By Mohamed Harees –
‘Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on his own dunghill’ – Richard Aldington
Call it an undercurrent, a wave, a hurricane or a cyclone, the reality at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India was that Modi’s BJP stumped all its competitors to secure a brute majority with ease. The most distressing event of this election was how the issue of nationalism was misused for political purposes. Leaders visibly used the tactic of arousing nationalistic feelings among the people of India to strengthen their vote bank. But the purpose behind arousing these feelings is heinous. The verdict of Lok Sabha elections has exposed not only the incumbency and incompetency of the opposition in countering the mainstream Hindutva fascist narrative with an alternative, but the nature of its voters too. They voted en-masse for such a Hindu Rashtra, the monarchical dictatorship that will overtake the last vestiges of democracy in India. Modi’s victory exposed the communalism that has been festering in India’s drawing rooms, based purely out of the collective hatred towards the “other” – i.e. the Muslims and other marginalised groups.
The election was successfully framed in the lines of a vote for Modi, as representing standing up for India’s national security, against secularist ideas of minority rights; crushing resistance against Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir; and taking on the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. PM Modi, in his campaign speeches said, that young people – the first time voters, should remember that their vote is a tribute to the brave-hearted soldiers who scarified their lives in the recent conflicts. Thus, keeping aside the real issues of the country such as livelihood, farmer distress, unemployment, demonetization etc., the ruling party used diversion tactics and made the election all about “national security”. It was apparent that these pseudo-nationalists were bent on spreading communal hatred ,and propagating their agenda of basing their whole politics on dividing the people, on the basis of religion, on the lines of caste and other local identities too. Modi, like many other populist leaders such as US’ Trump, has chosen a different political formula: a lethal kind of majoritarian nationalism. While minorities are scapegoated, the majority is represented as the victim of a liberal and secular elite, with critics of the government bullied and rejected as anti-leader and hence anti-India.
In India, majoritarian nationalism in its essence is the idea that since Hindus are the numerical majority, the political parties should privilege their identity and aspirations and do away with the secularism, that in their view, is nothing more than the appeasement of minorities, although Muslims as a religious minority, have suffered persistently from economic, social and political marginalisation over decades. The fact is that the BJP and Modi have won, not despite the divisive politics they espouse but precisely because of it. Thus, this was an election that has given an electoral mandate to majoritarian nationalism at best and Hindu fascism at worst.
Nationalism is an ideology based on the premise that an individual’s loyalty and devotion to one’s country should come above the interests and opinions of other citizens or the interests of a certain group of citizens. The pride of nationalism, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies. Nationalism is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. In the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, even murder becomes sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder. As George Orwell in 1945 said, ‘a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state. Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…’. In the Indian context, both communalism and nationalism are considered colonial cousins. So, is in the Sri Lanka’s historical context as well.
The distinguishing characteristic of the politics of the modern era is the decisive significance of mass mobilization, mass appeal and popular legitimization of elite rule. In the era of modern mass politics, religious-based or influenced politics has a power and strength that is qualitatively greater and more dangerous than any equivalent politics in the pre-modern era. In the Sri-Lankan context, communalism has wreaked havoc in Lanka. It is embedded in our prejudices and our backwardness. The Sri Lankan political establishment’s complicity in communal violence against minorities is a scandal that would impede us for years to come, particularly in view of the lack of will to do away with impunity and hold the offenders to account. Indeed, it is in the backdrop of the racial division of the Sri Lankan people, followed later on by the construction of ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions, that nationalism in Sri Lanka came to play its part — not just in `freeing’ the island from the British but also in organizing Sri Lanka’s `political,’ `economic’ and `security’ activities in the post-colonial era. In the process, and more importantly, under a ‘democratic’ set up, Sri Lankan nationalism itself became communalized, with the (majority) Sinhalese leading in all the activities of the state simply because they enjoyed a numerical advantage. Sinhala nationalism goes back to the British period, when it was part of a broader anti-colonial, anti-foreign movement, accentuated by Buddhist revivalism. It grew stronger with independence and electoral democracy. With society divided along caste, class and political lines, it has been a powerful unifying force, giving radical parties a platform for populist agitation and established politicians a diversion from their failure to address economic weakness, social concerns and pervasive corruption.
Right from SWRD’s Sinhala only policy- to date,(in varying frequencies) nationalism and communalism have become political and election tools with MR’s rule attaining an all-time high in this regard. But blues and greens were equally responsible for allowing institutionalization of majoritarian nationalism and racism. In the Post Easter period, Islamophobia once again has become a cottage industry with a rogue section of the media and Maha Sangha, hell-bent on demonising and stereotyping the Muslims in all quarters. Racism and communalism were increasingly being used as dog whistles to drive fear about the Muslims. Months later after the despicable Easter massacre, the culprits both within the government and outside are still at large. Extremism on both sides of the divide is increasingly polarizing the political debates in the public domain. All forms of extremism were nourishing each other. It was no secret that Prabakarans and Zahrans were created out of Sinhala extremism which gave rise to 1983, Aluthgama and Digana communal violence. Gnasaras and Ratanas continue to thrive in this polarized environment.
