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Battaramulla of the 1940s – Paradise Lost

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Excerpted from the memoirs of Edward Gunawardena, Retd. senior DIG Police

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES (1939)

In January 1939, a few months before my fifth birthday, I was admitted to the ‘baby class’ of St. Joseph’s College. My elder brothers, Owen and Irwin, were already in this school; and my younger brother Aelian was a toddler at home. It was during this year that my mother died. I remember being lifted high for me to view her corpse in the coffin. I came to know sometime later that she had died of complications expecting the fifth child. I remember the large numbers that thronged our house. She had been a much loved lady who had been kind and helpful particularly to the poor women of the village.

I remember the mild earth tremor and the beginning of the war too. It took sometime for my grandfather and father to realize that the rattling of bottles and glasses on racks and tables had been caused by an earthquake. I could not have understood anything about the war. But there certainly was unusual excitement on the streets and among the teachers in the kindergarten block.

I traveled to school with my brothers in a rickshaw. It was a leisurely ride through Etul Kotte, Borella and Kynsey Road to Darley Road. Cyclists dominated the roads and buses and cars were uncommon. The rickshaw-puller was Velu, a strong and amiable man. A part of his breakfast every morning was a large banana with a pinch of asafoetida (perunkayan). The Tamil I learnt conversing with Velu has been of immense value to me. We lived in our parental home in the suburban village of Battaramulla; and I have continued to live in Battaramulla ever since.

 

The Village

Nestled amidst lush paddy fields and marshland of mangroves and reeds was the small, quiet and homely village of Battaramulla. One square mile in extent it was bounded in the West by the Diyawanna, the South by the ancient Korambe Ela canal, the East by a stretch of paddy lands called The Deniya and the seventh mile post of the main road from Colombo; and on the North by the marshes bordering the village of Kalapaluwawa. The most pleasing natural features of the village were the clean and perennial waterways and the vast extents of marshland with an abundance of flora and fauna of different species.

Elevated flat lands rising above the marshes and the paddy fields particularly on the western fringe also featured the landscape. Kumbukgahaduwa abounded in bushes of dang (blackberry) whilst the Seeniduwa was a recreational ground particularly for the children. It was also the place for the traditional adult competitions between the Udupila and Yatapila of ang-adeema and pol-gaseema. These competitions which were organized to invoke the blessings of goddess Pattini were enthusiastically fought out by village folks. The spirit in which the people participated certainly promoted unity and harmony.

Other elevated areas above the marshlands and paddy fields were Polduwa and Kamathgoda. Today, on the former stands the Water’s Edge Hotel; and the Central Environmental Authority building complex has swallowed up the latter.

The Diyawanna Oya and the Korambe Ela were waterways with crystal clear water. The Diyawanna was broad and shallow but midstream was deep enough for padda boats (paru) to navigate. The bridge over the Diyawanna separating Etul Kotte and Battaramulla was a single lane contraption of wooden sleepers. Whenever a vehicle crossed this bridge, the rattle of the sleepers could be heard even from our home, particularly in the night. The level of sound pollution was so low that distant sounds such as the siren of the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills and the Colombo – Opanaike train passing the Cotta Road, Narahenpita, area could be heard. There were nights when one could hear the sound of the breaking of ocean waves. During the South West Monsoon the symphonic croaking of thousands of frogs disturbed the tranquility of the night.

The Korambe Ela which is only about 200 meters from where I live on Robert Gunawardena Mawatha that was earlier Korambe Road is of special significance to me. This was the clear stream in which we as children swam and frolicked in. The water was so clear that fish such as ralli and nala-handaya could be seen as in an aquarium. During the rain floods (pitara) of March – April and October there were many amateur fishermen who laid nets across this stream and had a fine catch of fish such as Loola, Kavaiya, Magura , Hunga, Angkutta and Theliya.

The wanton destruction of the wetlands in particular has led to the pollution of these waterways and immeasurable environmental damage in general. At the conclusion of the Waters Edge case in November 2008 1 wrote to the newspapers on the Wetlands of the Battaramulla — Kotte area. This letter was given prominence in several newspapers and I reproduce some excerpts.

