22 February, 2024


Smart Patriotism: Towards A New Nationalism

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Smart Patriotism: Towards A New Nationalism – Reply To Sarath De Alwis


Mr. Sarath de Alwis has ventured a critical analysis of my article on ‘Smart Patriotism and The Marginal Majority’ on the basis of psychoanalysis. His reconstruction is that my ideas are the product of and caters to Sinhala angst at the recent electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa–and are “fascist”. Flattery will get him nowhere, and I would let Mr. de Alwis proceed happily with his new hobby of amateur psychoanalysis, except for two reasons: it is based on a demonstrable fallacy, and much more importantly, rebuttal offers me the chance of further elaborating Smart Patriotism. I do not deny that my recent article was an ideological and political intervention in a specific ideological and political situation, and part of a project which I would call A New Nationalism for A New Opposition. However, the ideas contained in the intervention have been articulated by me in print, decades before Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated; indeed while he was still an obscure Minister in the first cabinet of President Kumaratunga—and therefore had nothing whatsoever, could not have had anything whatsoever, to do with him.

If these ideas did not receive the emphasis or the primacy in my hierarchy of views then, that I have accorded them now in my political perspective, it is because the context has indeed changed, and as Frederick Engels said, one has to “bend the stick in the other direction” when the dominant view tends to suppress certain perspectives.

What is the new context? In one sense it is a throwback to an old one. Just recently The Island carried the distinguished ex-civil servant Tissa Devendra, writing on ‘Revisiting Mara Yuddha of 1956’. The latter concludes his brief intervention with this telling observation:

“As a very old stager, looking back at this ‘earth-shaking’ cartoon of almost sixty years ago, I am exceedingly amused at what has happened today to those hate objects exemplified in this cartoon. The UNP elephant remains triumphant, American dollars are more welcome than ever…Who would have imagined that decades after their debacle in ‘1956’, the forces of Mara would ever have triumphed!” (The Island, Friday February 6, 2015)

While I am obviously not of Mr. Devendra’s stellar generation, I was born in that year, and due also to my father’s association with SWRD Bandaranaike, 1956 has been an even greater ‘marker’ event in my consciousness than it would have been for any student of Sri Lankan politics due to its intrinsic significance.

I share but cannot fully experience Mr. Devendra’s wry whimsy at the social restorationism or counter-reformatory character of today’s trends. I have two rather more recent points of reference. They are the years of Chandrika’s striving to introduce a union of regions package and later the PTOMS which allocated more seats to the LTTE than to the Sri Lankan Government, and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). These were the equivalents for my generation, that the appeasement of Hitler by Chamberlain, the collaboration with fascist occupation by Petain and Quisling, were for Mr. Devendra’s generation (my father and Mr. Devendra were class mates in primary school).

Just as Tissa Devendra cannot believe that those who were on the other side of ’56 and the Mara Yuddha cartoon have triumphed today, I too cannot accept with equanimity that the defeated appeasers and vacillators of the decade 1994-2004, the “ low, dishonest decade” (to use Auden’s definition of the decade of Munich) are the winners today. I cannot quite reconcile myself to the idea that tomorrow may belong to the bloc of those who failed and those who betrayed us yesterday.

All this just five years after the end of a thirty years war; the axial process of contemporary Sri Lankan history. This would be unheard of in Europe or Asia, because not just five years but a few decades after WWII, the moral, ethical and political lines of demarcation and points of definition were the War, the fascists, the collaborators and resistance to fascism. This was true not only of countries invaded by German, Italian or Japanese fascism but within those societies that spawned fascism.


Sarath de Alwis accuses me of an “us vs. them” perspective. This is very true, but Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘Manicheanism’ does not enter the picture and cannot, since I first articulated the view in print two decades ago and it has been a vital part of my political philosophy and philosophy of history. In my first book, published by Vikas, New Delhi in 1995, I wrote as follows:

“The motor force of contemporary Sri Lankan history seems to be have been struggle– manifesting itself in armed conflict—over power relations. It remains a hypothesis to be tested, whether this can be extrapolated, whether it has a more overarching general validity. This hypothesis could be constructed as follows: ‘the motive force of history is struggle—manifesting itself in armed conflict—over power relations, among and between nations, states and classes’. In a word, politics.” (‘Sri Lanka: The Travails of a Democracy- Unfinished War, Protracted Crisis’ 1995, p.160)


