12 February 2015

How Keppetipola framed Independence Day

Some people celebrate independence, some freedom. Some lament the absence of both, others say there will only be degrees of one or the other.  Someone pointed out that what we call ‘independence’ in English is referred to as ‘freedom’ in Sinhala, i.e. nidahasa.  Still others wonder if there’s a difference between liberty and freedom.  I wonder if we spend more time with the words than necessary or defer to attendant claims and expressed guarantees without celebrating the spaces we have and fighting to expand the same.

Yesterday (February 4, 2011) I attended a celebration in my village Kudamaduwa.  It was organized by the Patriotic National Movement and held in the village temple premises.  The iconic figure that presided over the entire proceedings was Keppetipola.  A leaflet distributed among those  present extolled them to be like Keppetipola.  Two things struck me.

Dr. Wasantha Bandara, in sharp contrast to the kinds of rhetoric one has heard from the JVP of his past affiliation, both on the national stage and in the universities, urged the children present to learn English. He acknowledged it was the language of the invader who slaughters thousands of innocent people in this island and destroyed many a Buddhist temple and yet pointed out that it is a tool and a weapon in the continuing struggle for freedom.  Implicit in that statement is the notion that ‘freedom’ is a pursuit and one that is perpetual by definition, given realities. 

An earlier speaker explained the significance of Keppetipola.  Keppetipola is hero to some, villain to others.  He fought the British and later sided with them. Finally, when it was apparent that he had chosen poorly, he sided with the people, handed over all the weapons that the British had given him to quell a rebellion, joined the rebels and paid for this choice with his life. 

When he was about to be beheaded, he made a request.  He wanted to murmur the namaskaaraya three times before the Dalada Wahanse.  Upon seeing this, the executioner’s heart failed and hand trembled. His strike did not find intended target. Keppetipola, wounded, had to tutor his executioner. 

When we are told that we won our ‘independence’ without any blood being shed, unlike India/Pakistan, there seems to be a striking absence of historical memory or else (and more likely) a deliberate desire to either thrust bloodshed and heroism into footnote or even out of the relevant text.  The names of Ponnambala Arunachalam are made larger than life and D.B. Jayatilleka is forgotten.  The focus is on the two or three decades that preceded ‘independence’.  There’s little talk of the many wars waged against European powers and the many rebellions that sought to reclaim for the people the birthright of land. 

Thousands were slaughtered.  Who died? The Sinhala Buddhists.  Who slaughtered them and in whose name?  Europeans who were armed with bayonet and inspired by either Papal Bull or the most problematic sections of the Bible.  Keppetipola sided with the enemy in very apparent terms.  When conscience and reason kicked in, he had the humility and courage to admit error and do whatever was possible to restore justice. 

Even today, two centuries later, there are people who openly side with enemies of the people.  Then there are others who are more circumspect; they appear to be on the side of the people but through subtle and lasting mechanisms ensure that the people of this country are short-changed in terms of resource extraction as well as cultural genocide.  The disavowal of history and the shying away of discussion about who made this nation, who paid the biggest price is part of this post-‘independence’ story that has for the most part been a discourse of subverting a sense of who we are, a sense of belonging and ultimately a shrinking of horizons in the matter of freedom, liberty or independence (according to preference). 

In May 2009 we saw the culmination of a long struggle that embodied a coming together of many forces, including ideological prerogative, historical memory, inspiration drawn from hero and heroism, reason, passion, leadership and hands-on military skill and wherewithal.  Victory didn’t fall from the sky.  It was a hard-won thing.  Many paid with their lives, some with absolutely no intention of being sacrificed.  Robbed territory was recovered. Identifiable threat was eliminated. That war, however, was about a marginal irritant in the larger struggle for freedom. 

Almost two years after the end of that ‘war’, we are still saddled with the baggage that the cruel, unforgiving and thieving colonial project left behind.  Both material and non-material, in and out of mind and consciousness.  We secured the nation from terrorist-threat, but forces of division still exist and still operate in numerous ways in numerous circles.  We are LTTE-less but our minds are full of inferiority.

