A vendor sells national flags ahead of Sri Lanka’s 72nd Independence Day celebations that would take place on February 4 (AFP)
1832, 1910, 1931, 1948, 1956 and 1972: it is in these years that we see a transition in Sri Lanka’s position from a plantation economy to a semi-responsible Government to a dominion and finally, with the United Front’s victory, to a republic. Taken in isolation, these represent next to nothing, but it is only when we stop to consider that the attainment of independence in Sri Lanka was free of the turmoil and conflict which other European colonies in Asia faced that we realise how smooth, flexible, and almost consciously driven the struggle for freedom was here. The view that in Sri Lanka independence was handed on a platter rather than won is mischievously simplistic since, as Malinda Seneviratne once noted, it trivialises the immense hardships that the Buddhist clergy, the peasantry, and the left had to endure. I consider the historical route to independence here to thus have been easy and complex, easy because the bourgeoisie favoured a constitutional struggle as opposed to a political one and they were the ones calling the shots, and complex because there was opposition, mainly from the left, to not just colonial rule but also those who favoured a constitutional struggle.
What these reforms did was to subjugate the Kandyan peasantry and clergy, who from 1815 had instigated rebellions against the colonial government
Independence, in fact, was waged from the arrack fortunes of the bourgeoisie: once the latter realised that their social and economic aspirations, which were obviously higher than most of their countrymen, were limited by colonial officials, they agitated for greater representation and more rights and privileges for themselves. In this they thought of their class interests at a time when the more conservative sections of the bourgeoisie were opposed to the new middle classes. The contrasting attitudes of these two classes, the conservatives and the moderates, came out most discernibly in their responses to Colebrooke-Cameron reforms in the 1830s and the Donoughmore reforms in the 1930s. The old bourgeoisie relentlessly fought for, and obtained, political reforms that consolidated their position, while the new bourgeoisie were in favour of free trade, less taxes, and the elective principle on a restricted franchise.
Colebrooke and Cameron shaped, and altered, the course of the independence movement in a way few historians, much less writers such as me, have appreciated. What these reforms did was to subjugate the Kandyan peasantry and clergy, who from 1815 had instigated rebellions against the colonial government, to a state of unparalleled penury and depression. The Waste Land Ordinances and the Temple Land Ordinances, the latter of which breached the promise made by officials to the chief incumbents of viharas and devales in the Kandyan Convention, reduced the Kandyans to abject poverty: backward, illiterate, and left with very few prospects for their future, their rebelliousness sizzled off after the 1848 uprising; the fact that they had to choose as their leader for the latter a karava carpenter from Moratuwa, rather than a person of their social standing, shows that the natural leadership had been wiped off.
In fact the brutal putting down of the rebellion had the effect of sniffing out the last vestiges of resistance to British rule in the upcountry. The rebellion itself may not have spread with as much intensity as it did were it not for the economic downturns and the imposition of onerous taxes by the Torrington administration; unlike the insurrections that had broken out earlier, in 1848 the main reasons for rebellion were economic rather than cultural. There was an implicit cultural factor woven into it, but this was essentially a secondary concern. The first uprising since the enactment of the reforms of the 1830s, it became the first revolt of its kind in British Ceylon. Obviously it signalled something; the changing economic and social landscape in the country had changed the basis for resistance to colonial rule. That the course of the struggle for independence had changed was a corollary to this: from now on, it could be fought most effectively by the bourgeoisie, while the Legislative Council would be the stadium where the fight for greater representation, self-government, and the like could be taken up.
Until the entry of the radicals led by A. E. Goonesinghe to the Council, however, there were no attempts made at securing any degree of self-government for the country. The bourgeoisie, even the old conservatives, had not really matured to a level where they could agitate for such measures. Given that these conservatives had pledged their allegiance to the colonial order even before the advent of the British, when they had been employed as minor officials under the Portuguese and the Dutch, it was probably too much to expect them, at a time when the government’s economic policies favoured them, to resist the status quo. By the latter part of the 19th century, moreover, a new bourgeoisie had emerged. Wary of this new class as they were, the conservatives were compelled to compete with them. It was left to the radicals to fight for what the people wanted. Unfortunately or fortunately, by the turn of the century, the radicals, owing to ideological disarray, were in no shape to take on the role of the reformists: they were found in the press and the Buddhist revival, but these institutions and movements had their conservative sides as well. Most newspapers articulated a liberal or a pro-British editorial, and the Buddhist revival, particularly in the Donoughmore period, became prime ground for the moderates and born-again Buddhists.
Sri Lankan military personnel take part in an Independence Day parade rehearsal in Colombo on February 1, 2020 (AFP)
New class of revivalists
The reforms of the 1830s had, a century later, thus brought the anti-colonial movement to the legislature. The cultural revival of the late 19th century had not had the result commentators would have expected of it: initially pitted against colonial rule, by the mid-20th century it was no longer seen as a threat to the status quo. This was primarily so because the leaders of the revival did not prioritise opposition to colonial rule as much as their predecessors, especially the incomparable A. E. Buultjens, had. The fact that this new class of revivalists could quote Buddhist texts and tenets to explain why there was a dearth of revolutionary consciousness in Sri Lanka, as D. B. Jayatilaka once did, shows clearly that the British could ease restrictions on displays of cultural and religious nationalism without much fear of resistance from them. Evangelical zeal had simmered down, and officials were in a position to not just allow, but also patronise, cultural works and artists. To a considerable extent, the revival of Orientalism in the European empires of Asia helped bring this shift about. Cultural nationalism, divorced from the political struggle, in the end displaced the latter, while the urbanisation of Buddhism and the patronage of the elite reduced the anti-imperialist content in the revival.
Resistance to colonialism, in fact, became more formalised by the early 20th century, turning into a set of processes governed by a constitutional framework. The bourgeoisie had to play a dual role here: they had to agitate for greater autonomy and self-government while protecting and preserving their privileges. They did this by spearheading a struggle for their ideals from a constitutional standpoint. Unlike the leftists and radicals who envisaged a complete break from the empire, the moderates were perfectly satisfied with constitutional reforms. Even on the question of the franchise, the moderates begrudgingly allowed for minor concessions, but once the British themselves had imposed or granted the franchise – it was more imposed on the people rather than granted to them, given the lack of interest among the representatives – they were willing to play along, though there were those, like E. W. Perera, who not only opposed further political democratisation but also resigned from the Congress to express their dissatisfaction with reforms they had not called for.
Thus we had competing interest groups vying with each other by the turn of the century for not only independence, but also other national issues. When these priorities did not clash with their economic interests, the moderates were quite willing to agitate for them; they were far ahead of the conservatives who wanted things left as they were, and far behind the radicals who wanted to go further. Certain fortuitous circumstances, however, conspired to favour the moderates over both the conservatives and the radicals.
Moreover, unlike in India where, with the establishment of the Congress, the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie joined hands against the Raj, in Ceylon the bourgeoisie monopolised the struggle right till the end. The petite bourgeoisie – shopkeepers, small time professionals, the clergy, ayurvedic physicians, and so on – were left with playing a servile role to the elite. The radicals, meanwhile, floundered due to ideological disagreement, though with the setting up of the LSSP in 1936 a movement to oppose the British as well as the constitutionalists in the Legislative Council had emerged and, for some time, unified. Cultural pride and populism could not have been the answer to the question of obtaining independence; the answer had to come from somewhere else, and for a long time, it was the left: probably the most secular and rational movement which could have wielded the struggle for freedom at the time.