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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2644

Father of "1956" and the children of 2006

H. L. D. Mahindapala

The major problems of the dynastic control of the SLFP were decided once and for all when the people elected Mahinda Rajapakse as the President in November 2005. But the Bandaranaikes were clinging to the last dynastic strand of the umbilical chord left: the Presidency of the SLFP. That too was finally severed when the Party elected Mahinda Rajapakse as the President, handing over total power both of the Party and the state.

For the first time in 55 years the reins of SLFP power held by the Bandaranaikes changed hands. A network of intertwining forces - political, legal, constitutional and external factors - combined to ease the incumbent President Chandrika Kumaratunga out of her seat, paving the way for Mahinda Rajapakse to succeed her. The expectations of Anura Bandaranaike to succeed his sister, Chandrika Kumaratunga, failed to gather any momentum because he was riding on the Bandaranaike name, hoping that the mantle would fall on his shoulders automatically, without working for it, or earning his dues by identifying himself meaningfully and actively with his father's political legacy.

The rise of Mahinda Rajapakse eclipsed the Bandaranaikes but not the Bandaranaike legacy. In fact, the rise and rise of Mahinda can be attributed to the Bandaranaike legacy which he embraced in toto. Mahinda displaced Anura Bandaranaike because he adopted, cultivated and pursued the founder's legacy - shawl and all! The parallelism between "1956" and "2005" go beyond the symbolism of the dress code into a wide range of politics. It was a case of history repeating itself to revive the aspirations that were languishing between "1956" and "2005". The parallels are too stark to be ignored.

There are differences too. When in 1956 the Senanayakes stood aside it contributed substantially to the fall of the UNP. But in "2005" not even the Bandaranaikes working against Mahinda Rajapakse could defeat the forces launched by their father. The last presidential election once again reaffirmed that the dead hand of their dear, departed father is more powerful than the living Bandaranaikes.

The Bandaranaike children who refused to recognise the power of legacy they inherited were brushed aside. Their movements away from their father's legacy into an unrealistic and unrewarding realm of their own tolled the bell for them. For instance, Chandrika Kumaratunga betrayed her father when she signed a secret memorandum with Ranil Wickremesinghe on the eve of the last election to undercut her own nominee, Mahinda Rajapakse. It was worse than treachery. It was like a mother throttling her baby in the cot. It was immoral and obscene.

Besides, the Bandaranaike progeny, over-awed by the prevailing Western ideologies and fashions (e.g., shopping at Marks and Spencers in jeans with back-to-front baseball cap) were busy dismantling their father's legacy than reviving it, or reinforcing it, or taking the people along creative grassroots politics of Bandaranaike. In their speeches and policies they hardly referred to the foundations laid by their father as the source of inspiration to take the nation forward. They were inhibited by the overwhelming propaganda of the Westernized, English-speaking elite (hiding behind the NGOs) who joined hands with the extremist Jaffna Tamils todenigrate Bandaranaike as the cause of all the evils in the post-independence era.

I do not know whether I have missed any of their speeches but I cannot recollect from memory the Bandaranaike children putting up a spirited defence of their father's commitment, contributions and concerns for the nation. Bandaranaike carried on his shoulders the historical burden of the silenced generations and released their suppressed historical energy in 1956. But his offspring shied away from "1956" as if it was a kind of political leprosy. Chandrika traipsed into vulgarized Marxism that had no tint of red, pink, violet or mauve. Vatti ammas have more red in the betel chew they spit out than in Chandrika's socialism. Ultimately she boasted that she can be a better capitalist than the capitalist. Anura, of course, drifted without any firm political commitments into a world of his own, feuding with his family more than with his political opponents.

In so many direct and indirect ways they joined the anti-Bandaranaike lobbies and distanced themselves from their father. From time to time these political deviants did not hesitate to join the parties of the left and the right that were out to bury their father's name. The descendants of Bandaranaike - the nobodies who became somebodies because of their father's sacrifices - failed to defend their father, or to exercise power on the pro-people ideologies of their father, or to serve the people who elected them in the hope of carrying forward their father's legacy. To be abandoned and betrayed by one's children must be the most unbearable act of ingratitude. If he was living Bandaranaike would not have hesitated to declare, with a flash of his customary disdain: "Et tu, my children!"

