Even as Lanka readies to celebrate 66 years of independence from the British Raj in nine days’ time, it is clear that 400 years and more of foreign domination have left the once proud Lankan spirit broken and her psyche irretrievably damaged. From the time the Portuguese landed on Lanka’s western shores, infighting among the [...]


Freedoms India won and Lanka squandered


Even as Lanka readies to celebrate 66 years of independence from the British Raj in nine days’ time, it is clear that 400 years and more of foreign domination have left the once proud Lankan spirit broken and her psyche irretrievably damaged.

From the time the Portuguese landed on Lanka’s western shores, infighting among the Sinhala kings brought about the invited intervention of the Portuguese. Rather than unite and fight against the common foe, Buvenekabahu of Kotte actually invited the invader to remain and sought his assistance to fight the internecine war with his brother Mayadunne of Sithawake. This enabled the Portuguese to gain a foot hold of the land and control of the Maritime Provinces.

The proud Lankan spirit

When the real motives of the Portuguese became clear, the Sinhalese, in the face of superior armour, did not fight their own battles but instead wooed the Dutch to do the dirty work for them. When that too had the opposite effect with the Dutch merely replacing the Portuguese, it was the turn of the British to be courted. Finally to solve the internal problems and get rid of the Tamil King of Kandy, the last kingdom of Senkadagala, fell, nay was handed over by the local chieftains to the British Raj lock, stock and barrel under a face-saving ploy of a treaty of sorts called the Kandyan Convention. To all sense and purposes, what was signed and won through it was the loss of Lanka’s sovereign independence.

That the Sinhala will to fight its own battles had been destroyed was revealed beyond doubt when at the beginning of the 20th century rather than launching Lanka’s own push for freedom it stood on the sidewalk and confined itself to gustily cheering the passage of the Indian bandwagon of independence, satisfying itself that by so doing from a safe distance, it had earned its reward of its own independence when the time came and India’s struggle for freedom triumphed. It became the guilt assuaging fashionable thing for the then Sinhala elite to do half heartedly to atone for the sins of their ancestors who had bartered their Buddhist beliefs for the alien Christian faith to obtain in return the vast privileges the British accorded to secure the loyalties of the narrow sect of turncoat locals.
While the local liberators rode their horses, played their polo and sipped their scotch at the few fancy gentlemen clubs reserved for the Upper Class Lankans styling themselves after their British masters in pliant fashion, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and other Indian leaders were languishing in bug ridden British jails in India for daring to take on the might of the British Empire armed only with the Buddha’s doctrine of ahimsa. Their heroic acts of great personal sacrifice earned India her independence. And today on the 67th year of the Republic of India she celebrates it by remembering the great non violent struggle made and honouring the memory of those Indian greats who made it possible.

Lanka, on the other hand, a mere bystander cheering the enthralling spectacle of India’s triumphant march to freedom, spearheaded by Gandhi, received her independence on a platter, almost as an afterthought by the British, the incidental fallout from British capitulation without a grapeshot fired, a rubber bullet wasted, a cartridge spent.

While India won her freedoms with blood, a notable instance being the Amritsar massacre where over a thousand of unarmed helpless Indians who had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh to stage a nonviolent protest were slaughtered on the orders of a British Brigadier General Dyer who commanded his troops to shoot till the ammunition was exhausted which shocked the world and made the British finally relent in holding onto their prized possession; and while Gandhi and Congress leaders flitted in and out of jail for repeatedly defying the ban on protest marches, Lankan national leaders were rounded up and briefly held only once and that too not out of participating in any independence protest but on suspicion, following the Sinhala-Muslim riots in 1915, that there was a plot to overthrow the government when there was none. India suffered the brunt of imperialistic fury while Lanka savoured its fruits in comfort, with our freedom being born in India’s pain. That was Lanka’s blessing. It was also Lanka’s curse. For we did not appreciate the value of the freedom achieved, gratis.

As a tribute to the man who delivered us from our colonial captive chains, the statue that should take pride of place at Independence Square in Colombo today should be that of the loin cloth clad Mohandas Gandhi, the true Founding Patron Of Modern Independent Lanka and not that of the western attired, full suited Don Stephen Senanayake who, merely because he was the founding father of the UNP in 1946 and became the UNP prime minister in 1948, 66 years ago, is hailed as the Father of the Nation — father of a nation that proudly boasts of a recorded history of over two thousand years.

For the relative trouble free amiable role played by the Lankan leaders in the saga of independence, the British offered D. S. Senanayake a knighthood which, to his credit, he admirably refused. Gandhi, who wrested the Jewel of India from the British crown and made Britain quit the region, was never offered one. This response alone reveals how independence was won by the two countries. To India, the British surrendered it. To Lanka, the British gifted it.

