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Sri Lanka today is a fractured polity and has been so for some time. This is a trite saying: everyone knows this. But in order to comprehend the process that brought about this tragic situation, one has to (a) understand the concept â€œnation,” (b) the power of nationalism, (c) the force of populism fostered by democratic institutions, (c) the deadly combination within the island of a specific demographic mix distributed in space in a peculiar manner and (d) the disastrous impact of a Westminster model of government elected under a scheme favouring candidates first-past-the-post during the period 1948-1972.
Add to this a powerful historical interpretation deriving from Sinhala traditions retailed in dynamic process through multiple modes of cultural transmission (oral, iconic and literary) and reworked in Orientalist mode during the modern era to encourage both Sinhalese and non-Sinhalese to conceive of Ceylon’s (Sri Lanka) past as basically a story of the Sinhalese, so that many Sinhalese insidiously spoke of â€œCeylonese” in the sense â€œSinhalese” with part subsuming whole (cf. how, till recently, â€œEnglish” meant â€œBritish”). RESULT: a deadly ‘molotov cocktail’ that has, from the 1920s, hindered pragmatic political accommodation of the type that came into play in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Britain and the Baltic states in recent centuries. Periodic negotiations on the subject from 1957 onwards have either produced no outcomes or resulted in ‘setlements’ that have come adrift for one reason or several.
The most recent manifestation of this recurrent process has been unveiled by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Mahinda Rajapakse when it presented a measly set of proposals on 1 May 2007 that focused on devolution at a district level rather than the provincial tier; and remained adamantine in their attachment to â€œan unitary state.” Even moderate Tamils aligned with the governing party, such as Douglas Devananda, consider this a joke. As Sumanasiri Liyanage sums up the scheme, â€œthe SLFP proposals â€¦ have demonstrated â€¦ conclusively that the SLFP have not traveled forward in time but far back. Its ‘fresh approach’ to a ‘complex problem’ â€¦ is in essence nothing more than the proposals of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1958, almost five decades ago! [To quote Marx, it seems that] history in Sri Lanka often repeats itself — the first time as a tragedy and the second time as a farce. The SLFP proposals are totally disproportionate to the questions at hand.” In brief, the scheme is a pus vedilla, or dud shell, that leaves the island in the explosive form it has assumed for the past three decades.
The â€œnation” concept, 1948 and all that
SÄ«haladvÄ«pa, Ceilao, Ceylon or Sri Lanka, as the island has variously been calledat different times, has always had diverse bodies of people, â€œcommunities” bearing labels that are reproduced subjectively, relationally and dynamically. Some groups, such as the Colombo Chetties, Burghers and Malays in recent times, are tiny in number, others have been quite substantial. The term SÄ«haladvÄ«pa embodied a notion of overarching ideational sovereignty, that is, what can be called a form of â€œtributary overlordship” understood in pre-modern Asian vocabulary informed by the mandala concept, that which Tambiah has called a â€œgalactic polity.” This situation was transformed when the British seized the island in two bites in 1796 and 1815-18 and proceeded to effect a thorough-going administrative unification underpinned by a modern communication system and the market principles of capitalism. Ceylon became a colonial unit, subject to the Colonial Office not the India Office.
In an era informed by the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment and the principles of the French Revolution the island peoples quickly imbibed the currents of liberalism and nationalism that were sweeping Europe. Nationalism meant an emphasis on the principle of self-determination and the democratic idea of popular sovereignty. Thus, from this point onwards, in contrast to the 16th -18th centuries, the concept â€œnation” was usually distinct from â€œtribe,” with the latter downgraded to â€œprimitive” status. Hereafter, the privileged, prestigious concept of â€œnation” implied a claim for political rights. Thus understood, a nation was, first and foremost, a state of mind. Following Seton-Watson, but modifying him ever so slightly, one could say that Nation XY exists when an articulate and powerful section of XY â€“ note, a majority is not a requisite â€“ says that XY is a nation.
In this sense the Ceylonese nation emerged for the first time in 1850 when the periodical Young Ceylon was launched by a small coterie of English-educated young men. It was sustained by the emerging multi-ethnic, indigenous middle class in the course of the next 100 years. The first momentous challenge to White superiority occurred, prophetically, on the cricket field when the best Ceylonese XI took on the best locally-resident Europeans in a â€œTest” [of excellence] in June, 1887. Constitutional demands proper in the language of representation and liberalism commenced in 1906/07 and continuous badgering of the Colonial Office and its Governors eventually secured a transfer of power in 1948, with the final steps being actually delayed by a parallel process in India â€“ for the jewel in the British crown was a greater issue in geo-political terms.
