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Blaming Bandaranaike

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S. W. R. D. with Nehru

By Uditha Devapriya

In a recent interview with Faraz Shauketaly, Sunethra Bandaranaike criticised her father’s Sinhala Only legislation, admitting that it had been a mistake. It was a remarkably frank mea culpa moment, but it provoked much debate on social media. There were those who agreed with her and those who did not, and there were those who dismissed her remarks as too little, too late. I find myself in neither of these categories, but if I have to categorise myself, I would locate myself somewhere in-between Type 1 and Type 2. There is no point dismissing her remarks: that is a cop-out, and cop-outs just will not do, particularly with respect to issues which affect and afflict this country today, like Sinhala Only.

There is a critique to be made of many of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s policies. My point is not that we should stop invoking such critique, but that we should be mindful of the policies that were in place before his premiership. My point is that while “Sinhala Only” may have been a mistake – and there are good reasons to say it was and equally good reasons to say it wasn’t – the pre-Sinhala Only climate was hardly better. In fact, the status quo prior to 1956 wasn’t just flawed. It was also fundamentally unsustainable. Being unsustainable, it had to be reworked, reconfigured, and opened to reform. If the leadership of the day did none of these things and provided an opening to populist politics of the most divisive form, who should we blame: the populist who found that opening, or those who gave him one?

Sinhala Only, in fact, amounted to the contortion of a progressive ideal: the replacement of English with Sinhala and Tamil at the highest levels, including the police and the courts. This had been originally proposed by the LSSP, but as is typical of such proposals, it had been hijacked for less than progressive ends by the Sinhala bourgeoisie and their petty bourgeois fellow travellers.

I rather prefer Hector Abhayavardhana’s description of the bourgeoisie here: he saw them as “small men with narrow vision.” By contrast, Dayan Jayatilleka views that bourgeoisie, which formed the upper crust of the Ceylon National Congress, as having possessed a progressive potential. My argument incorporates both these perspectives: the fact of the matter is that the colonial bourgeoisie were not farsighted or progressive enough to advocate the policies pushed by the far more cosmopolitan Left. I always return to Dayan Jayatilleka’s diagnosis: Sri Lanka, he once noted, “never had a Nehru.”

The same can be said of Bandaranaike’s decision to leave the UNP and form the SLFP. At its inception, the SLFP drew its strength from the ostensibly “anti-imperialist” chapter of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie. The latter were hardly sympathetic to Marxist ideals, such as the Left’s advocacy of a secular State, its commitment to religious neutrality, and its perceived hostility to culture, religion, and tradition. Yet Bandaranaike fashioned the SLFP as a middle-way between the high-strung but inarticulate nationalism of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie and the Old Left. Here, he failed to see a contradiction between the two. Animated by liberal ideals, Bandaranaike thus, eventually. spawned the antithesis of those ideals.

Yet, while granting and conceding all this, I find most criticisms of Bandaranaike’s policies – including those by his family – to be misplaced if not inadequate. The fact of the matter was that no party vying for power could avoid the language question. The latter had, by 1956, formed a crucial part of the National Question. The only viable solution at the time was to enthrone Sinhala and Tamil. Two developments, in fact, made this not just possible but also inevitable: the right to vote, granted in 1931, and the enactment of Free Education 14 years later. The more reactionary sections of the elite saw these as antithetical to their interests and opposed both. Not surprisingly, they would later attribute the excesses of Sinhala Only, and of 1956 as a whole, to the failures of such reforms.

This is why claims that we would all have been communicating in English well had laws such as Sinhala Only not been enacted amuse me. What they reveal is a crass ignorance of the situation that prevailed before 1956, specifically before 1945, when Free Education finally saw the light of day – despite, I must add, the opposition of individuals now celebrated and adulated as national heroes.

1956, in this sense, enabled not so much a deterioration as an efflorescence. In politics it led to two outcomes. On the debit side, it made people much less subservient to the political class, particularly through reforms like the abolition of the village headman’s post: reforms which had been rigorously advocated by the Marxist Left. On the credit side, it enabled that class to resort to false channels, such as race, to divert attention from more important issues. What we must do now is to address the latter limitation while building on the former strength, without uncritically condemning 1956.

Ultimately, my critique of 1956, and Sinhala Only, is the same as my critique of the Ceylon National Congress: that it did not produce a modernising class. In the case of the Ceylon National Congress, we ended up with the most conservative, bigoted, and opportunistic elite in South Asia, possibly Asia. In the case of Sinhala Only, we ended up with a woolly-headed and utterly prejudiced petty bourgeoisie, who supplanted the conservative bourgeoisie but did not really replace it. This petty bourgeoisie, in fact, is today at the forefront of critiquing the very reforms which empowered them: an irony that should not be lost on anyone. I think Kumari Jayawardena has provided us with the best critique of this class.

“The petty bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka has… been a class with contradictory aspirations. It has defended tradition and promoted revivalism, while advocating modernity and scientific progress; it has advanced religion as part of culture, and denounced religion as superstition; it has been both parochial and cosmopolitan.”

In Sri Lanka, it is this petty bourgeoisie, in toto, which benefited from 1956. Given their numerical preponderance, it is the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie which benefited from Sinhala Only. One is forced to evaluate the political literacy of this class, and to question whether the political project of 1956 achieved its aim of transforming it into a modernising force. That it has not, so far – the petty bourgeoisie remain incapable of such a task – should tell us that something has gone wrong with 1956. This is my critique of Sinhala Only: not that it took us away from the “good old days” prior to 1956 – which never existed – but that it contorted a progressive ideal and hijacked a project which could have emancipated us. Today we remain shackled and enslaved. For that, we have only ourselves to blame.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

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