands, which were mainly commercial ventures related to a shipping line, were not granted. The best defence put up by Bandaranaike at the Kurunegala session was to deflect attacks with his rapier wit. During the lunch break he was lying on a hansiputuwa (reclining chair) in the open verandah of the Kurunegala Rest House. He was surrounded by foreign and local journalists. I was one of them.
He was holding forth on the crises faced by post-independent nations in the region. He was blaming it on the transplanted Westminster model which he argued was unworkable in the oriental political culture. He preferred the Committtee system of the old State Council in which subjects were handled collectiively by a committee, the head of which was appointed as the Minister. He favoured the collegiate approach that cut across party lines and embraced, within each committee, a proportionate quota of elected representatives in the making of public policy rather than the confrontational either/or approach of party politics. The participatory process in the Committee system was inclusive and not exclusive as in the polarised party system in which those who lose power were excluded from the decision-making process. In the Committee system every elected representative, was included as a member of one committe or another, thereby giving them a role to play in the decision-making process.
Power-sharing was not a viable or a respected tenet in the two-party system. In the party system the winner takes all. Losers become the loyal opposition and are forced to wait for their turn in the land of hope or hopelessness. Bandaranaike was for the consensual approach instead of the divisive party politics of the Westminster model. In his case he had no option but to work within the inherited Soulbury Constitution which was, more or less, a replica of the Westminser model. But what is little known is that within those parameters he was the first to lay down the first outlines for the revision of the Constitution without breaking away from the fundamentals of the Westminster model. He was working to introduce a Bill of Rights that would have addressed most of the issues bedevilling his time — and later. But before he could complete his work in this field the right-wing of the SLFP got him.
The transplanted Westminster model failed to take root in most new nations in Afro-Asia because the political climate was conducive mainly for traditional authoritarian regimes and not for parliamentary democracy which thrived on the soil of broader, liberal and tolerant traditions for diversity. Sri Lanka was a notable exception which stands today as the oldest democracy in Afro-Asia. Besides, the written constitutions were not functioning as effective legal and political mechanisms to ward off the rising ethnic, religious, economic and political tensions. Centuries of colonialism which suppressed the indigenous forces could not be contained within the strait-jacket of the Westminster model which had grown as a natural, flexible and adaptable English plant that was born out of the unique political culture of the Ango-Saxons. The Westminster model, the mother of all parliaments, that grew out of wars of supremacy between the King and Parliament, common laws, constitutional conventions and political practices could not be absorbed overnight by most of the the ex-colonies which were rooted in stagnant economies, political turmoil, the rise of indigenous forces suppressed for centuries and the rush of modernity invading and destabilizing traditonal societies.
In short, the saplings of twentieth century parliamentary democracy transplanted from Westminster could hardly thrive inside post-colonial political borders that were drawn arbitarily by departing British bureaucrats who failed to recognise the embedded contradictions of the new political sovereignities that were partly tribal, partly feudal, partly capitalist and mostly state-dependent individuals who had not shared the burdens of existence outside the traditional and protective collective. The new rulers — mainly the Brown Sahibs who took over from the White Sahibs — too found it difficult to manage the atomistic individualism running amok, armed with the unaccustomed new freedoms — a new liberal force which was exploited by the enemies of political freedom like the Marxists.
Individualism that ran parallel with parliamentary democracy — the rose of the capitalism in all its splendour pricked, of course, with its thorns — broke up the traditional authoritarianism of hydraulic societies that transited through colonial rule, administering a revisionist authoritarianism of its own, and rushed into the 20th century releasing gigantic socio-political forces which only few leaders managed to wrestle in the immediate aftermath of the post-World War II period. It was a period of transition where the imbalances left behind by the colonial past had to be adjusted to restore the rights of the victims of historical injustices.
In 1956 centuries of bottled up historical forces had reached the bursting point and could not be corked any longer. Aspirations and ideas of a suppressed people found its time in “1956”. The subterranean forces were rearing to burst out and find a political outlet through a compatible a leader. Bandaranaike was the chosen leader of the time, by the times and for the times. He gave leadership to the swelling ground forces with prophetic accuracy which was supposed to be in the hands of the Marxists who claimed to have the secret key to open the hidden doors of history. The historic drama that exploded in 1956 was not a Marxist class war but a culture war. Bandaranaike picked the dynamic political trend operating at grassroot level from the time he came from Oxford in the twenties while the Marxists who also returned from Western universities in the thirties took the theoretical train to Leningrad. Bandaranaike took the bus to the villages and won hands down.
