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Reflections on S.W.R.D Bandaranaike



By Uditha Devapriya

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 at large has taken part in one discussion after another. 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 civil 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 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 sagged 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 nonaligned and multipronged foreign policy spelt out 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 era, 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 gave birth to 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 Abhayavardhana has estimated that by 1953, “the output of plantations contributed about 40 percent 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 industrialize, foreign reserves and terms of trade depleted alarmingly, triggering a severe balance of payments crisis.

“Throughout the Third World,” Dayan Jayatilleka has observed, “the anti-imperialist leadership was also a modernising one.” This was not so in Sri Lanka. Jayatilleka goes on to observe that Sri Lanka’s bourgeoisie was both culturally Westernised and socially and economically conservative: thus, while securing their economic interests through policies which, inter alia, restricted the franchise and then, when it was clear that the franchise could no longer be restricted, ensured a transition of power from the colonial State that made the civil service, defence, and foreign policy planks of the State subservient to the British government, the bourgeoisie pandered to majoritarian sentiment. There was nothing contradictory about this: as I have noted before, their social conditioning did not blind them to the cultural and religious myths of the majority, the Sinhalese.

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 nonaligned foreign policy. This did not make him the hazy idealist historians make him out to be; au contraire, it made him realize the practical 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.

To be sure, we must be careful when passing judgment on Bandaranaike’s policies. As far as foreign relations were concerned, he was Nehruvian. Yet in domestic policy, particularly on the language issue, Bandaranaike failed to tap into the progressive potential of the reforms that had been advocated for years and decades by the Marxist Left. The latter, for their part, stood by those proposals, only to be washed away when they continued to defy the zeitgeist of the times. With a section of the Left, including the LSSP and the Communist Party, caving into the pressures of parliamentary politics later, the original demand for two languages instead of English turned into demands to enthrone one, Sinhala.

This paradox, between the SLFP-MEP’s cosmopolitan foreign policy and what many consider to be its insular domestic policies, has still not been studied or evaluated properly. A useful starting point would be James Manor’s biography.Far from indicting Bandaranaike for the troubles that were to follow Sinhala Only, Manor traces the problems of the Sri Lankan polity, vis-à-vis the contests between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, to the flaws of the elite leadership. Bandaranaike, he notes, stood with and apart from this crowd: as a scion of the bourgeoisie, he was a member of the elite class; as a scion of the old bourgeoisie that had spurned the new, he was incapable of becoming their equal. Manor engages in more than a little psychoanalysis when assessing where Bandaranaike went wrong, and though it’s hard to exonerate him, it’s clear that Sinhala Only was the logical successor to the years and decades of majoritarianism that had been unleashed by his peers in the Ceylon National Congress: a tendency which, in 1921, had compelled Ponnambalam Ramanathan to leave that body.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 is an international relations analyst who can be reached at

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Sat Mag

Is there a need for another ‘Life of the Buddha’?



Footprints in the Dust: The Life of the Buddha from the Most Ancient Sources’

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Bhante Shravasti Dhammika of Australia, a prolific writer, who has authored many books, keeps us informed of various aspects of Buddhism by his regular contributions to The Island and Sunday Island. Thanks to an introduction by my good friend Tissa Devendra, I have been in regular touch with Bhante Dhammika and turn to him whenever I have a question on Buddhism. When he sent me a soft copy of his latest book, “Footprints in the Dust”, which carries the subtitle, “The Life of the Buddha from the Most Ancient Sources”, I asked myself, ‘Is there a need for yet another Life of the Buddha’? After all, there’s plenty to choose from!

