Colonial Mentality And Its Background

The British left Sri Lanka in 1948, though many practices and laws introduced by them remain in place. Today, the Chinese presence in the country cannot be ignored.

Although small islands, there are 61 colonies and dependent territories still in the world. Eight countries maintain them: France (16), the United Kingdom (15), the United State (14), Australia (6), New Zealand (3), Norway (3), Netherlands (2) and Denmark (2).

At present, France has the most controversial colonial legacy although it was the first country to have a ‘human rights declaration’ (‘des droit de l’homme’) as early as 1789. New Caledonia in the Pacific is one of them. Because of nickel resources and tourist attraction, after much of hesitation and backsliding, a referendum was held on 4 November 2018 for the New Caledonian’s to decide whether to remain with France or go for independence.

While 56.40% decided to remain with France, only 43.60% voted for independence. Therefore, the colonial mentality won, at least for the time being. How did this happen is the question, assuming people by nature are for freedom, independence or self-assertion, not to mention the loaded term, ‘self-determination.’

Application to Sri Lanka

There is a hesitation in small islands or countries, like among weak people, to be independent for fear of responsibility; this might even apply to Sri Lanka. Some of the reasons are understandable—economic insecurity, future unpredictability or even fear of other powers grabbing them. In the case of New Caledonia, there are growing or created fears that the Chinese might take over or take control of it.

Apart from these fears there are other mechanisms in perpetuating colonial mentality or connection. In the case of New Caledonia, there have been concerted efforts to increase the European population. As a result, the European population today stands at 29%, while the indigenous Kanak population has decreased to 40%, the rest being mixed and other peoples. Then how come the ‘no vote’ to independence got 56%? One explanation is that the colonial mentality still prevails even among some Kanaks and mainly others, while some European origin people opting for independence.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the long history of colonialism cannot easily be discounted in discussing this topic. Although the Portuguese (1505-1658) and the Dutch (1658-1802) colonized only the coastal areas, the impact of their presence was felt inland, and in the Kandyan Kingdom as well. The British period (1802-1948) was more profound especially creating the conditions through education, missionary activities, civil service, business establishments and the media. Although we celebrate achieving independence in 1948, the country was within the British monarchy until 1972 as Ceylon. The initial constitution was a document drafted by the British, unlike in India, which opted for a republic in 1947 and an endogenous constitution in 1952.

Some Conceptual Premises

‘Colonial mentality’ is about a consciousness at the bottom with several other attributes built on that. Colonial mentality is also associated with neo-colonialism. Referring to the situation in the Philippines, Jimenez Magsanoc specified colonial mentality as a ‘mental and psychological affliction that Filipinos continue to suffer from despite the end of colonial rule.’

The question here is whether there is such an affliction among certain ruling sections of the Sri Lankan society. As Jimenez Magsanoc described, it can be a hindrance to assert sovereignty of any country although formally independent.

The opposite of colonial mentality is ‘national consciousness or patriotism. National consciousness or patriotism however do not preclude (though extreme nationalism might) interactions with foreign nations including past colonial masters and the absorption of foreign influences, including life styles if that is the choice. Those are considered part of external or international relations and interactions, Sri Lanka as a strategically located island is familiar with from time immemorial.

Therefore, colonial mentality is about blind faith, blind imitation or blind submission. This can emerge from a sense of superiority (them) and inferiority (us) and so on. What might be most harmful to a developing country, considering its economic, social and democratic objectives, is colonial mentality in the political sphere.

 During the Independence Movement

Some roots of colonial mentality were visible within the independence movement. There was no strong mass movement like in other Asian or African countries, not to speak of a freedom struggle. The main reason for this mentality was its confinement to the elite, divided on ethnic lines, who competed with each other for benefits from colonial masters. On top, divide and rule mechanisms were in operation particularly through communal representation.

The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) which was formed in 1918, became divided within three years in 1921. The only radical sounding political organization was A. E. Gunasinghe’s Ceylon Labour Party, until the LSSP was formed in 1935.

