By Rajan Philips –
Qadri Ismail, Professor of English, Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, passed away recently. His death was sudden and shocking. Yet another Sri Lankan scholar, writer and activist has been prematurely snatched away. Everyone who reads Sri Lankan politics in English knows of Qadri Ismail. I hardly knew Qadri apart from his writings. I have met him only once, and that was in Minneapolis, in 2007. The backdrop to our meeting was the rather long review article I had written on Qadri’s (thesis) book: “Abiding by Sri Lanka: On Peace, Place and Post-coloniality.” The article was published in 2006, in The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities. I owe a debt of intellectual gratitude to Dr. Senath Walter Perera, now Emeritus Professor of English and the Journal Editor at that time, who invited me to review the book and then introduced me to Qadri. In keeping with the many themes that Qadri touched in his book, and following up on my recent articles on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1971 insurrection, it is appropriate that I write this sequel on the limitations of Sri Lanka’s three nationalisms as a homage to the memory of Professor Qadri Ismail.
It is also appropriate to highlight and celebrate Qadri’s exceptional accomplishments. He was an A’ Level science student who gained admission to the Medical Faculty to study Medicine. Instead, he turned down the admission to Medicine, changed course to pursue an Honours Degree in English, and completed it with a First Class in 1984. Qadri was only the second Sri Lankan to accomplish this feat. The first, nearly thirty years before Qadri, was Prof. Ashley Halpe who too gave up his admission to Medicine and went to on to secure a first in English. Halpe also topped the CCS (Ceylon Civil Service) examination after graduation, but chose the vocation of university teaching over a career in the prestigious civil service. Qadri initially chose journalism and political activism over university teaching.
Beyond his vitriolic wit and irrepressible irreverence to customs and conventions, Qadri brought to bear a heightened commitment on what he wrote and what he did. The commitment to “read the world as structured hierarchically and to confront, contest and combat hierarchization, oppression and exploitation.” And to nurture the faith and optimism that “something that has never existed,” in Marx’s felicitous phrase, can be brought about.” He carried this commitment and hope to Columbia University, where he spent his graduate decade (1989-1998), the secular North American version of the old seminary, completing his M.A. and his Ph.D.
At Columbia, Qadri Ismail became probably the only Sri Lankan to be tutored by the two pioneer giants of postcolonial studies and scholarship, the great Edward Said and Gayathri Spivak. Qadri was a graduate assistant to Said, the pathbreaking Palestinian American scholar with “an unexceptionally Arab family name (and) … an improbably British first name.” Said was born to Arab Christian parents in pre-partition Jerusalem and later became an agnostic. Gayathri Spivak is the multi-lingual Bengali American scholar and a prominent figure in Subaltern Studies, who, Qadri charmingly acknowledges in his book, “quite simply, taught me how to read.” Perhaps true to his ‘doctor parents’, Qadri blossomed into a postcolonial scholar, writing his own script, in his own inimitable tone. The list of his writings and the thesis topics of graduate students whom he advised and/or examined at Minnesota, is indicative of his scholarly sweep and comparative breadth. His 2015 book “Culture and Eurocentrism,” according to the publisher’s note, challenges the “dominant default assumption” of “discrete” cultures, and contends that “culture … doesn’t describe difference but produces it, hierarchically.”
While at Columbia, Qadri wrote what I think is the first forceful formulation of the Muslim question in Sri Lanka: “Unmooring Identity: The Antinomies of Elite Muslim Self-Representation in Modern Sri Lanka,” that was published as a chapter in the 1995 symposium, “UnMaking the Nation,” that Qadri co-edited with Pradeep Jeganathan. What is unique about Qadri’s approach to the Sri Lankan national question is the demonstration of even handed forcefulness, namely, the assertion of “justice for the minorities,” on the one hand, and the commitment for “abiding by Sri Lanka,” on the other. There was a third dimension to Qadri’s commitments. To fiercely fight the sacred cows and bigotry within his own community and against the new fundamentalism of his old religion.
All of the above, Qadri fitted seamlessly within his generously global and passionately postcolonial perspective. A key part of that perspective was to aggressively question the colonial legacies of European enlightenment, manifested in everything that makes up Sri Lanka’s postcolonial polity and society – from the constitution to lopsided parliamentary representation, from quantitative privileging of the majority over qualitative parity with the minorities to inequitable socioeconomic development, and from the reactivation of old pre-colonial follies to their emergence in new postcolonial forms.