My doubts regarding the need for another biography of the Buddha started to melt away, as soon as I started reading this absorbing book with very realistic analysis of events. In fact, the book deals with much more than the title suggests and is an analysis of the life and the times of the Buddha. Most books on Buddha’s life are written with a reverential than an analytical attitude and do not put the prevailing conditions in India in context. These are the two major differences and the great strength of this monograph. Though some traditional Buddhists may not agree with Bhante Dhammika’s interpretations, as he is not shy in pointing out exaggerations, I have no disagreements whatsoever and have come to know the Buddha better; as an extraordinary human being, far ahead of his time who led a very simple life, walking barefoot across India, disseminating His message.The book, laden with facts, references and explanations, appearing at the foot of each page, and chapters being devised very innovatively. After the first chapter titled ‘Introduction’ there are chapters on ‘An Era of Change’, ‘Gods, Brahmins and Ascetics’, ‘The Sakyans’, ‘Towards the light’, ‘A Teacher of Gods and Humans’, ‘A Day in Buddha’s Life’, ‘On the Road’, ‘Praise and Blame’, ‘Monastic and Lay Disciples’, ‘The Buddha on Worldly Matters’, ‘A Time of Crisis’, ‘The Last Days’ and ‘Aftermath’.

To get a feel for the world in which the Buddha lived and travelled, Bhante Dhammika had undertaken three walking tours in India, following the footsteps of the Buddha; from Bodh Gaya to Varanasi, from Bodh Gaya to Rajgir with return and from Rajgir to Kusinara, the longest, retracing the Buddha’s last journey. On page 136, there is a map with all the places referred to and Appendix I describes in detail the Towns and Cities Visited by the Buddha. Appendix II is an analytical essay on the Buddha and the Upanisads, which clearly dispels the widespread misunderstanding that the Buddha copied Kamma and rebirth from the Upanisads. The introduction itself is very informative and on page 2, Bhante Dhammika mentions: “By about the tenth century a confused and fragmentary account of the Buddha’s life had filtered into Europe and because it depicted him and as conspicuously holy it was assumed that he must therefore have been a Christian. Consequently, he was inducted into the Catholic Church as a saint under the name St. Josaphat, his feast day being the 27th of November.”

Till I read this, I was not aware of the recognition of Buddha as a saint by the Catholic Church. Though I presumed it was a little-known fact, apparently, it is a fairly well-known particularly by critics of the Catholic Church. The name St. Josaphat is likely to be a corruption of the term Bodhisattva or Bodhisat.Another interesting paragraph is: “Inspired by the new thinking of the Second Vatican Council, eminent theologian Karl Rahner informed Buddhists in the late 1950s that they were what he actually called “anonymous Christians” and presumably, that the Buddha was also a Christian without knowing it. As of today, no Buddhist thinker had returned the compliment by announcing that Christians are anonymous Buddhists and that Jesus was really a late comer to the Dhamma, despite not wearing a yellow robe.”

Perhaps, no one has cared to do so, as spatial distribution of events is fact enough!

As mentioned in the chapter ‘The Last Days’, in addition to the conflict at Kosambi as well as the rebellion by Devadatta demanding that monks should reside in the forest, get food only by going for alms, robes should only be from rags, live under trees not in huts and should not eat meat, the Buddha was aware of the deterioration in standards of the Sangha: maybe, due to their ‘basking in the glory of the Buddha’. Opulent lifestyles of some monks are in sharp contrast to how the Buddha lived. I will quote some paragraphs to illustrate:

“During a visit to Suṃsumarāgira, Prince Bodhi invited him to his Palace for a meal. In preparation for his arrival, the Prince had a white cloth spread over the stairs leading to the Palace entrance, a mark of considerable esteem, equivalent to today’s red-carpet treatment. When the Buddha arrived and saw the white cloth, he halted just short of it. Perplexed, the Prince asked what the problem was but the Buddha said nothing. When the Prince inquired for a third time and still received no response, Ananda explained to him that the Buddha would not walk on the cloth because he was “concerned about future generations”. By this he meant that the Buddha wanted to set an example for monks and nuns in the future who might become too fond of the esteem shown to them by devote lay people and fall prey to pride. Prince Bodhi had the white cloth taken up and the Buddha entered the Palace.”

What a difference between the Buddha and the modern-day Sangha!

“There were four offences for which a monk would be expelled from the Sangha and never be readmitted – sexual intercourse; theft; murder or abetment to murder; and falsely claiming to have attained an exalted spiritual state.”

The number of Bhikkhus in Sri Lanka who claim to have attained an exalted spiritual state is increasing by the day and they have websites referring to themselves as “Arahant”. However, their behaviour, extravagance in dress, etc., makes one greatly doubt these claims.

