By Uditha Devapriya –
George Floyd is no longer about the United States of America, or the West. It’s about the world, and the beleaguered, oppressed nations and communities of that world. The protests against his murder at the hands of a white policeman have thus become, from Baltimore to Berlin, a symbol of solidarity and unity among those marginalised nations and communities against the big stick wielders. It’s the protest of one half of the world against the other half, or one half of a country against the other half. It’s a statement against not just racialism per se, but against all forms of exploitation, bullying, and compulsion which we have come to accept as a given today. The third world, of which we are a part, can, must, and will take this as a symbol of the battles it’s waging against the world order. That the death of one African-American could bring together Kenyans, Indians, and even Europeans together certainly indicates the pent up bottled up rage against a state of affairs, and the big names who call the shots and the local lackeys who follow their lead. As such – and this is important and pertinent – it’s the protest of the periphery, of exploited nations and marginalised groups, against the centre: as much opposed to racialism as it is to neo-liberalism.
If the Sri Lankan government saw it that way – which we don’t know, since neither the president, nor the docile Ranil Wickremesinghe who penned a letter to Donald Trump earlier, has responded to the ongoing uprisings – it certainly showed its solidarity in a strange way. First, it obtained a court order against a protest organised by the only leftwing outfit in the country which saw it fit to demonstrate against the Floyd murder, the Frontline Socialist Party. Then, when the FSP went ahead and defied the order, it deployed the policemen. We’ve seen enough of errant police officers from the previous regime, and their utterly callous treatment of peaceful young protestors, to not be surprised at how they treated the FSP demonstrators in this instance. Still, the images were brutal, if not bordering on brutality: one video in particular, of a young woman being literally mauled into a truck by force by a (male) officer, stuck with me. But more that these despicable shows of disregard for the right of a political organisation to protest, what caught my attention was the irony of a government, elected to power on an anti-US platform, breaking up a demonstration against US hegemony.
What was more ironic and revealing was the response of some of these hardcore nationalists. Many of them are, ostensibly, driven by the same opposition to the West and its meddling in the affairs of other countries as the Left is. In fact, given the apathy of most Left outfits in this country in the face of Western meddling in the affairs of countries like us, I’d give the nationalist bloc the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the sincerity of their opposition to US hegemony. The mainstream Left, by which I exclude the FSP and, to a lesser extent, the JVP, has made its mark by its inability to take a proper stand against class and issues of relative disadvantage, which is why it has consistently failed to see beyond identity politics, and why it sees no contradiction between picketing against Mahinda Rajapaksa on the one hand and enjoying largesse from the previous regime – which was as anti-Left and anti-working class as the government it overthrew – in the form of bribes and positions in State bodies on the other. I disagree with the ethos of the Sinhala Buddhist Alt-Right – identity politics in a Sinhala Buddhist setting – but it at least has taken a consistently and morally justifiable stand against the entrenchment of the First World at the expense of the Third.
At one level, it’s a paradox. How is it that a political ideology which rails against the West can, at the same time, take the side of policemen breaking up a protest against Western hegemony? How is it that a group which ostensibly stands for the rights of subjugated people the world over can take the side of Israel over Palestine, and spew Islamophobia? Have they forgotten that their preferred party today, the SLFP, and their former preferred icon, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took a consistent political and moral stance against Western intervention, whatever the country being subjugated by it was (be it Egypt in 1956, Vietnam at the height of the war, or South Africa until the end of apartheid), and took up the cause of Arab countries under siege by the West over Israel?
I believe these protests taught us an important lesson. It taught us that the nationalist Right is Janus-faced and is, even now, unsure about what face to project. Simply put, it has a progressive side and a regressive one. The progressive side channels anger at Western intervention (economic, political, or cultural), while the regressive side straddles that with anti-Western and xenophobic hysteria which dismisses every sort of legitimate criticism as a Western conspiracy. That is the only reason why, at the same time it writes diatribes against the pro-US tilt of the human rights lobby, it can dismiss the protests of African Americans as a disproportionate response to a case of police law enforcement. In other words, the nationalists read the disquiet of the African American community in the same way they read the disquiet of minority groups in Sri Lanka: not as a beleaguered race, but as a community entrenched by a mainstream liberal media that is undermining the majority race, the so-called maha jathiya. Where is the progressiveness in that?
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that one of the main reasons why the Sinhala Buddhist Right came to dominate the political discourse in this country after the 1980s was the failure of the Left to come up with a meaningful response to the growing tide of ultra-nationalism. What the nationalists went on to say had been said before, and in many other ways, by the Marxists. Dayan Jayatilleka’s view, that the Jathika Chintanaya reformulated an old argument of the Marxists – that their ideology was not attuned to the cultural aspirations of the majority in Sri Lanka – articulated by Philip Gunawardena, doesn’t de-validate the JC’s economic, political, and cultural program, but it does help us understand the antecedents of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist movement. What is cast aside is that the latter grew from, and not despite, the Marxist movement: without the LSSP and the Communists, and their strident campaign against the comprador bourgeoisie, as represented by the UNP and the right wing of the SLFP, there wouldn’t have been a nationalist program for the JC to take over in the 1980s. The Jathika Chintanaya, for its part, continued from where the Left had retreated, and substituted for its cosmopolitan nationalism a more ethnocentric variant of it.
Hence the retreat of the Left, and the replacement of it on one side by a pan-Sinhala pan-Buddhist nationalist program, on another by a post-neo-Marxist-postmodernist Left group, and on another by a populist-nationalist New Left formation embodied in the JVP, led to a jettisoning of its progressive ideology in favour of either a de-ethnicised view of nationalism (as with the post-Marxist groups) or an overly ethnicised view of nationalism (as with the nationalist groups). Newton Gunasinghe once noted an interesting phenomenon: the nationalist Right’s opposition to the open economy in light of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, and the anger of the Sinhala middle bourgeoisie at the monopoly of Pettah merchants over trade. But there’s an even more interesting phenomenon: its opposition, not to the Open Economy, but to Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s so-called closed economy prior to it. Once again we come across a paradox: how is it that a nationalist movement can oppose the free market because it reduced the majority’s chances of dominating trade, and also oppose the closed economy because it destroyed the Sinhala businessman by selling him out to the Marxists? I think we’re approaching this issue wrongly here: by claiming it as a paradox, which it is not. The Sinhala Buddhist Right, as I wrote before, is Janus-faced; it speaks in, not just with, two tongues.
The nationalist movement must take stock of where it has gone, and return to its roots. Indeed, the theme of returning to one’s roots has featured very prominently in the rhetoric of Sinhala nationalist ideologues. It should be mindful of its antecedents and not find an enemy in the Left, even though sections of the Left in this country remain hypocritical in their obeisance to Marxism, as witness the unfortunate tendency of (ex-)Marxist trade union leaders, activists, artists, and intellectuals to join and support parties by no stretch of the imagination aligned with their ideological interests. It must replace its narrow, ethnocentric reading of history with a more cosmopolitan one, without erasing – and it is here that local Marxists of today have got it wrong – that view of history. By doing so, it will no longer see a contradiction between supporting a protest held against the exploitation by a global superpower of its most marginalised communities, and organising protests against the dominance of the human rights lobby, world trade, and debt and capital flows by such superpowers. The sooner it is willing to resolve this contradiction, the more progressive it will become.