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Wednesday, 26 September 2001  
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Commemorating the Bandaranaikes: The emergence of the political middle-class

by Ajith Samaranayake

The 42nd death anniversary of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and the first death anniversary of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike (both of which are being jointly commemorated today for the first time this year) take place against the backdrop of the understanding arrived at between the People's Alliance Government headed by their daughter President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna early this month. There is a gentle irony at work here because political analysts in the Sinhala language press are fond of describing the JVP as the 'children of 1956'. (Panashaye Daruwo).

How much of this is rhetoric and how much of it is reality? If one is being strictly factual, of course, this can hardly be so because only a mere 15 years separates 1956 from 1971, the year in which the JVP first made its appearance on Sri Lanka's political stage. That entrance therefore is that of a teenager and not a conscious adult if the JVP is perceived as being the direct, politically conscious product of the overturn of 1956 led by the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna with Mr. Bandaranaike at its head. However as a contention it is broadly true because it was the MEP's overturn of the outmoded political and social structure inherited from colonial rule which led to the emergence of the JVP and the traumatic and hitherto unprecedented uprising of April 1971.

What happened in 1956 (also in the month of April) has been described by Martin Wickramasinghe as the 'break-up of the Brahmin caste' or 'Bamunu Kulaye Bindaweteema'. This draws attention to the overtly political-cultural features of the MEP victory of 1956. The Brahmin caste which was thus overthrown was that caste of brown sahibs who inherited the white man's burden in 1948, a set of anglicised gentlemen imitating the departed colonial masters in their dress, speech and life-style in a country where the vast mass of both town and countryside knew only Sinhala and Tamil but where government business and the business of police stations and court houses were carried out in English, the language of the Queen part of whose realm Ceylon continues to remain until the promulgation of the Republican Constitution of 1972.

The greatest achievement of the 1956 victory was therefore the release of the non-English educated masses into the political arena and its greatest tragedy that the sense of nationalism of the Sinhala and Tamil people which constituted this non-English speaking mass did not run in tandem. If 1956 is therefore rightly taken as a watershed the aspirations of these two sections were represented by the JVP in 1971 and the radical Tamil youth movement which is the late 1970s and the early 1980s increasingly turned to political violence as a means of asserting its rights.

The key and common link was education. Education in the mother tongue in the large network of central schools or Madhya Maha Vidyalayas had produced a whole generation of youth who then passed into the country's burgeoning university system. Uprooted from their surroundings in the village and armed with an academic education largely in the humanities these youth aspired for employment in the public sector as befitted their education. But by the late 1960s the springs of white-collar employment in the towns were drying up while their lack of an education in the English language made this section of youth unable to gain the employment which was readily available in the private sector and thus continued to be the preserve of the Brahmin caste. It was partly these unfulfilled aspirations of upward mobility linked to romantic notions of social justice and disenchantment with the parliamentarist Old Left parties which exploded in the revolt of April 1971.

On the other side of the communal divide the educated Tamil youth too found themselves in a blind alley in a society where a premium was placed on education. In a bid to meet the growing aspirations of the Sinhala-educated youth Governments were compelled to resort to devices such as standardisation which placed a weightage on the largely Sinhala rural areas, devices which the Tamil youth saw as means of excluding them from higher education and consequent employment. While the English-educated Tamil youth could migrate to better prospects the youth educated in Tamil only was trapped in a Jaffna society dependent on subsistence farming. Both in the Sinhala south and the Tamil north the village remained mired in subsistence agriculture and rural backwardness and was ripe for revolt.

Crescat Development Ltd.

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