“What the Buddha precluded monks from doing, included palmistry, predicting good or bad rainfall or success or failure in war, selecting lucky sites for buildings, reading the future by means of the movement of the heavenly bodies or the occurrences of comets and eclipses, practicing black magic and quack medicine, casting spells and calling on various gods for help.”

Some Bhikkhus in Sri Lanka make a living out of all these!

“The Buddha even discouraged what might be considered harmless superstitions and folk beliefs. Once while giving a sermon, he sneezed and a loud chorus of ‘Live long!’ emanated from the audience. Ever the rationalist, he momentarily deviated from the gist of his sermon and asked whether a person’s lifespan is lengthened by saying ‘Live long!’ when they sneeze. The audience admitted that it is not and so he asked them to refrain from doing such a thing in the future.”

I was under the impression that ‘Bless you’ with sneezing was a western custom but this clearly shows it dates to the time of the Buddha. Fascinating how universal some of these customs are!

“The Buddha’s attitude to caste (vaṇṇa) was another area which put him at odds with many in his society, although other samaṇa sects, particularly Jainism, rejected caste too. The caste system as it existed in the fifth and sixth century was not as rigid or all-embracing as it later become but it still created barriers between people and relegated some to a lowly social position for no other reason than the accident of birth or the work they were compelled to do.”

Some of our Nikaya’s are caste-based, completely disregarding Buddha’s attitude!

“In India today marginalized castes are inspired by the Buddha’s attitude to the system to agitate for equality.”

Unfortunately, caste plays a major role in India even today in spite of legislation. Recently I read about the poet and lyricist Shailendra who wrote the lyrics of some of the most memorable songs in Hindi Cinema, especially Raj Kapoor films. Apparently, he did not get the recognition he deserved because he was a Dalit!

Bhante Dhammika questions some of the perceptions we have of the Buddha. One of the most disturbing events in Buddha’s life happened in Vesali. After conducting ‘Ashuba Bhavana’, which concentrates on ‘filthiness’ of bodily secretions, the Buddha retreated for a few weeks and learned on return that 30 young monks had committed suicide, after being disturbed by this meditation. Thus, the Buddha did not always foresee what was going to happen. We are told the Buddha had 32 distinguishing marks but, perplexingly, King Ajasattu could not identify the Buddha from among the monks on his first visit. Anyway, Buddha rejected the notion that physical attributes make one special, stating that what makes a person great is a liberated mind.The Buddha was ahead of His time on many issues, including caste, and stood against slavery by not allowing monks to accept slaves. Slavery was a common practice in India during Buddha’s time. When King Pasenadi of Kosala was breathless in front of the Buddha due to obesity, He advised on mindful eating to reduce weight which the king did successfully. This method is now used by dietitians. Buddha’s attitude towards marriage was also far ahead of time as illustrated by the following quote:

“Another type of happiness the Buddha frequently gave attention to was that associated with family life, the basis of which is marriage. Amongst higher castes at the time arranging with a girl’s parents to marry her off without consulting her and even buying a wife was not unusual. The Buddha criticized brahmans for doing this rather than “coming together in harmony and out of mutual affection”. (Sampiyena pi saṃvāsaṃ samaggatthāya sampavattenti), which he obviously considered to be a far better motive for marriage.”

For me, the most notable fact that comes out of this book is that the Buddha considered the role of the Upasaka and Upasikas in propagating and preserving His Dharma as important as that of the Sangha. This is very significant as the Buddha’s primary reason for establishing the Sangha was for propagating His message; not for sacerdotal duties like Brahmins or Christian priests or community leader role like in Judaism.Servant woman Khujjuttara remembered and transmitted Buddha’s sermons in Kosambi. Buddha recognised Citta and Hatthaka as lay teachers and considered Citta the most erudite lay Dhamma teacher. How Citta outclassed the Jain leader, Mahavira is described in detail in page 177 and is well worth a read.Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the Sangha reduced the status of Upasaka and Upasika’s to those who look after their needs!

