Last days of the SLFP-led 1970-77 coalition government showed sure signs of socio-political degeneration of a mythical charisma. That mythical charisma was Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Such a statement might be way too harsh on the personalities that dominated that government. Nevertheless, when history reads its periods of change, it surely stamps down its conclusive judgments on consequential changes to society in general and certain personalities, in particular.
Such judgments might appear harsh and unforgiving. But sins that had been committed, cruel hardships imposed upon the subject people, while hallucinating that the ruling class is of different stature and pedigree from the commoners, ‘nobodies’, whom they were sworn to represent and whose welfare was their primary concern, had been too severe in content and apathetic in the way they were executed. It is in that heartless context, history judges its crucial characters.
Total lack of empathy was the greatest sin the Bandaranaikes, Sirimavo and Felix, committed when they wielded power. They may have been extremely empathetic towards their cohorts and inner cliques. But empathy should know no boundaries. It should extend beyond the close confines of friends and family.
Socio-economic policies of the 1970-77 regime were drafted and effected with the primary object of stripping their political opponents naked and the rulers chose to play the game on an un-level playing field. Surely the readers could remember the famous book titled, ‘Family Tree’ (Hath Wasaka Saapaya – Seven Years’ Scourge). It was published and openly sold at the UNP annual convention held in December 1976. By the end of the first day, all copies were sold out.
When J R took over, the first thing he did was to open the economy with the shackles removed, the economy took off like a freed bird. Yet alas, the attendant ill-effects of such a sudden opening of the gates were felt later….
When the second edition went into print, the press was raided by the CID on the orders of Felix Dias Bandaranaike and all material related to the book were confiscated. Two leading members of the UNP were taken into custody. However, J R Jayewardene, a personification of defiance, was not perturbed. He summoned those who published the book, along with a new printer and directed them to go ahead with the publication. Eventually ‘Family Tree’ and its sequels played a crucial role in the ensuing elections. This incident reveals, not only the draconian, undemocratic style in which the Bandaranaike-led government tried to stifle its political opponents, it also tells of the dogged stoicism of J R Jayewardene.
The ‘2nd Bandaranaike Revolution’, spearheaded by the widow and nephew, ended at the 1977 general elections and generated the circumstances for the second paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history. Among others, it ushered in some game-changing socio-economic political waves that were never to revert. Let me list them out:
- Opening of the economy
- Introduction of the 1978 Constitution
- Mahaweli Development Programme
- Mahapola Scholarship Programme
- Janasaviya (now continuing as Samurdi, Divi Neguma etc.)
- Free Schoolbooks/uniforms Programme
- ’83 racial riots and the scourge of the LTTE
Opening of the economy
The economy was under the manacles of the State for almost a decade; a class of local investors and businessmen was being strangled and blackmailed because they held a different political view; untold miseries were brought upon the poor masses forcing them to stand in line at 3.00 in the morning to buy a loaf of bread; imposition of ridiculous restrictions such as that of having to return the old bicycle tire to buy a new one, producing death certificates for the purchase of white cloth used at funeral houses, producing an engagement certificate to facilitate the purchase of suiting material for the groom, ban on transport of rice, ban on rice in boutiques on Tuesdays and Fridays were a few of the ugly topographies of a failed economy that was based on antiquated Marxist principles. Yet the governing class enjoyed all the luxuries that a failing economy could offer. It was a thoroughly forgettable era. (The blogger experienced all these ridiculous restrictions, yet, supported Mrs B’s govt because of certain pragmatic policies – foreign policy, encouragement to local industries and import restrictions)
When J R took over, the first thing he did was to open the economy with the shackles removed, the economy took off like a freed bird. Yet alas, the attendant ill-effects of such a sudden opening of the gates were felt later; all trades of lust, greed and desire entered the market place; all and sundry items were sold in the market and the temptation for foreign goods found a new window. Prostitution, casinos and karaoke bars spread across the land and the demand for goods and services — natural byproducts of consumerism — rose rapidly.
Nevertheless, the advantages of an open economy outweighed the aforementioned ill-effects which were anyway controllable, if one wanted to. Some argue that this was the beginning of grand-scale corruption in the government sector; however, such a contention could be countered as there was direct evidence of accountability on the part of the then Executive President J R Jayawardene.
Some examples were: the disciplining Minsters and MPs like E L Senanayake, Anura Daniel, Sunil Ranjan Jayakody and even Gamini Dissanayake on the issue of unauthorized settlement of Sinhalese men and women on the Right Bank of the Mahaweli System B in the Batticaloa district.
The new Constitution that was introduced in 1978 made a landmark change in the course of Sri Lanka’s history. Executive Presidency and the enormous powers vested in it paved the way for the holders of the post, including J R, R. Premadasa and his successors to go berserk and our recent history stands testimony to the shameful abuse of such powers. No government would obtain a historic victory as the UNP did in 1977.
A five-sixths majority in parliament is massive and lends to many an abuse and there were instances where this majority was used and abused. Obtaining the signatures on undated letters of resignation of all UNP parliamentarians was one such blatant abuse of power. Although it did serve the limited purposes of J R Jayewardene, the very act of such a directive by the Executive President was unprecedented and inexcusable, to say the least. Yet the ’78 Constitution would stand the test of time for any repeal of it would require a two-thirds majority in parliament and arguably a referendum,which is highly unlikely, even in the most favourable conditions for the winning party.
That five-sixths majority also facilitated the infamous disenfranchisement of Ms. Bandaranaike which, under any circumstances, was unnecessary and far too cruel a punishment.
Another ill-thought-out clause of the ’78 Constitution is the ‘proportional representation’ (PR System) through which MPs were elected. J R framed this to make the UNP’s majority ‘permanent’ in parliament and it backfired when all other forces against the UNP were brought under one umbrella party.
Mahaweli Development Programme
This is one programme of development which will last as long as this nation lives. Settling hundreds of thousands of farmer families in newly opened up areas in the arid zone was no mean task. Our ancient kings launched similar development schemes and the massive ocean-like reservoirs such as the Parakrama Samudra, Minneriya Wewa and the Kala Wewa located in the districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and the first ever diversion of the Mahaweli river at Minipe via the Minipe anicut stand as colossal monuments to the exquisite engineering feats of ancient Ceylon. In the words of Gamini Dissanayake, the then Minister of Mahaweli Development, ‘Sri Lanka would not have sufficient electricity in the 21st Century if not for the hydro-power generated by the Mahaweli development Programme’.
Mahapola Scholarship Programme
Another long-lasting programme was the Mahapola Scholarship Programme. After inaugurating the Development Lottery programme, the money that was generated from that scheme became the exclusive source of the President’s Fund and a portion of the Development Lottery funds were channelled to fond the Mahapola Scholarship Programme. It’s known among the inner circles of power at that time that J R asked Gamini Dissanayake to spearhead it. However, Gamini has asked J R to spare him of that as he was totally dedicated to the Mahaweli Development Programme. Then only J R had asked Lalith Athulathmudali, the then Minster of Trade to handle the Mahapola Scholarship Programme and today thousands of Mahapola scholars are studying in our universities, thanks mainly to the Mahapola grants.
Janasaviya – continued as Samurdi
The poverty alleviation programme launched by R. Premadasa as Prime Minister under J R is one programme which was conceptualized by Premadasa himself but given flesh and bone by some of his able civil servants and has been another programme like the Mahapola, no government would like to do away with it. The grant of free schoolbooks and uniforms to those who are considered to be at the lowest stratum of the economic ladder also falls within the scope of the Janasaviya programme.
The aforementioned programmes, though the political advantage accrues to the government that launched them, are economic measures put in place under the stewardship of J R Jayewardene.
’83 racial riots and the scourge of the LTTE
This is a subject that needs wider and closer investigation and will be dealt with in my subsequent column under “Rise of Tamil agitation-politics culminating in the LTTE, Prabhakaran and the 27-year war”. Nevertheless, I would be doing history and its readers a great disfavour if I fail to mention here that J R Jayewardene’s legacy in the subject of the Northern Tamil Question is one of abysmal genre. That alone, one might argue, quite justifiably so, would have nullified all ‘good’ aspects of the ‘J R era’. I will delve much into it in my closing column of this series.
The national profile that emerged from the J R era is one of economic prosperity on the one side and continuation of socio-cultural decay on the other. That profile, which we are all part of, is not one would like to behold with any sense of relief or sanction.
The writer can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org