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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2642

Nation Revisited

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Unity is always better than disunity, but an enforced unity is a sham and dangerous affair, full of explosive possibilities. Unity muse be of the mind and heart, a sense of belonging together…. I am convinced that there is that basic unity in India but it has been overlaid and hidden to some extent by other forces…. It is our fault of course and we must suffer for our failings”.
Nehru (The Discovery of India)

Sri Lanka is a country of more than 20 million people, but a very few Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka has a surfeit of Sinhalese, Buddhists, Tamils, Christians, Hindus and Muslims. Conspicuous by their dearth are citizens or leaders who manage to transcend their primordial identities and their particularist concerns to think and act as Sri Lankans.

Mahatma Gandhi, when asked for his opinion on Western civilisation, replied that it would be a good idea. A Sri Lankan nation is not only a good idea; it is a necessary idea. But it is still an idea. Though the concept exists in a legal sense, there is no ‘really existing’ Sri Lankan nation. Terms such as ‘national’ and ‘desheeya’ which are very much in vogue, refer solely or mainly to the majority community.

This absence of a Sri Lankan nation has ensured the still-birth of a Sri Lankan patriotism; our ‘really existing patriotism’ is coterminous with Sinhala nationalism. We, the majority, expect the minorities to overcome their own particularist identities and feelings; we demand that they accept, respect and defend the particularist interests of the Sinhalese. That is our definition of patriotism. If the minorities fail to make that grade they are deemed untrustworthy, suspicious and unpatriotic. This communalist-patriotism cannot but have a limited appeal since Sri Lanka is a pluralist country consisting of several ethno-religious groups subscribing to different, and often conflicting, agendas. The continuous balancing of these diverse interests is an essential building block of a truly Sri Lankan patriotism. Unless and until the minorities become stakeholders of Sri Lanka and feel so, a Sri Lankan patriotism will remain an unreachable destination.

In an interview some months ago Lee Kwan Yew compared the different experiences of Sri Lanka and Singapore over the language issue. He pointed out how Singapore, forewarned by the disastrous example of Sri Lanka, refrained from following a similar course – thereby avoiding the language conflict which subverted Sri Lanka’s own forward march. Who then is the greater patriot? Is it the man who undermined his country’s unity by unleashing language nationalism? Or is it the man who consciously eschewed language nationalism, thereby sparing his country decades of bloodshed?

If there is an original sin in the Lankan conflict, it is the ‘Sinhala Only’ of 1956. Understanding ‘Sinhala Only’ is the essential first step in understanding both the conflict and the country. It is the key without which the tragic trajectory of a once hopeful land cannot be comprehended. Because with ‘Sinhala Only’, the identity of the majority community was officially enshrined as the national identity. Sinhala was seen as the only possible ‘national’ language. By rejecting the call for language parity, the government and the Sinhala polity relegated Tamil to the ranks of English, the alien language of an alien conquering race. Given the belief that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala/Sinhala Buddhist land and that non-Sinhalese are guests and not co-owners of it, this outcome was perhaps our inescapable destiny.

Glass Ceilings

In Sri Lanka there is a glass ceiling which effectively prevents a non Sinhala-Buddhist from becoming the President or even the Prime Minister. Constitutionally there is no such disability but in reality it exists. This glass ceiling covered caste and class factors as well until that taboo was broken by Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Caste was one of the leitmotivs in the anti-Premadasa campaign, even though the word was rarely mentioned openly. Instead coded language and pictures were used. The most often used term was dhobi – washerman – and the most often used image was a caricature of Mr. Premadasa washing clothes (such cartoons were used in all the opposition papers including the leftist ones making a mockery of their much vaunted socialism/communism). Everything was grist to the mill of anti-Premadasaism – from Mr. Premadasa’s occasional mispronunciation of English words – despite his faultless grammar – to his appearance. The most fantastic stories were fabricated, which, in countless repetitions, became ever more preposterous.

The ascendance of Mr. Premadasa was a political necessity given the crisis the country was facing in the late 1980’s. He was the ultimate outsider, bearable only as a counter to the JVP. Once the JVP was defeated he became an irritant and a dangerous example. Given the intensity of emotions caused by the Premadasa Presidency, it could not have been anything other than an interregnum, a break in the normal order of things. Ranasinghe Premadasa was succeeded by three ‘upper caste’ Presidents – two of them hailing from Walauwas (Mahinda Rajapakse, contrary to some assertions, is the scion of a regional aristocratic family). ‘Normalcy’ was thus restored.

The unofficial and unconstitutional taboo against a non-Sinhala-Buddhist becoming the President is far more impenetrable. Even the post of non-executive Prime Minister seems off limits anyone who is not a Sinhala-Buddhist. The best case in point was the unsuccessful attempt by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to make Lakshman Kadirgamar the Prime Minister after the 2004 election. The JVP backed her effort but it was publicly opposed by the JHU on the grounds that Mr. Kadirgamar was a non-Buddhist.