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Sat Mag

From Belgrade to Ceylon : When Sri Lanka had Worker”s Councils



By Uditha Devapriya

In a penetrating analysis in Jacobin Magazine, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California Irvine, James Robertson, diagnoses the problems of Yugoslav socialism. For Robertson, Yugoslavia during the Cold War, “represented to many a viable alternative to the Soviet model.” On June 28, 1948, the Cominform, the Stalinist alliance of European Marxist-Leninist parties, approved the expulsion of Yugoslavia. Having deviated from the Stalinist line, it could have expected little else. Facing a blockade from his former allies, its leader, Josep Broz Tito, hence had to rechart Yugoslavia’s course.One of the reforms Tito pioneered in his country, as a response to these external pressures, was the institutionalisation of what would later be called “market socialism.” This came to be embraced by not just anti-Stalinist reformists, but also advocates of a Third Way between capitalism and Communism in the Third World. One important innovation of Tito’s market socialist reforms was his network of Workers’ Councils. The logic behind these Councils was not immediately clear, and it was viewed as an aberration by Stalinists. Nevertheless, it was based on an unmistakable Marxist body of theory. In Anti-Dühring, Friedrich Engels had laid down the future of the State under Communist rule.

“State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It dies out. This gives the measure of the value of the phrase ‘a free people’s state’, both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific insufficiency; and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the state out of hand.”

(Anti-Dühring, Part III, Chapter II, 1877)

In other words, unlike the anarchists who called for its wholesale destruction, Engels contended that the State would eventually cease intervening in the social relations between people. Since Engels’s argument undermined the use of coercion as an instrument of State power, this meant that the means of production would be owned, managed, and controlled by the proletariat itself: a true “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The Bolsheviks had, for a brief period after the October Revolution, embraced this line of thought. Lenin saw factory workers’ demands for greater control over factories as aligned with the imperative of “the fight for workers’ power.” “The implementation of all these measures,” he contended, referring to the Bolshevik programme, “is possible only if all the power in the State passes to the proletarians and semi-proletarians.” Under Stalin this line was abandoned: in place of greater power to the workers, Stalin resorted to “administrative commands and mass mobilizations to reach economic goals.”

Tito institutionalised Workers’ Councils as a counter to these tendencies. For that, certain reforms had to be in place. In response to Stalinist advocacy of a centralised bureaucracy, for instance, Tito embraced devolution. In May 1949 his government granted autonomy to local governments. Political decentralisation led to increased worker participation: in 1950, a year after devolution had been implemented, the Yugoslav National Assembly legalised worker self-management schemes. The State, as at least one scholar has noted, in effect moved away from direct management of productive enterprises. This was bound to have an impact on Left movements elsewhere, especially in the Third World.

In 1951 the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, through its election manifesto, called for “the establishment of workers’ control in all industrial establishments and workplaces.” One of the prime movers of this suggestion was Leslie Goonewardena. Goonewardena noted that the Yugoslav reforms, which influenced the LSSP’s moves towards establishing similar organs and bodies in Sri Lanka, constituted “an original contribution to socialist thought and practice.” Regardless of certain obvious economic and political differences between the two countries, he considered it suitable for “an underdeveloped country embarking on socialist construction.” This was no doubt informed by the LSSP’s attitude to the Soviet Union, which it saw, in line with the Fourth International, as a degenerated workers’ state.

Goonewardena continued to emphasise the need for Workers’ Councils, partly as a measure to radically alter the colonial administrative bureaucracy. In 1964 the LSSP adopted it as part of its coalition agreement with the SLFP, in a bid to radicalise the latter and bring people into “participation in the process of government.” Against the backdrop of a parliamentary democracy, which Sri Lanka had been since 1931, it was felt necessary to join forces with a petty bourgeois party to foment revolution in the country. This led to certain defections, but it also led to discussions about those reforms, so much so that five years later, even the UNP could float the idea of “worker participation in managerial functions.”

