We publish the revised text of a lecture delivered in November 2017 at the Sri Lanka seminar organized by the South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg. The readers will find further information on this seminar in www.sai.uni-heidelberg.de/en/
The social history of rural Sri Lanka is no longer popular among social science scholars while it was in the forefront in the first 30 years after independence : the ethnic conflict studies have swamped the academic field for the last three decades. I am pleading for a return to socio-economic research. I am convinced that such a return can help to better understand the long term trends of the island’s history, including the two major crisis manifested in the double JVP insurgencies and the enduring Tamil separatist movement.
The political implications of colonial and post-colonial land policies have been studied by several authors (notably Mick Moore, Vijaya Samaraweera, Asoka Bandarage) in the 1980s, when the take-over of estates by the SLFP government, just after the first JVP insurgency, gave the issue a great visibility. I reviewed the issue a bit later, with publications in the Journal of Peasant Studies and in Modern Asian Studies in 1992, and that same year, Mick Moore and Jonathan Spencer (in Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka edited by James Brow) added to the literature of the subject. Since that period, the subject has lost its appeal; a quarter of a century later, it may be worth revisiting the question in a critical way.
I am not going to analyse the impact of the plantation system on the village sector (which is the subject of various publications of mine), but rather :
– to trace the origins and development of the representations of ‘the plantation’ and ‘the village’ taken as reified opposite entities, personified by the opposite figures of ‘the peasant’ and ‘the cooly’, and to explain the meaning of the dualistic theories and practices in the colonial context ;
– to document the development and the mass appeal of what could be called the ‘peasantist’ ideology and the role played by it in the land policies promoted, first in the economic and political context of the 1920s-1930s by a section of the colonial administration, then by nationalist politicians before and after independence ;
– to assess the consequences of the different options followed by the colonial administration and by governments after independence, to remedy landlessness and rural unemployment : either large scale agrarian colonization in the dry zone (rougly speaking, the UNP policy, from Senanayake to Jayawardene, from Gal Oya to Mahaveli project) ; or to the redemption and redistribution of plantation land in the wet zone (the SLFP policy) ;
– to review the academic literature on the subject in the 1970s and 1980s – what was called at that time ‘peasant studies’ – , and to discuss the thesis developed by authors such as Moore that the ‘repeasantization’ policies checked the development of violent agrarian movements – taking into consideration the subsequent revolutionary and ethnic violence correlated with these policies, and what could be considered as ‘depeasantization’ resulting from 30 years of war.
Constructing the dualistic model and the ‘peasantist’ ideology
During the last quarter of the 19th century, the impact of the plantation system on peasant agriculture and more generally on the ecological systems of the island began to question a section of the colonial administration. But is is only during the late 1920s and 1930s that it became a central political issue coinciding with the setting up of the Donoughmore system of representation, and with the major depression which hit the plantation economy.
The proto-history of the question is connected with the first cyclical crisis of the plantation economy, characterized by the collapse of coffee in the early 1880s. Until then, the land policy of the colonial government, which appropriated and sold for a song to coffee planters large areas of primeval and secondary forests (generally used for chena – slash and burn – cultivation by villagers) in the Kandyan upper and mid-country, had met with little open opposition, except in 1859 (when a combination of Kandyan headmen sellers and prospective intermediaries and buyers, who actually represented planting interests, met in Kandy), and after the property of some Temple lands was rejected by government (but temples themselves started to lease their lands to planters). Actually a large proportion of villagers in combination with intermediaries started themselves to plant coffee in their gardens and came to depend on coffee sales to pay their paddy taxes. But with coffee collapse which hit both the estates and the village gardens in the early 1880s, many villagers lost their holdings – often mortgaged to intermediaries : they became landless and famine conditions developed (especially in Uva, Walapane, Matale). This is well documented in Asoka Bandarage book.
Before that crisis, only a few civil servants, such as the governor Sir Henry Ward (1855-1860), took an interest in what they described as the decline of the village community due to the growth of individualism. The 1880s represent a turning point : the coffee crisis coincided with the growing popularity in intellectual circles in Britain and the East of ideas held by authors such as Henry Maine and John Phear, who drew an ideal picture of ‘traditional’ peasant societies (1). In their conception, these societies were self-regulating and egalitarian, based on customary institutions such as gansabhava (village councils), and it was the duty of the colonial masters to uphold or restore the (imaginary) village in its pristine purity. These views were reinforced by two contemporary developments : 1. the growing awareness among specialists of botany and forestry of the ecological degradation resulting from deforestation and monoculture (the successive directors of the Peradeniya botanic gardens, Trimen and Thwaites, were quite influent). And 2. the archaeological works undertaken in the ancient cities of the dry zone, which revealed the advanced technology (especially hydraulics) attained by paddy cultivators in the past.
A group of young colonial administrators (Le Mesurier, Fisher, Price, Davidson, Burrows) attempted to alert the public opinion in the island and in Britain on the condition of the Ceylonese (and specifically Kandyan) peasantry ; they were discreetly and later openly supported by the governor Arthur Gordon (who gave them as guideline: « Keep the peasant on the land »). They obtained in England the support of the Aborigines Protection Society. This group proposed practical measures to ‘save the peasantry’ : their campaign led to the abolition of the grain taxes in the 1890s, and to various experiments aimed at creating new villages (such as Lamasuriyagama, named after Le Mesurier) or at minimizing the negative impact of plantations on village life. But at the same time, the colonial system remained heavily dependent on the development of the plantation economy, the political strength of the planting interests was dominant in Ceylon, and many colonial administrators were themselves involved in covert land dealings, including Le Mesurier himself.
These ‘pro-peasant’ administrators attempted to reconcile their practice with their ideas by adopting a dualistic theory which presented the village and the plantation as two totally independent economic and social entities, which were to be protected from each other and which were to be kept apart. They themselves had a romantic image of the village : an harmonious, egalitarian, beautiful, ecological and smoothly working village versus a destructive, exploitative and morally perverting plantation. The dualistic theory was compatible with the view of the mainstream colonial authorities and their successors the developmentalists, who considered the village as stagnant, non progressive, feudal, unenlightened and immobile, better left to its stagnation as long as it did not compromise the working of a vibrant entrepreneurial and capitalistic plantation sector. To take an example, the Revenue Officer of the Kägalla district in the early 1890s, Price, left what he called « Friendly notes » (2) to his successor Davidson, in which he instructed him to distinguish two parts in the district, one left to the planters, the other to the villagers : « Restrict further sale of land to Three Korales and keep Four Korales as the Garden of the East – with a prosperous peasantry untainted by the civilization [sic in text] of Scotland and Mincing Lane ». This instruction was an extension at the district level of a principle which was applied at the micro level to village lands in the same district : the Revenue Officers effected during the 1880s a summary division of highlands, setting apart areas of chenas for villagers and appropriating the rest for sale to planters or keeping them as reserved forests. But the experiment ended in failure, for lack of legal and governmental support in the face of a wave of land speculation.
