Where is Sri Lanka in its jubilee year of independence? In this wide-angled post, Luke Heslop looks at how the country arrived at its current varied predicament where failure overrules every achievement, and why there is hope for a country when its peoples use their collective power to challenge and dismantle entrenched political corruption and systemic solidarities of the few.
Anyone who has witnessed a Sri Lankan Independence Day celebration in the last decade may have come away with the impression that independence from the British in 1948 was won following some epic military battle. Soldiers tattoo the streets of the capital on 4 February, parading their arsenal in a muscular military pageant. Tanks roll through the streets, followed by divisions and brigades in different regalia. The intimidating Special Force’s Combat Rider’s Division rev their engines and brandish automatic weapons with their faces covered, while helicopters fly in convoy formation overhead. Outside Colombo many Sri Lankans watch from their televisions at home to see the Kfir fighter jets rip through the clear blue sky. An interesting display to mark what was a peaceful transfer of power.
Throughout 450 years of European plunder and colonial occupation, Sri Lanka was in a state of what feminist and labour historian Kumari Jayawardena has described as ‘perpetual ferment’. There were pockets of resistance against foreign rule: armed offenses by local kings along the coast against the Portuguese (1505–1658) and the Dutch (1658–1796), and both the Dutch and the British (1796–1948), were repelled from invading the Kandyan kingdom until 1815. In the late nineteenth century mobilisation increasingly took the form of workers’ movements. Insurgencies, agitations, revolts, and acts of rebellion against foreign authorities across both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were frequent and politically conscious, but they were also fragmented, localised and specific, targeted at such things as grain prices, exploitative taxation or parochial grievances. They may have been aimed at colonial authorities but they were far from mass anti-colonial movements per se.
Unlike in India, there was no mass struggle against colonial rule in Sri Lanka and no unifying figure or symbol representing an independent future. There was no inherently anti-colonial position that mobilised the masses across the island; even a popular view of history, which suggested Sinhala Buddhists had become a shadow of their former glory under the colonial regime, did not mobilise the masses against the colonisers. The historiography of a superior pre-colonial Sinhala Buddhist civilisation that went into decline during European imperial rule resonated across the class spectrum among Sinhala Buddhists. Yet, the narrative of a great civilisation lost did not stimulate a unified anti-colonial position. In fact, as historian John Rogers (1990: 87–107) has pointed out, the colonial government went to great lengths to promote the pre-eminence of ancient Sinhalese civilisations. The ‘great past’ of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and the importance of recovering this status in the politics of independence was promulgated famously by charismatic orator and revivalist Anagārika Dharmapāla. Though political self-government was never his agenda, Dharmapāla imposed a distinctive rhetoric of shared religion, race and culture (including language) in Sri Lanka that made him an icon for Sinhala nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, beyond his death in 1933.
British colonial rule (1796/1815–1948) laid the roots for Sri Lanka’s tumultuous and violent sectarian journey through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Historical narratives of people and place in Sri Lanka, bolstered by European racial theory that conflated assumed biological characteristics with customary law (Nissan and Stirrat 1990: 19-45), had long-lasting and devastating implications for nationalist identity politics in post-independence Sri Lanka. New categories of ‘race’ were formalised for administrative simplification by the colonial regime at the end of the nineteenth century, and these became the basis of political and legal representation.
In the early twentieth century, legislative changes within the Ceylon National Congress, specifically universal suffrage in 1931 and the abolition of communal representation in favour of territorial electorates, created a route to power in post-colonial Sri Lanka that relied on appealing to the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Communal identity politics was the foundation of any electoral success. In 1948, Independence began with the cruel disenfranchisement of Hill Country Tamils, denouncing this entire population of their citizenship after it was decided that they were, in fact, Indian. This move was easily achieved due to the condition of near-slavery that Tamil workers in the plantation economy were held in under British rule. The colonial legacy of harm inflicted on Hill Country Tamils has received little redress in the last 75 years.