But from the late nineteenth century there was also a parallel and partially overlapping current of Sinhala nationalism expressed by generations of Sinhalese (both Buddhist and Christian) who were more deeply rooted in Sinhala-speak but not without English capability. The leading edge in the agitation, however, was in the hands of the Westernized elite activists. Eventually, to cut a long story short, they reaped the rewards when Ceylon as an institutional nation came into being on 4th February 1948. D. S. Senanayake became the first Prime Minister of what was an institutional form of a nation based upon an ideology that, allowing for varying measures and with some caveats, be described as a trans-ethnic, pluralist Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) collective identity.
Throughout the period of anti-colonial initiative from circa 1850 to 1948 there were other currents such as Hindu and Buddhist revitalization projects; and activists from the other communities with significant demographic strength, namely, the Sri Lanka Tamils, the Moors, and the Indian Tamils (from the 1920s only), were players on the sidelines of competitive manoeuvre.
Significantly, though, the Sri Lanka Tamil spokesmen invariably referred to themselves as a â€œcommunity” in their representations in English-speak. It was not till 1949 that SJV Chelvanayakam and other leaders, guided indirectly by Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question, vested their people with the badge â€œnation.” Thus, Tamil communitarianism became nationalism proper only in 1949. The SL Tamils, nevertheless, were Ceylonese through and through. So, Tamil nationalism was a sectional identity nestling as an entity within the broader aggregate known as Ceylonese. Here again cricket is a touchstone: Tamils nourished in the primate city of Colombo were among its leading cricketers and cricket administrators, while the Colombo Oval, the home of the Tamil Union, was initially the island’s official cricket arena for international matches. When Ceylon contested teams from the Madras Cricket Association for the Gopalan Trophy annually from the early 1950s, the SL Tamils cheered the Ceylonese to a man.
The ethnic differentiations within the category â€œCeylonese,” of course, were not sustained only by political competition. Their foundational sources were (a) sets of cultural practices that, amidst commonalities, implanted difference in both explicit and insidiously powerful taken-for-granted ways and (b) widespread practices of endogamous marriage among the Sinhalese, Tamils and Moors that were in turn based on the propensity for Sinhalese and Tamil people to marry within their own caste â€“ with the caste identities nestling differentially within each ethnic grouping.
Given such profound sociological foundations, the context of political competition from the 1947 general elections onwards served to widen the split in a disastrous, indeed tragic, manner. This is where the factors stressed at the outset of my essay kicked in â€“ literally kicked in: the geo-politics of demographic distribution, the first-past-the-post electoral system under a Westminster form of constitution in the era 1948-72, the populist currents encouraged by the democratic principle and entrenched strands of historical interpretation which encouraged the Sinhalese majoritarian part (69 % in 1948, but eventually expanding as Indian Tamils shifted, or were shifted, back home) to subsume the Ceylonese whole in ways that implanted hegemonic, indigenist and chauvinist tendencies.
Taken together and in brief, these factors — assisted, paradoxically, by socialist forces attacking the privileges commanded by the Westernized elites — enabled Sinhala (cum Buddhist) forces to surge to power through the ballot in 1956 under a coalition provided by Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike and the SLFP. The key catch-cry was the slogan â€œSinhala Only” which demanded the displacement of English by the Sinhala vernacular as the language of administration and in the process placed the Tamil vernacular in a secondary position. This transformation was quickly carried out and since then the growing power of a bureaucracy staffed by personnel attached to the principles of the â€œ1956 ideology,” with its thread of Sinhala chauvinism, has squeezed the Tamils of Sri Lanka further. In the result, Tamil sectional nationalism became a separatist nationalism demanding the division of the Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) state.
Many studies have clarified the manner in which the language issue and the ramifying implications of the electoral transformation of 1956 resulted in increasing friction between the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese activists and led Tamil leaders to advocate secession or Eelam from the mid-1970s, with the formal adoption of the Vadukoddai Resolution on 14 May 1976 marking this radical shift.
This summary contention was supported recently with a special twist by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam spokesman, Balakumaran. Referring to the recent triumph of Mahinda Rajapakse of the SLFP-led coalition at the Presidential elections of 17 November 2005, he said this election brought back memories of the 1956 election victory of Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, which â€œkick-start[ed] ethnic Sinhalese violence against [the Tamils] that led to eventual war.” Balakumaran added: â€œit [was] because of 1956 that the seeds of the Tamil freedom struggle were sown.â€¦ Banda is the creator of Prabhakaran. Similarly Mahinda’s victory is going to pave the way for Prabhakaran’s victory. Banda started it. Mahinda is going to end it.”
In parenthesis here, let me note that, today, thirty years further down the track, the Tamil separatists themselves and the Sri Lankan state find themselves confronted by a Muslim Moor conglomeration of its dispersed elements (7-8 per cent of the population now and inching upwards steadily), that, however fractionated among themselves, are not only claiming equivalent third party status in any negotiations, but fitfully presenting themselves as a â€œnation” too. As such, they say that they are entitled to some form of regional autonomy in the minute enclave in south-east Lanka that happens to lie within the lands designated as Eelam by Tamil nationalists. Thus, one witnesses Moor communitarianism of the immediate past moulded into a sectional nationalism that is not quite secessionist because it does not wish to breakaway from the Sri Lankan polity. What this movement wants is an adjustment upwards in both status and political clout. This grouping is not only armed with its own ethnic university in the enclave domain, but also bolstered by currents of Islamic fundamentalism and monies from the Arabian Peninsula. So we now have Muslim Moor sectional nationalism as a fourth force in the small island firmament.
Balakumaran’s pithy characterisation of the Sinhala-Tamil divide sums up a tragic tale that has cost countless lives. The spiralling process of conflict can be interpreted as a typical outcome of democratic politics in a cultural context oriented towards revenge and feud. But what is as infuriating as puzzling is the continuous failure of Sinhalese at the apex of power to learn from the past and to effect pragmatic compromises that will save the tenuous unity of the Sri Lankan polity.
Central to this failure is the refusal to countenance the existence of a Tamil nation as a state of mind and legitimate political force. This denial and its blindness regards the leading force of Tamil nationalism since 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as nothing other than terrorists, an epithet that is partly justified, but which, as epithet, obscures accommodation. As I journeyed recently in a trishaw Colombo the driver (a key occupational category at the heart of urban, streetwise perceptions) told me that there was no ethnic problem. There was, he said, only a terrorist problem. It was a flat assertion that did not brook debate. It expressed a quarter truth rendered into whole truth and nothing but the truth, a shibboleth that has been expounded in recent years by many Sinhala politicians and intellectuals. a significant number of them are products of the 1956 overturn and its concomitant ideology. Among these beneficiaries were, and are, the Rajapakse brothers at the apex of the present government and Wiswa Warnapala, one of the architects of the recent farcical SLFP proposals.
As widespread shibboleth the trishaw man’s statement represents one element in a corpus of thought among Sinhalese that is a major obstacle to pragmatic compromise. Yes, there are Tamil dissidents in Lanka and elsewhere who do not side with the LTTE and a few who even hate them. It may be good realpolitik to drive a wedge between such Tamils and the LTTE. But these Tamils are caught in a sandwich situation between the proverbial rock and hard place. Those living in Sinhala majority regions are only too aware of the prejudices around them and the force of the 1956 mind-set, while having to put up with difficulties posed by the regular security checks (necessary as the latter are). Thus I return to my starting point: a mind-set nourished on a specific historical understanding and solidified in power by a legitimizing democratic process in 1956. This mind-set has buried itself in a cave â€“ I shall call it Citadel Colombo. Over the past fifty years this ‘cavish,’ inbred nativism has generated another adamantine nationalism that is now bunkered down in its very own ‘forested caves’ in Mullaitivu. The two are embroiled in a deadly embrace of war, feeding off each other and both as uncompromising as the other. Between the two of them, Citadel Colombo and Bunker Mullaitivu, the Sri Lankan nation has been split asunder.
Confederative Sri Lankan nationalism is dying.
Michael Roberts was educated at St. Aloysius College, Galle and the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, which awarded him First Class Honour’s in History. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Merton College, Oxford in 1962, where he earned a D.Phil degree in History in 1965. He taught History at Peradeniya University in 1961 – 1962 and 1966 – 75. He joined the Department of Anthroplogy of the University of Adelaide in early 1977, where he is now an Adjunct Associate Professor. Amongst many books, he has also written a large number of articles on a wide range of subjects including agragrian policy in British Ceylon, the ideological programme of Anagarika Dharmapala and the LTTE cult of suicide. He resides in Australia.