Our Sri Lankan Identity: Another Case of ‘Being Nobody, Going Nowhere’?
(AP Photo/Manish Swarup, from JDS)
The 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture delivered by Kumar Sangakkara was indeed a very thoughtful, courageous and passionate one. Much has been written about the lecture, and it is not necessary to repeat how inspiring it was. But there is that poignant final paragraph in Sangakkara’s lecture which has contributed in numerous ways to a resurgence of an old debate concerning our Sri Lankan identity and what it ought to mean in our contemporary post-war Sri Lanka. The relevant paragraph is as follows:
“Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.”
The above words did, undoubtedly, touch and move many people. But it needs to be acknowledged, that the above words are that of a cricketer who represents the Sri Lankan cricket team. It is obvious then that Sangakkara had to stress the obvious: that in representing Sri Lanka he is Sri Lankan, today, always, proudly. That sense of being Sri Lankan is a feeling that all of us who are proud Sri Lankans share and feel when supporting our cricket team. So while Sangakkara’s words were indeed inspiring, they meant something we all understand, something quite obvious.
Yet, when it comes to the issue of addressing problems affecting diverse ethnic groups within that very same multi-ethnic country, adopting a Sri Lankan approach or approaching the problems as Sri Lankans would indeed sound noble and laudable but mean very little in practical political terms.
Now, this popular demand – think like Sri Lankans, act like Sri Lankans, adopt a Sri Lankan approach when resolving Sri Lankan problems – can be one which stems from a genuine and honest idealism, and it needs to be acknowledged that there are numerous good-intentioned individuals who make that demand. And the efforts made by such individuals and the idealism that drives them to adopt such a position should be appreciated. But this demand can be made with different motives in mind and for different reasons too, especially by a government faced with mounting criticism on various fronts internationally. It could also well be a demand which comes not because of any genuine concern for the people, but very simply because of the hidden frustration of having to address demands which are made, and have been made over decades, by a particular ethnic group.
There are a number of questions that arise here. For example: what is so unique about approaching problems from a more Sri Lankan-oriented perspective?; is this a meaningful demand or suggestion given the complexity of the problems inherent especially in a multi-ethnic State (as opposed to a mono-ethnic State)?; is this Sri Lankan identity an all-embracing multi-ethnic identity which overcomes problems posed by other more narrow ethnic-based identities, and are there any specific and distinct solutions one who is adopting such a special Sri Lankan identity can offer?; who interprets or defines this Sri Lankan identity and what that identity-holder should advocate or stand for in the realm of politics?
A number of factors need to be borne in mind.
Firstly, it is incorrect to suggest (if indeed this suggestion is sought to be made by any one) that you inherited your Sri Lankan identity before any other ethnic, religious or linguistic identity. Those who do tend to make this claim, and it is a very rhetorical one, never explain how exactly this happens, especially at the moment of birth.
Secondly, it needs to be realized that one cannot claim that one particular ‘identity’ is good, and another ‘identity’ is essentially bad or dangerous. Deep attachment, pride and glorification of any identity can lead to much suffering, and there is absolutely no guarantee that a Sri Lankan identity is far more peace-loving than a Sinhala or Tamil identity, and vice-versa, unless they all are based on a moral and ethical foundation that promotes peace and tolerance. Importantly, much depends on what you make of whatever identity you espouse.
And all identities are defined and formulated according to one’s own political predilections, and one cannot in all seriousness expect any objectivity in engaging in that exercise of definition or formulation. As Prof. Michael Roberts once pithily observed: “there is no such thing as hundred percent objectivity” (Michael Roberts (ed.), Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited, Vol II, p. xiv) – but what this assertion should help one realize is that even one percent of subjectivity can make all the difference concerning how one approaches and attempts to resolve a problem. As many would know, this is also an observation that naturally flows from the teachings of the Buddha. As the Buddha noted: “Led by one’s own wishes (chanda) and established on one’s own likes (ruci), how can one go beyond one’s own views? Acting upon what one has perfected, as one knows, so one speaks.” (quoted in David J. Kalupahana, The Buddha and the Concept of Peace, 1999, p. 99). So if the argument is that a problematic identity should be replaced by another, we need to quickly realize that by attempting to create a new identity what we are doing is actually the recreation of those very same problems of subjectivity we wish to resolve.
This is quite obvious, when one takes note of the manner in which various people have defined what it means to be Sri Lankan over the past decades and in relation to the current conflict. For some Sri Lankans, there should be no talk about the need to accommodate different ‘nations’ within the Sri Lankan nation-state, because some genuinely fear that such talk would only polarize the people. There are those Sri Lankans who are extremely skeptical about devolution, and within that broad category there are those who believe, while advocating democracy, equality and human rights, that if devolution is indeed necessary, it should be realized by fully preserving Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (see for example, CG Weeramantry, A Call for national Reawakening, p. 144). Furthermore, there are those who favour a federal solution and they too are indeed Sri Lankans. The difference here being that for those who advocate federalism, their understanding of what that Sri Lankan identity ought to mean necessarily involves a reference to, inter alia, the sharing of power in the form of federalism. And within that broad category of federalists, there are the numerous sub-categories as well, such as liberal federalists and those who might be called social democratic federalists or confederalists (see for instance Rohan Edrisinha, ‘Federalism: Myths and Realities’ in Rohan Edrisinha/ Asanga Welikala (eds.), Essays on Federalism in Sri Lanka, 2008, p. 106).
