By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A specter is haunting the coalition of the anti-national and non-national, the deracinated and the decadent, which comprises and supports the arrogant, unelected, elitist UNP administration of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: the specter of a politically resurgent Mahinda Rajapaksa. Behind that specter looms another: the specter of populist nationalism.
The Nugegoda meeting of February 18th may or may not have been the largest Opposition mobilization of recent decades but it has sure been the most written about. That is a symptom of the fact that Nugegoda was the single public meeting that has had the greatest impact, social and political, in recent years.
The cosmopolitan civil society critics, in Sri Lanka and in the émigré communities, have trashed Nugegoda. A representative sample would be “Nazism” (V. Kanthaiya), “chauvinist” (Laksiri Fernando), “Revanchist” “Tribal nationalism” (Sarath de Alwis), “communal” (Achintaka), “racist and extremist” (Granville Perera).
Related criticism has been directed against me, for my presence and participation in the Nugegoda event and my notions of Smart Patriotism and a New Nationalism. Romesh Hettiarachchi, a lawyer from the Sri Lankan émigré community in Canada, calls my views “fascist”.
First, let’s deal with Nugegoda. I was there just before the event began and managed to leave the stage a half an hour after the rally ended (having been touched by the photos, the selfies, the autographs and the sentiments, all with an unknown youngster standing behind me holding a Sri Lankan flag over my head!) Having been there all the time and listened to every word from the platform as well as the roars from the crowd, I can vouch that there wasn’t a single phrase that was anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim. Furthermore, I cannot recall the word “Sinhala” mentioned even once, let alone “Tamil” or “Muslim”. Where was the racism or chauvinism? How then could this event be denounced as such, not least by the Prime Minister and the Minister of External Affairs?
Is it perhaps racism or chauvinism to denounce the Northern Provincial Council resolution that damned every single democratic administration starting with that of DS Senanayake as having perpetrated genocide on the Tamil people? Is it racism to note the empirical fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa remained undefeated in the Southern two thirds of the island while he was defeated by a spike, a surge in the North and East—whose elected provincial representatives followed this up with a resolution accusing this country of having committed genocide, thereby revealing that their commitment to Sri Lanka is questionable to say the least?
Did the Nugegoda rally qualify as “Nazism” “racist”, “communal” and “extremist”, because the crowd carried the Sri Lankan flag together with the pictures of Mahinda Rajapaksa? Or is it because the speakers invoked the Mawbima, the motherland? Was it racist, communal, extremist and fascist because it criticized Northern racism and fascism (i.e. the Tigers)? Is it racism to criticize Tamil racism, separatism and fascism?
We now come to the question of patriotism and nationalism. These cosmopolitan critics shudder at the mention of patriotism. Then they shift the goal posts and wave patriotism through, while targeting nationalism. Intellectually shifty, they conflate all forms of nationalism with racism, chauvinism and even fascism/Nazism. Let me correct myself immediately: they conflate all forms of Sinhala nationalism with racism, chauvinism and fascism. No such conflation takes place when they comment on Tamil nationalism, and even the worst forms of Tamil racism, such as the Tigers and/or the ‘genocide’ resolution are explained away as Tamil nationalism.
Thus, for these cosmopolitan neoliberal critics, any form of Tamil racism, chauvinism and fascism is more excusable—and actually better—than any form of Sinhala nationalism, even if it is of the most non-racist, non-chauvinist, moderate and democratic variety.
Some strive to contrast Leftism and its inextricable marker, internationalism, with nationalism. (They also try to contrast my Marxist-Leninist, revolutionary and communist past with my present). While leftism must indeed be contrasted with and immune to any form of chauvinism, racism and obviously fascism, and stands as a universal antipode to such ideologies, only a knave or an ignoramus would regard leftism—which is intrinsically internationalist—as incompatible with nationalism. Here is Sir Isaiah Berlin, the renowned liberal historian of ideas, on the whole affair:
“Communism, for instance, certainly became a great force, but except in alliance with national sentiment it cannot advance. This seems to me the case in China; in parts of Asia…; in Africa, in Cuba. When Marxism comes into conflict with national sentiment—we can all think of examples in recent history—it suffers as an outlook and a movement, whatever the alliance with nationalism may add to its material power and success.” (‘The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History’, 1996, p. 251)
Was the Nugegoda event a Sinhala nationalist mobilization then? That was not the primary characteristic of the event, which is far more accurately classifiable as populist. In almost all countries, especially in the Global South, with a history of colonialism and an aversion to neocolonial interventionism and hegemonism, all populism is also nationalist. The classic case is Latin America. An aspect of populism throughout the global South is the backlash against the elite which is seen as pro-Western and anti-national. In Sri Lanka this was the case with SWRD Bandaranaike and Ranasinghe Premadasa. It is also the case with the support for Mahinda Rajapaksa.
