By Izeth Hussain –
In 1993 the University of Western Australia published a paper of mine in a collection of papers on Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem. My paper had the title – The Sri Lankan Muslims – the Problem of a Submerged Minority. I wrote of my notion of a submerged minority as follows: “Ethnic discourse is for the most part written by majorities and by rebellious minorities. The other minorities from whom nothing much is heard are supposed to be by and large content, without any serious grievances, which may be a seriously mistaken supposition. Actually they may be seething with grievances and have intense perceptions of discrimination, which however they may find difficult to articulate for various reasons, or they may find that their articulation is noticed only in a perfunctory manner and then summarily dismissed. The ethnic discourse of such minorities will for the most part be spoken, not written. They are in reality submerged minorities”.
Further on I wrote: “Some observations of Edward Said about the strategies adopted by human groups in dealing with ‘the Other’ could be relevant to our understanding of submerged minorities. He observed that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, “have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with ‘other’ cultures”. Said quoted Orwell’s essay Marrakkesh on the relationship between the colonial masters and the natives. The colonialist failed to notice the grim poverty of the natives. Regarding them as not quite human, not much more than a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, and “All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. ‘ The natives, apart from the neo-colonial elite, were the submerged. The relationship between the majority and the submerged minority could sometimes, not always, and to some extent, be similar to the relationship between colonial master and native.
“The natives revolted against their masters, and so could the submerged minority. The recent history of Sri Lanka provides some examples, if we regard the underprivileged castes as submerged minorities, which in fact they were. It is known that in the Tamil militant groups the underprivileged castes have had an extraordinary salience, which is probably the outcome of the failure of the politics of elite level accommodation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. A.J. Wilson wrote, ‘In fact, as stated earlier, the Vellala dominated Ceylon Tamil leadership thought in terms of a partnership between their Sinhalese Goigama counterparts to the exclusion of the powerful Sinhalese Karava caste as well as other influential caste groups among the Sinhalese.’ The Tamil rebellion might be explained in terms of the failure of cross-ethnic accommodation between dominant castes to satisfy the rising expectations of hitherto submerged castes. The Sinhalese JVP rebellion might also be explained in terms of the outburst of hitherto submerged castes, the underprivileged Wahampura, Batgam and others. The JVP rebellion failed,, but it is doubtful that the economy of the Ruhuna, which was the backbone of the JVP, will ever again be neglected.
“It is arguable that the Eastern Province Muslims have emerged unlike the other Muslims, not so much because of the vociferousness of the SLMC, but because of their clashes with the Tamils.. The inference might be made that a submerged minority can only emerge through violence. The alternative should be realistic enough on commonsense grounds, which is that the grievances of a submerged minority should be heard, considered, corrected, not dismissed.. “
The volume containing my paper among others had a Preface from which I quote: “Hussain examines the invidious position of submerged minorities in bi-ethnic societies. It is vital, as he cogently argues, not to ignore the aspirations of submerged minorities in the resolution of the conflict between the major parties. The paper draws attention to the relative deprivation of the Muslim community in various spheres of life which, if unattended, has the potentiality of becoming another fissiparous issue in troubled Sri Lankan politics. Hussain’s paper is illustrative of the importance of perceptions of discrimination in complicating ethnic issues, and he correctly signals the necessity for effective State apparatuses to guarantee fair and equal treatment for all Sri Lankans”.
I must now make a clarification about the terminology I have been using. In 1993 I used the term “submerged minority’ about the Muslims, but sometime later I took to using the term “invisible minority” about them. I cannot recall my rationalization for the change at that time. It was probably partly the result of my reading Ralph Ellison’s famous novel in which he used the metaphor of invisibility about the blacks in the US, and the fact that the implications of Orwell’s essay had sunk in fully by that time. The term “submerged” can be used factually and neutrally without implying any value judgment, as when one says that a log is submerged in water. “Invisibility”, on the other hand, can be made to carry a powerful emotional charge. The French masters in Orwell’s essay failed to notice the economic misery of the Moroccan natives because they did not want anything to disturb the complacent enjoyment of their power as the master race, and all imperialism is based on the same strategy. And so, I would argue, is the majority ethnic domination over the ethnic minorities.
I am now wondering whether invisibility might be more complex than was imagined by Orwell. True, the French masters did not want their complacent enjoyment of power to be disturbed by the economic misery of the natives, but the Moroccan elite of that time were complicit with that complacency because they did not make an issue of that misery. In Sri Lanka the Muslims have been an invisible minority until very recently. That certainly suited the serene enjoyment of power by the ethnic majority. But that was made possible by the failure of the Muslim politicians to properly represent the Muslim people. However, the times they are a-changing. The Muslims are becoming visible and – unbelievable though it may seem – some Muslim politicians have been actually speaking up for the Muslim people.
(To be continued)