Photo courtesy British High Commission, Sri Lanka
What do our new generation of parents, friends and neighbours, colleagues at work and future leaders think about cultural supremacy?
64% of Sri Lankans aged 15 to 29 believe their culture is superior compared to other cultures, according to the National Youth Survey. If this figure is representative, it is a startling statistic. How and whether equality and respect are compatible with this belief is not clear.
What is clear, though, is that continuing to tackle cultural supremacy remains urgent and necessary.
Because treating one another as equals and with respect is the principled and right thing to do. For a self-respecting and other-respecting person, prioritising self and one’s own culture, race or religion becomes unnecessary. A noble path embracing sacred values of metta (kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (vicarious joy) and upekha (equanimity) is unlikely to require supremacy of one way of living over others. Likewise, taming the ego; or treating one’s neighbour as one would oneself. There are many metaphorical paths and each of us will reason and choose what works best. And so, a right-thinking person will find curious that anyone should want foremost place be given to one set of values which exclude some of us and cannot, however noble, apply to all of us equally.
Because cultivating and preferring monolithic identities is simplistic: each of us has many identities and draw from many communities. As Nobel-prize winning economist and Harvard Professor of Philosophy, Amartya Sen, explains:
“There are great variety of categories to which we simultaneously belong. I can be, at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife. This is just a small sample of diverse categories to each of which I may simultaneously belong”
Because multiculturalism is Sri Lanka’s norm. It has been so for centuries. It’s our present – and our certain future. Sri Lanka is less plural and culturally diverse now than it was in the decades immediately after independence. During the 1950s and 1960s, we had among the highest numbers of our Veddah, Burgher, Plantation, Eurasian and Other communities. If there is any correlation, between our attitudes of cultural supremacy, ideas about equality and respect, multiculturalism and our diversity, it is worth exploring.
Because figures like 64%, which is nearly 2 out of every 3, make us susceptible to exploitation and incitement to violence; which is harmful, as we know from our history and riots as recent as 2014.
Because supremacy is not a credible basis for designing and delivering policies and outcomes for us.
We have experienced democratic arrangements and ways of living which gave pre-eminence to equality and no legitimacy to State sponsored supremacy. Memory of these are not lost; respect and fair play continue to be valued. That’s where the 36% who do not identify with supremacy are.
The V Dem statistics for Sri Lanka in the table below tell a story about our democracy in numbers. Following independence, our democracy did relatively well in the 1950s and 1960s. It diminished dramatically from the early 1970s onwards, for reasons unrelated to the wars to come. It suffered further during the war. It showed no meaningful improvement from the end of war to 2014.*
* Statistics beyond 2014 are not available.
These numerical clues about our democracy are not only revealing, they are plausible. Relatively speaking, the 1950s and 1960s were decades of peace and equality, robust governance and fair systems: of parliamentary accountability, stable government and checks and balances. There was no constitutional tolerance for cultural supremacy. Our democracy guaranteed equality to all races and religions and Parliament was constrained from violating this fundamental value. These were the foundational conditions on which freedom was given and received. Politics could operate and power be shared within this paradigm. Should the powerful overreach, they could be held to account.
Good enough things, good enough times, good enough numbers. Our stories show this.
Mr Liyanage, a civil servant, attempted to overthrow the Government in 1962. Our parliamentarians responded by enacting legislation to ensure the criminality of the abortive coup. The legislation applied retrospectively and only to those who had played a role in the coup. Mr Liyanage and his co-conspirators challenged the legislation in Court. They argued the Constitution does not permit Parliament to make criminal laws that apply retrospectively or only to a group of identified individuals. Our apex Court agreed, declared the legislation unconstitutional and quashed their convictions. Later, Mr Liyanage returned to employment in the public service. Our systems worked.
We have our own Rosa Parks story. Mr Kodeeswaran was denied a pay increase, when he failed to meet the official language standard required by his employer. The language standard was different to the one in which he had been employed to work. He challenged the legality of his employer’s decision and the language standard. In 1964, he succeeded. The district court judge ruled in his favour. The judge also found the legislation imposing the language standard violated the constitutional guarantee of equality and declared it unconstitutional. Some years later, the district court judge was promoted by the government to the Supreme Court: however politically inconvenient the judge’s decision was for the government, it did not deter the judge from being professional or prevent the judge’s career prospects from advancing. Our systems worked.
Stories from fifty years later, in the 2010s, do contrast: after the Supreme Court identified a procedural requirement which had to be complied with by the Parliament, in 2013, the Chief Justice was unduly removed. In January 2015, as news emerged of a coup attempt, the replacement Chief Justice was reportedly loitering with the alleged coup plotters.
The 1950s and 1960s were not all rosy. The disenfranchisement of Plantation workers and 1958 riots demonstrated our capacity to discriminate and engage in harmful conduct. As the stories above show, the powerful did overreach; but they were held to account by another power within the system. We checked and balanced. We were capable of containing excesses. We did this by ourselves. We can take cues from what we did well and avoid mistakes made then and since.
The point is not about returning to the 1950s and 1960s though. In 1972 Sri Lanka adopted a new constitution and was right to sever imperial links in becoming a republic; but, we erred in how we designed and implemented key governance and equality arrangements. It was in the 1970s that our parliamentarians dismantled important structures and systems, which had served Mr Liyanage, Mr Kodeeswaran, and us, well. Our 1970s decision-makers’ loosened fundamentals that anchored our prosperity and peace; fundamentals which could have been augmented, without their Britannic provenance. In politics, a stain was to lie.
During the 1970s, we recklessly abandoned constitutional limitations on political power, hollowed out racial and religious equality, conferred steroidal power on parliament and subjugated our judiciary to subservience. Perhaps our decision-makers thought themselves well-intentioned. Maybe they were naive; cunning; experimental; wicked. If the dawn of the republic was meant to deliver a new hope, it was for someone living in a galaxy far away.