On the basis of a common programme adopted in 1968, the United Front government that came to power in 1970 adopted a series of reforms which paved the way for Workers’ Councils and Advisory Bodies at State enterprises. This was necessitated, in part, by two factors: the growth of Public Corporations and a rise in the number of employees at these Corporations. Whereas in Yugoslavia the need to chart an alternative course to the Soviet line had determined the formation of Workers’ Councils, in Sri Lanka the imperatives of a parliamentary democracy would compel the Left to enforce these measures to radicalise a still largely colonialist bureaucracy. As Vinod Moonesinghe has observed:

The LSSP’s strategy was to use the electoral process to further the cause of the revolution. In introducing employees’ councils to state corporations, the LSSP’s aim was to create organs of dual power… The fact that the LSSP refused to convert itself to an electoral-based party from a cadre party shows that it had not “embraced” a solely electoral policy. (“The Decline of the LSSP in 20th Century Sri Lanka: Sivasambu’s Question”,

The Councils and Advisory Bodies had very clear aims. Both organs were empowered and entrusted with powers to “check waste, indifference, and sabotage.” Wiswa Warnapala has noted that they were also “expected to bring down the cost of living and narrow the gap between the upper and lower rungs of the administration.” In Yugoslavia, at the same time, the Councils gave a direct voice to workers in key management decisions. The effect it had on the League of Communists in that country was, to say the least, significant: in 1952, the League effectively broke away from and operated apart from the State, hence “opening up the government” to competition between different ideological formations.

Sri Lanka already being a parliamentary democracy, such radical ruptures were not really required. As a result, the Councils remained subject to Ministerial directives. That did not, however, hinder further democratisation of these organs. Among the bodies that took the lead in forming them was the Ceylon Transport Board. Under Leslie Goonewardena and Anil Moonesinghe, issues like the utilisation of capital equipment and the reduction of overtime came within the purview of these organs. Moonesinghe adopted these at not only the Head Office, but also the Workshops, the Regional Offices, and the Depots.

To be sure, these Councils did suffer from several weaknesses. Apart from being subject to Ministerial oversight and discretion, they also led to tensions between the Councils and trade unions, the latter of which may have felt their powers usurped through the granting of autonomy to employees. The government did not ignore these issues: consultations were soon organised to prevent tensions from flaring up and defeating the aims for which these organs had been set up. Such tensions, however, did not totally disappear, in part because many trade unions were led by political parties, which had their own interests.

In theory, these reforms continued after 1977. In practice, they were abandoned. The passing of the Employees’ Councils Act No. 32 in 1979 did not lead to any progress on that front. In 1997, the UPFA government issued a Presidential Circular to re-establish Workers’ Councils. This, too, fell into neglect. The reasons are not hard to find: since 1977, working class mobilisation had been clipped by the then UNP administration, an administration that clearly favoured economic liberalisation over employee autonomy.

What these reforms would have led to, of course, we may never know. Nevertheless, their achievements were considerable. By 1974 212 Workers’ Councils had been formed. These covered a workforce of 135,000 in the public sector. The labour studies scholar Gerard Kester called them “an important innovation in social political development.” They were also highlighted by the ILO. Whether or not these signalled an alternative road to socialism, they became a prototype for the democratisation of the workplace, making them, as Leslie Goonewardena had put it, eminently suitable for an underdeveloped country.

In the country of their birth, Yugoslavia, on the other hand, Workers’ Councils obtained a mixed record: as James Robertson puts it, the contradictions which the Yugoslav model of socialism generated, including uneven rates of growth across regions, eventually led to their collapse. The country’s shift to market socialism, even under the guise of self-management for employees, could not stop its freefall after 1989. By then, Robertson notes, “[c]rippling foreign debt, structural adjustment measures enforced by the International Monetary Fund, and economic collapse amplified the centrifugal pulls of foreign markets.” The result, which came to fruition by 1999, was the disintegration of an entire country.

If in Yugoslavia Workers’ Councils could not sustain the contradictions of Tito’s alternative to Stalinism, in Sri Lanka they were hemmed in by the contradictions of a Left-petty bourgeois alliance. As in Chile, the bourgeois State in Sri Lanka could not withstand petty bourgeois elements cohabiting with a radical progressive Left. The result could only be a turn to the Right, which would come about in 1977. Whatever criticism one can make of the LSSP, and the Communist Party, for their decision to form an alliance with the SLFP, however, it was through such an alliance that certain important reforms would come to pass. The Workers’ Councils held the promise of such a reform. Yet as with every other progressive-radical piece of legislation after 1977, it would eventually, and tragically, be stillborn.

