Friday, January 31, 2014

Independence, free of charge

Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, was one of the earliest countries to have gained independence from the British Empire after the Second World War. In August 1947, British India gained independence, albeit as two nations, India and Pakistan. A month before Ceylon, Burma became an independent republic, and chose to remain outside the Commonwealth.

There is a strong perception that Ceylon did not achieve independence, but was presented with it. There is a strong element of truth in this perspective. Compared to the national struggle in India, Ceylonese national struggle was less intense and its early post independence leaders were pro-Western. In some aspects, it seemed a continuation of the British government.

There is a strong parallel in the national movements of India and Ceylon in the early stages. In both countries, the initial shock of subjugation created anti-British rebellions. Ceylon erupted in rebellion in 1817 and later in 1848. The freedom struggle at Wellassa was led by the former elite but it expressed the natural anti-British feelings of the population. The 1848 struggle was more a people’s rising. Similarly, soon after the final destruction of the Mughal Empire, India erupted in the Great Rebellion of 1857.

However, in both countries, once the initial uprisings were crushed, there was a period of dejection. It was followed by a new national movement, which emerged in the 1880s. The Buddhist Revival Movement in Ceylon and the formation of the Indian National Congress took place at this era. The national leaders of that time were more conciliatory and did not demand full independence. But, with the passage of time, Indian national leaders began to espouse independence while many Sri Lankan leaders were not demanding full independence. While some Indian leaders created the Swadeshi Movement, which basically promoted self-sufficiency, was the first major step towards the promotion of Swaraj, self-rule.

Independence Memorial Hall, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

In Ceylon, there emerged one major group which was strongly anti-British. They were the political left, initially rallied around the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. The young leaders of this party created anti-imperialist sentiment through grass root activities through the Labour Movement and initiatives such as Sooriyamal Movement. However, their activities were limited to a certain sector of society, mainly the urban working class and the plantations sector. Many of the other leaders of the national movement were Western educated new elite who espoused Western methods and ideas.

The success of the British policy in many of the former colonies was that they successfully created a new elite to take their place when they had to leave. Unlike the French in both Algeria and Indochina, the British generally left the colonies when they realized their time was up. Furthermore, by that time they had the new elite in place. In countries like Sri Lanka, the post independence governments followed the British policy (especially in foreign affairs) so closely that it was as if the old days of colonialism had not changed much. Therefore, it seemed as if independence was gifted by the British, rather than gained from them.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Panadura Wadaya (Panadura Debate), where History was Made

A debate can have a profound impact on the fate of a person or even a nation. One may recall the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which cost Lincoln the senate but opened his road to the White House. Therefore, these debates made a critical impact on the history of that nation.

Fifteen years after Lincoln and Douglas had their duel in far away Illinois, the small town of Panadura was to become the site of a landmark debate of British Ceylon. This was to have a profound impact on Ceylon, and then sections of the intelligentsia in United States and elsewhere and then once again in Ceylon. It marked the turning point in the revival of Buddhism in British Ceylon. The name “Panadura Wadaya” was to become known even in the Western world.

Panadura Wadaya (The Panadura Debate) was the culmination of a series of debates. However, some earlier debates were done in writing and very little details are available about some of the debates. Panadura Wadaya, being the first verbal battle of this magnitude, was bound to make a crucial impact if one side could claim victory.

The standard bearer of the Buddhist side in this debate was Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero. Born in a village near Balapitiya to a Buddhist family, he was close to a Roman Catholic priest in his young days and it is said that he even had the intention of becoming a Christian priest. Later he was associated with some Buddhist monks and ultimately became a Buddhist monk. His initial association with Christianity and later ‘conversion’ to Buddhism meant that he had extensive knowledge of both religions. He was strong in character as seen by his decision to move to Colombo after hearing the plight of the Buddhists in the city. As a debater, he was witty and eloquent and would not be intimidated easily.

