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This is my Nation


In the shadow of SWRD

In the five decades since the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who first espoused the nationalistic ethos successfully in post-independent Sri Lanka, the country has taken vast strides but has also been through terrible turmoil. To place this in the historical context of the 1956 ‘revolution’ ushered by SWRD, though SWRD was opportunistic enough to pursue a nationalist, pro-majority community line, had he not been assassinated, he would have tried his utmost to find an equitable solution to the grievances of all communities in the country. Ironically, it is the same challenge that awaits President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the end of ‘Eelam War IV’. The battle to win the hearts and minds of the minorities and thereby win the peace. Given the pressures exerted by the international community and certain vested interests, it is a bigger challenge for President Rajapaksa. Although the Bandaranaike dynasty within the SLFP has ended, the policies and the ideals that SWRD pursued are alive, and the SLFP itself in a state of robust political health, perhaps the best tribute to the man who charted Sri Lankan politics into a new terrain

Fifty years ago yesterday, independent Sri Lanka’s fourth Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (SWRD) Bandaranaike was assassinated. In that half-a-century, the country has taken vast strides, but has also been through terrible turmoil, and this is an opportune moment as any, to assess the impact of SWRD, his legacy to the nation and the role of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), in the five decades that has elapsed since his demise.

SWRD it was who first espoused the nationalistic ethos successfully in post-independent Sri Lanka. He belonged to an elitist and aristocratic family, with all the trappings that ensconced him as the local version of a Pukka Sahib in a newly independent country. Obviously, he fitted in well with the major political force of the day, the United National Party (UNP).

Cynics would argue that, had he been given the mantle of leadership of the UNP after D.S. Senanayake or Dudley Senanayake, he would have remained in the UNP and masqueraded as the archetypal ‘Kalu Sudda’. But he was not, and being the keen student of politics that he was, he sensed an opportunity to make hay.
This he did by proclaiming to be the Messiah to the majority, the champion of the Sinhalese community with his rallying cry of ‘Sinhala Only’. Again, SWRD is often painted as the villain of the piece, in analysing the subsequent ethnic strife in this country, for which many see in his ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, the root of all evil.

To be objective on this issue is difficult. Yes, the ‘Sinhala Only’ policies did spur and give momentum to the Tamil nationalist movement, which was later consumed by separatism. But at the same time, it must be remembered that the UNP also made similar promises to the majority community in the run up to the 1956 general election that swept SWRD into power. Therefore, it would be unfair to lay all the blame at SWRD’s doorstep.

Another argument is that, even if SWRD did play the majority card at the 1956 election, to come into power, it was perhaps justified. A majority of the majority community, especially those from the rural areas, who were marginalised during British rule, felt that independence had done little to better their lot. For them, SWRD was the antidote that promised to rid them of their social ills.

However, when in power, SWRD had to contend not only with his political opponents, but also with detractors from within his own party, and this perturbed him greatly. Indeed, his eventual assassination was the culmination of many a conspiracy from within his own ranks.

If anything, SWRD succeeded in establishing the SLFP as the only credible alternative to the UNP and, with his nationalistic policies, also left his watermark on the identity of the party as a left-of-centre political force, an image that has endured to this day.

Successive SLFP led governments led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike- even if they were coalitions which cooperated with other left leaning allies- pursued this socialist oriented agenda while in government, the most notable of which was the 1970-77 coalition styled the United Front.

It was daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Peoples’ Alliance (PA) government which departed from this tradition. Kumaratunga spoke of ‘an open economy with a human face’ in 1994, but in practice, hers were essentially capitalist policies. To be fair by Kumaratunga however, it must be recognised that by the early ’90s, the world economic order had changed very much, with even countries such as China adopting pragmatic adaptations of the open economy, instead of trying to survive on closed-door policies that were sustained only because of socialist ideology.

In recent years though, the Bandaranaike stranglehold on the SLFP which survived the J.R. Jayewardene led machinations in the late ’70s and early ’80s-appears to have been broken, with the virtual retirement of Kumaratunga and the untimely demise of Anura Bandaranaike coinciding with the meteoric rise of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Indeed, ceremonies to mark SWRD’s 50th death anniversary have been relatively low key, compared with the halcyon days when a public holiday was declared to mark the occasion. There may be some discontent about this, but for those who wish to perpetuate SWRD’s memory, the airport at Katunayake and the conference hall in Colombo will surely serve as lasting monuments to the man.

As for his policies, nearly 50 years after SWRD himself assumed power, we see the Rajapaksa led SLFP trying the same tactic and achieving much the same results. President Rajapaksa too, it will be recalled, essentially catered to the majority vote at the last presidential election, by advocating a hard-line stance against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The icing on the cake was when he was, in fact, able to keep his promise and annihilate the Tigers.

To place this in the historical context of the 1956 ‘revolution’ ushered by SWRD, we must note that, although SWRD the politician was opportunistic enough to pursue a nationalist, pro-majority community line, SWRD the individual that those near and dear knew was a very liberal man. Had he not been assassinated and allowed to rule for a full term of office, there was every likelihood that he would have tried his utmost to find an equitable solution to the grievances of all communities in the country.

Ironically, it is the same challenge that awaits President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the conclusion of the military conflict with the LTTE. While the battle for terrain has been won, the bigger battle to win the hearts and minds of the minorities and thereby win the peace, is still in progress, and given some of the pressures exerted by the international community and certain vested interests, it is a bigger challenge for President Rajapaksa and his government.

It would also have been a challenge SWRD would have relished. In a sense, therefore, although the Bandaranaike dynasty within the SLFP may have come to an end, the policies and the ideals that SWRD pursued appear to be very much alive, and the SLFP itself in a state of robust political health, perhaps the best tribute to the man who charted Sri Lankan politics into a new terrain.