 

The Wetlands Of Battaramulla — Kotte

“Apart from the damning exposure of the corrupt and illegal acts of President Chandrika Kumaratunga et al, the Water’s Edge Judgment has very forcefully brought into focus the importance of natural wetlands mainly from the point of view of flood protection and water retention. Indeed, as acclaimed by the entire nation, this is a landmark judgment that reminds every citizen of the importance of the preservation and nurturing of the environment. It is only second to the historic first sermon of Arahat Mahinda when he told king Devanampiyatissa that the latter was only a trustee of the land and the environment and had no right to destroy what rightfully belong to generations to come.

“This judgment should strengthen the hands of policy makers and enforcers of environmental laws. Writers of textbooks on environmental studies for school children could also draw inspiration from the observations made in the judgment.

“The sections of the judgment that dwell comprehensively on the environmental significance of wetlands with references to erudite judgments of Indian Courts were of particular interest to me; the simple reason being the fact that I have seen and enjoyed the wholesome beauty of the pristine wetlands of the Battaramulla — Kotte areas from my childhood in the late thirties of the last century…..Every macro or micro geographical region has distinctive morphological and features of vegetation. Even the Arctic regions, the Sahara desert, the Himalayan peaks or the Amazon forests are endowed with serene natural beauty. With the changing seasons, the sunsets or when moonlit they provide heart warming, enchanting sights. Streams, rivers beaches and coral reefs also enrich the environment. All these gifts of nature are beneficial to man.”

Sri Lanka is perhaps one of the few countries in the world with a variety of natural environmental facets concentrated within an area of 65,000 Sq. K.M. The hill country is characterized by its mountains, meandering rivers, waterfalls and wooded valleys. The endless forests of the dry zone rock outcrops such as Sigiriya, Gunners Point, Veddagala & Toppigala are truly fascinating. In the wetzone Sinharaja the virgin tropical forest is a world heritage reserve. Of the wetzone the Battaramulla — Kotte area was not long ago characterized by vast extents of wetlands. On the fringes of these wetlands extending for acres and acres were paddy lands that yielded profusely whilst helping water retention at times of excessive rain.

Traveling to St. Joseph’s College, Darley Road, from my parental residence in Battaramulla from 1939 to 1952, first by rickshaw, then by buggy cart and finally bicycle the road took me across the wetlands of the Diyawanna and the wetlands of Rajagiriya. The Battaramulla Etul Kotte — Welikada Road and Castle St. were across these wetlands. on the road to Etul Kotte over the Diyawanna Oya was a wooden bridge. The noise that it made when a vehicle crossed it occasionally could be heard in the nights several kilometers away. Buildings were rare and far apart. The Kotte U.C. building is perhaps one of the older buildings that remain. The Castle St. Hospital is one of the first buildings to come up on reclaimed land.

It is with the construction of the Parliamentary Complex and the shifting of the capital to Sri Jayawardenapura in the early eighties that the building boom began. The buildings alongside the Parliament Road from the Pelawatta end to Koswatta such as the Foreign Employment Bureau and the Central Environmental Authority came up on filled paddy lands. The entire ‘Waters Edge Golf Course’ was an area of lush marsh vegetation, the highest point being ‘Pol Duwa’ on the western end of the present Subhuthipura which was then a high land planted with rubber.

These wet lands that were highlighted in the Water’s Edge judgment, on the northern side of the Battaramulla, Kotte Road extended beyond the Welikada – Kalapaluwawa Road linking up with the wet-lands of Kolonnawa and the Orugodawatta – Modena wet lands of Colombo North.

The wet lands on the southern side of the road from Battaramulla via Kotte to Castle St. linked up with the marshlands of the Attidiya – Bellanvila area. Closer to the City centre these wetlands extended to Narahenpita and beyond.

I wonder howmany will remember that there was after world War II a regimented labour force called the Essential Services Labour Corps (ESLC). This labour force was mainly involved in Unemployment Relief Work (URW) such as the reclamation of low lying land for state purposes. The present RMV’s office and the Police Transport Div. are on the land reclaimed by the URW programme.

