73 years on | Daily News

73 years on

Sri Lanka today marks 73 years of Independence from colonial rule, and this will be a another occasion for us to review what we have achieved and where we lost the way as a nation during the last seven decades. Freedom Day celebrations will be take on its usual grandeur this time too, notwithstanding the damper thrown on most national events and festive occasions by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Old timers may recall that Freedom Day celebrations in the immediate post-Independence era were marked with much emotion and national fervor by all communities casting aside race, religion, caste and other differences where unity was the hallmark. This was as it should be because it was through the efforts and sacrifices of all sections that the goal of freedom was finally achieved.

Men of the calibre of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Ponnambalam Arunachalam and T.B. Jayah were as much in the forefront in the independence struggle as D.S. Senanayake, F.R. Senanayake and Anagarika Dharmapala. They were men who cared for their country and fought for its freedom on an equal footing discarding race and ethnicity.

Alas, the passage of time saw this common bond gradually untying itself with division on political and ethnic lines raising its ugly head. A nation that showed much promise in the sphere of progress and development suddenly lost its way, being overtaken by parochial considerations that thwarted it from achieving its true potential.

A true testament to where we have ended and what might have been is mirrored in the earnest desire expressed by statesmen such as Lee Kuan Yew to emulate the success story of this fledgling independent nation.

Of course, most of the blame has been laid at the doorstep of politicians. The contentious and divisive political system laced with high doses of communalism too was singled out by many eminent personages as the bane of the country which was responsible for the path it had taken. Indiscipline and indifference too took a heavy toll with corruption allowed to thrive resulting in the collapse of many state enterprises and economic disaster eventually plunging the country into astronomical foreign debt.

However the picture is not all that bleak. Post independence we could also boast of many achievements. We are perhaps the only developing Asian country which has free education and free health care systems. We also have a 90% literacy rate second only to Japan among Asian countries and our health indices compare favourably with most of the developed countries. Sri Lanka is also no more cast aside as a poor undeveloped country as we have now graduated to be among Middle Income nations. If not for two insurrections and a debilitating war waged for 30 years, this country could have been in the big league. This, coupled with divisive politics to a great extent stymied progress.

The people in general too contributed their fair share in pushing back progress. Very few gave of their total commitment to tasks entrusted to them in taking the country forward. Most Public Servants do the least they could in their workplaces for the salaries they earn with no thought of what this collectively would mean to the country’s future. Periodic strikes and trade union action too had cost the country dearly in economic terms.

Freedom is not just a politico-economic status. It is also a state of mind. We must really feel free as a nation to reap the full benefits of the struggle for freedom from colonial domination and exploitation that succeeded in 1948.

Without that mental de-colonisation, our efforts to continue with our own social progress are slowed down by diversions and mirages that are the persistent legacy of nearly 400 years of colonial subjugation.

The very use of the term ‘independence’ to refer to our country’s Freedom Day in the English (former colonial) language is itself, a mental continuation of that colonial legacy. After all, in our indigenous Sinhala and Tamil languages the term used is, unambiguously, ‘freedom’.

‘Independence’ would imply that before February 1948, Sri Lanka was ‘dependent’ on our colonial masters, which is a reversal of the truth. After all, it was our European colonizers who were dependent on Sri Lanka for economic and geo-political gain.

Today, in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has two leaders who can indeed charter a new course. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has stressed that National Security will be the foundation on which a prosperous Sri Lanka will be built, as we have to be free of both internal and external threats to achieve full freedom.

It is certainly time that we evolved a truly Sri Lankan identity where we all feel “Sri Lankan” instead of describing ourselves as Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher. This “one nation-one people” identity should precisely be our goal. This does not mean giving up traditions and beliefs unique to each community. It means that we think of ourselves as one Sri Lankan people at all times in all endeavours.