12 August, 2020

Blog

For Sinhalese Like Us: ‘Unknown Knowns’ Of The Tamil Man’s Problem

By Vangeesa Sumanasekara

Vangeesa Sumanasekara

Let us lay the cards on the table. The Northern Provincial Council election result has decisively shaken the post-war political balance in the country and redefined the lines of demarcation. The immediate future of the country will depend, to a large extent, on the way the newly elected Northern Provincial Council strategically implement its political agenda and the way the government responds to that. The fundamental challenge at hand for us, in the South, is to prevent a Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist counter-mobilization that would ultimately pressurize the government to adopt the former’s position.

Heart of the problem is the following: why does the overwhelming majority of the Sinhalese do not recognize what only appears to be the blatantly obvious and justifiable reality of the aspirations of the Tamils to obtain a certain self-determination in the parts of the country where they are the dominant majority ? The Tamil man’s problem, as I will henceforth call it – and by ‘man’ I, of course, include both men and women – is, in a certain sense, a remarkable phenomenon. It is at once the most elusive and the most obvious problem, depending on one’s standpoint: one that argues that the Tamil man’s problem is a pseudo-problem and the one that believes that it is the most serious and pressing problem in the country right now.

The former position can be summarized thus: ‘Tamils do not have a problem at all. The colonial rulers had intentionally given privileges to Tamils, in order to create an ethnic divide in the country and, by extension to safeguard the smooth functioning of the former’s rule. At the end of the colonial rule, Tamil leaders perceived that they would no longer be getting the privileges they enjoyed during the colonial rule insofar as the numerical majority of the country would become its new rulers, as indeed it should be according to the natural destiny of the country, in tune with its pre-colonial history. With this realization the Tamil leaders started to demand an unjustifiable share in legislative power and started to mobilize the average Tamil people around a mythical homeland, when in fact, the latter did not have a problem being a Tamil. It was the leaders who corrupted the minds of the people in order to maintain the privileges the former enjoyed. Tamil ‘problem’ itself is an illusion’

The second position, the one which I espouse, can be summarized thus: ‘Sri Lankan state is ethnically biased towards Sinhalese rendering the Tamils and other ethnic minorities second class citizens. It is not a question about giving a laundry list of the problems that Tamils face; it is, on the contrary, a problem pertaining to the structural rather than the factual. This is indeed a structural invariant in the form of the nation state itself and the whole discourse about the power devolution and federalism is an attempt to address this formal issue i.e. nation states are ethnically biased. In this context it is blatantly obvious that the Tamil demand for a certain autonomy in the North is an extremely understandable, even a necessary, demand.’

Naturally, these two positions can be articulated in different ways and there are many nuances to be considered in a broader analysis. What interests us, however, is the following one: how can we convince someone who believes in the first argument about the validity of the second?

In order to respond to this question, it is of crucial importance – and this is the central claim that I wish to make here – to resuscitate what may seem like, for a reader well versed in late twentieth century philosophy, an outdated notion: critique of ideology. The reason why this notion may appear to be outdated is that it requires a distinction between, to put it in simplified terms, ‘truth’ and ‘illusion’. Ideology, as it is generally perceived, is an illusion, a smoke screen, that distorts the true reality of our polities and the critique of ideology is aimed at removing this smoke screen in order to make visible the underlying truth. No doubt that this is a rather trivial generalization but it is a sufficient one for our purposes. One can easily read Louis Althusser’s canonical definition of ideology as ‘that which represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ in this sense.

The problem with this formulation was not that this notion was simply wrong and it turned out that we indeed perceive things the way they really are. On the contrary. Today, not many would argue that our relations to the society, to political phenomena are neutral and we make our political decisions by simply considering ‘facts’. It is a philosophical commonplace of our time to accept that facts will always be perceived and interpreted through a lens influenced by our political positions, childhood experiences, cultural habits, and religious beliefs. No one can possibly exempt himself or herself entirely from one’s historicity and this was precisely the problem with the notion of ideology. Put simply, we can formulate it thus: If no one can exempt him or her from one’s historicity how can one say that some phenomena are ideological whereas others are not? How did Althusser know the real conditions of our existence? How can we make a distinction, as Althusser did, between the ideological and the scientific?

