By Laksiri Fernando –
There is nothing wrong with nationalism if it is moderate, balanced, civic, and realistic enough to incorporate global trends. Nationalism at a personal level might manifest as ‘patriotism,’ to mean love for one’s country of origin or even adopted country. There can be people who could balance between the two without much antagonism.
Love for the country or country of origin also could be identified different to nationalism or patriotism in a more sublime and a sophisticated form. There is no name, other than just ‘love for the country.’ It may be driven by old memories, having relatives or some attachment to the culture or physical landscape. Those who could be identified in this category may have their sentimental or ideological leanings elsewhere different to the ‘nation’ or ‘fatherland.’
There were many ‘Ceylonese’ who were in this category before or even after independence, but they have become a vanishing tribe, given the polarizations. Some also remained in the early diaspora. I have come across many Burghers or even Eurasians, talking about Ceylon with affection and love. They were born in Ceylon.
Nationalism and Patriotism
If we wish a contrast between nationalism (of any kind) and patriotism, then the ‘nation’ is the cornerstone of nationalism, while the ‘fatherland’ constitutes its place for patriotism. The distinction is also geopolitical. Nationalism is more widespread than patriotism. Patriotism was nationalism’s equivalent or predecessor in some countries (i.e. Germany, Russia, some Eastern Europe countries). It is also through this tradition that communist countries in Europe opted to promote patriotism instead of nationalism. But in the case of China or Indo-China, it is more of nationalism than patriotism.
I am not sure about the Tamil equivalent, but in Sinhala, there is no even a proper term for patriotism. Usually, it is ‘Deshapremaya’ (love for the land), but it does not signify the ‘ism’ part. Therefore, a possibility is to call it ‘Deshavadaya’ which is not so impressive for propaganda.
But in contrast, the notion of ‘nation’ has been there for a very long period with the Sinhala equivalent as ‘Jathiya,’ originating from Sanskrit ‘Jati,’ to mean an identity group. In this sense, it was similar to ‘Nacione’ in the Medieval Europe. It is based on this tradition that even today the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims are called ‘Jathien’ or ‘nationalities.’ There were times that ‘Jathi’ meant caste in Sri Lanka as the strict ‘Varna’ concept was not very popular. However, the distinction between ‘Jati’ and ‘Varna’ was clear in the subcontinent. For example, Nepal was considered a ‘flower garden of 32 Jatis and 4 Varnas.’ What a beautiful description? It was the characterization by the King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who founded modern Nepal in 1769.
There had been and are debates among theoreticians and historians whether the ‘nation’ is a modern concept or an ancient one. Those who argued it to be a modern concept called themselves modernists and often called the others ‘primordialists.’ In a sense, both were correct as they were talking about different stages of the same social development. Nations appeared as ethnicities in ancient times. The nations as united political entities are of course a modern necessity or phenomenon, although still embracing ethnic nations or nationalities within it. This is the modern reality even in Sri Lanka.
Nationalism undoubtedly is a modern phenomenon. It can be defined as an ideology or a movement or both. Although there were some nationalist ideological traits in ancient times, there were no nationalist ideologues, ideologies or mass nationalist movements. It is primarily the modern nationalists who glorify the past and invent their forefathers as heroes of nationalism. Otherwise, the ancient (ethno) nations were more dormant than active. Therefore, the intermixing was possible and it is as a result that there are many hybrid nations in the world today.
Nationalism or nationalist movement in Sri Lanka had been a belated and a temperate phenomenon compared to India before independence. Leading to independence, what appeared in politics was mainly a ‘constitutional reform movement’ within which there were conflicts, bargaining and compromises. The conflict aspect was characterized as ‘communalism’ (G. C. Mendis), and the compromising aspect ‘liberalism’ (A. J. Wilson). The movement was confined to the elite, so much so this elite even opposed the universal franchise in 1931. However, only thanks to the ‘liberal aspect’ of this movement, that Ceylon could achieve independence in 1948 in one piece. Therefore, this ‘liberal’ aspect is not something we should underestimate.
The above of course was on the surface. Underneath, there were several other movements and two of them were: (1) the trade union and the left movement and (2) the Buddhist and Hindu (also Muslim) revivalist movements. Many of the writers who admire ‘nationalism’ today from the Sinhala side (nothing particularly wrong with it!), usually trace the inspirations from the Buddhist revivalist movement, their ideologues, the priests, the poets and fictions writers. What must be understood, however, is that there was the ‘other side’ to it, from the Hindu revivalist movement, of course from a minority community.
What the modern historians have skipped largely is the parallel Muslim revivalist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. If not for this, there wouldn’t have been a Sinhala-Muslim riots in 1915. When you go through Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels, this antagonism is extremely clear. Therefore, it was not merely against the Christian missionaries, ‘who came with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other,’ that the ‘nationalist’ rage was unleashed, but also against our own ‘other’ people. Of course, it is possible, that the same rage was cultivated against the Buddhists as ‘infidels’ among the Muslims.
Who were the promoters of these antagonisms? Those were the emerging middle (petty bourgeois) classes who competed each other at the ‘market place’ or for the positions in the professions and the colonial administration. Who could possibly rescue the situation? The working class/s, the trade union movement or more pertinently, the socialist thinking. In this respect, there was a gap until the left movement was formed in the 1930s, as A. E. Goonesinghe succumbed to the nationalist pressures. Then the left movement also split into different segments, making the whole struggle weakened, and also capitulating to narrow nationalism, directly and indirectly.
