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Class, caste and the politics of destruction

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UNP’s Defeat – I

By Jayantha Somasundaram

“… the liberal-cosmopolitan intelligentsia … supported … the UNP. Few, very few, deigned to support the SJB.”  Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka The Election Result and the Intelligentsia (Colombo Telegraph August 7, 2020)

According to Karl Marx, history repeats itself, appearing the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. This adage is very fitting when we look at last week’s Parliamentary election results, the political fate of the United National Party (UNP), and at events that occurred 30 years ago.

First the context: South Asia is a feudal society and is, therefore, subject to caste stratification and caste bigotry. And in Sri Lanka, too, caste consciousness and discrimination is pervasive. It determines political alliances, political fortunes and political history. The Sinhala Govigama elite did not see the other major castes, even after they had acquired wealth and education, as mere inferiors. They viewed them as lacking legitimacy because, as Professor K.M. De Silva explains in The History of Sri Lanka, “recent immigrants, from South India, and their absorption into the caste structure of the littoral, saw the emergence of three new Sinhala caste groups – the Salagama, the Durava and the Karava. They came in successive waves into the eighteenth century.”

When an elected-Ceylonese seat was introduced in the Legislative Council, in 1911, the Govigama leadership united behind the Tamil Vellalar Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in order to defeat his opponent, the Karawe Sir Marcus Fernando, whose candidature was proposed by Sir James Peiris. This led Governor Sir Hugh Clifford to say that the election “was fought purely on caste lines … caste prejudice providing a stronger passion than racial bias.”

The UNP, founded in 1946, reflected this mindset. “D.S. Senanayake had entered independence with a basically Sinhala-Govigama and Tamil-Vellalar administration” observed Janice Jiggins in Caste and Family in the Politics of the Sinhalese. Inspector Malcolm Jayasekera, who was attached to Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake’s security detail, recalled that when ministers travelled to the provinces, Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera, the General Secretary of the UNP, would, at their Rest House stops, join the security detail for lunch, because, as a member of the Navandanna caste, he didn’t feel welcome at the table of his ministerial colleagues.

When Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated, in 1959, the Leader of the House was C.P. De Silva. Professor A. J. Wilson records, “Dr. N.M. Perera told me that the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, was going through a ‘gethsemane’ in his presence, asking, ‘How can I appoint a Salagama man’ (as Prime Minister)?”

Caste discontent became obvious during the April 1971 uprising when it was found that the combatants of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were from depressed caste groups, like the Batgam and Vahumpura. Janice Jiggins notes that “Many in the armed services took the view that the fighting was an expression of anti-Govigama resentment and, in certain areas, went into low caste villages and arrested all the youth, regardless of participation.”

UNP’s 1970 Defeat

The shattering electoral defeat of the UNP, in 1970, compelled J. R. Jayewardene to depend on extra parliamentary agitation to regain power, and street-wise activists, like R. Premadasa, with a base among Colombo’s underclass, and Cyril Matthew, the trade union boss. By the time the party took office, in 1977, Premadasa had become one of the contenders for leadership. But Premadasa belonged to a depressed caste.

“Previous leaders had come from the landowning Goyigama caste whose well-off members had quickly got onside with the British colonial rulers, sent their sons to elite British universities and learnt to play cricket and parliamentary politics …. Premadasa was Sri Lanka’s first leader to come from the lower orders. He had scant formal education.” (Far Eastern Economic Review 13/5/93) The prevailing political leadership, “the UNP’s J. R. Jayewardene and the SLFP’s Sirima Bandaranaike both belonged to the same Anglicised elite in Colombo.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)

Since Jayewardene could only serve two terms, Premadasa was patient, confident that he would, in due course, become President. “Mr Premadasa was always searching for outside allies. He was forced to do so because of opposition to him, within the party. This opposition was based on class and caste factors… (and) was one of the factors which made Mr Premadasa try so hard to form an understanding with the JVP and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).”(Sunday Leader 5/1/93)

