By Dilshan Fernando –
There were many readers and interpreters of the 2019 presidential election result: some were jubilant, others lamented heavily. All strived to provide the most meaningful analysis of the post-election situation that for many, especially the losers, was a nightmare that couldn’t be explained under a consistent principle. Although I don’t agree, many from both camps almost unanimously agreed that the good governance (GG) government’s reconciliation outlook was a major factor that affected detrimentally to its later unseating. However, there are questions and assumptions about GG government’s reconciliation programme that we must confront, if at all we consider reconciliation is still a valid topic.
Before we get in to GG government’s reconciliation programme and outlook, we must entangle ourselves on a brief detour to place the problem correctly in the context. Some abstractions assist in this endeavour. From a theoretical point of view – those who despise theory must soon un-blind themselves by taking the example from devout theoretical practices of nationalist populists like Nalin De Silva that consistently anoint their hallowed power edifice – reconciliation does not strive to unite dis-unified parties. Philosophically, there is no harmonious “One” that later divides in to a differing “Two.” Rather, we should start with the non-binary “Two” itself. To put it simply, it is a grave conceptual mistake to think that reconciliation is a political project that endeavours to bring back the dis-unified parties (Two) – in our case ethnic communities – to a harmonious whole (One) that existed before they got dis-unified. The reason is that there was no such ethnically unified national identity in the first place.
There are no prodigal sons that a benevolent father needs to bring together in reconciliation. It’s not because that Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and other minorities are more than prodigal sons, but because that there was no “happy family” in the first place that the benevolent father – played probably by the GG government – must re-unite. Not only that there was no happy family before, but also that there cannot be one in future. Believing the contrary of the aforementioned, in my view, resulted in a colonial indoctrination of reconciliation that later brought down the very political force that brought it forth. Let’s peruse this apparent absurdity.
After all, what is so colonial about bringing the ethnicities together? The simple answer is that different ethno-religious communities have different conceptions about this togetherness itself. For example, for right wing Sinhalese, Sri Lanka is their historical and moral – referring to some transcendental right similar to the largely secular Israelites who nonetheless believe overwhelmingly that God gave their land – homeland which was later also inhabited by other ethnic communities who landed here for non-historic and non-moral reasons – from trade to chance. Contrastingly, for a Tamil, right to one’s land is determined solely by the self-affirmation of the concerned ethno-religious group, which also provides meaning to their nearly a century old struggle. Self-affirmation is no less moral than historic right in some sense. And for a typical Muslim, Islamic way of life – from Prayer to Parda – prevails over any attempt to integrate them to secular notions of life. Quite reasonably then, there should not be any justification to un-veil a Muslim woman who has self-veiled herself, where ironically, all women in Islam are veiled in essence, eluding to its fundamental metaphysic, even if they are not actually covering their faces. In this background, what perhaps does bringing people in these radically different walks of life together actually mean? The answer must be estopped for another moment.
In an 1853 New York Herald Tribune article titled “The British Rule in India,” Karl Marx notoriously asked whether “can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia?” referring to the social conditions of colonial India. An occasion where Marx is often labelled as a Euro-centric white charlatan, on my view, is nonetheless a correct diagnosis of colonialism in our region. When the British arrived, or for that matter even the Portuguese, Sri Lanka back then was not in ethno-religious harmony. This is true even if the country had a unified kingdom from time to time. What constituted arguably such an ethno-religious identity is the very anti-colonial attempts to get rid of colonialism. Hence, Marx’s question is whether the then progressive social forces have been able to capture the historical agency to un-root the feudal kings and regressive aristocracies without the unforeseen – no less brutal and barbaric – intervention of the colonial forces. I think not.
The interesting story then is that not only that the anti-colonial movement allowed the inter-ethnic communities to unite against the British, but also the historical situation provided the downtrodden oppressed classes, including the minorities to channel their rage against their own oppressors. This meant that the Tamil speaking people in the country stood against their counterparts – the Sinhala majority – in view of winning political sovereignty. Does this mean then, that the Tamil – or the ethnic – question is a colonial scapegoat? Answer: No, precisely because unbeknownst to the British, the historically oppressed classes – from Tamil speaking people to the lower castes – were able to articulate their suffering for the first time in history. On my view, British were a necessary price that the national pride had to pay in order to grant the language of struggle to the downtrodden.
What then is the Tamil struggle against the Sinhala state? Nothing but, oxymoronically, an anti-anti-colonial struggle par excellence, emphasizing its facet as an alternative anti-colonial struggle, against the majoritarian one. This radically means that the Tamil struggle was never of a kind that sought to plunge back to a harmonious whole that pre-existed the British. It is in this sense that the Tamils were the first moderns in Sri Lanka, just like the Dalits in India. Tamils were the first to know that there never was a “happy family,” when even their most progressive Sinhala counterparts – from various leftist forces – were singing this melody. Tamils knew that Farntz Fanon was right when he said in his “Black Skin, White Masks” that “there is no black mission. There is no white burden. I do not want to be victim to the rules of a black world. Am I going to ask this white man to answer for the slave traders of the 17th century?” There should not be any burden on anyone to pursue empty western multi-culturalism.