What would be most accurate theoretically is to understand the ideology of Nugegoda and the Mahinda Rajapaksa phenomenon through the prism of ‘communitarianism’ rather than from the perspective of a deracinated pro-Western liberalism. Already in my Long War, Cold Peace (2013), I had drawn attention to “a group of quite outstanding thinkers [who] have staked out a position distinct from the antipodes of liberal individualism and collectivist fanaticism. These theorists stand for a ‘moderate patriotism’ and a ‘communitarian’ perspective. They include Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre, Michael Walzer and if you revise the formulation to ‘left patriotism’ or ‘left republicanism’ instead of the ‘communitarianism’, Regis Debray”. I would venture the category of ‘communitarian populism’ to understand Nugegoda.
What is the firebreak between nationalism and racism or chauvinism? It is the sense of the inferiority of ethnic, linguistic or religious groups other than one’s own; the sense of the intrinsic superiority of one’s own ethnic or ethno-religious group, and the striving to dominate and subjugate the other groups. At its worst it would entail the hatred of ethnic or ethno-religious groups other than one’s own. There was none of that at Nugegoda. There is none of that in Sinhala or any other nationalism. The predominance of such elements would render the phenomenon classifiable not as nationalist but precisely as racist or chauvinist.
The attempt at de-legitimizing Sri Lankan patriotism or Sinhala nationalism is an attempt at weakening the defenses of the country and its capacity to defend national sovereignty. What is the relationship between Sri Lankan patriotism and Sinhala nationalism? The position and role of Sinhala nationalism is analogous to that of the proletariat, the working class, in Marxist theory. It is a role and function conferred by structure, i.e. by the ensemble of objective relationships. Three reasons are pertinent here.
(1) The Sinhalese are the overwhelming majority on the island and are thereby the major stakeholder in any demographic and democratic sense.
(2) While there exist Tamil and Muslim communities all over the world, and one therefore refers to Malaysian Tamils, Singapore Tamils, South African Tamils etc, one does not and cannot refer in that manner to Sinhalese communities. There are only Sri Lankan Sinhalese. Therefore, while Sri Lanka is NOT ONLY the home of the Sinhalese, it is the ONLY home of the Sinhalese; the only home the Sinhalese have and will ever have.
(3) While many cultures coexist on the island, the predominant civilization on the island is that of Sinhala Buddhism (Prof. Joseph Needham sees the hydraulic civilization of this island as comparable to Chinese civilization).
For these three reasons in combination, it has been and it is the Sinhalese, most specifically the Sinhala Buddhists, who having had the central and main role on the island’s social and civilizational formation, have the most to lose if this island were to be jeopardized. Thus it is they who have been in the forefront and constituted the main force of resistance to invasion. It is the Sinhalese who have been and are the main guardians and defenders of this island’s sovereignty and independent existence.
This—and not any racist assumption of intrinsic cultural or ethnic superiority– is why there can be no Sri Lankan nation or patriotism without a central place for the Sinhala nation and Sinhala nationalism. It is a matter of geopolitics and (certainly in my case) derives from a Realist reading.
