Advocacy, Colombo, Identity, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Polls

Sinhala nationalism, civil society organisations and the future

Nationalism in our post-modern era is an extremely suspect concept. It smacks of homogeneity, patriarchy and insularity; all ideas and concepts that our generation has learned with good reason to suspect. Most difficult of all, it has often been anti-minority. My intention in this article is not to defend nationalism but rather to inquire into the particular characteristics of Sinhala nationalism and to interrogate the relationship of Sri Lankan civil society organisations and movements with it. I would also like put forward some ideas regarding ways of engagement as part of civil society in these times of totalitarianism and government supported racism. By civil society organisations and movements I mean those that purport to be an alternative voice to the state. They may also differentiate themselves from regular political parties although most of them will have explicitly political agendas and strategies.

As pointed out by many historians, Sri Lanka’s leaders at the time of independence did not lead a mass anti-colonial movement like in neighbouring India. We were pretty much granted independence and universal franchise in the teeth of hesitation by our leaders who had to be convinced reluctantly that the masses were ready for democracy. Sri Lanka’s nationalist struggles were rooted more in relation to a revival of Sinhala identity, culture and the Buddhist religion. While a similar revival was also taking place within the Tamil population, I am only concerned with the characteristics of Sinhala nationalism in this article.

Recent analysts have been pointing out that Sinhala nationalism has never been only or even primarily anti-Tamil. In fact its main fight has been against westernised elites, colonialism and neo-colonialism. These elements are linked to the strong feeling of past injustice that informs the Sinhala Buddhist identity. This is linked to the notion that successive waves of foreign domination displaced the Sinhala Buddhists from their ‘rightful’ place and that the state has a responsibility to redress these grievances. There is a material basis for this: demographic and socio-economic changes that resulted from free education policies, better health care facilities and the crisis in the agriculture sector created a large group of rural, vernacular educated youth seeking to move out of agriculture. But a stagnating economy meant that aspirations and expectations could not be met easily. Government jobs were the main source through which these aspirations could be met. It is in such a context that language became a key issue around which nationalist sentiments were most strongly expressed. English represented the language not only of the coloniser but of the local elite who maintained status and class inequalities through their political, economic and cultural domination symbolised by language. The English speaking, ‘westernised’ elite was able to access opportunities that were denied to the vernacular educated masses. Perceived imbalances in the representation of Tamils in the government sector and in the universities added an anti-minority element to the language problem. But the main grievance was against the state and a leadership that was alienated from the culture and values of a considerable section of the population. The 1956 political campaign of SWRD Bandaranaike managed to capitalise on these grievances and to promise a leadership and a state that would work differently.

The fact that the state was evaluated and legitimised on the basis of its ability to address the historical grievances of the Sinhalese meant that successive political parties campaigned on the basis of promises to satisfy the majority community. And it appears that the more unpopular the policies of a government have been, the more aggressively it has played the nationalist card. The government of J R Jayawardene is a classic case in point. This most liberal, pro-western government was preaching a Dharmishta Samajaya while busily dismantling democratic institutions, consolidating power within the Executive and launching a series of reforms that in the long term was to make Sri Lanka one of the countries in the Asian region with one of the fastest growing gaps between the rich and the poor. It was also during JR’s watch that the ethnic conflict took a turn from simmering tension and occasional skirmishes to one of protracted violence and terror.

It is not difficult to see similarities with the regime of JR Jayawardence and the Rajapakse regime. Even more consummately than the Jayawardene regime, the Rajapakses have managed to present themselves as ‘authentically’ Sri Lankan. The elitist, cosmopolitan image of Ranil Wickramasinghe, whose obvious discomfort with anything to do with people, let alone the local, has served as a superb counterfoil to the ‘authenticity’ and common touch of the Rajapakses. Their intransigence in negotiating with the west, diatribes against neo-colonialism, the aggression against the ‘interference’ of foreigners in the affairs of a sovereign nation have nicely chimed with the sense of historical grievances that is embedded within Sinhala nationalism. They have managed to maintain this image while implementing policies that will surely increase hardship and suffering for a majority of people in this country. For there is no doubt, the kind of development envisaged by the Rajapakse regime is not about a fairer, more just world but perpetuating the exploitation of the vulnerable.

But to come back to the problem of civil society, its intellectual disdain of nationalism as a concept has meant that it has also failed to grasp that within the ideas of Sinhala nationalism lies a very real problem of a society that is mired in privileges and connections. That apart from the idea of historical grievances, the fact that post-colonial Sri Lanka has failed to establish institutions and systems that are not rooted in feudalism, patronage and elitism is what drives the nationalist imagination. The dependence on social connections has become so much a part of our lives that most of us operate in that system unthinkingly. Most of us would not think twice about doing favours for a ‘known’ person or would not dream of attempting to do anything without first finding a ‘contact’ who can facilitate things for us; that who a person is, their background, their networks becomes a primary consideration in how we treat that person. This has meant that those who are without connections and who are not known, struggle at most things ranging from getting attention from a doctor to putting a child to school to getting a job to being heard in a seminar or workshop. Even if we look around most of our civil society organisations it is easy to see a pattern of old school, family and social connections. This has prevented civil society initiatives from being truly anti-establishment because whatever its pretensions to the contrary it remains very much a part of the establishment. This has meant that civil society organisations in Sri Lanka have never been able to lead or influence social movements; rather, civil society organisations are at best doing good work in an isolated little corner of their world or at worst project driven, aid-dependant NGOs.

If there is to be any genuine change in Sri Lanka, change that does not involve one cycle of violence followed by another, as part of civil society we need to engage in some serious reflection. How much have we been part of a system upholding the status-quo? How many of us can genuinely claim to have looked beyond the comfort zones of our cultural and social networks to reach places where our most taken-for-granted positions may be challenged? Even in our everyday practices and engagements, how much have we moved beyond our personal networks? And what kind of influence can we have if we do not? Let us be realistic; we do not have the power to change anything unless we can truly become a part of broader social movements.

If we are serious about the threat that faces Sri Lankan society today in the face of a totalitarian and corrupt regime, we may have to at least enter into dialogues with those beyond our immediate circles. We may need to examine more closely why ideas of the nation and nationalism mean so much to people; why a sense of historical grievance is so much a part of the national consciousness. This regime (like others before them) have tapped into the racist elements of nationalist sentiments. What I am suggesting here is that the more multi-dimensional nature of nationalist thinking is taken into consideration so that we can engage with it in a way that challenges all of us. It may require us to examine our privileged positions; and to ensure that we are not simply reproducing circles of privilege. It will be hard – not simply because of how it may challenge us, but because the euphoria of the end of the war, the short-term benefits of the big development projects that are being implemented, will mean that not many people will be ready to enter into a dialogue about social change. But there are dissenting voices. And those voices are not just within our circle of civil society organisations. In fact, they may be from among those we would in general not consider our allies. Maybe there won’t be complete cohesion among those voices; but unless we are willing to understand where they come from; what the commonalities and differences are among us, how we can challenge and change each other, we will be nothing more than ineffectual. And that is something we cannot afford to be. Not in these times.