By Laksiri Fernando –
The title of this article may be misleading if one takes it to mean that H G Wells (1866-1946), the renowned British political writer and Fabian socialist, directly commented on the ethnic or the racial question in Sri Lanka or for that matter, former Ceylon. What is intended instead is to draw upon his thinking on the subject, in his discourse on “A Modern Utopia” (1905) to elucidate some of the predicaments that Sri Lanka is facing today.
Wells did comment on Ceylon in other contexts particularly in his “The Outline of History” (1920) and said “In Ceylon there grows to this day a tree, the oldest historical tree in the world, which we know certainly to have been planted as a cutting from the Bo Tree [under which Gautama had his sense of mental clarity] in the year 245 B.C.” His main point was to say “It helps us to realize the shortness of all human history to see so many generations spanned by the endurance of one single tree.”
Opening a discussion on ‘race and racism’ in his discourse, Wells argued that “the soul of man is in a perpetual vacillation between two conflicting impulses: the desire to assert his individual distinction and his terror of isolation.” He also noted that this is above the elemental cravings and necessities of human beings. What was attempted in his discourse was to give a socio-psychological interpretation for one of the most intriguing questions of human history and that is racism. One may even call it ethno-nationalism in the Sri Lankan context.
The two main impulses that he talked about and in fact true in most of our personal cases are ‘individual distinction’ and ‘fear of isolation.’ One is the ‘personal identity’ and the other is the ‘group backup’ which could create social disaster if taken to the extreme. To the extent that we fail to stand up as individuals in society we look for the cover up within our selected group and most often this is our ethnicity. This is also the result of social alienation. This may be one reason why most Sri Lankans who go abroad particularly to Western countries whether they are Sinhalese or Tamils become more ethno-nationalists than some of their counterparts in their own country. Many studies have revealed that Diaspora (ethno) nationalism is more furious than any nationalism that you could identify in their motherlands.
Wells further said “He wants to stand out, but not too far out, and, on the contrary, he wants to merge himself with a group, with some larger body, but not altogether.” It is because of this duality of character – or schizophrenia – perhaps we have a chance of at least convincing some people to look beyond their ethnic prejudices.
I had a friend who before July 1983 used to argue with me furiously against the Tamils including our own colleagues at the Peradeniya University but when the actual calamity took place, his conscience pricked. He was more active than me in helping some of our Tamil colleagues in distress and after the events he was remorse for few months and started re-thinking some of his previous positions. This is not to guarantee his present positions, as many of the ethnic feelings or outbursts are subject to fluctuations. It can easily go, completely the other way round facing calamity, depending on where you are positioned.
There is a human disposition to form ‘aggregations’ and more tragically to imagine that these formations are part of the human nature. This is also something Wells said. This is, at least for the time being, unavoidable. Then the most rational way of proceeding would be to look for more harmonious aggregations rather than conflictual ones. In Sri Lankan terms this means moving away from, at least as far as possible, from ethno nationalism towards civic nationalism in building a healthy political nation on a rational basis.
The sort of aggregations that men and women refer themselves to depend largely on two matters, Wells said. One is the strength and idiosyncrasy of individual imagination. The other is the reek of ideas that happen to exist in the air at that time. While some people manage to overcome the latter, on the strength of the former, there are some other people who go in the opposite direction.
From any historical imagination, humans seem to have gone through several stages of social aggregations: (1) indigenous living (2) tribal groups (3) ethnic formations and (4) political nations. There is no difficulty in referring to these stages even in Sri Lanka’s history, except the fact that Sri Lanka is at terrible pains or trauma without being able to transform itself from ethnic formations to a healthy political nation. It has terribly become impotent. This is obviously not what Wells said!
But he did say that although the initial natural reference of a dog is to a pack, when the dog is ‘educated,’ the reference could transform to a master. This is not an insult, but the point is that education and awareness can play a major role in the transformation of peoples’ reference group to higher social aggregations. As a caveat I must say that SWRD Bandaranaike was one who was well versed with the writings of H G Wells among the Sri Lankan intellectuals and political activists in the 1930s.
In Wells’ conceptualization, he even pitched this transformation to a much higher level and even talked about ‘common humanity’ and a ‘world state’ in his future Utopia. But he talked about it as a synthesis, without neglecting diversity and plurality. Sri Lanka may be far below, but his ideas are quite relevant to our own predicament giving birth possibly to a healthy Sri Lankan nation. Otherwise it will disintegrate. In forming the SLFP, the vision of Bandaranaike, right or wrong, was first to unite the Sinhalese community as his first reference group and then to unite all groups under one umbrella. But he blundered and blundered terribly and the SLFP today is the embodiment of this blunder.
Wells did not consider the transformation from one aggregation to the other as easy. Referring to the frictions between the state and the church during the emergence of the nation state in Europe – also pointing to the different orders, sects and cults within the church – he elaborated these difficulties. Aren’t we witnessing the same difficulties in Sri Lanka, in respect of the Buddha Sasana?
Incidentally, Wells said referring to the Maha Bodi in his “The Outline of History,” “Gautama’s disciples unhappily have cared more for the preservation of his tree than of his thought.”
Role of Statesman
What Wells mostly emphasized was the role of the Statesman without which this transformation will not materialize. This has been our grumble (some people considered as personal) against the present regime after the end of the war in May 2009. The transformation to a mature political nation has not begun and instead what can be seen is the suppression of one ethno-nationalism (Tamil) by another ethno-nationalism (Sinhalese) even dragging in quite a neutral ethnic group (Muslims) into the whole calamity.
The following was what Wells said about the role of the statesman in the transformation.
“The statesman, both for himself and others, must recognize this inadequacy of grasp, and the necessity for real and imaginary aggregations to sustain men in their practical service of the order of the world, He must be a sociologist; he must study the whole science of aggregations in relation to the world to which his reason and his maturest thought direct him.”
He further said that the statesman “must do his best to promote the disintegration of aggregations and the effacement of aggregatory ideas that keep men narrow and unreasonably prejudiced one against another.” What are these aggregations and aggregatory ideas Wells talked about “that keep men narrow and unreasonably prejudiced one against another”? They are undoubtedly related to ethno and religio nationalism in the context of Sri Lanka. Of course Wells was talking in ideal or higher terms in respect of statesman even in Western standards. But cannot we imagine better statesman than what we have today now the war is over?