There was, of course, a fusion of the diverse forces meeting in the person of Bandaranaike. If he was not there the subterranean forces would have had no option but to follow the Marxist Left to Leningrad and the consequences of that would have been incalculable, both to the economic and political structures, as seen in the case of the lumpen Marxists in tbe JVP. Bandaranaike was there at the right time in the right place to prevent the extreme ideological Left from hijacking the nationalist movement that was in search of a leader. In 1956 when the electorate elected Bandaranaike the entire weight of suppressed history fell on his shoulders. Maintainig democracy, restoring the lost historical rights, strenghtening the individual rights, protecting the rights of minorities, ensuring equality and justice, and creating a new social order came all at once like an avalanche on the back of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.
Managing those gigantic, and even convulsive, forces was a Herculean task. It was like managing the waters of a burst dam. It was a daunting task. The old world had died and the new world was struggling to be born. He was in a sense “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born (Mathew Arnold, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse). Bandaranaike’s victory was just not to overthrow the UNP. He overthrew nearly 500 years of colonialism. The novelty of the cultural wave of “1956” was a shock to the established colonial system which maintained the status quo even after gaining indepedence in 1948. The English-speaking elite — the uppity 6% at the top — were thrown off balance. They were alarmed by the native bells tolling for their impending demise. The most sneering, contemptuous opposition to Bandaranaike came from this English-speaking elite drawn from all communities. They constituted the ancien regime that was bent on hanging on to their English-speaking elitism which created an unacceptable inequality based on a colonial legacy.
Bandaranaike was anathema to them because he represented all what they were not, all what they hated. Of all the elements in the historic “1956” agenda it was the enthroning of the Sinhala language they resisted most. Contrary to the poopular belief Bandaranaike was not aiming to overthrow Tamil language. His attempt was to democratise the adminstration and bring it closer to the people who were adminstered by an alien language. The Sinhala Only Act was to overthrow English not Tamil. English was the language of the priviligentsia that ruled the nation. Upward social mobility in Jaffna and the south depended not on Tamil and Sinhalese but on English. The Jaffna Tamils dominated the public service and the professions not because they were hard working but because they had most number of schools that turned out English-speaking clerks needed for the running of the British administration. No hard-working Tamil of Jaffna or Sinhalese of south could have gone anything beyond that of drawers of water or hewers of wood if they were not competent in English.
Bandaranaike’s great achievement was in the levelling of the playing field by restoring the right of the people to be adminstered in their own mother tongue — both Sinhala and Tamil. The elite had everything to lose if English was dethroned and Sinhalese/Tamil restored to their traditional places. The balancing act he performed, amidst all the hostile ethnic, linguistic, right-wing, left-wing, the powerful English-speaking elite in the private and public sectors, Hulftsdorp hucksters that ruled the nation then, is a remarkable feat of political management. It was this act of steering the unleashed forces through democratic channels that was caricatured as the failure of a weak-kneed political opportunist.He was a man of steel who stood by his word to make Sinhala Only and Tamil also, as promised in his manifesto. It was because he stood by the people that the English-speaking elite scorned him as “sevala Banda” (slippery Banda).
Though he was demonized by the combined forces of the rump of the colonial elite it his sole, determined and committed efforts to maintain a fair, civilized and reasonable balance between the old and the new that makes him stand out as the greatest liberal of the Sinhla-Buddhist forces. He was standing at the cross-roads of a critical moment in history. It needed great courage and determination to stand by his vision when it was pounded by waves of anti-Bandaranaike forces. And to his credit he stood his ground. He represented the quintessence of the tolerant, enlightened liberalism of the new nation that had suddenly rediscovered its traditional roots and historical identity, rejecting the veneer of colonial respectability and Westernized elitism.
Though he came from the English-speaking ancien regime he was more in tune with the rennaisance of the time that reinvigorated the nation with the renewed aspirations of the people who were denied their historical birthrights for nearly five centuries. The anti-Bandaranaike forces — including his daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike, the psuedo-intellectual who is attempting to revive her yesterday’s celluloid phantom, Vijaya Kumaratunga, abandoning her father to whom she owes everything — have failed to beat, erase or ignore the indelible Bandaranaike heritage that keeps the nation alive to this day. His prophetic vision of reviving and reinforcing the suppressed Sinhala-Buddhist ethos, as opposed to the inapplicable and irrelevant dogmas of imported Marxism, continues to be the dynamic political force that rules the nation and will continiue to rule the nation in the foreseeable future.
