Thursday, January 8, 2015

The true legacy of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike

People leave behind legacies. They leave behind memories. And they are remembered. But when legacies are misunderstood and memories bitter, we remember them for all the wrong reasons. Typical.

That is why they are vilified. That is why those who vilify them have an axe to grind with what they stood for. Because those they vilify tried to crush the very same interests they stood for.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was born 116 years ago. His legacy has survived. It has been preserved. Books, essays, articles, even thesis papers, have been written on him. People from whatever field or background have tried to analyse what he stood for. They have failed. Why?

For one thing, they haven't come close to a real answer. This isn't because Bandaranaike was too enigmatic a politician to be analysed. This is because historians often misunderstand him.

He was not the nationalist most people have cut him out to be, for one thing. Acquiring an identity and standing for it can't be done overnight. Bandaranaike tried to do that. Some say it worked, others say it didn't. As Kumari Jayawardena has argued in her seminal book Nobodies to Somebodies, the British, more than the Portuguese or the Dutch, tutored a separate class of people to serve their ends. Changing identity, therefore, meant changing over a hundred years of insulation from the country you grew up in.

Jayawardena has also noted that while the British championed capitalism as a free-for-all system here, it needed to thrive on a contorted form of feudalism that gave life to that same class. Tissa Abeysekara called this the "Macaulayan experiment", after the historian Thomas B. Macaulay.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was born into this class. His father, Sir Solomon Dias, was (as Jayawardena notes) among the staunchest supporters of British dominion. He hence came from a family that got to dominate our political landscape courtesy of the British. That is why Bandaranaike needed an identity-shift. Perhaps this was what he had in mind when, upon his return to Veyangoda from Oxford, he addressed those who garlanded him:

Owing to my long absence from my country, I am not sufficiently fluent in Sinhalese to address you in Sinhalese at length. That is a fault that can easily be remedied. What is more important is that my heart should be sound. And I can assure you that my heart is Sinhalese to the core.

When the Sinhala Maha Sabha was formed in 1934, Bandaranaike asserted again and again that it was not catered to one race or community. He tried two things here. One was to unite the Sinhalese. Another was to win the confidence of other communities. To a large extent, he achieved the first. Whether this was enough to achieve the second is another story. For another time.

Following independence, the Sri Lankan state refused to mix race and politics. Bandaranaike wanted a different order. He was adamant with "Sinhala Only". Few underestimated his ability at turning word into act and ideology into mass movement. The 1956 election, which he won, was one of the rarest instances of a legatee of colonial power democratically giving way to a "native" successor.

There were achievements during his time. He tried to go beyond what we got in 1948. He nationalised. Took over industries. Revived the Buddhist order. Preserved cultural sites. And championed the Non-Aligned Movement. "We are committed to the hilt," he said. He tried to steer the country into middle territory, not just with international affairs but with national policies as well.

There were other achievements. Education. Health. Trade unionism. Katunayake. He oversaw the biggest cultural renaissance this country saw after independence. It was in 1956 that Martin Wickramasinghe wrote Viragaya, Ediriweera Sarachchandra staged Maname, Lester James Peries filmed Rekava, and Chitrasena staged Kidurangana. As Regi Siriwardena has observed in his essay "Maname, Rekava, and 1956", while these works of art did not reflect the larger sociopolitical landscape, they followed the impulses of a country that opted for change that year.

Some time back, a friend of mine told me something about icons. They are remembered, he claimed, for what they didn't complete. True, I countered, but "didn't complete" presupposes that there was something to complete in the first place. We condemn those who complete halfway through. But we never ask whether we can take over from what was never finished.

Bandaranaike envisioned a new order. He was a statesman. More than just a politician. Nalin de Silva has written that while 1956 was a collective "demand" which Sri Lanka made, it needed a political figure. A leader. That was Bandaranaike. Professor Nalin has also written that there were other names that year. Names that oversaw change. Names forgotten today.

There is one name that stays, however. Professor Nalin has claimed that it wasn't the most important. I don't know. The legacy that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike left behind has stayed with us. Nearly 60 years after he became Prime Minister, are we all the better, as a nation still searching for its roots? I wish I knew. He has been described as an opportunist by some. His biographer, James Manor, calls him an "expedient utopian."

I can't judge him. None of us can. He left behind memory. That memory consumed him in the end. It also consumed us when we misunderstood what he stood for and went on a rampage. But I know one thing. These are turbulent days. Angry days. Among those icons we celebrate today, we can spot out one name that stands apart. From the rest. He is S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. One misunderstood icon. For them all.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 8 2015