Sri Lanka’s Road to Independence
Posted on January 23rd, 2023

Senaka Weeraratna

Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 mainly on the back of Japan’s resounding military victories during the Second World War and the Indian independence struggle.

The importance of the overthrow of Western colonial powers in Asia by freedom fighters supported by Japan should not be underestimated. If the intervention of Japan had not taken place beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 07, 1941, then the occupation of almost the whole of Asia by Western powers would have continued for decades upon decades.

In 1939 the end of Western Colonialism was not in sight. Nobody talked of giving freedom to the people in European colonies. They were second-class citizens in their own countries. The entry of Japan into WW2 in late 1941, led to the beginning of the end of European colonies in Asia and Africa. This is starkly clear in historical terms, and it cannot be ignored.

Ceylon Independence Movement

In Sri Lanka, there was no threat of a physical nature from the local people toward British occupation. The Ceylon Independence Movement was an unashamedly passive movement confined to the exchange of letters. Several of the leaders had knighthoods and were proud of their British titles. They were basically Empire loyalists. They never saw fit to join hands with the broader Asia-wide independence movement or seek help from Japan to end foreign occupation of Ceylon. The fighting Sinhalese spirit displayed in 1818 and 1848 calling for the ending of foreign occupation of Ceylon had evaporated. Not a single bullet was fired after the Matale rebellion (1848). People were resigned to their fate. They were very weak, dispirited, and incapable of giving ultimatums to the British to vacate the country. No civil disobedience movements. No ‘Quit Ceylon’ movements. Our leaders did not seek ‘Purna Swaraj’(Total freedom). Only dominion status unlike, say, Burma which demanded and obtained Republic status on the day of the grant of independence. Full political freedom was gained only in 1972 with the declaration of Sri Lanka as a Republic and the drawing of a National Constitution by our own people unlike the Soulbury Constitution drawn by foreigners with their interests and their acolytes in mind in 1947. There were no ‘Push’ factors in the Ceylon Independence Movement unlike in the Indian independence struggle, which was the real fulcrum that led to Ceylon gaining independence.  

Netaji Subash Chandra Bose

In India, the British were forced out of the country as there was a likelihood of a large-scale Indian Mutiny in 1946 bigger than the one in 1857 and inspired by the memory of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army (INA).  This dimension finally convinced the Labour Govt. of Clement Atlee to quit India. This was the ‘Push’ factor.

If India did not gain independence on August 15, 1947, neither Burma nor Ceylon would have been granted independence on January 04, 1948, or February 04, 1948, respectively. When Britain lost the jewel in its Crown i.e., India, it decided to vacate South Asia altogether.

We need to revisit the distorted narrative of how Sri Lanka achieved independence and considering both the internal and external factors, revise it. To be truly independent our minds and our institutions must be decolonized.

There must be unity among Asian countries in claiming compensation from Western colonial powers which ravaged Third World nations including Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

The biggest proponents of Human Rights today at the UN and UNHRC platforms are the very same countries that had decimated ancient civilizations in the two Americas (Aztec, Inca, Mayan, and other Native American – the so-called Red Indian), Australia (40,000-year-old Aboriginal civilization), Africa, Middle East, and Asia, within the last 500 years. There is mounting evidence of these crimes.

The West has been able to get away with these genocidal crimes because the cry for redress has been weak particularly in Asia whereas in contrast Africa and the Caribbean are far ahead.

Office of Reparations

The Caribbean countries have set up Government machinery for this purpose. In India so far, the demands for restitution have been confined to pure rhetoric. The legal dimension is missing in the demand for reparations in India. In Sri Lanka, we are going in the opposite direction such as celebrating our country’s destruction at the hands of foreigners. The British Tea Planters are now being projected as the new heroes without any reference to the plunder of the lands of the Kandyan Sinhalese by unjust ‘grab land’ laws (Wastelands Ordinance 1841), and who were made destitute without any compensation paid to them. The Kandyan Peasantry Commission Report gives a good account of the injustice meted out to the Kandyan Sinhalese peasantry by the British Raj.

The Indentured Labour (now increasingly referred to as ‘reinvented slaves’) who were brought down from the Malabar Coast of India in their thousands suffered heavily from malnourishment, lack of medical care, poor pay, harsh treatment, etc. The English and Scottish tea planters were brutal and merciless to both humans and animals, especially wild elephants, which they hunted down as a game for pure pleasure. About 10,000 wild elephants were killed by professional big game hunters like Samuel Baker acting in tandem with the new European settlers to clear the dense forests for tea cultivation. This is the forgotten holocaust of elephants.

International Inquiry into Colonial Crimes 

These negative aspects are all conspicuously missing in the new narrative being constructed by interested parties including the local media to project colonial rule as benign and in turn convey the message that the local Sinhalese are unfit to govern themselves. The storyline that is emerging from the social media exchanges is that the Sinhala Buddhists are the villains of our history, and whatever good has been done on this land was due to foreign influence faithfully carried out by those who had embraced the religions of the West and transferred their allegiance from the local sovereign to the foreign sovereign.

