Revisiting Bandaranaike and blindfolding him

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The protests at Galle Face have been continuing for more than a month now. Initially aimed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his band of brothers, the infiltration of certain groups has diluted the tone and trajectory of the demonstrations. Over the last few weeks, the country has seen an unprecedented opening up of discussions. These discussions have centred on topics like minority rights, the abduction of journalists, and the need for a clearer foreign policy. Once considered taboo, they have led to heated debates both within and outside the protests. One incident that has epitomised these developments has been the blindfolding of the statue of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, just opposite Shangri-La Hotel.

For mainstream scholars and popular writers, the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka – a crisis that long predates the Rajapaksas – can be traced back to the enactment of Sinhala Only. While it’s important to place the Sinhala Only Act in its proper context – it was an abomination of a far more progressive demand for the replacement of English by Sinhala and Tamil, a proposal made by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – Bandaranaike continues to be associated with its worst excesses, including the 30-year war. Those who supported the blindfolding of the statue thus imply that the backwardness of vital sectors in the country – including education and, presumably, foreign policy – can be traced back to his policies and decisions.

Whether Sinhala Only, as implemented in 1956, adversely affected education in the long term is a matter for debate. Yet, the rhetoric surrounding the Bandaranaike years implies that it also contributed to the deterioration of our foreign relations. High on anti-imperialist and anti-Western rhetoric, so the detractors say, Bandaranaike’s foreign policy lagged and brought about no tangible benefits to the country. Thus, while quick to condemn Western aggression against the Nasser Government’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Bandaranaike was slower to react to China’s quelling of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, claiming that it was an internal matter best left to the parties concerned.

Revisionist accounts have it that Sri Lanka’s leap from a pro-Western to a non-aligned and multi-pronged foreign policy spelt the end of our relations with the West, depriving us of critical Western support during the Cold War. The implication here is that under the 1956-1959 regime foreign policy became more insular, much like the Bandaranaike Government’s language policies. While such a view may find favour with those who believe that the roots of our crisis lie in that period, the historical reality was more complex. Far from turning insular and inward, it was the policies of that regime that freed the island from dependence on one or more power blocs, eventually taking its foreign relations in a new direction.

Across much of the Third World, the indigenous ruling elite actively worked on achieving a synthesis between tradition and modernity. In her study of Third World feminism, Kumari Jayawardena notes a paradox that was crucial to the trajectory of nationalism: while defying the strictures of colonialism, Third World nationalists, drawn from the ruling elite, tried to chart a middle-path between Western concepts like representative government on the one hand and the need to uphold a traditional order on the other.

Throughout her work, Jayawardena divides the Third World, particularly in Asia, into two kinds of societies: those in which the local bourgeoisie achieved this sort of synthesis and those in which they could not, and did not. In this scheme of things, India and Sri Lanka were studies in contrast. In India, colonialism bequeathed a dependent elite, but one linked to industry. When the Congress Party began opposing British rule, Nehru’s leadership enticed local capitalists to join forces with them. Though hardly independent of imperialism, Indian industrialists struck an alliance with Nehru, lending him crucial support even as he set about nationalising vital sectors in the economy after independence.

The situation was different in Sri Lanka. What little industry the country had at the time of independence was limited to the plantation sector. Hector Abhayawardhana has estimated that by 1953, ‘the output of plantations contributed about 40 per cent of national income.’ Most plantation enclaves were foreign-owned, in itself not a bad thing, except that profits had to be repatriated abroad. Moreover, because of its dependence on commodities, the country’s terms of trade began fluctuating wildly after independence, so much so that by the 1960s, after two decades of failing to industrialise, foreign reserves and terms of trade depleted rather alarmingly, triggering a severe balance of payments crisis.

The ideology of the local elite, in both countries, reflected the economic framework they operated within. In India, the existence of an industrial bourgeoisie could lay down the groundwork for a cosmopolitan elite, of which Nehru was the definitive hallmark. These elites helped bolster India’s image internationally, which in turn helped the Government conceive a foreign policy that adhered to a middle path. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the bourgeoisie remained dependent on a colonial framework. Linked to a plantation sector devoid of science, industry, and modernity, they lacked the intellectual initiative to chart a cohesive foreign policy. To quote Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka lacked a Nehru.

The election of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike changed this situation considerably. In many ways an intellectual counterpart of Nehru – both had studied in England, and both had taken part in their countries’ independence struggles, though from different political vantage points – Bandaranaike turned Sri Lanka away from its dependence on power blocs. Though informed by pressing domestic needs, like the nationalisation of the port and airport, Bandaranaike remained committed to a non-aligned foreign policy. This did not make him the hazy idealist historians make him out to be, au contraire, it made him realise the limits within which he had to work. Thus, while speaking in support of the Palestinian cause, he made it clear that his government did not oppose the existence of Israel.

All this goes to show that, far from contributing to any ‘backwardness’ in the country’s foreign policy, the Bandaranaike era laid down a clear path which continues to be taken today. The negative consequences of his policies are as much a testament to his personal flaws as they are to the limitations of the elite leadership in Sri Lanka, of which he was a part. It is this, rather than the substance of his government’s foreign relations, that are to blame for the policy turnarounds, indeed the absence of any coherent policy, that bedevil the country today. Going by the logic of the protesters, we would need to blindfold several other statues, and not just Bandaranaike’s, well beyond Galle Face Green.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya