15 November, 2018

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Sri Lanka’s Legacies Of Nationalism & Racism

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda

Racism is a political theme that has attracted a great deal of public attention in Sri Lanka last week. The attacks on the life and property of Muslim citizens in several locations in the Kandy District by Sinhalese mobs has provided the context for renewed public attention on the negative and destructive consequences of racist politics.

There seems to be two opposing responses to these particular events of racism. The first, which is being openly expressed, condemns racism and views it as a hindrance to peaceful community relations as well as the country’s progress.

The second, which is being expressed in private conversations, is mildly critical of the acts of violence against Muslims, yet, claims for it a political rationale and justification.

From that perspective, when the legitimate ‘place’ of the majority community in a multi-ethnic society is at stake, and when the government shows only a passive reaction to it, radical groups justifiably turn to violence to protect the majority’s interests.

It is the second perspective that tells us that racism has actually been an expression of a widely shared political consciousness in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist society. Racism is a shorthand concept to describe that particular mode of political consciousness which we find among majority ethnic communities in many multi-ethnic societies in the world. It is rooted in a peculiarly minoritarian complex among ethnic majorities.

 Two meanings

Racism has two inter-related meanings, the first is an idea and the second is a political practice. As an idea, it is an expression of a belief, shared by members of a particular ethnic community – majority or minority –, of its superiority over other communities, on the basis of race, culture, language, skin colour, and history. As a mode of political and social practice, racism is associated with acts of prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, and intolerance. It produces state policies that institutionalize group inequality as well as the denial of human dignity to some citizens as communities.

The extreme instance of racist political practice is the use of violence and terror against communities that are viewed as inferior and unequal. It comes with a process of ‘othering’ the other. Carl Schmitt’s famous formulation of politics as expression of friend – enemy distinction, actually, came in the context of militant Nazi racism in Germany.

Racism is also a particular kind of majoritarian ethnic nationalism, an extreme manifestation of nationalist consciousness, with a set of properties specific to it. Sri Lanka’s experience helps us to delineate the line of demarcation between nationalism and racism.

 Shades of nationalism

In Sri Lanka, nationalism as an ideology and a specific form of political practice is actually spread across a broad spectrum. There are indeed nationalisms within nationalisms. Let us take Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism as examples. Each has within its fold a variety of shades, with moderate to extreme political imaginations, programs, and commitments. The moderate ones are committed to a program of nation-state nationalism, de-emphasizing the ethnic appeal of nationalist politics. The United National Party (UNP) after 1987, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) occasionally (under Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena) have shared this mainstream, and nationalist politics in Sri Lanka. Nation-state nationalism of the UNP and SLFP does not promote friend-enemy distinction within the multi-ethnic nation.

Then, the SLFP before 1994 as well as under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the UNP before 1987, represented the conventional mode of Sinhalese ethnic majoritarian nationalism. Thus, the nationalist ideologies of both, the old UNP and SLFP had in the past accommodated mild versions of Sinhalese racism, prevalent among sections of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vernacular intelligentsia.

The old nationalism of the UNP and the SLFP had a basic commitment to establishing the dominance of the Sinhalese ethnic group over the minority ethnic groups by means of state capture. It did not advocate a friend-enemy distinction among ethnic communities, but was firmly committed to establishing an ethnic hierarchy in the Sri Lankan polity.

In this vision of ethnic hierarchy, the majority and minority communities were recognized as unequal entities in terms of political power and citizenship rights. The UNP abandoned this majoritarian ethno-nationalist project after 1987. The SLFP followed suit in 1994, but revived the old ideology in 2005. At present, the SLFP seems to be torn between an accommodationist nation-statist nationalism and rigid ethnic majoritarian nationalism.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – ‘People’s Liberation Front’) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU – ‘National Heritage Party’) represent two different, yet extremely interesting, forms of nationalist politics. The JVP’s nationalism is a socialist type of nation-state nationalism which believes in inter-group equality primarily in terms of social, economic and cultural rights of the minorities. In terms of political rights of the ethnic minorities, the JVP believes paradoxically in a liberal program in which individual, civil, political and social rights, and cultruralist group rights are accommodated. However, the JVP continues to be opposed to political group rights of the minorities, as old liberals and socialists do, such as devolution, self-rule and regional autonomy.

Thus, the JVP represents a moderate version of nation-state nationalism. And, because of its strange combination of socialist and liberal positions, the JVP’s nationalism does not have room for racism.

