Why must Lankans celebrate an Independence Day at all?View(s):
- Why not declare February 4th ‘Celebration Day’ to celebrate Lanka’s feats and glories,
its resilient spirit, its multi-cultural and religious history of 2523 years
If anyone had any cause to celebrate independence from the gutter this year, it may have only been the 588 prisoners, freed on a special presidential amnesty last Saturday, who may have found good enough reason to raise a toast to fete their sudden freedom on February 4th.
And, as for the grand independence celebrations at the Galle Face Green, didn’t it smack more of the formal inauguration of the Parliamentary elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe than anything else? Where the word Independence Day was not even mentioned but left to be assumed? If not for TV announcers giving a VIP arrival-by-arrival commentary and reminding viewers it was for the 75th independence celebrations, none would have had the foggiest what the fuss was about.
The four former presidents still alive, traditionally invited to the Independence Day bash, were conspicuous by their absence as if their presence would have diminished the splendour of the new dawned Ranil era.
It was only in the inaugural address via radio and TV, given after the Galle Face Green event was long over, where reference was made to independence day; and, that, too, only for the President to make clear at the start of his speech, ‘Today I will not be delivering a traditional Independence Day statement. I am not going to dwell on the freedom we gained.’
Instead it dwelt on the miracles the Ranil era would create 25 years hence, dedicated to making ‘our country one of the most developed in the world by 2048, when we will celebrate 100 years of independence’.
But words alone will not suffice to clean the Aegean stables which have to be cleaned first for a ‘most developed’ nation to take residence even in the mews in 2048. Dreams need effort and tools, the will and means to realise. Or they end up as fantasies.
Two days after the Rs. 200 million extravaganza to show the world – as the president said – ‘we can still celebrate’, Bangladesh handed in her note demanding the return, within five months, her emergency loan of USD 250 million, perhaps, to make us show the world we also can still pay our debts. Even small ones.
From the uplands of dreams where fantasies appear real, perhaps, this rude reawakening served to bring the government down to earth with a thud. Had the gala celebration sent the wrong signal to foreign lenders?
The gala bash certainly left the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Momen, who was present at the event, sufficiently impressed. After returning to Dhaka, he told reporters on Tuesday, ‘Sri Lanka is gradually doing better’; and, perhaps, thought it best to stake their claim for a cut of the meat.
However, the President’s Office on Tuesday attempted to turn the 200 million buck celebration bash into a mere cheapskate affair by claiming that only a miserly Rs. 11 million had been spent on the national event.
It blamed social media for spreading false news that huge sums had been spent on the event and said: ‘Clearly, their aim is to mislead the people through false information. They even attempted to convince people that even providing mobile toilets during the Independence Day celebration was a mistake.’
To convince the public that the President’s Media Office had done its homework thoroughly and calculated the sum spent to the last cent, including, perhaps, the cost of the last flush in the mobile toilets on the Green, it presented the exact final figure: Rs. 11,130,011 and cents 29. The only question that has to be asked is whether it also accounts the cost of lost revenue to the state by the Government’s decision to allow the people, on Independence Day, free entry to the Zoo to see monkeys at play and watch the only lions in Lanka at rest?
But in what realm of fantasy had social media – the scapeherd to pile political sins – voyaged to concoct such a massive 200 million figure when, in reality, no responsible government would spend so absurd an amount to showcase a failed state with its people denied three square meals as promised?
Surprisingly the authority came from the Government itself, right from the Prime Minister’s Home Ministry. Its State Minister Asoka Priyantha announced on January 13 that Rs 200 million will be spent on the celebrations. He said, an estimate was given for Rs. 575m was cut to Rs. 200m. Earlier, on January 11, the Home Ministry Secretary Hapuhinna told the Morning newspaper that ‘A sum of Rs. 200 million has been allocated for the celebration to be held at Galle Face on February 4th’.
But the bigger question that the nation must ask itself is not how much was spent on independence celebrations but whether independence from the British Raj should be celebrated at all.
For how long more are we to celebrate the day we received this parting present on a platter from the British when they set sail from India where their tenacious grip on the crowning jewel of their colonial Empire had crumbled in the dust before Gandhi’s staff of nonviolence?
Sri Lanka boasts a proud record of an unbroken history of 2500 years. Its ancient city of Anuradhapura remained the capital of Lanka for well over 1500 years, possibly the only capital in the world to have lasted so long.
From the time of its first king, Pandukabaya, in 474BC to the last days of the reign of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe in 1815, no foreign invader had ever succeeded in conquering the island whole. The southern Indian invader Elara ruled over northern Lanka with Anuradhapura as his capital seat for fifty years but the south remained the province of the Sinhala kingdoms.
Even after the Chola invasion had resulted in the fall of Anuradhapura and the flight of the Sinhala Kingdom to Polonnaruwa in 1017AD; even after the Cholas had subsequently captured Polonnaruwa, too, and declared it their capital; a prince from the royal bloodline, Vijayabahu, rose from the southern Sinhala kingdom of Ruhuna, to wage war and defeat the Chola occupier in 1070AD; and, like another king, King Dutugamunu, had done 1216 years before him in Anuradhapura, unified the island once more under the Sinhala banner. Later invasions drove the kingdom further South.
Both Portuguese and Dutch rule in the 16th and 17th centuries were solely confined to the coastal provinces. Dutch rule formally ended when they ceded the maritime areas they controlled to the British in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens.