And what did the Lankans do with the freedoms so easily won and won with a mollycoddled mentality not politically mature enough to handle its responsibilities and know how to deal with the varied problems of a multi-cultural society? Immediately after becoming masters of our own destiny we indulged in the freedom of the wild ass and thus spawned a generation of acrimony between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the price for which we are still paying.

Sixty-six years later we have used our freedom to be far worse off than we were under the colonial yoke. But that alas is the fate that befalls all rights won without effort. Rights then become taken for granted and any attack on them are ignored and let to recur until the damage inflicted is beyond repair. The Lankans, so long used to depending on and naively expecting others to draw the chestnuts from the coals for them, have become the spendthrifts of their freedoms and to squander it have given them a curious masochist joy in the belief that one day in this thrice blessed land a fairy god mother or godfather will come and restore what we have so recklessly expended.

Take the Magna Carta in England or the Bill of Rights in America. Those rights were not handed over to armchair activists but fought for and won on the field and paid for in blood. Thus it is why generations of Englishmen and American still treasure it and, urged by the spirit that moved their ancestors still coursing in their veins, are moved to safeguard their sacred rights at the slightest whiff of an assault on it by their respective governments.

It is the same with India where fundamental freedoms are zealously guarded with almost religious fervour with an untrammeled independent media acting as the ferocious watchdogs of the people’s interest which has made India not only the most populous democracy in the world but also the most vibrant; whereas, sad to say, the Lankans have slept or have feigned sleep while their fundamental freedoms, though enshrined in the Constitution, have been steadily eroded in practice by successive governments with hardly a whimper of protest by the masses.

Beatings taken lying down have only increased in frequency and in force so much so that even the most basic rights of an individual, the right to freedom of worship, the right to hold a religion, the right to adopt a religion of his choice, the right to pray in public or in private enjoying the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association, the right to expound one’s religious beliefs under the right to freedom of expression remain entrenched in the statute book but are violated openly by private gangs with the use of violence while the law enforcement authorities turn a blind eye as was evidenced by last fortnight’s attack on two Christian churches in Galle.

The only freedoms that seem to have been won by the locals throughout these past 66 years are the freedom to be corrupt, the freedom to be bribed, the freedom to abuse power, the freedom to crackdown on enemies, the freedom to attack minority religious places of worship without reprisals, the freedom to besmirch Buddhism in the name of patriotism, the freedom to sell drugs with powerful political patronage, the freedom from the due process of law, the freedom to remain silent and the freedom to vote to perpetuate these freedoms.

‘No repentance’ UNP whip gets party lashThe Chief Whip of the UNP and UPFA foreign travel sidekick John Ameratunge who invited himself to a free visit at public expense to tour Palestine, Jordan and Israel with the Presidential delegation has been given a proper lashing by his party members of the UNP Parliamentary Group which decided last Tuesday at the request of the party leader to issue a travel ban on all UNP MPs from flying with the Government in the future.

Ameratunge’s flying wings were clipped following his return home from the Holy Land when he brazenly declared that he found nothing wrong with his sojourn abroad as a guest of the Government.

Evidently, he saw no conflict of interest between the position he holds in the UNP as that of the party’s chief disciplinarian wielding the power to impose punishment on any truant MP who shows the first sign of straying into the opposite UPFA camp and himself soliciting favours from the government for a foreign freebie Presidential Class courtesy of the government, paid by the public. (See Sunday Punch of 12th h January 2014)

The fact that there is nothing called a free lunch or a free foreign ride and that the gracious grant by the President of his prostrate plea to kneel in private prayer in Bethlehem’s Nativity Church in Israel, came with strings of gratitude attached for solicited favors rendered holding him a prisoner of the Government’s largesse, seemed not to have rubbed on him nor troubled his conscious having sold his soul for a junket.
On the contrary, his penchant for foreign travel at public expense prostituting his position in the UNP seems to have increased, the travel bug appears to have bitten deep and, instead of begging the public’s pardon for the private squander of the public purse, he has the temerity to declare that he is “willing, if invited, to join the Government delegation to Geneva” in March.

To do what? With the Government brief at the conference carried by the able Government Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, will it be Mr. Ameratunge’s role to carry the minister’s bags to justify his inclusion in the team? And if he thinks his presence would be taken by the international community as evidence of a unified government and opposition and would strengthen the government’s stance at the summit, he should not delude himself. The international community, like the local public, can spot a free rider on the gravy train a mile away.

As for Mr. Ameratunge’s vow that, despite his blatant hand in hand ties with the UPFA leadership, he has no intention of crossing over to the UPFA, why should he? If he is blessed by the UNP and indulged by the UPFA at his own groveling behest, why lick the dust when the best of both worlds is there to enjoy personally with the public paying for both?

Thus it is welcome that Ranil Wickremesinghe put the issue to his MPs for a decision resulting in the travel ban .Or else one flying UNP swallow would have heralded a summer feast of Opposition MPs’ flying frolics.

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