Colombo Telegraph

National Symbols, Cultural Sites & Events

By Jude Fernando

Jude Fernando

Sri Lanka Needs a Ministry of Diversity and Inclusion (Part IV/VI)

A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for hypnosis.” ― Umberto Eco

It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.” ― Aristotle

“And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”  ― Albert Camus

National Symbols and Cultural Sites and Events

The second objective of the Ministry of Diversity and Inclusion (MID) is to foster inclusion and diversity in cultural symbols (e.g., national flag, emblem, and ID cards) and events (e.g., Independence Day celebrations, inaugurations, opening ceremonies, and commemorations and memorials) that represent an “all Sri Lankan identity” in all national institutions (e.g., administration, security, education, culture, and foreign missions). The MID should also take steps to prevent the erosion of the genuinely multiethnic and multicultural identity of cultural and religious symbols and events and sites. Inclusive national symbols create a sense of belonging and purpose for people who derive their national identity from the country’s cultural mosaic.

Peaceful coexistence is impossible when national symbols fail to be inclusive, when they embody histories of prejudice, discrimination, and violence against groups within or outside of its sovereign territory, and when the public is unaware of or provides emotive legitimacy to such histories. Inclusive national symbols could prevent the state from criminalizing dissent against such histories and legitimizing the use of force against those voicing dissent. As such, these symbols could also help prevent society from becoming imprisoned in a vicious cycle of violence when different groups attribute different meanings to national symbols in order to legitimize the use of force against other groups to meet their respective demands.

The MID should be mindful of the danger of multiculturalism becoming another source of oppression and domination. Multicultural ‘national symbols’ could lose their purpose when they provide privilege to the social, cultural, and territorial identity of one culture or group, marginalize and suppress that of others, and provide symbolic power and legitimacy for the involuntary integration or assimilation of different cultures into one overarching national culture. Although the state holds the primary responsibility of creating an inclusive symbolic national space, it could also exploit multiculturalism as a means to escape or procrastinate in fulfilling its responsibility to devolve political power and to honor its promise of transitional justice.

The multiculturalism advocated here is about redefining the symbolic representation of the nation in terms of the mosaic of diverse cultures that constitutes Sri Lanka, so that no one culture dominates national symbols or uses those symbols to oppress others. This would ideally generate a critical mindset about patriotism that would not shy away from remaking and/or reimagining the meanings and emotive appeal of national symbols when they appear to obstruct justice or equality for the different cultures Sri Lanka comprises. The state must take the lead in creating such an inclusive national culture.

Then the purpose of a multicultural approach to the symbolic representation of national institutions is to restore the identity of the state, so the state truly becomes a universal public entity (the idea of res publica), that is to say, an ethical institution that derives its legitimacy from being the guardian of equality, justice, and freedom. ‘Res publica’ does not negate the cultural diversity of different groups within the nation, nor does it mean that the identities and interests of these groups have no national significance. It only promises to eliminate the possibility of one group’s interests dominating the identity of the state as embodied in symbols, institutions, and events.

Unfortunately, the current national identity (as observed in symbols) contributes to inequalities in the power and security of those excluded from or underrepresented by those symbols. Creating inclusive symbols would end the missionary task of any one ethnic group’s acting as the vanguard of civilization and nation building. In multicultural societies like ours, inclusive public symbols would bring the nation into harmonious equilibrium. This is not about creating a homogeneous society, but the space for a vibrant culturally and territorially diverse mosaic, which the state must safeguard.

Symbols exist prior to our coming into world, and society instills them and their associated values in us without our being conscious of that process. We do not realize their immense power to invoke solidarity and affirm certain ideologies without words. Many of the current national symbols invoke only an emotive and superficial sense of belonging. They are less useful for fostering a sense of national unity with justice and equality. We have not critically scrutinized their meanings and histories and their implications for society in light of the contentious relations among ethnic groups.

The exclusive character of these symbols has foregrounded a selective and distorted reading of history that reinforces the majority identity and its dominance over minorities. A handful of politicians chose these national symbols; they made decisions without the democratic participation of the majority. [i] They ignored warnings against celebrating loaded symbols that failed to capture the country’s multiethnic character.

