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SRI LANKA: 40 Years of Republicanism

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Sri Lanka FlagBy Dilshan Boange *

Sri Lanka’s Republicanism was practically achieved through the 1972 constitution. But who was the first in our recorded history to expound the idea of a ‘kingless Lanka’? And thus propose a path towards Republicanism? The French under King Louise and the Russians under tsarist rule founded a kingless state through violent revolution actuated by persons not heir to privilege and power.  Sri Lanka never founded its Republicanism through the actuation of violence to overthrow a government.

Ours was through a democratic process of enacting a constitution that declared the sovereignty of the nation herein after be vested in her people and not a constitutional monarch. Note dear reader that independence did not equate to a Republican state under the Soulbury Constitution; it ‘conferred’ upon us the status of a ‘Dominion’. It was the passage of the first Republican constitution on May 22nd 1972 (40 years ago) which created the ‘Republic of Sri Lanka’ and disavowed the British Crown as having any stake in our State, and thus ending the British Dominion of Ceylon.

Conceiving a kingless rule or a State must have surely seemed absurd or unimaginable to a people who were steeped in the perception that a nation is always ruled by a ruler who singularly reigns supreme over all. The poetic lament of a Buddhist monk, after the ceding of the kingdom to the British, now preserved as a folk verse, of how ants too have a king whereas our people do not, reflects the thinking of the times. The constitutional position of course was quite different. We had a king, who lived thousands of miles away across vast oceans in an Island called Britain. And his agent the Governor was to carry out his rule on his behalf. But of course in the physical absence of a visible monarch that more or less in the eyes of the people translated as a ‘kingless realm’ and thereby holding no real status as a ‘Nation’, the idea of a State governed without a king, but by the people would have been too radical a direction to think in.

The first conception of a kingless State as Sri Lanka’s future came not through the teachings of western liberal thought or socialist doctrines but by the bold thinking of one of our nation’s own. And this new line of thinking came in the wake of oppression being brought on the Sinhala people of the hill country by the last king of Kandy.
Punchibandara Dolapihilla in his celebrated work ‘In the last days of Sri Wickrama Rjasingha’ (1959) refers to the epistle written by Ehelepola Maha Nilame (said to be found in the Kadadora temple in Udahewaheta) to the chiefs of Hewaheta as the march against the Vaduga king was readying. Dolapihilla’s translation gives insight on how abhorred the vaduga rule had been in the Kandyan kingdom, and thus the preservation of the people and their salvation from the Nayakkar dynasty must come through ousting the Tamil king.

In his letter Ehelepoa Maha Nilame draws comparisons between the British, the Vaduga king and the Sinhala kings of old –“It is the duty of each of us to act thoughtfully towards removing these misfortunes, at least for the future in a way to protect Sinhalay. I have come to know that in these provinces under English rule these malpractices are comparatively less. Though English rule cannot be compared with the rule of our own kings yet I have found that their rule is more just than the rule of the Waduga kings.”  

The words of the Maha Nilame clearly marked the Vaduga king as not ‘our own’ and thus alien. But what one may find remarkable in this letter bidding the chiefs of Hewaheta to lend support in deposing the Tamil king is not so that Ehelepola Maha Nilame could claim the throne for himself. No dear reader the vision had by the Maha Nilame as expressed in his letter for the future of his people was very liberal in deed.

The letter stated an understanding had been established between the Maha Nilame and the English Governor upon the latter swearing an oath “before his God in his Church” that the British after governing the kingdom in the name of the English king for twenty five years will withdraw from the kingdom allowing for the creation of “a free republican government (Sama Anduwa)”.

One may contend that the term ‘Republican’ was a ‘translational turn’ by Dolapihilla to interpret the proposed “Sama Anduwa”. Yet it is reasonable to propound that the concept of a kingless rule and State for our people was first birthed through the proposed “Sama Anduwa”, which of course was not to be realised due to the underhanded ways of the British.

Thus dear reader as we have entered the 40th year of being a Republic, may we applaud the peoples’ representatives who founded our Republic on May 22nd 1972; and may we also spare a thought for that progressive people’s chieftain Ehelepola Maha Nilame, our first proponent of Republicanism.   

* Source: The Nation


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