There’s soul-searching at present in Sri Lanka about the Island and democracy but most writers on the subject, though erudite and concerned, seem to take the term ‘democracy’ for granted, and don’t pause to explain what they mean by the word. I used to tell students that if the paper they were writing had one or two terms which were of special importance, then at the outset each should clarify what s/he meant by that word or words. If idiosyncratically I were to write at the start of an essay that when I use the word “pig”, it refers to that red, fragrant flower usually called a “rose” then, in the context of that essay (emphasised: only in that context and for that duration) the reader has no option but to read the paper accordingly. Admittedly, it’s rather like what Humpty Dumpty says in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean”. Further, it’s not helpful if a word to be defined appears in the definition: for example, to say that “democracy is when the state is democratic”. One suggested definition of democracy is that it’s a system of government where the people rule through representatives they have elected. This raises the question: Who constitute ‘the people”?
Etymologically, the word ‘democracy’ is made up of demo (people) and cracy (rule). Ancient Greece is celebrated in the West as “the cradle of democracy”. The Greeks publicly discussed and debated issues, and abided by what the vote indicated. But not only were women excluded from participation, Greece was a slave-owning society. Indeed, Aristotle in his Politics argued that some are naturally slaves and others naturally masters. So it was natural, and therefore right, that Greeks rule over barbarians (an idea taken over by Rome; later by Western imperial powers) and that men rule over women. In his short but justly famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ (19 November 1863) Abraham Lincoln endorsed government of the people, for the people and by the people. But America was a slave-owning society! (As I have written elsewhere, taking into consideration its appallingly cruel nature, the number of victims running into millions, and long duration it can be argued that slavery in America is the worst blot on human history.) Unfortunately with us, human beings, not all are considered to be equally “people”. Only “we” constitute “the people”; others are non-people, different and to be treated differently. Lofty and noble words can accompany and conceal cruel and sordid practice.
We are excellent at deceiving both others and ourselves, and live quite comfortably with contradictions. I recall President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia repeatedly saying that his was a “one-party participatory democracy”: he was either unaware of or chose to ignore the contradiction. During the Second World War, Britain which ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen, proudly proclaimed it was fighting for freedom. As with the word people above, it’s freedom for us but not for others. Winston Churchill who inspired and led Britain in this fight for freedom was a racist (Gandhi was but a “half-naked fakir” who should be allowed to fast to his death) and an arch-imperialist who refused “to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” I cite from an earlier article of mine: While justice is passionately claimed for oneself, it can be vigorously, even viciously, denied to others. Indeed, it’s felt that “our” rights can be secured only by denying rights to “them”. Sri Lankans settled in the West (“West” here, irrespective of geography, includes Australia and New Zealand) take for granted their equality as citizens with those of their host country, yet some of these Sinhalese are virulently “racist”, and deny to Tamils back in Sri Lanka what they expect in the West; usually receive and enjoy. It is a case of multiculturalism and “live and let live” abroad but hegemony, forcibly established and maintained, at home.
In a digression, I may add, and so it is with Buddhism which abroad is presented as compassionate and all-inclusive but within Sri Lanka is politicised and racialized, turned into a weapon of subjugation, dispossession and humiliation: see Sarvan, ‘Buddhism pure’, January 2022; translated into Sinhala by Colombo Telegraph. Throughout history, religion (as distinct from religious doctrine) has tended to support, and collaborate with, the state. In return, the state has extended protection and patronage to religion. It’s a case of mutual support and cooperation with politics (whatever may be the driving motor of politics) being the more potent. Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was born and brought up a Christian but, being as astute politically as he was bankrupt of principle, he became a Buddhist. (Ironically, he was assassinated by Buddhist monk.)