These debates in the narrow milieu of the Ceylon Civil Service were not without impact on the views held by the Kandyans themselves : an example is that of a chief headman of the Matale district, Tikiri Banda Aluvihare Ratemahatmaya (Sir Richard Aluvihare’s father) : in 1896, he wrote a report (titled « the silent revolution in the village ») at the request of the AGA of Matale Burrows (himself in charge in 1884-1886 of what was to become later under H.C.P. Bell the Archaeology Department, and the author of a guide book on the Buried cities of Ceylon published in 1905 : this is not a simple coincidence). This document is as far as I know the first example of the Kandyan discourse which will become a cliché on the ideal village life disturbed by the advent of the British planter ; I have published this document in my paper published in Journal of Peasant Studies (1992).
The dualistic model became popular in other colonies as well, notably in Dutch territories ; it was theorized in the 1930s by the Dutch scholar Julius Boeke (translated in English only in 1953). And that the same model in another colonial context led to the apartheid system.
In the 1890s, the coffee crisis was over and after the successful conversion of large estates (but not smallholdings) from coffee to tea, would-be tea planters rushed to the Kandyan areas to obtain fresh land either from government, or from the villagers themselves, who were often ruined and could not take to tea, using intermediaries and various stratagems for their landgrabbing activities (see my paper in Modern Asian Studies, 1992). Soon followed a huge demand for land for rubber plantations in the mid-country of the wet zone, especially in the Kägalla and Ratnapura districts, and for coconut plantations, especially in the Kurunägala district, in which the Colombo-based emerging Ceylonese middle class played a prominent role. In these circumstances, the colonial government interfered and tried to curb land speculation and assert its control over land by a new waste lands ordinance in 1897, which paved the way for the birth of a Land Settlement Department.
Building the ‘peasantist’ ideology into the nationalist discourse
By the beginning of the XXth century, the idealized representation of village life became popular among the urban Sinhalese elite, while its lost its appeal to British civil servants. British colonial administrators in the previous years were proclaiming pro-peasant sentiments while practicing pro-planter policies, and the contradiction led some of them to drop out of the civil Service, like Le Mesurier. The views of the colonial administrators with a real knowledge of village life became generally pessimistic. A well known case is that of Leonard Woolf, who came back to England in disgust, to marry Virginia Stephens and write his celebrated novel on Ceylon, The Village in the Jungle, which was certainly not an hymn to the glory of the Sinhala Buddhist village, nor a picture of villagers oppressed by the planters, but on the contrary a representation of village society oppressed by an addition of natural, cultural and colonial forces. Others who remained in the remote areas of the island devoted their time to collect village folk tales (Henry Parker), or to defend the rights of the dry zone villagers (such as H.R. Freeman).
On the contrary, the ‘peasantist’ ideology was adopted as a central argument of the nascent nationalist discourse in its Sinhala-Buddhist version. Apparently this option went against the interests of a large section of the nationalist elite, which was very active in opening rubber and coconut plantations on former village chena lands. In the words of Samaraweera (1981) : « The first generation of national leaders were the most unlikely champions of the cause of the peasants (…) Some among them had actually benefitted from the British Land ordinances (…) It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the land qustion was looked upon by the first generation of nationalists as a convenient issue which would give legitimacy to their claim as representatives of the people of the colony ».
In this « typical urban middle class myth model of the harmonious village » (Spencer 1991), the ‘peasantist’ ideology (restoring the village) was grafted upon the Buddhist revival project (restoring the sasana) :
1. The ‘original’ village society was harmonious, without class conflicts, made up of peasants-aristocrats (in the words of Hocart, archaeologist and ethnologist, using himself the often-quoted Sinhala proverb related by Robert Knox « take a peasant, wash off his dirt, he is fit to be a king »)
2. Its economy was based on paddy cultivation (qualified as an ‘Aryan’ crop) and its inner organization was geared to the proper functioning of the hydraulic systems – revealed by the archaeology of the Rajarata and Ruhuna (the paddy field and the tank, yaya/wäwa) : the publications of Harischandra and his endeavour to make Anuradhapura a sacred city illustrate that view
3. The ‘original’ village society was free from crime, drunkenness, based on Buddhist values, transcending caste differences, and organized around the vihara : this is a central theme in Anagarika Dharmapala’s writings
4. The disintegration of the village was the result of outside malefic forces : the Tamil invasions in the past, the British invasion of the present, with the complicity of the ‘foreign traders and moneylenders’
5. The (British) plantation and its (Tamil) coolies was the negative antithesis of the (Aryan) village and its (Sinhala) peasants
6. Restoring the ‘original’ village was the most urgent national duty, to avoid the degradation of the free peasant into a slave cooly, equated with the degeneration of the Sinhala ‘race’.
These ideas were borrowed from European authors of the late 19th century and early 20th century quoted above. But the myth was promoted among the urban anglicized elite by outstanding writers such as the Anagarika Dharmapala or the young Solomon Bandaranaike (3) ; Indian models such as Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore were popular among the enthusiastic bourgeois youth who ‘discovered’ a romanticized version of the peasant life, while their fathers were at the same time exploiting the peasantry. The success of the myth had a political utility as well, which was to unite Kandyans and Low Country Sinhalese against a common enemy, real or imagined, the outsider (a composite category comprising the British planter, the Tamil cooly, the Chettiar moneylender, the Indian Muslim trader), and to offset the grievances of the Kandyans against the landgrabbing activities of the Low Country Sinhalese.
A committeee on landless and indebted villagers was set up in 1925 by the Legislative Council. Among its members were two outstanding figures, D.S. Senanayake and Madawela. Madawela was the representative of the Kurunegala district, where he had been active since 1906 in organizing the opposition to the activities of the Land Settlement Department in that area, where he was himself active in land dealings, together with various low country speculators from the Negombo-Chilaw area, such as the Corea brothers. Don Stephen Senanayake and his brothers were the sons of a successful landed proprietor who had made a fortune in graphite mining and had extended his coconut and rubber estates in the mid-country, but his reputation was built as fierce opponent to the repressive policy of the British during the First world war. At the beginning D.S. Senanayake’s position was quite close to that of Madawela: « In Ceylon there is no land at present suitable for the further cultivation of rubber, as the government is adopting the dog-in-the-manger policy. Ceylon would be far more prosperous if the government opens its eyes to the fact and releases land as much as possible » (Testimony before the committee of the Legislative Council on rubber restriction, CO54/874). They both were in touch with the most influent Ceylonese planters of the time, belonging to the new rich class, who in the 1920s were busy purchasing lands for rubber and coconut cultivation, such C.E.A. Dias and Dr Marcus Fernando, and with the Low Country Products Association which represented their interests. At the same time they were connected with Kandyan family groups who had themselves been involved in large scale land trasactions in the mid-country areas, such as the Meedeniyas, and with the influential press baron D.R. Wijewardene. Cases of villages entirely surrounded by plantations, and of villagers forcibly displaced, were frequent in the Deraniyagala area, and in all these cases Meedeniya, various intermediaries such as Van der Poorten and capitalists such as Wijewardene were implicated.
The Land Settlement Department, established by the Land ordinance of 1897, was very active after 1918 in two districts, Kurunegala and Ratnapura, where Ceylonese elite speculators were most involved, and it was their ‘bête noire’. Its officers were the resolute adversaries of the landgrabbers and saw themselves as the defenders of the peasantry, especially in the Kurunägala district, where small and medium landbuyers, anxious to invest in coconut estates, were purchasing title from villagers cheaply in advance of settlement by borrowing money on mortgage of these dubious titles from Indian moneylenders (Nattukottai Chettiar and ‘Coast Moors’). Before the Committee on landless/indebted villagers, Senanayake and Madawela tried to ruin the image of the Settlement officers as defenders of the peasantry, by insisting on the responsability of the Land Settlement operations in compelling the villagers to part with their lands, and pointed the role of Indians in the indebtedness and subsequent land sales of villagers in the coconut triangle, while in fact the Nattokottai Chettiars were lending money to would-be medium scale investors, most of them non-resident, rather than to small peasants. Madawela insisted that the Department should more liberally recognize private property of highlands, while the Settlement officers attempted to check the alienation of land to non-villagers.
‘Repeasantization’ : proactive land policies in the age of economic depression
In 1927, the then governor Hugh Clifford decided to appoint a Land Commission to review the entire land policy of Ceylon (4). This was a time when the great depression had not yet affected the plantation economy, which was booming. The starting points were the motion moved by Madawela and passed by the Legislative Council that the Settlement Officers should be instructed to recognize the private property of chenas, and the pressing request by a group of Ceylonese planters allied with British planters, and especially of Marcus Fernando, to speed up land sales in the wet zone for rubber, especially in Ratnapura and Kalutara, and in the Uva patanas for tea. The argument of Fernando (himself a former medical doctor, connected with the De Soysa big business family) was that many professional men had saved money and were anxious to invest in land, that owing to the slowness of the Land settlement proceedings, money was lying idle, that « the villagers have advanced side by side with the planters », and that the prosperity of the villages was proportionate with their proximity to a plantation.
These projects were opposed by popular meetings organized by local popular assiciations (Mahajana Sabhas) and became a public issue, and the colonial administration, startled by the risk of popular agitation, felt compelled to arbitrate between opposite demands. In a minute dated november 1926, the Acting Colonial Secretary wrote that there were two forces trying to influence the government policy : « the commercial establishment pressing it to expedite land sales to take advantage of the present boom ; the other may be described as the Ceylon nationalist party ; its extremists object to any Crown sale policy for estates and demand that land be reserved for the indigenous population »
Clifford’s own position was expressed in a text dated 11.02.1927 : « A school of thought has developed since 1910 [when Clifford was Colonial Secretary] until 1925-7 [Clifford being Governor] which maintains that tea and rubber estates are a parasitic growth which is battening upon the colony’s lifeblood, that they have worked no appreciable benefit to the indigenous inhabitants of the country and that they owe their existence to a systematic series of acts of expripriation and spoliation » ; Clifford considered it as « an historical and economic error » which « helps to fan the fires of class and racial prejudices, the blazing up of which can work nothing but misery and confusion ». But on the other side his position was that « the primary object of government is the multiplication of smallholdings, provided steps can be taken to prevent improvident alienation. The rapid development by means of estates of land which has not yet been exploited is by comparison a secondary consideration (…) I consider that early steps should be taken to encourage the overflow of (landless) people to such areas of fertile crown lands as are still available (in the wet zone), I should greatly prefer to see suitable crown lands utilized for this purpose than sold for conversion to still more estates. »
The Commission, which comprised officials of the colonial administration and elected members of the Legislative Concil, received a mass of memoranda and sat for one full year ; a part of its records were published in several reports in 1928 and 1929 but most remain in manuscript form. Its findings were informed by the ‘peasantist’ ideology : to quote the reports : « There is a very strong feeling among the unofficial members of the commission that villagers should not become coolies on estates ». « The rapid exploitation of the villager and his expulsion from his ancestral lands, the government being powerless to check the almost universal demoralization resulting from the success of the shameless practice of landgrabbing ». Many colonial administrators pleaded for greater powers to reserve lands in favour of the peasantry, and check landgrabbing, but they were sceptical about the possibility to operate a complete revolution : « I am not aware that anyone seriously contemplates the gigantic task of setting right the mistakes of the past by the only possible method, viz acquisition of lands from estates and their free sale to villagers » (Hodson, Government Agent North Western Province).
Unofficial members of the Commission, notably Madawela and Senanayake (in the 5th and 6th interim reports) while claiming to speak on behalf of the ‘poor peasant’, opposed any measures which would restrict the rights of the villagers to dispose of their lands. Besides these claims in favour of the peasantry, what is significant is that the Commission insisted that ‘middle class Ceylonese’ (as opposed in its phraseology to ‘outside capitalists’) should also get reserved lands, with the idea that their presence in the midst of the peasantry could introduce an element of authority and moral order. Senanayake suggested that blocks of 50 acres of highland suitable for coconut should be sold to these ‘middle class Ceylonese’, excluding outsiders, that is Tamil kanganies and Muslim traders : « the middle and professional classes (…) too wealthy to be classed as villagers (…) too poor to compete with big capitalists and companies (…) for the benefit of peasants men of educated classes should hold and cultivate estates of medium size (…) not only by providing employment for the peasants but also by securing the residence among peasants of men of culture and position ». C.L.Wickremesinghe, a friend of Senanayake and future Land Commissionner, who married his son Esmond to the daughter of D.R. Wijewardene, the press magnate, declared before the Commission : « Many of the middle class eke out a hand to mouth existence [sic]. I agree that Crown Land should be alienated to them… ».
The mechanisms set up to put into practice a new land policy were inspired by an influent but controversial colonial administrator, Charles Valentine Brayne. His elder brother Frank Lugard Brayne, a member of the Indian Civil Service, was one of the promoters of the Punjab colonies (5) ; Charles Valentine as government agent in Batticaloa had experimented a system of restricted tenure and planned alienation of land which he called ‘mapping out’, and obtained the green light of the government for that ; together with some of his colleagues he proposed to extend the system to the planting districts, and applied for the post of Land Commissionner when its creation was decided. His views were developed in an interesting unpublished text titled The protection of the village (6) « Everyone will admit that in parts of the country under rapid development in rubber and other economic products, there is a danger of the village disappearing and the villagers becoming landless. This has been put down by some to the government selling land to capitalists without sufficient forethought for village requirements. This may have occurred in certain cases. There is however a more potent factor at work, and one which presents a more complicated problem : government has now ceased to alienate land to capitalists, except after the most careful precautions to safeguard the future needs of the villagers ; the problem of the landgrabber has not however been solved ».
Brayne was criticized, violently opposed and even ridiculed by some of his colleagues who called him « Brainless Brayne », but his proposals were eventually adopted by the Land Commission and he was put in charge as Land Commissionner. D.S. Senanayake himself sided with him when he became the first Minister of Agriculture in the new State Council established in 1931. The Land Development ordinance of 1935 gave a legal basis to the system : but in the meantime, the great slump had intervened, which ruined land investors, threw out of employment hundreds of thousand coolies, and deeply affected the villagers who depended on estates : the dramatic malarial epidemic in Kurunägala and Kägalla in 1934-35 was partly the result of unemployment leading to undernutrition.
The great depression proved the falseness of the dualistic theories, the vulnerability of the peasant economy linked with the vulnerability of the plantation economy, especially owing to the overproduction of rubber which was the result of extensive planting. Its major political result was to give an impetus to the radical leftist movement, and to make it adopt the ‘peasantist’ approach. Young intellectuals underlined the contrast between abandoned estates and overcrowded villages. Following marxist orthodoxy, some of them undertook to organize (Tamil) coolies, considering them as an industrial proletariat ; but others began to demand the repurchase of estate lands for redistribution to (Sinhalese) villagers. One of the first promoters of the leftist movements, Wilmot Perera, defended a project of ‘Village reconstruction’ in his book Problems of Rural Ceylon (1932). He was the son of a ‘rubber king’ of Panadura, and convened an All Ceylon Rural Reconstruction Conference at his Horana estate in May 1932, where S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike spoke ; shortly afterwards, he founded the Suriya Mal Society in 1933, the precursor of the Lanka Samasamaja Party of which he was a member. He initiated a series of socio-economic studies of villages in 1934. He later became parlementarian and ended his career as Bandaranaike’s ambassador to Mao’s China in 1957.
Meanwhile, the landed middle class demanded the annulation of its debts, the expulsion of Indian moneylenders, and of all immigrants, with racist arguments reminiscent of antisemitism in Europe. Bandaranaike wrote in 1933 : « Rich and poor are being sold up by their creditors and driven in the streets, homeless beggars ». The memoranda and evidence of the Ceylon Banking Commission of 1934 are filled with these claims and complaints. Xenophobic – Indophobic sentiments were fuelled by the policy of the Indian authorities who appeared to interfere in Ceylon affairs, and eventually led to the disenfranchisement of Indian workers and merchants established in the island. The emerging Ceylonese elite (actually Low country Sinhalese) was careful to preserve its interests, through the creation of a Mortgage Bank (headed by Marcus Fernando) and later of a Central Bank. At the same time, the Land Commissionner services (controlled by Senanayake as Minister of Agriculture), undertook the distribution of available Crown land in populous areas of the wet zone, by mapping out and distribution of allotments, but resources were limited as long as the estates were left untouched. In the dry zone land was available, but malaria was still endemic and most attempts at restoration of the ideal hydraulic villages ended in failure.
The second world war, where Ceylon held a strategic position, created a new state of affairs : the rubber economy bounced back, food drive led the authorities to be very liberal in recognizing land rights, the government started to repurchase plantation land alienated to outsiders for distribution to villagers, especially in Kägalla district, where difficulties arose in 1946 in Knavesmire Estate, between expelled coolies and village allottees. Henceforth, the lax policy of succesive governments allowed quiet but uninterrupted encroachments by villagers on lands proclaimed as Crown by the Land Settlement Department. Finally, the extensive use of DDT against malarial mosquitoes made it possible to start land colonization in the dry zone, especially in the Eastern province, under the leadership of Senanayake, who became the First Prime Minister of independent Ceylon, in 1948. His policy of organized peasant colonization was again based on the ‘peasantist’ approach. It had a double objective : developping the country’s self sufficiency in paddy ; and deflecting rural discontent, land distribution to Kandyans in the new settlements acting as a sort of safety valve, without encroaching upon the planting interests. This policy allowed Low Country Sinhalese politicians to get the support of the Kandyans. But it alienated the Tamils because it encroached on the areas they considered as their homeland.
‘Peasantism’ in post-colonial political and academic controversies
At independence, the problem of landlessness was by no means new, but it had acquired such a visibility that it remained in the forefront, and became the major topic of research for social scientists and specialists of economic development, and a central political issue. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a flurry of field researches on Ceylon villages, including very valuable ethnographical and sociological studies. After the Report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission (1951), appeared a Report of Peradeniya University social scientists Sarkar and Tambiah (1957) under the title The Disintegrating Village, of the book of B.H. Farmer on Peasant colonization (1957), of Pul Eliya of Edmund Leach (1961) ; in the field of art and literature, the publication in Sinhala in 1944 of Gamperaliya (‘Village Upheaval’) by Martin Wickremasinghe was a landmark. These works exerted an influence on and were themselves influenced by the political controversies of the time.
The Kandyan Peasantry Commission analysed the adverse impact of the plantation system in a systematic way. Pre-colonial peasant economy was presented as an ecological system in equilibrium, achieving self sufficiency in food and employment, through the paddy system of production. Village society was depicted as knit together by common language, religion, and cultural traditions, « a great majority of the peasant population professing the Buddhist religion ». The advent of the plantation economy resulted in dualism, non-integration of the two sectors, and loss ; the villages became hemmed-in by estates : this obsessive image is constantly repeated. The major themes were the theft by the estate sector of useful peasant land and subsequent landlessness ; ecological impact of deforestation on paddy cultivation ; preferential treatment of Tamil coolies by authorities ; moral disintegration of peasant society : « New land was unavailable for village expansion, village councils gansabhava fell into disuse, prospect of crown claiming land prompted numerous sales to speculators, the old unity of village life began to disappear, moral and social standards were adversely affected, child marriage and giving out children for domestic service became common »
There was nothing new in these arguments, and many scholars consider the Report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission as a rehearsal of commonplaces – what could be expected from a commission made up of a Colombo lawyer, two upper caste Kandyan MPs (Attygalle and Panabokke), and a representative of the Kandyan low castes, all of them close to Senanayake. In my opinion however, the Report is highly significant : its findings were based on a great number of memoranda (about 650), many of them in Sinhala, by various individuals and local associations, and by enquiries on the spot in different parts of the Kandyan regions in March and April 1949, one year after Independence, during which about 150 individuals were heard during public sittings. Most of these papers remained unprinted but are still available in the Archives : for example, the sittings of the commission in Badulla are vividly reported in a sort of diary. These documents reveal a high degree of public awareness of land problems in the Kandyan regions. A detailed examination of the lists of participants shows that the sociology of the memorialists closely corresponds with that of the people who will ensure seven years later the electoral success of the SLFP : schoolteachers, monks, high caste Bandaras and Appuhamys, a few low caste leaders, Village Committees, Cooperative Credit Societies and about 200 Rural Development Societies (the sittings were organized by Ellepola, in charge of these societies in the Ministry) ; besides these Kandyans, a fair number of Low Country Sinhalese established up-country as traders or small scale planters and writing in English ; and very few Muslims and Tamils. The result is that although the Commission was made up of UNP supporters, their report offers a sort of blueprint of what was to become the SLFP master narrative. These arguments are found after 1956 in the speeches of Bandaranaike and his Agriculture Minister (for a short time) the Marxist leader Philip Gunawardena, which are directly derived from the ‘peasantist’ theory, in which the Sinhala people is defined as a people of peasants.
Sarkar and Tambiah’s published six years after the Report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission, just after the victory of Bandaranaike at the 1956 elections, an academic work, based on a detailed socio-economic quantitative study of a group of villages in the lower Dumbara valley (7). It was introduced by a sort of abstract of the Report, which gave it a scientific legitimacy. The very title of the book was derived from it. But it was however less prone to draw an idealistic picture of village life. Among the similarities, the insistence on history (« the basis of rural economy in ancient Ceylon was paddy cultivation »), the emphasis put on the « well integrated and self-sufficient social and economic system, well adapted to certain ecological factors », the affirmation that « the invasion of this system by the plantations struck a damaging blow to its stability, destroyed the balance between paddy, chena and forest », the use of the term « degeneration of the community »; the emphasis on ecological impact of the destruction of forests ; an analysis of the vicious circle of modernisation, better health services, population increase, landlessness, exploitation by the bourgeoisie of the less fortunate, and impact of the new law system. The study differed from the Report in that it used a statistical and scientific approach, and in that economic exploitation inside the Kandyan society was put on the same footing as « victimization and exploitation by the middle classes, merchants and estate owners » ; although not informed by the marxist theory, the book, because of its scientific approach, was to exert a decisive influence on the leftist Ceylonese intellectuals.
That same year 1957, B.H. Farmer published a detailed study of the dry zone colonies (8), which can be considered as a semi-critical assessment of the first results of the Senanayake policy started with the Land Commission of 1928 and the Land Development Ordinance of 1935, but really applied to the dry zone only after the war and the use of DDT. He pointed out the romanticism which led to exaggerate the wealth and population of ancient Rajarata and Ruhuna based on irrigation works : « it is important to give the lie to estimates which are grossly exaggerated ; if such receive credence as they unfortunately do they engender false optimism about the carrying capacity of the dry zone… ». He therefore doubted the capacity of the colonies to solve Kandyan landlessness problems, which he recognized as serious, while suggesting a balanced analysis of its causes : « The author is convinced by field evidence that the Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance and the estates which grew because of it, have borne hard on many Kandyan villages and in doing so have accentuated an agrarian problem which would have been serious in any case ». Farmer became the first director of the Center of South Asian Studies at Cambridge, established in 1964, and his book sowed the seeds of a critique of the nationalist discourse on the question of the responsibility of the British pro-planter policy in the Kandyan agrarian problems.
This ‘revisionist’/developmentalist approach was initially defended by Lal Jayawardena : in his Cambridge thesis (1963) he raised the question as to why the Kandyan peasants, if evicted on a mass scale, did not become wage workers on the plantations ; he therefore minimized the impact, maintained that the colonial administration undertook to efficiently protect the peasantry, and at the same time exposed the responsibility of landgrabbers, especially members of the rising nationalist elite (his wife Kumari who wrote at the same time her thesis on the nationalist/working class movements in the interwar period once said to me : « my heroes are his bad guys ») ; but Lal Jayawardena left his work unpublished (he became a career economist and diplomat) and therefore had no influence, except on the group of historians at the Peradeniya University who from the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s undertook to deconstruct the Kandyan discourse, at a time when the campus was the scene of a growing agitation led by marxist students, especially during the year 1971. The Ceylon Studies Seminar met in the late 1960s under the aegis of Kingsley De Silva, with Michael Roberts, Vijaya Samaraweera, and L.A. Wickremaratne : they elaborated the ‘revisionist’ thesis in various papers which found their way in the Peradeniya History of Ceylon volume III. After the JVP insurgency and university reforms, some left Sri Lanka like so many British-educated intellectuals, while others regrouped outside the universities in NGOs and various foreign funded research institutes. But at the same time, western economists such as Snodgrass could still defend the dualistic theory : in 1966, Snodgrass spoke of « the classic purity of the Ceylonese case », of a « dualism nearly perfect » and maintaned that « smallholder production of export crops had only a marginal impact upon the giant mass [sic] of the traditional economy »
‘Peasant Studies’ ‘Repeasantization’, ‘Depeasantization’ : 1971 and after.
The shock of the unexpected 1971 insurgency left indelebile traces in the realm of politics and economy. Its immediate results were the new republican constitution of 1972, and the take-over of the large plantations between 1972 and 75. The event had also a far reaching impact in the research field with the creation of the Agrarian Research and Training Institute established in Colombo in 1972. The insurgency was immediately interpreted (by the ruling classes and by their foreign advisers who began to swamp Sri Lanka with their foundations, NGO’s and the like) as the result of unemployment and subsequent demoralization among the educated rural youth, and also, (I insist on this point which is often overlooked because the JVP itself adopted elements of the nationalist discourse), to the influence of outside, non-national forces. These interpretations reinforced the political attempts to ‘repeasantize’ (term used by Moore) society, to reinject moral values, to promote ‘national thinking’ – Jathika Chintanaya.
It is often assumed – for example by Moore (9) – that the JVP had no agrarian programme, and therefore no real appeal among the rural masses. This is also the impression left by the books of Alles and of Gunaratna, who are up to prove that the only aim of the JVP was the seizure of power by a leninist-guevarist strategy : both books are written in a judiciary and political science perspective, and insist that JVP « was essentially a cadre party which had a limited public support » (10). It is true that the JVP was not an agrarian mass organization as such ; but its appeal for a great number of rural youth was based on what we have called ‘peasantism’. JVPers shared the ‘peasantist’ views of the SLFPers and integrated them in their revolutionary agenda. The ‘Five Lectures’ conceived by Rohan Wijeweera by the end of 1967 and diffused through classes of endoctrination in the high schools and universities give the rough elements of the JVP. ideology. They have not been published as far as I know, but their substance can be found in the statement of Wijeweera to the police (C.I.D.) dated 1971 and in the JVP press in Sinhala (11).
The first lesson dealt with ‘The economic crisis’ (the following were: 2 ‘Independence’ 3. ‘Indian expansionism’ 4 ‘Leftist movement’ 5 ‘The path to revolution’). The lectures were designed to fit with the aspirations of the educated unemployed rural youth. According to a classical marxist-leninist approach, the economic crisis faced by Sri Lanka was attributed to the impact of colonialism and post-colonial capitalism, in the form of the impact of the plantation economy on the peasant sector : « the primary root of the problem is the collapse of a self-sufficient economy ; the birth of the tea plant at the expense of kurakkan is the main cause of the crisis ». Then follows the usual analysis of rural decline found in the nationalist discourse, which is integrated into the revolutionary logic :
1. That the nationalist-bourgeois (and the walauwa people) were actually lying when they pretended to take the side of the peasantry. It was only by armed struggle that a real independence could be obtained, the maoist way; the old left similarly failed because it was prisoner of the democratic game, western ideas and modes, and led a bourgeois corrupt life, cut from the authentic masses. 2. That the real revolutionary class was made up of landless peasants, and swabhasha-educated unemployed youth (including young monks)(12) 3. That Indian plantation workers, contrary to the classical leftist view, were not a proletariat but the agents of imperialism, part and parcel of the plantation system
What was to be done ? According to Wijeweera in his submissions to the CID : « We should change the entire economy. The basic aim is to do away with the plantation industry, the hill slopes should be reafforested, reservoirs built, rivers diverted to the dry zone ». It was commonly said by JVPers in the villages in 1971 that they would uproot rubber and tea and plant yams instead – this is what had been done since 1935 in the Village Expansion Schemes that became the hotbed of JVP activities notably in the Kägalla district. Finally, the JVP strategy was to be guevarist rather than maoist : the conquest of towns from countryside being difficult in Sri Lanka, the leadership envisioned an instant revolution rather than a long walk ; as we know, this strategy ended in failure.
A parallel, or possibly a connection between JVP and Khmer Rouge ideologies may be explored. In a paper read at an international workshop on cultural heritages held at Heidelberg in 2011 (« The myth of Angkor as an essential component of the Khmer Rouge utopia »), Locard shows that there was an ‘repeasantization’ component in the economic policy of the Khmer Rouge. Their utopia – back to the countryside and to self-sufficient food producing peasantry- was grounded on the myth of Angkor ‘the hydraulic city’, just as the JVP utopia was grounded on the image of Anuradhapura. Both kingdoms had grown rich and powerful because they controlled extensive irrigation systems that produced surpluses of rice. By building a nationwide system of irrigation canals, dams, and reservoirs, the Khmer Rouge leadership believed it would be possible to produce rice on a year-round basis (13).
Successive attempts by SLFP and UNP to solve the problem of Kandyan landlessness and unemployment within the framework of the peasantist/nationalist ideology constitute in my opinion a decisive factor contibuting to the violence of the ethnic crisis, and finally fuelling the war itself. The SLFP in 1972 made the choice of the land reforms which were supposed to radically transform the system from above. It entailed a real dispossession for the class of the low country political leaders (coconut estates) but not for the upper caste Kandyans (paddy and temple lands which they controlled were excluded). In part, it was an extension of the principle of Village Expansion Schemes, but only 10% of the land was actually redistributed ; for the rest, it was an attempt at collectivization, creating cooperative production, which resulted in poor management, actual expulsion or even killing of Tamil coolies or supervisors, and the final restitution of plantation management by the state to private firms. The multiplication of violent clashes between Sinhalese (generally people from bazaars rather than villagers) and Tamils on estates, starting in 1977 and renewed in 1983, signalled the failure of the take-over project.
Back into power in 1977 with J.R. Jayawardene, (from a Low Country wealthy planting family connected with the Senanayakes), Gamini Dissanayake (from a Kandyan wealthy Goyigama family of Kotmale) and the low caste rival leaders Cyril Matthew and Ranasinghe Premadasa, the UNP immediately undertook to expedite the ‘repeasantization’ of the country with the Accelerated Mahaveli Development Project, which was meant to relocate impovershed Kandyans (especially from Uva and Matale) close to their native land and in continuity with the Gal Oya project. Jayawadene himself found it necessary to reinvent agrarian rituals in the very district where his class had grabbed land. Even Premadasa, who as a typical working class urbanite could have despised the peasantist ideology, felt it necessary to launch the Gam Udawa project (specifically for low caste villages). But the ‘repeasantization’ project was slowed down by the war, and aggravated interethnic relations, especially in the Eastern province. At the same time, the successive governments, either SLFP or UNP, were very lax in checking encroachment by villagers on public land for the purpose of putting up houses and gardens, either in the wet or in the dry zone. Local civil servants were easily corrupted, and local strong men, with the right political connections, were always ready to help. It was estimated in the 1980s that one sixth of the house cum garden plots in the whole country were thus acquired.
While these developments were taking place in the countryside in the 1970s and 1980s, ‘peasant studies’ became extremely popular in academic circles, but these critical researches had little bearing on actual policies. In the 1960s appeared the great stream of peasant studies – linked with the maoist experience in China. Eric Wolf published Peasants in 1966, Peasant Wars some time later, the Journal of Peasant Studies was started in 1973 by Terence Byres of London University, Eric Stokes published ‘The return of the peasant to South Asian history’ in South Asia, 1976. In France, the publications of the agronomist globe-trotter René Dumont (who was later a founding member of the Green party) were best sellers, and he was invited to visit Sri Lanka by Chandrika Bandaranaike : his book Paysanneries aux abois (Peasantries at bay) published in 1972 devotes 100 pages to Sri Lanka.
Agrarian Research and Training Institute’s field studies were published in a series of monographs in the late 1970s, and some of these studies were collected in Morrison (1979) published under the same title as Sarkar and Tambiah. Shortly afterwards, four theses of political economy using a more or less marxist approach were defended and later published : Tilak Hettiarachchy (The Sinhala Peasant MA 1978), Asoka Bandarage (Colonialism in Sri Lanka Ph D Yale 1980) and Mick Moore (The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka Ph D Sussex 1981). Several papers by the marxist political scientist Newton Gunasinghe (Ph D Sussex 1979, who died prematurately in 1988) were later published by the Social Scientists Association. Further additions to this body of literature were the contributions to a conference held in Anuradhapura in July 1984 published in 1992 by Brow and Weeramunda, Agrarian change in Sri Lanka. Other important publications included Charles Abeysekera, Capital and peasant production, Social Scientists Association, 1985 (especially the introduction by Newton Gunasinghe) ; and the report of the Third Land Commission headed by Prof. Madduma Bandara, in 1987.
Tilak Hettiarachchi’s historical booklet published in 1982 reproduced the nationalist discourse (as suggested by its title, The Sinhala peasant) with a marxist packaging, making a mechanical use of Dobb, Polanyi and Eric Wolf. The cover of the book showed the trinity ‘Wäwa, Caitya, Yaya’ with a crack. The author maintained that the pre-plantation peasant system based on paddy cultivation was balanced, self supporting, sustainable, socially indifferentiated and economically homogeneous and free from any clash of interests. He ignored the debates raised by the revisionist school. The facts were taken mainly from published writings on the coffee era.
Asoka Bandarage’s book on colonialism published in 1983 was more sophisticated. Colonialism in Sri Lanka, the Political Economy of the Kandyan Highlands adopted the general thesis of the disintegrating impact but took into account the revisionist theories ; Asoka Bandarage attempted to deconstruct peasant myths and to analyse class conflicts inside the village society (« the overdrawn image of the Sinhalese as a nation of rice cultivators and rice eaters, constituted an important element in the ideological control exercised by the overlords in keeping peasants tied to the paddy fields »). But at the same time she agreed with the idea that peasantry was homogeneous in Kandyan times, economically speaking, and that « caste differences within an otherwise homogeneous peasantry inhibited the emergence of a class consciousness and collective action among the cultivator class ».
Newton Gunasinghe’s papers and other publications by the group of social anthropologists and political scientists known as Social Scientists Association were much more critical, written in a neo-marxist perspective. Newton Gunasinghe attributed to the repeasantization strategy the technological stagnation, and considered that Village Expansion schemes were more housing projects than agricultural projects.
The theoretical question raised by Mick Moore (who was attached to the Agrarian Research and Training Institute and the Sussex School of Development Studies) was the absence of a peasant (smallholder) political interest group and of peasant movements in Sri Lanka, in which he saw the result of the ‘repeasantization’ strategy of the ruling classes. He considered that this strategy was a success : « Unlike almost all other developing countries Sri Lanka has experienced no major flight of people from the rural areas to the cities » He explained that the major reason for that was « the relative excellence of public provision for most of the population » : a cheap transport network, free education, free health, subsidized prices of foodstuff, land given out to the poor, extension of small scale family farming, social laws, low incidence of taxation. As a result, « the total number of agricultural holdings has increased faster than the rural population ; the center of gravity of the smallholder economy has shifted substantially to the dry zone ; rice production through this process has expanded faster than plantation production ». Even in the plantation sector, the development occurred in Sinhalese-owned smallholdings, especially in the South, and employment on estates was increasingly occupied by non-resident Sinhalese villagers. If we follow Mick Moore, the Senanayake and Bandaranaike policies have succeeded. Then 1971 appears as a minor revolt and not as a peasant class revolt in any case, and the ethnic crisis is something unconnected with general socio-economic problems. On the contrary, C.M. Madduma Bandara (President of Third Land Commission) in a report of 1987 maintained that Village expansion schemes had not ‘created’ a prosperous peasantry as anticipated by the planners of the 1930s : « On the contrary the majority of these settlements have become pockets of poverty and areas of social deprivation. Many of them have become centres of turmoil in the present crisis (JVP) ».