We imprudently declared some people more equal than others, opening up democratic space for inequality and supremacy; whereas, previously, we constitutionally prioritised equal respect for all, giving preferred place only to equality. We forged a unitary way, needlessly confining a functional State in a straitjacket; whereas, previously the State’s freedom to share power was not so constricted. Unitary became a singular refrain, signalling a fearful and fearsome state:
A unitary way to rule them all
A unitary way to fight them
A unitary way to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them?
This myopic vision of unrestrained power and democratic weakening continued. In 1978, the new Constitution created the Executive Presidency, concentrating extraordinary power in one person, the Executive President. It says something about the Executive Presidency, that Presidents elected since then have promised to abolish the office. Once they slipped into it, wills withered and they preferred to keep their precious office.
These assaults we unleashed on robust governance, fair systems, enduring peace and equality had corrupting and lasting effects. We showed ourselves unworthy of being trusted with unchecked power. We betrayed each other about ways in which our freedom was shared. We lost one another, including to other countries. Reason and right gave way to might. Disrespect and unfair play became ascendant. We began riots, insurrection and war. We did great harm.
Dark things, dark times. We battled over ideology and territory and much else. We killed one another. We became known for numbers of us killed. This was no misfortune of happenstance.
Direct damage: Sri Lankans. Collateral damage: Sri Lankans. Casualty: our democracy.
This ancient, blessed, and magical paradise: divided. Too little, we anticipated life’s suffering wrought from giving succour to supremacy. Too late, we understood unitary did not mean united.
All the while, many good and able Sri Lankans tried to do well by us and did well by us. Sri Lankans struggled and continued to struggle. Helpful things happened in those decades: ongoing public education and health care, occasional democratic enhancements, initial steps to decentralise and devolve power, peace-making attempts, war’s cessation in 2009 and an end to emergency rule.
In war’s afterglow, we dreamed. In the euphoria of growth, we saw glimmers of gold. We imagined balance would be restored and we could heal in peace. Perhaps we hoped too much and too quickly, floundering and prevaricating in the wake of triumphalism’s burgeoning maelstrom.
As we experienced democracy’s continuing deterioration, we were numb to resist, as if a sleepless malaise had taken hold. We muttered in our cups about pretensions of familial immortality, as if mesmerised by a quest for the deathly hallows. A peace-less malice of white van rendered disappearances, national socialism inspired bullying and vulgar expressions of power enveloped us.
Until, in 2015, we said enough.
Slivers of faint silver linings can be glimpsed amidst the whitening clouds of peace.
A new President promised the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was a small step towards abolition and re-established the independence of key authorities designed to check and balance. A 2016 code of conduct for parliamentarians requires them to act in the public interest and without discrimination. In 2016, we sang our national anthem in two languages in the capital, publicly and officially; our Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to the anthem being sung in this way.
An ongoing constitutional reform process has the potential to build robust governance, fair systems, enduring peace and equality. Unlike in 1972 and 1978, we were consulted; we expect to be consulted more and to be asked for our consent. This time may be the best and last opportunity in a generation to build consensus to deliver these reforms. An unprecedented national unity government of former political adversaries and a moderate opposition in Parliament is instrumental. If the reforms succeed we will create something meaningful and sustainable, as we approach 70 years of independence and look to our future. Yet, this reform process hovers precariously. Courageous decisions need to be taken by us and our leaders.
Even as we remain people under the Sun, Moon and Stars, a fabled people of Serendib delighting in life’s vicissitudes, the vagaries of luck are not a reliable guide. Whether we succeed depends on all of us: thinking and acting critically and empathetically; working harder in our everyday actions to expand space for reason and informed choice; being mindful of the self-interest and intolerance within each of us; showing a different way to friend and foe who counsel fear and anxiety; resisting supremacy fuelled baubles and impulses; maintaining vigilance against the lingering malevolence that perennially seeks to spoil. We could reach deep into our rich traditions of respect and fair play and call on an inheritance that draws from Asoka, Akbar, Gandhi, elsewhere and beyond. We showed our capacity to do so before: we can have good things, good times and good numbers.
If we want peace and equality, our democratic arrangements need to be different to or better than they were from 1972 to 2014. Put another way: when our democratic arrangements are different to or better than they were from 1972 to 2014, peace and equality are more likely and durable. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans once knew, managed, and enjoyed robust governance, fair systems, enduring peace and equality. Can we do it again and improve on it?
This a personal view. All errors are mine. This is an abridged version prepared in advance for Groundviews 2006-2016.
 Findings of the island wide National Youth Survey of 3000 young people: see Youth and Social Transformation 2014 eds Hettige, Graner and Amarasuriya, Chapter 6, p 157. The 64% increases to 73% amongst those with a degree or higher education.
 Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, 2006, p 19.
 See for example Census reports of 1971 and 2012.
 The numbers are taken from the V Dem site: https://www.v-dem.net/en/analysis/analysis/ . The numbers in the table are indicative for the periods selected and are not averages. Data beyond 2014 is not available.
 Rosa Parks and others challenged the constitutionality of US State laws which enforced segregation in public between white and black people. In 1956, a US District Court ruled that the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on buses operating in the city of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States. On appeal, the ruling was upheld by the US Supreme Court in Browder v Gayle.
 In the Divi Neguma case, the Supreme Court declared the Constitution required Provincial Council consultation before a particular law could be valid. The Government was reportedly irate at this ruling.
 In Harry Potter folklore, he who possessed the ‘deathly hallows’ would master death and become invincible. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007; the movie was released in 2011.