By Mohamed Harees –
The myth of independence is the sole idea that resonates with all Sri Lankans, regardless of their age, gender and ethnicity; one national narrative that binds them together. The strong sense of independence has even historically served to legitimise many discriminatory policies initiated and adopted by many Post-Independence governments. In this context, if there is one lesson Sri Lankans should learn from the past, it is that the inclusion of the myth of independence in their national narrative has to be done with great care. For 72 years after Independence and 10+ years after cessation of the ethnic war, have the people of Sri Lanka let their political leaders lead them along a blind garden path by making themselves the ‘boiling frogs’ over time, thereby ‘the hopes of yesterday…have become fast evaporating fantasies’, as author S.J. Thambiah once wrote. The boiling frog story incidentally is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of challenges that arise gradually rather than suddenly. Asia’s oldest democracy most certainly deserves better.
Sri Lanka was colonized for almost 450 years, first by the Portuguese, and then the Dutch and British. When Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) achieved Independence in 1948, it appeared to be one of Asia’s most promising new nations. However, this rosy picture was somewhat deceptive too. For instance, author O.H. Oliver noted: Ceylon reacquired its independence only in 1948, after being under European rule for nearly five centuries. Its civilization is old and probably more resistant to change than would be a younger and less integrated culture’. Thus, even after 7 decades, this Island nation has not progressed in qualitative terms, worse off than many of its’ neighbours; thanks to a political leadership corrupt to the core, maintained by a slavish electorate. A Paradise Isle renowned for its beauty, thus became equally defined by its hate; a place far more compact than the Balkans yet cleaved by more divisions: ethnic, religious and class. Can Sri Lanka Heal Its Divisions and move forward? Yes; provided there is a paradigm shift in our collective thinking as a nation!
Peter Kloos in ‘Democracy, Civil War and the Demise of the Trias Politica in Sri Lanka’, queries ‘So how does one explain the transformation from a promising democracy in the 1940s to the state of the present?’ and continues, “the introduction of the majoritarian model of democracy rule in Sri Lanka chosen already during the late-colonial period paved the way for political forms that were undemocratic in the moral sense of the term. Far-reaching decisions regarding the political process are based on political expediency rather than on fundamental discussions of democratic rule”.
Author Neil DeVotta in an article in Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics (2014) stressed this further thus, ‘Among states that gained independence following World War II, Sri Lanka was widely considered to have a good chance of succeeding democratically. This promise was sundered when successive leaders embraced ethnocentric policies, …which contributed to civil war and adversely affected the country’s institutions – including the island’s political parties. The attendant political decay has not only led to mal-governance and democratic regression, it has pushed the country in an authoritarian direction. Sri Lanka thus represents a classic case of how ethnocentrism can undermine democratic institutions and of the long-term negative consequences’.
Inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic dynamics in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies are complicated too, and Sri Lanka is no different. It is a fact of history that much of Sri Lanka’s Post-Independent history has been marred by sectarian tensions. Political elites play a leading role in determining a country’s political development and the belief that Senanayake (DSS)could be trusted to treat minorities fairly influenced both the Tamils and British in how they approached independence. British short sightedness, misplaced and displaced trust among elites, the ethnocentric policies adopted after DSS rooted in linguistic nationalism, political opportunism, and the hardening of attitudes on both sides of the political and ethnic divide, as ethnic tensions transmogrified into terrorism and war crimes ensured pluralism did not become a reality in Post- Independence Ceylon or Sri Lanka.
Majoritarianism has been the bane of Sri Lanka and was the basis for a nearly three decade long Civil War. Well known historian K. M. De Silva (1998. Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka ) wrote that the island’s Civil War could be considered a conflict between “a [Sinhalese] majority with a minority complex, and a [Tamil] minority with a … majority complex”. This self-imposed isolation, when coupled with Mahawamsa notions, led to viewing pluralism pejoratively and framing majoritarianism as an entitlement. Politicians and other ethnic entrepreneurs have deftly manipulated such fears.. As DeVotta says, ‘while political parties and leaders have alternated in power in post-independence Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has consistently triumphed, and this at the expense of pluralism and democracy. Instituting pluralism, and thereby trying to regain the island’s democratic promise, necessitates accepting and learning from the mistakes committed. Yet, the communal trajectory that post-independence Sri Lanka adopted has emboldened Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists. Sri Lanka did have many opportunities to change the island’s “hardware” and thereby control the manner in which ethno-religious and cultural sentiments were fanned’.
With these fears fully embedded in the majority’s psyche, and State policies supporting it fully institutionalized, trying to alter this will be counterproductive and may only further complicate minorities’ position in the island. With the Sinhalese and Buddhists being a clear majority, it was imperative for politicians to pay heed to the majority community’s preferences. Moreover, today, there is an elected government built upon the triumph of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, blessed by a fair section of the Maha Sangha, and to be fair, the equation has moved more towards further institutionalization of majoritarian attitudes in state craft. Thus, a paradigm shift in the way people think and act is needed and a realization on all sides is imperative that governments can only promote policies supporting pluralism, in ways that do not threaten the majoritarianism now in place.