After 30 years of civil war, of militarization or massive outmigration of the youth, and of growing ‘rurbanization’, are the questions raised in the 1970s and 1980s still relevant ? I would suggest that the war signalled the failure of the ‘repeasantization’ projects : a large proportion of the unemployed rural young men found employment as soldiers in the war, while a large proportion of rural women went out as factory workers or as maids in the Middle East.
What happened was ‘de-peasantization’ rather than ‘re-peasantization’ : what remains are nostalgic symbols such as Rajapaksa’s kurakkan-colour shawl… Power in the countryside has been seized not by agrarian leaders, but by successful mudalalis (petty businessmen) and armed gangs. Village Buddhist values have been superseded by the discourse of urban activist monks. It looks as if what a century or more of colonization had spared has been disintegrated by three decades of turmoil.
ABEYSEKERA Charles ed., Capital and Peasant Production. Studies in the continuity and discontinuity of Agrarian Structures in Sri Lanka. Colombo : Social Scientists Association, 1985
BANDARAGE Asoka, Colonialism in Sri Lanka, the Political Economy of the Kandyan Highlands. Berlin/New York : Mouton, 1983
BROW James & WEERAMUNDA Joe, eds., Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka. New Delhi : Sage, 1992
The Disintegrating Village. Report of a Socio-economic Survey conducted by the University of Ceylon [Sarkar & Tambiah]. Colombo : Ceylon University Press, 1957
DUMONT René, Paysanneries aux abois : Ceylan, Tunisie, Sénégal. Paris : Le Seuil, 1972
FARMER B.H., Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon. London : Oxford University Press, 1957
GUNASINGHE Newton, Changing Socio-Economic Relations in the Kandyan Countryside. Colombo : Social Scientists Association, 1990.
HETTIARACHCHY Tilak, The Sinhala Peasant in a Changing Society. Colombo : Lake House, 1982
LOCARD Henri, « The myth of Angkor as an essential component of the Khmer Rouge utopia » in Falzer Michael ed., Cultural Heritage and Civilizing Mission, Heidelberg, Springer, 2015, p. 201-222
MEYER Eric « ‘Enclave’ Plantations, ‘Hemmed-in’ Villages and Dualistic Representations in Colonial Ceylon » in Val. Daniel et al. Plantations, Peasants and Proletarians in Colonial Asia, London : Cass 1992 ; also published in Journal of Peasant Studies 19 (3/4)
MEYER Eric « « From Landgrabbing to Landhunger: High Land Appropriation in the Plantation Areas of Sri Lanka during the British Period. » Modern Asian Studies 26, 2, (1992) pp. 321-361.
MOORE Mick, The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka. Cambridge, U.P., 1985
MOORE Mick, « The Ideological History of the Sri Lankan ‘Peasantry’ » in Brow & Weeramunda p. 325-356
MORRISON Barry et al . eds., The Disintegrating Village. Social Change in Rural Sri Lanka. Colombo : Lake House, 1979.
SAMARANAYAKE Gamini, Political Violence in Sri Lanka, 1971-1987. New Delhi : Gyan, 2008
SAMARAWEERA Vijaya, « Land, Labour, Capital and Sectional Interests in the National Politics of Sri Lanka » Modern Asian Studies 15 (1), 1981, 127 – 162
SNODGRASS Donald, Ceylon, an Export Economy in Transition. Homewood : Irwin, 1966.
SPENCER Jonathan « Representations of the rural, a view from Sabaragamuwa » in Brow & Weeramunda 1992, p. 357-387
Report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission, Ceylon Sessional Paper 18/1951
Land Commission Reports, Ceylon Sessional Papers, 1927-1929
Cambridge South Asian Archive : C.V. Brayne Papers
Sri Lanka National Archives (Colombo and Kandy), Record Groups 30 (Kägalla district), 69 (Land Commissionner), 108.28 (Kandyan Peasantry Commission), 220 (Land Settlement)
Colonial Office Archives (Public Record Office, Kew), series CO54.
(1) Henry Maine, Village Communities in east and west, 1871 ; John Budd Phear (former Chief Justice of Ceylon 1877-79), The Aryan village, 1880.
(2) Sri Lanka National Archives 30/2246
(3) S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, The spinning wheel and the paddy field, 1933.
(4) Sri Lanka National Archives : Commentaries, Memoranda, and Evidence before the Land Commission, 1927-1928 ; Confidential files 1926 ; Hugh Clifford, Some Reflections on the Ceylon Land Question, Colombo, 1927.
(5) His books published during those years : Village uplift in India (1927) and The remaking of village India (1929) made him famous in India
(6) C.V. Brayne papers, South Asia Archive, Cambridge (undated, probably 1928)
(7) The Disintegrating Village. Report of a Socio-economic Survey conducted by the University of Ceylon [Sarkar & Tambiah]. Colombo : Ceylon University Press, 1957
(8) B.H. Farmer, Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon. London : Oxford University Press, 1957
(9) Mick Moore, The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka. Cambridge, U.P., 1985, p. 220
(10) Rohan Gunaratna, Sri Lanka, a Lost Revolution. Kandy, 1990, p. 93
(11) Gamini Samaranayake, Political Violence in Sri Lanka, 1971-1987. New Delhi, 2008 p. 254-267
(12) « The so-called left-wing leaders of our country have said that the peasantry is not revolutionary. These leaders will never understand the problems of Ceylon. Due to a failure to analyse the problems of the peasantry scientifically and accurately, there has been no attempt to establish a worker-peasant alliance nor any move to unit the entire oppressed class and to work towards a socialist revolution…It is only socialism that could permanently liberate the up-country landless peasant, the peasant in the wet zone whose crops are being constantly destroyed by the floods, the dry-zone peasant who is the victim of droughts, the agricultural labourers, chena (slash – and – burn) cultivators and sharecroppers. » (« The Peasantry is the Main force of the Ceylonese Revolution », Vimukthi, 4, September 1970.)
(13) The Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan obtained a doctorate in Economy in Paris in 1959 for a dissertation on Cambodia’s economy, which was later eagerly read by the group of Cambodian students (the text is available in English translation at Cornell U.P., 1979) ; he belonged to a proto-maoist group in which the French-reunionnais Jacques Vergès played a prominent role ; the Maison du Cambodge where they all stayed became for a few years the scene of constant incidents between warring factions, especially after 1968 and was eventually closed for 30 years in 1973 ; I met there a few Sri Lankan JVPers in the early 1970s.