Three years later, in 1998 I wrote on the geopolitical matrix and long continuities of the Sinhala collective experience and Sri Lanka’s nationalities question. Mr. de Alwis will see the obvious continuities between what I said then and what I am saying now. The piece first appeared in the editorial page of the Island and was reproduced in the Tamil Times of December 15th 1998 under its original title “At a Century’s End: Closing Remarks on the National Question’. The following appeared under the sub-head ‘Geopolitical Continuum: The Longest Duree”:

Is ethno-nationalism a quintessentially modern phenomenon or construct? Or do its roots run back through millennia? Or is it a combination of the two-and if so, what is that specific ‘articulation’ of change and continuity?

The continuity thesis has been propounded for the most part, by the Sinhala chauvinistic writers – and their historicist version has been justly faulted. However, a cooler geopolitical view, in the best Western realistic tradition of international relations, would also yield a picture of a strong patterning in the tapestry of the island’s history; a patterning in which the preponderant motif has been rise and retrenchment of marvelous developmental civilizations at the hands of military invasions from the Northern plain. (See De Silva, K.M, History of Sri Lanka, 1981)

These incursions have had several variants. They have been launched either from across the horizon i.e. by this or that Dravidian power centre, or by the descendants of the Tamil settlers in the North of the island. Sometimes there has been collusion between the two; sometimes contention. Sometimes the invasions from across the North have been by either of the Tamil players (indigenous or South Indian), autonomous of the other.

There is, significantly, another variant: the project or resultant of the military thrusts has, at times, shifted from incursion/invasion to the establishment of Northern domination over the island. (It is during one such effort that there were raids on Panadura!).

Thus, ethnicity apart, the geo-political pattern is clear:

A constant (or constantly recurrent) military threat to the South (or what I would term the Greater South, since we are speaking of the Anuradhapura period as well) emanating from the North (or the Greater North, encompassing South India).

The permanent potential and recurrent phenomenon of Northern invasion i.e. from a Southern vantage point, ‘invasion from above’ (and often ‘from without’); from a Northern vantage point, a downward thrust, usually across the Vanni plain.

The Southern developmental civilizations always had this Sword of Damocles over their heads.

It is this long persistent geopolitical pattern that renders intelligible not only Prabhakaran, but the strategic responses of Jayewardene and Premadasa: the former, deploying the Far North (IPKF) against the Near North (Tamil Eelamism/LTTE) and Premadasa, the reverse. Both were attempts to exploit the contradictions between the two Norths, breaking up/pre-empting a pan-Northern or Greater Northern bloc or compact. Both efforts succeeded at the highest cost – Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa. But was a greater historical cost averted, by these costs at the highest level?

The neo-liberal cosmopolitans are the organic intellectuals of the neo-comprador class, itself the facilitator of neo-liberal globalization and bride of the uni-polar world order. (Samir Amin, James Petras and Perry Anderson have, separately and differently, made this critique­ but none more effectively than the Cuban Communists). Their project to deconstruct the state renders their function that of a fifth column, undermining the only countervailing factor against neo-dependency and its attendant catastrophic consequences for the people. The state is also the most effective instrument for progressive social interventions and poverty alleviation. These intellectuals seek to weaken and delegitimize that instrument, enabling imperialism to capture, confiscate and liquidate it. The neo-liberal cosmopolitans emphasize ‘diversity’ therefore, at the expense of ‘unity.’ Their preferred form of unity is the loose federation or confederation, that is the form promoted by Bakunin and the anarchists and bitterly combated by Marx, Engels and Lenin on the basis of reasons that are ever more valid today. Solidarity with the people, identity with a nation, sharing the fate of one’s country, are replaced by a tenuous new consciousness ­and this philosophy of existential disloyalty, opportunism, upward mobility and careeristic individualism is rendered as the ideology of ‘deconstructing the state’/’unmaking the nation.’ ”


A presentation at a conference on the theme ‘Challenges of a Society in Transition’ organized by the Faculty of Graduate Studies University of Colombo in December 2004 was carried in two parts in the Daily Mirror, beginning Wednesday December 22nd 2004, under the title ‘ Sri Lanka’s Nationalities Crisis in the New Global Conjuncture’. Mr. de Alwis would concede that Mahinda Rajapaksa was a long way from even the Presidential candidacy of 2005, and certainly could not have been the male muse of an angst ridden ideological effusion by me. My perspective shows a strong consistency and continuity:

