Colombo Telegraph

A Victory For ‘Cosmopolitanism’ Over Narrow Nationalism

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

It seems Sri Lanka has become enlightened, at least partly. It has taken a small but a firm step to move away from narrow nationalism towards ‘cosmopolitanism.’ This is not a wishful thinking of a perennial optimist but what is revealed by election results. Both the presidential elections in January and the parliamentary elections in August 2015 confirm a certain maturity of voters towards this direction.

Let me at the outset define or explain what cosmopolitanism means. If I may refer to Gerard Delanty (“The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism,” 2006, p. 357),

“By cosmopolitanism is meant the consciousness of globality and of postnational ties; it is a critical and reflexive consciousness of heterogeneity as opposed to …a homogeneous vision of sovereign statehood.”

Cosmopolitanism is both internal and external. The internal aspect of cosmopolitanism is located in a rational critique of what is presented to us as ‘static or homogeneous ethnicity.’ This necessary critique can have our own local roots in Buddhism or Hinduism. I recollect what I read at the age of thirteen in 1958 written by EW Adikaram questioning stereotyped ethnicity (jatiya). Arguing that ‘ethno-nationalist is a psychopath’ (Jathiwadiya manasika pisseki), Adikaram tried to deconstruct the ethnic stereotyping based on Buddhist rationality on the subject. Although this was written before 1958 communal riots his message was not heeded. It is well accepted that cosmopolitanism cannot emerge instantaneously. It requires both experience and knowledge/awareness. There are also social/economic circumstances related to that development.

Coming back to Delanty’s definition, cosmopolitanism is about post-national ties, particularly in the internal context. Have we in Sri Lanka matured into a stage where people are in a position to look beyond their ethnic or narrow national ties? I would be surprised if it is not the case, given the tragic and traumatic experiences that we all have had to undergo during the last three decades. People should learn from the experiences, if not the opportunist leaders.

One indication of this maturity was the January presidential elections. All communities and particularly the minority communities rallied around a ‘common candidate’ given the issues at stake. What people objectively wanted after the end of the war in 2009 was not just ‘negative peace’ but positive peace and reconciliation even for developmental and livelihood purposes. The need for peace and the need for development and decent livelihood cannot be separated. The construction of highways was important, but not enough. The people understand it instinctively. The absence of war or terrorism was not enough. This was apparently in the minds of the average citizen. In the case of the Northern Tamils, it would have been like ‘peace in a graveyard,’ guarded and monitored by the military.

There was a difference between the presidential elections in 2010 and 2015. The first one was closer to the end of the war, and still there was hope for a long term peace. Yet it was a strange (or opportunist) decision on the part of the TNA to support the opposition candidate, Sarath Fonseka, irrespective of his military role. The people were obviously not enthusiastic and the turnout was quite low in the North. The other minorities, hoped and hoped, and went behind the incumbent, guided by the leaders. ‘Patriotism’ was a major issue against SF and it worked quite well particularly among the majority Sinhalese. Perhaps it was too early to move away from narrow nationalism.

It was a tragic experience thereafter. People learn the absurdities of ‘narrow nationalism’ slowly and mostly through lateral experiences. If your national hero is ‘corrupt, abusive or authoritarian,’ that is a good reason for the people to move away or doubt about ‘patriotic rhetoric.’ This should undoubtedly be consolidated through organized efforts. Education is one means to achieve that. At the 2015 presidential elections in January, this experience or trend was only marginal among the Sinhala majority, but it enlarged at the parliamentary elections. Otherwise the UNFGG could not have won 106 seats primarily in the South.

One can argue that on the part of the minorities, the voting for the ‘common candidate’ at the presidential elections must have been only ‘tactical,’ to defeat their main enemy. That may well be the case, mostly on the part of the leaders, but there are all indications that some faith was placed on the ‘common candidate’ irrespective of his ethnicity or the past affiliations. He carried the ‘olive branch’ to Vaddukoddai. This has to be strengthened if reconciliation and positive peace to be achieved. There were previous instances where the Northern voters transcended their ethnic affiliations. The voting for Hector Kobbekaduwa (SLFP) in Jaffna at the presidential elections in 1982 was one example. He even exceeded the votes received by Kumar Ponnambalam (ACTC) in five polling divisions. These trends were and are always favourable for building cosmopolitanism beyond narrow ethno nationalism.

Let me come back again on our conceptual understanding of ‘cosmopolitanism.’ In ordinary usage, cosmopolitanism means knowledge or empathy of different cultures. One who is beyond narrow local, provincial or even national biases or attachments is a cosmopolitan. Wikipedia definition gives a different angle with an emphasis on the ideological side of the coin as follows.

“Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all human beings belong to a single community, based on a shared morality.”

All may be relevant in understanding what we mean by cosmopolitanism but it should best be understood as a ‘counter thesis’ to nationalism and particularly to ethno-nationalism. Nationalism is something developed in the modern era, post-16th century Europe, spreading into other regions. It went with capitalism and the formation of modern nation-states. Some roots of cosmopolitanism can be found even before the modern era. It is well known that ancient Greek, Indian and Chinese thinkers or their thinking were cosmopolitan. Ranil Wickremesinghe often brings the example of Lichchavi tradition to emphasise the importance of consensual politics, ‘to meet peacefully, discuss peacefully and disperse peacefully.’ It is like a prayer to him these days.