Keppetipola broke ranks with the enemy. More importantly he unshackled himself from mental slavery.  He remembered history and drew strength from it.  He failed, yes, but has been so much a part of subsequent successes. That’s what act and personality do. They inspire. 

The organizers made a claim:  This cool breeze is the life-breath of our heroes, the sweet sounds of nation is the cry of their glory, the precious stones embedded deep in our soils are the congealed drops of blood they shed for nation, civilization and citizen.  The organizers posed a question: do you belong to that tradition and civilization, and are you of that blood?  The organizers made a proposal: let us be like Keppetipola. 

It involves a lot of things, not least of all a thorough and honest examination of self in terms of being, belonging and the kind of nation one wants to inhabit. In this sense, it is perhaps more important that we focus on the word ‘freedom’ than of ‘independence’, for the latter has politico-structural-constitutional overtones that lull us into complacency while the former forces us to recognize that we’ve not really walked very far on the road to liberty, equality and fraternity.  Maybe this is because we’ve not studied history enough and our sloth has allowed particular histories to be marginalized and fictions inserted in their place.  Maybe it’s about a lot of other things.  In any event, some sobriety is called for. 

The main organizer, a fellow villager, put it best: ‘being like Keppetipola is not something that makes any sense if it is an exercise limited to the 4th day of February; it is an everyday-thing and one which we would do well be rehearsed throughout our lives’.


 [This was first published in the 'Sunday Lakbima News' on February 4, 2011]
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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"When we are told that we won our ‘independence’ without any blood being shed, unlike India/Pakistan, there seems to be a striking absence of historical memory or else (and more likely) a deliberate desire to either thrust bloodshed and heroism into footnote or even out of the relevant text. "
SO TRUE! this myth was - and is - perpetuated on purpose. to make us believe what a useless lot we are. BUt if you really want to educate your self - read. In Sinhala there is a lot of writing that may not be mainstream but it exists. In English, read Perpetual Ferment by Kumari jayawardena. Read Thomas Skinners 50 years in Ceylon with your brain as much as with your eyes and you will see how brutal the Brits were but how close they were to giving up. How many people know that the Dutch had actually got permission from Holland to leave SL because it was impossible to hold...and then the Sitawaka King died and they managed to hold on. We were never a nation that was easy to put down. but the most successful way has been mis-information and brainwashing.
Despite being an island with the global winds blowing through for millania we have survived and grown. and not because we are a no-hope race.

sbarrkum said...

Thomas Skinner (the road/railway builder) also repaired Kala wewa.
The book is available to download at
http://mahavamsa.org/e-books/

Once you read Skinner: Fifty years in Ceylon also read (downloadable, see right hand pull down menu)

Leslie: Recent disturbances and military executions in Ceylon.

Leslie is quite critical/skeptical of Brit Colonial Policies including the 6 days labor to construct roads which he says will mostly benefit British Capitalists.

Also read pg 18: Description of Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda. Then read the wikis for Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda.

sbarrkum said...

Thomas Skinner (the road/railway builder) also repaired Kala wewa.
The book is available to download at
http://mahavamsa.org/e-books/

Once you read Skinner: Fifty years in Ceylon also read (downloadable, see right hand pull down menu)

Leslie: Recent disturbances and military executions in Ceylon.

Leslie is quite critical/skeptical of Brit Colonial Policies including the 6 days labor to construct roads which he says will mostly benefit British Capitalists.

Also read pg 18: Description of Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda. Then read the wikis for Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda.

sbarrkum said...

.Thomas Skinner (the road/railway builder) also repaired Kala wewa.
The book is available to download at
http://mahavamsa.org/e-books/

Once you read Skinner: Fifty years in Ceylon also read (downloadable, see right hand pull down menu)

Leslie: Recent disturbances and military executions in Ceylon.

Leslie is quite critical/skeptical of Brit Colonial Policies including the 6 days labor to construct roads which he says will mostly benefit British Capitalists.

Also read pg 18: Description of Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda. Then read the wikis for Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda.