Photo credit Sri Lanka Guardian

Whether it be fleshing out Sangakkara’s “modern, pluralist worldview of unity in diversity”, the intersection of identity and race relations, the identity crises facing young generations of mixed parentage, or the vital facets of a Sri Lankan identity , the Groundviews contributors have done an exemplary job of critiquing the vision of a “Sri Lankan” identity no longer tied to caste, culture, ethnicity, language, or religion. While I would have liked to stay out of this conversation (for reasons outlined later) Aachcharya’s Back to Basics: The Need for an Honest Conversation About ‘Sri Lankanness’ and ‘Sri Lankan identity’, though cogently argued, unfortunately misrepresented my views.

Aachcharya’s Misconceptions

  1. Aachcharya is inaccurate in his assertion that I believe that Sri Lankan identity is progressive and other identities are regressive. More precisely, I believe Sri Lankan identity should comprise of a primary multi-plural component that co-exists with important secondary components. For the sake of this article, lets call this the “soft Sri Lankan” identity as opposed to the ideological “hard Sri Lankan” identity.
  2. I actually am not at a loss to explain the uniqueness of the ‘Sri Lankan’ identity; there is in fact nothing special about being Sri Lankan. However as Aachcharya himself states in the same paragraph: “I don’t subscribe to the view that nationalisms are intrinsically ‘bad’… 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.” Words of a learned scholar.
  3. I have never argued that the ‘right’ solutions can be found in generalizations. As a professor of mine once said “Simple minds construct simple problems and call for simple solutions. Do not assume that something so simple for you is just as simple for others.”

What I do maintain quite vociferously is that while communal identities can be important component of constructing identifying problems, the evolution of “soft Sri Lankan” identity is the most effective approach to working towards a just post-conflict solution for Sri Lanka, particularly in a democracy. A simple example using the language of Aachcharya: the call for justice for the atrocities against Tamil victims exposed by Channel 4 should not be the responsibility of Tamil Sri Lankans alone but that of all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity. Similarly, other Sri Lankan communities must (at minimum) understand the importance and necessity of political devolution to Sri Lankan Tamils.

I strongly suspect there is in fact very little disagreement between my position and Aachcharya’s position on Sri Lankan identity. Any superficial disagreements may in fact be attributed to our espoused multi-cultural models and my particular dislike for Kymlicka’s theory. But perhaps the most important question of the article is un-stated: why do my views as a member of the Diaspora matter with respect to Sri Lankan identity?

Diasporan Influences on Sri Lankan Identity

Many segments of Sri Lankan society would likely be averse to the Diaspora playing any role in developing a “Sri Lankan” identity, either due to the historical allegiance of a number of members of the Tamil Sri Lankan Diaspora to Tamil Eelam or conversely, the lack of either experiential or intellectual knowledge of the challenges facing Sri Lankans, Tamil or otherwise, resident in the country. This view that upholds residence in the country as a vital pre-requisite of being “Sri Lankan” is likely to be shared by many in the highest corridors of power in the Sri Lankan government.

Needless to say, this construction poses interesting conundrums – Is an expat teacher working in Sri Lanka more Sri Lankan than Aachcharya studying in Britain? While I am not the most qualified to answer the former question, it is not a stretch to recognize that the current “hard Sri Lankan” identity is informed by what it is not i.e. not outside Sri Lanka. Conversely, the identity of generations of children born to Tamil members of the Sri Lankan Diaspora have similarly molded in opposition to the events of their parents’ homeland – a fact that feeds into the paranoia of the Sri Lankan government towards the Diaspora.

Peace-building Potential of Responsibly Engaged Diaspora

While the above should sufficiently silence those who deny any potential of foreign events impacting Sri Lankan identity, the evolution of “hard Sri Lankan” to “soft Sri Lankan” identity must remain the primary responsibility of those affected by the social, cultural and political dynamics of the country.  Residents of Sri Lanka are better placed to understand the daily challenges of living and the complexities of policy and decision-making and quite capable of building the “rational and critical Sri Lankan identity” that Kalana Senaratne eloquently proposed, when adequately resourced.

It is in adequately resourcing the Sri Lankan community that the Diaspora may find its different but equally as important calling. There are two ways that this can be done, both of which have historical precedents albeit in the international community. For accessibility’s sake, I have relied heavily on Wikipedia. Apologies in advance.

1.     Intellectual Resources

It is an unfortunate reality that many talented Sri Lankans currently live outside the country. Whether this “brain drain” is due to economic, political or social circumstances, this talent will be of tremendous assistance in catalyzing the development of the country. The Indo-Canadian community for instance has implemented a number of programs that give Canadians of Indian heritage the opportunity to give back to a country that many have never visited. The same can be said for the “Birthright” program of the Israeli Diaspora, a government sponsored program that sows the seed of nationalism to generations of Canadians of Israeli heritage.