Take the symbolism of the national flag as another illustration. The late Premalal Kumarasiri of the Sri Lanka Communist Party opposed the symbol of the lion on the flag and warned that it would lead to war. Senator S. Nadesan concurred, arguing during the flag debate, “In my view this design if adopted far from being a symbol of national unity will be a symbol of our disunity.” Despite his sound arguments, Nadesan’s attempts to “change that position to an equal status by integrating the flag to represent a common symbol and common identity” failed due to Sinhala leaders’ refusal. The lion reminds us of the ethnically dominant Sinhala and their history, and the three stripes facing the lion represent the minority groups. This suggests that the flag far from being a symbol of unity represents a hierarchy of different groups with an unequal distribution of power among them. Furthermore, the flag fails to represent many smaller groups, including the indigenous group (Vedas), burgers, and many other smaller minorities.  Owing to decades’ communal and opportunistic politics, the flag that provided the majority a sense of dominance over the minority communities also became a source of insecurity, fear, and powerlessness of the majority community.

The symbol of the lion – a product of a (mythical) distorted history of the majority, the dishonesty of E.W. Perera, and the political expediency of D.S. Senanayake – “has been a bone of contention from day one and is still an obstacle to national integration and peace.”(1) The history embodied in the flag, which informs the national psyche, is shameful. The lion symbol evokes bestiality, incest, patricide, and the violence and colonization of Sri Lanka by Vijaya, a bandit and a ‘violent man of evil conduct,’ banished from India along with 500 bandits by his father. Vijaya accidentally landed in Sri Lanka, and, while there, he betrayed his first wife, a beautiful indigenous woman (Kuwani) by marrying another woman, an unnamed princess from Madurai. He needed his second wife’s royal heritage to legitimize his own status as king. We could view his marriage to Kuwani as a tactic to gain access to the country or a simply act of lust. Gananath Obeyesekere notes that “the sexually desirable woman whose beauty is extolled is the wild woman; the legitimate spouse is required by the necessities of conventional life, but she is not sexually desirable” (1982:211). This historical narrative in many ways mimics the political culture to this day.

We glorify many of the acts of past kings and even worship these kings as national heroes and role models for present rulers, but these ‘heroes’ committed “horrendous sins in Buddhism, for which there is almost no salvation” (Abeyasekera, 146). The subsequent history is one of brutal power struggles. A striking feature is the absence of any expression of remorse or ethical qualms over ‘sins’ rulers committed. Mainstream educators and politicians have deliberately removed such ‘sinful’ acts from public memory or justified them as necessary to protect and legitimize their discriminatory political agendas. This mythic history continues to be of sociological and political significance today. Contemporary political culture with its interplay of religion and history continues to mimic this mythic history that shapes the individual and collective identities of the country.

Popular history teaches us to glorify that mythic history and mistakenly interprets conflicts between kings as a struggle to unify the Sinhala and protect their religion and people from Tamil invaders. Most politicians have embraced and perpetuated this historical narrative since Independence, and during the Rajapaksa regime the same narrative became even more important for political legitimacy in the aftermath of the war against the LTTE. We cannot explain the LTTE’s acts of terror purely in terms of opposition to or feelings of isolation from this official historical narrative. Nor do prejudice and discrimination associated with this narrative are not good enough reasons for condone the violent acts of the LTTE. Multiculturalism’s challenge is to grapple with this arrive shape how Sinhalese and Tamil people made sense of the war and why they willingly or unwillingly supported it, and how it informs current political culture.

Just like the ancient kings, today’s politicians perform religious and meritocratic acts and stand at the forefront of the country’s important religious rituals and events. During the thirty years of war and its aftermath, the country witnessed a surge in religiosity and hyper-religious activities. The sociological and historical narratives implied in these religious activities have provided legitimacy for politicians wanting to influence how the public makes sense of the war and its consequences and how the post-war reconciliation process ought to take place.

During this period, politicians and the business community’s indulgence in these acts increased exponentially to somewhat combat the notoriety they earned for corruption and abuse of power. Leaders of all the country’s religions either uncritically patronized or kept silent about such hypocrisies. In general, none have proactively scrutinized the connections that politicians make between history and religion, even when that narrative stems from a distorted reading of history and contradicts religious teachings.  The national symbols and the historical narrative associated with it have gained life of its own that is not beholden to moral judgment of any sort.