Hence, the varied interpretations of being Sri Lankan or what that ought to mean. So what then does one mean by being truly Sri Lankan and approaching problems as Sri Lankans? What happens if one wants to be considered a Sri Lankan Sinhalese, or a Sri Lankan Tamil?
Thirdly, it is well to realize that while there are problems common to all peoples belonging to a State, there are critical problems affecting specific peoples within a State too. A broad, all embracing, vague and abstract Sri Lankan identity which does not attempt to address critical ethnic problems is, unfortunately, a somewhat useless identity, because the moment someone tosses the simple question – how do you resolve the issue of devolution? – you inevitably fall back on an essentially ethnic problem. And the problem here is that the ethnic problem is within the State, and the ethnic groups are, indeed, Sri Lankan. And the answer – let’s approach the problem as Sri Lankans and resolve it as Sri Lankans – does not, unfortunately, mean anything substantive or useful, since you can do the same by approaching the problem as a Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim if necessary.
Consider for instance the approach adopted by the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who, when interviewed once by the NHK in September 2004 stated the following:
“I am first and foremost a citizen of Sri Lanka. I don’t carry labels of race or religion, or any other label. I would say quite simply that I have grown up with the philosophy that I am probably, kind of a citizen of the world. I don’t subscribe to any particular philosophy; I have no fanaticism; I have no communism. I am not impressed by any body’s claim to the race… I believe there should be a united Sri Lanka. I believe that all our peoples can live together, they did live together. I think they must in future learn to live together after this trauma is over.”
Now, here was a ‘quintessential Sri Lankan’. But what was his approach to the ethnic demand for power-sharing? His Sri Lankan identity did not lead him to argue that there was no ethnic problem, or that there was no ethnic-demand for political power-sharing in Sri Lanka (while he was opposed to the use of the term ‘civil-war’ which was employed to describe the armed conflict). He never evaded the question hiding behind his Sri Lankan identity. His position was very clear. While he believed that there should be a “just, fair and equitable” solution and that “it is the establishment or re-establishment of democracy with the participation of the people that is ultimately the best guarantee of all against secession or separation”, he had argued quite forcefully, before pointing out why the 13th Amendment failed (because it was “not allowed to work” and was “not being implemented in any meaningful sense”), that:
“If true democracy is re-established there and the people are given the autonomy, which they deserve and which is common now in so many parts of the world, they will respect it. They would be grateful for that. They will work for it” (See speech made in Parliament during the tabling of the Constitutional amendment proposal on 8th August 2000).
My argument here is that you can think the way the late Lakshman Kadirgamar thought about it (and arrive at a pro-devolution based solution), or you can think from the perspective of a Sinhalese or Tamil who thinks power-sharing is absolutely essential – and still arrive at the same conclusion!
So, that demand exists and it’s a demand which has to be addressed, and it doesn’t matter to the people whether one calls himself a Sri Lankan first, or a Sri Lankan Tamil, or a Tamil Sri Lankan or a Sinhala-Buddhist, as long as a solution is provided because that is what the people expect.
Without digressing too much, it should also be noted here that interestingly, Lakshman Kadirgamar was the most favoured politician of some who have been opposed to the idea of devolution, but it is rather strange that some of them completely ignore how Kadirgamar approached the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. While it is necessary to recognize the concerns of those who are genuinely skeptical about devolution, it is well to realize that the genuine advocacy of devolution of powers is certainly not a ‘Tamil Eelamist’ position to take: unless of course one argues that Kadirgamar was a Tamil Eelamist too.
Fourthly, and finally, I believe what is necessary is not some vague and idealistic Sri Lankan identity (even though there is great potential in idealism and we all are driven by some form of idealism), but rather a more rational and critical Sri Lankan identity, if it is indeed a truly Sri Lankan identity that is sought to be created and is thought to be necessary to resolve problems in post-war Sri Lanka. No identity or label should retard one’s ability to think beyond that label when and where necessary. Even when treading the political ‘middle path’, such labels should not hinder a person’s ability to critique rationally the injustices meted out to people belonging to any single ethnic group. Protecting national sovereignty is necessary, and that is considered by some to be the defining characteristic of a Sri Lankan identity; but it needs to be realized that protecting sovereignty can be done in numerous ways and that there cannot be any suffering caused to the people in the process of protecting and safeguarding sovereignty.
No identity or label that is defined and imposed by others should stifle an individual’s voice where it is seen that grave harm is caused to another who, as Jesus Christ would have taught, should be treated as your brother. This is especially so concerning the specific and serious problems affecting the people in the North. It is deplorable in this respect if any attempts are being made by this regime or responsible individuals representing it, to belittle the seriousness of the attacks directed at Tamil politicians and the Tamil people in particular who have, for decades, undergone enough suffering due to an armed conflict. It is not only action but also words which can go a long way in recreating the wheel of violence which should be avoided.
Furthermore, it is perhaps important to remember that any Sri Lankan identity should fundamentally be one which celebrates the diversity of opinions, views and ideas that people genuinely and ardently hold on to in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural polity. Whether one is comfortable with a view or not, it needs to be recognised that no progress of any kind will take place unless the people are guaranteed the freedom to raise their voice and opinion on what they believe to be the ideal political solution to the conflict within a united Sri Lanka, whether or not that opinion is popular within the State and among its people. Unless and until that happens, our much proclaimed Sri Lankan identity will be a classic case of ‘being nobody, going nowhere’, meaningless, useless. We will be card-carrying Sri Lankans, with our freedom and ability to think critically, rationally and logically sucked out; in short, a Sri Lankan who is not worth the card he is carrying.