The JHU, interestingly, originated with a great deal of potential for racism, but, surprisingly, has moved towards embracing a vague form of nation-state nationalism. In the latter, a minimalist political accommodation between majority and minority ethnic communities is conditionally tolerated. Bhikku Athuraliye Ratana’s shift to ecological populism and Minister Champika Ranawaka’s preoccupation with his future political ambitions of becoming a national leader seem to have fostered a peculiar process of de-radicalization of the JHU. Thus, the JHU, to the chagrin of many of its former followers and urban middle-class well wishers, seems to have abdicated its capacity to nourish racist politics in Sinhalese society.

Now, let us turn to the question of racism in Sinhalese society. The spread of moderate, semi-moderate and nation-statist nationalisms in Sinhalese society, despite, and also because of, the ethnic war, seems to have provided the context for the recent emergence of racist activism in the Sinhalese society. De-racialization of nationalisms of mainstream political parties has provided the impetus for Bodu Bala Sena (BBS ) and Ravana Balaya (RB) to emerge. De-radicalization of the JHU is also a proximate reason, because it created a ‘militancy vacuum’ in Sinhalese nationalist politics.

 Antecedents

There are antecedents to BBS and RB that go back to the mid 1950s. Its first manifestation was Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – National Liberation Front, not to be confused with the present Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), led by K. M. P. Rajaratne and Kusuma Rajaratne – a husband-wife duo – who preached an extreme form of racial hatred against the up-country Plantation Tamils. With their intolerant brand of Sinhalese racism, they also won parliamentary seats at the 1956 election, and later from multi ethnic electorates.

The Rajaratnes preached an extreme ideology of Sinhalese nationalism whose key point was that the Sinhalese villagers in the central hill country had an immediate enemy – the ‘Indian origin’ Tamils. The Rajaratne couple constructed the first post-colonial political doctrine of Sinhalese racism –collective group insecurity being its dominant theme — during the early and mid 1950s. Its second phase was led by Cyril Mathew, a UNP politician from a trading family in Colombo, and Ven. Madihe Pannasiha, a respected Buddhist prelate belonging to the Amarapura fraternity.

Both, Mathew and Ven. Madihe gave a distinctly militant character to Sinhalese nationalism, making it exclusively anti-Tamil and anti-Christian. They did so by constructing an ideology for the Sinhalese with the central argument that the Sinhalese-Buddhists were an endangered majority, with the risk of becoming a disempowered minority, in their own land of origin and destiny.

The two Rajaratnes, Mathew and Ven. Madihe Pannasiha’s intellectual contribution to an extreme strand of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism in post-colonial Sri Lanka deserves at least belated acknowledgement. They continued an ideological movement initiated by L. H. Mettananda and N. Q. Dias during the 1950s.

Then comes the Jathika Chinthanaya (JC- National Ideology’) group of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara, two Colombo based intellectuals with rural socio-cultural origins. Both of them are ex-Leftists. They, in a way re-constructed Sinhalese nationalist ideology at a time when Tamil minority nationalists were challenging the state, which the Sinhalese nationalists had thought was under their possession and control. De Silva particularly, made a noteworthy contribution to the racist imagination of Sinhalese nationalism. He made a sustained argument that the Sinhalese Buddhists were intellectually, philosophically, and culturally far superior to Tamils, Muslims, and Christians all of whom, as he claimed, had inferior histories, cultures and legacies.

If a belief in unparalleled ethnic superiority of an ethnic community is the hallmark of racism, Nalin de Silva’s contribution to that strand of Sinhalese nationalist thought is phenomenal.

The BBS and RB have inherited these multiple legacies of racism of Sinhalese nationalist ideology and carried forward a political practice of violence that was initiated at a low key level by the National Movement Against Terrorism (N-MAT). This was a small outfit affiliated to the JHU. It became active during the late 1990s. With its de-radicalization, the JHU seems to have disbanded the N-MAT. Some of its ex-cadres seem to have formed their own new entity, the BBS. This genealogy of the BBS puts in context the statement which Minister Champika Ranawaka recently made to deny any link with the BBS. Meanwhile, the RB has links with Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front.

The Mahason Balakaya (‘Mahasona Brigade’), from all the information available, is a creature of the Facebook and social media, with only a handful of digital activists. In the age of social media and cyber activism, even a single person with an extremist agenda that spawns fear, hatred, and heroism does not need a well-funded or well-knit organization to create a generalized sense of hysteria and terror. It is an example of post-modern terror ‘movements’ with no centre, no large membership, no organization, and no location.