2.     Financing Infrastructure and Program Development

The importance of finance in forging a just peace is probably best demonstrated by comparing the future of Germany after World War I and World War II. After World War I, the victorious Allies not only blamed Germany for causing the war, but also imposed onerous reparation repayments in the billions of dollars to the Allied nations. It is generally agreed that these conditions laid the foundation for an anti-Allied sentiment to be associated with the German national psyche and identity as well as the rise of the Nazi Party.

The peace-building approach three decades later could not be more stark, where the post World War II Allied nations devised the Marshall plan where European economies were rebuilt by American financial might. Fast-forward five decades and Germany is the strongest economy in the region. Not so co-incidentally current mainstream German identity is formed in active opposition to the Nazi Party.

The same is true for the evolution of regional identities in North America. In Canada for instance, the provincial and regional identities are closely linked to accompanying industries e.g. the manufacturing industry in Ontario, the energy sector in Alberta, the fisheries in Nova Scotia or the Forestry industry in British Columbia. Provinces regularly lobby federal government support and are quick to denounce any perception of financial favoritism to each other. Provincial secession movements continue to ebb and flow according to perceived federal financial support for provincial industries (see for instance the Albertan and Quebec Secessionist movement).

One caveat: neither historical precedent is directly applicable to a country recovering from civil and ethnic conflict. Other considerations must be recognized e.g. the widely documented ineffectiveness of the current government to ensure equitable and uniform economic and political development to all parts and people of the country (an ineffectiveness likely linked to the espoused “hard Sri Lankan” identity of the Government). In this manner, collaborative ventures need to be established between resident and Diaspora Sri Lankan communities that better address the requirements of post conflict development in Sri Lanka and the evolution of a “soft Sri Lankan” identity.

Towards a Common Ground of Understanding

In the closing months of the war, Ahilan Kadirgamar wrote the following about the post-LTTE era:

We have to move away from the ethnicised and overly territorialised ‘solutions’ of the past. Much will depend on new forms of solidarities formed between the communities. The decimated Tamil community in particular will have a major challenge in attempting to find a political voice with which to join in such solidarities, even while challenging the state to engage in reform…

A new Tamil political voice needs to be forged out the remnants of the brutalised Tamil polity. This must include the democratically-minded among the remaining Tamil political actors, principled Tamil intellectuals, community-based activists and Tamil refugees in India awaiting return – who, unlike the diaspora abroad, have a much bigger stake in the Tamil community’s future inside Sri Lanka. The emerging Tamil voice must work with the other minority communities and Sinhalese progressives.

While discussions about the role of Sri Lankan identity in the perpetuation/amelioration of inter-ethnic conflict will be unlikely to abate in the near future, it is perhaps important to establish a basic set of principles discussing the importance of reconstructing Sri Lankan identity in recognition of Ahilan’s call for inter-communal collaboration and solidarity. This Common Ground of Understanding may include the following principles:

  1. The dominant political ‘Sri Lankan’ identity is linked to a particular ideology.
  1. It is important to reconstruct the ideological “hard Sri Lankan” identity into a “soft Sri Lankan” identity, comprised of secondary identities rooted in communal and individual experiences co-existing with broader, less historical Sri Lankan identity.
  2. It is important for institutions to acknowledge and recognize different communal experiences and histories at the root of secondary identities when attempting to encourage “soft Sri Lankan” identity.
  3. While the Diasporan Sri Lankan communities play an important role in financing and resourcing the various needs of Sri Lankan populations, the development and evolution of Sri Lankan identity must remain the primary responsibility of resident Sri Lankans. The best that the Diaspora can do in this regard is a) inform and influence the theoretical discussions of identity based on their international experience b) provide frameworks or solutions that Sri Lankans leaders can choose to adopt in local policy and/or decision-making.

These principles in my mind form the shared understanding of the majority of Sri Lankan progressives, ranging from the Tamil National Alliance and the United National Party to youth oriented organizations such as Sri Lanka Unites to the Diasporan organization Sri Lankans Without Borders. While such principles may not be completely satisfactory, this framework does however allow for a basis on which progressive Sri Lankans can influence the positive development of Sri Lankan identity while resourced by the Sri Lankan Diasporan community.

P.S. This piece is not intended to explore the multi-faceted components of Sri Lankan identity, of which a far more comprehensive discussion was provided by Kalana Senaratne. This piece solely aims to determine the basic principles upon which all participants in discussions about identity can agree on.