During my childhood numerous opportunities came the way of children to roam the fringes of these wetlands. During the War-Years I remember frolicking In the paddy fields and threshing floors that belonged to the family. ‘Welipatha’ in close proximity to the western end of Rajamalwatte, then known as Averlwatta was one such paddy field. Today the speaker’s residence stands where this paddy field was. A stone’s throw to the west was ‘Seeniduwa’ – a slightly elevated flat extent of land ringed by blackberry (dan) bovitiya and eraminia bushes which was the favourite playground of the children of Battaramulla.

The Kirala Kaduru and Vel atha trees attracted large numbers of bats in the evenings.

In the deeper areas of the marshlands where there were fair extents of water exposed to direct sunlight there were nelum, olu and kekatiya in plenty. With the morning sun the nelum and olu in bloom presented a heartwarming sight. Particularly during the days approaching the full-moon there were a few boatmen venturing out to these deeper areas to pick the lotuses and olu in bloom. Kekatiya stalks were also collected as it was a much sought after vegetable.

By today’s standards this was veritably a nature’s paradise. It would certainly have been a special location for nature enthusiasts and tourists. Apart from the traditional birds of the wetlands the ‘purple coots, night herons, cattle egrets, kingfishers and the common KoraWakkas a myriad varieties of birds were attracted by the fruits and berries. To see flocks of cormorants fly in formation or a white bellied hawk snatch a wriggling fish in its talons were common sights. Butterflies of different colours and sizes and dragon flies were plentiful.

The water in the marshes amidst the mangroves and reeds was crystal clear. Rich in all types of indigenous fish, fishing with rods was resorted to in the fringes. Small ornamental fish such as nalahandayas, ralli and thithayas were caught with ease by children with cupped hands and taken away in bottles for rearing. During heavy rains fish such as the cat-fish (Magura) and Kavaiya even ventured up narrow streams to be trapped or cut with swords and manna knives. Monitor-lizards, otters and fishing cats (which were called diviyas) were the main predators.

It is noteworthy that these wetlands also were of direct economic significance to many village folks. There were many families that reared milk cows on grass that grew profusely in the marshes. The milk they produced was delivered at the doorsteps of homes. There were others who raised herds of buffaloes that wallowed in the water and fed on marsh grass. These buffaloes were much in demand by the numerous paddy cultivators for the preparation of the fields for sowing and also for threshing after harvest. The curd produced was distributed to homes and the few boutiques that existed.

I vividly remember the wetlands of the Narahenpita area being put to commercial agricultural use by an enterprising businessman whose name was Ramasamy. He successfully developed a typical tropical marshland agriculture to meet the demands of a specific consumer market. On large extents of wetland he cultivated greens such as Katurumurunga, Kankun and Mukunuwenna. On ridges and elevated places were clumps of banana trees and well tended jasmine bushes. Jasmine flowers were in great. demand particularly in the Wellawatte, Pettah and Kotahena areas for the making of garlands, womens’ hairdos and offerings at kovils.

This businessman also raised a special breed of buffaloes called ‘Thorati buffaloes that produced milk profusely. The numerous saiva hotels in Colombo were the main outlets for the milk. These milch buffaloes were fed mainly on marsh grass. The cattle manure that collected in the sheds was used as fertilizer for the leafy vegetables, bananas and the jasmine plants. Indeed this was an admirable wetlands agricultural model.

The Wetakeyiya plant (pandanus) and other reeds particularly ‘gal eha’ were used for the weaving of mats and baskets. Galeha mats which were woven in different colours using mainly organic dyes were much in demand. Because of the spongy nature of the reed when dry it was comfortable to sit on or sleep on. Large mats called ‘Magal Peduru’ were used for the sun drying of paddy. Many families living on the fringes of these wetlands of the Battaramulla – Kotte area subsisted on this economy.

The “Water’s Edge” judgement is indeed a blessing for generations to come. They will be able to savour a little bit at least of what their forefathers enjoyed. History will record that it was the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka that made it possible.



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‘The endangered speeches’

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by Usvatte-aratchi

That was the title of a short review of a book named Language City written by Ross Perlin. The review was written by Johnson, who usually writes to The Economist on language and appeared in The Economist of April 13. A group of scholars in New York City found that the citizens of that mega-city spoke 700 languages, roughly 10 percent of all languages alive now all over the world. That is probably true probably of London and Paris as well, who additionally have had an imperial past. What a boon, a veritable Tower of Bable.

