Reflections on an open history

History is coloured by ideology. Those who claim a division between fact and frill are rare. The truth then is that while we are grateful to those historians who went beyond a reductionist, anti-holistic view of their subject, they are in the condemned minority. Can’t help. After all, no assessment of our history, particularly that which creeps up after independence, escapes ideology-colour. That’s what has provided opportunity for commentators to either praise or condemn our historical records, disregarding the “commendable” in a particular epoch and marginalising the “imperfect” in another.

First and foremost therefore, this “record” of milestones and setbacks our leaders have achieved since 1948 is not meant to be packed with facts and figures. Inasmuch as history isn’t objective and depends for its resolution on factors not always discernible to the compiler, it is hence true that if one is to talk about our post-independence history, one must factor in both material fact and ideological frill. By “frill” I don’t mean predilection to any political ideology: I only mean the factors that gave birth to a particular period in time and whether they were absented later on.

When we talk about milestones, we are talking about contributions made to effect change in society. When we talk about change, we are referring to organic change or revolution. Suffice it to say that all history since 1948 has been a clash between these two modes of change, and for the most it has been revolution (whether quietly or violently effected) that has won. It’s commendable and speaks well of our democratic practice, flawed though that practice has been in the past.

Here then is a compilation of our leaders, many of whom tried their best to be statesmen or stateswomen.

The Dominion Years

When I think of post-1948 history, I think of how the leaders of our independence struggle were victims of colonialism, who after forming the Ceylon National Congress, opted for constitutional change rather than mass agitation to win independence. This change of face has been documented by both sociologists and political propagandists, but I believe that a gradualist approach to independence was what salvaged our country in those first few years.

That is what D. S. Senanayake believed in as well. And in the end, the fact that it vindicated those initial few years is a testament to his vision.

Senanayake was no pedant. We remember his development drive. We remember the vision that went into it, buttressed by the knowledge he had of his subject (he had been Minister of Agriculture and Lands in the State Council, before independence). This drive could have come up at an exorbitant price of course, but back then, with pragmatic, middle way policies that filled the government coffers through exports of tea, rubber, and coconut and ensured budget surpluses, there were little problems.

He was also, I believe, an idealist. Even today, those who have an axe to grind with his successors have nothing but praise for the man.

He loved his people. He was aware that hard choices must be made. Perhaps this reflects the way he ran the government and maintained friendships abroad. The Left accused him of kowtowing to the West. But when the Netherlands asked whether they could use our airbase in their effort to attack freedom fighters in Indonesia, he refused to comply. A lesson in nonalignment, I believe.

As with all idealists though, he was stunted. His belief in the status quo and the continued separation of temple and state has been documented. Perhaps it’s a sign of how potent the cracks beneath his idealism was after his premature death, when the Leftist opposition and later the government lost their base and had to concede ground to an upsurge in racial and linguistic nationalism, itself a product of independence.

The point where it all started was 1951, when his party faced several defections. The opposition, long shattered and divided on ideological lines, coalesced into a unified whole. That made use of what was felt to be Senanayake’s biggest failure: to effect change quickly enough and accommodate the cultural revolt that was soon to spill over.

Dudley Senanayake’s premiership signified two things. Firstly, like his father he too tried to maintain the economic and social status quo. Secondly (again, like his father) he maintained his government’s religious neutrality. Both undermined him in 1953, when his finance minister J. R. Jayewardene tried to cut the rice subsidy. As the protests that followed highlighted, the Left was not powerless. On the contrary, its foray into parliamentary politicking empowered it even more, underscored by the Buddhist clergy who had taken to politics.

Sir John Kotelawala’s premiership continued this. Between the years 1954 and 1956, attempts by Sir John to control the impending cultural revolt (at the time of the Buddhist Commission of Inquiry) and shift his country’s nonaligned foreign policy to one tilting towards anticommunism led to his electoral downfall.

This doesn’t mar his contributions, of course. From providing electricity to Sri Pada to inaugurating the Laxapana hydroelectricity scheme, providing buildings for the Peradeniya University, and constructing an airport at Ratmalana (all done as a Minister), he proved that he was no lotus-eater bereft of love for his country. He proved to be a man who refused to bend before the wind, who didn’t want to accommodate structural changes in a government that was fast being rejected by the people.