Though the British held it as one of her crown colonies, it took a further 13 years to make the incomplete conquest complete. A British attempt to invade Senkadagala, the last stronghold of the Sinhalese, and capture the Sinhala kingdom of Kandy, was bloodily repulsed.
The heavily fortified mountainous terrain was forbidding, the winding route to the hill capital was kept a closely guarded secret, the zeal of the defenders to protect the kingdom and the Temple of the sacred Dalada was so fervent: all three combined to make military conquest a near impossibility.
A despairing British, after many failed invasion bids, resorted to cunning and subterfuge to make inroads to the very heart of the kingdom’s court, aided by the betrayal of some Kandyan chieftains who had fallen out with their king and were conspiring to oust him. They invited the British to Kandy and helped the foreign invader to seal forever the fate of their king, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe.
But it was no cakewalk for the British, no simple walkover, no easy surrender. Before the Kandyan flag was hurled down from the mast pole on 2nd March 1815 for the Union Jack to fly, the British had to guarantee by treaty Buddhism’s inviolability and that its rights will be maintained and protected, along with certain other conditions, including the administration of justice according to established norms and customs of the country.
In return, Kandyan Chieftains, in the absence of their king whom they had deposed, agreed to vest dominion of the territory in the sovereign of the British Empire. The treaty known as the Kandyan Convention was signed by Governor Sir Robert Browning for the Crown and by 5 Kandyan Chiefs, somewhat dubiously for the kingdom. Could a band of rebels represent the sovereign whom they held prisoner? As for Britain, where military might had failed, she had stooped to conquer.
But why were the British so keen to stamp its footprint over all of Lanka, long before they discovered its rich resources? Did their real interest lie in their vast ambition to expand their Empire? Was the island only a pebble stone to step on to ascend the banks of India?
British ships, driven by trade winds, had first landed in India in 1608 and, though their rule in India did not begin till 1858, their designs on laying eventual claim to the subcontinent’s vast treasures were evidently clear when, in 1796, fearing the Dutch will fall under the French during the French Revolutionary Wars that had begun in 1792, the British occupied Dutch held coastal areas of Lanka.
In 1802, the Treaty of Amiens was signed by France and Britain to end hostilities. By this treaty, both states renounced their most recent conquests but Britain kept Lanka, considering, perhaps, the strategic value of the island to its ultimate Indian design.
When British rule in India ended in 1947, Lanka, perhaps, lost its strategic importance to the British. They gave independence to the islanders on February 4th 1948 and left. It had been good whilst it lasted. But with the loss of their crown jewel that was India, Lanka had lost its sheen. Even if there had been some value left, fighting a World War had rendered Britain, too weak to brave the howling winds of change blowing throughout the world, crying for freedom from Britain’s yolk.
In Lanka’s long and proud recorded history of 2523 years to date, a 133-year eclipse of the sun, is but a blip in time, a fleeting aberration in the unconquered island’s chequered history. The transient occupation for 133 years by an alien force is only 5 percent of the recorded 2523-year life of the islanders.
But instead of celebrating the collective resilient spirit of the people who resisted every attempt by invaders to extinguish the native sovereign fire from all corners of the island, till the British snuffed it by guile and stratagem, we hold annual requiems for this one cloud that temporarily darkened our history’s landscape, and, unwittingly flaunting this badge of shame, celebrate with pride the day we received independence from the British Raj as a parting gift, holding the day as the hallowed date of modern Sri Lanka’s birth, as if the nation had no life before.
Let other nations that celebrate independence, do so if they wish. We do not have to follow suit. Other nations may have their own reasons. But let it not be forgotten that why most nations in the Third World celebrate independence is because it affords the current Head of State or Government to showcase himself or herself as the symbol of a united state. The political mileage to be extracted from this propaganda exercise is immense, the more lavish the ceremony, the greater the mileage.
The masses, including Lankans, have long been conditioned to believe in the Independence Day frenzy as an expression of patriotic fervour and gladly join the revelry. As Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said last month: ‘A country that cannot celebrate independence, has no future’. Even after celebrating 75 years of independence, alas, many see no future at all and, disillusioned, seek a life abroad.
Last Saturday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe declared his intention to make Lanka ‘a developed nation in 2048 when we celebrate 100 years of independence.’
For how long are we to celebrate independence? For a further 100 years? To celebrate, ad nauseam, the day we received deliverance from a sordid but brief phase in our history, where, for the first and only time, the entire nation was subjugated and her people harnessed to an alien plough? Can we find no better reason to celebrate in the island’s annals than to religiously wallow in the same mire of shame, year after year?
Can we not see the splendour that was Polonnaruwa or fathom the glory that was Anuradhapura?
Or marvel at the wondrous feats of the ancient people? Stand rooted in awe at their genius in the fields of architecture, engineering, irrigation, and art that created the high-rising stupas that rivalled Giza’s pyramids, ingenious canal systems that made Lanka ‘granary of the East’, sculptures and intricate carvings in stone, murals on temple walls and the alluring frescoes that matched those in Ajanta’s caves and Kasyapa’s palace atop Sigiri rock that still mystifies world archaeologists?
And pay special gratitude to our forefathers, both laity and monks, for preserving Theravada Buddhism in its pristine form for as long as they could, and learning, from the tolerance shown to all races and creeds in an island where all four religions of the world still exist, the wisdom of living in harmony.
We can certainly find in these and other facets in the colourful kaleidoscope of Lankan life, many reasons to celebrate Lanka’s rich heritage.
Why not rename February 4th as National Celebration Day, and, in celebrating the myriad wonders of Lanka, gain inspiration from the past to forge anew a better future for Lanka.
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