Ross Perlin wrote about six languages, so spoken. One is Seke in Nepal, squeezed between Nepali and Tibetan. Wakhi in Central Asia is among Chinese, Persian and Russian. Nahuatl spoken by 1.6 million people in Mexico is under threat from Spanish. N’ko spoken in West Africa is in competition with French. Yiddish, spoken in southern Germany and later in New York, is giving way to German and English. Perlin picked up these languages from among the 30 that he came across in New York City. Little wonder that that medley irked Donald Trump, disturbed about his conviction by a New York jury.

Johnson went on to talk about 7,000 languages that are alive now. That number has been discussed for about 30 years now. The largest group among them is in Africa. Their survival strength lies in their isolation from more aggressive invaders. Another large cluster is in Papua New Guinea, where hemmed in between tall and thickly forested mountains, each group in a valley speaks a language unknown in the other. As these languages come into contact with more aggressive languages, they lose out and eventually die when fewer than ten people habitually use that language.

As Islam spread in North Africa, its language, Arabic replaced the local languages. Over centuries, Arabic in each country developed its own variation which is hard for a person in another country to understand. At regional intercountry meetings, officials go back to Koranic Arabic, which is not intelligible to the people at large. Latin, which was used by a small sliver of the population in medieval Europe, lost ground to rising vernaculars.

It remained supreme in learning and the church for several centuries, well into the 19th century. The vernaculars of the powerful rising nations replaced Latin in Europe and established themselves in colonies that the imperial countries conquered or populated. This is especially interesting because we find a language well-established for centuries, losing ground to upstarts. The special feature was that the new languages were vehicles of new knowledge that people found available to them. Martin Luther translated the bible into German in 1522. King James’s authorised version of the Bible in English appeared about a hundred years later.

The consequences were momentous. A contrasting feature emerged more recently when well-established languages carried new knowledge and threatened the survival of old vernaculars. Samskrt, a language that carried forward knowledge far and wide (Java, Cambodia) until about the 13th century, came to rest in backwaters, yielding place to the brash newcomer, English. An Indian scholar working on a problem in Panini’s work (Panini was a Samskrt grammarian in the 6th century.), found the solution in distant Cambridge while working with a professor, who was Italian.

The earliest of these ‘conquering’ languages were Portuguese and Spanish which subjugated indigenous languages in South America. Amazingly, people who inhabited that landmass from Manitoba in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south mostly lost their languages and now use 4 Western European languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French (All Romance languages) and English. ‘South of the border’ lies Latin America! However, some indigenous languages survived, especially in remote parts of Brazil, in parts of Mexico, Peru and in Reservations in North America.

Chinese, a source of fundamental innovations in the world did not find domicile in any cultures overseas, except among ethnic Chinese living overseas (hua quiao) in many parts of the world. We owe the discovery of gunpowder, the mariners’ compass, silk production, ink, and printing to Chinese ingenuity. The significance of these discoveries to the eventual rise of Western civilisation is immense. The wisdom of Kong Fut Ze (Confucius) and Lao Tze and Sut Tzun notwithstanding and that it is the first language of some 1.3 billion people, Chinese is not one of the leading international languages.

Sinhala, an ancient language continuously used by most people on this island, has changed much in the last hundred years. Read Guttila Kavya Varnana written by Pandit W. F. Gunawardena in 1920(?) and a book written by Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekera or W. A. Abeysinghe, a hundred years later and you realise the emergence of a new usage. The beginnings of that change came with Kumaratunga Munidasa and Martin Wickremasinghe and with the growth of mass literacy spread among all Sinhala users. More recently, the widespread use of Sinhala on radio and television has spread a new patio incapable of expressing none but the gross inanities that occupy the minds of their creators.

There wasn’t only a change in usage but also in the knowledge that the new usage carried. Again, the pioneer was Martin Wickremasinghe, soon followed by Kumaratunga Munidasa. Sinhala is in a battle against English for survival. English with its close cousin across the Atlantic has been at the forefront of forces that change our economies and ways of living. (Think of blue jeans.) Most talented young people begin to work in English at the end of secondary school. They often leave for other countries.