Laksiri Fernando names me as “the foremost ideologue of Sinhala chauvinists”. In what sense do I qualify as a Sinhala chauvinist as distinct from, arguably, a Sinhala nationalist? How can someone who continues to defend the retention of the 13th amendment and advocates devolution within a unitary state, be described a Sinhala chauvinist? Is every Sinhala nationalist by definition a Sinhala chauvinist? Is Sinhala nationalism illegitimate? Is it perhaps a hallmark of Sinhala chauvinism that I refuse to go beyond devolution within the unitary state? Is a defense of the unitary state itself a sure sign of Sinhala chauvinism? Is my refusal to regard the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka a nation whose right of self-determination must be recognized, and my rejection of any definition of Sri Lanka as a multinational state, damning evidence of my Sinhala chauvinism? If so, it must be taken up with the late Joe Slovo, the white, Jewish, Communist icon of the South African liberation struggle and closest comrade of Nelson Mandela. Slovo had this to say:
“What is the future of the cultural and linguistic diversity and how do we cater for this diversity within the framework of a unitary state…National self-determination correctly remains part of the Holy Grail of Marxist learning. But, for most parts of Africa, the invocation of this right for regional or ethnic entities (either for secessionary purposes or for creating ethnically-defined political groupings) usually serves to undermine rather than to advance the right to national self-determination…The battle is still joined to prevent ethnic separatism from making advances from positions it continues to hold…It is our duty not only to proclaim, but also to ensure that in a unitary democratic South Africa the language and other positive cultural heritages of the diverse groups will really flower and find effective expression.” (‘The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution’, Joe Slovo, General Secretary SACP, 1988)
Romesh Hettiarachchi an émigré lawyer in Canada attempts to brand my views on Smart Patriotism and the new Nationalism as “fascist”, and even invokes Nazism. One recalls Fidel Castro’s derisive description of émigré critics in Florida as “gusanos”. In a typically slippery exercise he identifies my views with those of Carl Schmitt who was once associated with fascism. Schmitt identified “the political” as defined by the “friend/enemy” distinction. In this I certainly agree with Schmitt, but this was essentially expressed by Sun Tzu (“Know yourself, know your enemy; a thousand battles, a thousand victories”) half a century after the Buddha; by Lenin a decade before Carl Schmitt ( “Who-Whom?”), and by Mao Zedong ( “ Who are our friends? Who are our enemies?”) around the same time as Carl Schmitt! Secondly, any serious student knows that Schmitt’s ‘The Concept of the Political’ was published in 1932, BEFORE the Nazi takeover and in an effort to strengthen presidentialism so as to stall the Nazi movement. He made the brief detour into supporting Nazism only after the effort failed. Thirdly, any intellectual would know that just like the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who deviated into Nazism, Carl Schmitt is also recognized and taught the world over as an important thinker, irrespective of his brief political affiliations. Hettiarachchi is obviously perfectly ignorant that there has been a Left-Schmittian school of thought of which Chantal Mouffe is a major figure. In the interests of intellectual transparency I must add that Hettiarachchi has not ‘outed’ me, because I have stated in print years ago and often enough, that I am a Gramscian and a Left-Schmittian (just as Mouffe is).
More important is the attempt to make Sri Lankans forget the friend/enemy distinction. There is an enemy. A political formation, entity or institution, which systematically accuses, by means of the formal political process, the Sri Lankan state of the damnable crime of genocide is not a friend of Sri Lanka but an enemy. This despicably dishonest accusation regarding the Sri Lankan state, Sri Lanka as a country, clearly indicates animosity – enmity–towards Sri Lanka as a political community. To ignore the friend/enemy distinction is to disarm Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankans.
The best illustration of the political relationship between Sri Lankan patriotism and Sinhala nationalism is the brave rebel Puran Appu. This identification is no sudden conversion of mine after an epiphany at Nugegoda. Contributing an essay by invitation to the special supplement of The Island on the ‘Dawn of the Third Millennium’, published on Saturday, January 1st 2000, I identified Puran Appu as my Sri Lankan hero of the Millennium. Was Puran Appu a Sinhala nationalist? Most certainly! His rebellion against British imperialism was in large part animated by a Sinhala nationalism which had an important place for Buddhism and the Buddhist clergy. Was he in any sense of the word, anti-Tamil, Muslim or Christian? Most certainly not!
The best example of the ideological relationship between Sinhala nationalism and Sri Lankan patriotism was provided not by a Sinhalese but by the Tibetan Buddhist monk and poet, S. Mahinda, in his ‘Lanka Maatha’. It is written in and addressed to the Sinhalese, whom he attempts to shame into awakening from quiescent conformism into patriotic assertion with the words: “has lightning struck your eyeballs, you Sinhalese?’’ Was he racist, chauvinist or fascist? Most certainly not!
It is this Sinhala nationalism which in an updated form, must and cannot but be the driving force of Sri Lankan patriotic resistance to external hegemonism and a neo-comprador puppet regime. It is this spirit of Puran Appu and S. Mahinda that makes the masses who rallied at Nugegoda unwilling to accept the arithmetical defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the sign and seal of the permanent surrender of peoples and national sovereignty. A purely arithmetical defeat based on a spike in ideologically proto-secessionist TNA votes in the island’s periphery neighboring a hostile Tamil Nadu, cannot conquer and subordinate either the Sinhala heartland or what Jean-Jacques Rousseau would call the General Will. Nugegoda was a manifestation of peaceful civic resistance and Peoples Power.