Standard, ‘postmodern’, response to the question is that Althusser, being the last great classical Marxist thinker, was still confined to the straightjacket of base/superstructure distinction according to which everything is more or less determined, in the last instance, by the mode of production of a social formation. In this context, it is certainly instructive today to re-read Newton Gunasinghe’s celebrated short essay “May Day after the July Holocaust”. For all its sheer brilliance in insight one can easily detect the limit of the Althusserian edifice. Gunasinghe’s basic argument is the following. Class contradictions are weakened within the Tamils as they perceive a threat to their collective existence and class contradictions are falsely taken the anti-Tamil directions in response to the Tamil demands within the Sinhalese. Thus, class contradictions are overdetermined by the ethnic conflict and the immediate task of the Left is to give democratic liberties to the Northern and Eastern people in order to restart the real political struggle which is the class conflict. As he wrote in his concluding line “[t]he worsening economic crisis enables the Left to raise the class issue with renewed vigour, raise the class consciousness of the working class and contribute towards the reduction of the affectivity of ethnic overdetermination on class conflict”.

In other words, the failure of the classical Marxist position was its inability to recognize the plurality of conflicts in their irreducible equality to one another – as the standard postmodern mantra puts it ‘class, race, caste and gender’ are all democratic sites of resistance against inequality and domination. The price to be paid for this, however, is that critique of ideology becomes redundant as a concept. For, as we saw above, it inevitably requires a distinction between truth and the distortion of truth. If one concedes the point that there is no real struggle, then it becomes a matter of replacing one ideology with another. This is why it is an essential theoretical task today to reconstruct a novel concept of truth. Needless to say that this is a task well beyond the scope of a short intervention like this and I shall simply refer the reader to the profound philosophy of Alain Badiou which is constructed around this specific problem.

For now it is sufficient to claim that this postmodern question in no way disqualifies the actual existence of ideology. Ideology, as it was developed by the great Marxist thinkers, beginning with Marx himself, is not simply any kind of deceptive representation, for it would lead us to ridiculous conclusions like even a magician’s performance is an ideological operation. Ideology is a rationalization – a pseudo-rationality to be precise – which claims that what exists as a matter of fact exist necessarily. Critique of ideology, ultimately amounts to the demonstration that a social situation given to us as inevitable, is, in reality, contingent and subject to change without reason.

This is clearly evident in the standard response against the Tamil man’s problem that we summarized at the beginning. For it ultimately relies on the refusal to recognize the contingent nature of the established order in the country. It is a discourse on the historical necessity of Sinhalese being the rightful or legitimate heirs of the country’s political power. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the debate about re-settlement in the North and the standard argument that Northern Council election should only be held when the correct ethnic balance is re-stored in the North, after re-settling the Sinhalese who had had to leave their lands because of the war. Here, the social situation where there was a percentage of Sinhalese in the North is presented as inevitably necessary and any change thereof, according to this line of reasoning, is a distortion or an abnormality to be avoided.

Secondly, ideology is not just a psychological phenomenon; it resides at the border between the psychological and the social. No doubt, the unsurpassable exponent of this dimension of ideology is Slavoj Zizek and his famous definition of ideology as ‘unknown knowns’ precisely aims at this. Very briefly, he argues that there are four possible relations between knowledge and ignorance. There are ‘known knowns’ – like, I know that I have the knowledge about the number of fingers I have on my hand; then there are ‘known unknowns’ – like I know that I am ignorant about the number of times I blink for a day; thirdly, there are ‘unknown unknowns’ – I do not have the knowledge that I am ignorant of something. Finally, there is the important notion of ‘unknown knowns’ – I have a knowledge but I am ignorant about the fact that I am in possession of it. This is what, according to Zizek, ideology is.

Perhaps there is no better proof of this dimension of ideology than the way it is manifested apropos the Tamil man’s problem itself. In order to understand that one only needs to talk with some Sinhalese who one can be assured to be farthest removed from the political writings of Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalists. On many occasions I have experimented this with some members from the so-called post-political, consumerist younger generation who has absolutely zero interest in mainstream political debates and issues. Their degree of political ignorance is, in fact, mesmerizing, but still, the moment I start to discourse with them about the need for a certain devolution of power to the North, all the standard questions against the Tamil man’s problem starts to come out.

Equally important is the opposite example, this time with a teenage daughter of a fellow political activist. She too, belongs to the generation whose lack of interest in politics is surprising, and has absolutely no interest in her father’s (and my) political activities. Nevertheless, one day she said, to my great surprise, that she dislikes some of the leading boys’ schools in Colombo because most of their students are Sinhala-Buddhist racists.

What all these examples suggest is that convincing someone of the existence of the Tamil man’s problem is never simply a matter of careful argumentation, for it is not only a matter of ‘known knowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ but above all else it is a matter of ‘unknown knowns’. We must question the disavowed beliefs and the structures that create, sustain and transmit the absolute necessity of the way things are and this is exactly the crucial significance of the notion of ideology and its critique. In this regard it is not difficult to accept the continuing importance of the critique of ideology in spite of the postmodern challenges to it. This also shows the challenging nature of the task at hand, for we are not simply trying to correct a wrong opinion but also trying, or should try, to correct and demystify the underlying pseudo-rationality and the structural apparatuses that sustain that wrong opinion.

Reading through Kalana Senaratne’s impressive and passionate assessment of the Northern Provincial election results last week I was struck by the particular wordplay in his concluding lines, when he wrote that “For some Sinhalese like us to whom the Tamils are our equals…” It immediately reminded me of that shrewd title of Felix Guattari’s and Toni Negri’s polemic “Communists Like Us”.

Attentive readers would notice that this latter title can be read in two different ways, depending on where one would like to put the emphasis on: ‘Communists like us’ or ‘Communists like us’.  What, in other words, Guattari and Negri are trying to do here is to position themselves simultaneously inside and outside the set of those who identify themselves as ‘communists’. If one reads it in the first sense, i.e.’ communists like us’, then that means they are within the totality of ‘communists’, but with a difference, for it amounts to saying that ‘we are not just any old communist, but we are a special kind’. On the other hand, if one reads it in the second possible way – ‘communists like us’ – we can see not only that Guattari and Negri are placing themselves outside the totality of ‘communists’, but also making the seemingly arrogant claim that those poor communists actually like Guatarri and Negri!

Far more than merely being a clever wordplay, what Guattari and Negri are making explicit here is the impossible subjective position of those who still wanted to continue on the communist struggle at a time when, for all practical purposes, it was evident that the great twentieth century communist experiment is coming to an end. This is not dissimilar to the problem we are facing with regard to the Tamil man’s problem. Whatever direction we decide to go or whatever road we decide to take, what is certain is that it will determine and create who we are as historical beings and this is the decisive question – for Sinhalese like us!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    “The colonial rulers had intentionally given privileges to Tamils” – Please provide evidence to substantiate your claim.

    • 0
      0

      Anpu, are you a self-taught idiot, or were you simply born that way? Mr Sumanasekara is giving the two sides of the argument. Why don’t you actually read at least to the next paragraph before typing a comment, you fool.

      • 0
        0

        David & Vangeesa, Apologies..

      • 0
        0

        So how is Dayan you friend? He has been very quiet since the president exposed him on the international state as a “NGO man”. Are you one too?

        • 0
          0

          Why don’t you stop exposing your backside every time you speak?

          • 0
            0

            lol someone doesn’t like to have a conversation but then again the army never did attract the literate in SL, they had other avenues.

            • 0
              0

              I prefer not to have conversations with the rhetorical. If you have childish questions for DJ, why not address them to him? As for your idiotic question on whether I work for an NGO — is there something wrong in working for an NGO? Either way, what business is it of yours who I work for? Whom do you work for?

              Why don’t you comment on the article instead of displaying your own illiteracy? As Elanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

        • 0
          0

          Many Morons like your so called presidente, put blames on NGOs when they fail to address /solve the problems of the nation,
          Every things on Ngos , Foreign influences, fevers????????.
          how can they, morons solve public’s problems,
          Because, they cannot solve their own problems??????.
          So do you.

