By Vishwamithra –
“What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
One has a civilization of more than two thousand five hundred years; the other, as Oscar Wilde said, has no civilization. In the year 1293, Marco Polo sailed homeward bound from China, pausing at Ceylon along the way; he wrote thus: “On leaving the island of Andaman and steering for 1,000 miles a little South of West, the traveler reaches the island of Ceylon. This, for its actual size, is better circumstanced than any other island in the world.”
Nevertheless, the dissimilarities are more pronounced than the similarities between the two countries. One might wonder, what an absurd attempt to compare America to Ceylon! Yet what’s apparent and still appealing to human curiosity in this twenty first century is breathtakingly remarkable. At the same time when considering the preposterous religious-racial beliefs on the one hand and their consumption of common sense on the other, the two countries and their respective sociopolitical stances deserve critical analysis.
Majority in a minority thinking frame
Majorities of both, the United States of America and Ceylon, suffer from an incorrigible complex which usually is attributed to minorities in the context of relative numbers. An overwhelming seventy five percent (75%) of the American population is white; fourteen percent (14%) is African American while six percent (6%) represents Asian (all Asians counted as one single grouping).
In Sri Lanka, Seventy five percent (75%) is Sinhalese while the Tamil population, both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil, constitute a mere fifteen percent (15%). The similarity is so stark and clear. But how each majority community, represented by a specific political coalition, is responding to emerging global realities? How and why is the majority feeling so insecure that the political party that is burning ethno-religious flames in each case is elected without much ado?
Human condition is such; a well-crafted appeal to its base instincts could be irresistible. Yet a minority of the human population may well consist of those whose base instincts are vulnerable and ready to be seduced by those appeals. An educated mind might react to these entreaties in a totally different fashion, yet find it hard to set aside the base instincts at the beginning of the process. In a situation of riots and mayhem, all intellectual sentries may run away leaving a hitherto-armored mind helpless and waiting to be exploited in a very negative way. A guarded and cautious approach, more often than not, may not be in the realm of occurrence.
It is to this mindset that a shrewd and crafty politician would make his appeal. Majority always seeks refuge in numbers and they justify their dominance in the very numbers they enjoy when confronted with nuanced aspects of human rights, fundamental beliefs in equality of treatment to all and every segment of all members in a community they dwell in. It is a natural phenomenon that does appeal to an educated and intelligent mind. Yet when faced with defining moments in history, man seldom chooses to ignore the unwise and momentary allurements to his base instincts.
Ceylon, even though, could boast about a civilization, which is more than two millennia-old, founded on Buddhism, a religion whose fundamental principle is Ahimsa (non-violence), has had her darkest moments when confronted by either Tamils or Muslims. She resorted to the most brazen and abject forms of violence. These violent acts so executed by the average Sinhalese Buddhist have been led by the Maha Sanga, an integral part of society that had been in search of a more prominent place in shaping and introducing state policy on non-financial matters. Sanga’s intervention in state policymaking has not only damaged the country’s image as a secular constitution-centered governance-nation, it has time and time again contributed towards sharpening of an extreme and fringe-laden mindset. Macabre riots in 1983 and utterances and chaos created by Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara are mere reflections of that mindset.
Furthermore, it has helped one political party, namely the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to secure success at the elections. Average Lankan, especially Sinhalese Buddhist, could be downright vulnerable to the vagaries of political propaganda based on religious principles. These religious and ethnic beliefs are totally based on the Mahāvaṃsa, The Great Chronicle) the original author of which is presumed to be Mahānāma Thero, a Buddhist Monk.
Chronicles of Sri Lanka
‘The substantive material begins with the immigration of Prince Vijaya from India with his retinue and continues until the reign of King Mahasena, recounting wars, succession disputes, the building of Stupas and reliquaries, and other notable incidents. An extensive chronicle of the war between the Sinhala King Dutthagamani and Tamil invader, and later king, Elara (861 verses in the Mahāvaṃsa compared with 13 verses in the Dipavamsa) may represent the incorporation of a popular epic from the vernacular tradition.
