By Rajan Philips –
Finally, it is only ten days to go before the polls. It is countdown time. As I recalled a few weeks ago writing on a different subject, it was Shan who called the recurrence of parliamentary elections as the musical chair game of Sri Lankan politics. I added at that time that the music and the game permanently stopped in 1977. I was promptly corrected online by a very astute observer that the game did not stop, only the music got longer and a lot jarring. Now there is more than one game – presidential, parliamentary, provincial, and local. Each one of them is apparently an opportunity for the people to exercise a fraction of their franchise – that is if you believe our constitutional blowhards. The games are already less musical and more obstacle. In future, they might be played not to some light music, or even the baila, but to the blaring of the military band.
The manifestos of the opposition parties are finally out. The government’s manifesto has been out for some time – the same one on which Gotabaya Rajapaksa rode to his first election victory in November. As manifestos go, it was grand and glossy. But how relevant it is after what the coronavirus has done to the country and to the world. How relevant are any of the other manifestos to the Covid-19 health risks that cannot be wished away, and the economic crisis that the country is in? Even without the virus, the economy was tanking. Now we are in the pits with the rest of the world. The government can justifiably acknowledge this in its defence provided it is said with due humility – and humility is the only sign that someone is understanding the gravity of the situation that one is in.
Instead, we hear Basil Rajapaksa actually saying that Sri Lanka is capable of a V-shaped economic recovery because the export earnings went up to $950m in June after sinking to $250m in April. And then we hear of presidential directives to boost Sri Lanka’s pepper exports. The unemployed juki girls and returning maids may have to start swarming Lanka’s pepper gardens. The sober concern among professional economists is about how long and flat a U-shaped recovery going to be. Again, Sri Lanka is not alone on this long, flat U-track. Wouldn’t that make you humble if you are a responsible decision maker? And perhaps thoughtful if you are also functionally intelligent?
The SLPP’s magical solution to any and all of this is getting a two-thirds majority in parliament. Inasmuch as the SLPP has had its first elected president in office for over six months, the August 5 parliamentary election should really be a term test on the President. Obviously, no one is going to fail him, but does he deserve a double promotion (read 2/3 majority) in parliament after six months as President? The opposition has plenty of political ammunition to fire away at the government and hold its feet to the fire. But the opposition is firing in all directions except at the government, thanks to Ranil Wickremesinghe and his infinite capacity for being the dog-in-the-manger spoiler.
No matter how the August 5 vote shakes out and what the eventual party tallies are, there is little that we can expect from the new parliament which might end up with a good majority of the 188 of the old 196 (elected) MPs who are running again to return as MPs. The perpetual midweek complainers about the alleged foreign intervention in the 2015 elections, without a shred of credible evidence, will be able to celebrate Sri Lankan sovereignty in the re-election of all the old bandicoots. Those who say that 19A was cooked up overseas, never quite explain why Mahinda Rajapaksa and his merry band of the current SLPPers, all but one, voted for that now seemingly wretched amendment. Whatever happens in ten days, Sri Lanka’s ethno-existential problems will continue, piled on for now by the still inscrutable coronavirus and the helplessly obvious economic burden.
New Birth Certificate
The question of ethnic identity has suddenly become topical with the announcement by the Registrar of Persons that future birth certificates, which will be soon digitised, will not include information on the marital status of parents, their ethnicity, and religion. There is interesting discussion about adopting a consistent naming practice instead of the current practice of using multiple naming conventions. As these changes are apparently meant to be consistent with international standards, it is worth noting that western countries allow multiple naming conventions to accommodate the practices of non-western immigrants.
The politically significant changes are the exclusion of the ethnic and the religious details of the parents in the child’s certificate. Shenali Waduge is already calling the new birth certificate “a betrayal of the Sinhala Buddhists.” The Daily Financial Times has editorially commented that excluding these details may create unintended negative consequences for the minorities. Taken as stand alone changes, they are positive developments and in the right direction. Objectively, they will end the old practice of essentializing one’s ethnicity in the birth certificate. The worry is that the changes will be reduced to being ostensible only if there are no accompanying changes in the overall position of the minorities in the Sri Lankan political society.
Gayathri Spivak the well-known Bengali-American cultural-literary critic, and feminist, explains well the dilemma of eschewing ethnic essentialism in general, on the one hand, and asserting ethnic identity when it becomes essential, on the other. She calls it ‘strategic essentialism’ when it is necessary for members of the minority or marginalized groups to assert their identity to challenge the dominance (hegemony) of the majority or the powerful. Spivak argues that strategic essentialism is what enables women and Asians to speak ‘as women’ and ‘as Asians’ to challenge the dominance of colonial discourse. It is equally applicable to the situation in Sri Lanka and Shan’s life and politics are quite illustrative of the nuances involved.
As I recalled last week, Shan rejected Tamil ethnic essentialism by asserting the obvious that he was a Tamil by accident of birth. Twenty years later, in the wake of the massive 1983 riots against the Tamils, Shan spoke out as a Tamil in defence of Tamil rights and against the state sponsored attacks on them. He did so without compromising any of his universal principles as a Sri Lankan and as a Marxist. Shan went further after 1983. He defended the right of self determination, not necessarily separation. He condemned individual terrorism, but defended violent retaliations against state terrorism. He was critical of the degeneration of Tamil politics to the point where the gun took control of the political process, instead of politics taking control of the gun.
And when Satchi Ponnambalam irresponsibly and intellectually dishonestly produced a vitriolic polemic of a book against the entire Sinhala people and their history, Shan contemptuously dismissed the book as “Tamil nationalism gone mad.” In all of this, Shan, and all leaders of Sri Lanka’s old and new Left parties stood their ground on their principles. They did not, unlike their right wing political counterparts and liberal academics, commit what Julien Benda, the French essayist and cultural critic, in an earlier time (1927) had called the “treason of the intellectuals,” who abandon their universal principles to prove their ethno-national loyalties.
“Men make their own history, wrote Marx (18th Brumaire), “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” The roles that that individuals play, are not of their own making. They only occupy sites or slots which emerge in the interplay of socioeconomic forces – be it for mere existence, achievements, or transformation. In every situation, there is room for individual freedom, responsibility, and agency. N. Sanmugathasan belonged to a generation of Left leaders who took upon themselves to be agents for change and for emancipation. In the site he occupied, Shan played a unique role as a Tamil, Sri Lankan, and Marxist.