60 Race & Class 51(3)
Only one thing is worse – and that is when your government exploits communal differences, stokes ethnic and religious fears, all in the pursuit of power. In the process, it engenders a political culture of censorship and disinformation, assassination of journalists who speak out, extra-judicial killings by police and army, government without opposition – a culture that has to be broken if it is not to descend into dictatorship.
And it is with that in mind that I want to examine briefly the 150 years (more or less) of British rule, the sixty years of independence, the fifty years of ethnic cleansing within that and, within that, the twenty-five years of civil war that have brought Sri Lanka to this pass.
The Portuguese and the Dutch had occupied the Maritime Provinces in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in pursuit of the spice trade and strategic sea routes. But it was the British who from 1815 came to occupy the whole of the country, turned paddy fields into tea estates, dispossessed the peasantry and brought in indentured labour from South India to work in the plantations. English was made the official language and Christianity the favoured religion, and a pervasive British culture won over the subject peoples to their own subjection. Incidentally, it is important to distinguish between the Tamils who were brought to Ceylon by the British and the indigenous Tamils who have been there from time immemorial.
Ceylon got its independence in 1948 on the back of the Indian nationalist struggle. Hence it did not go through the process of nation building that a nationalist struggle involves. Instead, it was regarded as a model colony – with an English-educated elite, universal suffrage, and an elected assembly – deserving of self-government.
These however turned out to be the trappings of capitalist democracy superimposed on a feudal infrastructure – a democratic top-dressing on a feudal base. But then, colonial capitalism is a hybrid, a mutant. It underdevelops some parts of the country while the part it develops is not consonant with the country’s needs or growth. Nor does it throw up institutions and structures that sustain democracy. Capitalism in the periphery, unlike capitalism at the centre, does not engender an organic relationship between the political, economic and cultural instances. It is a disorganic capitalism that produces disorganic development and a malformed democracy.
Power, then, was still in the hands of the feudal elite, the landed aristocracy. And almost the first thing that an independent government under D. S. Senanayake, ‘the father of the nation’, did was to disenfranchise the ‘plantation Tamils’ who were now into their third and fourth generations – thereby establishing a Sinhalese electoral majority in the upcountry areas. This was followed by colonisation schemes that settled Sinhalese peasants in the predominantly Tamil-speaking north-east – thereby changing the ethnic demography of the area. And although elections were on party lines, the parties themselves – with the exception of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Trotskyists and the Communist Party (CP) – operated on feudal allegiances. Hence the government that ensued was government by dynasty. The first prime minister was succeeded