We are presently witnessing the maturing of Sri Lankan democracy, specifically in the form of a transition from conquest democracy to consensual democracy. About a quarter of a century ago, perhaps it was in 1990 or 1991, I wrote an article in the Lanka Guardian under the heading ‘Conquest Democracy’. The title showed that I was clearly being derisive and my intent was satirical, aimed at poking fun at the stupid and brutal antics of the Jay Gang of JRJ and subsequently of the Prey Gang of Premadasa. But at the same time I was pointing to something that had gone terribly wrong with our democracy. The article was just a page long, but it made a much wider impact than I had anticipated. How wide was shown when some months ago Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke denied using the phrase that the political ‘mainstream is a sewer’ and attributed it correctly to me as its only true begetter.
The idea of conquest democracy seems to be worth expounding seriously. Its latest practitioners, the Rajpak Gang, have been booted out but it can recur. I began my earlier article by pointing out that the practice of democracy cannot be identical in all countries because it can be expected to acquire a local coloration from the culture that is specific to each country. To illustrate my point I chose a hilarious example, culled from somewhere in the voluminous writings of Bertrand Russell. An East European Government in the inter-War years decided to practice democracy and accordingly held free and fair elections. It lost and its Parliamentary majority was reduced to a minority, but it was not prepared to relinquish office. It, therefore, proceeded to assassinate the requisite number of Opposition members to make the Opposition majority into a minority. That was unique in the annals of democracy. We, too, I pointed out, have been unique in the practice of democracy. After elections the new government becomes the conqueror of both the Opposition and the people of Sri Lanka.
What else could the propensity to celebratory post-election violence signify? After elections the defeated politicians and their supporters are whacked, sometimes killed, and their properties torched. I recall that during my boyhood days and youth there used to be pre-election but never post-election violence. The British, being the conquerors, wouldn’t have allowed the natives to behave like conquerors. Post-election violence gradually took root after 1948 and reached its apogee in 1977 when JRJ gave leave to the police so that celebratory murder and mayhem could go unchecked. Since then some unique refinements, unparalleled elsewhere in the world, have been introduced, such as females being forced to parade naked – a fate recently promised to CBK. After the recent elections the violence appears to have been significantly less than customary, but we must note that the new President declared that had he lost he would have been tortured and his family would have suffered ill consequences.
The analogies between military conquest and the Sri Lankan version of democracy have been very striking. The post-election violence corresponds to the licence traditionally allowed by conquerors to their soldiers to kill and loot in the immediate aftermath of conquests. Since conquests were for the most part motivated by the drive for loot, the conqueror and his top buddies proceeded quickly to grab the land of the conquered. It is not accidental that after 2009 our Tamils and Muslims have been complaining that their lands were being grabbed under the aegis of the State. The traditional land-grabbing by conquerors finds its analogy in the quick grabbing of the resources of the State by newly-appointed Sri Lankan Governments. There is no let or hindrance to the plum posts in the huge State sector being given to the kith and kin and the political supporters of the conquering power elite. Conquerors don’t usually brook opposition; so media freedom and the independence of the judiciary are curtailed or destroyed. I must point out that it has been a peculiarity of the Sri Lankan conquerors not just to destroy the independence of the judiciary but to humiliate the judges.
The mentality of the conqueror can be clearly seen in the maltreatment of the minorities. When the 1977 government took office there was a widespread and confident expectation that the promised All Party Conference would soon be held, after which there would be a definitive solution of the Tamil ethnic problem at long last. Instead JRJ unleashed his State terrorist program from 1977 to 1983, showing very clearly that his priority was to conquer the Tamil people, which apparently was his way of solving the ethnic problem. Again in 2009 there was a widespread and confident expectation that the Tamil ethnic problem would soon find a definitive solution. Instead the Tamils in the North were treated as a people who should never lose sight of the fact that they were under the heels of the Sinhalese conqueror. In addition MR gave blatant though undeclared support for the racist extremists who saw in the abjectly submissive Muslim minority an existential threat to the Sinhalese – in other words, a people who had to be conquered.
While our politicians have been attracted by conquest democracy, our people have acquiesced in it because they have conceived of democracy as a form of non-violent civil war. Every Sinhalese village, across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, has been divided between supporters of the UNP and of the SLFP, and their relations have usually been antagonistic. A foreign scholar – if I remember rightly it was Jonathan Spencer – wrote of a village that had been celebrating a Festival in common down the millennia, but had taken to celebrating it on separate days because the supporters of the two parties could not come together for a common celebration. The divisiveness and the antagonism are easily understandable in terms of a paradigm of conquest democracy. Politics became essentially a matter of getting at the spoils – “spoils” being shorthand for “the spoils of war”.
I am told, however, that the most successful of the villagers have been the ones who knew how to play both sides, by cultivating relations with the influential and powerful of both parties. That fact pointed to the possibility of a convergence of our two major parties. I argued in my last article that the convergence has been taking place, and therefore our politics could become less conflictual and more consensual than in the past. It is arguable, on the other hand, that Maithripala Sirisena won because of the minority vote, which spells a sharpening of the ethnic polarization and therefore our politics will become even more conflictual than in the past. I don’t know, but I suppose it depends mostly on what we think and do to shape the future. I like to recall that someone – was it Keynes or Tawney or someone else? – wrote that what we do today is shaped by what the philosophers thought yesterday.