“…Though it is a legitimate State, Sri Lanka is greatly disadvantaged by the fact that the formation that poses a threat to it—Tamil secessionism (‘Tamil Eelamism’)—has a far more extensive global network. Even the best researchers and analysts focus on the Tamil Diaspora alone, ignoring or oblivious to the fact that this Diaspora is compatible and has an interface with two far larger cultural hinterlands or zones of potential support. The first of these zones is linguistic, comprising Tamil speakers all over the world, from Singapore to South Africa; the second zone is religious, consisting of Hindu and Christian co-religionists. (Since there are more Sinhala Christians than Tamil ones, and no Sinhala Hindus, the Hindu factor bulks larger than does the Christian.)These links are evident in the social behaviour of expatriate Sri Lankan (Eelam?) Tamils who interact most consistently and overlap readily with Tamilian (South Indian) and Hindu expatriate communities.

Anti-Sri Lankan Tamil separatism’s international support must be seen in the form of these concentric circles. It is by no means true that all or most Tamil speakers and/or Hindus worldwide are in sympathy with the Tigers; the truth is probably the contrary. However, the compatibility and connections with these communities give the Tamil secessionist ideology and project a cocoon within global society, a bridge to important segments of the international community, and vital contacts for its global logistics network.

By contrast, the majority of Sri Lankans cannot count on any axiomatic or ready relationships. It is not a matter of being a small island in the Third World; Cuba is one such, but the Spanish language gives her a bridge to Latin America, African blood links her with Black Africa, and a Catholic background enables her to puncture the US blockade (the Papal visit of 1998). Most Sri Lankans do not have linguistic links with the world outside (except, of course, with other Sinhalese overseas) or readily accessible communities of co-religionists…

…Tamil separatism as a politico-ideological project did not start out as a result of the policies of successive Sri Lankan administrations, but its acceptance by the Tamil people was. As AJ Wilson’s biography of his father in law, SJV Chelvanayagam, the father of Tamil Nationalism, proudly reveals, the latter had raised the idea of an independent country for the Tamils as far back as 1948, and a Tamil university in 1950, long before anyone had asked for a Sinhala university.

As Prof Nira Wickremasingha points out in her book on modern Sri Lankan history and contested identities, this confirms that Tamil nationalism was not purely reactive or defensive but pre-emptive and strategic. I would venture to inquire as to whether Sinhala nationalism was, to some extent, a reaction to this precocious and premature Tamil nationalism. It is no less pertinent however, that the Tamil voters dismissed the platform of separatism as late as 1970 and embraced it only in 1977 and that Chelvanayagam himself had set it aside in favour of federalism, and something lesser, as contained in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957.”


My reflections on ‘Postwar Sri Lanka’ in Nethra Review, International Center of Ethnic Studies, June 2010, Vol 11 Number 01, produced well after my dismissal from Geneva by the Rajapaksa administration, concludes with the following paragraph:

“It becomes increasingly obvious that the Tiger army is destroyed but the Tiger movement or global network is still alive, a well-placed new generation of Tamil secessionists have been born overseas and have come of age, and though the war is decisively won, the protracted struggle with Tamil Tiger separatism on a world scale is hardly over. A Long Cold War may have just begun.”

Thus the “us versus them” distinction which Sarath de Alwis accuses me of is far from a post-2015 election, or pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa phenomenon.


My 2013 book ‘Long War, Cold Peace’ (second edition in 2014) identifies the Sinhala situation as follows:

“Put together, one may see that the spirit of a nation or a community’s sense of collective existence in a given space, a sense of a proto-state, an organic striving for unity and resistance to anything felt to be centrifugal or an imposition, an assertion and defence of an irreducible space within an iniquitous and ubiquitous world system, may be far older, deeper and therefore existentially more powerful than any ‘global human rights revolution’. This is never more so than when the collective feel itself culturally and historically unique to a small space and its own state therefore becomes even more of an existential imperative than for a large and far flung cultural formation. This is the case with the Sinhala nation and it is legitimate. It exceeds the bounds of legitimacy only when the sense of uniqueness becomes a sense of superiority or self-sufficiency and proves impossible to accommodate under a broader umbrella with the collective identity of others who share the same space (while having a presence beyond), except upon conferral of de-jure dominance, superseding de facto preponderance.

