Saturday, May 23, 2015

Today is Independence Day!

43 years is a long time. Two, maybe three generations can pass through them. There are memories that come alive and others that do not, for reasons that are all too obvious. There are promises made and broken. That's normal. The life of a country, after all, is longer than 43 years, and while a lot can happen during that time, we remember very little and forget the rest.

We got independence in 1948. I say "got" because, in the opinion of many commentators qualified and unqualified, it was dished to us. The reason isn't hard to see.

As Kumari Jayawardena observes in her excellent book Nobodies to Somebodies, it was a ruling class that got to control our destiny. This class had been sponsored by the same country that had subjugated us. Selectively, then, they began grooming their successors, ensuring that independence would remain their prerogative, theirs to keep and to remove. That's what robbed "independence" of its full meaning. From us.

We won that independence in 1972. I say "won" because, again in the opinion of those qualified and unqualified, a new generation that had "seen" 1948 for what it was were dissatisfied. The Soulbury Commission, which had drafted the 1948 Constitution, didn't fully reflect what the people wanted. What they wanted was "freedom", obviously, but what this document gave was a country where key sectors, including the Central Bank, were headed by foreigners.

The Constitution needed to be overhauled, hence. It took time. Inevitably.

Were there reasons for this delay? So many, in fact. A Constitutional Revolution doesn't happen overnight. Factors need to come together. And in 1972, the year we became a Republic, it so happened that they did.

Between 1948 and 1955, the might of the United National Party was beyond question. They were the rulers, comprising both "nobodies" and "somebodies". They held sway over practically every sphere in our country, submitted to by the people in the absence of any organised opposition. The Marxists were in disarray. The road seemed clear. For now.

1956 changed all that. For the first time, the UNP was challenged by a candidate who not only had the proper backing but was shrewd enough to distill action from word. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, as Professor Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara have pointed out, essentially continued what Anagarika Dharmapala had begun: the search for roots. That search needed a political leader. A solid one. Bandaranaike fitted that role. Smoothly.

Other factors weighed in as well. The UNP, led by Sir John Kotelawala, was at its worst nadir. The media assaulted him and everything he stood for. 1956 proved that with the correct time, place, and media backing, the incumbent could be defeated. That's what happened when everything associated with Kotelawala was ridiculed and turned into Bandaranaike's favour.

The story didn't end here, of course. Bandaranaike was killed. His widow took over. Within four months, she gathered a coalition which, for 11 years, lead the country.

We remember Sirimavo Bandaranaike for what she achieved. There are also lesser things she did, remembered but best forgotten. But if I were asked which of them is remembered best, it will have to be May 22, 1972. That this day is shrugged off in favour of February 4 today is another story. For now, we celebrate it.

Promises are made. Some are kept, others broken. That's inevitable, hardly the preserve of politics or politicians. It so happened, hence, that a promise was made in 1972. We were promised "freedom". Which was what our first Republican Constitution gave us.

It began by removing those titles which had reminded us of our colonial past. The "Head of State" (the Queen of England) was no more. There were no "Governors", only a President and a Prime Minister.

More were to come. Sovereignty was (finally) vested with the people, exercised through a body
called the National State Assembly. The Privy Council was abolished. And, in perhaps the biggest break from the Soulbury Commission, a Constitutional Court was set up, to ensure that every national law would be subject to the "supreme law of the land", the Constitution.

There were other promises. Within a year, it began keeping them. It is for this that we remember the years 1970 to 1977. Now that it had removed any link with England, no decision made by the National State Assembly had to be approved by that country. There were no "Throne Speeches". No "independence in name only". No more "Ceylon". Only "Sri Lanka".

Which is where we began to exercise freedom. A little too hastily.

Between 1970 and 1977, there were missed opportunities. In his haste to reform anything and everything, N. M. Perera (our Finance Minister) nationalised. The 1972 land reforms, it has been noted, were a response to the 1971 insurrection, which had questioned the United Front government's "socialist" tag. Taken away by the need to validate themselves, the government began controlling the economy. In the end, though that didn't figure in their defeat, it alienated a community that had elected them.

There were problems with the Constitution itself. While it promised political and civic rights, it also sanctioned their restriction. While it empowered the Tamil language, as the years went by it alienated those who spoke it. It exercised the powers of all three state organs - the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary - through the National State Assembly, doing away with any separation of powers. Soon enough, cracks began to appear. By then, however, there was no turning back.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Sunil Ariyaratne wrote a song in 1972. The song, "Api Okkoma Rajawaru", celebrates independence. It refers to the sovereignty that year gave us. Whether we got to keep that sovereignty is another story. For another time. For now, what matters is that we sing that song. Everyday. We sing it and we come together. We recite those lyrics and remember one day, a long time ago, in a different place. And we are happy.

That day is forgotten, however. A friend of mine explained how. This is what he said:

"Today should be a holiday in Sri Lanka. Yes. Today is Republic Day. On May 22, 1972, Ceylon became a Republic, named Sri Lanka. The Republican Constitution was passed at Navarangahala, located inside Royal College, Colombo. Then they unveiled a plaque near the Navarangahala to remember the event. But no one in Royal, no one in Parliament, no one in the public remembers that on a day like today we shed our last links with the Throne in London. Is this our colonial mindset? Over to you to decide."

Apt, I should think. Apt all the way.