Cosmopolitanism was ingrained in some of these old traditions, no doubt. It is in the same Kathmandu valley that the King Prithvi Narayan Sha, the founder of modern Nepal, in the mid-19th century, declared that ‘Nepal is a floor garden of thirty two jati and four varna.’ Why cannot the four main jatis (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher) and four main agams (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity) be a nice floor garden in Sri Lanka? No one would deny the historical contributions of ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’ or Sinhala and Buddhism, or the numerical positions or ‘greatness’ of each and every community. But there is no need to exaggerate or predominate. All other contributions also should be recognized.

The concept of ‘unity in diversity’ which is much emphasised by peace advocates or conflict resolution specialists today also has some ancient roots. It originates from the ancient conception of ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ in Indonesia, exactly meaning ‘unity in diversity.’ However, both concepts ‘unity in diversity’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’ should be understood in modern terms in order to apply them in modern times.

Let me come back again on empirical evidence during the recent elections. If the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to raise the Sinhala (racial) card sufficiently at the presidential elections in January, for some reason, it was abundantly marketed during the parliamentary elections in August. Wimal Weerawansa was at the forefront. Yet he failed. The whole ‘bring back Mahinda’ movement was based on such a parochial nationalist sentiment. It is true that the UPFA gathered around 4.7 million votes and 95 seats in Parliament. However, it was nearly a million drop from 5.8 at the presidential elections. Moreover, the whole of UPFA votes or seats were not for Mahinda or ‘ethno-nationalism.’ There were other issues and factions involved. What is important at this stage is the general trend/s which needs to be properly cultivated further in the future.

There were other cosmopolitan trends discernible at the parliamentary elections. Let me list some of them one by one.

  1. The extremist political parties could not get much of a foothold at parliamentary elections whether in the South or North. This is well reported. The infamous Bodu Bala Sena party, Bodu Jana Peramuna (BJP), contested 16 districts but obtained only 20,377 votes and it was 0.18 percent of the total polled. The fate of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) was very much similar obtaining only 18,644 votes in Jaffna and 0.17 percent altogether.
  2. The UNFGG managed to win one seat each in Jaffna and Vanni showing a trend of cosmopolitanism among the overwhelming Tamil voters some of whom favouring national parties who assure minority rights.
  3. There are emerging synergies between cosmopolitanism, democracy and good governance. Cosmopolitanism could emerge only within democracy. The UNFGG, the namesake party for ‘good governance,’ made headway in districts where the electoral demography could be considered ‘cosmopolitan’ to mean multicultural and plural. Apart from Colombo and Gampaha, Nuwaraeliya and Mahanuwara signified this cultural diversity with emerging trends in cosmopolitan politics. There were similar other districts, plural in ethnic or religious lines. This demographic plurality is a healthy trend.
  4. The policy shifts and ‘moderation’ on the part of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), meaning Sinhala national heritage party, were significant in recent times. It has changed the name to United Good Governance National Front (UGGNF). Similar trends could be observed in respect of the Tami National Alliance (TNA) or the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and other similar political formations.

Although the political trends discernible from recent elections could be characterized or even named as ‘cosmopolitanism,’ it is not a brand name anyone or any party has carried forward in Sri Lanka. That is also not necessary. So far it is an unconscious process. The task might be to make it conscious. What is important is to make a move away from narrow ‘ethno-nationalism’ while recognizing ethnic affiliations particularly on the part of the minority communities, I might add, as a defence mechanism.

There is a growing number of theoretical literature on the subject of ‘cosmopolitanism’ in recent times. I have referred to what Gerard Delanty wrote to a “Sage Handbook on Nationalism” in 2006 in respect of cosmopolitanism, countering narrow nationalism and also globalisation. Three years back in 2012, Delanty himself edited a “Routledge Handbook on Cosmopolitanism” itself. The subject or the topic has been of much interest to social science and political analysts since Emmanuel Kant’s work on ‘Perpetual Peace’ in 1795, which is also much relevant and important to Sri Lanka today.

The purpose of this article has never been to go into theoretical details of cosmopolitanism, but to show certain encouraging trends in the Sri Lankan public, judging by the recent election results, that hopefully moves away from narrow ethno-nationalism further. The youth seems to play a major role in this trend, although not analysed for want of space, along with professional groups, trade unionists and intellectuals. External or international aspects of cosmopolitanism were also not discussed. There is a growing symmetry, however, between professionalism, youth, multiculturalism, urbanization, organized workers, expanding middle classes that bring cosmopolitanism into being and action. This is hopeful. One last word about its possible limitations. In Sri Lanka, like in some other countries, cosmopolitanism might be associated with the elite or elitism. That is not or should not be the case. As argued by Mary Kaldor, a genuinely ‘democratic cosmopolitanism’ must give voice to the grievances of the great many people in society.

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