‘The awesome power of People’ – a response


SWRD Bandaranaike speaking in 1956

The article by the American sociologist H. L. Seneviratne (HLS) entitled ‘The awesome power of People’ appearing in your columns on Jan. 03 paints a false picture of the historic 1956 victory of the people. I am no sociologist but as a young village boy my elders and I understood 1956 it in a completely different way.

HLS claims that the people rose up in 1956 because they were fed up with ‘the crass materialism, westernization andexcessive indulgence of the 'bamunukulaya' (the elite class)’: "They were drunk with power, and with alcohol, and lost touch withreality". At the end of the essay HLS even attacks "Slogans ofnation, identity and triumphalism". He suggests that people were not swayed by them either then, or now.

I claim as a layman that partial truths have been. The most strident cry of 1956 was "Ape Baashaava and Sabhyathvaya" – our Language and culture. The power behind the 1956 revolution had organizations similar to the Bodu-Bala-Sena (BBS) in the Eksat Bhikku Peramuna (EBP), and the Pancha Mahaa Jana Balavegaya (the five people forces). I would imagine that J. L. Kothelawala's (JLK) objections to the EBP and HLS's objections to the BBS today would be similar. HLS claims that Wickremesinghe believed in the so-called "non-judgmental" fiction commonly held by many sociologists that "all cultures, however 'advanced' or 'primitive', are equal in status". If you read Wickremesinghe's works, it is clear that he believed in the superiority of Sinhala-Buddhist culture compared to the materialism of the West. The forces behind Bandaranaike had evolved from the Sinhala Maha Sabha of the1930s.

It was a response to the racism of the Tamil Congress of G. G. Ponnambalam, who can take the credit for igniting the first Sinhla-Tamil riot in 1939. Bandaranaike himself was a well known fixture in the "bamunu kulaya" with his tuxedo by night and high-society ‘canine club’ activities during the weekends. Even JLK would have been tolerated and the UNP may have won if JLK had backed the Sinhalese and the Buddhists. Unfortunately, soon after becoming prime minister (after the accidental death of D. S. Senanayake), JLK visited Jaffna. Unlike D. S. Senanayake, who was a sophisticated politician capable of handling the hot-potato of language dexterously, JLK fell into the trap laid by Tamil politicians. JLK declared that he would give official status to both Sinhala and Tamil. Returning to Colombo, he recognized his enormous political blunder, and instantly reversed himself and offered to make Sinhala the only official language! Bandaranaike trumped the ancient culture of the Sinhalese, roused the nationalism of the people, and tapped into the frustration of nearly80% of the people who were ruled through the medium of an alien language.

Sociologists like HLS, the late Thambiah and others with western eyes, bemoaned the ‘jettisoning’ of English, and claimed that the woes of this country ‘since 1956’ would not have happened if English had been retained. Notably, HLS's essay on the ‘awesome power of people’ makes no mention of ‘Sinhala only’. The 1956 enthroning of Sinhalese as the official language, even though modified to include ‘reasonable use of Tamil’, was the excuse that the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi" (ITAK) had been waiting for. ITAK was a fringe party formed in 1949 demanding an independent Tamil Kingdom (Arasu), but masquerading in English as a ‘federal’ party. Tamils ignored it in the 1952 election. But, bargaining on the almost 50% presence of Tamils in the public service, and its strength in the financial and private sector, the ITAK launched a programm of deliberate ethnic polarisation. Already in the late 1950s, ITAK printed ‘Eelam stamps’, tar brushed Sinhala street signs and vehicle registration plates, and sought to paralyze the government in the North.

Although HLS talks of ‘a people nurtured for centuries in the middle path’, it had no shortage of Sinhala goons who attacked the ITAK's "non-violent sathyagrahas" on the Galle Face Green. These were retaliated by Tamil goons who attacked the Sinhalese settlers in the North and East, declared to be exclusive homelands by the ITAK. This spiral of violence led to the ITAK transforming itself into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) that declared itself "ready for state violence", and nurtured its ‘boys’ who took up arms, shot even the TULF leaders and terrorized this nation for over three decades. Even the granddaughter of S. J. V. Chelvanayagam said in 2009 that the people were spontaneously happy when the terrorists were defeated, while even the Tamils were utterly relived, but with little joy, as a misled people whose leaders had pitted themmilitarily against a majority ten times bigger. HLS defends ‘bamunu kulaya’ that rejects celebrating the victory over terrorism as ‘triumphalism’. His ‘kulaya’ awaits a ‘colour uprising’ to install ‘good governance’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ as has happened with the ‘Arab Springs’ in Egypt, Libya, or Iraq. Then he can celebrate it with no constraints of ‘triumphalism’.

Bodhi Dhanapala


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