None of these bodes well for the growth of a vigorous language that not only carries new knowledge but also engages in discovering new knowledge. We must not only revel in kav silu mini kusa dava but also write a new vavuluva. We must not only marvel at Jetavanaramaya and Jayaganga but also take pleasure in writing a programme for a robot capable of complex new tasks. Celebrating mav basa annually is no substitute for the inventive use of a language.

‘Alut alut dae notanana jatiya lova no nangi
Hinga kaema bari vuna tena lagi gaya mara gi ’ Virit Vakiya.

That is no less true of a language than of a people.

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Lester , Underrated : Akkara Paha

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Akkara Paha

By Uditha Devapriya

Akkara Paha (1969) contains perhaps the saddest and most poignant finale in any of Lester James Peries’s films. Ajith Samaranayake distilled it brilliant in his tribute to Madawala S. Ratnayake, who wrote the novel.

Here were dreamy young antiheroes seemingly without a purpose in life, fascinated by their own sexual urges but gripped by a sense of futility and self-pity.

Sena, the protagonist of Akkara Paha, is one such antihero. Poor but intelligent, sharp but sensitive, he finds himself in a totally different environment after securing a scholarship to an elite school in Kandy. Unaccustomed to life in the city, he strikes up a friendship with a girl at his boarding. The friendship later grows into a romance.

Eventually, he realises his limitations: he is far more intelligent than anyone in his class, but a bounder in their scheme of things. He responds to this by rebelling against his own inheritance, first by abandoning the girl he fell in love with in his village, and then by neglecting his studies and pining after the girl at the boarding.

This recklessness costs him everything and brings him no consolation. He does all he can to impress the girl, Theresa, played by Janaki Kurukulasuriya, even raiding into the family till and getting what little money his sister, played in her second film role by Malini Fonseka, has saved to buy Theresa expensive perfumes. Theresa initially humours him. Yet after a while she loses interest in him and begins an affair with a rich cousin.

His sexual awakening leads Sena to much disappointment, and he soon abandons his studies and tries his hand at manual employment. He finds a job at a sawmill. Yet having been shielded from hard work by his father – who has staked everything on him getting a middle-class education and securing a white-collar job – he becomes sick and is sent to hospital. It is there that his family discover what he has done with his life and to his future.

The ending unfolds in the backdrop of these tragedies, but it is not a tragic ending. Spurred by his father’s indebtedness, Sena’s family have by now moved to a State colonisation scheme. Sena’s sister has fallen in love with a neighbour. The two of them decide to marry. Meanwhile, Sena rekindles his romance with his village sweetheart, Sandha, and in doing so returns, in a manner of speaking, to the world he abandoned.

The final scene, played against a slow, haunting poem sung by Amaradeva, underscores this process of departure and return, of abandoning the past and returning to it. Sena and Sandha wave goodbye to Sena’s sister and her husband. The two of them then walk back, heads bowed down, uncertain of their future, but somewhat hopeful.

Rathnayake’s novel wraps up differently, with the sister talking about Sena with their mother after her wedding, and her revealing that he intends to marry someone. The mother is distraught: he has already ruined his life for a girl, and is worried he may ruin what’s left of it for another. She changes after hearing who his intended bride is: Sandha.

By only hinting at Sena’s reconciliation with Sandha and the possibility of their marriage, Lester Peries ends the story on a more poignant, subtle note. It is not like the ending in Golu Hadawatha, where the spurned lover forgives the girl who rejected him, or in Nidhanaya, where the husband finally realises his love for his wife. What makes Akkara Paha one of Lester’s better films – and one of his more sensitive works – is the lack of certainty about Sena’s fate. Ratnayake is more definite, concrete. Lester is anything but.

Akkara Paha was the second of a trilogy of films that Lester Peries did for Ceylon Theatres. The trilogy, taken as a whole, remains a landmark in the Sinhala cinema, because on no other occasion did a prominent director, of his standing, get such a lucrative offer from a leading film company. Until then the theatres had pitted themselves against his work: according to his biographer A. J. Gunawardena, they refused to lend his team lighting equipment for Gamperaliya because of fears that his work would undermine theirs. By the latter part of the decade, however, things had begun to change.

