While mainstream historians have written of how the leaders of 1948 oversaw a transition in the country’s history from colonial to indigenous rule, evidence shows that what we got that year could hardly be counted as “independence.”
The question of whether Sri Lanka ever gained independence, or won it, has never properly been resolved. It is best resolved by referring to the legal framework within which independence was granted. Did Dominion status approximate to freedom, or was it, as at least one scholar has observed, a cover for continued imperialist rule?
By remaining subordinate to the British monarchy and by retaining the Privy Council has the country’s final court of appeal, it would seem that, on paper at least, we were subjugated, and that the leaders of the time seemed content in “sacrificing” two of the country’s most crucial administrative areas, defence and external relations, to British jurisdiction.
Mainstream historians absolve Sri Lanka’s founding father – D. S. Senanayake – on the grounds that he oversaw a gradual transfer of power which smoothened the tensions and contradictions that broke independent India apart in the wake of its more violent struggles against British rule. Thus in his short political biography of the man, K. M. de Silva praises Senanayake for handling “among the most astute of negotiations” involving transfers of power from colonial rule “in South Asia.”
One can argue, of course, that as far as “astute negotiations” go, South Asia didn’t exactly teem with successful transfers of power from colonial rule, but this is peripheral to a far more important issue: that astute as these negotiations may have been, they underlay crucial questions regarding who the British wanted to take over from them, and who they did not.
At the time of independence Sri Lanka fit the mould of a classic plantation enclave, dependent on the export of primary commodities and lacking an industrial base. This distinguished it not just from more developed colonies, but also its immediate neighbour.
Scholars have debated over the exact nature of the plantation economy, with de Silva (1982) taking the position that it was pre-capitalist and Bandarage (2020) arguing that it was capitalist. One of the most enduring myths about the colonial model from which we supposedly became “free” is that plantations modernised the country in terms of roads, railways, and infrastructure, a point with which both plantations-as-pre-capitalist and plantations-as-capitalist scholars beg to differ.
Dependent in the truest sense of the term, the colonial model produced a dependent elite. The roads, railways, and infrastructure, indeed the education system and judiciary, were all catered to and predicated on the plantations, which in turn entrenched this elite. James Manor has drawn a very important distinction between the colonial elite of most Afro-Asian countries and the colonial elite of Sri Lanka, insinuating, correctly in my opinion, that they were far more dependent and compradorist than their counterparts in India, Indonesia, and much of Africa, and needlessly so. This was largely because the British found them easier to manipulate than the bourgeoisie of neighbouring India, a phenomenon colonial era writers themselves have, not infrequently, commented on.
All this is to say that the dependent colonial model and the dependent elite it produced and entrenched found their way to head the transfer of power from British to indigenous rule. K. M. de Silva’s assertion that exogenous factors, particularly the fear of India, pushed the likes of Senanayake to pragmatically opt for the “home country” conceals just how dependent on colonial patronage the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie were.
Though historians place emphasis on the fear of India in justifying Senanayake’s decision to retain Britain in defence and external relations, a far more important factor was the Marxist movement.
Vernon Mendis has exonerated the first three UNP regimes – Senanayake père et fils and John Kotelawala – and their attacks on Leftists and Leftist sympathisers on the grounds that Marxist politicians made statements that could be interpreted as invitations to Communist countries to intervene and interfere in the country’s domestic affairs. This is interesting, not just because it shows how even the most astute academics rationalise what were otherwise infringements of civil liberties – for they were just that, as James Manor has clearly shown – but also because it helps perpetuate the narrative that the transfer of power these leaders oversaw was the only transfer possible for Sri Lanka at that point.
The Marxist interpretation of independence is important because it hasn’t been highlighted quite as much it should. It lays emphasis on the economic as opposed to the purely political dimension of the transfer of power, on how the character of the colonial bourgeoisie had a profound say in that transfer. K. M. de Silva and Vernon Mendis – among others – allege that the Marxist catcall of “fake independence” was doctrinaire, if not unfair, yet they don’t quite substantiate how, and why, it was unfair.
De Silva points at Senanayake’s multiracial conception of the State for why he preferred the British to stay. Yet he fails to discuss Senanayake’s decision to disenfranchise Indian plantation workers, a community that supported the Marxists, who were, for all intents and purposes, far more multiracial, multiethnic, and multiclass in their conception of the Sri Lankan State than the bourgeoisie ever were in theirs.
What did we inherit from all this, then? In 1948 we laid claim to a plantation economy built on the alienation of peasant land and the hegemony of estate owners. Less than five percent of the country’s population spoke in English. The professions – medicine, law, and the Civil Service – were dominated by those who had attended elite schools and were distanced by virtue of their upbringing from the public. Hospitals were limited to the cities or the immediate periphery; infant mortality was worse than India’s. Central Colleges did exist, but few and far between relative to elite schools. The cultural sphere, meanwhile, had little non-elite representation.
Given this, just what does it mean to be independent? Is independence about celebration, merriment, and the unbridled happiness of being free? Is it about being who we are? If so, who should we be, and more importantly, who should we have become? These questions are valid, but to me they are secondary to a bigger question: are we free, and if not, why?