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.