CHOGM 2013: Anglo-Indo-Lanka ties and tangles from DS Senanayake to Mahinda Rajapaksa


Rajan Philips

DS Senanayake’s foreign policy was simple and straightforward even though Dr NM Perera poured scorn on it as: "Anglo mania and India phobia". This controversial starting point of independent Ceylon’s foreign policy reflected the political dominance of a certain worldview espoused by DS Senanayake and his UNP government in contrast to the alternative thesis advanced by the island’s political Left. There were other considerations in between, especially the political relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Overall, the conflicting attitudes to Anglos (or the West in general) and India at the political level were influenced by domestic political differences arising from their respective social bases and ideological biases, as well as the egotistical impulses of individual leaders. The relative dominance of these attitudes in domestic politics has shaped the twists and turns in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since independence.

Starting with "Anglo mania and India phobia" under DS Senanyake, steered along the non-alignment road by the Bandaranaikes, and reversed abruptly and then turned sharply into a ‘game-changing’ agreement with India by JR Jayewardene, Lanka’s foreign policy attitudes have been veering towards "Chinamania and Anglo-Indo phobia" under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet, the country not only cannot cut itself loose from either the West or from India, but also does not want to sever those connections. Therein is the dilemma for Sri Lanka despite establishing numerous independent connections with other countries and nations from China to Russia to Cuba over the last 60 years. The hosting of the 2013 Commonwealth summit brings into sharp focus how this dilemma has been playing out in Sri Lankan politics from the Premiership of DS Senanayake to the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And Commonwealth is the one forum where, despite the organization’s growing irrelevance in the world, Sri Lanka’s present and its future come to terms with its colonial past and its geographical reality at the same time.

Jungle John and Oxford Solomon

Don Stephen Senanayake’s world view and pro-western tilt were a direct colonial inheritance that had tied up Sri Lanka’s trade and economy, as well as higher education and elite mobility to good old Britain. His ‘anti-Indianism’ in foreign policy was partly colonial legacy that had separated the administration of the island from that of the subcontinent, partly native prejudices, and partly the political agenda to deny citizenship to immigrant Indian workers and to malign the Left as Indian agents. This is not to deny the obvious admiration that most Sri Lankan political leaders, including DS Senanayake and others in the UNP, would have had for the Indian independence movement and its frontline leaders. Nor was DS Senanayake subservient to British officialdom. In fact he began his political life rebelling against British officialdom. In the end, he proved to be the safest vehicle for an orderly transfer of power while averting political agitation. DS Senanayake was not anti-imperialistic but that did not make him unpatriotic. True to becoming father of the budding nation with British blessing, and its first Prime Minister (1947-52), he saw the future of Sri Lanka unfolding prosperously in the shadow of the old empire.

Others, especially the Left, saw it differently. But the alternative foreign policy thrust would arise not from the Left but from SWRD Bandaranaike after he defected from the UNP and founded the SLFP. However, it would be farfetched to attribute the foreign policy differences between DS Senanayake and the UNP, on the one hand, and SWRD Bandaranaike and the Left on the other, to the difference between a supposedly dichotomous Western view of things and a contrastingly unifying Eastern vision. That is the thesis Rajiva Wijesinha appears to have delivered in a conference in distant Rio de Janeiro, embellishing it as well with the mango tree riddle that the great Mahinda Thera posed to King Tissa to test the King’s cerebral readiness for conversion. When sociological explanations are not elaborating the obvious, they end up missing the obvious. This is a case in point. To cut to the chase, in comparison to his political rivals, DS Senanayake, the celebrated Jungle John, was the quintessential rustic and a lifelong Buddhist, but who instinctively separated his personal faith from his political role. The others were mostly either ‘Ox-bridge purists or London practicals’, to modify Dr Colvin’s swipe at SWRD. The explanations for the differences among them, and there is quite a range of them, are best found in the political circumstances surrounding them as well as the personal characteristics and quirks of individual actors. There has been quite a range of actors too – DS, Dudley, Sir John, SWRD, Mrs. B, JRJ, Premadasa, and now Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was far more the child of colonial comfort and upbringing than DS Senanayake ever was. He was the most westernized political leader in Sri Lankan history. He was also more subservient to officialdom during the colonial rule than DS Senanayake. And unlike the latter, SWRD, Anglican by birth and upbringing, realigned his faith to be in conformity with his political role. But once he cut himself loose from the UNP and DS Senanayake, Bandaranaike was able to bring his intellectual abilities to envisage new directions for Sri Lankan foreign policy. As Prime Minister (1956-59), he was in ready agreement with the concept of and the movement for non-alignment among emerging countries articulated and spearheaded by Nehru, Nasser and Tito, the founding fathers of non-alignment. He also set in motion the process of diversifying Sri Lanka’s external contacts by starting to establish diplomatic ties with communist countries. He ordered the closure of British air and naval bases in the island and steered its foreign policy towards non-alignment. However, non-alignment for SWRD did not mean the severance of Sri Lanka’s ties with Britain or the West. He held in high regard the educational links that Sri Lanka had developed with Britain and even personally intervened to help gifted students obtain funds to pursue their studies in Britain. One such beneficiary was Lalith Athulathmudali. SWRD also authorized Sir John Kotelawala, his defeated rival, to transfer private funds from Sri Lanka to buy a farm in England.