The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at

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Sat Mag

D. S. Senanayake and Indian Tamil question



By Uditha Devapriya

In his recent work on D. S. Senanayake, K. M. de Silva explores certain controversial aspects of Ceylon’s lurch into independent statehood. Among these is the issue of the fate of the country’s Indian Tamils. Brought to the island from South India amidst conditions of famine and mass starvation in the early part of the 19th century, Indian Tamil workers replaced Sinhalese and resident Tamil labour in the island. Governed by a semifeudal set-up that shut them out from the world outside, Indian Tamil labour grew up in a world of their own. It was their tragic fate that while the colonial government feigned little interest in their welfare, their lives lay in the hands of that government.De Silva ends his account of Senanayake with the following ultimatum:

“Sixty five years after his death today, D. S. clearly ranks as the greatest Sri Lankan political figure of the twentieth century, the one individual in Sri Lanka’s political leadership over the past 60 years who cannot be held responsible, in any substantial way, for Sri Lanka’s recent violent ethnic conflict and its associated political crises.”

What we see here, shorn of its grandiloquent finesse, is an attempt at absolution. De Silva posits that at the time of independence, Sri Lanka encountered two forms of nationalism: Ceylonese and Sinhala Buddhist. The one was inclusive, the other not so. De Silva suggests that D. S. Senanayake exemplified the former tendency: in his refusal to mix state politics with religion and his pursuit of a multi-ethnic and multicultural polity, the historian suggests that Senanayake envisioned a stable, and orderly, future for the country. At the same time, pragmatist that he was, he accepted – “in a decidedly low profiled way” – the government’s “special responsibility for the fostering of Buddhism.”

Senanayake’s contradictory attitude to Buddhism was well known. He oversaw the restoration of a number of culturally significant sites, including the Mahiyangana Dagaba, and, as Minister of Agriculture and Lands, organised ambitious resettlement schemes which favoured a Sinhala agrarian population. At the same time, he was wary of Buddhist monks, particularly Buddhist monks harbouring radical Marxist tendencies, involving themselves in politics. De Silva traces this to his pragmatism, which could supposedly balance the historical roots of a Buddhist civilisation with the needs of a modern, secular polity. My aim here is to assess this view on the basis of Senanayake’s, and the Ceylon National Congress’s, response to the question of the statehood of Indian Tamil or estate Tamil labour.

Kumari Jayawardena has described plantation workers as “the largest concentration of resident labour” in British Ceylon. From 1825, there was a continuous recruitment of Indian workers to the island, organised under a Pioneer Force to undertake the construction and repair of public works. The opening up of coffee and tea plantations diverted them to the hill country, where they gradually replaced Sinhalese labour.The need to ensure a steady supply of labour at home led the Indian government, in 1839, to impose restrictions, if not complete bans, on the emigration of Indian workers to other colonies. Hector Abhayavardhana has noted that the embargo was imposed on the grounds of “unsatisfactory conditions” in countries like Ceylon. Eight years later the ban was lifted on the assurance that working conditions for workers would improve. From then on, there was a sustained campaign, from the Indian government’s side, against the Ceylonese colonial government’s moves towards restricting the rights of Indian labour.

A number of factors led the comprador Sinhalese bourgeoisie to call for the curtailment of those rights. Any hopes for a coalition of Sinhalese and Tamil bourgeoisies had ended in 1921 with Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s departure from the Ceylon National Congress. Yet, despite this, the Sinhala and Tamil communities were still seen as constituting a majority in the country. This extended to Indian Tamils as well. In 1927 the CNC rejected a resolution against the granting of the franchise to their population. The following year it rejected all proposals to restrict their right to vote. The depression of the 1930s changed all that: thus, 10 years after the CNC rejected resolutions to restrict the rights of Indian Tamils, it passed an amendment that excluded them from the country’s Village Committees.In 1934 A. E. Goonesinghe proposed that preference be extended to Ceylonese in employment at government departments. This was passed and endorsed by the State Council. The Indian government responded bitterly, in effect halting Indian migration to Ceylonese plantations. Hector Abhayavardhana has observed that the labour shortage which resulted from this led to somewhat heated debates between the two countries over the granting of the franchise to Indian Tamils at Village Committee level. It is here, he notes, that the Indo-Ceylon problem, as it came to be known later, originated.