However, Premadasa soon realised that the Govigama establishment, in the UNP, was grooming Upali Wijewardene to succeed Jayewardene. Married to Mrs Bandaranaike’s niece and a kinsman of Jayewardene, educated at Royal College and Cambridge University, successful businessman with an international empire, Wijewardene was the perfect successor. “His attempts to get into politics, through JR, was thwarted by Premadasa who felt Upali would be a threat” wrote former The Island editor Vijitha Yapa, while Upatissa Hulugalle reminds us that “Premadasa cursed Upali in Parliament a few days before he disappeared.” (The Island 30/1/01). Upali Wijewardene was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1982.

“In early 1990, when Vijitha Yapa was Sunday Times editor, a columnist published some cabinet news that Premadasa was angry about. At a function, at Gangaramaya Temple Keleniya, Premadasa told (Upali’s cousin) Ranjith Wijewardene (the owner of the Sunday Times) in a small gathering: “I want to advise you, do not let those who destroyed Upali destroy you.” (Colombo Telegraph 4/4/14)

Upali Wijewardene

In the Constitution, that he crafted in 1978, President Jayewardene was careful not to provide for a vice president, who would explicitly be regarded as his successor. So Premadasa had to be content with the inconsequential office of Prime Minister. “As Prime Minister, he had no powers,” said Premadasa’s daughter. “Despite his being deputy leader of the party, and Prime Minister, he was not nominated for the presidency until the last moment. Both Lalith and Gamini were aspiring for the ticket.” (Sunday Island 4/1/97)

1988 Election

“Some Govigama politicians opposed the appointment of Premadasa, as deputy leader rather than Athulathmudali or Dissanayake, because it made him Jayewardene’s presumptive successor.” Though appointed Prime Minister, in 1978, when Jayewardene became executive President, the UNP leadership did not consider Premadasa as a prospective successor to Jayewardene. Instead “the leading contenders were Upali Wijewardene, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. Wijewardene was a cousin of Jayawardene… and was, in 1982, considered a likely successor to Jayawardene.

To the very end of Jayewardene’s administration, Premadasa had no assurance that he would be the UNP’s candidate at the 1988 Presidential Election. “Nearly all those in the UNP hierarchy, who advocated a third term for President Jayewardene, were killed, ostensibly by the JVP,” notes Rajan Hoole in The Linkages of State Terror (UTHR). In a sense, it was the JVP that won him his candidature, they were at the height of their anti-Indo-Lanka Accord and anti-Indian campaign. The only way the UNP could win the presidential election was by putting up a credible nationalist. For example, a champion of the Indo, Sri Lanka Accord, Gamini Dissanayake was on a poor wicket. Premadasa finally became President, on 2 January 1989, of a Sri Lanka “riddled with caste distinction and snobbery… Premadasa remained an outsider until he died.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)

Premadasa’s choice for Prime Minister would have been his loyal lieutenant Sirisena Cooray, but he could not ignore the fact that Lalith Athulahmudali came out the better of the two, in Colombo, at the 1989 Parliamentary Election. Rather than give Athulathmudali the position, with its implied deputy status, he invented an annually rotating premiership, assuring each aspirant a turn, and then appointed D.B. Wijetunga who was never a contender for office. Premadasa, thereafter, forgot about the ‘rotating premiership.’

On the anniversary of his installation as President, Premadasa “would receive a blessing from priests at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, in Kandy, and then present himself to the public from a chamber where the ancient rulers of the Kandyan Kingdom were crowned. The upper-caste clergy, at Kandy, may have gritted their teeth at presumption by a person who traditionally would not have been allowed near their most holy places.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)

“The dominant Siam Nikaya was once exclusively confined to the Govigama caste and remains overwhelmingly Govigama. The Karava, Salagama and Durava castes obtained ordination, in Myanmar, setting up the Amarapura Nikaya,” explains Punya Perera in “Caste and Exclusion in Sinhala Buddhism” (Colombo Telegraph 7/3/13)

(To be continued)

 


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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