          • 0
            0

            well Dayan claimed to be working for the good of the country, well now he stands exposed as a NGO man !

            • 0
              0

              The only thing exposed here is your stupidity.

  • 0
    0

    Tamils were not the ‘favoured’ under British colonialism: Theva Rajan – http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=36262

    “When the three Kingdoms – (the Jaffna Kingdom, the Kadyan Kingdom and the Kotte (which included Ruhunu Ratta also) were brought under a unified administration – not a unification of the Kingdoms because the status quo of each Kingdom including laws, land rights and social and cultural practices were written into the law and maintained intact.

    It became necessary for the Government of Britain to reduce overhead expenses in their Colonies and as a first step they introduced English education into the Colonies and in Ceylon, the Christian Missionaries took the opportunity to resort to conversion as a step towards Government employment for those who gained English education.

    The aim was to produce locally the low and middle level administrators and stop British Staff to whom British level salary had to be paid.

    Though Jaffna was not the first place where Christian Missionaries landed, English education was not much resorted to in Batticaloa, Chilaw, Galle and Matara where the first contacts were made, because the soil was fertile with regular rains (except Batticaloa) and people preferred to continue with their agricultural pursuits in main.

    Because the Jaffna soil was barren, mainly rocky or stone laden, people had to toil and sweat very hard to eke out a living (In Chilaw until His Lordship Marcus Fernando became the Bishop in the seventies, the Church also did not encourage education).

    They did not want their children to toil like them. They mortgaged their farmlands or even sold them to give their children English education. Even Ivor Jennings the first Vie Chancellor also has commented on this. The most successful of those who came up in the different competitive Examinations were selected according to requirements.

    In addition, the American Mission too helped in the development of English education.

    There were quite a number of Sinhalese who emerged as successful administrators, and professionals like Engineers, Doctors and Lawyers etc., during this period.

    The Sinhalese also had a special advantage – a singular advantage, over the Tamils.

    When smallholdings were introduced, quite a number of Sinhalese became owners.

    Thus, in terms of economy, and socio–economic mobility the Sinhalese were in a relatively superior position.

    There was no economic development in the North and East during the entire British period – not even infrastructures like Link-Roads and easing of travel and transport because the North and East did not come within the purview of the colonial economy of the British.

    Though the KKS Cement Factory, the Paranthan Chemical Factory and Valaichenai Paper Factory were the initiatives of the British, the implementation had been delayed by the War and came in after independence. There is a Sessional Paper on this project.

    It is noted that D S Senanayake advised the British to grant independence to Ceylon early, as the Tamils will be problematic as they were followers of Gandhian principles led by the Jaffna Youth League which agitated for full independence – the sign of unadulterated faithfulness of the coastal Sinhalese to the British Masters. “

  • 0
    0

    There were more Colonial boot lickers among the Sinhalese than among the Tamils – http://www.lankanewspapers.com/news/2012/2/74700_space.html

    • 0
      0

      Quite right Anpu! Two notable scions of the great bootlickers were our much loved Solomon West Ridgeway and his early nemesis Junius Richard.
      SWRD was born by good fortune into one of the many ‘native’ clans that delivered to the British a mostly quiescent Sinhalese population. Old Pappa Banda went the whole hog, so far as to convert to Anglicanism, and name his first born after the governor of the time Sir Joseph West Ridgeway (high protector of a pederast). Ofcourse the Maha Mudaliyar was well rewarded with a knighthood.

  • 0
    0

    I know what I know
    I know what I dont know
    I dont know know what I dont know

  • 0
    0

    This is real high philosophical and semantic stuff; not for us laymen and women!

    I have had to concentrate and re-read to to understand his writing.
    God, bless this great soul.

    Next time please write in simple language for ordinary people to understand.

    • 0
      0

      Thiru — somewhere before I remember you claimed you were a retired professor of engineering and has written academic papers. And you don’t seem to like philosophy or semantics. You see, it actually is a good idea to concentrate while reading — which is one of the many things a university education should teach you. The writer has done well to challenge us this way, rather than do two-liner slogans we see from the likes of you in these comment sections.

