Featured image courtesy Colombo Gazette
As the debris settles in Kandy and Ampara, Sinhala Buddhists are faced with yet another moment of reckoning: how do we change the ways in which we think about citizenship and belonging in order to free ourselves from the shackles of communal violence? Any successful response to the many myths that nearly five centuries of colonialism and seven decades of postcolonial majoritarian politics have embedded in our national imagination requires the participation of all citizens and the critical appraisal of all dimensions of ethno-nationalist discourse, or the understanding of the state as an ethnically and religiously bounded category (i.e. Sri Lanka is a nation of Sinhala Buddhists, and other ethnic and religious groups live here at our sufferance). Much has been written on the specific ways in which ethnicity and religion were central to the violence in Ampara and Kandy (as well as Gintota and Aluthgama, among others). Yet, if we are to avoid making the mistakes of our past, our analysis of majoritarian ethnic and religious politics must be supple and holistic enough to reckon with a constellation of attendant social issues – gender, sexuality, ability, and class, to name but a few – that both feed from and bolster ethno-nationalism.
The conversation about the rights of gender and sexual minorities in Sri Lanka is often viewed as an isolated discussion, separate from the relatively more mainstream (though nowhere near universal) debates about ethnic politics and women’s rights. Such siloing of social issues helps to render the interconnections between these topics invisible, effectively preserving the architecture of ethno-nationalism.
Take for instance the gendered and sexual dimensions of the physical violence in Ampara, and the various debates it engendered. The furor over the alleged sterilisation pills a Sinhala Buddhist unwittingly consumed at a Muslim-owned restaurant (a story that has since been debunked) speaks to a central anxiety in Sinhala Buddhist fascism, of the decline of the Sinhala Buddhist population and the simultaneous population boom in ethnic minority communities, particularly Muslims. From the stages of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) rallies to “news articles” that proclaim with authority and despair the (categorically untrue) statistic that Sinhala Buddhists have plummeted from being 72% of the population to 67%, the concern about the hyper-sexuality of Muslim communities and the sterility of the Sinahala Buddhist polity fuels a culture of Sinhala Buddhist paranoia. It nurtures a psychosis our community has long grappled with, that we are a beleaguered ethnic and religious group who are to be dispossessed of our nation, if swift action is not taken to strengthen our claim to our land. In 2012, the BBS published content through Divaina indicting two NGOs for an alleged attempt to decimate the Sinhala Buddhist population through forced sterilization. However, the data reported by the Family Health Bureau indicate that the rates of sterilisation among ethnic groups mirror the overall ethnic demographics of the population, thereby negating the myth that Sinhala Buddhists are disproportionately targeted by family planning programs. What is of interest is that the very fecundity that is seen as desirable among Sinhala Buddhists is viewed as grotesque and perilous when demonstrated by Muslim communities, indicating yet again how sexual norms are interwoven with notions of ethnic and religious purity, and applied unevenly across the Sri Lankan population.
One inevitable outcome of such demagogic fearmongering is the entrenching of traditional (and often patriarchal) gender norms. Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis discuss this very phenomenon in their analysis of fundamentalism in South Asia, observing that “fundamentalism uses women’s bodies as a battlefield in its struggle to appropriate institutional power” and that “women [are] constructed as ‘Mothers of the Nation’ and their biological role as reproducers of the nation [is] highlighted” in such political projects.[i]
The idiom of Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism we are witnessing in this moment will undoubtedly exercise a similar effect on society, demanding that the measure of a “good” Sinahala Buddhist citizen be one’s conformity to traditional gender roles, the protection of the institution of heterosexual marriage from the sullying forces of miscegenation, and the birthing of many children to perpetuate the Sinhala race. This cultural logic leaves little room for the emancipation of women, as the value of a woman lies in her economic potential and her role as a mother, and little else. Women are deprived of autonomy in family planning and denied the right to make decisions over their own bodies and desires.
This is not pure conjecture, as is attested to by the BBS raiding family planning services shortly after accusing NGOs of seeking to end the Sinhala Buddhist line.[ii] Such demands on unfettered procreation pose a clear threat to women, with one example being that the maternal mortality rate in Sinhala-majority districts such as Kegalle and Matara is nearly twice the national average (although we must bear in mind that the highest mortality rates affect citizens from ethnic minority groups in Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, and Mannar, as well as estate workers in the hill country). This thinking also traps men in a stranglehold of toxic masculinity, setting as an exemplar the likes of Amith Weerasinghe.
Gender and sexual minorities (those who are transgender and non-heterosexual) are yet another casualty of this brand of fundamentalism, as there is no room in the Sinhala Buddhist state for those who do not maintain the continuity of the Sinhala Buddhist nation nor conform to notions of moral purity (which unsurprisingly propose heterosexuality as the only form of ethical existence).
Countless South Asian scholars, such as Gayatri Gopinath,[iii] speak to how assumption of heterosexuality and gender normativity form the brick and mortar of the nation, and that those who violate these terms are disenfranchised and displaced from the state as readily as ethnic and religious minorities.
