Romanticizing Pre-Independence Era is Silly
Posted on February 4th, 2023

Dilrook Kannangara

There is a silly trend of glorifying and romanticizing the pre-Independence era. Those who do so have no idea how things were then. Although Sri Lanka is in a dire economic and political situation today, some matters are better than then. Yes; there are things that are worse today. Sri Lankans are utterly frustrated about how things are and for valid reasons. However, an imbalanced one-sided view is silly. We must move forward, not backward.

A very small percentage of people lived a comfortable life during British rule but the vast majority of people of all ethnic groups lived under trying circumstances.

People Lived No More Than 50 Years on Average (Today Over 70)

By the time Ceylon gained independence, the average life expectancy was around 50. Extremely few people had access to electricity and lived in brick houses than today. Though this was comparable to other nations, Ceylon, just like others, advanced in this regard through good healthcare (not perfect though), good education (once again not perfect), improvements in nutrition (though relatively Sri Lanka went backwards in this regard) and lagged but positive technological advancement.

The life span is an average and everyone is different. However, the average indicates what happens across the nation. If we need a nation for a few happy souls, we have it today too!

Just imagine those who glorify British era dying at 50; living in dark mud houses? Is that what they want? Some part British colonies are still at this stage in Africa and parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

By 1946 Most Tamils Were Displaced Indians for Slavery

A large number of Tamils were brought into the island for slavery. Due to a petty agreement amongst European colonialists, slaves were not labelled slaves! Instead, they were told in no uncertain terms to place their thumb print on a piece of paper and were shipped to slave colonies.

From 1911 (when Tamil ethnicity appeared for the first time in a Ceylon census) to 1948 (Citizenship Act), Indian Tamils” were defined as Tamils born in India. Tamils born in Ceylon were Ceylon Tamils” (despite the fact their parents many have been born in India).

By 1946 (the last census of the British rule) most Tamils in the island were Indian Tamils”. The number of Ceylon born Tamils was smaller.

They did not leave their homeland in India for a round trip! They were enslaved by the British and displaced from their native land. Not just Ceylon, Malaya, Burma and Africa also received a large influx of Tamils from India. They worked in sanitary works, hard labour at port, tobacco plantations and tea plantations and were abused in every possible ways including sexual abuse. Little England” has not just British-styled houses but also the offspring of British planters.

Scores have been written in Dutch and British historical annals about Malabar Slaves.

Going back to pre-Independence times includes recreating this situation. How many Tamils would like to be rebranded as they were in 1946? Certainly not many.

Less Than a Tenth of Muslims Schooled

Even by the end of the British era, less than a tenth of Muslims (males and females combined) attended school. Almost all Muslim girls were not sent to school (other than Malays who were a much smaller percentage) and only a small number of Muslim boys attended school. British rulers completely disregarded Muslim education in the island and unlike Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, Muslims did not have foreign educationalists interested in their education either.

Since then, the number of Muslim schools has grown massively increasing by more than a thousand-fold.

Are Muslims willing to go back to 1947? Unlikely!

Ceylon Was Dragged into Wars

Ceylon was a British colony and as a result it was dragged into wars it had no intent of joining. These included mainly WW1 and WW2. Though local casualties remained low, things could have turned much worse had the battles raged differently. If Ceylon remained part of Britain after 1948 it would have been included in other wars including the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Falklands War, etc. with nasty impacts affecting locals. Ceylon could have ended up like Diego Garcia islands.

What’s more interesting is the fact that Independent India aligned itself with the Soviet Union and in 1947 (before Independence) Ceylon entered into an anti-Soviet and anti-Indian defence pact with the US and the UK (Anglo Ceylon Defence Partnership Agreement). It didn’t achieve much due to Ceylon gaining Independence in 1948 and eventually annulled in 1955. Due to this Agreement, Ceylon’s entry into the UN was vetoed by the Soviet Union until 1955.

Had it continued, Ceylon would have been a staging platform of British and American anti-Soviet and anti-Indian attacks resulting in counter attacks and massive devastation. The combined impact of internal wars the island nation endured would be just a spec in comparison.

Further, British rulers mercilessly robbed most grain reserves in the island (and India) during World Wars to feed their people and soldiers. Locals survived on unattractive food sources to the British (jackfruit, etc.) and even on what is considered a weed plant which is locally called Bajari”. Such deprivation did not happen post-independence no matter how dire the situation was.

Are people willing to go back to those good old times?

Internal Ethno-Religious Situation Was Tense

Contrary to what some like to portray, the inter-community harmony was not great. In fact, violent. There were regular violent riots between castes in Jaffna over allowing lower caste” children to schools, laundry caste” persons washing other caste people’s clothes and other petty tribal matters. Buddhists and Christians clashed in Kotahena in 1883. Buddhist and Muslim clashed in 1915 which started in Kandy but soon affected the entire island. Tamils and Sinhalese clashed in Nawalapitiya in 1939. Political and non-political civil groups were divided by religion and ethnicity!

