Sirisena shakes Queen’s hand without gloves. Wow!
The post-independent period is a unique segment of Sri Lankan history where everything that ought to have happened, happened without breaking up the democratic foundations of the nation which is a remarkable achievement. In the main, the nation faced (1) two left-wing rebellions, (2) one Right-wing coup led by the Westernized elite. (3) a 33-year-old north-south conflict which began in 1976 with Tamil leadership passing the Vadukoddai Resolution, (4) paralyzing strikes by the Marxists who were planning to ride into power on the back of workers, (5) sporadic ethnic riots, (6) roller-coaster economic rides, (7) student unrest in the universities, (8) periodic changes of governments at the state and local government levels, (9) constitutional changes leaping from parliamentary form of government to presidential, (10) foreign diplomatic and military incursions, Indian in particular, (11) the impact of imported ideological waves that swept influential sections of the intelligentsia and (12) the overall transition from semi-feudal, semi-capitalists, semi-colonial phase to a modern nation, complete with world conquering cricket team and a competent military machine that rose from a ceremonial army to meet the greatest internal threats to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation.
Of all the major events two peaks stand out as the highest. The first took place in 1956 and the second in 2009. Both were lasting defining moments for the nation. Both were grass root forces. Both were to regain the lost/threatened heritage of the nation. The “Silent Revolution of 1956” was to reclaim and reinforce the historical roots of the nation – a common phenomenon that rose in rebellion against centuries of colonialism in all post-colonial nations. The “The Triumph of 2009”, though violent, was to regain and protect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and the national heritage which were threatened by local and foreign anti-national forces.
Both dates are interconnected. What was won peacefully and silently in “1956” was threatened from the day it was born by the Westernized Sinhala and Tamil elite. The militarized and violent antithetical forces opposing “1956” came up from the Northern political elite. In 1976 the entire Tamil elite decided to opt out of the democratic mainstream and take the gun to reverse the historical gains of “1956”. It can be argued that “2009” rescued from “1956” fading into oblivion.
The Vadukoddai War, endorsed in the Vadukoddai Resolution (1976) officially, was conceived as a strategy of the ruling Vellahla elite to ride on the backs of the Tamil youth to ride into power. But it backfired on the fathers of the Vadukoddai Resolution. When they legitimized the Vadukoddai violence, power slipped out of the Vellahla elite for the first time since they rose to rule Jaffna from feudal times, and fell into the hands of the lower-castes and the rebellious youth who turned their guns first on the high class fathers of the Vadukoddai Resolution. The traditional Saivite Vellahla fascism was replaced by the political fascism of Prabhakaran. For some time, the one-man rule of Tamil fascism seemed unassailable and seemed poised to win by defeating the Sri Lankan forces. But winning the “unwinnable war“ changed the political landscape by eliminating Tamil fascism and restoring democracy from coast to coast. The “Triumph of 2009” not only reinforced the historic achievements of “1956” but also stands out as the second decisive and defining moment in post-independent history that saved the Tamils – and the nation — from the one-man dictatorship fascist Prabhakaranism. .
Historically speaking, “2009” is the logical and inevitable corollary to “1956”. Both reveal the inner dynamics of the invincible grass root forces that will rise, again and again, to defend its historical heritage. The greatness of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who was far superior to the theoretically stunted Marxists, was in recognizing the aspirations of the grass-root people who were gasping for oxygen in an oppressive and suffocating colonial atmosphere. Both as a Christian and a scholar of Western classics Bandaranaike was steeped in the best of Occidental culture and its roots. Of the Westernized ruling elite of the day he alone felt the pulse of the people, leaving the Right and the Left stranded in their ideological deserts. His intellectual rejection of the Western ideologies made him the most perceptive and far-seeing prophet of his time. The Left was buried too deep in the dying Western theories of Marxism. The Right was too addicted to the colonial traditions which they inherited and perpetuated with hardly any structural adjustments to address the rising expectations of one of the most politically alert electorates of S. Asia.