Sri Lanka claims to be a Buddhist island, and politicians and public ceremonies, loud and ostentatious, reinforce this claim. So one would expect the country’s flag to signal and signify Buddhist doctrine: perhaps, a sign or symbol to suggest peace (a dove?) and serenity (lotus flower?). I have looked at the flags of all nations which belong to the UN, and find that the Sri Lankan flag is among the most violent. It represents not only a predatory beast but, to make it even more menacing, the lion holds a sword in its paw.
Racist politics and not religious doctrine dominates, and identity in the first instance is not with one’s co-religionists from another ethnic group but with those of one’s own population-group. Racism often passes itself off as nationalism: see the extreme Christian-right in the USA today. Further back in time, the sign of the dreaded Ku Klux Klan, given to lynching Afro-Americans, was a burning cross. The teachings of “Gentle” Jesus were perverted and made to service a racist, political agenda – as with the teachings of the “Compassionate” Buddha in Sri Lanka. Afro-Americans were Christian but that did not stop White Christians from their assault, arson and murder. Even Black Christian churches were attacked by White Christians. A tragic instance is the bombing of a church in Alabama, 1963, where little children died. A poem by Dudley Randall titled ‘Ballad of Birmingham’ imagines a mother frantically searching for her daughter:
She clawed through bits of glass and brick
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”
On 17 June 2015, a ‘white supremacist’ briefly attended Bible study at a Black church in Charleston before opening fire on the church leaders who had welcomed him. Population-group identity is stronger than religious belief. Indeed, the latter can be misused to support and justify cruel conduct. Biology is basic: one aspect of ‘culture’ is to make us think and act other than on grounds of ethnicity.
The electoral system, the underpinning of democracy, can be just or unjust. It is just in that the opinion of the majority must carry the day; unjust if the minority is permanently fixed and can never have its wishes translated into reality. In several Western countries, the loyalty of different groups of voters is to different political parties. In England, certain areas are considered to be staunchly Labour or Conservative. They are said to be “safe seats” where whoever stands as candidate is assured of winning, provided s/he is of the correct party. But as recently shown, traditionally Conservative constituencies can suddenly vote Labour and vice versa. In other words, voters are not permanently fixed in their loyalty but go by policy and plans, not to mention past promises and performance. Going back to Churchill, the national hero lost the election that immediately followed War’s end. He was a successful war-leader but what was then needed was social and economic reconstruction. Though having admiration and great gratitude, the people voted for Labour. In Sri Lanka, war-leaders are rewarded by being elected to the highest office. Moved entirely by racial emotion, anti-Tamil war leaders were entrusted by the people with leading peace-time economic development. Proven economic and social ability were not considered. This is but one of several points which confirm that what obtains in ‘the paradise isle’ is not democracy but majoritarianism. Voting is not on policy and plans but, in the first instance, on ‘population-group’ identity. (This last, I admit, is a clumsy phrase but I am reluctant to use the simpler but inaccurate term ‘race’. Scientists tell us that there is no foundation whatsoever for the concept of race but, most unfortunately, irrational beliefs have a remarkable survival record. Though there is no race, racism not only exists but flourishes in various parts of the world.) A black man may become President of the United States, and Rishi Sunak, a man of Indian origin, a practising Hindu, can hope to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But as things are, it’s beyond fancy to think of a Tamil, a Muslim or even a Sinhalese Christian becoming leader of Sri Lanka. I repeat: it’s not democracy but racist-religio majoritarianism.
Under a dictatorship the people, to an extent, are exonerated from responsibility, the condition of the country being the fault of the leader and his coterie. But in a democracy the people cannot exculpate themselves and lay the blame on incompetent or selfish and corrupt politicians. (It’s rather like Existential philosophy applied not to an individual but to a collective.) To alter Shakespeare’s words in ‘Julius Caesar’ (Act 1, Scene 3), the fault is not in fate but “in ourselves, that we are underlings”. (The Buddha rejected the idea of fate, and preached individual responsibility.) Under an electoral system it’s self-deception, if not disingenuous, to speak of a right-thinking, decent but “silent majority” because it’s the majority that “speaks” with their votes. The vote is their voice. Under the electoral system, there’s no “silent majority”. The majority may make a mistake but, next time round, it can make the necessary change.