At the moment, several countries around the world are witnessing the phenomenon of the majority community feeling irrationally threatened by minorities. But in South Asia, this phenomenon has existed for decades and culminated in violence against minorities, threatening the diversity in these countries (India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka). To understand why this trend has persisted in South Asia, Arjun Appadurai’s seminal book The Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger provides valuable insight. Appadurai states that hatred of minorities is a process that takes decades to materialize. The idea of a majority and a minority emerges through national censuses, “in the process of developing ideas of numbers, representation, and electoral franchise” in a modern nation state. This creates space for the formation of an “us vs. them” narrative.
He says ‘As identities solidify, the gradual construction of stereotypes about communities takes place, with efforts to clearly define and contrast between each other. In some cases, and under certain conditions, tensions emerge between these identities and the national identity, with the majority aiming to exclusively juxtapose its own identity with the national identity. Numerical majorities become predatory and ethnocidal with regard to small numbers precisely when minorities (and their small numbers) remind these majorities of the small gap which lies between their condition as majorities and the horizon of an unsullied national whole, a pure and untainted national ethnos”. Appadurai. calls this the “anxiety of incompleteness,” whereby the majority sees the minority as the only obstacle to achieving its aim of a “pure and untainted national ethnos.” This leads the majority to perpetuate violence against minorities in order to eliminate them.
In the modern day, especially in South Asia, such narratives about minority communities tend to escalate during election season, often including the exaggeration of minority numbers, growth rates, and/or influence, to highlight a proclivity of these communities to gain control over the majority population. With social media usage in the modern era, these narratives can reach even wider audiences, often with negative results. WhatsApp and Facebook recently played a role in instigating riots and mob violence against minorities in Sri Lanka and India. Given citizens’ inability to discern the truth from falsehood online, the fear of small numbers is magnified through messaging that seeks to expose the allegedly “sinister agenda” of these minorities.
The drive to promote pluralism in Post- election Sri Lanka(2019) thus need to be put within a majoritarian milieu, and trying to alter this is counterproductive and may only further complicate minorities’ position in the island. The reality is that Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has triumphed and the challenge for the Sri Lankan government is how to promote ethno-religious tolerance and pluralism in the island amidst such triumphalism, even as it balances its pivotal role in safeguarding the fundamental rights of its citizens across the racial and religious divides. The State should be held accountable for its actions, impunity and failures vis-à-vis its constitutional obligations. Religious harmony for one, is not only a legal/constitutional principle, but has also become internalized as a social norm. Its regulating function extends to inter group relations and further grounds group demands on the state, thus imposing state obligations.
In the long term, the repercussions of politicians and majority communities tolerating and encouraging such divisive narratives for political gain will likely be disastrous. Reversing this trend, therefore, requires powerful political will and a strong civil society invested in moving forward together, and not at the expense of any one community. If minorities in Sri Lanka are imperative to political change, then that change must reflect their needs and aspirations too. Civil society has a role to play by engaging various social and religious groups to dispel negative notions, while academics and journalists should take it upon themselves to report on other communities responsibly. This must be aided by the police and judiciary instituting and enforcing measures to penalize and prevent such acts of violence. Overcoming insecurities towards minorities, thus, requires a collective societal approach over just a political one. Institutional approaches to reconciliation try to work from the top down, using formalized institutions, laws, and policies to build vertical relationships between the state and citizens in a way that encourages more peaceful relations. Without creating an all-inclusive national identity, realising national security will be quite far-fetched.
The claim that a minority population possesses rights that shield it from assimilative tendencies of a majority population fits uncomfortably with a conception of international human rights law as a field devoted to protecting essential features of what it means to be human. The civil and political freedom of minority members is more likely to be interfered with than those of the majority, and, therefore, the field is attentive to the various forms of discrimination and marginalization that minorities may experience. However, for pluralism to bear fruit in Sri Lanka, there is a decisive role for the minorities too. National minorities, as all other citizens, had to respect the national legislation and rights of others, including persons belonging to the majority, or to other minorities. The ethical failure of Tamil nationalism, as writer Qadri Ismail (2000 223-24; 2005) has argued, is that it demands majoritarian status in response to its marginalisation rather than ethically re-configuring the discourse to re-imagine the nation as a more inclusive site based on principles of justice and equality for all communities. Muslims too need to re-align themselves where needed to think and become equal partners – Muslims of Sri Lanka rather than Muslims in Sri Lanka. Qadri Ismail in a paper (2014) titled on ‘(Not) Knowing One’s Place’ refers ‘Once upon a time, my mother told me this was not my country. Keep in mind a mother, a figure of authority, speaks to a child –iterates (repeats with a difference)-a cardinal assertion of Sinhala nationalism: Sri Lanka belongs not to all its citizens equally, but essentially to the Sinhalese, the majority.. In so doing, she effectively spoke for Sinhala nationalism’. Future generations of all nationalities should grow up thinking and acting as ‘sons of the Sri Lankan soil’ and not as guests.
The real question now boils down to the political will of the present administration to build an inclusive Sri Lanka and to promote pluralism amidst its compulsions to appeal to its majoritarian vote base. Sri Lanka should not slip back into chauvinistic politics which will threaten to destabilise the country. History shows that reconciliation is quite possible even in the most challenging situations. However, each society must find its own path, with successful reconciliation processes bringing together alienated communities and reestablish the confidence of citizens. Post- independence Sri Lanka cannot wait any longer to reap the benefits of peace and prosperity.