To those who question the veracity of my analysis I would recommend reading through the comments of Sinhala Buddhist fascist propaganda that circulates through Facebook. I spent much of the past week reading and observing what many in my social network expressed on social media in response to the riots in Ampara and Kandy. Videos of politicians condemning the violence were frequently greeted with comments about how the “පොන්න (ponna)” and “නපුංසක (napunsaka)” (which in the most literal sense refer to alternative gender and sexual existences) politicians in this country were ruining it. This stands in stark contrast to the terms in which Brigadier Priyankara Fernando is idolized as a “නියම සිංහල කොල්ලා (great Sinhala man)” and a “lion” and a “hero.” Being පොන්න or නපුංසක is equated to impotence, which is automatically interpreted as negative. Thus, the perceived incompetence of the government to protect the Sinhala Buddhist race is seen as a form of infertility, which is conflated with gender and sexual non-conformity. Yet another layer to this interconnection between ethno-nationalism and gender and sexual orthodoxy is that senior members of the UNP are often painted as gender and sexual deviants, often for their perceived status as deracinated and Westernised urban elites as much as for their actual gender/sexual presentations or identities.
What is unfortunate is that this homophobic and transphobic logic is not restricted to the confines of Sinhala Buddhist extremism. There were several in my social media circles for whom terms like පොන්න were a common and easily available lexicon as they condemned communal violence. The logic of gender and sexual normativity easily communicated the sentiments of those across the political spectrum in this situation, that පොන්නකම or නපුංසකකම is lamentable, undesirable, and to be eradicated. What is unfortunate about this surprising solidarity across the political spectrum is that the unquestioned supremacy of such a rigid gender and sexual order will inexorably bolster ethno-nationalism. Our obsession with doing gender correctly, of sex being contained to the union of a man and a woman for reproductive purposes, and our preoccupation with progeny will always serve to deny ourselves and society the freedom from such an oppressive system as well as to both create and sustain anxieties about the longevity of ethno-religious communities. Gender and sexual non-normativity demonstrates how individuals hold intrinsic value as human beings and contribute to their communities despite (or perhaps due to) their choice not to procreate or conform to hegemonic ideals. They illustrate how the worth of a human being cannot be measured by their marital status, their relationship configuration, or the number of children they bear. These individuals create space for alternative ways of being Sinahala, Muslim, Tamil, Burgher, and Sri Lankan.
The irony is that though terms like පොන්න and නපුංසක were bandied in online forum to denote political near-sightedness, those who resist gender and sexual conventions are some of the most astute thinkers and observers in our society. I had the privilege of meeting many individuals who identify as LGBT or non-normative through my research in Sri Lanka, and a number of them articulated complex understandings of ethnicity and religion, sidestepping the logical fallacies of fundamentalism.
Irrespective of differences in background, such as income status or urban/rural life, my research participants shared thoughts ranging from the notion that it is possible to believe in a Sinhala Buddhist identity while rejecting Sinhala Buddhist supremacist ideology to the idea that one’s sense of ethnic and religious identity is predicated upon one’s actions and ethics, as opposed to the circumstances of one’s birth. These individuals are as diverse in their life experiences and beliefs as the rest of our society, and thus not everyone rejected ethno-nationalism as soundly. Nonetheless, that an overwhelming number of my interviewees hold such complex beliefs gestures to a unique phenomenon. Perhaps experiencing marginalisation along one axis may make one sensitive to the exclusions that are created along others.
Being jettisoned from the discourse of Sri Lankan citizenship due to their gender or sexuality may create an awareness to the artificial and arbitrary nature of other narratives of the state, such as that of ethnic and religious supremacy. Of particular interest to me is those interviewees who declared a commitment to their identity as Sinhala Buddhists, yet engaged in the daily rituals and practices of these positionalities with a sensitivity to the reality that other ethnic and religious groups, women, and gender and sexual minorities are systemically excluded from this social order. Perhaps these individuals bear fragments of the answers all Sinhala Buddhists must seek as we look to construct less violent and exclusionary narratives of Sinhala Buddhism.
My aim in writing this article is not to unequivocally denounce heterosexuality and the nuclear family as evil. Rather, my larger ideological project is to think about how we can create space in Sri Lanka for diverse forms of gender and sexual expression, without the fear of oppression or the pressure to conform to norms of “normalcy.” Nor is the purpose of my article to detract from the focus on Muslim victims, or the stalled communal violence that is simply biding its time. Rather, my attempt here is to further complicate how we think about ethnicity, religion, and belonging. Only by wrestling with the many heads of this hydra can we seek to develop nuanced and reflexive response to this issue. Only by uncovering the many interconnections between various social issues can we understand how our struggles are all linked. Myopia has marked our history thus far, and to rewrite a different narrative for our country requires removing the blinders that prevent us from examining violence in all of its complexity.
[i] Jayawardena, Kumari, and Malathi de Alwis. 1996. “Introduction.” In Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, edited by Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis, x. London: Zed Books.
[ii] Silva, Kalinga Tudor. 2016. “Gossip, Rumor, and Propaganda in Anti-Muslim Campaigns of the Bodu Bala Sena.” In Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka, edited by John Clifford Holt, 119-139. New York: Oxford University Press.
[iii] Gopinath, Gayatri. 2005. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.