Photo via blackjuly.info

The Politics of Identity

It seems all too obvious that the regular cycles of violence that have emerged in our recent history since 1915 are distinctly communal in character. Indeed, every battle of every war in our history has always been characterised as those between communities on either side of cultural or religious divisions. However, there are two problems with that conclusion. The first is that Sri Lanka is – generally – and ethnically homogenous country consisting of an ancient mix of North Indian, South Indian, Persian, Arabian and South East Asian ethnic groups that have lost much of their distinct differences. Vestiges of the diverse cultures that settled and mixed in this tiny cosmopolitan island that lay in the path of the busiest trade routes of the ancient world, can be found in the names of its peoples. The fact that Sinhalese has always been natively spoken uniquely in Sri Lanka bear testimony to the fact that we were never a distinct ethnic group that migrated to this island en-mass, but that our unique identity evolved as a result of the mixing of diverse cultures over hundreds – I f not thousands – of years. Before the British built our modern road network and motorised transportation made it possible for us to traverse the length or breadth of this island in under a day, we only travelled long distances to migrate and settle. Much like the Sri Lankan migrants of today who settle in foreign lands adapt the native tongue of those countries, those of our ancestors and their children who settled in Tamil speaking areas became Tamil and those who settled in Sinhalese areas became Sinhalese. That is why Sri Lankan Tamils share closer genetic ties with their Sinhala brethren than they do with their Indian cousins. Those from similar caste backgrounds inter-married and when Sinhalese kings could not find suitable brides from among their clansmen, they brought married Tamil princesses from South India.

Though the educated elites of a previous generation had used their privileged status to entrench their power and influence rather than to empower the masses, limited land ownership and the universal franchise has shifted political power to the masses even though the middle class still occupied the high seats of enterprise. But even as the politically irrelevant English speaking elite controlled much of the economy, the ‘sarong jonnies’ that they had sidelined and patronised, had become the power brokers in our fledgling democracy. Yet, the more our world changed in the decades after the end of the colonial project, the more it stayed the same. Reforms of the national language policy would give the native languages – Sinhala, and later Tamil – the prominence they deserved and empower the popular masses that had been disadvantaged by their lack of English language proficiency. But even though British were no longer our rulers, English was still the language of a different kind of hegemonic empire. American power and trade that shaped the post WW II world would not only retain but enhance the relevance of English as the language that would link their empire: or the global village.

To the extent that we think in words, those who could speak and read English would inevitably be transformed by that in ways that monolingual Sinhala and Tamil speaker weren’t. On one hand, they were exposed to a broader flow of information; and on the other, they would absorb western liberal values and worldview. The masses who were the kingmakers in our democracy, spoke only their mother tongue for the most part. That not only shielded them from the liberal democratic values that are usually associated with a vibrant democracy, but also limited their ability to interact with and understand the diverse cultures and communities that constituted the modern state of Sri Lanka. From those early years since independence, these socio-political imbalances and the persistence of feudal traditions of a sheltered and insecure society, stood in the way of meaningful democratisation.

Even though we have coexisted in this land from time immemorial, most Sinhalese and a large number of Tamils do not speak or understand each other’s languages. Is that why the Sinhalese and Tamils went to war against each other? Well, it’s not so clear that they did. Apart from the riots of July 1983, Sinhalese and Tamils not only coexisted but mingled with each other in the southern half of Sri Lanka largely on peaceful and cooperative terms. The tales we still hear about Sinhalese families sheltering their Tamil friends weren’t aberrations of reality – those who did were merely acting on the natural impulses. Even through the riots of 1915, a majority of Sinhalese and Muslims got along just fine. Therefore, differences in language, culture and faith do not offer straightforward answers to questions about the causes of conflict.

The cycles of violent conflicts in post independent Sri Lanka are described in the language of identity politics, as “youth insurrections”, “race riots” and “religious tension”. Yet we do not pay attention to who was involved and who wasn’t, why did some choose to fight while others chose not to? These are not easy questions to grapple with, let alone answer. But if we are to try sincerely and earnestly, we must pay attention to the details. First we must understand that the greatest burden that the British left behind was the useful, but nevertheless unnatural, idea of the modern state. In the many thousands of years that a myriad nationalities and tribes had lived side by side in the East, we never had state borders. Yet in the wake of independence, the various constellations of nationalities that the British had mixed and matched throughout the empire were hastily grouped together and state boarders were drawn by novice barristers to contain them; where no river or mountain existed to mediate the conflicts that would eventually erupt among them. We must also acknowledge that the words ‘class’ and ‘caste’ have not lost their socio political relevance in Sri Lanka. They are often the ultimate arbitrator that determines the suitability of not only presidents and MPs who seek office, but even of principals, teachers, prelates and bishops.