Photo courtesy of Daily News

The people as demos contra ethnos (that is devoid of sectarian ethno-religious identity) have spoken and continue to speak against the depredations visited upon them by this insidious regime of kleptocrats and Sinhalese ethnic authoritarians. From Jaffna to Matara the people are speaking (and singing) in a rarely heard unified voice. They are struggling to undo via legal-constitutional means (the destruction of Ceylonese/Sri Lankan unity) the discriminatory impact of legislation in the late 1940s and 1950s wrought on the social fabric of the island. We refer here to the Ceylon Citizenship Act, as a result of which the electoral register had to be amended. The resulting Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act 1949 had the effect of removing Indian Tamil voters who had been disenfranchised by the Ceylon Citizenship Act from the electoral register.

Many in the Sinhalese community remain unaware of this legislation and imagine that it was 1956 Official Language Act that initiated the body of legislation and administrative rules that would deprive both Tamils and Burghers of their status as equal citizens in the land of their birth. These were reprehensible acts of transparent Sinhalese communalism aided and abetted by the Vidyalankara. The monks of the Vidyalankara pirivena (founded in 1875) positioned themselves as the guardians of Buddhist modernism and in the late 1940s staged a protest outside the State Council, targeting the conservative nature of D.S. Senanayake’s Dominion settlement with the Attlee Government in London. The Buddhist activism of the Vidyalankara would in the 1950s envelop the island. But even as DS Senanayake mobilized against the first iteration of political Buddhism his government passed legislation that set the tone for what SLFP dominated administrations would pursue. As Sinhalese co-authors (one Buddhist and one Christian) we are clear – it was the Sinhalese political class who destroyed Ceylonese/Sri Lankan national unity in the name of ethnos. Galle Face has become a metaphor for trying to reclaim a sense of national unity in the name of the people.

That this moment of national crisis is the denouement of Sinhalese nationalist mis-governance is in little doubt. Even a Sinhalese led military coup with or sans the Rajapaksas will signal the impending collapse of the Sinhalese nationalist iteration of the State. Any structural intensification of Sinhalese nationalism in its dying moments will only quicken its demise. The IMF has rightly refused to play ball with the Rajapaksas, making it clear that an economic plan needs to be in place before their involvement can be guaranteed. The IMF are only too mindful of the voodoo economics pursued by the economic illiterates of the Rajapaksa/military cabal. Speculating and reading between the lines any such plan will mean higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations but also cutting back on the military budget. This would extend to requesting that the economically and politically ruinous involvement of the armed forces in the sustained mis-governance of the island under the Rajapaksas be rolled back and ended once and for all. Indeed this ought to be a priority for New Delhi as well who now as the primary lender of aid ought to exert pressure on the armed forces to retreat back to the barracks. This ought to be a precursor to a radical reduction in military manpower. While Beijing continues to meddle their influence is waning.

The people continue to demand change – interim governments offer much of a muchness – in the name of the people. The peopleare authoring the future and the protests have offered an opportunity to unlearn what divides us and relearn what unites us as the people.  Much is at stake and the current array of forces in the parliamentary opposition and their lack of tactical mastery does not instill confidence.

The task of unlearning what divides us is of significance if the people are not to be seduced by the glitter of ethno-chauvinism. Just as pluralism is triumphing in Colombo and on Galle Face, it also needs to triumph on the streets in Jaffna, Kandy and Matara. The people in Jaffna need to be reassured by the people in Matara and vice-a-versa. This is the essence of what the telos of a deliberative democratic space looks like. The people (the Sinhalese element in particular) must keep guard against elements in the Sangha who have the potential to reenergize Sinhalese/Tamil ethnic cleavages – in this regard a space has opened up in Sinhalese social media that is scornful of the ethno-chauvinist propensity of the Sangha. If a people’s constitutional democracy is to re-emerge from the demise of the Rajapaksas the Sangha need to eschew its militant past and present and actively embrace pluralism. 