K. M. de Silva has argued that the decision to restrict Indian Tamils from Village Committees was taken on the grounds that Indian Tamils “never formed an integral part of the village community served by such committees and could not possibly benefit from the social objectives these councils were designed to serve.” He also points out that Indian officials did not object to the measure, which had actually been passed in 1889 and, in its original draft, had excluded Burghers and Europeans as well, until 1937. That year the Minister of Local Government S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike oversaw a more comprehensive amendment that achieved the worst of both world: Burghers and Europeans were allowed to vote at Village Councils, but the exclusion of Indian Tamils remained in place.De Silva also notes other factors, such as G. G. Ponnambalam’s intervention in the matter, and Kandyan demands for administrative autonomy, as having exacerbated Sinhala fears of Indian Tamil domination and pushed them to endorse further restrictions. Accurate as this is, it ignores two points: Ponnambalam’s volte-face over the question of Indian Tamil rights between 1945 and 1948, and the decision taken in 1940 by the Chief Secretary of Ceylon to restrict employment at government departments to Ceylonese locals.

The latter decision compelled Jawaharlal Nehru to travel to Ceylon, amidst much debate in India, and try to reach an agreement with the Sinhalese leadership. Having failed to achieve such an agreement, Nehru, despite the pleas of the LSSP, which had garnered the support of Indian Tamils, greenlit the formation of the Ceylon Indian Congress.The decision to establish an Indian Congress Party for plantation Tamils in Ceylon held certain implications for not just Indo-Lanka, but also Sinhalese-Tamil relations. During the depression years, popular hatred of the colonial regime had extended to moneylenders and merchants, all of whom hailed from minority and foreign communities and were more or less seen as beneficiaries of colonial largesse. In setting up a party for themselves, Indian Tamils became linked to that network of moneylenders and merchants. This had the effect of reinforcing communal fears against them, while fanning communalism among their ranks. The LSSP’s critique of the Ceylon Congress Party, hence, was that its formation pre-empted a joint alliance of estate Tamils and other deprived classes.

These developments drew a wedge between the Indian and Ceylonese leadership. Each side was determined not to surrender to the other. While the Ceylon National Congress and the UNP, under D. S. Senanayake, proposed one restriction after another on plantation Tamils and their desire for Ceylonese statehood, the Indian Congress Party, and Nehru, called for a relaxation of qualifications for nationality. These restrictions centred on three principles or tests: residence, means, and compliance with the laws of Ceylon.More than a difference in personality determined the course of disagreements over these principles between the two leaders. while Nehru put a negative construction on the means test for citizenship, Senanayake defined it more positively, with conditions like “an assured income of a reasonable amount” that betrayed an elitist, if not patriarchal, attitude to the question of statehood for a deprived community.

In all fairness, it must be pointed out that Senanayake’s hardening stance on the question of citizenship for Indian Tamils can be ascribed, at least in part, to the decision of two Indian Tamil State Council officials to oppose the Ceylon Independence Bill. That, however, does not explain his views on the Indian Tamil question before 1945.In any case, Senanayake’s dithering over these issues did not do him any favours in the long run. He and Nehru held a series of talks that ended in a stalemate, from which Indo-Ceylon relations never fully recovered. In passing a series of Acts designed to restrict, if not exclude, an entire community from the franchise, moreover, he demonstrated his unwillingness to continue these discussions or build up on them. For their part the British government kept themselves out of these developments. This was to be expected: they preferred the UNP in power in Ceylon, and were wary of Nehru’s leadership.

Is K. M. de Silva’s assessment of Senanayake and his involvement in the Indian Tamil controversy fair, in that sense? Without in any way condoning the Indian leadership’s interventions, which exacerbated the issue, my view is that Senanayake, and the bulk of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie, did contribute much to the problem.The depression years proved that a comprador and Westernised bourgeoisie as well as the leadership of the Labour movement could turn chauvinist. It was left to the LSSP, which identified the limitations of the Labour movement and sought to transcend them, to try and bring together an alliance of deprived communities, cutting across ethnic lines. This included Indian Tamils. Tragically for the country, however, the intrigues of the comprador elite, and of the Indian political leadership, put an end to hopes of such an alliance.

(The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at

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