  • 0
    0

    Firstly, the Ceylonese at that time did not fight like the Indians for Independence but hid in India like the Southern JVP did recently and even now. It’s the Americans who won the WW2 who forced UK to partition Baharat like the creation of Israel and if not no Marshall plan-period.
    It’s a well-known fact from the Portuguese to the British Raj the Parsees refugees from Iran were favoured over the natives of Baharat. (Then Jinnah married Pettit the richest Parsee and Indira being left out married Feroze another Parsee.
    The reason for the favouritism the invaders were in principal merchants (East India Company-dawn of capitalism) and the Parsees did not exhibit cast creed class but carried out what work was dished out. Wasn’t it the Portuguese who wanted only the Salagama caste to carry out the cinnamon trade that the King of Kotte had to drive the Portuguese away?
    In Ceylon the invading rulers favoured the Burgher’s, Malays, Sinhalese in that order and left the Tamils to fend. The British favoured the Sinhalese so much that they brought in Indian labour to run the now created estates for the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese still enjoy Tea as its main export item which gives them the food, clothing, shelter. In 68 when Banda drew away the Burghers and the Sterling companies the Brits were quick to make SL Zimbabawe but when you beat the innocent folk of Colombo Maggie opens the door and international war criminal Blair gives you the go ahead to kill all the tamils. The largest tourist arrival SL are the high spending (though factory workers etc.) British when they can go to the Canarias for a better deal within Europe. SL’s largest exports are still UK/EU.
    “around a mythical homeland” that is the problem of both kallathoni’s
    Bihari Ravanas go to Andaman (Hanuman from Sanskrit) Islands then you would realise that you are the true kallathoni.
    Whom does the 25sq.miles belong to- the individual the smallest minority not the politically carved out borders based on emotions like- patriotism, religion, caste creed.
    Patriotism is the belief that your nation is the greatest only because you were born in it and is the same for religion where God is a concept that it cannot be explained.

  • 0
    0

    A thought stimulating essay that fathoms the depth and the facets of the Sinhala- Tamil equation in Sri Lanka. The perceptions of the apolitical Sinhla youth highlighted are different from that of many Tamil youth too. The communal divide appears bigger than it is, because the bridges of communication shred asunder through crass political stupidity have not been rebuilt yet. The fact the two communities at large do not know each other as much as they did, even at the level of remote villages once upon a time, has to be recognised. Unless this issue is tackled through greater community interactions and more enlightened teaching of community related subjects in schools, the bridge building and clearing of misconceptions will be a slow process. The media- Sinhala, Tamil and English- have to play a more enlightened role. Reporting every idiots pronouncement on communal issues that deepen and widen the divide is neither democracy nor media freedom, but a grievous crimes against humanity and this country.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 0
      0

      Correction:
      The perceptions of the apolitical Sinhla youth highlighted are not different from that of many Tamil youth.

      Dr.RN

  • 0
    0

    Hello there Sumanasekara,

    You are not that different to TamilNet Marxist lunatic are you? What has Hitler, Pol Pot, Prbhakaran, Wijayaweera and SJV Chelvanayagam’s Marxist experiments tought us over past decades? Nazism is not the answer to imperialism.

    Surely the countless genocides, revolutions, coupe de et, Socialist bannana republics all over the world must have tought a lesson or two by now? Sub cultures of people isolating themselves in their own small ghettos is only the begining of division isn’t it really? Closed systems never progress do they?

    Imperialism is already becoming irrelavant in an increasingly convergent world. Command and conquer model of yesteryear is being replaced by collaboration and consensus. The foundation for equality of people are arealdy here thanks to advances in technology isnt it really?

    • 0
      0

      Vibhushana

      “You are not that different to TamilNet Marxist lunatic are you?”

      When did Tamilnet confess to be a Marxist?

      “SJV Chelvanayagam’s Marxist experiments” you must be kidding.

      “Sub cultures of people isolating themselves in their own small ghettos is only the begining of division isn’t it really?”

