By Dayan Jayatilleka –
At 58, I have reached legitimate anecdotage. My parents read Grimm’s Fairy Tales out to me at bedtime, but my maternal grandmother from Moratuwa told me stories in Sinhala and was the only one to do so. She related Martin Wickramasinghe’s story “Rohini” to me. It is a romantic martial tale set within the Dutugemunu saga. She couldn’t have been a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist. She was a Catholic, originally from Nuwara Eliya, married to a highly literate Buddhist from Panadura. She named her favorite son Athula, after one of Dutugemunu’s warrior-heroes. Far from being a recessive Sinhala xenophobe, Athula wound up a Dean in a North American university and the first non-white President of the World Confederation of Physiotherapists. Those are some part of my roots. That’s where I’m coming from.
Patriotism is love of country. There is dumb patriotism and there is smart patriotism. When the dumb patriot says “my country right or wrong”, he/she means that whether it does right or wrong in the moral sense, he/she will defend it. When the smart patriot says it, he/she means that whether it is in the right or in the wrong, it is his/her country; the only country she really has or belongs to. It is where he is coming from. It is the place he identifies with. It is where he is rooted. It is home. He will not defend everything its government or state does; but defend the country, he will. In that sense the smart patriot loves his/her country unconditionally though it may be a ‘tough love’. Obviously in the case of dual citizenship, this applies twice over, with its necessary modifications and complications.
The dumb patriot thinks his country is the best in the world and even the greatest. The smart patriot does not and his love of country is not based on blind faith or an intrinsic, unwarranted sense of superiority. The smart patriot is constructively critical about his country but is fiercely loyal to it all the same. He will criticize it but will unconditionally defend his country from the hypocritical criticism of foreign powers and institutions responsible for or blind to far worse crimes.
Nationalism is an ideology born of love of nation. It recognizes and respects a collective identity. It often results in political projects sourced in the interests of that nation. Neither patriotism nor nationalism need be recognized as the highest values. Nationalism can be unproblematic when there is only one nation in a country. It is far more problematic when there are multiple, often competing claims to nationhood within a country.
Patriotism and nationalism are far from coterminous with chauvinism and/or racism. Chauvinism is a hierarchic narcissism. It is intensely self-centered and self-referential. It regards its own nation as intrinsically higher and superior to others. It brooks no critical interrogation of its past or present. Racism is the aggressive, even violent extension of chauvinism. It is actively hostile to others; to those apart from its own collective. Racism stands for the subordination and suppression of other communities.
There are patriots and nationalists who are oblivious to chauvinism and racism. There are anti-racists and anti-chauvinists who are dismissive of patriotism and nationalism. I advocate neither and am neither.
I stand for a patriotism that is compatible with both nationalism and internationalism. I stand for a nationalism that is compatible with internationalism. This is smart patriotism. Smart patriotism is perfectly compatible with cultural cosmopolitanism, though the latter is not a condition of the former.
However, neither patriotism nor nationalism is compatible with political cosmopolitanism. The difference between cultural and political cosmopolitanism is that political cosmopolitanism does not respect national borders and national sovereignty while cultural cosmopolitanism does. Cultural cosmopolitanism embraces the world as a cultural melting pot; it celebrates diversity, interface and fusion; it is truly global. It also respects the sovereignty of countries and nations and opposes the hegemony, intervention and interference of the superpower over the rest and into the rest.
Lakshman Kadirgamar was a cultural cosmopolitan and a political patriot who recognized and leveraged nationalism, including Sinhala nationalism, in the cause of anti-elitism and anti-Western hegemonism.
I am a Sri Lankan patriot who is also an internationalist. I am a Sri Lankan patriot who recognizes that you cannot be a Sri Lankan patriot while being opposed to Sinhala nationalism. Indeed a Sri Lankan patriot has by definition to recognize Sinhala nationalism and its centrality. The main motive force of Sri Lankan patriotism is Sinhala nationalism but it is not the exclusive force or component within Sri Lankan patriotism.
I firmly believe that a patriot must oppose chauvinism and racism. I also believe that one must never confuse nationalism with chauvinism or racism. I am a Sri Lanka patriot. Within the ensemble of identities and affiliations that constitute me, I am also a Sinhala nationalist who detests Sinhala racism and chauvinism. That is why I supported Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa while opposing the JHU and the BBS.
Patriotism and nationalism are quite different from xenophobia. Xenophobia resents any external influences on one’s culture. Nationalism recognizes that one’s culture is the product also of external flows and influences and welcomes these while protecting the country’s political sovereignty from external domination.
Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism strives to establish a dominant place for that majority at the expense of the minorities and attempts to keep the minorities in a subordinate place. That is reprehensible and must be combatted. Sri Lankan patriotism and Sinhala nationalism attempt no such thing. Sri Lankan patriotism only wants the unity, integrity and territorial integrity of the country, which if it is to be sustainable, cannot but entail recognition of the rightful place—neither exclusive nor domineering–of the Sinhalese. It recognizes that the Sinhalese are a very old nation, with an old language, a long continuous written history and are heirs to a highly developed ancient civilization. They exist in a large collective only on the island of Sri Lanka. Their language is spoken by a large collective only on this island. They are two thirds of the population of the island. This is their home and the only one they have. In the sub-region and the region as a whole, the Sinhalese are a minority, dwarfed by the landmass and populace next door in Tamil Nadu from which incursions and annexations have originated many times in Sinhala history and have been responsible for the collapse of the great hydraulic civilizations and the retreat of the capital. This is the geography and history of the Sinhalese.
A Sri Lankan nation cannot be created by Sinhala Buddhist civilization alone, but history and culture, demography and democracy have conferred a central role upon the Sinhala Buddhist people. To make or regard this as exclusive is chauvinism even racism, but to strive for a Sri Lankan nation of which the Sinhala nation and Sinhala Buddhist culture and civilization are not recognized as the core, is ridiculously artificial and dis-organic.
Most certainly, democracy cannot trample upon rights of the minorities but nor can democracy be misused or overlooked to install the rule of a minority and to marginalize the Sinhala majority and its interests. A minority or minority bloc cannot be turned into a majority, nor can a majority be turned into a minority. A majority cannot be cowed into behaving as if it were a minority in its own country (by which I do not mean the country belongs exclusively to the majority). Democracy cannot be manipulated to trample on the natural role and rightful status of the majority. Still less can the social minorities, including classes and elites, be enthroned over the majority with Western support, as was the case under colonialism and the neocolonialism until 1956. It must be remembered that nations, especially ancient ones such as the Sinhala nation, have a much older existence than democracy even in ancient Greece.
A majority on this island, in the modern world–system and its regional subsystem, the Sinhalese are a structurally marginal minority. This is their—our—existential situation.
One of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s great historical merits was to leverage the weight of a rising China and resurgent Russia to compensate for that structurally marginal situation of the Sinhalese and offset the systemic advantage that secessionist Tamil nationalism enjoyed owing to its numbers in Tamil Nadu and its embedding within the Western democracies. Here he was only following perhaps instinctively, the dictum of Kautilya, that the main threat to any state comes from its immediate neighbor– one with whom the given state shares a border– and that this threat must be countervailed by allying with a power that is further afield and with which the given state has no border. It is the triangle of the factors (A) a strong leader from the Ruhuna (B) the Executive Presidential System and (C) the alliance with Eurasia i.e. China and Russia, that enabled the Sri Lankan State, its army, and the Sinhala nation to defeat the fascist-separatist LTTE, warding off Western pressures for a cessation of hostilities and a return to negotiation.
It is no accident that factors (A) and (C) have been overturned and that factor (B) is sought to be downsized if not dismantled by today’s elected puppet administration. Whom does it benefit and what will be the strategic and historical fate of the Sinhala nation? What will be their—our–existential destiny?