By W A Wijewardena –
Claim that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country
Sri Lanka is hailed by many, mainly by those who are ethnically Sinhalese and religion-wise Buddhists, as a Sinhala-Buddhist country. This is not an arrangement which it has got under its Constitution. Constitutionally, it is a secular state though the State has pledged to protect and promote Buddhism, while ensuring freedom for all to practice a faith of their choice.
Is secularism just on paper?
The designation that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country does not make Sri Lanka different from other countries in the world. That is because there are many countries which have declared themselves in respective constitutions as Islamic Republics or as countries that derive power to rule people from a deity.
Sri Lanka’s neighbour, India, is a secular state constitutionally. But in practice, it is a country ruled by majority Hindus. Hence, the attribution of a country to a particular religion or ethnicity is not uncommon. It is also not injurious to the health of democracy. In this context, what is injurious is the Government permitting an unofficial religious police to operate with total impunity and allowing it to regulate the behaviour of citizens and suppress by word or by deed their freedoms.
In economics, it is called the non-observance of the rule of law and its essential corollary, the violation of property rights. The concept of national state collapses completely when it is done continuously and on a large scale. Sri Lanka’s track record in this regard provides ample evidence for this.
Nationalism per se is not an enemy of democracy
How nationalism can contribute to uphold democracy has been elaborated by Yael Tamir, ex-minister of education in Israel, in her 2019 book, ‘Why Nationalism’. According to her, for democracy to prevail, there should be a land called a country.
A country does not exist, if there is no nation. A nation cannot survive unless it is bound by a common affinity which should be manifested as nationalism. If nationalism is ruled out, all other pre-causal factors for democracy are also ruled out. Hence, nationalism per se is not an enemy of democracy. It becomes an enemy if it is used in the wrong way for wrong reasons.
Nazi Germany during the World War II is a good example for this. Tamir calls this ‘defensive-regressive-nationalism’. Though she has not explained what it is, it can be clarified as follows. It is defensive because the practitioners, feeling threatened by the world out there, creates a hard protective shell around them to keep enemies out. It is regressive because it plans to take a nation backward to its past. The hard shell into which citizens are driven is then coated with a protective paint called nationalism.
Nationalism: harmless at first but offensive later
Nationalism may be started as a harmless defensive exercise at first. But all defensives are eventually converted to offensives. That is because when something is in the defensive mode for long, it starts boiling from inside causing a situation called ‘implosion’.
Implosions destroy the body-society from inside. When it is realised that society is being destroyed, it takes counter action to protect itself. That counter action converts it to an offensive mode and it is manifested as an ‘explosion’.
Both implosions and explosions are harmful to a growing society. Implosions make society inactive and regressive. Explosions break it into pieces. If they are permitted to fester for too long in a society, they will invariably become enemies of a progressive society and, therefore, the enemies of democracy as well. Since nationalism is always associated with a particular culture, such as Sinhala-Buddhist or Islam Fundamentalist, it is finally manifested as ‘cultural nationalism’ as against its opposite number ‘cultural internationalism’ in which a culture becomes a living one by being blended by different global cultural practices.
What is cultural nationalism?
Cultural nationalism is an obsessively elated feeling and exaggerated superiority which one group of people holds over another group within a nation or one nation over another nation in the globe. This superiority also leads to insecurity and through insecurity, suspicion and protective action. The protective action at its extreme form is manifested by its polar opposite, namely, offensive action under which anyone outside one’s own group is considered an enemy worthy of being destroyed.
Accordingly, when feelings of cultural nationalism are at its peak, groups fight with other groups, religions fight with other religions and nations composed of a majority of a particular group fight with other nations.
The results are obvious: using the stamina, tact, energy and resources belonging to groups not for their own advancement but for generating violence and bloodshed. In economic terms, it is an unnecessary wastage of one’s skills, talents and resources, known as ‘deadweight losses’.
Culture is not fixed, but changing
Culture is simply the way a particular group of people behave: how and what they eat, how they reproduce and raise their offspring, how they play games, how they perform arts, what type of beliefs they hold, to mention but a few of such behavioural attributes. It is illogical to expect these behavioural attributes to remain unchanged over time.
With new knowledge, experience and exposure, culture too changes constantly and is in a process of its own evolution. Those who go through this evolution do not feel this change. But all others feel threatened by the change that is taking place. For them, their old culture has been destroyed by the imposition of a new culture on it. Such changes occur naturally in any culture with the passage of time. The cultural nationalism tries to keep that old culture as perceived by its advocates unchanged. In other words, they want to reverse the time machine and go back to an era which is already gone by.
Sleep all the time and find fault with culture
The difference between the two groups could be understood by the following hypothetical situation. Suppose a man is captured in the year 1900, put to a long sleep, awakened in the year 2019 and released just at the gate of a university.
How would he feel now? Would he feel it strange or natural? He will certainly feel that everything around him – how people dress themselves, eat, walk, speak and interact – is strange. He would feel that the culture which he is accustomed with has been totally destroyed and may fight for its restoration. Those who are opposed to cultural changes are those who have been sleeping all the time without noticing anything happening around them.