There are essays and books that have been written on 1956. Martin Wickramasinghe, in his essay “The Fall of the Brahmin Class”, paints it as historically inevitable. On a more nuanced level, Professor Kumari Jayawardena sees it as signalling the upliftment of the unprivileged, rural class. At the opposite pole, Regi Siriwardena has written that it provided false channels for that same class.

The author of what transpired that year was S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Like D. S. Senanayake, he was an idealist. His program for national regeneration was hijacked by forces antithetical to its pluralist character. But this speaks more about those who contorted it than about the idealist who originally wanted to maintain its humanist character. Moreover, in terms of economic and social matters, there’s no denying that he achieved what he wanted: if Dominion independence meant handing over defence matters to the British, then Bandaranaike reversed that trend by taking over our airbases and port.

The people had a term for his government: “apey anduwa”.

But if Bandaranaike was a revolutionary fired by liberal ideals, his widow took on his program with a more nationalistic streak. She handled two explosive issues – whether our schools should be taken over by the government and whether her husband’s nationalisation program should be intensified – to the extent where she won more enemies than friends. We lost Western aid, but we got the other side of the Iron Curtain. She eased tensions between India and China, which added to her stateswoman-like qualities.

But for having antagonised the Catholic Church and having alienated the minority groups that controlled business interests in the country, she had to pay her price. The 1962 (failed) coup and the defection of several ministers from her government three years later ensured that price: defeat. It’s a measure of how her program was supported and affirmed, however, that even after half a century much of her legacy has survived. The schools she took over are still run and financed by the government, for instance.

The cultural resurgence unleashed during these years, curiously, avoided the retrogressive character of the ethno-religious fervour that was to vent itself through chauvinism. It was in 1956 that Maname was staged and Rekava was screened, and it was in 1957 that Viragaya was written. As Regi Siriwardena has observed, these works of art were not consciously driven by 1956, but their impulses were concomitant with a period of cultural renaissance.

It’s a testament to how strong this was that it remains virtually untouched, even after 1977. The brief return of the UNP in the years 1965 to 1970 (during which Ceylon enjoyed her best years in terms of economic growth) couldn’t change it either. But a new class was growing: the idealists who had welcomed and had been birthed by 1956, who were now fast being disillusioned by poverty and unemployment.

Ceylon turns into Sri Lanka and “embraces” Democratic Socialism

After authoring our first Republican Constitution, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s second government reformed land ownership and commerce, imposing restriction in the name of promoting equality. In part this was due to the 1971 insurrection: with an alternative posed to the Old Left by the JVP and Rohana Wijeweera, the socialism-tag of the government was challenged. What happened next was inevitable: it sped up a process of nationalisation that inhibited commerce but promoted social equality, ameliorated at least partly by policies adopted by the then Finance Minister Dr N. M. Perera.

The cleavages attendant on the latter part of her regime, not surprisingly, proved to be too much. J. R. Jayewardene’s victory in 1977, however, has been interpreted as a victory by capitalist rationality. No doubt this was owing to Jayewardene’s desire to emulate the Singaporean model. But such a reading of 1977 is at variance with the political experience of the 1980s, and for good reason.

J. R. Jayewardene’s economic program, which is by far his biggest legacy to the country, wasn’t new. Not even to him. In 1966, for instance, he had invited B. R. Shenoy, the Indian libertarian economist, to author a policy document for Dudley Senanayake’s government. By this act he had ignored Sri Lankan academics, no doubt due to his distrust with their leftist orientation. Furthermore, as far back as 1948 (as Finance Minister), he had said, “If the entire national income is distributed among the population, it would make beggars of us all”.

Embracing capitalist rationality, as experience bears out, isn’t an end but a means to an end when it comes to political reform. Enforcing this rationality through economic liberalisation on the one hand and political centralisation to facilitate that liberalisation on the other, therefore, couldn’t last. Not for long. That is what marred Jayewardene’s regime in its later years.

He gave his share: the 1977 Constitution paid deference to multiculturalism by making Tamil and Sinhala official languages, according parity to both, in later years. The Parliament was built in his day. The various social welfare projects he inaugurated tried to keep politics out of the business of promoting social parity, precisely the problem that had dogged his predecessor. This was an era of “democratic socialism”, when capitalism was made king without ignoring the welfarist character of the state.