The Aryan myths and the ‘superiority’ of an ancient Sinhala civilisation encouraged during the colonial era, though by no means solely by the colonial government itself, gained powerful political influence. In 1956, on the back of programme of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike became Prime Minister and published an Official Language Act, which made Sinhala the one official language of Ceylon. This opened up employment in government administration to the Sinhala-speaking population, with obvious disadvantage to Tamil speakers, and saw the Burgher community (descendants of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial personnel) leave the country in droves. Communal violence began within weeks of the 1956 language laws being proposed. As well as legal forms of targeted discrimination, anti-Tamil riots followed in 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983; the country fell into protracted civil war (1983–2009). The early 1970s saw the first of two youth insurrections led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Leftist-Nationalist party. Shortly after the first insurrection (1971) was the introduction of ‘Standardisation’, a pernicious piece of legislation that restricted state university places for Tamils in favour of Sinhala applicants. A second, and far more violent JVP insurrection occurred between 1987–1990 throughout which period the state honed its internal mechanisms of repression to crush the JVP and reaffirm its control.
The top positions in Sri Lanka’s post-Independence governments (on both sides of the party-political divide — in office and in Opposition) have been (and remain) the preserve of mainly four inter-married families, Senanayake, Kotelawala, Jayawardene, and Bandaranaike, bringing us to the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe (son of former President J.R. Jayawardene’s cousin). These élite families, whose wealth and fame originated in the nineteenth century, have led the post-Independence governments for the last 75 years in Sri Lanka, a scenario Jayawardena refers to aptly as ‘majoritarian politics with dynastic democratic leadership’ (Jayawardena 2005: 350) — the only exception to this pattern being the election of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1989. At the end of the civil war in 2009, paternalistic politics under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime went into hyperdrive.
After the government defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, following nearly three decades of violence which saw countless atrocities committed by both sides, the Independence Day celebrations took on a heightened military character. The militarisation of the pageantry mirrored the militarisation of Sri Lankan public life more generally throughout the long post-war period; they were used strategically and performatively to valourise the armed forces. Moreover, they cemented the symbolic and real connection between the military and the Rajapaksa government to produce a powerful efficacious symbol of leadership.
But in May 2022, through a peaceful protest now known as the Aragalaya (lit., ‘the struggle’) that had been sustained for several months, the people of Sri Lanka managed to achieve the unthinkable: force the ignominious resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. They also succeeded in forcing his brother Basil to step down as Finance Minister, and Basil’s son Namal, who was viewed as Mahinda’s successor, to step down from his position as Minister of Youth and Sports. Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who became President of Sri Lanka in 2019 on a platform of economic development, left the country in financial ruin and resigned after fleeing to Singapore in July 2022.
This year the Independence Day parade marched past newly appointed President Ranil Wickremesinghe. It came at a time when inflation has made life unaffordable for a huge number of people, and Sri Lanka has the second-highest rate of acute malnutrition among children under 5 in South Asia. As families do not have enough food to eat and cannot afford the fuel to send their children to school, the lavishness of the celebration jarred with the everyday realities of most Sri Lankans.
After 75 years of Independence, Sri Lanka remains in a state of perpetual struggle. The fire of popular resistance to domination and the pursuit of meaningful freedom continues in Sri Lanka today through movements such as the Aragalaya of 2022. Agitation, protest, popular uprisings, and the fight against oppression is not represented by tanks, flyovers and military pageants. Rather, it is represented through the brave work of activists, academics, a variety of peoples’ unions, human rights lawyers, Tamil university students who marched against the Independence Day celebrations, and groups like the Mothers of the Disappeared who protest in the face of state intimidation to learn the fate of their children, and those who work, in Mythri Jegathesan’s words, ‘to keep the past exposed’ and build ‘contingent solidarities’ for a better possible future.
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Banner image © Mariana Proença, ‘Rampart Street, Galle 80000, Sri Lanka’, 2019, Unsplash.
The ‘Sri Lanka @ 75’ logo is copyrighted by the LSE South Asia Centre, and may not be used by anyone for any purpose. It shows the national flower of Sri Lanka, the Water Lily (Nymphaeaceae), framed in a graphic design of colours derived from the national flag, and sacral architectural motifs. The logo has been designed by Oroon Das.
Thanks to Mythri too: Keep the past exposed and build contingent solidarities for a better possible future!