Ceylon Theatres’ arrangement with Lester showed what could be achieved if the resources of commerce were put in the service of art. Yet of the three films he did – the other two being Golu Hadawatha (1968) and Nidhanaya (1970), the latter acknowledged as his best work – Akkara Paha remains curiously neglected and underrated. Though it travelled to the West – it was one of seven films by Lester screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where among other things he met the formidable Pauline Kael – and won praise from foreign critics, it never got the reputation it deserved at home.

What makes this more curious is the film’s achievement. In no other work of his does Lester probe into the lives of the Sinhalese peasantry with as much poignancy as he does in Akkara Paha. While the film does exude what his critics saw as his bourgeois humanist tendencies – a charge levelled with equal vigour at his contemporary Satyajit Ray, who at the time was making his Calcutta trilogy, set against the backdrop of the Naxalite uprising in the city – it does not romanticise, still less glamourise, its subject.

Lester

All that, in turn, underscores an even more remarkable achievement. In the history of the Sinhala cinema, Akkara Paha may have been the first film to depict the contradiction between the material ambitions and the lived experiences of the Sinhala Buddhist rural youth. Lester does not really explore these tensions, or predict their unravelling in later years, particularly in April 1971. But compared with his other two Ceylon Theatres films – in particular Golu Hadawatha, which again delves into the Sinhala middle-class – Akkara Paha engages with the discontent and frustrations of the rural youth.

We do not really know what Lester’s response to the April 1971 insurrection was. What we do know is that by that point, a new and more radical group of filmmakers had begun to criticise him for what they saw as his bourgeois humanism.

Around this time the leftwing Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen was berating Satyajit Ray on similar grounds as well. Yet whereas Ray – who was as representative of the Bengali bourgeoisie as Lester was of the Sinhala bourgeoisie – made the Calcutta Trilogy – which underscored his sympathy for the radical youth in light of the Naxalite insurgency – Lester went his own way. At the time of the 1971 insurrection, while the likes of Dharmasena Pathiraja were making Ahas Gawwa, he was directing Desa Nisa.

In that regard, I see Akkara Paha as his most radical work yet, more radical than Yuganthaya, which as Pathiraja pointed out for me in an interview years ago was marred by a somewhat jaundiced view of politics. The film predicts the radicalisation of the Sinhala youth though it steps away from engaging with that completely. Like Para Dige, Pathiraja’s best work and in my view his most underrated, the protagonist does not face a clear future at the end: like the protagonist in Pathiraja’s film, he and his fiancée stare into the distance, although unlike in Para Dige they turn back and return home.

It is this act of turning back which, at one level, may have won for Lester censure from his more radical critics. I disagree with those who portray Lester as a conservative artiste. But that does not undermine their fundamental point: that at a time of great political ferment and artistic rebellion, his films seemed to be out of step with the times. Perhaps it is this led critics to perceive a drop in quality in his later work, starting from Desa Nisa. That this drop transpired immediately after his Ceylon Theatres trilogy is telling.

Whatever the reason may have been for the film’s lack of success, Akkara Paha marks an important point in Lester’s career. It is poignant, haunting, tragic, and redeeming. Between the romanticism of Golu Hadawatha and the nihilism of Nidhanaya, it occupies a twilight world. Admittedly, the story is optimistic, and in its ending, somewhat naïve: the novel is more concrete and direct. But it is suffused with a humanism that transcends its limitations. Above all, it is vintage Lester James Peries: life-affirming, ever hopeful.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst who writes on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He is one of the two leads in U & U, an informal art and culture research collective. He can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

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Religious nationalism suffers notable setback in India

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People casting their votes in the recent Lok Sabha poll in India

Democratic opinion the world over could take heart from the fact that secularism is alive and well in India; the South Asian region’s most successful democracy. While it is indeed remarkable for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a third consecutive term as head of government in India’s recent Lok Sabha election, what is of greater significance is the fact that the polls featured a resounding defeat for religious nationalism.

Consequently, India’s secular credentials remain intact. Secularism, which eschews identity politics of all kinds, including religious nationalism is, after all, a cornerstone of democracy and secularism has been a chief strength of India. The defeat of religious nationalism, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is a triumph for not only the democratic forces of India but for their counterparts the world over.

