Sri Lanka has always been influenced by leaders from the Subcontinent across the waters, beginning with Siddhartha Gautam the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. However, even against this backdrop, the 20th century marked a period of intense interaction with the mainland. The influence exerted by Mohandas K Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan has been affirmed by several Sri Lankan leaders, representing all of the island's communities.
November 2007 marked the 80th anniversary of Gandhi's three-day visit, in 1927, to Colombo and Jaffna – a visit representing then-Ceylon's enthusiasm for Gandhi's vision. Indeed, the influence of Gandhian philosophy on Ceylon (and Sri Lanka) persisted into the second half of the 20th century. But the application of these ideals – in social and economic reform, the eradication of poverty, the attempt to free the people from the shackles of national and communal chauvinism, and achieving unity in diversity – today remains an unfinished task. The initial aspiration for independence from British rule did, however, owe much to the influence of Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders from the Indian National Congress.
Lankan independence came without a drawn-out struggle for freedom, since after autonomy had been granted to India it was no longer viable for the British to hold on to Ceylon. But it nonetheless took some years for the country to free itself from the colonial mentality of the ruling class. When liberation from this mindset did come, however, what took its place was still worse. Long-submerged atavistic and primordial forces took over, plunging the country into the following decades of conflict and the current war. Unfortunately, however, the Gandhian message of non-violence and communal amity, and the drive to eradicate poverty and the indignities imposed by caste, did not strike roots in Ceylon, despite the frequent public affirmations of such ideals by the society's leaders.
Across the waters
Handy Perinbanayagam, founder and leader of the Jaffna Youth Congress of the 1920s and 1930s, was inspired by the ideals from across the waters, and pioneered the movement in Ceylon for complete national independence. The elderly leader's speech at an event in Colombo in 1973, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Gandhi's assassination, remains significant today:
Gandhiji was in politics then; so were we in Ceylon. But there is a difference between the politics of those times and of today. The politics of those days were aspirational. Visions and dreams loomed large then. Today's politics are factional and pragmatic. They are also grosser and grimmer. The post-Independence history of the two countries bears witness to this truth.
The links between the two countries were likewise highlighted by Gandhi upon his arrival on the island. In several of his speeches, for instance, Gandhi directed his attention to the lot of the Tamil labourers in the Ceylonese plantations. He was pained at the thought that he could not give more of his time to these communities – "squalid even in a Garden of Eden like Nuwara Eliya – share and 'sup' their sorrows and show them how to avoid diseases." These workers came by the thousands to such places as Badulla, Nuwara Eliya and Hatton to receive Gandhi. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's personal secretary, who documented this visit, wrote, "What faith and yet what ignorance! I met groups of them as they were vainly trying to get a glimpse of Gandhiji above the vast sea of human heads surging before them. They had not come to listen to him but merely to see him." The plight of these labourers has not changed much since that time, and remains a severe indictment on successive governments and society, both Sinhala and Tamil.
Gandhi's emphasis on the commonalities of the social situations in the region extended to his visit to Jaffna, the cultural and political centre of Lankan Tamil society. There, he remarked, "Having come to Jaffna, I do not feel that I am in Ceylon, but I feel that I am in a bit of India. Neither your faces nor your language is foreign to me." On the eve of the visit, the Jaffna newspaper Hindu Organ had stressed the significance to Hindus of Gandhi's arrival, but after he arrived it emphasised the universality of his message. Commenting on the visit, a Hindu Organ editorial noted intensely:
The 26th of this month [November 1927] would be regarded as a red-letter day in the annals of Jaffna. It was on this day that Mahatma Gandhi set his blessed foot on the soil of the land of Yalpadi. There is a long established tradition enshrined in the Buddhist historical literature, both Tamil and Sinhala that Lord Buddha during his life-time visited this land and preached the Dharma to the two Naga Kings when they fought for the possession of the gem-set throne set up here by Indra. After the lapse of twenty-five centuries this very same land has been vouchsafed the humble privilege to welcome another immortal son of Bharatha Kandam and to hear the same message of Love and Truth which in the days of yore Lord Buddha delivered to the Naga Kings.