In this sense, we can conclude that the empty pressure to unite all ethnicities under happy family was never enshrined by an authentic vision about Sri Lanka. One could site India, as is often the case. Well, quite forcefully, I must remind everyone, that there is no united India without the fact of a Muslim Pakistan, irrespective of alluding to the numerous examples of anti-unitary protest movements in India. What a debacle it would have been if all the two hundred million Muslims who are living in present day Pakistan were asked to live in India? Inter-state diversity of India while true of being diverse, did never threaten to undermine its Hindu identity – according to Arundhati Roy – in comparison to its perceived threat of Islamization. Therefore, ‘reconciliation as harmonization’ is undoubtedly a colonial, elitist indoctrination that represses the “Real” of brutal otherness pertaining to each of the ethnic communities concerned. Concisely, it wipes out “difference.”
Politically, this pseudo pressure to ethnic harmony, both cared to make the majority Sinhalese guilty of their ethnic-cleansing past and consequently pushed them to embrace their ethnic brethren with unconditional sympathy. They were forced to “understand” their “others.” GG government’s various reconciliation-related institutional arms from ONUR to OMP were anointed with this idea of reconciliation. Their personnel asked the Sinhalese to go to Masjids and understand the Muslim prayer. They asked the Tamils to visit temples and experience the Buddhist bliss. Muslims attended the catholic churches and sought to understand Christians venerating the crucified Jesus Christ, who according to them is Isa alayhe salam. How can we understand others, especially ethnic others with different ways of life, when we don’t mostly understand ourselves? Moreover, why should only the poor Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils, Christians, others, mostly from the country’s periphery, understand other poor underprivileged people when the rich Colombo-dwellers merely sit and patronize them? Would this message – to forcefully understand the other – be a formidable one to carry to the households of the benevolent elites of Rosmead Place or Javatta Road?
My contention here is that the true approach to reconciliation is not to forcefully require masses to “understand” their ethno-religious “other.” Rather, what is lacking in Sri Lanka’s public sphere is the domain of polite manners and indifference to others. With the risk of being plummeted away as nonsense, I argue to affirm the paramount importance of these regimes of manners and politeness – basically the honorable practice of indifference – that make our social space a tolerable one, sometimes quite unbeknownst to us. Try to recall how in our day-today lives we politely ignore many feelings we get about strangers, sometimes our own colleagues – from jealousy to disgust – that we simply don’t give sufficient recognition to be expressed freely. In those circumstances, we implicitly agree that we don’t have the right to express to others whatever that comes to our minds. In this sense, while it is truly admirable to be authentically non-racist and even select a spouse from a different ethnicity or religion, it is another thing that we learn to practice indifference even when we “feel” bad deeds about one’s ethno-religious others. So for example, even if you “feel” that a particular religious ritual of another is totally futile and hilarious, one must immediately recognize that one’s own rituals must be equally futile and hilarious in the other’s eyes. While both don’t concede one’s rituals and practices in this situation, what one learns is that the authenticity of one’s identity is not constituted by castigating the identity of the other.
Surprisingly to many, the only way to accomplish the above is to learn to politely keep distance with others and practice the art of indifference to make each and every one tolerable in the social space. To give an example how this art of cold manners actually works, recall (those of you who know a little bit about American culture) the standard “hi, how are you?” greeting that literally every person living in the US offers as a general courtesy measure. The trick here is that this question is precisely meant to be taken merely performatively and not literally. So the normal answer to this question is “I am fine, how are you?” and not a serious narrative about how one’s day has really been. Although this exchange is purely performative, one can immediately deem a person rude if this apparently performative gesture is not undertaken. One is then expected to follow with this empty, yet profoundly important, gesture even with one’s ethnic other if we are to survive in the social multiplicity.
Well then, is there no chance for authentic inter-ethnic relations at all under this conceptualization? Answer: vehemently no; precisely because such inter-ethnic relations are left out to be authentically formed instead of forced to be bonded. There certainly are magical moments in our lives that we connect with friends from other ethnicities or religions in a totally unexpected way – almost like falling in love. Those relationships and connections are better to be left unregulated in regimes of manners and forceful bonding. My argument about polite indifference in this essay is about the silent majority whom we mostly don’t care about but are nonetheless not permitted to be excluded from the social space due to racism. What is this secular notion of reconciliation of indifference, if not a refined decolonized and modern idea, forced in place of the non-secular ‘understanding the other’ rhetoric?