Ven. Migettuwatte Gunanada Thero (1823-1890)

Panadura Wadaya was held on August 26 and 28, at the site where the Rankoth Vehera is located today in Panadura. Rev. David de Silva and Catechist S.F. Sirimanna represented the Christian side and Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero represented the Buddhist side. He was ably assisted by several other Buddhist monks and scholars. The debate revolved around topics ranged from the nature of God, the Soul and resurrection, and to the concepts of Karma, Rebirth, Nirvana and the principle of Paticcasamuppadaya (Principle of cause and effect).

The Panadura Wadaya had a phenomenal impact locally and internationally. It was a turning point in reviving the identity of the Sinhalese Buddhists. Also it came at a time when the Western world was soul searching. With the industrial revolution, science was taking big strides in the 19th century. Those who were disillusioned with the teachings of the church were searching alternative ideas. In Ceylon, ‘Ceylon Times’ editor John Cooper arranged for Edward Perera to write a summary of the debate. Thousands of copies of which were published. This translation was also published as a book, “Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face” by J.M. Peebles in United States with an introduction in 1878. It was after reading a copy of the book that Colonel Henry Steel Olcott decided to visit Ceylon. After his arrival, the Buddhist revivalist movement accelerated.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The First Tour de France

On July 1, 1903, sixty cyclists pedaled into history when they started the bicycle race which was to become the most celebrated annual event in world cycling. It was sponsored and organized by L'Auto, a French newspaper which was just three years into publishing and was facing a decrease in circulation. Initially, the race did not generate the interest it was expected to. Due to the small number of registered participants, the race had to be postponed for a month from June to July. However, in the end 79 cyclists registered for the whole race, with some more registering for individual stages.

It is ironical that the most famous cycling event in the world was born as an indirect result of the most infamous political crisis faced by the French Third Republic before the First World War. The Dreyfus Affair involved a Captain in the French Army, who was framed as a German spy. On top of it, this officer happened to be a Jew. This affair completely exposed the divisions, prejudices and injustices present in the supposedly liberal French society.

Pierre Giffard was a pioneer in modern political reporting and was a prolific sports organizer. He had organized several unique events including the Paris-Brest-Paris cycle race. In 1896, he became the editor of Le Vélo, a leading sports daily which also included political commentaries. He was a ‘Dreyfusard’ or a supporter of Dreyfus, while some of the sponsors of the paper were right-wing ‘anti-Dreyfusards.’ This division led the advertisers to move away and start their own newspaper, L'Auto-Velo, with Henri Desgrange as the editor.

There was direct ‘circulation warfare’ between the two papers. Le Vélo won a vital victory when it successfully challenged the similar name used by its rival. As a result L'Auto-Velo changed its name to L'Auto in early 1903. With a circulation of just a few thousand, it needed a huge circulation booster to survive, let alone win the circulation war with its rival.

At a crisis meeting, Geo Lefevre, who had joined the L'Auto from its rival Le Vélo, suggested organizing a six day tour covering all of France. The idea attracted the interest of the editor and the sponsors and in January 1903, the ‘Tour de France’ was announced. It was to be a six stage race, each stage much longer than today’s stages. Even though cycle races were common in France, this was much longer and more demanding. Only 15 cyclists had registered to participate in the race a week before the scheduled day, June 1. Therefore, the race was postponed by a month and the prize money increased. This attracted many more cyclists and at the end 79 competitors registered.

The First Tour de France in 1903. Wikimedia Commons.

The first stage from Paris to Lyon was won by Maurice Garin, who was able to maintain the lead with both skill and luck. He was lucky that his main rival Hippolyte Aucouturier could not complete the first stage due to health issues. Meanwhile, Emile Paige, who came just a minute after Garin in the first stage, was forced out of the race in the second stage due to a crash. With no real challenge afterwards, Garin finished comfortably ahead of Lucien Pothier to win the first ever Tour de France. His lead of 2 hours 59 minutes and 31 seconds is a record which still stands.

The Tour de France was a boon to L'Auto. Its special edition printed after the race sold more than 120,000 copies, exceeding the wildest dreams of the editors and sponsors. Its rise to fame was such that the once formidable rival Le Vélo went out of business in 1904. Pierre Giffard himself later joined the L'Auto. The Tour de France, meanwhile, became an annual event and grew into the most coveted event in cycling calendar. The latest edition which started on June 29, 2013, is its hundredth edition.