Sri Lanka had to clearly identify and build up its “natural” international defense lines. These were the Non Aligned Movement and the countries of the global South. Within and outside the developing world, Sri Lanka’s most reliable strategic friendships would have to be with those, mainly but not only Eurasian, who placed high value on strong states, state sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, and within this group of states, those which had no significant Tamil populations.

My point is this: Sinhala chauvinism does exist and plays a negative role but not everything is the fault of or legitimate reaction to Sinhala chauvinism. There is such a thing as Tamil chauvinism, which has an autonomous existence, and poses an abiding threat to Sri Lanka as a single country. This is also a factor in the birth and sustenance of Sinhala chauvinism. However, it is not necessary to adopt a narrow Sinhala chauvinist stand in order to combat Tamil chauvinism.

The discourse of the agitations in Tamil Nadu (and later Karnataka), which involved threats to cross the waters in support of their Tamil co-ethnics, must serve as a salutary reminder and warning, as must the hate speech in the cyber spaces of the Tamil Diaspora. This little island has powerful enemies with aggressive, expansionist impulses. The state is threatened and has always been threatened by an enormous horde across the waters that hates the Sinhalese. While Sri Lanka belongs to all of its citizens whatever their ethnicity or religion, while all those citizens have equal rights irrespective of ethnicity and religion, while this island is the homeland not only of the Sinhalese, it is the only homeland that the Sinhalese as a collective, have. It is where they are coming from and the only place they have to go back to. It is where for better or worse, they belong. It is who they are. Though it does not belong only to them, it is the only place that really belongs to them, and in the final analysis, the only place they really belong to. It is not only theirs, but it is theirs. They will protect it and themselves, for no one else will. They are unique but are not superior to anyone else. The fact that their uniqueness does not confer intrinsic superiority does not mean they should forget or forego their uniqueness. It is only on this island, in this combination of space and language that they can be comfortable in their uniqueness. They have their own special destiny, though this is not a destiny superior to that of any other.

They will protect themselves and their home. Given the dangerous environment they shall always exist in – and for this one must thank Karunanidhi, Vaiko, Ramdoss and the clique of Tamil Nadu filmmakers for reminding us – this island will always have to be something of a fortress with its ramparts and watchtowers. This means that autonomy will have to be finely calculated so that it makes the Tamil people sufficiently comfortable to be integrated into Sri Lanka but is not so excessive as to permit unfettered osmosis with Tamil Nadu. Devolution must be centripetal not centrifugal. Too little as well as too much devolution can act in a centrifugal rather than a centripetal fashion.

The reminder or realization that Sri Lanka will always have to be something of a fortress state is in no way a commendation of the ridiculously narrow minded and backward sentiments that are being aired by those who see themselves as Sinhala nationalists…”

Thus I would urge Sarath de Alwis and other readers to consider the clear evidence that my support for Mahinda Rajapaksa (just as my support for Premadasa) derived from my publicly articulated political ideas, and not the other way around. In the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa, it still does.


No majority in any society should be deprived of its legitimate political, economic and social space, as was the case in many countries under colonialism. It is this dictum, together with a proud national posture of standing up to the West that constituted the core of Mahathir Mohammed’s model for Malaysia, which laid the foundation of that nation’s spectacular, sustainable prosperity. (President Premadasa’s admiration for Mahathir is a matter of record.)

As in the case of Malaysia’s minorities, Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka cannot be accorded equal weight with Sinhala nationalism—most certainly not because Sinhalese are superior to Tamils, but because they are far more numerous on the island and therefore Tamil nationalism cannot occupy the same political space and wield the same political power as Sinhala nationalism and nationhood.

Belonging as it does to the vast Islamic civilizational space, Malaysia can afford a federal and parliamentary system which Sri Lanka with its unique combination of small size, the Sinhala language and Theravada Buddhism, cannot afford either and requires a strong centrifugal state with a unitary system and an elected executive presidency. Tamil nationalist aspirations can and must be accommodated through the devolution of power making for provincial autonomy but within the framework of an executive presidency and unitary state. To the extent that the Executive Presidency is diminished and Parliament and the PM restored as the power center, so too will the devolution arrangements have to shift from the 13th amendment of 1987 back to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact of 1957.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0

    Dear Dayan

    Is leaving Sri lanka to another country with out any credible death treats on you loke Gota and Basil did years ago to be domiciled in a country that is suppose to be Hostile to Sri Lanka Smart or dumb Patriotism


Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.