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A reply to Victor Ivan’s ‘Playing with history’


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By Avocado Collective

Victor Ivan (‘Playing with history,’ 22 March) finds himself “disappointed” that we used our collective “Avocado” persona, rather than listing out all the several people who contributed to the reply. He claims “articles published hiding the identity of the author/s are generally called vituperative literature”. 

Isn’t this a broad overgeneralisation? Note, we made no ad hominem attack against Ivan, for our contribution to be labelled “vituperative”. Neither is it, as he contends, a “guerrilla debate”. 

We could respond by asking if Victor Ivan itself is a nom de guerre, even if he long ago abandoned military blunder for a literary bout as the Founder-Editor of the Rockefeller-funded Ravaya. But that would be diversion.

Surely, the substance of the article, rather than the identity of the author/s, should be the matter under discussion? Already, too much of politics and indeed intellectual debate seems predicated on personalities rather than content, as Ivan’s response only demonstrates. 

We, in turn, must therefore express disappointment at his reply. In the first place, Ivan has made no effort to address the facts placed before the readers. In stating, “we wonder if Ivan has the superhuman ability to conjure up statistics that were simply never recorded in the 18th century!” we were not being “sarcastic” as Ivan alleges, but only commenting on the fact of the lack of extant statistics on which to base conclusions such as Ivan had earlier drawn. We also demonstrated how many of his other conclusions were based on non-existent “facts”, or that the extrapolation of statistics backwards in time tends to disprove his contention. 

Instead, Ivan diverts into a convolutional analysis of South Indian and Sri Lankan history, with no relevance whatsoever to Avocado’s critique. We made no mention of “ancient glories”, but raised concerns about how Ivan had treated the impact of English imperialism on the social and economic order.

Where he does address this issue, he again makes broad generalisations, such as a condemnation of the Rajakariya system of corveé labour. This system, it should be pointed out, existed to carry out a variety of communally-necessary tasks, including the upkeep of the irrigation system, absolutely vital to the agriculture of the country. It entailed service for 14 days a year, on a time schedule designed to prevent disrupting the people’s normal economic activity. In the aftermath of the abolition of Rajakariya, English bureaucrats would record how the irrigation system went to rack and ruin due to lack of proper maintenance.

The English merely abolished Rajakariya pertaining to community or State service, but did not abolish paraveni service in the “private” and “civil society” sectors. Under English law, the feudatories of the feudal landowner were bound to provide service on the nindagam lands, and also to provide personal services to the feudal lord whenever he called for them. In effect, this meant caste-based services. As late as the 1960s, Kandy Perahera drummers and dancers (of the Berava community) went on strike to demand wages for the services hitherto rendered as paraveni. 

This underlines the fact that, contrary to what Ivan believes, the English did not seek to undermine the caste system but, as in India, reinforced it and made it more rigid. They filled positions in the native headman service strictly according to caste, the only proviso being that the appointees be Christians.

In addition to the paraveni system, continued and exacerbated by the English, they put in place a system of absentee landlordism and debt peonage, whereby peasants were forced to deliver ground rent to feudal lordships, in the form of their entire surplus paddy. This lasted until the introduction of the Paddy Lands Act and Land Reform, notwithstanding which farmer debt and land hunger still remain problems.

So, with what did the English replace Rajakariya? The planters, who took over the expropriated peasant lands, needed roads to transport their produce to the harbours for export. The “Planter Raj” government introduced a system of forced labour under the Road Ordinance of 1848. As a result, an unrivalled network of roads connected the plantations to Colombo – with very few roads elsewhere to serve the ordinary people, or maintain the irrigation system.

Ivan talks about the abolition of the state monopoly on trade and the “creation of a system of free trade”, but fails to mention that this system of “free trade” benefited only English industrialists and their lackeys. He does not address the issue we raised, that by the expropriation of peasant land using the Crown Lands (Encroachment), the Registration of Temple Lands and Waste Lands Ordinances, they destroyed precisely the part of the peasant economy that produced for the market, leaving the agrarian populace at the level of subsistence farming.

“Plantation agriculture,” Ivan claims, “... can be considered an avenue which had contributed to the overall development of the country.” This is all he has to say to refute the facts that it destroyed the ecosystem (affecting us to this day), introduced a monoculture, leached the soil, and made the country dependent on a single export crop. Nor does he address the question of how a system based on forced debt-peonage, just one step removed from the Caribbean slave plantations on which the coffee estates were modelled, could be considered an “avenue of development”. 

As S.B.D. de Silva pointed out, far from being modern, Sri Lanka’s plantations were in fact backward and pre-capitalist. They were part of a system of primitive capitalist accumulation – whereby all the wealth went to England – while the hegemony of the plantation owners was maintained by the “Planter Raj”, the nexus between plantation interests and the colonial bureaucracy. 

N. Shanmugaratnam pointed out (Economic and Political Weekly, 17 January 1981) that the effect of the plantations went beyond the plantations, and led to the deterioration of the situation of the peasantry, who found themselves marginalised and pauperised

Ivan does not even touch on the industries and technology which the English destroyed, such as the cotton growing and weaving industry or the shipbuilding industry.

He claims that the British instituted a “modern” legal system before which all were treated equally. In the first place, Shanmugaratnam has pointed out that they imposed a system of law based on bourgeois property rights, on a pre-capitalist society – without a transformation of that society – to the detriment of the peasantry. In the second place, all legal activities, including recording statements by the police, took place in English, spoken by fewer than 5% of the population. How could such a legal system have treated everybody equally?

What was the “modern” system of education introduced by the English, as alleged by Ivan? The subjects taught in the new schools were very basic, and in no way an improvement on the Pirivena system. 

Ivan even repeats the English spy D’Oyly’s false allegations against Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe killing children, etc. – recently disproved in Professor Gananath Obeysekera’s latest book, The Doomed King, also translated into Sinhala. He makes out that we only learned about our own country after the English ‘discovered’ parts of it. The truth is that people lived long in these parts of the country, even if they did not care to be accounted for by the English. And the only reason for all such English deployments (archeology, anthropology, epigraphy, numismatics, etc.) into the past, was due to their need to enforce private property rights and establish a capitalist land market. 

As for Ivan repeating Knox’s dubious assertions, we recommend Sarojini Jayawickrama’s ‘Writing that Conquers’: A postcolonial study of Robert Knox’. He could also refer to a recent Island essay, which cast doubt on the scruples of such colonial officials as Thomas Rhys Davids among others, who Ivan quotes in monotone.

In conclusion, Ivan speculates that, had Sri Lanka remained independent of the British, it would necessarily have been worse off. The history of Japan, only country in Asia to remain free of imperialism (except for a short period following the advent of Admiral Perry), militates against this assertion.

 


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