If Sri Lankan patriotism was the criterion Lakshman Kadirgamar had a better right to be the leader of Sri Lanka than Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapakse or Ranil Wickremesinghe. Tragically in Sri Lanka it is birth and not character that is commonly regarded as fate. Therefore only a Sinhalese can become a true and everlasting patriot. A Tamil, however anti-Tiger, cannot really be trusted with the destiny of the country, because, given his ethnicity, his patriotism cannot be relied upon; he can lapse.

A couple of months before we prevented an extremely able and patriotic Tamil from becoming the non-executive PM of Sri Lanka, India had the courage and the foresight to appoint a Sikh as her executive Prime Minister. This was despite the continued existence of the separatist struggle for Khalistan by some Sikh groups. Not even the BJP opposed the appointment of Manmohan Singh as the PM, anymore than it opposed the appointment of Abdul Kalam (a Muslim) as the President.

This was hardly an accident. In June 1984 the Indian army attacked the Akal Takht (Throne of the Eternal God) shrine facing the Golden Temple which was being used by the Sikh separatist Akali Dal as its armoury and the headquarters of its leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The assault, codenamed Operation Blue Star, was carried out by the 9th Division of the Indian Army commanded by a Sikh officer, Major General Kuldip Singh Brar. In fact five days before the assault, Gen. Brar in civilian clothes entered the temple to gather information in the guise of a worshipper. The non-executive President of India during this time happened to be another Sikh, Zail Singh. And though Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard and more than 2,700 Sikhs were killed in the subsequent riots, it did not prevent Ms. Gandhi’s party from appointing a Sikh as the Prime Minister just twenty years later.

Indian historian Romila Tharpar identified the two contending nationalisms which were vying for India’s soul in the colonial era: “Inclusive nationalism dating from the late nineteenth century (which) kneaded together the segments of Indian society and opposed colonial power…. The focus was on the sovereignty of an Indian identity, based on democratic and secular institutions…. But there were other kinds of nationalism that made religion the keystone. There was an assertion that there should be a return to ëtraditional cultureí” (The Future of the Indian Past).

Fortunately for India, that contestation was won by the inclusive secular nationalist forces and not by the Hindu communalists. Jawaharlal Nehru told Andre Malraux that one of his key challenges was “creating a secular state in a religious country” (Anti-memoirs). It was hardly accidental that the task of crafting independent India’s constitution was entrusted to Dr. Ambedkar, a Buddhist harijan. In Sri Lanka the opposite happened. Instead of Mahatma Gandhi we had Anagarika Dharmapala who subscribed to an exclusivist and intolerant Sinhala-Buddhist patriotism, and regarded minorities as aliens, if not enemy aliens. Instead of the fiercely secular Nehru, we had SWRD Bandaranaike who unleashed the forces of linguistic nationalism on the land, pulverising her future.

A Different Patriotism

Our post-1956 approach to nation and patriotism is best encapsulated by the following German couplet: ‘Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein, So schlag' ich Dir den Schädel ein’ ‘If you do not want to be my brother, I will hammer your skull’. We have set the boundary lines of nation, nationalism and patriotism; we have placed Sinhala and Buddhist in the centre of it. Having thus defined the contours and the essence of nation we demand that ethnic and religious minorities consent to a ‘permanent and subordinate existence’ within it, willingly or at least uncomplainingly. If they are unhappy with this hierarchical existence, if they ask for a more inclusive state, we accuse them being unpatriotic.

The Tigers are a part of the problem; however they are not the entirety of the problem. Would we have become more receptive to the calls of Tamil moderates, had Vellupillai Pirapaharan not come into existence? Not on the evidence of the B-C and D-C Pacts. Would we be more receptive to the voices of Tamil democrats if Vellupillai Pirapaharan ceases to exist? Unlikely. If we are unwilling to accommodate the moderate demands of moderate Tamils how can the Gordian knot be unravelled? It is perhaps not accidental that the only time we went through with a devolution deal was in 1987 - an outcome of direct foreign intervention in favour of devolution. Foreign intervention is not desirable; however if we fail to find a political solution to the ethnic problem on our own, we will open a window for such intervention, as we did in the eighties.

History should be a guide and a teacher but not a master or a goddess. We cannot permit the ancient battles between invaders from India and Sinhala kings to determine our present relations with the Tamils. (Vijaya too was an invader who befriended a local princess, killed the original rulers of the island with her help and subsequently banished her and their two children. He was too unsavoury even for his own father – who was a parricide. It is an insult to Lord Buddha to claim that he got various deities to safeguard such a criminal). It is equally inane to permit the deeds of Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders to determine our relationship with the Christians of today, particularly Sinhala Christians. We will unwittingly cause the fragmentation of this country if we try to re-enact those old battles now.

A pluralist Sri Lanka cannot be successfully defended by a Sinhala supremacist state subscribing to an ideology of Sinhala patriotism. Unless our conception of nation changes there will be darkness at the end of the tunnel.

- Asian Tribune -

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