Monday, September 28, 2015

Reassessing S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike

Icons are loved and “loved”. They are also vilified. More commonly, history is coloured by those who insert political frill into it, and the line between statesmanship and power politics blurs. This means, naturally enough, that icons come with that proverbial pinch of salt, particularly from the political camp. 

Their lives are celebrated no matter what they are remembered for, and for good reason. Just as much as no politician’s imperfect, and just as much as we haven’t had anyone even remotely close to a statesman in this country, leaders who have come and gone are loved for what they did.

Whether what they did stand up to the test of history is another story. For now, this is what matters: they were not saints. Nor were the devils.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike is vilified by those who have a score to settle with what he ushered. He took in a nation filled with anxiety and fears and turned it (almost overnight) into a hub of divisive politics where, for the next few decades, rhetoric ruled reason. What those who lambast him (and not just for his “Sinhala Only” movement) fail to understand, however, is that inasmuch as a change of this sort cannot be effected overnight without negatively afflicting a nation, what he did went in a large way in addressing anomalies in our political system.

He was a reformist, yes, but that’s not what those who hate him want you to remember him for. Bandaranaike began wearing the satakaya, but those less prone to falling prey to appearances will tell you of how he chose not to wear the satakaya for anything other than his public life. They will also tell you (as James Manor has) of how he ate kiribath with a spoon. All pointless if one is to assess his merits as a leader of course, but then again detractors, however irrational they are, will have anything and everything to say about a man’s personal life to vilify his public face.

The point is that Bandaranaike was a contradiction. The point is that he was, like all men, flawed. The point is that, in trying to reverse the rational moderate policies of his predecessors, he effected a change so radical that there was no stopping it from deteriorating into a racist movement, led by those blind to what he really stood for. Which begs the question, naturally enough: what DID he stand for?

The late Tissa Abeysekara, perhaps one of the most insightful minds expressing itself in Sinhala and English here, had this to say about the dilemma which faced those who began contributing to our cultural landscape before and after independence:

“It is the problem of a segment of our society – the English-speaking upper middle-class, or perhaps also the landowning aristocracy – moving away from their roots. Hence when a creative spirit is born among them, he or she has to search frantically and deliberately for that anchorage in a social and cultural reality which alone could give his or her work life and vitality. Thus when Devar Surya Sena turned to Sinhala folk music, George Keyt settled in the Dumbara valley, Miriam de Saram risked the wrath of the gods by donning the headgear of the Kandyan dancer – an ornament exclusively preserved for the males – and Lester James Peries located his first film in a distant village, they were not accidents or idle exercises in aesthetics.”

Politics and art (especially here) are clean different. At some point though, they meet. What Abeysekara wrote of Lester James Peries and his Rekava can be applied to Bandaranaike and his satakaya. Like all those artists who attempted to wed their art with its roots while being cut off from the latter, Bandaranaike founded a nationalist movement while not only being cut off from his roots but also probably being aware that he was an outsider to the majority of his country, who happened to be Sinhala Buddhists.

Did he resolve this conflict within himself? He was, as pointed out earlier, a contradiction. He did not see the irony of standing for one ideology and contorting it for the sake of bowing down to popular pressure. He did not and could not see the tragedy of shaping and reshaping his personal life to suit that of a people who, in his time and after his murder, misinterpreted his actions.

And there the parallels between politics and art end: Miriam de Saram and Lester James Peries not just challenged the anglicised “upper crust” of Sri Lanka’s culture, but more importantly succeeded in this to such an extent that what proved divisive in politics after 1956 became inclusive in the arts. An irony, certainly, but inevitable in a way.

There’s more.

Leon Trotsky contended that the urbanised bourgeoisie of colonised countries could not fight and were not capable of fighting against imperialism. That this applied pretty much to the nouveau riche who were handed (in a silver platter) the mandate to win independence here is all too obvious. They were not just fundamentally tied to the economic interests that made them stand in solidarity with the British: they were also more content in passing British-led “reforms” while stalling the constitutional coup which was needed in 1948 to implement real independence.

Bandaranaike was not really from this nouveau riche: he was from the old aristocracy. As such it wasn’t a scion of capitalist enterprise that effected what transpired in 1956: it was a scion of the “Macaulayan aristocracy”, a “given” since he came from one of the oldest genteel families in the country. And considering that the Sinhala Buddhist movement which wanted 1956 went originally for Dudley Senanayake (who, not surprisingly, refused), it seems startling but veritable that 1956 needed Bandaranaike just as Bandaranaike needed 1956.

Few would bet, for instance, that his original vision (his idea for achieving parity for Sinhala and Tamil approximated to modern demands for devolution) was racist. Few would vilify him without vilifying the Buddhist clergy who squatted outside his residence and turned this into a country where leaders were regarded as instruments of expedience, to be contorted at the whims of the Buddha Sasana.

Not surprisingly then, 1956 was turned into a vehicle of political opportunism. Not by its leader, but by those who prostituted precept and confused nationalism with chauvinism.

That’s another story though.

History, Marx wrote, repeats itself. In the case of Bandaranaike however, one doubts whether it will. He remains the most unique leader we had, “unique” because of his background and of his ability to wield opposition against those who, for better or worse, continue to see him as the man who rebelled against class interests without realising that what the racist politics of post-1956 concealed, ironically, was the preservation of those same class interests in a subtle, more insidious form. Unbelievable? Not really.