While much of the contents of the Mahāvaṃsa is derived from expansions of the material found in the Dipavamsa, several passages specifically dealing with the Abhayagiri Vihara are omitted, suggesting that the Mahāvaṃsa was more specifically associated with the Mahavihara’. (Source: Wikipedia).
During the times of our Kings, in addition to his main Amathis (the Cabinet in modern day terms), Maha Sanga was the primary advisor to the throne and played an exclusive part in monarchical decisions. The other civilian and military leaders of the then governance machinery were essentially secondary. As a matter of fact, Maha Sanga formed the elite of the elites during these times in Lankan history. This influence and its storied journey throughout the centuries had not diminished until the country was invaded firstly by the Portuguese then followed by the Dutch and the British.
With the introduction of the Soulbury Constitution which was fundamentally secular in veneer and character and democratic and liberal in details, the government machinery continued until 1972 as a developing liberal democracy with.
Asanga Welikala in his book titled ‘The Failure of Jennings’ Constitutional Experiment in Ceylon’ explains thus: ‘In sum, therefore, Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution was a classic representation of ‘manner and form’ entrenchment, which envisaged a general constitutional prohibition on ordinary legislation having the effect of discriminating, whether to impose a disability or to confer a privilege, on any community or religion (both terms being left undefined), subject to the review of the courts, unless such legislation is passed as an amendment to the constitution by the supra-majority of two-thirds of the members of the Lower House and certified by the Speaker that the due procedure has been followed.’
What happened precisely in 1970 was this. When the coalition formed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, NM Perera and SA Wickramasinghe of the SLFP, LSSP and CP respectively were elected with a two thirds majority and with resounding endorsement of the Manifesto so presented to the people at the General Election campaign, it could be interpreted as a mandate to change the constitution in terms of the chapters and verses of the coalition manifesto. Out went the limitations presumed to be imposed by the majority on the minorities and in came a special status for Sinhalese-Buddhism.
The stranglehold on the country’s political culture both in terms of social advancement and the use of language and practice of religion by the majority Sinhalese Buddhists was not only made legitimate and legal, it was made an integral part of our constitution. This resulted after two and half decades of the Swabhasha policy of SWRD Bandaranaike. In other words, Sri Lanka became enslaved to Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarianism. Whenever the question arose whether a choice had to be made between a Sinhalese Buddhist and a Tamil or a Muslim, the majority, whether they were educated, sophisticatedly elitist, the vote was for the Sinhalese Buddhist. This indeed is a cruel reality one has to face, whether it’s in ancient Ceylon or in the twenty first century.
Catapulting us back to the far west, in America today, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for Presidency in 2016, his slogan was ‘Make America Great Again’. It was a loaded slogan, loaded with a lot of appeal and latent messaging towards the Whites of America. Although Trump’s appeal was basically against the ‘Browns’ (Hispanic communities) at the time, his earlier behavior against African-Americans, which was well chronicled, managed to galvanize the fringe elements in American landscape towards his candidacy and the Republican Party.
As I wrote at the beginning of this column, Sri Lanka is a nation going 2500 years or more, America’ has hardly gone beyond 250 years. Her history is short but achievements as one cohesive nation is far too long even for a historian to pen down. However, a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde has the famous aesthete remarking that America is ‘the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between’. The latent salivation for white supremacy has been reborn under Donald Trump and the riots that Trump himself engineered on January 6, 2021 is ample testimony to such disgraceful conduct by quite a sizeable part of the white community and its justification or disregard as a merciless expression of a decadent mindset.
Two countries, geographically situated at the two extremes of the globe, one almost a continent and the other a tiny island are faced with the same problem with the same inherent characteristics and idiosyncrasies.
Our appeal should be to those who are educated and yet idealistic: treat every human being as your brother, sister, father, mother of child. You won’t go wrong.
*The writer can be contacted at email@example.com