Back to Basics: The Need for an Honest Conversation About ‘Sri Lankanness’ and ‘Sri Lankan identity’

Photo credit Sri Lanka Guardian

Groundviews pages are engaged in an important debate on the nature of Sri Lankan identity, a debate that is not new but rehearsed as a response primarily to Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey lecture and to a lesser extent the exchange that I[1] had with Indi Samarajiva on Al Jazeera stream. Less than 10 minutes on Al Jazeera’s stream was obviously insufficient to articulate my views on ‘Sri Lankanness’ as a matter of belongingness and identity. I take this space to elaborate on my views on this debate.

Let me first reiterate what I said in the interview. For me the political and social content of the ‘Sri Lankan’ identity in the island’s political praxis is one that identifies with a particular ideology – Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Note that in making this claim that I do not necessarily link Sri Lankan identity’s exclusivity with persons or even a particular community – I refer to an ideology. (This I say to recognize that there are Sinhala Buddhists who do not share the Sinhala Buddhist political ideology and also because there are non-Sinhala Buddhists who adopt the Sinhala Buddhist ideology). The point in a few words is that the idea of Sri Lankanness is identified in practice with the dominant political ideology in Sri Lanka. That states – including liberal democratic ones – act to consolidate in institutional terms the dominant influence of a particular identity has been studied quite in detail. Those who wish to make a head start in this area may want to read Will Kymlicka’s ground breaking work titled ‘Multicultural Citizenship’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

One may have idealised futuristic visions for the Sri Lankan identity. I also have no doubt that a reconstruction of the Sri Lankan identity in a plural sense is a necessary project. But when those who take part in the Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic project assert ‘Sri Lankanness’, as Rajapaksha did in his end-of-the-war speech (the no-minorities in Sri Lanka speech) many quite rightly suspected the motives behind such an agenda. To assert Sri Lankanness within the present political status quo (without challenging it) is to sign up to this agenda of Sinhala Buddhist hegemonism.

What Indi like many other English-speaking, Colombo-cosmopolitans (including Kumar Sangakkara I am afraid[2] and also Romesh Hettiarachchi (tweets here) like many other second generation cosmopolitan diaspora types), represent, is with respect, a poorly conceived cosmopolitan desire that seeks to transcend ethnic divisions without acknowledging the link that the Sri Lankan identity has with the dominant political ideology. Indi is quite militant and barbaric in advocating this approach. I claim that he is militant because he says we cannot call issues faced by Tamils qua Tamils as Tamil issues but only as ‘Sri Lankan’ issues.  I say barbaric because he gives examples that he thinks are entertaining (‘cool’ stuff he probably thinks) but which are deeply infuriating and offensive. He compares the challenges posed by poor regulation of traffic in Colombo with that of the challenges faced by Tamils. He thinks the plight of the Tamils is comparable to those experienced by elephants that have been denied access to their ‘homelands’ (Also see blog post here. Peter Singer will be thrilled that Indi transcends ‘speciesism’ but I am no fan of Peter Singer). But let’s ignore these rhetorical outbursts (which however show contempt and disregard for the plight of people who go through on a daily basis existential threats) and focus on the more important assertion that he makes, which many liberals (the orthodox types or more commonly known as the Liberalism I types), the lefts (again the more orthodox types) share. It must be noted that Indi is slightly confusing in what he exactly seeks to advocate. He seems to be for abandoning the Tamil label for the Sri Lankan label not just as an approach (this is his desire of ‘reframing the debate’ as claimed on the AJ Stream interview) but also that it is the best way of looking at solutions. I will first respond to the approach question. If we address the approach question then we can deal with the question of what is the best way of finding solutions.

There is a hint of the old debate here: lets abandon the particular (identities such as Tamil/Sinhalese/Muslim) for the universal (Sri Lankan?). I think that it is important to move from the particular to the universal and not to dichotomise the relationship between the two. If we take this approach I think we can both avoid the abstractness of universalism, which does not help us understand the link between ethical duty and personal identity and  at the same time avoid the charge leveled against particularists that  they fail to subject human bonds to rational scrutiny. Let me defend the particular then.

