By Uditha Devapriya –
Modernity is not opposed to nationalism. This we should know. The confusion or rather dichotomy between the two has come about because many of us are clueless about what they represent. This too we should know. Fact is, there can’t be modernity without anchoring oneself in the past. Fact is, there can’t be nationalism (and there are many nationalisms) without preparing oneself for the future. The two are coterminous: the one can’t thrive and flourish without the other. This is not a political statement, rather a truism cuts across the political and the social.
There was a time, not too long ago and in my generation, when those who purported to speak on behalf of Sinhala Buddhists were silenced. To speak of that collective was tantamount to being a racist, which was rather duplicitous given the carte blanche which the articulators and propagandists of Eelamism were given. There seemed to be a manifest lack of understanding about historical realities, or about the difference between speaking on behalf of one collective and speaking on behalf of that collective AGAINST another. The latter was incendiary, hardly condonable. The former, however, was not. Those who tried to prevent it, needless to say, ended up constricting any space for the representatives of Sinhala Buddhists.
At one level, this confusion is more than mischievous, anti-historical, and ontological. What is nationalism and where does it end? How is it different to racism, and how is racism (which is negative and depends on the repudiation of the legitimacy of “the Other”) different to racialism (which falls somewhere in-between)? What is positive, if at all, and what is not? A single writer can’t set the record straight. It takes a general sammuthiya to agree on which is what and what is not, in this respect.
It’s not easy being a nationalist. It’s easier being a racist. The reason is obvious. Racism drives on self-labelled superiority and on what is perceived as inferiority on the part of the Other. It doesn’t take much to spout hatred: burn a few shops belonging to one community, vandalise a temple, kovil, church, or mosque, and you’ll be soon hailed by extremists as their hero. That is why chauvinists from both sides have won and prevailed for so long, and why someone like Gnanasara Thera is (regardless of his credentials as a monk) deified despite the fact that no one voted for his party. “He has something important to say,” is the commonest excuse given by his supporters.
It’s tougher being a nationalist. This is elementary. It takes rhetoric to hate. It takes heartfelt sincerity to love. Racism thrives on rhetoric. Nationalism, at least to a certain extent, thrives on sincerity. Emotion bests reason in more ways than one, which is why the former tends to best the latter as far as debate is concerned. That is sad.
Take the subject of independence. How many of us, never mind the flag and the usual chest-thumping words about freedom, appreciate what it stands for? Perhaps decades of cynicism has conditioned us to be cynical with everything. Perhaps those decades have taught that we haven’t really clinched independence. Either way, the mere fact that we are not subject to another foreign power is in the least worthy of contemplation. But we toss it aside with the remark, “It is just a word.”
We don’t produce nationalists like we used to, come to think of it. Taken in itself, there’s nothing to bemoan in this: the fact is that the deficiencies of one epoch are compensated by the promises of the next, which means that sooner or later, the voice of the people, of true, genuine patriotism, will prevail. But this is just scratching the surface. The real problem, which goes deeper, is that far from not being able to produce nationalists, our country will be taken over by an entire generation whose love for their country is at best conditioned if not tempered by a rootless variant of cosmopolitanism: the kind of uprooted cosmopolitanism that runs riot in Colombo. Which in itself is bad enough, since much of our self-labelled intelligentsia hail from this part of the country, and they continue to exert influence everywhere.
Long, long ago, this wasn’t a problem. Our schools and curricula built in love for one’s country and people from an early age. We woke up every day to deshabimana gee or patriotic songs on radio, none of which encouraged us to hate other collectives. By deshabimana gee I am of course thinking of Amaradeva, Mahagama Sekara, and Chandrarathna Manawasinghe, among others. These were not racists. They couldn’t have been. The fact is that they were rooted in their societies, so what they wrote, composed, and sang, they felt. And they made us feel what they wrote.
We read the poems of Tibet S. Mahinda Thera and P. B. Alwis Perera without feeling any antipathy towards other races or faiths. We sang them in gushes and torrents, with gusto, because we intensely felt what they were trying to say. “Me Rata Mage Rata Ma Ipadunu Rata,” Miranda Hemalatha wrote, and as we recited those words from memory, the poetry hit us. That kind of literature, at once rhythmic and rousing, is hard to come by today. No wonder most of our children go through even our public schools without the slightest smattering of love for their land of birth. No wonder they end up being biased against history, even culturally insensitive.
The culture of prudery that has seeped into our people, from god knows where, has aggravated this issue. We don’t teach our children to understand their faith: we force them to attend Sunday school. We don’t teach them our history: we force them to read and unconditionally accept it. Our government textbooks aren’t helpful in this respect either: just the other day, for instance, I came across a chapter detailing the biographies of some of our foremost artistes, which had erroneously interchanged the details of Lester James Peries and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. I know for a fact that we are force-fed to accept these texts. How do we progress with that?
The truth is that love for one’s country (of the genuine sort) is predicated on what one picks up from childhood. If that childhood is warped, if it isn’t surrounded by an environment which makes it amenable for someone to understand where one is and how came to be there, the outcome is obvious: an entire generation of distorted, culturally uprooted citizens. Without the strength or the resolve to stand up for one’s land of birth, without the ability to assess history, no one can progress. Martin Wickramasinghe wrote on this. When history dies, so does the conscience of a nation.
So what are the preconditions for a healthier citizenry? First and foremost, the ability to take in and absorb the best of the rest of the world. This is elementary, again, but then we have confused between absorbing and imitating. We are constantly told to move on, to do away with patriotism, to consider ourselves as citizens of the world. The problem with globalisation of that sort, however, is that those who force us to accept ourselves as citizens of the world (à la Diogenes) are themselves representatives of countries and polities which vehemently (and rightly) rebel against that line of thinking. Like the United States.
Secondly, we need to revaluate the way we teach our children our history. History is not about dates. That is obvious. It’s about aligning the one with the other, about inferring parallels and understanding how communities progress and flourish. Speaking from experience, my best history teacher (in Eighth Grade) taught us more than what happened when and what led to what else. She taught us how to connect the dots, to infer the causes behind an incident or event. As I grew up, and as I read into history, I realised how, even in a mild form, she was emulating the incomparable Fernand Braudel, that historian who taught us that his subject was best taught not through memorising bundles of data, but by making the connections necessary to glean cause from effect, and effect from cause.
We’re barking up the wrong tree, I believe. Until and unless we nurture our children, and make them more sensitive to their surroundings, without discouraging them from learning about them owing to that culture of prudery which runs riot in this country, we’ll be fermenting a generation that’s cut off from their environment. That is bad. Not because nationalism is cast in stone and is a must, but because no country in this godforsaken, globalised world of ours has progressed without anchoring itself in its past, its way of life. Without history, without heritage, put simply, we are nothing.