The 75th Anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2023 will be an appropriate time to reexamine the harm caused to this land and its people during the Euro – Christian era of colonial rule (1505 – 1948) and demand an apology, restitution, and reparations.

The former Indian diplomat Shashi Tharoor and several others are now making their voices heard in the international arena. Sri Lanka must not hesitate to join hands with them and the whole of Asia must unite to call for compensation and apology. An international inquiry on colonial crimes all over the world must precede such demands. International Conferences must be held on this issue. This Chapter cannot be closed until there is repentance and reparations. It should not be confined to only the return of stolen artifacts blatantly displayed without remorse in European Museums.

Demanding accountability – a sign of coming of age

Sri Lanka will come of age only when we ask for accountability from those who have oppressed our people during the colonial era. The time for finger-pointing in the reverse direction has come. Naming and shaming countries on false pretenses should not be allowed to be a monopoly of a few Western countries at the UNHRC and other international fora, who think that they have been mandated by providence to perform that role. Defiance in the face of aggression in the past and present by the oppressed must be admired and encouraged. We need to create a pantheon of heroes not only from India but all over Asia who defied the West for the freedom of their people. Decolonization of the mind is the next step forward in Asia’s path to true liberation.

The holding of a public seminar alongside the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence on the subject of ‘Who won freedom for Sri Lanka’ is appropriate. The foreign-funded NGO sector must not be allowed to dominate this subject and rewrite the historical narrative to suit their sinister agenda.

Conclusion

There is a huge void in the information flow today among the current generation with respect to colonial crimes in British-occupied Ceylon (1796 – 1948).

There is a need to examine the deployment of genocidal warfare including a scorched earth policy and mass murder of innocent civilians during the freedom struggles of 1818 and 1848. Furthermore, collect evidence recorded in official inquiries of the use of Lidice-type operations’ in crushing the Matale rebellion (1848). These were the first two major wars for independence from British colonial domination. Investigate whether the colonial rulers were engaged in a deliberate policy of retardation of development of the Kandyan Provinces, especially in Uva, where there was great loss of life following the destruction of irrigation works and the decimation of cattle that combined to impoverish the people and depopulate the area.

British injustice was felt mostly in the enactment of wasteland laws. Kandyan peasants were made landless. They were reduced to a landless state by the takeover of their lands for the plantation industry (initially coffee, then tea) under a series of wasteland laws commencing with the Crown Lands (Encroachments) Ordinance, No. 12 of 1840.

Kandyan chena which traditionally had no documentary proof of ownership was taken over for plantation agriculture. This is demonstrated by the names of estates with older names ending with hena or chena crop names. This affected the food security of the people. Evidence of starvation sometimes resulting in death is revealed in the writings of authors such as Le Merseur. The British systematically transferred the wealth of the Kandyan region into their own coffers.

An accountability process for these colonial crimes is warranted through an apology, catharsis, and adequate reparations. An Apology must be particularly directed to the descendants of the Sinhala Buddhist Kandyan people who were singled out as victims of colonial brutalities. These are the descendants of a highly oppressed group of people who were also deprived of their inheritance by the colonial rulers planting thousands of indentured Indian labour of Malabar descent in their traditional homelands without their consent. 19th-century British official documents reveal how the freedom struggles against British colonial rule were suppressed in a most brutal, genocidal manner in one of the darkest pages of European colonial history.

DEMANDS

1)     The Government of Sri Lanka must demand from all three colonial powers i.e., Portugal, Netherlands, and Britain:

a) Accountability for crimes committed against both humans and non – humans e.g., the holocaust of elephants in the upcountry, including seeking

a)    Apology and Repentance

b)    Atonement and Remorse

c)     Catharsis

d)     Reparation

e)     Restitutio in Integrum (in Latin this means ‘Restoration’)  

b) Inquire into Colonial Crimes committed by the three Colonial Rulers including Genocidal crimes and wholesale destruction of Buddhist Temples and illegal seizure and occupation of Buddhist Temple lands, and the building of Christian Churches on top of destroyed Temple sites (see the ‘Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon’ by Father Fernao de Queyroz), and the prohibition of the practice of Buddhism.

c) Establish a museum dedicated to remembering the freedom struggles of the people of Sri Lanka against Colonial Rule (1505 – 1948)

d) Research and rewrite the narrative surrounding gaining independence taking into consideration both the internal and external factors

e) Plan a celebration that gives due place to all those who fought against all three Euro – Christian powers that ruled Ceylon in an unjust way

f) Convene an International Conference on Colonialism jointly with former European colonies

g) Consider changing the format of the celebration to exhibit more the historical, cultural, scientific, and Ayurvedic medicines and medical achievements in improving the quality of life, and the creative abilities and contributions of our people in our 2, 500-year history including the names of our freedom fighters i.e., the brave Kings and Queens who fought and protected this land from foreign invasions, and help build the pre-colonial and admirable Buddhist Civilization of Sri Lanka.

Senaka Weeraratna

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