It was plain to see that the Bharathiya Janata Party under P.M. Modi was going the extra mile to placate Hindu nationalist opinion in Uttar Pradesh and outside through the construction of an eye-catching Ram temple in the state, for example, but the vote-catching strategy has visible failed as the polls results in the state indicate. For, the number of seats won by the BJP in the state has shrunk dramatically. In fact, the BJP was resoundingly defeated in the very constituency where the temple was constructed.

Constructive criticism of religious nationalism should not be considered an indictment of the religions concerned. Hinduism is one of the world’s most profound religions and it would sustain itself and thrive regardless of whether vote-hungry political parties champion its cause or otherwise. However, the deployment of any religion in the acquiring and aggrandizement of power by political forces calls for criticism since it amounts to a gross abuse of religion. Religious nationalism is an example of such abuse and warrants decrying in democratic states.

Unfortunately, religious nationalism is rampant in South Asia and it is most alive and well in Sri Lanka. And to the degree to which religious nationalism thrives in Sri Lanka, to the same extent could Sri Lanka be considered as deviating from the cardinal principles and values of democratic governance. It is obligatory on the part of those posing as Sri Lanka’s national leaders to reject religious nationalism and take the country along the path of secularism, which essentially denotes the separation of politics and religion. Thus far, Sri Lanka’s political class has fought shy of taking up this challenge and by doing so they have exposed the country as a ‘facade democracy’.

Religion per se, though, is not to be rejected, for, all great religions preach personal and societal goodness and progress. However, when religious identities are abused by political actors and forces for the acquiring and consolidation of power, religious nationalism comes to the fore and the latter is more destructive than constructive in its impact on societies. It is for these reasons that it is best to constitutionally separate religion from politics. Accordingly, secularism emerges as essential for the practise of democracy, correctly conceived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha poll was also notable for the role economic factors played in the determining of its final results. Once again, Uttar Pradesh was instructive. It is reported that the high cost of living and unemployment, for instance, were working to the detriment of the ruling BJP. That is, ‘Bread’ or economic forces were proving decisive in voter preferences. In other words, economics was driving politics. Appeals to religion were proving futile.

Besides, it was reported that the opposition alliance hit on the shrewd strategy of projecting a bleaker future for depressed communities if the BJP ‘juggernaut’ was allowed to bulldoze its way onward without being checked. For, in the event of it being allowed to do so, the concessions and benefits of positive discrimination, for instance, being enjoyed by the weak would be rolled back in favour of the majority community. Thus, was the popular vote swung in the direction of the opposition alliance.

Accordingly, the position could be taken that economic forces are the principal shaping influences of polities. Likewise, if social stability is to be arrived at redistributive justice needs to be ushered in by governments to the extent possible. Religious nationalism and other species of identity politics could help populist political parties in particular to come to power but what would ensure any government’s staying power is re-distributive justice; that is, the even distribution of ‘Bread’ and land. In the absence of the latter factors, even populism’s influence would be short lived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha elections could be said to have underscored India’s standing as a principal democracy. Democracy in India should be seen as having emerged stronger than ever as a result of the poll because if there were apprehensions in any quarter that BJP rule would go unchallenged indefinitely those fears have been proved to be baseless.

‘One party rule’ of any kind is most injurious to democracy and democratic forces in India and outside now have the assurance that India would continue to be a commodious and accommodative democracy that could keep democratic institutions and values ticking soundly.

Besides the above considerations, by assuring the region that it would continue with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India has underscored her ‘Swing State’ status. That is, she would take on a leadership role in South Asia and endeavor to be an inspirational guide in the region, particularly in respect of democratic development.

As for Sri Lanka, she has no choice but to be on the best of terms with India. Going forward, Sri Lanka would need to take deeply into consideration India’s foreign policy sensitivities. If there is to be an ‘all weather friend’ for Sri Lanka it has to be India because besides being Sri Lanka’s closest neighour it is India that has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance most swiftly in the region in the latter’s hour of need. History also establishes that there are least conflicts and points of friction among democracies.

However, identity politics are bound to continually cast their long shadow over South Asia. For smaller states this would prove a vexatious problem. It is to the extent to which democratic development is seen by countries of the South as the best means of defusing intra-state conflicts born of identity politics that the threat of identity politics could be defused and managed best.

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