Colombo Telegraph

A Kindly Response To Dayan Jayatilleka On The National Question

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

I had a difficulty in understanding why Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka lumped Kumar David and me together and called ‘Trotskyists’ in his tortuous reply (“Minority Report: Sri Lanka’s Tamil Question,” Colombo Telegraph, 13 April 2014) because we were never in one political party although the respective organizations we belonged were called ‘Trotskyists.’ On my part it was before 1982 as Dayan fully well know. It is not a good academic practice to label people to create prejudices.

I also couldn’t understand what was this ‘Minority Report’ in Dayan’s title of the article, while he is quite free to call it the ‘Tamil Question’ instead of the ‘national question.’ But it can give the wrong impression.

Dayan has quoted Gramsci to show his antipathy against secession quite legitimately, but it also reveals his ‘hegemonic nationalism.’ It is also no wonder that Dayan has expressed his preference to Gramsci over Lenin who had a particular leaning towards hegemonic nationalism in Italy and Europe. I am quite sure that Dayan quoted both Gramsci and Hobsbawm from the same second source of Ephraim Nimni (Marxism and Nationalism, p. 96 and 110). The following however was what Nimni said about Gramsci (p. 112) on ‘national and linguistic minorities.’

Despite his first-hand experience of the perils of national oppression in his native Sardinia, an oppression adequately documented in the writings on the Southern question, Gramsci then praises the Jacobins for their energy and action in consolidating the French nation and state, choosing to ignore that this consolidation also took the form of ruthless suppression of national and linguistic minorities.” (My emphasis)

There are of course so many good points of Gramsci but those are not on the national question and beside the point here.

Dayan has continued to analyze the national question in Sri Lanka in a binary manner, calling the communities at times ‘tribes’ (both Sinhalese and Tamils). The main thrust of his arguments have been to deny the equality between communities with an obsession on numbers even without knowing the correct population figures in the country. This is called political realism or ‘science.’

Two of his important or rather farcical statements in replying to me are the following.

“The communities that inhabit the island are not equal in size. One of them amount to almost three fourths of the population. The other by definition, doesn’t come anywhere close. That is a reality. The one that is much smaller has a huge community of co-ethnics across a narrow strip of water. That is also a reality.”

“While all citizens of Sri Lanka must be equal (which they are not, while the constitution embeds hierarchy) and all citizens and communities must be free from discrimination as individuals and collectives, it is neither desirable nor possible to render majorities and minorities equal, in conceptual or legal terms.”

Dayan says that “the communities that inhabit the island are not equal in size” as if he is from the outer space. Does anyone need a special theory to understand the numerical ‘inequality’ between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims? It is this ‘inequality’ which is glorified as reality that he has utilized to deny equality in dignity and rights. That is his ‘scientific’ diagnosis. Then comes his ‘scientific’ prescription which is pathetically contradictory.

He says “all citizens of Sri Lanka must be equal” and admits that it is not the case. Here he has accepted the principle of ‘equality’ at the level of citizens which he has denied in inter-ethnic relations calling ‘vulgar and petty bourgeoisie’ quoting Engels (out of context) because the numbers are not equal! I wonder whether he holds the same view in respect of the country’s religions.

By doing so he takes us back in the memory lane to 1956 and 1972. The logic behind the Sinhala Only act in 1956 or the denial of Parity (equality) was that the numbers were not equal between the Sinhala speakers and the Tamil speakers. The country has now changed the position at least in principle. It was the same logic that enshrined the foremost place to Buddhism in the 1972 constitution.

He says “all citizens and communities must be free from discrimination as individuals and collective.” Here he has accepted the ‘collective’ in respect of ‘free from discrimination.’ But he has not accepted the ‘collective’ in terms of ‘rights.’ But the fact of the matter is without equal recognition of rights, non-discrimination does not work, particularly at the level of the collective.

The so-called ‘acceptance’ of individual rights of minority national communities has been common from KMP Rajarathna or LH Mettananda to the present JHU to deny in fact ‘equal rights’ and ‘equal dignity’ to the non-Sinhala communities as communities. However, without the acceptance of equality at the collective level, equality at the individual level cannot be realized. What needs to be accepted (obviously) is not the equality in numbers but the equality in ‘rights and dignity.’ In this respect, not only individuals but also groups are ‘rights holders.’

