Independence: | Daily News



The Colebrooke - Cameron connection

In Sri Lanka, as with most other European colonies in Asia, the gaining of independence was inextricably linked to the rise of a national and, in certain cases, nationalist elite. Whatever their ideological affiliations would have been, by the early 20th century they were on the side of reform.

Kumari Jayawardena in her studies of the bourgeoisie in British Ceylon noted that the elite were trifurcated: you had the conservatives who sided with the British by virtue of the similarity of economic interests between them and colonial officials; the moderates who vied for greater representation in the legislature, not out of a need for radical change but out of class interests which brought them into contact and conflict with colonial officials; and the radicals who, hailing from the same class the moderates had hailed from, advocated changes that the moderates were not able, much less willing, to support.

Given the amorphous nature of the bourgeoisie, it’s difficult to ascertain when the process of obtaining independence for Sri Lanka really began. Most historians would put the date at the time of the Donoughmore Commission, but that called for a new constitutional structure that limited the notion of independence to one framed in terms of progress from semi-responsible status to self-government. The leaders in the Ceylon National Congress saw no urgent need to expedite the process because they felt that agitating for anything more would compel not just disagreement but also resistance from the colonial office.

Whether this was an unfounded, unjustifiable fear, or whether it was borne out of pragmatic considerations, we will never know for sure, particularly given the more militant freedom struggles that were taking place pretty much everywhere else in the region, but the outcome of this was to make the struggle in Sri Lanka much more peaceable and pacifist, and almost servile, in the face of British economic and political power. Not surprisingly, Donoughmore revealed the cleavages among the elite: from the old guard, who opposed self-government for the country, to the new professional middle class, who favoured it but as vehemently opposed universal suffrage, to the radicals led by A. E. Goonesinghe, who felt that the suffrage was a necessary prerequisite to the achievement of self-government.

significant development

The Donoughmore period culminated with the granting of universal franchise in 1931, a right that was more imposed on than granted to the people because, to put it bluntly and succinctly, the British had little to lose even from such a significant political development. Ceylon was safer territory on which the right to vote could be conceded, partly because of the size and partly, and perhaps more significantly, because of the entrenchment of a dependent elite class on whom fell the responsibility of “representing” the people. When you consider the fact that even at the turn of the 19th century officials were praising local representatives who could hardly string two words together but whose loyalty to the British Crown was unimpeachable, the franchise appears in a less revolutionary light than it would at first glance suggest: leftist critics would have said, as indeed they did, that it was no more than a legal fiction that left in place the same elitist hierarchies which had prevailed before. Unfortunately for the left, it was in ideological disarray; not until the leadership passed from Goonesinghe to the Young Turks – Philip, N. M., and Colvin – would a semblance of unity emerge.

On the other hand, if the left even at this infertile stage represented the most sensible, secular, and rational ideological movement to wield the independence struggle, they were playing the most thankless role they could have, at a time when the bourgeoisie had relegated them to the rear of that struggle. Again, ideological disarray was to blame. But the fact that the left could propound an alternative theory of independence which envisaged a complete break from the bonds of servitude with the British, if not a more radical one than the Soulbury proposals two decades later, means that the view of Soulbury and Donoughmore as inevitable processes in the long, arduous road to independence doesn’t hold much water. The roots of the struggle preceded these two documents; indeed, they preceded the 20th century itself.

Sri Lanka’s transition to a supposedly modern laissez-faire secular State was begun with the enactment of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission in 1832. The assumption underlying this view is the myth, indulged today by mainstream and popular historians alike, that prior to the Commission the country’s administrative machinery was in dire need of modernisation from outside. The British envisioned an administrative machinery in the hands of a bureaucratic elite which enacted colonial filtration theory so pivotal to the running of these colonies: a differentiation, in treatment and privilege, between the few whose emulation of Western values automatically put them in a favourable position, and the many who, particularly in the upcountry, were backward and illiterate and had few prospects for their future. In the 1880s, when the debate over opening schools cropped up, representatives denounced suggestions made to increase access to education among the peasantry on the grounds that it would drive the children of the peasantry away from agriculture and labour; the situation was such that by 1906 the State was spending almost as much on technical education (Rs. 59,829) as it was on the acquisition of a piece of land for Royal College (Rs. 47,850).