Democracy is the form of government which makes the most demand on the people, and the sine qua non for democracy to work successfully is an educated and mature electorate. By ‘educated’ here, I do not mean those who have been to school and are literate: after all, Sri Lanka has a high literacy rate. My meaning of ‘educated’ in this context includes the illiterate, provided the person is alert and informed. The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin and means to lead outward. To quote the words of T S Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Some of the most perceptive and wisest I have met were illiterate but educated, and I acknowledge a debt to them.
But it’s not whether a particular country is democratic in its legal constitution. It’s not form but content; it’s not protestation but actual practice. If it were said of a family, “They now live in a democratic country”, and if we knew nothing else about them, wouldn’t we still make some assumptions about the nature and quality of their life? Among these would be that they breathe freely in a country that is free; that they have rights which are protected by law; opportunity and hope. Is Sri Lanka essentially and truly democratic?
I turn to The Decent Society by Avishai Margalit, emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In an ethical, principled and compassionate inquiry, Margalit distinguishes between a civilized society where members do not humiliate one another, and a decent society where institutions do not humiliate people. By “humiliation” Margalit means the rejection of human beings as human beings, and their exclusion from full and equal participation; by “respect” he means the recognition of, and regard paid to all other human beings. In as much as it’s easier to identify illness rather than health (the latter can be seen negatively, as the absence of the former) so it is easier to recognise a “humiliating”, than a “respectful”, “decent”, society. Since governments have a monopoly on the use of force, they have a greater potential for institutional humiliation, resulting in a non-decent society. All countries must honestly ask themselves: Are we civilized and decent? Are we cultured? The problem is that supremacists have nothing but contempt for such concepts and criteria. Their wish and will is to dominate and domination, ipso facto, means subordination of the ‘other’; their exclusion from realizing life’s potentialities and possibilities.
I would suggest that Sri Lanka has never in its history been democratic. The ancient past is much extolled but the Island was then ruled by kings. Today, the British queen is said to reign but not rule: the kings of old did both. Feudalism, and all that the exploitative and humiliating system means, was the norm. Sri Lankan royalty was replaced for centuries by a succession of Western imperial powers: The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Independence was granted in 1948 and almost the first act of ‘democratic’ (sic) Ceylon was to deprive Upcountry Tamils of their democratic rights on the grounds that they were not Ceylonese but “Indian Tamils”. (As Paul Caspersz, 1925-2017, of Satyodaya fearlessly wrote, if the Plantation folk are Indian Tamil, then the Sinhalese are Indian Sinhalese: see my review of his A New Culture for a New Society in the Sunday Leader, 14 February 2010.) Then followed the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act with its emphasis on the excluding “only”; Tamil satyagraha and protest; anti-Tamil riots culminating in the horrible and shameful pogrom of 1983; the war: as it’s said, “the rest is history”. The onus is on present and future generations to create democracy: past generations have abysmally failed, that is, if they even made the attempt.
Sri Lanka must wait for an “educated” and “decent” electorate to create a true democracy. One definition of a cauldron is “a situation characterized by instability and strong emotions”. What will emerge from the present cauldron is not known. Will it be a selective, racist, structure, as at present? Will it be a continuation of majoritarianism or the ushering in (for the very first time in Sri Lankan history) of true democracy? Shehan Karunatilaka writes: “Witnessing millions of Sri Lankans fight for change gives me hope for the country’s future” (The Newstatesman, 22 July 2022, page 11). Do all Sri Lankans, ethnic and religious minorities included (disappointed repeatedly in the past) share this hope? Altering and applying the words of Tagore in his Gitanjali 35: Where the mind is without fear, where reason has not lost its way, into that “heaven of freedom” [for all] may the Island awake.