Unlearning Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism

The people and their protests around the country have opened up spaces for unlearning the form and content of political agency that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has cultivated. During the March 31 Mirihana protest, a citizen wearing a helmet publicly denounced ethno-nationalism and insisted upon unity. This set the tone of the movement that ensued. The people immediately countered the government’s attempt to blame the Mirihana protest as an act of Islamist extremism. A week later when a pro-president protest carried a banner demanding not to touch the Sinhala Buddhist mandate, the people were quick to identify the racist logic of such sentiments. In another, even more catalytic instance of this unlearning process, when Tamil-speaking citizens challenged the national anthem being sung only in Sinhala by Gotagogama protestors, the protestors responded to this by singing the national anthem in Tamil the next day. However, this emerged through a space of intense contestation of views in defense of Sinhalese nationalist exclusivity – indeed the interview that Mahinda Rajapaksa gave bemoaning the singing of the anthem in Tamil will be an ongoing reminder of the performative politics of Sinhalese nationalism. Such events have also led to an increased questioning of the meaning of the Sinhalese Buddhist mandate and attempts at redefining Sinhalese-Buddhist-ness based on Theravada Buddhist philosophy. These are to be welcome and will underscore the reform process, at least as far as substantive issues of constitutional form and content are concerned.

To the extent that the future is currently been written, the process of unlearning ethno-nationalism is an essential prerequisite if the new Sri Lanka that is emerging is to uphold the core values of a constitutional democracy. These values include equality, an independent judiciary and the ability to secure public office independent of ethno-religious identity. Below we outline some basic themes to the task of unlearning Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism – the future constitutional democracy that we hope will author itself from this constitutional-material crisis will be one in which the people as citizens will be vigilant against the destructive logic of ethnos.

Relearning Sinhala-Buddhist-ness through Theravada Buddhist philosophy

Theravada Buddhist philosophy provides a rich vein for the task of un-learning the limiting narrative of Sinhalese nationalism. The Buddha’s teaching is to be experienced at a personal level through the practice of metta, soft words, and kind actions. The Buddha speaks about contemplating with wisdom how suffering arises through attachment and how clinging to the concept of self forges an ever-changing cycle of cause and effect (Dammachakkapavattana Sutta – Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma; Anatta-lakkhana Sutta – Discourse on the Not-Self). Theravada Buddhist philosophy primarily speaks to the cultivation of individual sensibilities or virtues directed at inner transformation by letting go of human attachment; the latter the cause of delusion, hate and greed. It follows that even the performative gesture declaring one-self to be a Buddhist is logically in contradiction of the principles of not-self. That been the case Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism with its structuring of otherness in ethno-religious terms manifests this contradiction in even more amplified terms.

While prescribing norms of governance was not a key concern for the Buddha, what he did advise the rulers of the time on was the ten royal virtues – dasa rājādhamma. He likely envisaged a ruler who was engaged in the cultivation of sila (virtue), that is the process of active transformation referred to above. However, while establishing internal checks through the Suttas, Theravada philosophy also recognizes the significance of heeding the censure of others, heeding the law, and heeding the negative consequences that will flow through cycles of cause and effect as articulated in the section on Perils in the Third Fifty, Book of the Fours, Anguttara Nikaya. Therefore, Buddhist thought supports both internal and external checks on people as well as rulers in the exercise of their agency. Upholding the rule of law (with respect to those who govern) is thereby encouraged as an important external check on the behavior of both rulers and the ruled.

In a discursive move that seemingly anticipates the development of deliberative democratic theory in the neo-Kantian political philosophy of Jurgen Habermas, the Buddha in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta reiterates the importance of constant deliberation, consensus-based governance, maintaining the law, respecting elders, respecting women, respecting other religions, and respecting the bhikkus who have fulfilled the goals of the dhamma and achieved the status of an arahant. Public trust and public welfare are at the heart of these conditions. Respecting religious diversity in governance was not an afterthought for the Buddha – what the Sri Lankan state has pursued in the name of the dhamma (the willful and destructive marginalization of ethno-religious minorities) is wholly inconsistent with the Suttas and the Jataka stories. That there is nothing Buddhist in the logic of Sinhalese political Buddhism is further confirmed by the prominence that the Buddha gives to metta, the practice of meditation. In the Karaniya Metta Sutta, for instance, the monks and lay disciples are instructed to spread metta to all beings. Practicing governance and pursuing a legislative agenda based on ethno-religious othering as Sri Lanka has done since independence is antithetical to a corpus of literature that gives so much value to loving-kindness. Herein then resides the possibility of being-otherwise, of an(other) future for Sri Lanka that the people (Buddhist and non-Buddhist) must capture in this moment. In overturning the ordering force of ethnos, Buddhist thought must be harnessed for re-thinking the political and the social in Sri Lanka in the name of the people.