Life and Times of the British Raj



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Confrontations with Colonialism – Resistance, Revivalism and Reform under British Rule in Sri Lanka. 1796 – 1920 (Volume 1). By Dr. P.V.J. Jayasekara. Published by Vijitha Yapa, 2017. Pages 569. Rs 1,500. Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva.


 


A small minority of the Sri Lankan population can remember British rule, which ended 70 years ago. During its 150 years in Ceylon, there were many confrontations with the local people on economic, social, and cultural issues. There were good periods, and bad periods, and conscientious governors, and some awful ones. In the 1930s there was Governor Stubbs (his father had been the Bishop of Oxford and had married his housekeeper) of whom it was said that he had the brains of the one, and the beauty of the other. Stubbs was the man who expelled the tea planter turned Marxist from Ceylon.


The nature of the rulers in Britain had an important bearing on the conditions of government here in Ceylon. Until about 1910, Britain was ruled by an aristocracy. Until 1931, women had no vote; so political conditions in Ceylon could not be expected to be better or democratic in any form. The rulers in Britain at the time could not care much for the working classes. There were many confrontations with the government from time to time (remember the Chartists in the mid 19th century, and many labour struggles thereafter, and the rise of the Labour Party). That background is important to understand the kind of British rule we had in Ceylon.


Whatever the experience of the people, and the repression that occurred from time to time, it is arguable that in the end British rule was beneficial to Sri Lanka. Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, speaking at Oxford, his alma mater, on the occasion of the award of an honorary degree, said that British rule in India, in spite of many repressive economic and political activities, was on the whole beneficial. India was unified (there would have been no India if not for British rule), the rule of law was established, a strong administrative structure was created, the economy was modernized, a rail and road system linked the country and English emerged as a unifying factor.


Parliamentary government was a product of British rule. What Manmohan Singh said at Oxford holds largely true for Sri Lanka too. There would have been no unified Ceylon if not for the British and Britain certainly contributed to the gradual abolition of repressive feudal rule, and gave us a modern economy, and parliamentary government based on universal franchise, including the vote for women. These underlying factors have to be borne in mind when we read of the many negative features which are highlighted in the volume under review. It will not be out of place to think of the type of governance which has been practiced since 1977 in Sri Lanka, and the many mendacious scoundrels who have claimed to govern this country.


The volume "Confrontations with Colonialism" is not a history of the British period. It selects a few episodes and themes in its 150 year rule, to highlight some of its more repressive features. There is little positive about British rule here. It is a volume of 550 pages with nearly 150 pages of end notes and another 25 page bibliography. It is undoubtedly a work of scholarship, although there is much room for argument and dissent. The volume disagrees in many places with leading Sri Lankan historians such as G.C. Mendis, K.M. De Silva, Gananath Obeysekara, and Michael Roberts, and popular historians like H.A.J. Hulugalle. It appears to agree with left-inclined historians - S.B. De Silva, Kumari Jayawardene - who too have highlighted the iniquities of British rule.


The volume consists of three long chapters, each taking over 100 pages. The first chapter is mainly economic history, and is called "The British Colonial Project in the 19th Century Sri Lanka: The Orwellian Logic"; the second chapter is "Christian Colonization and the Resistance and Revival of Buddhism", and the third "Buddhism, Theosophy and Nationalism". These last two chapters can be described as cultural history. The volume has its origins in the doctorial dissertation submitted to the School of Oriental and African studies, University of London over four decades ago (a second volume is to come). Subsequently Dr. Jayasekara was Head of the Department of History, at the University of Peradeniya.


The first chapter is a critique of the ways in which the British managed the economy of Ceylon. The author argues that taxes like the Grain tax and the Road tax were heavily burdensome impositions on the peasantry. Various arguments were touted in favour of these taxes. Earl Grey who was the colonial secretary in London said that peasants should be taxed as they were lazy and that taxes would induce the peasants to be more productive. While the peasants were being taxed, British planters who were opening up land was exempt from most taxes. Many facilities were offered to them to buy land cheaply and traditional communally owned land was taken from these communities through many Ordinances. The colonial state intervened at various points to make arrangements to bring labour from South India.


The overall argument of Dr. Jayasekara is that Ceylon was not a laissez faire state, after the Colebrooke Cameron reforms of 1832 as claimed by some historians, and that the Ceylon government was a highly interventionist one. At the end, of course, a capitalist economy was introduced but there was a long intervening period, when the government was actively involved in facilitating the creation of a plantation raj. It was no laissez faire regime. The author argues that while the peasants generated the revenue through taxes for government to administer the country, the plantation economy had hardly any tax burdens. The Sri Lankan peasantry paid a high price for the opening up of plantations.


The second chapter "Colonization and the Resistance and Revival of Buddhism" describes the many ways in which Chrisitan missionaries claimed many privileges in areas such as education with a view to converting people to Christianity. There are many interesting insights into the way the Buddhist clergy and the laity confronted the colonial state to claim equal rights for Buddhism. The author refers to the revival of traditional Buddhist learning and to "the rise of centres of learning at Matara, Galle, Bentara, Pelmadulla, Dodanduwa, Panadura, Ratmalana, Maligakanda, and Kelaniya amounted to a renaissance in Buddhist scholarship among the sangha". This chapter is replete with observations about the active organization of the Buddhist clergy and laity to demand the right and appropriate place for Buddhism. Unlike the role of the colonial state in favour of the plantation economy, there is no strong evidence to suggest that the colonial state was partial to the Christian missionaries. The Christian missionaries had privileges, but the Buddhists were not unduly penalized. The debates that took place between the Buddhists and the Christians were largely non-governmental affairs.


The third chapter is on "Buddhism, Theosophy, and Nationalism". In the latter part of the 19th century three leading Theosophists, Blavatsky, Olcott, and Annie Beasant, made a powerful impact on Buddhist and nationalist movements in Ceylon. They were critical of "Western civilization, its materialism, and the claims of western science as the path to progress". They were critical of Christian missionaries, and they undermined the Christian missionary claim to superior wisdom and modern thinking. "The most popular theme of their public lectures was the spiritual superiority of oriental civilization, its ancient wisdom, as opposed to Western materialism. Theosophists played an important role in the revival and establishment of Buddhist educational institutions, especially in English. By the early 20th century, there was also a demand for political reforms and lay Buddhists and lay Christians, both belonging to a Westernized English speaking elite joined hands in these movements.


These last two chapters in cultural history raise many intriguing questions which are relevant to current debates in Sri Lanka on the role of the State in safeguarding Buddhism. The British in its 150 year rule gave pride of place to the Christian Anglican religion. In the end, they left about 100,000 Anglicans in Sri Lanka, about 1% of the population. Once they were politically powerful, but that has diminished. With all the help that a British colonial government could give, there were only a small minority which converted to Christianity. One conclusion is that the state’s role in religion can only be peripheral. The protection of Buddhism cannot be done by the state. It can be done only by the Buddhists themselves. Even when Buddhism was being persecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were great centers of resistance which protected Buddhism. They were nongovernmental.


One could argue that Buddhism thrived better until 1972, when Buddhism was not a state religion. Since 1972, although Buddhist activities have increased, the quality of Buddhist religious practice appears to have diminished. With the state taking over the role of protecting Buddhism, the governments of the day have exploited Buddhism for their own ends and it can even be argued that religious rituals and Mahayanic practices are endangering the practice of Theravada Buddhism. This volume should be extensively read and discussed to identify a future role for lay Buddhists and the clergy to safeguard Buddhism, without allowing governments of the day to manipulate Buddhism for their own partisan ends.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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