Now, what is it that makes BBS racism special? It represents a stage of maturity of racist politics in Sinhalese society with its open commitment to generating hatred among ethnic communities and provoking violence to target a specific minority community at present. The BBS interestingly is not an underground organization. It functions openly and offers racism as an alternative, and respectable, political doctrine with a vision for emerging itself as a legitimate political force. Its ideology seems to have been informed by a crude version of just war theory. And its political practice employs open violence.

What is interesting to watch now is how the present political uncertainty and governance crisis would enable the BBS to penetrate further the political consciousness of Sinhalese society. The real danger of entities like the BBS is not their potential to become a major electoral force, but their capacity to define the terms of the country’s political discourse while remaining a small activist group of dedicated cadres.

It would also be fascinating to monitor how the SLFP and the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will deal with the political opportunities through informal alliances that the BBS might offer to them in the coming pre-election months.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    7

    I don’t know how you got the PROF part in front of your name. This crap is good for Tamils, some muslims and not all, Christians and to Phillipino Catholics (Veritas). Why India always like DESI and they always want their stuff. Why GREAT Britain, amidst all the problems is around ROYALTY. Why America rallues around people around the FLAG. If all the christians/catholics are around the bible nd the ALmighty, if muslims worship quran and the Allah, why Sinhala buddhists have to take this much. they have a civilization even though you do not know it, YOu know only the KArl MArx who is western. YOu looks christians so you don not know the sinahal buddhist civilization, culture and value of that to the country. why do you want to destroy it establish new culture. what is wrong with it. IS it caste conscious ?. Castes are every where in those so-called developed countries.

  • 2
    5

    In my earlier comment, I criticized you for your personal preferences. Because, personal preferences affect what you say. and what you respect. Racism is part of insecurity,. YOu can not get rid of that from the society. but, sinhala people have never chased out any one from their soil. It is the foreign cultures that want to destroy sinhala culture for various political and religious reasons. I heard amaradeva said that you are a NASPETHTHIYAK to the society. Why don’t you think about the grievences of these people that you accuse. West tries so many tricks like tha tin the world and they are still trying those. What did they acheive. One country says. We have your money but we don’t have right now. Another country is also saying the same thing. See why Catholiics are extinct in europe and in the certain parts of North america. Wjy do you want to cange sinhala people. How about those religions which are aggressive and intrusive. Why don’t you acknolwedge how the christianis/Catholics helped the LTTE war and now they have changed tactics. Not all muslims are bad. they are in a bad situation and some agree to that. IT is you people who are destructive to the society. Remember, ecen British tried their best to destroy Sinhala buddhists. that is why most of the variety in Sri lankan society. IF you agree to this argument of yours, che guvera could have been annihilated the same way. what do you think ?

  • 2
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    NAtionalism and Racism is bad only for Christians and Catholics. They want one world. [Edited out]

  • 0
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 7
    1

    Thank you Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda for summarising the various hues of Lankan politics.
    Our predicament is not racial – maybe ethnic. The pointers are towards business interests.
    SWRD B exploited the language/religion-divide to achieve his ambition. Business interests exploited this to edge out competitors – Tamils in the first instance. Now the second phase is on – edging out Muslims. It will not end here! There will be a never ending phase of the survival of the fittest business.

  • 4
    1

    Let’s hope at least now the international community realizes that the Sinhalese Buddhists cannot co-exist with others, time and again they have proven that they are a racist regressive ethnicity.

    The UN/US/India should take action and lay the foundation to divide this country on ethnic lines like they did in Yugoslavia as this is the only solution.

    • 1
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      In the event, Sinhalese should negotiate for physically relocation of the Tamils (Tamil speaking people) presently living in Sinhala majority areas into the envisaged Tamil Homeland
      Soma

      • 1
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        soma,

        Are all Sri Lankans equal?

  • 3
    1

    Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Your approach to ‘Sri Lanka’s Legacies Of Nationalism & Racism’ runs well along your political thinking. I have nothing against it. However, two of your statements caught my attention.
    ___
    First and foremost is your, ‘They, in a way re-constructed Sinhalese nationalist ideology at a time when Tamil minority nationalists were challenging the state’.
    ___
    This is a rather hurried and unjust declaration. Tamil nationalism exists today. This inevitable presence is their way of self-preservation in a climate of extreme Sinhala nationalism. You are putting both of those at par.
    ___
    Second, is your blanket, ‘Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena have shared this mainstream, and nationalist politics in Sri Lanka’. Chandrika’s is purely political; Maithri’s is contentious.

  • 0
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 1
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    A Brilliant article, the best i have seen from you on this important subject. You have managed to cut through much of the terminological crap to present a clear and prescient observation.

