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Fonseka, the political arriviste–a historical irony

By Uvindu Kurukulasuriya

(December 05, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The caste factor which has for long been swept under the carpet has begun to raise its ugly head in Sri Lankan politics with the entry of Sarath Fonseka into the Presidential elections.

It is of special concern that in his column Ninavva in the last Lakbima volume this distasteful topic of caste was begun by another Presidential candidate. This candidate who contested the Central Province Provincial Council in 1988 distributed a leaflet with a rubber frank to boast about his maternal link to the Kotalawala lineage. Although he is a Marxist, in his leaflet communication to the Kandyans he alluded to his aristocratic origin. In mentioning Sarath Fonseka’s entry into the fray he surfaced the caste factor by stating that “Rajapkshas and Fonsekas” cannot tread the same path and that “in any case, Silvas, Fernandos and Fonsekas came to fight.” Just as Wickramabahu Karunaratna who calls himself a Marxist did, there’s no doubt that Fonseka’s opponents will assuredly use the caste factor against him.

Generally, a major characteristic of the South Asian identity is caste. When it was necessary to enthrone a kshatriya prince in the Kandyan Kingdom in the 18th century a Nayakkar caste Tamil-speaking Hindu was made king, in addition making him the protector of Buddhism. Such ideas about the identity coming down from the feudal past are still prevalent. Otherwise, Wickramabahu Karunaratna would not have distributed the above-mentioned kind of leaflet to the Kandyans or surfaced Fonseka’s caste origin through his columns.

Sarath Fonseka’s ascendancy is an interesting phenomenon in both Sinhala nationalism and caste politics. This reminds me of an incident that occurred at an important political crossroads a hundred years ago. It was the first election in Ceylon (Sri Lanka, since 1972). It was a limited election for the “Educated Ceylonese.” The British decided to elect one Ceylonese to the legislature and the seat was named “the seat for the Educated Ceylonese.” A physician, Sir Marcus Fernando, came forward as a candidate for this seat. Although he received the support of powerful people like P.B. Ratnayake and L.B. Ranaraja the minds of govigama families like Senanayakas and Jayawardenas were grated by the physician’s caste origin. As the Sernanayaka-Jayawardena group could not find an individual of the govigama caste to defeat Marcus Fernando they selected Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who was then living in retirement in India.

Vellala in the Tamil caste hierarchy is equal to govigama in the Sinhala caste hierarchy. In this election this govigama-vellala alliance was able to defeat Sir Marcus Fernando of the karawa caste. This first election has been historically recorded as a caste contest.

What is remarkable in Fonseka’s entry into politics is the incident which is diametrically opposite to what happened a hundred years ago. This is the fact that when Ranil Wickramasinghe could not find an opponent to the govigama Rajapaksha he went against his great uncles Senanayakas and Jayawardenas and proposed a candidate of the karawa caste. In any case, Wicramasinghe does not consider caste like his cousin Rukman Senanayaka. Ranil was requested not to propose a durawa caste person like Ranjan Ramanayake for the Provincial Council elections of Sabaragamuwa. But he rejected this request resulting in Ranjan Ramanayake recording the highest preferential poll at Sabaragamuwa. Similarly, he rejected the request made by some not to forward a second-class govigama person like S.B. Dissanayake at the Central Province elections resulting in the latter obtaining the highest number of preferential votes. It was the same in the case of Rosie Senanayaka.

This is the difference between Ranil Wickramasinghe and Rukman Senanayaka. The nomination of Fonseka is the victory of the liberals in the internal conflict of liberals and conservatives of the UNP. On the other hand, the fact that the JVP, which represents the “saboltern” people, selected Fonseka is quite remarkable. From the perspective of caste the only important person missing in this contest of selecting the “Sinhala hero” is the salagama caste political leader Nimal Siripala de Silva.

Fonseka will get the support of people who aid govigama Chandrika Bandaranaike-Ranil Wickramasinghe, the durawa political leader Mangala Samaraweera and karawa-saboltern Tilvin-Somawansa group.

The arrival of Fonseka who invalidated the slogan “born that side of the Bentara ganga” and how the caste factor will be used in this election will be a fine educational or research ground for social scientists and anthropologists.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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