British officials saw in the elite the “brazen wheels” on which the hands of government could operate, and after following a policy of manning the government with only Europeans, they began manning them with the bourgeoisie. Two qualifications were deemed essential: fluency in English and conversion to Christianity.

The latter was a cosmetic: unlike in the Portuguese and Dutch eras, Christianisation was considered to be less important than Westernisation, and the former was important insofar as the objectives of the latter – emulation of and servility to Western values – could be met. The former, however, was vital to the administration, and to this end Colebrooke and Cameron recommended a volte-face with regard to British policy on pressing issues such as education and the management of temple lands.

This interpretation of the Commission is in line with most modern interpretations of it: it was an instrument by which the colonial government turned the country into a class, and caste, filtered society. Commentators and popular historians, many of them leftists, today see in it a brutal but at one point necessary historical development which broke up feudal relations in the country, an observation made by Marx himself in 1853 with regard to the Charter Act of India. Marx was quite nuanced: he saw in colonial rule in India a means of stamping out “this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life” that was a staple of India’s “barbarous egoism” and “unbounded forces of destruction”, but in the revolution unleashed by the British he saw a “brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldiers.” The revolution had been necessary, but it was one led by industrialists and financiers.

nascent bourgeoisie

What Colebrooke-Cameron did, in that respect, was alter the trajectory of the independence struggle. The nascent bourgeoisie, who had made their fortunes in road tolls and arrack rents or in administrative jobs or, later, in the professions, began to emerge at this point, and once they understood that their social aspirations, which were obviously higher than those of their countrymen, were nevertheless limited by constraints put on them by colonial overlords, they took up the struggle in whatever limited way they could. The era of religious resistance to colonial rule, a distinguishing mark of every rebellion that erupted between 1815 and 1848, had long since waned. If the situation was not quite the same in India, there were despite this certain parallels, such as the entrenchment in the wake of the Charter Act of a local elite that sided with the British against the mutineers of 1857.

But in India the initial attitude of subservience to British values was to change considerably in the latter part of the century: the Bengali Renaissance was a movement led by descendants of the elite that, in post-1853 British India, had allied with the colonisers against the radicals. In Sri Lanka the trajectory was a little different, though essentially the same: given the lack of any pronounced emphasis on Christianisation, the Buddhists among the bourgeoisie, who had adopted Anglicanism for the sake of upward mobility, were able to extend their patronage to the tide of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. A similar trend would be seen among Jaffna Tamils and, to a lesser extent later on, among Moors and Malays.

The culmination of this was the riots of 1883: following the arrival of Colonel Olcott, and the publication of the official report on the riots which was seen to have favoured the Buddhists, the local Buddhist bourgeoisie became emboldened enough to seek more rights and greater representation for themselves.

The British left this trend unchecked, though they ensured that at times of rebellion, like the 1915 riots, displays of cultural nationalism did not question the legitimacy of their rule. They event went to the extent of offering patronage to artists in the early part of the 20th century, for the simple reason that by then British officials had realised that cultural nationalism no longer posed a serious threat to their domination.

If in here we see cultural nationalism precede political nationalism, a paradoxical situation in which the imperatives of political independence were relegated to the demands of cultural populism, and the cultural revival was divorced from the political struggle, it’s because even at this point, the bourgeoisie, whatever their religious affiliations or beliefs may have been, were unable to question British economic superiority.

Our independence struggle was thus in many ways different from India’s, where cultural nationalism preceded political struggles but where the political struggles brought together the many contradictory strands of the elite, the petty bourgeoisie, and the proletariat in pursuit of economic-cultural independence. This is not to imply that the fight for freedom in our country was devoid of proper leadership; only that it followed a course, and a destiny, largely not of its own.

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