Implicit in Indi’s and Romesh’s articulation for the preeminence of the Sri Lankan identity is that the latter is progressive and that other identities such as Tamil are regressive and divisive. It believes that ethnic, religious and other communitarian groups are bad for the individual. It rests on poor understandings of the contribution that a communitarian setting makes to the well being of an individual. In the next few paragraphs I shall draw from one of Oxford’s most celebrated political and legal philosopher of recent times, Joseph Raz to articulate a better understanding of pluralism, identity and community[3].

To understand identity we need to first understand the reality of ‘value pluralism’. Value pluralism is the view that many different activities and forms of life, which are incompatible, are valuable. Plurality and mutual exclusivity of valuable activities and forms is a commonplace. Unlike in a reductive monist view – value pluralism says that you cannot get the same happiness or pleasure from different alternatives. What one loses is of a different form from what one gains. Hence, Raz argues, tension is endemic in plural societies – an inevitable concomitant of accepting the truth of value pluralism.  (Contrast Raz with Brian Barry whom Indi may like. Barry: ““Precisely because human beings are virtually identical as they come from the hand of nature — at any rate at the level of groups — there is nothing straightforwardly absurd about the idea that there is a single best way for human beings to live, allowing whatever adjustments are necessary for different physical environments”[4] Brian Barry is obviously out of touch with the sociological reality of value pluralism. I don’t think I need to say anything further about this cultural, value monism).

If we accept a value pluralist approach to social and political life then constructing the case for identity and the importance of membership in a cultural group– becomes easier. The following sequence of arguments drawn from Raz I hope helps establish this link.

Kymlicka in largely Razian tradition has similarly talked about the group that an individual belongs as providing for the ‘context of choice’ – the context within which individuals make their choices.  Most multicultural and plurinationalist theorists rely on Kymlicka’s and Raz’s approach to identity to expound on their theories.

The above I hope is a sufficient defence for the importance of recognizing an individual’s membership in a social, cultural group. It also I hope makes a convincing case as to why its important for liberals to recognize the importance of group membership and its place in public life. Raz in a co-authored piece titled ‘National Self Determination’ after showing the intrinsically valuable reasons for recognising cultural groups in social life further considers whether such groups should have the right to self-government. While arguing that a right to self- government in itself is not necessarily an intrinsic right he argues that it is an important instrumental right. Stepehen Tierney is much more clearer in this regard. Self determination according Tierney is a principle of political morality that provides each demos (people/community) within the state a qualified right to determine its own constitutional future[6]This to me provides the philosophical context to enter into a debate on how we restructuring the state in Sri Lanka. I shall not detail on this here.

Let us come back to the case for a ‘Sri Lankan identity’ and delver a little deeper now. Those who stand for a Sri Lankan identity are only half way cosmopolitans. Indi and Romesh will be at a loss to explain what’s so special about the ‘Sri Lankan’ identity as opposed to a more universal identity – why not stress our identity as humans. Why? Does it sound too naïve? Those who rely on a strand of universalism but still are adamant about ‘Sri Lankan’ as the universal are closeted statists. They can argue that they are dealing with Sri Lanka as a historical/ sociological reality. This is true, but so is the Tamil identity and equally the Sinhala, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil identity. In fact for reasons that I hope that are obvious the Sri Lankan identity is historically a later creation (I haven’t touched in this piece the contested political etymology of ‘Sri Lanka’). If at all people only have a second order belongingness to it – if they have one at all. I don’t dispute that there is overlap between the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim identities. In fact nothing is straight jacketed. But to overstate the overlap is misleading and to do so would lead us  inadvertently to the flaws of focusing on individuals without reference to the context within which they make choices. This ignores the arguments that Raz and many others have made – I have already made references to this debate. Let me also make one more thing clear. I don’t seek to glorify Tamil nationalism in saying what I have said in this piece. I think there are some serious pathologies that are attached to Tamil nationalism in concept and practice. However I don’t subscribe to the view that nationalisms are intrinsically ‘bad’. I am not going to demonstrate this point any further but to refer readers to the work of Will Kymlicka, Neil MacCormick, Michael Keating, Neil Walker and Stephen Tierney on the matter. I actually think that the nationalisms of sub-state societies have the potential and have demonstrated in the past, the capacity to be a progressive source of politics. For those looking for contemporary examples of progressive sub-state nationalism I would refer them to the politics of the Scottish National Party and its leader Alex Salmond, currently the First Minister of Scotland.