For some, ‘socialism’ is about different theories of Marx, Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky. But socialism in essence is about social equality, social justice and a new economic order where major class differences could be eliminated. It cannot be achieved overnight, but socialism can be the guiding principles in the modern age, going beyond even the best of nationalism.
There is no one variety of nationalism but several. It is not about the hazy subjective understanding of the ‘good variety’ and the ‘bad one,’ but objective analysis of different varieties without hesitation to take knowledge from even the ‘western scholarship.’ What is mostly pertinent in the case of Sri Lanka is the distinction between ‘ethno-nationalism’ and ‘civic nationalism.’ I have written on this subject several times before. Hans Kohn (‘The Idea of Nationalism,’ 1944) interpreted the difference as possible stages in the evolution of an economic/social system from underdeveloped conditions to developed conditions. But the evolution is not automatic or certain as revealed in the case of Britain, for example. Uneven conditions might perpetuate ‘ethno-nationalism’ even after development (Tom Narin, ‘The Break-up of Britain,’ 1977).
SWRD Bandaranaike and CBK
When SWRD Bandaranaike came back after studies in Britain, he had a good grasp of the potential as well as the dangers of nationalism. Although I am not able to quote him off hand now, his broad understanding was very clear in his early writings. His path was contradictory though. He formed the narrow nationalist Sinhala Maha Sabha (1936), but at the same time was supportive of federalism. His justification was that there was this Tamil Mahajana Sabha formed in 1921.
Even when he was forming the SLFP in 1952, Bandaranaike’s ‘idea’ was to unite the Sinhalese first and then all others. That is there in the documents. People can have ‘ideas,’ but there are historical ‘dynamics’ as well. What is more pertinent is to refer to what E. W. Adikaram said in 1958 (Jathivadiya Manasika Pisseki – Communalist is a Lunatic). When you take the Genie out of the bottle you cannot control the fellow, he said. This is exactly what happened to Bandaranaike in 1959. A genie came and shot him!
This is also what happened lately to many Tamil leaders as well. The genies came and killed them. Most tragic was the killings of Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran in July 1989, thirty years after Bandaraniake killing. Only Sivasithamparam narrowly escaped.
Therefore, if there is some antipathy for (narrow) ‘nationalism’ on Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s (CBK) part, it is understandable. She was just 14 years when her father was killed. She had to rush from school to see her father struggling for life in hospital. She was the most affected, I believe, given her sensitivities and age. But as far as I am aware, she has a good grasp of the country’s history, Buddhism and people’s sentiments for culture and heritage. The difference is that she is ready to understand the other side as well.
In recent times, her efforts for ‘Sanhidiyawa’ (reconciliation) have come under attack from those who perhaps don’t know where they stand. Groping in the dark for genies perhaps, one has said (Uditha Devapriya, Colombo Telegraph, 11 August), “That didn’t mean I disagreed with her point: it was a case of disagreeing with the person making the point”! This is just personal. This was with reference to the proposal that the ‘schools with mon-ethnic, and mono-religious student populations must be diversified.’
Theosophy and ‘Cosmopolitanism’
If the resistance came from the ‘Olcott schools,’ as reported, it is more unfortunate. If CBK was not that tactful in handling the matter, it was also unfortunate. Because ‘Sanhidiyawa’ is the crust of Henry Olcott’s philosophy of theosophy. While Olcott had more affinity for Buddhism (he became a Buddhist), he and theosophy in general was/is more for interfaith and above faith spiritualism. Theosophical Society founded in 1875, Henry Olcott as the President, moved its headquarters to Adyar, Chennai in 1886. It is still there. The Society emblem while having the Buddhist Swastika, among other symbols, says, ‘There is no religion higher than the truth.’
I am rather hesitant to raise this issue, but in his later work in Ceylon, Olcott was not that impressive of the emerging trends of narrow-nationalism and narrow-religiosity, to my knowledge. The following is what the Theosophical Society, Australia, is advertising in its website.
“The Theosophical Society welcomes students or seekers, belonging to any religion or to none, who are in sympathy with its Objects.” What are the Objects?
- To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science.
- To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in the human being.
Of course, the above comes from Australia! However, there is something for the Olcott schools or former students of them to learn from those sentiments and principles. If Olcott was living, he would be proposing the same on the lines of ‘Sanhidiyawa.’
It is erroneously claimed that “Benedict Anderson strived with his research to prove that nationalism inspired selflessness, the kind of selflessness that cosmopolitanism could not inspire.” Anderson didn’t try to prove anything about nationalism against cosmopolitanism! He was not at all an admirer of nationalism. He was rather neutral. His thesis was his objective reflections on the subject. He was perplexed when even the Marxists or so-called Marxist regimes were capitulating to nationalism particularly in Indo-China.
In defining his proposition, ‘nation as an imagined community,’ he defined it as (1) imagined, (2) imagined as limited, (3) imagined as sovereign and (4) imagined as a community. This is what he further said on the last point.
“Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.” (‘Imagined Communities,’ p. 7).
What he said about ‘limited imaginings’ is more pertinent to Sri Lanka unfortunately. Forget about ‘cosmopolitanism,’ if you are allergic! It is the ‘limited imaginings’ that paved the way for thousands and thousands of people in our country, after independence, to kill each other. Or ‘to kill or willing to die,’ whatever way you like to describe it. In addition, there were so much of other people who got killed even without belonging to those two categories. They are the innocents and the bystanders. More pertinent lesson for the present-day leaders and advocates of nationalism is from the fate of SWRD Bandaranaike and A. Amirthalingam. Beware of arousing the Genie.