Some heretical thoughts on Independence

The guns will boom at the auspicious time tomorrow firing a salute to the nation. The armed services who have long ceased to play a purely ceremonial role as they did in the earlier years of our Independence, will parade with all the spit and polish that is part of the military culture. The elected leaders of the country will stand on the rostrum and take the salute. We are told that there will be no speeches from either president or prime minister today so those of the people belonging to what the Marxists call the "salariat" enjoying one of their many holidays can catch the spectacle on their television screen without being fed a dose of platitudes.

But 54 years after the Union Jack was lowered from the flagstaff on Independence Square and the Lion Flag of Lanka bravely took its place, do the majority of the people of this country really have the freedom that was promised to them in 1948? Certainly the political class has benefited enormously from the business of governance. However much the elected representatives may talk about the sacrifices they have made to serve their people, ordinary folk know best that home was never as good even for the best-heeled of our politicians as the perks and privileges that were theirs in office.

Oldsters among us who remember the colonial days sometimes speak nostalgically of a time when there were no import and exchange controls, the rupee had real value and the white sahibs shared some of the goodies that the economy delivered with their brown counterparts. In those days, those of our people who were admitted to the university and obtained their degrees were assured of government employment that was then a passport to privilege and a pension. Public school boys in the various "colleges" bestowed with more brawn than brain, provided they had the right connections, could aspire to plum planting and mercantile jobs that assured comfortable lifestyles. Those who entered the colonial civil service copped fat dowries and steadily plodded up the career ladder along the rungs of "minuted" posts. Except for war time disruptions, with the accompanying compensation of boom bounce for rubber, everything was lovely in the garden for the upper and middle classes.

Things were not the same for those born to labour who toiled in their fields and in the thottams. But even they, during intermittent periods of our post-Independence history, when the seedevi mathini they had elected asked them to drink their tea without sugar and eat manioc because rice was scarce, remembered more spacious times when the white man ensured the essentials. The early post-Independence years retained much of the flavour of the pre-Independence period like the top hats and morning coats favoured for days like tomorrow by the then rulers or the white ducks and plumed hats of a fading raj. But with population growth and increased aspirations, spurred no doubt by the fruits of free education, we were not too far from the evil day of the economy being unable to deliver what it had in more spacious times.

1956 is seen by many as a watershed. That also signalled a time when the baby went with the bath water, reserves built in better days being frittered away and structures of good administration and management crafted in the colonial era being steadily eroded by a culture of political patronage that was to acquire a greater momentum with passing years. We have lived to see what Sinhala Only, a slogan that was coined to catch votes, started doing to our country. The process advanced inexorably with a section of our people becoming alienated to the point that a demand for a separate state now sits squarely on the laps of us all. With Tammany Hall style politics firmly rooted, and patronage the name of the game, good governance became a forgotten art. Politicians sought votes and voters sought favours and to hell with merit for jobs, buck or anything else.

The politicians of all hues must take the blame for much that has gone wrong and landed the country in the sorry mess it is in today. The voters must share this blame as the old adage about people getting the government they deserve is not without its own logic. Today we have a new government committed to seeking peace with a terrorist group whose most recent endeavors at conscripting child soldiers in the Batticaloa district cannot but send shivers down the spines of thinking people. The LTTE certainly is not preparing for peace. But the peace effort must continue in the full knowledge of that reality. On the plus side is the international climate against terrorism that will be Prabhakaran’s most implacable enemy, more so that all Ranil’s (or Chandrika’s) men and their horses.

If the economy is allowed to perform, and the ending of the war will give it its best shot, and the rulers live up to raja bhavathu dhammiko, that dictum in the pirith potha that exhorts them to be just, perhaps the rains will come in due season and the people of this country will have reason to look forward to a better future than they have known for many of our post-Independence years when the country had to live with a brutal war and the aspiration of too many Lankans with blue or white collars became either foreign jobs or immigration. We did get self-rule in 1948 but those who were charged with the responsibility of governance have done little but botch up their task, the results show. Will the future be any different? Only time can tell.

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