After reaching the pinnacles of power by invoking their father's name they spent their political energy to close the gates opened by their father. Of course, they were proud to be the Bandaranaikes - the children of two prime ministers, they claimed boastfully! They made careers out of being Bandaranaikes. To remind the people regularly of their connection to Bandaranaike they made their ritual trips to Horogolla to lay their wreaths annually more for the cameras than to serve the memory of their father. In the end, Chandrika, like all pretentious children who claim to know better than their fathers, wasted two terms of her presidency on film stars, at tax payers’ expense taking her children on a safari to the pyramids in Egypt, promoting P(acha)-Toms and generally surrounding herself with corrupt officials who made packets out of arms deals. Not once can I remember her speaking in defence of her father, his lasting legacy which the people remembered with respect though forgotten by his children.

Mrs. Bandaranaike was more pragmatic. As the immediate heir to her husband's legacy, she was the beneficiary and the recipient of the forces that flowered in "1956". She not only had the advantage of breathing and living the zeitgeist of the Bandaranaike era, but was also swept into power on the waves generated by "1956". Her affinity to the Bandaranaike tradition was far greater than that of her children. The period from 1956 to 1970 was dominated by Bandaranaikeism. Numerous political parties were vying with each other "to inherit the mantle of Bandaranaike, whose popular image came to be exploited by them for their own political advantage" wrote Prof. Wiswa Warnapala. (Sri Lankan Freedom Party, p.xvi, Godage International Publishers). He added that in the general election of March 1960 the Commissioner of Elections recognized 18 political parties and "(N)early 8 parties out of the 18 had some link to the MEP Coalition of 1956, and they made use of the name, Bandaranaike, to legitimise their formation as a political party. This, in fact, was a new political phenomenon in the country." (ibid).

The Bandaranaike children too traded on the Bandaranaike name to legitimize their politics which had no relevance to the undercurrents of the historical grassroots forces that led to the groundswell of "1956". They were content to climb to power on the coffin of their father - one of the greatest Sinhala-Buddhist liberals - without lifting a finger to serve his ideals or his legacy. Apart from laying ritual wreaths on the death anniversaries they did not actively embrace or pursue the legacy of "1956". They were drifting away from the values enshrined by their father in the national consciousness into a fairy land of theories imported from the West - a practice that their father discarded quite early in his political career. If the children could not stand up for their father who gave them everything can the nation expect them to stand up for the people who breathed life into the SLFP?

The most insufferable trait of Chandrika Kumaratunga was her pseudo-intellectual pose with questionable claims to an academic respectability merely by rubbing shoulders with some French wine-bibbers at Sorbonne. Her father who had greater credentials from Oxford deliberately adopted the policy of not being subservient to the Western theories, values or models. In fact, like all nationalist returnees from the West, he rejected the Occidental formulas, norms and political recipes for the emerging nations. At a time when the new nations waking up from centuries of colonialism were swinging towards xenophobia he maintained a democratic balance in erasing the evils of colonialism and restoring the lost heritage of the nation.

I remember him lounging in an arm chair at the Kurunegala rest house during the lunch break at the Kurunegala sessions of the SLFP (it was a tense time with divisions within the SLFP widening) and lambasting Sir. Ivor Jennings for transplanting the Westminster model on the native soils of Sri Lanka, Pakistan etc. In his search for home-grown solutions he swung in the opposite direction of the West. He was the right man who arrived at the right time to release his people from centuries of colonial oppression. In the end his ideology prevailed while all the Western imports, including the Marxists, fell by the wayside.

The essence of the Bandaranaike ideology, derived from his experiences at Oxford, was not to be imitative slaves of the West.

He propounded the idea that the only way to be equal to the colonial masters was to be their superiors. And he exhibited his superiority without any qualms in every possible way, including his somewhat diluted Oxonian accent . When, for instance, the Eisenhower administration sent a lingerie chain-store owner as ambassador to Sri Lanka Bandaranaike indulged in deadly word play with his name which happened to be Gluck. In his characteristic irreverent way he did not hesitate to cut down the ambassador of the world’s greatest power to size. On the day the lingerie-store-keeper-turned-ambassador paid a courtesy call on him he greeted him with a roaring welcome: "Ah, mister ambassador, doesn't your name rhyme with duck, pluck and what's that other famous thing...? That was Bandaranaike at his puckish best!

Intellectually he was miles ahead of the Marxist "golden brains". He sensed instinctively and grasped intellectually the power of the grassroot forces. While the Marxists concentrated in their shallow urban pits of trade unions, relying on the Marxist myth of the working class being the revolutionary vanguard of history that could redeem mankind, Bandaranaike reached out in depth to the broader indigenous inheritors of history who were denied their rightful place for nearly five centuries by the colonial masters.

Bandaranaike was one of the rare Oxbridge products who had the discriminating intellectual capacity to derive the best from West and reject the rest.

His children never reached the intellectual heights of their father, though they pretended to be the political pundits of their time. One of the most pathetic moments of Chandrika was facing Tim Sebastian of BBC Hard Talk. He chopped her into mince meat and left her babbling irrelevancies, exposing her vacant mind. If Bandaranaike was in his daughter’s seat he would have sliced Sebastian into transparent rings of salami. With his command of the language, ready wit and grasp of the subject matter he would have run rings round Sebastian. Bandaranaike was the towering intellect of his time who left behind the monumental and indelible landmark of "1956". His children, it is sad to say, run around like stunted pygmies, leaving nothing in their name except their demonstrable mediocrity. They have forfeited the right to the political inheritance of their revered father.

In all respects it is Mahinda Rajapakse who has reclaimed that legacy by his tried and tested loyalty to the Bandaranaike tradition. Once again "1956" and what it stood for proved to be a steady winner against all odds in 2005. His MEP Coalition of the pancha maha bala vegaya was re-assembled when Mahinda joined hands with the JVP and the JHU. Oddly enough the two heirs of Bandaranaike opposed this coalition. Their self-centred and short-sighted tactics were to undercut Mahinda and not to carry forward their father’s ideals. In the process they have ceased to be the rightful heirs to the Bandaranaike legacy. Bandaranaike restored the lost dignity and pride of the nation. He was the voice of the voiceless majority. Tragically, his children were dancing to a hip-hop tune!

In an era where the Sinhala Left (there was no Tamil Left in electoral terms) and the Westernised Sinhala elite cocooned in NGOs argued as if only the Tamil minority had rights he dared to restore the lost rights of the majority. Sri Lanka is unique in that the majority has to fight tooth and nail to regain and retain their rights. In all the other nations the right of the majority to have their flag, their country, their language (with marginal concessions to the minorities) is not questioned. Nor will they allow it to be questioned. Bush, Blair, Chirac and Howard (to take only a few examples of the great liberal democracies) are insisting vehemently today that the minorities must accept the values of the majority. But the live-and-let-live liberalism of Bandaranaike which primarily addressed the historical imbalances that oppressed and suppressed the Sinhala-Buddhists, the majority, was distorted and vilified.

Mono-ethnic extremism of the Jaffna Tamils, the most favored and privileged community under colonialism, played the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist card to the hilt. It was their only card to survive in the competitive electoral politics of the peninsula. Ingrained in centuries of casteist fascism the Jaffna political class never espoused socialism, liberalism or multi-culturalism. They were veering towards separatism with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam’s declared policy of “little now and more later”. Co-existence with all the other communities was anathema unless it was under their hegemony. Their trump card to whip up anti-Sinhala racism was the Sinhala Only Act.

As pointed out by Bandaranaike no legislation was passed to make English the official language in 1833. It was an arbitrary act of a ruling elite to deprive the people the right to communicate with the government of the day in their language. The Sinhala Only Act was to replace English not Tamil. It was nothing but right that the Jaffna Tamils who occupied a disproportionate share of jobs in the public service should learn the language of the majority if they were to serve the public. Chelvanayakam’s campaign to prevent the Tamil public servants from learning Sinhala was tantamount to asking the public to learn Tamil if they were to reap the benefits of the government services.

No elected democracy in the world would concede that to a bunch of politicized public servants. It is this unfair claim to administer the public service in the language of a minority (English was known only to 6%) that was propagandized as discrimination. Underlying the extremist politics of minoritarianism was the notion that the majority must necessarily and consistently sacrifice their rights to the minority. Bandaranaike sought a fair balance between the two. His liberal temperament and broad vision went as far as he could to grant the fair and just rights of the minorities without surrendering the rights of the majority. It was not an act against the Tamil minority. It was an act to dethrone the English-speaking, Westernised, miniscule minority. It was an act against the aliens and not against the indigenous people. Despite all the ballyhoo about the Sinhala Only Act, and after fifty years of its existence in the statute books, the irony is the nation is still run in English at the highest levels.

But the Jaffna Tamils who had never espoused anything but mono-ethnic extremism to maintain their feudal and colonial privileges whipped up communal passions for their electoral survival, despite the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act of 1959. The Bandaranaike of the Tamil Language Act is downplayed or ignored and only the Sinhala Only Act is highlighted to promote the political myths of peninsular extremism. Bandaranaike had the foreknowledge to foresee the ferocity of Jaffna Tamil extremism rising in the dying days of the British raj. His move to counter the impact of the Tamil Maha Jana Sabha established in the twenties was to launch the Sinhala Maha Sabha in the forties. As stated by Jane Russell he resisted "the outrageous demands of the Tamils," meaning not all the Tamil–speaking communities but the extremist elite of Jaffna.

Not a trace of the knowledge and the virtues that inspired Bandaranaike to take on the burden of the deprived majority is visible in his children. To rediscover Bandaranaike and his vision for the nation one has to look outside the Bandaranaike family. They abandoned the people who were adopted by their father. This explains why the people turned to Mahinda Rajapakse. The rising popularity of Mahinda Rajapakse is because his is the voice of common sense which the people at large can identify as the voice of their aspirations. Which Bandaranaike had the guts to say there can be only "one flag and one country"? Or to say "gahuwoth gahanawa" after bearing up patiently years of brutal violence? He was speaking the language of the people, not to mention the only language understood by the violent extremist of the north.

Mahinda became the last hope of the despondent people who were looking for a way out of the failed Ceasefire Agreement - the unacceptable betrayal of the nation by those who pretended to know what was best for the nation. Mahinda's last resort was to form a broad alliance with the nationalist forces much same way as Bandaranaike did in 1956. He espoused the same cause and adopted the same strategies. The victory of 2005 confirmed that the forces of "1956" may lie low but never die.

It is the enemy within that killed Bandaranaike in 1959. In the years that followed, it is the enemies in his own household who were slowly but surely destroying his legacy. Both Bandaranaike and Mahinda faced formidable opponents. The most inimical was the Westernized elite, housed in air-conditioned NGO patios, with their imported theories. The ceaseless waves of strikes launched by the Marxists can be compared (though not equated) to the massive assaults of the LTTE against Mahinda. It is clear that Mahinda has weathered the military assaults on his regime far better than Bandaranaike fared against the Marxists. Among other things, Mahinda emerged as the voice of the voiceless people.

On any comparable scale, Mahinda's victories are far greater than that of Bandaranaike. His victories at the polls and in the battle fields have, indeed, given a new impetus to the Bandaranaike heritage. It is something that should have been won by the children for their father. Instead, it is sad to see Chandrika and Anura sniping at Mahinda Rajapakse the way the Vimala Wijewardene and Stanley Zoysa did to their father. The Vimalas and Stanleys had no positive or constructive alternative. They were merely out to grab power and reverse the gains of the people.

Political circles are buzzing with stories of Chandrika sneaking behind the back of the people to the old Tamil Tiger cells in London (remember Vasantha Raja?) to undo all what has been achieved by Mahinda Rajapakse. At home, it is reported that she is planning to break-up the SLFP (she did this once to her mother) through Arjuna Ranatunga, who has been in the forefront of the National Patriotic Movement.

Arjuna knows how to play the balls that come his way. On one historic occasion he courageously - and to the cheers of the nation -- refused to let Darrell Hair play with Murali's balls. At all times he has demonstrated an ability to play tricky balls that come his way skillfully. As World Cup-winning captain he knows that he must not let the balls thrown at him hit his wicket. The ball is now in his court (to change the metaphor and the venue). If the story that is circulating now is correct (my friend Arjuna should note the big "If") it is fair to ask: will he risk his future by letting Chandrika muck around with his balls – I mean the political balls he is facing now?

- Asian Tribune -

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