But notwithstanding this, few would bet that the euphoria which greeted Jayewardene in 1977 remained when he left office in 1988, when the UNP changed its economic outlook from neo-liberalism to populist conservatism under Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The irony is that, even despite his populist outlook, not even Premadasa was able to undo this rift between economic liberalisation and political autocracy. But he is probably remembered more than any president until that point, purely by the poverty alleviation programs his government authored (of which “Janasaviya” was one). As a political commentator put it,

“High growth, high foreign investment, high efficiency, reduced unemployment, reduced inflation, rapid rural industrialisation, poverty reduction, transfer of real incomes to the poorest households, reduced income inequality, net inflow of capital. In short, Sri Lanka achieved the impossible: growth with equity; re-asserted and restored national sovereignty, and violence free elections.”

Whether or not this could have been sustained in the long term is a question history is yet to answer, because Premadasa was killed prematurely. But by that point his legacy in other respects was sealed, in terms of the second insurrection by the JVP, and eroding peace talks with the LTTE.

The return of the SLFP

Chandrika Kumaratunga was by all accounts the first ideological reformer of her father’s party. I say this because her association with the Old Left of the 1980s and Vijaya Kumaratunga led to two volte-faces in the SLFP. Firstly, it oriented itself with an antiwar, pro-peace movement led by civil society and sections of the government. Secondly, it began embracing moves towards devolution and hence affirming the 13th Amendment, concepts introduced to the country during Jayewardene’s tenure.

It is Kumaratunga’s biggest legacy that despite brief defeat, her pluralistic ideology survived two terms by Mahinda Rajapaksa and its nationalist-thrusts. Much like how the UNP witnessed a restoration to the traditional elite after Premadasa’s assassination, the SLFP, after the defeat of Rajapaksa, saw a similar political recapitulation on the part of those who were chosen to head it.

I have written before that Mahinda Rajapaksa was a popular leader who rationalised a virtual dictatorship in terms of that popularity and remained, for the most, an outsider to colleague and foe. I have also written that after his defeat, the restoration of party principles to what they were before his victory in 2005 meant one thing: that his charismatic variant of nationalism (his biggest contribution to our political landscape) could survive only as a faction within the party.

Mahinda Rajapaksa proved that (to paraphrase what his detractors frequently say) “the war could be won”. He also initiated probably the most ambitious development drive we witnessed since D. S. Senanayake’s tenure (in terms of their scope, that is), extending not just to bridges and schemes but roads as well. What he failed to understand was that winning a war was winning half the battle: the other half involved winning the peace (which material development could never achieve completely). I think Kumaratunga put it best: “winning the war is not establishing peace”.

Hence, whether or not the (un)popular image of him survives a fresh assessment of his legacy is a question that history is yet to answer. True, he could have done more to ease tensions between communities, particularly with regard to Tamils and Muslims. That he didn’t and that this contributed partly to his defeat, we know. But history is open. Mahinda Rajapaksa is still politically alive. There’s more we can expect.

These compilations are not exhaustive. They are reflections and don’t pretend to be anything else. But some points can be gleaned from them. The shifts and turns of power we have seen since 1948 have run parallel with exogenous forces. 1956 was a milestone, but it could not have materialised in its entirety had the British not introduced universal suffrage to our people decades earlier. 1977 was a milestone too, but it couldn’t have materialised without the dissatisfaction that those who “grew up” with 1956 felt at the state’s continuing, overbearing character.

The return of the SLFP in 1994 did not mean a return to Bandaranike’s principles: the milestone there was a result of the political experience of the latter half of the 1980s, when the Old Left-assembled United Socialist Alliance (of which Vijaya Kumaratunga was leader) was championing pluralism and devolution, the likes of which hadn’t been affirmed by either mainstream party before.

Decades later (in 2005) Professor H. L. Seneviratne wrote of a rift between “arthika” (policy) and “jathika” (nationalism) in that year’s election: an unsustainable, reductionist simplification, because after merely two terms by Mahinda Rajapaksa we saw a peaceful and quick transition to what characterised the political landscape before him: a purported return to “arthika”, that is.

History, Regi Siriwardena once wrote, is open. Perusing it through an article or two does scant justice to its vibrant character. The ideology-shifts that have attended not just parties but factions within parties here have, for the most, highlighted milestones in the country which commentators who are fixated on ideology have either discounted or ballooned beyond proportion. It’s best to steer out of either extreme. Otherwise, one ends up with an enthusiasm for political colour which can make the historian selective.

What we need isn’t that. What we need is sobriety.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at His articles can be accessed at

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An open minded guy who likes books, movies, and clean fun. Likes to associate with respectable, honest, and open people who are not conformists. You can ready my articles at my blog -

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