Nevertheless there were a number of subaltern cultural and religious revivalist movements challenging the colonial mentality of the elite and also the masses through poems, songs, novels and popular debates. One of the celebrated personalities of this genre was S. Mahinda Thero from Tibet, popularly known as ‘Tibet Jathika Mahinda Himi.’

Mahinda Himi, was of Tibetan origin
Mahinda Himi, was of Tibetan origin

In one of his poems in 1920’s, S. Mahinda said: “Sacrificing their lives, people in other countries fight for their freedom. Opportune time has now arrived, but Sinhalese are still sleeping!”

There were two main highlights of the colonial mentality in this period. (1) When the Donoughmore Commissioners was introduced in 1928, they asked whether Sri Lanka needs universal franchise. All except Gunasinghe said no. (2) When the Second World War broke out, without any benefit to the country, all nationalist leaders supported the war, only the Sama Samaja leaders ended in jail or went underground, opposing the war.

Main Trends after Independence  

There were many mistakes that Bandaranaikes (SWRD and Sirimavo) committed. ‘Sinhala Only’ was one, instead of Sinhala and Tamil. However, they didn’t show any colonial mentality, except perhaps their daughter who took to politics. Another mistake perhaps was taking anti-colonialism or nationalism to the extent of capitulating to religious sectarianism or closing the economy from all quarters. Instead the 1970-77 period could have built new economic alliances in the East.

It was only in 1972 that Ceylon could become Sri Lanka, with a reasonable new constitution. Efforts were made to strengthen the national economy. It was as a reversal of it that an authoritarian constitution was installed in 1978 and the national economy opened up. The situation led to an internal war with outsiders aiding and abetting certain players in the conflict.

It has to be admitted that no country, particularly an island in a strategic location like Sri Lanka, can survive in isolation. It is also not healthy. We are living in a revolutionary information age. There are several ongoing international crosscurrents, if not a sort of globalization. An element of cosmopolitanism is necessary along with patriotism. Even in the West there is strong opposition to colonial type or imperialist policies. An independent country also should be able to interact with other countries, West or East, North or South, preserving its dignity, sovereignty and independence.

It is also not in all matters like intellectual exchange, innovation, trade, travel or even in fashion that the foreign influences are inimical. What is inimical is political (diplomatic) pressure, imposition and interference on the part of outsiders. What is detrimental is ‘colonial mentality’, which makes rulers blindly follow the instructions of foreign powers even if they have an adverse impact on the country’s independence and dignity.

What might be best is to follow the advice embodied in the Kalama Sutta, ‘not to believe or follow anything without questioning,’ whether it is from the West or the East.

Some Recent Aberrations

Sri Lanka has a bad habit of going from one extreme to the other in politics. After a ‘nationalist’ regime the country goes for a ‘westernized’ regime and vice versa. The reason is the failure to develop common national policies in economic management, foreign policy, human rights, constitutional reforms etc. This is in other words is the failure to develop a Middle Path.

A good chunk of Galle Face Green is being converted to a Port City by the Chinese.
A good chunk of Galle Face Green is being converted to a Port City by the Chinese.

Two recent most examples for what can be called ‘colonial mentality’ can be highlighted in concluding this article.

First, Sri Lanka encountered serious allegations of human rights violations and war crimes after 2009. There were pressures, accusations and lobbying against the previous government in international fora and particularly before the UN Human Rights Council. That government was resisting all these pressures or rejecting accusations, without taking necessary steps internally to address the issues. However, after the regime change in 2015, the new government went to the extent of co-sponsoring the US proposed resolution against Sri Lanka even without considering the inherent contradiction in that action. It is a resolution against Sri Lanka, sponsored by Sri Lanka!

Second is in the economic sphere. There was a clear bias against the Chinese assisted projects at the beginning of the regime change; nevertheless the Hambantota Port was leased for 99 years in what is called a ‘debt-equity’ swap. Thereafter, the government completely became dependent on Western, IMF and World Bank instructions and as a result the economy became opened up to the extent that Sri Lanka has now become a dependent import economy. The national economy, local businesses and the agricultural sector have been neglected.

Such economic policies can be attributed originating from a colonial mentality, or what Colvin R de Silva called ‘comprador mentality’ in his ‘Their Politics and Ours’ (1954).

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