Like all iconic revolutionaries of the colonial and post-colonial era Bandaranaike believed in the superiority of the indigenous culture which he was bent on reviving and reinforcing as a prime political need of the time. While the Right and the Left were emphasizing material and bread-and-butter issues he focused on the cultural aspirations which proved to be stronger than bread. As in most of the post-colonial nation there was almost a xenophobic rejection of anything that came from the West. But Bandaranaike stood in the middle attempting to build bridges between the two. He knew he was in an age of transition drifting between two worlds, one dead (colonial) and the other (national) struggling to be born. (Mathew Arnold). If the Western models were to be incorporated into the local culture it was to be absorbed with suitable adjustments to local conditions. The model for this trend was set, for instance, by Bishop Luxman Wickremesinghe, the leading light of the Anglican Church. He introduced oil lamps instead of candles in Churches. Like in Buddhist temples, he insisted that devotees entering the Church should leave their shoes at the entrance. He even introduced a tinge of yellow into the cincture that was tied round middle of the cassock.
Blending both cultures without offending anyone in particular was the intended middle path chosen by Bandaranaike. He not only gave Sinhala Only but Tamil also. This, however did not go down well with the Anglicized ruling elite of all communities who earned their crust through English. At the same time, he was conscious of the need to adopt the overarching principle of being superior to the White Man just to be his equal. That was his motto at Oxford. He wasn’t going to be overawed by the dominant culture of the colonial masters. When he dropped the Western garb and donned the national costume he wasn’t putting on a “kapati koat” like modern day politicos. He pioneered the national dress and expressed his contempt for the Western garb by declaring boldly that you wear the coat and trousers only when you go for dog shows.
The intellectual subtleties and nuances that changed the colonial culture and reinforced the people-based culture was either prostituted or neglected by those who succeeded him, using his name, including his third-rate progeny. We can dismiss his daughter who qualified more in imbibing French wine than in political science at Sorbonne. So let’s take the case of President Maithripala Sirisena’s metamorphosis after first official visit to London. After he returned home he has been projecting the image of a born-again evangelist for the West, distancing himself from his initial Marxist days and the recent al-lay, val-lay and pal-lay common man from the Polonnaruwa paddy fields. In his address to the SLFP Organizers meeting he was glorifying his visit to Buckingham Palace where the Queen amazed him by shaking his hand without wearing a glove. The fact that she offered her ungloved hand to him and his wife, Jayanthi, was marketed by him as a mark of special respect conferred on him by the Queen. Good old Bandaranaike would have taken it in his stride, being familiar the Western culture and the Queen’s antecedents better than the Queen. But not Sirisena, the boy from al-lay, val-lay and pal-lay from Polonnaruwa. It was like gama-yatamagic,
Sirisena also announced with some pride that David Cameron walked out of his official residence to receive him on the macadamized entrance to No: 10, Downing Street, with a hand shake and to escort him personally into the inner sanctum of the Prime Minister’s residence. Shaking the ungloved hand of the Queen, which enabled him to touch the skin of the Queen, and David Cameron coming out to greet him outside No: 10 Downing Street, were reported to the SLFPers as significant achievements of his visit to UK. In gloating over these experiences there is more than a touch of the naivety of a first-timer being overawed by the big names in big places.
His report to the SLFPers was meant to impress the party big wigs that his first trip to the West was a triumph of his personal diplomacy abroad and that he is no longer the backward rustic from the paddy fields of Polonnaruwa. Shaking the ungloved hands of the Queen was placed before the SLFP audience as another instance of his breaking the international deadlock that has bedeviled post-war relations with the West.
He also claimed credit for getting the West to postpone the scheduled presentation of the UN report on Sri Lanka to UNHRC in March. He said that the world was divided over Sri Lanka and his initiatives had united the world. He said that the task now is to unite. “And it is I who did it,” he announced, exuding a touch of personal glory.
There is some symbolism attached to the Queen offering a gloved and the ungloved hand. The Queen who shakes the hands of tens of thousands yearly, wears gloves partly for hygienic reasons and partly for decorum. Her royal wave, for instance, is always gloved. She offers her ungloved and gloved hand to thousands and there is nothing special in Mr. and Mrs. Sirisena shaking it ungloved, though Sirisena gave the impression that it was a privileged concession granted to him and his wife.