  • 4
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    Prof. Uyangoda,

    Rascally racists like KMP Rajaratne, Cyril Mathew, Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara may say anything about racial ‘superiority,’ but a basic fact remains: it is when a group of people or an individual lacks serious accomplishments that they have to feel pride by putting down other groups rather than getting satisfaction from their own intrinsic accomplishments.

    So the roots of Sinhalese racism lie in real feelings of inferiority, not any real superiority. What is needed is for sociologists and political scientists like you to bring out that reality and find ways to address whatever inferiority complex ails Sinhalese society; in other words, the society needs a national shrink. Tamils and Muslims will have to address similar issues in their own societies.

  • 0
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    a very good analysis
    far better than dayans rubbish
    despite jim softlys nonsense your views in the main stands out

  • 1
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    Another Sinhala Buddhist bashing rubbish. A former terrorist teaching us about racism. According to this fellow, no other racism, religious fundamentalism exist in Sri Lanka. All evil emanates from Sinhala Buddhists. As long as these kind of ideologies are spewed they can expect equal and opposite response from Sinhala Buddhists.

    • 2
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      Hela,

      This time I have read the article before commenting! Whereas, you appear confused and offended personally! Do you have anything to counter the arguments put forward by the Prof.? I suppose Prof. Uyangoda has touched some your raw nerves!

      He was youth who rebelled against the state that does not make a racist?

    • 2
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      Hela

      “Another Sinhala Buddhist bashing rubbish. “

      We need more of Sinhala/Buddist bashing before the country is turned into a Theocratic Fascist state for the simple reason I don’t want to see you in Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment) uniform saluting somass, Percy, Gota, Dayan, Wimal, with your the right arm lifted upwards open hand palm down while enthusiastically haling your leader “hail Dr Gota”.

      I will be very disappointing to see Hela people shamelessly obeying and becoming subservient to the clan.

  • 3
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    Never be content to sit back and watch as others’ rights are trampled upon. Your rights could be next.

  • 0
    2

    GG Ponnambalam, SJV Chelvanayakam, and others who nurtured hatred among Tamil youth and led them to Nandikadal plus AHM Ashroff who took Muslims along the exclusivist fundamentalism must be saints to this professor………….To this guy, Wahabism must be the path to heaven where virgins await…………….

    • 3
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      Hela

      “GG Ponnambalam, SJV Chelvanayakam, and others who nurtured hatred among Tamil youth and led them to Nandikadal plus AHM Ashroff who took Muslims along the exclusivist fundamentalism must be saints to this professor”

      How about Aryan Anagarika Homeless Dharmapala, Rajaratne. Rajapaksa, SWRD Banda, …………………… Champika, Wimal Sangili Karuppan, …… Rohana Racist Wijeyweera, JR, Cyril Mathew, Dutta Gamani, … HLD M, Kamalika, Ganapthi Pilla, Nalin De Silva, Bandu De Silva, …………….. those who voted for the clan, ……… ………….. either have already attained parinirvana or on their way to attaining it.

      You may go beyond the state of parinirvana.
      Please keep us posted.

  • 0
    0

    How interest is hear that so-called “racism of Sinhalese “,the patent of Western civilization of democracy ,is now taken over by elites of political scienctice who are origin of Sri Lankan citizens. While new type western elites of such rhetoric typically orchestrated by misled personsnilities is now Sri lanka’s that new weapon to attack Island national and progressive forces and their political parties.

    What is the that aim of role of ‘ Racism of Sinhalese-Buddhist’ an attempt to influence minority races by international opinion on Sri Lankan globe strategy ? An experts of from western school of thought, that its engaged blaming ‘Sinhalese racism’ of Sri Lankan, in nationalism by shacking participation election and Muslim ratios by govt. and forcing its partners to hand over internal rule to puppet Local rules that terms dictated by foreign power ?
    Seeing the absurdity so-called ” Sinhalese Racism” in Sri lanka updated by anti- Muslim ratios by threat of the theory of racism of Sinhalese-Buddhist by majority Sinhalese get the tangible benefits from west and Indians, from it would be the best for the current regime to respond their query of Muslim ratios in certain pockets in Lanka.
    Matter of fact it is time to lay the “Sinhalese -Buddhist racism” in Sri lanka by advocated —“threat theory of racism” to rest by western domination in our soil.
    Needless to say those who do not have bias or practice double standards will see which Sri lanka
    so-called “racism” not a threat, indeed our values of 2600 civilization in past, present and future having ample of opportunities…. our Islanders
    .

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