Amartya Sen on cultural nationalism
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has discussed the rise of cultural nationalism in India in the recent past in two books: the first his 2005 book titled ‘The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity’ and the other his 2006 book titled ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’. A notable feature which one could gauge from his analysis is that what he has found in Indian case has exact parallels in what Sri Lanka is experiencing today.
BJP’s visible hand in inventing history
Sen has documented in ‘The Argumentative Indian’ how India’s Bharatiya Janatha Party or BJP resuscitated an old Hindutva Movement or Movement for establishing Indianness in India in mid 1970s by misrepresenting facts, fabricating established historical evidence, inventing history and using violence and force on moderate Hindus as well as other ethnic and religious groups.
While India is a country of diversity with many religious beliefs, languages and ethnic groups, Hindutva movement has tried to project India as a Hindu country. To reclaim this land exclusively for Hindus, it has rewritten Indian history as essentially a Hindu civilisation, an essential prerequisite for establishing a grand Hindu vision of India.
This has, according to Sen, also helped Hindutva to marshal the support of Indian Diaspora which is bent on maintaining an Indian identity in their host countries in the midst of a perceived threat from the dominant cultures there; it is a solace to feel that Hindus reign at least in their old native land.
According to Sen, this is what BJP did following its electoral victory in 1998 and 1999: “Various arms of the government of India were mobilised in the task of arranging ‘appropriate’ rewritings of Indian history. Even though this adventure of inventing the past is no longer ‘official’ (because of the defeat of the BJP led coalition in the general elections in the spring of 2004), that highly charged episode is worth recollecting both because of what it tells us about the abuse of temporal power and also because of the light it throws on the intellectual underpinning of the Hindutva movement.”
Accordingly, fresh textbooks were written with focus on Hindu supremacy by deleting the objective analyses written by reputed academics earlier. The hastily-completed work also contained numerous factual mistakes and serious omissions drawing severe criticism from academia, press and media.
Yet the BJP Government which was bent on establishing its own political agenda paid no heed to them, according to Sen. The worst was yet to come in the form of fabricating archaeological facts: The Indus valley civilisation that had existed in North West India and Pakistan much before the recorded history of Hinduism was also projected as a Hindu civilisation by renaming it ‘Indus-Saraswati civilisation’ focusing on a non-existing river called the Saraswati River mentioned in Vedic texts.
To prove their point, the BJP-led intellectuals in fact had invented new archaeological evidence, according to Sen, by producing a computerised distortion of a broken seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a fraud committed on Indians at home and abroad in the name of justifying the Hindutva movement.
Illogical social thought finally ends up in spurious public policy
In ‘Identity and Violence,’ Sen says that propagandists’ hard work lead to the development of a collective social thought, a thought which has no rational foundation but believed by many as truth. The social thought then leads to collective political action, presenting a distorted view to an already emotionally worked up electorate and thereby easily securing electoral victories. Once the political power is secured, it is now easy to translate the illogical social thought to public policy which even at first glance is spurious but defended tooth and nail in the name of cultural nationalism.
This is what has happened in India and in many emerging countries including Sri Lanka.
The cultural nationalism has used the political power to reverse the time machine through public policy. But, is it not a boon to a country? Yes, it is a boon, if one does it to win the future and not to go back to establish the past which is already gone by. It is a spurious act committed by a nation especially when the rest of the world has moved forward. As Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had once advised the Sri Lanka’s business fraternity, one could gain from history immensely if history is learned to identify the past mistakes and thereby not to repeat the same.
India and Sri Lanka: Time to follow the Buddha, Ashoka and Akbar
Surely, the cultural nationalism which teaches children of an exaggerated superiority cannot deliver these prerequisites. Once, one is inflicted with superiority complex, he cannot tolerate and appreciate others and therefore cannot learn from them too.
Amartya Sen has put it very cogently in The Argumentative Indian as follows: “It was indeed a Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who in the third century BCE, not only outlined the need for toleration and the richness of heterodoxy, but also laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, with the opponents ‘duly honoured in every way on all occasions’. That political principle figures a great deal in later discussions in India, but the most powerful defence of toleration and the need for the state to be equi-distant from different religions came from a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar.”
True Buddhists should follow Buddha’s Brahmajaala Sutra
Four hundred years before Ashoka, the Buddha himself advised the monks, according to the Brahmajaala Sutra in the Dheegha Nikaya, that the monks should not get angry when some people talk ill of the Buddha. If they hear such abuses, the monks are required to explain to those abusers the true facts without losing their heads. Then, how should the monks behave when people talk well of the Buddha? Then, the monks should not get elated by such praises; they should with humility and modesty explain to them that the qualities which they have singled out for praising are valid, but there are many more such qualities possessed by the Buddha which those laymen have not been able to discern.
Toleration of diversity is the best
These principles that uphold toleration are equally valid to India as well as to Sri Lanka today where a high wave of cultural nationalism has swept across the sub-continent. In both countries, the goal of the propagators is to reverse the time machine and go back to the past. As long as the cultural nationalism aims at establishing the past, it closes the door for modernisation.
The cultural nationalism is, therefore, unlikely to deliver a boon to a society; instead, it is unavoidable that it would become a bane of the society.
Hence, nationalism, exercised without consideration for diversity in society is an enemy of democracy.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com