It was in the backdrop of this explosive atmosphere that 2020 Presidential election campaign is taking wings. Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Gota) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) have been nominated by their respective parties/ movements for the race. UNP is yet to declare with Sajith being in the frontline. With both Sajith and Anura carefully toeing the line with regard to their core message relating to inclusivism, it is a matter of great concern that SLPP and their leaders, including MR appear to be once again playing the majoritarian nationalism and communalism(specially anti-Muslim hate) card, raising fears of unwarranted national security in the typical Modi style. Recently, one of MR’s speeches clearly took an Islamophobic slant, raising security fears about the Muslims, based on Zahrans and his illusion of 72 virgins. The danger is that MR has the support of an enviable popular base of Sinhala voters who credit him with ending the civil war, and with it, the Tamil Tiger threat. Much of grass root level voters ballot preference will therefore be swayed based on MR’s intentions, who is considered the most popular populist politician by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, despite his controversial track records. Whoever Rajapaksa anoints is assured of a wide segment of the Sinhala vote as things stands, as he is raising the same fears and cries Modi did to secure victory in India- threats to national security and cry of majoritarian nationalism to ensure that majority Sinhala interests are protected. Then Gota’s campaign also excites the SLPP’s conservative-nationalist Sinhala base, which considers Gotabaya as a national hero for ending the decades-long terrorist threat of the Tamil Tigers, although it horrifies those who see him as a power-hungry, corrupt war criminal guilty of atrocities.
Many of SLPP stalwarts are also at work to promote Gota’s election as the way forward to tackle national security fears and to champion the cause of the Sinhala people. Wimal Weerawansa, in a veiled threat in a comprehensive press interview, told the Muslims to ensure a Gota win to make Sinhalese buy from Muslim shops once again. Gammanpila referred to Muslim population growth while Madhu Madhawa spoke of Muslim terrorist threat. Many Islamophobic monks and also ultra-nationalists attached to SLPP are taking this presidential election campaign based on majoritarian nationalism, and anti-Muslim hate to the grass root levels. The plight of Tamils is also still being used as election promises. Meanwhile opportunists in both Tamil and Muslim parties are bargaining with the majority parties to swing their alliances for petty gains at the expense of their community interests. Whether Hakeem or Rishard, Sumanthiran or Sampanthan, they make no difference to the protection of minority interests in the face of Sinhala nationalism appearing to continue to drive political developments in the island as the emerging Post –Easter election fever heats up. With majoritarian nationalism increasingly showing up as an effective tool to catch the greater chunk of the youth votes in the hyped up Post- Easter racist environment, there are fears that other parties too may fall in line at least in a not-so-direct- ways to gain power. Social media is proving a useful tool to promote these divisive ideas.
One of the reason of the Rajapakse dynasty’s continuing popularity is the utter failure of the Yahapalana government despite their election promises , to punish impunity and to properly inquire into their misdeeds and prosecute them. Besides, Sri Lanka’s lacklustre economic performance and credible reports of chronic corruption, this government’s record is not a particularly winning platform to generate positive election fever. Their record on post-civil war homework of reconciliation and accountability, has not been credible. It is only the NPP/JVP which has clearly spelt out on a consistent basis that only an inclusive corrupt free Sri Lanka is the way forward. The 2020 election results thus matter not only in terms of Sri Lanka’s long-term stability, especially the relations between the Sinhala majority and the country’ minorities, but also regarding Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position. Annoyed by human rights criticisms over his administration’s handling of the war, Rajapaksa steered Sri Lanka politically and financially toward China, incurring tremendous debt to Beijing in the process. This government almost ‘sold’ the nation’s soul to the West. Thus Sri Lanka has now become the playground of the international players. If the thrust of Gota’s majoritarian nationalist campaign is not duly confronted, Sri Lanka will continuously suffer in a climate of fear, impunity, corruption, and exclusionary policies regarding minorities that characterized the MR’s Presidency and even beyond. Meanwhile, the proposal to abolish the executive presidency has been debated for years. Both the nationalist-rightest Sinhala voters as well as minority parties are believed to oppose the idea, for different reasons. Whether Executive Presidency is there or not, political culture needs to change.
What anyway happens with Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, of course, depends on the Sri Lankans themselves, not any potential international reaction. At stake is the country’s future direction and the unfinished business lingering 10 years. after the end of the civil war. However imperfect and incomplete the results, the initial accomplishments of the now defunct Maithri-Ranil coalition of convenience demonstrated a sharp contrast with the Rajapaksa era, at levels both individual (with average citizens no longer afraid to express their views or wary of ubiquitous hostile surveillance) and institutional (such as presidential term limits and the belated establishment of the Office of Missing Persons). Unfortunately, the list of unfinished homework—on issues ranging from anti-corruption measures and economic development to truth and reconciliation, reparations, and fighting impunity and creating an inclusive nation remains dispiritingly long. Sri Lankan political activists, should combine their ranks to ensure that there is public accountability and impunity is no longer tolerated and not allow family rules or dynasties to play around with or mortgage the future prospects of Sri Lanka. Blind majoritarian nationalism and connected communalism should never be allowed to be used as political and election gimmicks. NPP has given the lead in giving an intellectual led third force in the political arena. Whether the Sri Lankan electorate is prepared to accept this paradigm shift in political thinking is left to be seen.
Communalism in the garb of nationalism is suicidal for the progress of a nation. It is imperative that this Modi style cancer be eradicated without taking the people along the same disastrous path once again. UDHR, a landmark in recent history, which apparently gave hope to millions of disenchanted people the world over, thus unequivocally admitted that human dignity and human freedom derive from a higher principle. This means that the dignity cannot be stripped out from the human beings, just because the majority of those voting in the UN decide to do so in whatever form. Human rights are inalienable because people’s rights can never be taken away. The fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution are therefore sacred and diversity is a strength and thus majoritarian nationalism will kill this spirit of human dignity. Every Sri Lankan should feel secure and equal in the land of his birth.