By 1947 (before Independence) the largest political parties were the Sinhala Maha Sabha (aligned with the UNP) and All Ceylon Tamil Congress. Ethno-political divisions existed long before that.

British rulers were particularly harsh on Muslims in 1915 as British troops suffered their bloodiest war defeat to Turkish Muslims in WW1. Bringing in a Sikh army to quell the riot and the aftermath of the violence was a well calculated move against Muslims knowing very well the animosity between the two groups.

The very few instances of unity did not last long. These temporary unions were made either to discriminate against another group or to gain more clout in bargaining with the British. None of these lasted. Ceylon National Congress collapsed along ethnic lines in 1921, long before the first limited election.

Almost all national heroes were ethno-centric. They did well for their tribe but nothing for the others. Clashes and disagreements arose when they tried to discriminate against other groups. A few who pretended to be friendly died as tribalists.

Lucrative Foreign Currency Reserves and Free Education

One aspect of British Ceylon was that it had no foreign loans and endowed with lucrative foreign reserves. Sadly, this is where post-independence Sri Lanka miserably failed. However, there is a lengthy tale beyond the numbers. British Ceylon built such a lucrative forex reserve through slavery!

A large number of Tamil and Malabar Coast slaves were brought into the island. They were working and living in absolutely appalling conditions. Malabar people were deployed to work in the port and in sanitary works. A large percentage of other Tamils in the island were put into tobacco and tea plantations and to road construction. They had very limited welfare, no holidays, no medical facilities and no dignity.

This was how the British earned super-profits. Most part of it was taken to Britain and a small part was allowed for Ceylon.

British rulers were against wide-spread free education and were unwilling to finance it. A fund was created for free education from profit reserves of tea plantation companies. This money could have been used to uplift the horrible living conditions of Tamils working in those plantations but was instead taken for free education! As a result those toiling in plantations fell from the pan to the fire. The good part of it was, free education was not a burned on the government.

However, years after 1948, minimum working conditions were introduced. Slavery based industries became unprofitable. On the other hand, those who the British treated as slaves had tremendous improvements in their quality of life. Plantation companies and the government now pays not just them but also their politicians, temples, barbers, etc. each time they earn a salary! It came at a cost – no foreign reserves as their industries now have higher cost making them unprofitable and free education became a burden on the government. There are no free lunches! Someone must pay. If everyone becomes cowboys, there won’t be Indians to shoot!

Foreign Bank Accounts

Yes; there were foreign bank accounts during British times. The whole purpose of capturing India, Ceylon, etc. was to earn enough money from colonies to repay massive debts to France. After repaying all, British rulers still held on to their colonies as it was immensely profitable. Most earnings of Ceylon were taken away to Britain.

It is therefore not correct to say foreign bank accounts is a new thing for Sri Lanka. It existed far bigger during the British time than now. This too is corruption.

In fact, the foundation of bribery and corruption in Sri Lanka today was laid during the British time. People had to bribe government officers with chicken, beef, calves, pork, vegetables, fruits and even women to get things done. Only 3.1% of islanders were sufficiently proficient in the language the government conducted affairs. The rest had to stoop low and venerate the regime even for simple tasks. It was not an excellent administrative service as some with scant knowledge boast. It was a lucrative trade for those working in it but not for others. Today both sides have collapsed.

Transportation Network

Yes; the British built an excellent railway network and a good road network. This they did without creating a debt trap. Even better. However, it was far from perfect. Trains and buses were unreachable to most as they did not serve a wide network as today. Malabar slaves and other south Indian slaves were used in their construction. The nine-arches-bridge which is a tourist attraction costed hundreds (if not thousands) of lives of slaves.

Those who glorify the excellent British transport network are also glorifying slavery and the killings of workers from exposure, torture, neglect and at times execution. If independent Ceylon indulged in these, the network would have been much better today (though there are decent modern ways to build them today which unfortunately costs more money than Sri Lanka can afford).

Singapore’s LKY Looked at Independent Ceylon in 1965, Not British Ceylon

Singapore’s LKY launched a separatist campaign against Malaya and he succeeded in 1965 in creating a Chinese-majority nation, carved out of Malay-majority Malaysia. One of his rallying calls was to make the city-state into another Colombo (capital of Ceylon). This was in 1965. Yes; after the events of 1956 and 1958. That’s what LKY modelled his nation on; not pre-1848 Ceylon. Surely Sri Lanka was doing something right by 1965 for one of the best transformative world leaders ever to emulate its structures.

Sri Lanka has many problems today and frustration is justified. However, wishing for slavery is not wise. Before romanticizing and glorifying the British era consider the fun of having all that today! Not many would like to live in such a country. This was why Ceylon gained Independence though it lost its way since.

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