Qadri discursively envisioned a Sri Lanka “that has never existed” – one that can only experientially evolve and not be built by brick and mortar. A Sri Lanka, where nationalisms are neither celebrated nor dismissed; where identities are neither encouraged nor questioned; and where differences are neither created nor denied. Qadri challenged the formulation of Sri Lanka’s national question as a privileged contest between Sinhala hegemony and Tamil self-determination to the exclusion of everyone else, and asserted that both the formulation of the question and its resolution must involve the dissemination of justice and equality among all Sri Lankans, including the Muslims, the Upcountry Tamils, and the Christians. The perennial failure of the State to attend to these tasks has reduced this naturally resplendent island to a politically, and violently for thirty years, dysfunctional family of nationalisms. The failure of the State is only one side of the political coin. The other is the limitations of Sri Lanka’s three nationalisms.
Limitations of Nationalisms
The limitations of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim nationalism have manifested themselves in their respective domains. Insofar as the three nationalisms are constrained to co-exist within a small island, the effects of these limitations have been generally to contain the excesses of these nationalisms, but not always with significant success. While Sinhala nationalism is the most powerful of the three, its limitations can be seen in its inability to totally dominate, or crush, and eliminate the other two. In fairness, there are many Sinhalese and in critically sufficient numbers who do not approve of total domination or crushing of the Tamils and the Muslims. That in itself is a limiting counterweight to the more domineering instigators of Sinhala nationalism.
As for Tamil nationalism, its limitations and even losses have mostly surpassed its gains. But at every turn it has proved itself to be resilient and capable of regeneration. At the same time, just as much Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism cannot be eliminated from Sri Lanka, it cannot also overcome its ultimate limitation – that of having to find its due place within Sri Lanka. The Muslims, although they have been in the country like everyone else from the beginning of modernity and even before, are latecomers to the Sinhala-Tamil nationalist bickering. Their expectations are limited, and so their limitations are also immaterial. Yet, their arrival has not only transformed the debate but also widened the scope for finding potential accommodations.
The main contests of the three nationalisms have been in the arena of the state. In many political societies the emergence of the state facilitated the making of the nation. Hence the concept and experience of state-led nations and nationalisms. There was always the possibility of the postcolonial State of Sri Lanka spearheading the making of an inclusive nation along the lines that Qadri Ismail envisioned. That possibility is neither farfetched nor utopian. However, the Sri Lankan experience has been not one of a unifying and inclusive experience of nation making. On the contrary, the experience has been the rejection of that possibility, and the virtual appropriation of the state by Sinhala nationalist forces and agendas to the exclusion of others. But even that appropriation has shown its limitations, for while the state was able to conclusively defeat the challenge of Tamil separatism, it is not able to override the non-separatist expectations of Tamil nationalism.
At another level, the 2019 Easter bombings exposed not any limitations but the sheer incompetence of the Sri Lankan state and its functionaries. And while the last government could not prevent the bombing in spite of prior warning, including warnings by the Muslim community itself, the present government seems unable to find out, let alone reveal, who all the masterminds behind the bombings were. More than incompetence, there are also conspiracy allegations of connivance between the elusive masterminds and high echelons of not just the last government, but the present government also. And in a historic role reversal from the 1960s when the government of the day brought the Catholic Church “to its knees” over ‘Catholic Action’, the Catholic Cardinal of today seems determined not to let the government pull the rug over criminal investigations.
A common feature of the emergence of nationalism(s) in Sri Lanka is the virtual absence of a significant economic base. The absence of a robust economy was a major factor in the developmental failure of an inclusive Sri Lankan nationalism. To the extent Sinhalese nationalism has appropriated the state, it has also appropriated the national economy. But time and again the state’s failure to come to equitable terms with the presence of Tamils and Muslims in the country, has also undermined its efforts to grow the economy even to its limited potentials. On the other hand, the economic underpinnings of the origins of Tamil nationalism were nothing more than grievances over government jobs, and later over depletions in university of admissions. At its highest stage, Tamil separatism rose over a veritable domestic economic vacuum. At the same time while the economic factor is a serious limitation on the extrapolations of Tamil nationalism, it is not going to be fatal to its continuing survival within Sri Lanka. It is fair to say that the Muslim community is more aware of the limitations of its nationalism than its Sinhala and Tamil counterparts, but it has become justifiably insistent that it cannot be indefinitely taken for granted.
The mechanics of the emergence of the three nationalism are to be found in the workings of Sri Lanka’s electoral democracy, the sociocultural structures of the three communities, and the robust assertions of their religious and linguistic inheritances. But nothing in the emergence or the mechanics thereof would suggest that the three nationalisms are inherently incompatible. The limitations of the nationalisms have prevented their excesses from becoming permanently excessive. The overarching role for integrating them can only be undertaken by the State of Sri Lanka. But there is scarcely any sign that those currently running the State are aware of this task, let alone undertake it.