Consequently, the symbolism of the post-war memorial and victory celebrations reproduces and legitimizes the same historical narrative, and this symbolism remains insensitive to the actual history that initially sparked ethnic tensions. We have not subject our national imagery and its representative symbols to critical analysis, despite the country’s myriad instances of ethnic riots, thirty years of civil war, and long-standing contentious ethnic relations. Thus, we have not developed a broad-reaching critical awareness. Such critical awareness only exists among a minority, and those minority communities use that analysis of national imagery as a means of mobilizing support for their own political projects. However, most defend these symbols aggressively and emotionally. The flag’s symbolism and the history it embodies evoke a racially divisive sense of belonging and legitimize xenophobia, racism, and ethno- religious nationalism that have become important driving forces of today’s political culture.

Symbols’ emotive appeal, then, has contributed to the communalism and racism of political parties in all ethnic communities and both the Sinhala and Tamil militant movements. No morality governs the discrimination and violence committed by any group, and we must not condone such groups regardless of their respective histories. Two wrongs don’t make a right. However, we must acknowledge the greater responsibility of the state in institutionalizing the emotive appeal of discriminatory meanings in our national symbols. Despite many warnings and decades of violence, the state failed to engage in uniform and consistent efforts to display Sri Lanka’s multicultural identity in the symbolism of institutions and events that claim to represent the identity of all Sri Lankans.

It would be a mistake to view Tamil nationalism purely a reaction against the exclusionary and defensive politics of the Sinhala State. We must recognize it’s “historical build-up from the feudal past was equally mythical and romantic” (Hoole, 1990: 338). But this mythical past does not have same and equal privileges, power and implications that are embodied in the construction of current substantive meaning of national identity and citizenship, as its Sinhala counterpart does. Nor does it take away the primary responsibility of the state to create an inclusive citizenship without violating the specific social, cultural and territorial distinctiveness of different ethnic groups.

The absence of critical consciousness of the mythical past embodied in the national symbols, indeed, has contributed to our society’s “fundamental incapacity to formulate a concept of politics by breaking away from the image of benevolent monarchy and positing the problem of political power in a version of a competitive, pluralistic and truly democratic political system. Hence, the inherently authoritarian character of the Sinhala Buddhist” identity of the nation (Uyandoga, 1988). This also contributed to the dismantling democracy under Rajapaksa regime, the obstacles for meaningful reconciliation and devolution of power, anti-Muslim riots after the defeat of the LTTE, and the country’s vulnerability to international forces. Defeat of the Rajapaksa government will not bring automatic changes of this feudalistic and ethnonationlistic mindset. Multiculturalism’s approach to remaking and rethinking of symbolic representations of national symbols, events, and rituals is to facilitate such change.

Creating neutral and inclusive symbols, or changing their meaning and public awareness of them, is a means of addressing asymmetric power relations. The state must do this to recover its res publica in institutions and practices of national significance. Symbols and rituals specific to the culture of any group need not suffer displacement; rather we must preserve their distinctiveness without making one dominant over others to prevent society’s complicity in prejudice and discrimination and associated political agendas.

We must ensure that national symbols are inclusive and that they do not simply represent the dominant religion or culture. I am not suggesting that we radically redesign all national symbols. My point is that multiculturalism as advocated here would help society to think beyond symbols’ design and artistic value and their religious or cultural significance so that the national consciousness will not continue to be a victim of bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, and violence. A successful multicultural project while addressing these victimizations experiences by minority communities will also assign equal importance to engage the fears and anxieties of the majority community, rather than dismissing them.

National symbols are not sacred. For the most part, politicians invent these symbols and impose them on society. Proponents of multiculturalism strongly believe in the need to reassess the assumptions, histories, and politics underlying the emotive appeal of these symbols, if the country is to move forward with meaningful reconciliation and create a society free of prejudice and injustice. The aim multiculturalism is to develop a critical consciousness of symbols and the histories embodied in them. This is the only way to prevent the public from becoming victims of opportunistic politics (on either side) that rely on the emotive appeal of these symbols.

*To be continued. Part V-Education and Archeology


[i] Ananda Samarakoon, the national anthem’s creator, committed suicide due to his frustration over the SLFP government’s, in 1961, changing “Namo Namo Matha” to “Sri Lanka Matha” without consulting him (Ariyarathana, Sunil; 1999).

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