Though the Senanayakes ushered in independence without much fuss the fundamental foundations of post-independence era were laid down by Bandaranaike. The great war that was fought and won by President Mahinda Rajapakse was the latest manifestation of the Mahavamsa-Bandaranaike tradition that runs in the historical blood of the people. It is the war that gave new life and hope to the nation. If May 2009 marked the end of a violent war and breathed new life to a despondent nation to raise its head with pride and glory, as in the days of yore, 1956 is its precursor representing the silent, non-violent revolution that restored the lost identity and dignity of the people who built a new civilisation, new culture, new language and a brand new history that fought and won impossible victories against all odds. With his victory Mahinda Rajapakse became the true and genuine successor to Bandaranaike and his great tradition. The daughters of Bandaranaike unfortuantely prefer to sleep with the enemies of Bandaranaike who denigrate his name day and night. Next to Kasyappa it is difficult to find any other parricides than his daughters, particularly Chandrika Kumaranatunga. When she praises, in glowing terms, Vijaya Kumaranatunga’s politics and his looks (which, according to late Ossie Abeygoonesekara who knew the family secrets, didn’t keep her attached to him too long) she is openly rejecting the politics of her great father. She has joined the bandwagon of the enemies of her father who not only buried him but continues to demonize him and his historic heritage.
She has never raised her voice, or lifted a pen to pay homage to her father like the way she has praised Vijaya Kumaratunga, the yesterday’s matinee idol who has no future. She has yet to grasp that the 20th and the 21st centuries were shaped by Bandaranaike and will continue to do so because he represents the essence of the nation’s historic ethos. Without her father she would have been another bimbo from Beaujolais — the French equivalent of our Botalay village — running after cheap carboard cutouts gathering dust and mud by the roadside. Her latest character certificate issued to boost Vijaya Kumaratunga and his politics reflects her infantile politics. How many votes will she get if she runs on a platform condemning and rejecting her father’s politics and praising the politics of celluloid Vijay Kumaratunga? Prostituting politics seems to be her second nature. This explains why the people have lost faith in her. How can anyone trust her? If she can betray her father who gave his life to make the Bandaranaikes iconic figures in the political landscape of Sri Lanka whom will she not betray? When it came to the crunch she even betrayed her husband and exonerated the JVP murderers in the hope of getting political mileage by accusing the UNP,
The record states unambiguosly that she has no qualms of betraying her father, her mother, her brother and even her husband. However, if she thinks that she can stage a come back by blowing up the image of Vijaya Kumaranatunga’s politics then her best bet for the future would be to engage, 24/7, in blow jobs as a permanent profession. Her big mouth too may serve as a useful aid to complete the blow jobs without any mechanical pumps. She has no hesitation in climbing on her father’s grave to advance her political career and then discard him giving her father the karapincha treatment. The homage and gratitude owed to Bandaranaike did not come from the ingrates who came from his loins or from those who were close to him and benefited most but from the humble people who has rewarded, over and over again, those came in his name.
Bandaranaike will go down in history as the first great leader of the nation who defeated a reigning government non-violently with the popular will of the people. He stood like a colossus guarding the entrances at the critical cross-roads of the post-independence era with stalwarts like D. A. Rajapakse who stood by him from the day he crossed over from the UNP to the SLFP. It is natural and logical for the son of “D.A.” to march down the historical route taken by Bandaranaike and his father to protect and foster the ingrained sense of destiny and history enshrined “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious” (Mahavamsa). It is in this spirit that the history of the nation was built by the founding fathers who welcomed, with open arms, all those who came to share the land with them as the common property held in trust for generations to come. It is in this spirit that King Siri Sangabo sacrificed his head. It is in this spirit that the kings offered shelter to the Catholics and the Muslims persecuted by their oppressors. It is in the spirit of “serene joy and emotion of the pious” that our ancestors built monumental structures that could match the glories of the ancient world. The preservation and restoration of “the serene joy and the emotion of the pious” is concept unique to the history of Sri Lanka. The nation’s historic struggle is to achieve this goal.
Of course, like any other chapter in human history there are the infirmities of the blood-stained segments that go against this spirit. We have just come out of one of those segments. We have come out of the dark tunnel into the light. President Mahinda Rajapakase who led the way out has joined the daring ancestors who carved out a unique chapter that can stand shoulder to shoulder with pride in recorded history. More than the living it is the generations to come who will reap the benefits of his monumental achievements. While all his carping critics, enemies and the theoretical pundits will go into oblivion located in the dustbins of history he will rise to a peak which only a selected few had attained in the annals of Sri Lanka.
(To be contnued)