All that is well and good. Sri Lankans should share the cordiality that greeted him at Buckingham Palace and No: 10 Downing Street. In Sirisena’s Marxist days, however, his political guru, Shanmugathasan, would have hooted with belly laughs if he heard that one of his cadres was ecstatic about the Queen shaking hands, gloved or ungloved. There is no doubt that he would have looked at it disdainfully and dismissively as the hand of a blood-stained imperialist who was heading the global killing machine of UK. But it’s different now. Those days the craze was to pose with Mao Tse Tung. Now the erstwhile radicals take great pride in shaking the ungloved hands of the Queen. Boy, O, boy! How roaring radicals change into pet mice overnight!
The cosmetics at Buckingham Palace and at No:10 Downing Street can be dismissed as much ado about nothing. Even before Sirisena went to London the West knew that he was their point man in Sri Lanka. They were merely buttering him up to show their appreciation of the shift in foreign policy from the East to the West. It doesn’t cost them much to shake hands cordially with their new client state. Obviously, Sirisena has not grasped the hidden meaning of the Queen and David Cameron going out of their way to be extra courteous. It could either mean that they were patting President Sirisena on the back for doing the job of overthrowing their bête noir of the West in a bloodless coup. Or it could mean that they are happy with the return of a prodigal colonial boy to his old colonial masters. It may also mean that they are glad to welcome another reliable client state to partner in the Western agenda.
On his return home, the President spoke glowingly of the lovey-dovey affair at Buckingham Palace which, after all, is only glove deep. He implied that he had opened up a new era of friendly relationship with UK after Mahinda Rajapakse rejected David Milliband’s intrusive intervention to stop the war in 2009. Milliband, working on behalf of the Tamil lobby in UK, was merely trying to reassert the lost colonial powers by forcing ex-colonial nations to fall in line with their neo-colonial political agenda. That failed. So is it surprising that UK is overjoyed at Sri Lanka returning to the neo-colonial royalty on genuflecting knees?
But, as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch or a handshake. The question, therefore, is how much is that handshake going to cost the nation? There is a price to be paid. What is the price that the nation is expected to pay in return for the thrill of touching the skin of the Queen? For instance, will it change the pro-Tamil political stance of David Cameron who is funded heavily by the Tamil Diaspora? When he pressed the hand of Sirisena was he batting for Sri Lanka or for the Tamil Diaspora?
Sirisena’s speech to the SLFPers raised the four political sources that matter to him specifically which reflects his new mind set. First, he mentioned the Indian Prime Minister Modi who had asked him what he thinks of his experiences after sitting in the Presidential chair for just two months. Oddly enough, he skips answering the question, leaving the audience to wonder whether he answered the question at all or whether he wants to keep it a secret. Second, he reflects on the Queen’s ungloved handshake in rather ecstatic terms. Third, he gives a glowing account of his meeting David Cameron, the man who hated Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapakse. And fourth, he claims that for the first time in the history of Sri Lankan politics all the Tamil parties sat with him when he went to Jaffna. All this was wrapped in his overall theme of giving into the demands of the TNA. Sirisena seems to have acquired more courage and inspiration after his return from UK to accommodate the demands of the North.
There are two meanings to this constellation of political forces: 1. it is this quartet that brought him into power and he plans to keep it going for his benefit ; 2. it marks the beginning of the reversal of history created in the post-Nandikadal period. Repeatedly he emphasized, most vociferously, the need to give into the 13+ demands — a common cause with the quartet that helped him to win. Earlier it was the Wickremesinghe-led UNP that was going all out to accommodate the North. Now the leader of the SLFP too has joined the bandwagon. Is this the meaning of the “national government” : giving into the extremist demands of the North with hypocritical JHU and JVP tagging along with Wickremesinghe?
Does this herald the beginning of the drift to the dissolution of the state in the guise of constitutional reforms? Or has Wickremesinghe outwitted Sirisena and taken the SLFP under his wing, as the head of the elusive “national government”, to break up the nation? Is this the end of Bandaranaike’s SLFP, with his daughter, joining hands with Wickremesinghe, to sell the nation down the river? And is the new wave of Mahinda Rajapakse which began in Nugegoda the logical political counter to save “1956” and “2009”? Whichever way you look at it, the combination of the four forces mentioned above – the Queen, David Cameron, Narendra Modi and the Tamil parties in the Diaspora and Jaffna — is a serious threat to the nation.