The enthusiasm for Gandhian ideals was also apparent in the success of the khadi campaign in Ceylon. Initially hesitant to make the trip to the island, Gandhi had accepted the invitation on condition that the rather hefty amount of 100,000 rupees be donated to the khadi fund (see box). Handy Perinbanayagam agreed to Gandhi's request, and the promise was kept. So pleased was he with the collection in Jaffna alone, which exceeded 18,000 rupees, that Gandhi bestowed on him what Perinbanayagam later called "the famous toothless smile". Overwhelmed by autograph hunters, Gandhi insisted that the person concerned had to promise to wear khadi habitually. Desai was later to comment that "students in Jaffna, I may say to their credit, did not find it difficult to give the promise."
Despite this early fervour, for various reasons the vision of Sarvodaya espoused by Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi's fellow freedom fighters, never really took root in Lanka. There were initially small groups that attempted to initiate some action based on the Gandhian ideals of truth, non-violence, peace, universal brotherhood and humanitarian service. These ideals, however, did not really take root. Today, the Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka is well known locally and internationally for the social work it does based on foreign funding. No doubt it has done good work, but it is also perceived by some as something of a gigantic NGO empire, with exorbitantly paid executives – something that is indeed increasingly becoming a characteristic of top-heavy civil-society groups in Sri Lanka. Regardless of the present-day degeneration of the Sarvodaya movement, however, the early inspiration can undoubtedly be attributed to the vision of visiting leaders from India. Jayaprakash Narayan, who came to the island in 1969, was among the last of the great Indian leaders to visit Jaffna before the district was engulfed in strife, conflict and today's prolonged war. At a reception in Jaffna city, Handy Perinbanayagam expressed his gratitude to his peer from across the Straits "for granting us this darshan", before continuing with remarks that, nearly four decades later, still strike a chord resonant to the whole of Lanka, and should be relevant to the whole of Southasia:
I have a feeling that we have had a few experiences in common. Among other things, we feel we are caught in a web of frustration, alienation and disillusion. We dreamt dreams and saw visions … focused on the freedom of our countries and the rich blessings that it would bring to their peoples. There would be peace and plenty in the land, fair play to individuals, harmony between races and creeds, poverty would vanish and every man, woman and child would not merely have enough to eat and cover his or her nakedness, but would hold his or her head high and look the world in the face, unabashed and unapologetic.
But what have we? Feud, tension, bitterness, poverty, destitution, conflict of tribal and parochial loyalties, opportunism, lust for power, corruption in high places, are the tangible fruits that freedom seems to have bestowed on our lands. Have I overdrawn the picture? In such a physical and psychological environment, to think back to the fundamentals of Gandhi's teaching seems impossible and unrealistic. But people are thinking back.
The democracy we now have – 'bourgeois democracy', as the left describes it – means in practice that periodically the citizen goes through the motions of electing the boss, and that in between he becomes dumb-driven cattle, without effective means to have his needs recognised and met. It is an 'election despotism'.
This brings me to Sarvodaya, [which] means personal fulfilment to everyone. An essential element in this fulfilment is personal involvement in decision making for one's life, and responsibility for giving effect to these decisions. The mass society that is a legacy of the industrial revolution makes both involvement and responsibility impossible.
The winds of change seem to be blowing in the direction of Sarvodaya and participatory democracy. The preciousness of the individual, his right to a genuine share in making decisions affecting himself, and recognition of his claim for personal fulfilment seem to be gathering strength. But to the human race, so long habituated to giving and getting orders, the transformation into practice of a philosophy where decisions are made in face-to-face debate by small groups, and carried out by persons without infringing the claims of others, is, to my mind, a big snag. Allied to this is the problem of how the powerless can get the power to overpower those already in power. Violence is ruled out, for we know, among other things, that he who triumphs by violence leaves a trail of bitterness and humiliation, which soon or late sparks off another orgy of violence which will be met by more violence – and the game goes merrily on.
In any case, the powerless seldom possess the wherewithal for organising violence on a large enough scale. Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, who is dedicated to the Sarvodaya way of thinking and living, I am sure, will give us some guidance on these matters.
In Sri Lanka, as relevant even today are the philosophy and action-orientation of Sarvodaya: the struggles against authoritarian tendencies, violations of democratic rights, strong-arm tactics associated with thugs, corruption and, above all, the narrow chauvinistic nationalisms and religious bigotry that have engulfed Sri Lanka.
— Santasilan Kadirgamar is former head of the Department of History at the University of Jaffna.