      Not really, it is to prevent domination by majoritarian culture which leads to destruction of lives and lively hood of the minorities. It is also necessary to prevent minority of 17 million people creating a exclusive Sinhala/Buddhist ghetto in the Indian ocean.

      “Imperialism is already becoming irrelavant in an increasingly convergent world. Command and conquer model of yesteryear is being replaced by collaboration and consensus.”

      You should start reading news papers and watch bit of TV for an update on current affairs. Now imperialism with iron fist manifests in variety of forms. You may see iron fist in a velvet glove, nevertheless its iron fist indeed.

      • 0
        0

        Native,

        Imperialism, percieved or real is not good for anyone is it really? What I said was replacing it with Nazism can be far worse. 2 wrongs never made 1 right did it?

        • 0
          0

          Vibhushana

          You must be a very ancient person still living in the Red menace era.

          I am all for anti imperialism, but my people face colonialism in this island.

          The Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslims are the main chunk of the total colonists, for the past 2500 years.

          How do you think we can get rid of them without pain or spilling blood?

  • 0
    0

    Vanggesha Sumanasekara:

    Except saying for a sinhalese like you, you don’t say who you are or what you are ?

    So, what should do we think, that you are another screwed up ?

  • 0
    0

    An intelligent, interesting and important intervention by Vangeesa, though as an aside I might add that the four possible relationships (eg ‘known unknowns’) categorization goes way, way back before Zizek.

    • 0
      0

      The “NGO Man” is back I see

  • 0
    0

    So only Tamilians have problems? Others don’t have problems?

    This is racism. Even if Tamilians have problems who cares? We have our own problems to attend to and they are IMPORTANT unlike Tamilians’ petty racist problems.

    • 0
      0

      Fathima Fuk – Whatever and whoever you are. Muslims, who entered the
      scene long after, became the problem first with their deliberate baby boom and then with their willing role to become part of the sinister global conquest of becoming a cog in the Islamic Conquer the World wheel project. Their role was in inventing and keeping burning divisive problems within multi-racial communities. The attacks on Muslims all over the world is because the world has become alive to the danger.

      F-Word

      • 0
        0

        You are an idiot and a racist. Fathima Fukashima is a Sinhalese masquerading as a Muslim. The article has nothing to do with your small minded racist diatribe :(

  • 0
    0

    An excellent rational presentation.Bensen

  • 0
    0

    Whether or not the Tamils enjoyed undue or better previleges the folly of the Sinhala political leadership was to deprive not only the alleged undue or better previleges but even the minimum required for them to live as a people of the country without attempting to improve the conditions of the Sinhala people. Therefor the Tamils needed to agitate to get their status restored. Still the Sinhala political leadership is unable to provide a quality of life for the Sinhalse and they have now set their sight on the Muslims, through various manipulations, like using the BBS to hoodwink the Sinhalese that Muslims are their enemies.

  • 0
    0

    However liberal or well-intentioned the Writer is he begins with some false premises. This is not a Tamil problem. It is more a National problem exacerbated by successive Sinhala regimes fighting their own
    battles for State power. In that mad power for supremacy they rode the communal horse for power and continued to poison the imagination of the Sinhala public. It was also a case of “I am a better Sinhala Buddhist than you are” and thus marginalised the Tamil who became “the other”

    To claim “Tamil leaders asked for unjustifiable share of power” is suspect judgement. Other than the GGPs 50/50 suggestion that was brutally misinterpreted by the Sinhala side to poison the majority against the Tamil “other” Tamil leaders did not make any demands that can be termed even remotely as unjustifiable.

    And as to the “mythical homeland” this is a mischievous statement calculated to deceive. Sumanasekera is sufficiently learned to know prior to 1505 there was a Tamil homeland, Tamil kings with a long history of language, culture and all other features of a separate
    Nation by current UN minimums for recognition.

    At any rate the reality of September 21 created by pressure from the region and the world community on an unwilling Rajapakse regime will create space for Sri Lanka and the world to learn more of the just demands of the Tamils for the restoration of their right to rule themselves internally in an undivided country.

    Varathan

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 7 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.