Here is an excerpt from a recent speech[7]:

“Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales – together we do have much to celebrate – the English language of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Edwin Morgan himself


“So there is much we share, that is a given. But the nations of these islands are also distinctive, with our own unique history and culture, our own economic challenges and our own opportunities. Some of us believe the best way to articulate that uniqueness and tackle those challenges lies within ourselves – and should be fully expressed within the work of this Parliament”

I have elsewhere articulated the need for conceiving Tamil nationalism in a positive sense and similarly for the other different nations in Sri Lanka to assert themselves in a way that does not threaten each other[8]. This I believe is the only way to progressively move towards a plurinational Sri Lanka.

I hope that it is obvious that taking the approach that I have suggested is the best way of looking at solutions as well. The plurinational Sri Lankan identity can never be constructed without acknowledging and recognising (institutionally) the significance of other identities that evoke a sense of belongingness and community. I would think that those who take Tamil grievances seriously (meaning those who don’t think it is similar to traffic problems in Colombo or the issue of elephant homelands) would identify them as stemming out of a particular experience.  The issues stemming out of such experiences can only be understood properly if acknowledged as emerging out of such particularisms.  Hence to find the right solutions we cant generalize – if we do, then we don’t understand the problem. If we don’t understand the problem then we cant get to the stage of talking about solutions. To do so would be to put the cart before the horse. One final example with which Indi may be able to relate to, given his self understanding as a “Sri Lankan American Canadian Blogger”: To acknowledge and recognize that African-Americans have problems for the reason of being African- Americans is essential to finding solutions faced by African Americans. Barack Obama’s Presidency does not mean African American problems are resolved. The sort of colour blind policies that animated the early period of the civil rights movement have been quite convincingly shown to be wrongly conceived.  Rajapaksa speaking in Tamil does not mean Tamils don’t have a problem anymore.  That we still have to make these very basic and fundamental points does not augur well for the future of Sri Lanka. Contra Dayan Jayatilleke I sincerely hope that this is not the Sri Lankan Tahrir square generation[9]. But Dayan probably is right. And if he is right I think there is cause for worry. And in saying this I think I do better service to the development of a more inclusive Sri Lankan identity that those who wish to run the cart without the horse.

[Editors note: Key background articles include A ‘Sri Lankan identity’ and race relations and the Bundlr bundle on tweets exchanged between the author, Indi Samarajeeva, Romesh Hettiarachchi and others after the broadcast of the Al Jazeera video.]

[1] The anonymity of Aachcharya, I realise, is surrendered with this piece.

[2] Though Sangakkara to his credit did not seek to prescribe or preach and hence I do not doubt his bona fides. Nevertheless it suffers from the same conceptual/ political flaws that I attribute to Indi Samarajiva.

[3] Joseph Raz, Ethics in the Public Domain: Essays in the Morality of Law and Politics, (Oxford: OUP, 1994) 170- 192

[4] Brian Barry, Culture and Equality, ‘An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism’ (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001), p 262

[5] Raz and Kymlicka have dealt extensively (particularly the latter) regarding the right of an individual to exit from a community. I have made no reference to these important arguments here for lack of space.

[6] Stephen Tierney, Constitutional Law and National Pluralism, (Oxford, OUP, 2004) 125

[7] Speech delivered by Alex Salmond in response to the Queen’s speech when she came to officially inaugurate the 4th Scottish Parliament on 01 July 2011. Salmond, in this speech shows remarkable affinity with the work of the former deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, Late Prof Neil MacCormick (of Edinburgh University and formerly with Balliol College, Oxford) by his use of terminology that transcends and avoids the orthodox political references of ‘State’ and ‘Sovereignty’ and prefers the language of ‘commonwealth’ (drawing from David Hume the great Scottish philosopher) and ‘partnership’.

[8] Kumaravadivel Guruparan, Situating the Tamil Nationalist Project in Post-War Sri Lanka: Some Reflections on the Plurinationalist Discourse (Unpublished paper) presented at