While not a foreign policy matter, it is instructive to note, in the current context of the Rajapaksa regime and its National Security paranoia, that one of the early actions taken by SWRD as Prime Minister was to disband the Public Security Department that had been set up by Prime Minister Kotelawala directly under his command to spy on opposition political parties and subvert their activities. Although beleaguered during his short tenure and ultimately murdered by sociopolitical miscreants, SWRD Bandaranaike innovatively tried to create a free and fair playing field for parliamentary politics, a culture of tolerance for political dissent, and respect for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. There have also been suggestions that he was planning to retire after his first term and to that end he was working towards a coalition with the Left Parties under a different SLFP leader. As a true democrat he was not thinking of extending his term but he was planning a proper democratic succession that would certainly not have included any one from his family. He had neither patience nor tolerance for family bandyism. The participants at the Commonwealth summit must know that democratic traditions have been taking root in Sri Lanka in the past but they are now being uprooted and discarded by none other than the host government at the summit.

China’s shadow

After his untimely death, non-alignment became a cherished Bandaranaike principle in foreign policy for the SLFP governments of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1960-64 and 1970-77). The SLFP governments also forged new economic and educational ties with East European countries. But these ties were motivated more by ideological inspirations than trade or economic considerations, and the resulting industrial corporations established in Sri Lanka with Soviet assistance all ended in failure within their first 25 years. Soviet educational ties have also disappeared after the collapse of the socialist second world.

In contrast and ironically under a UNP government, Sri Lanka signed the highly beneficial Rubber-Rice Pact with China in 1952. Although the pact was a perfect outcome in the prevailing global circumstances, the pact itself was not the result of any shift in the UNP’s foreign policy or new trade strategies at that time, but the result of its egotistical championing by the then Trade Minister, Richard Gotabhaya (RG) Senanayake, to humiliate the then Finance Minister, Junius Richard Jayewardene, who was known for his pro-American views and was dubbed by the Left as Lanka’s "Yankee Dickie". RG was the maverick scion of the Senanayake clan and a bitter rival of JR Jayewardene, and both were Ministers in the short-lived(1952-53) government of Dudley Senanayake. In the byzantine world of the old UNP, RG Senanayake was a paternal cousin of Dudley Senanayake and a marital kinsman of JR Jayewardene, and to complete the loop RG’s younger sister was married to Dudley’s younger brother in a somewhat unusual parallel cousin marriage. Be that as it may.

In the 1960s, Mrs. Bandaranaike went further and started the tradition of inviting China to build political monuments in Sri Lanka starting with the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Centre (BMICH). The tradition has been immensely expanded under President Rajapaksa with a mixture soft Chinese munificence and hard infrastructure loans. In a manner of speaking, the 2013 Commonwealth summit will take place under China’s shadow in the Mahinda Rajapaksa Nelum Pokuna Auditorium in Colombo built by the Chinese government as a gift to President Rajapaksa. Although not the person for rhetorical flourishes like her husband, Mrs. Bandaranaike chose a state banquet in Beijing to deliver the celebrated broadside against the West, calling it the "rapacious West" to the delight of her speech writers. As Prime Minister, she spectacularly hosted the summit of the Non-Aligned countries in 1976, but the summit show could not save her government from being thoroughly routed in the election an year later, in 1977.

The paradox in the connection between foreign policy and domestic politics under SLFP governments was the relationship with India. While distancing themselves from the West and reaching out to China and Pakistan, the SLFP governments of the Bandaranaikes maintained a positive relationship with Indian government and a very cordial personal relationship with the Nehru family. But the special friendship with India did not stop the SLFP governments from appearing to side with China during the Sino-Indian border dispute and from overtly siding with Pakistan during India’s liberation of Bangladesh. Yet, for India’s part, Prime Minister Nehru sent Cardinal Valerian Gracias of Bombay to facilitate a settlement between the SLFP government and the local Catholics during the school takeover crisis; Lal Bahdur Shastri accepted the repatriation of half the upcountry Tamil population under the Sirima-Shastri Agreement; Indira Gandhi chose to forego whatever claim India could have asserted in regard to the islet of Kachchatheevu located between Jaffna and Tamil Nadu; and it was said anecdotally that during the 1971 JVP insurrection, the Indian Navy threw a protective cordon around Sri Lanka to prevent any outside intervention. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s exceptional act of cordiality during the Non-Aligned summit was inviting Indira Gandhi to stay at Temple Trees, the PM’s official residence, and herself moving to the family home at Rosmead Place in Colombo. Quite a contrast to the current Commonwealth summit, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh keeping Colombo guessing whether he would attend the summit or not.

Indo-Lanka Agreement

In contrast as well, the Sri Lankan Tamil question did not explode to the point of involving India directly in Sri Lankan affairs during the time of the Bandaranaikes as it did in subsequent years starting from President Jayewardene to the current situation under Prersident Rajapaksa. The language question, language-based discrimination in the hiring and promotion of public servants, repatriation of Tamil plantation workers, media-wise standardization in university admissions, and the constitutional overhaul in 1972 repudiating not only the informal communal compact underlying the Soulbury Constitution but also the formal pact between SWRD Bandaranaike and SJV Chelvanayakam (the pact that RG Senanayake described to his cousin Dudley as one that will leave the Bandaranaike name written in letters of gold in Lanka’s history!) – were all accomplished over two decades between 1956 and 1977 under Bandaranaike governments. But except for occasional expressions of concern from Madras (Chennai) elites, there was no formal reaction at the government level either in Chennai or in New Delhi. In fact, on repatriation and Kachchatheevu, Delhi gave the Sri Lankan government everything it asked for. But everything changed after 1977, and nothing has been the same. How so?


Continued on next week

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