Dayan may not deny that non-Sinhala or non-Buddhist communities or their members unfortunately are denied of rights directly and structurally, at least in some measure in Sri Lanka, to put it mildly. What he denies is the underlying reasoning behind this discrimination; overwhelming ‘majoritarian’ thinking and practice in the country. He himself is party to this thinking when he says “it is neither desirable nor possible to render majorities and minorities equal, in the conceptual or legal terms.”

It is not correct to say that rendering ‘majorities and minorities’ equal is not possible, in conceptual or legal terms. It is not exactly a question of rendering; it is a question of recognizing, as I have indicated in the very title of the article in question. One example is the Preamble of the UN Charter which reaffirms (in paragraph two) the “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” Of course the ‘large and small nations’ here means the people of the member countries. But if the equal recognition is possible among countries irrespective of numbers, it should be possible within countries as well, again irrespective of numbers.

Let me quote again what I have proposed as quoted by Dayan himself.

“Although I cannot read the mind of the Chief Minister, as far as I can understand, he raises a valid question of equality between the ethnic communities…One way of resolving the national question and ending the confrontation is to recognize the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims as equal ‘cultural nations’ constituting the democratic ‘political nation’ of Sri Lanka. There is no question that the formulations in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord are useful principles in bridging the understanding between the communities if they are properly acted upon. However, they are not enough…Equality here does not mean quantitative equality but qualitative equality.”

This is first to dismiss his accusation that I have not dealt with devolution. Anyone who is familiar with my writings would know how I have labored to convince all communities that commitment to devolution is of paramount importance for ethnic reconciliation. It is in the same spirit that I made the proposal or rather appeal “to recognize the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims as equal ‘cultural nations’ constituting the democratic ‘political nation’ of Sri Lanka.” By accepting Tamils and Muslims as equal ‘cultural nations’ Sinhalese are not going to lose anything. I proposed it as “one way of resolving the national question and ending the confrontation.” I never said this is the only way.

I never discussed or even mentioned ‘self-determination’ although he has lumped me into that category. My purpose was different. I was merely proposing one political formula for a possible social contract between the three main communities in possible political negotiations in the future, emphasizing the need to forge a healthy democratic political nation. The proposal is not counter to Devolution, the formulations in the Indo-Lanka Accord or the UN Declaration on Minority Rights (1992). He should know however that what we have at the UN is still a Declaration and not a Convention. It is difficult to consider it is conclusive irrespective of its overwhelming merits.

Dayan has shown a particular penchant for the ‘minority’ label emphasizing and reemphasizing the proportions as if to cut particularly the Tamils into size. Any reasonable Sinhalese let alone a political scientist would not do that. It is true that the Tamils and the Muslims are relatively small communities in numbers within the country. But they are not so outside the country. Therefore, if we were not to exacerbate the situation, we should behave more responsibly without jumping to pick on whatever any Tamil leader says in the public domain.

The saddest or the hilarious was the following:

By insisting on the equal status of that which cannot be equalised, Profs Kumar David and Laksiri Fernando transpose to the realm of inter-ethnic relations, the error denounced by Engels as “vulgar, petty bourgeois egalitarianism.

From where did he get the four word quotation from Engels? This is a juvenile tactic to vilify an opponent. I doubt that it was taken from any of Engels’ discussions on the national question. It is possible that it is from AD (Anti-Duhring), where Engels criticized the liberal concept of ‘equality’ like Marx criticized ‘rights.’ In my opinion, both were substantially wrong on both counts.

Poor Marx and Engels, Dayan as a self-proclaimed ‘political scientist’ has gone to their wrong side. They were the same on the national question, and particularly Engels had a particular antipathy for ‘small nations’ sometimes calling them ‘refuse of history.’ He was supporting the assimilation of small nations and national groups by the big ones. He also had a notion of ‘great and lesser nations’ the way Dayan considers ‘majority-minority’ duality. If I reckon correctly, Engels called Albanians, a ‘goat fucking nation.’ Therefore, I wouldn’t take Engels seriously either on the question of ‘equality’ or the ‘national question.’ My respect for Lenin on the national question is entirely different as I have state in my initial article. Therefore, I am more amused than angered by Dayan’s gimmicks.

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