Keeping the alarm at 3.30 a.m. to watch Sri Lanka playing against England, was something a lot of other Sri Lankans did on Sunday morning, I am sure. Sitting by the TV was as good as getting a seat in the Stands, at the MCG, Australia. The excitement was edge-of-the-seat – that is what it is when Sri Lanka plays and this was no ordinary match; it was the World Cup. The heart beat like a boom box and a frustrated ‘Aiyoooo’ resounded every now and then; there were meaningless and impassioned expletives or intense clapping and long drawn-out groans and the sudden materialising of a fourth umpire right beside me, who disagreed with all three umpires at the match – for no price at all but for love of country.
No doubt this was a common scene in many homes, on other days as well. There is no feeling quite like it, when our boys take the field in their smart blue and yellow kits and especially when they win and even when they don’t; the sheer joy of seeing superlative individual performances or when they out-perform their opponents; to see the national flags flapping in the breeze; fans roaring their support and their smiling faces, even in defeat. This is the spirit of oneness – a moment of coming together that we do best and relate to, at such times. It is the showing of an elemental passion that resides within us and manifests itself in this way, to forge a common bond out of a congenital love for our country. I call this sense of belonging, Sri Lankaness. This may sound like a definition of Patriotism but I believe that it is a far more profound emotion, which piggy backs on and adds value to, Sri Lankaness.
A common Sri Lankan identity does not emerge only on special occasions like a cricket match nor do nationalist sentiments surge suddenly and strongly in times of crisis only, such as when the Tsunami struck or when a bomb went off in the heart of Colombo or elsewhere; it is surely there at other times, too, in ways that are not so obvious. Where Watilappan is no longer Malay; biriyani and kottu are no longer Muslim; rice and curry is no longer Sinhalese and vadai is no longer Tamil, it has become irrelevant to think of the ethnicity behind food in our day to day lives. During ethnic festivities it may be common for us to indulge in specific ethnic fare but that is not the norm that governs us on a daily basis. As I see it, there is a mix of the multicultural and National identity in the composition of our Sri Lankaness that exists without our conscious knowledge. Today we must add radio, television, internet, and all other means of mass communication and transport which make it possible for people to both imagine and relate to others, as fellow members of the same national community, despite geographical distances of others. When the news bulletins talk about ‘the’ economy or the weather forecast about ‘the’ weather, they are implicitly referring to the national economy or the national weather – but that fact does not need to be mentioned. We have become so accustomed to these practices that we end up taking them for granted and fail to take notice of their nationalist dimension. They are examples of a common national identity which live outside the tentacles of the ‘dreadful’ N word – Nationalism.
Nationalism has been and still is, a factor in both political and economic history. The issue of nationalism points to a wider domain of problems related to the treatment of ethnic and cultural differences within democratic polity, arguably among the most pressing problems of contemporary political theory. The Sinhala only Act of 1956 was thought to stem from Sinhalese Nationalism but it has been argued that its advent was a means to address the discrimination and abuse of the Sinhalese during British occupation. The separatist war was a by-product of Tamil Nationalism and can be defended only in the name of Tamil identity and interest and Tamils who support separatism do so because they feel that being part of Sri Lanka undermines the Tamil way of life and specificity of the Tamil ethos. However, there are Tamils who would support the Sinhalese-dominated centre if being part of Sri Lanka is seen as enhancing national identity and serves Tamil interest. A democratic approach would necessarily indicate debate, where alternatives are discussed but even after the end of the War in 2009, Tamil political parties have not shown a sincere interest in pursuing this approach, even though there have been many opportunities to do so. In fact, the recent Resolution by the NPC is a nose-up to the notion of peaceful co-existence by pointing an accusatory finger at the majority Sinhalese, for genocide of Tamils and is definitely not suitable for the meeting point that I have in mind.
Questions bombard me. Does Nationalism have to be of the kind that emerged after the French Revolution or the American War of Independence? Should all of us be the same to have a National identity? Could there not be a National identity within a unitary state? I am neither a Political Scientist nor a Sociologist. I write from a deep sense of belonging that transcends rigidly accepted norms of Nationalism, while trying to strain the common issues and aspirations that bind us, from the issues that are bound to our individuality i.e. ethnicity. Some may call me an idealistic fool with wool in her brain and stars in her eyes or simply, daft. I am a Sinhalese and therefore, my Sinhala nation is important to me, being my connection to history but I believe that this need not interfere with National identity, as a sense of belonging can be rooted in many different ways. Similarly, a Tamil and Muslim or other minority, have their own nations but we can have shared aims and aspirations within one State that strengthen the Sri Lankan identity. Isaiah Berlin said that ‘The physiognomies of cultures are unique: each presents a wonderful exfoliation of human potentialities in its own time and place and environment. We are forbidden to make judgments of comparative value, for that is measuring the incommensurable.’
Also, although language, some customs and religion may differ, a common history is a good basis. Our history is ancient and what matters is the journey we have taken together and not who came first or last on this blessed island. That our civilization is primarily Sinhala-Buddhist does not preclude the importance of what other ethnic groups added to it. For an example that concerns education, in teaching history at school, and putting aside the perhaps understandable bias towards prioritising national history, there is still the fact, taken for granted, that it is each community that has a history, albeit one that can include being relations with other communities or being divided internally. That is, ethnic groups are the relevant categories around which history is organised and told. Our common history is a mix, whether concurrent and not and should be at our disposal as a source of important, unedited information.
The interaction between the different ethnicities, at a level that existed in the ‘good old days’, to forestall mistrust, reduce prejudice and create a solid basis for cohabitation is to be recommended. Establishing ethnic-based schools, political parties and creating a ghetto mentality in society of religion or some anti-social eccentricity, erodes the social fabric of the community and segregates communities within it. The responsibility for creating the right environment for communal interaction lies in no small measure, with the heads of the different religions. Their foresight and guidance through correct advice to devotees and followers, are imperative to achieving a more tolerant society which would augur well for the National identity. It is natural that Buddhism has a special place in Sri Lanka because of its historical roots in the country but that has not been and should not be, a hindrance to people of other faiths. As an inalienable right of all Sri Lankans, there is true religious freedom and freedom of worship. National holidays are declared so that people have the privacy to celebrate their unique religious festivals. In fact, Wesak and Christmas are two examples of events that bring Sri Lankans together, even though they are distinctively different to each other but the most exceptional celebration, where a majority of citizens celebrate together, must surely be the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year in April, each year. Boiling milk, lighting of the oil lamp and eating milk rice are done at the same times by Sinhalese and Tamils. It is a pity that some Christian Sinhalese and Tamils do not celebrate the New Year because this is a supremely cultural festival which is neither Buddhist nor Hindu but a celebration of who we are.
Everyday practices such as the ones noted and many more that I have missed, including education, contributes to a common National identity. It is important to be aware of the communities’ sensitivities and previous mistakes, so that undesirable political, social and psychological outcomes are avoided. I believe that the significant challenges of establishing a National identity would be found in the way it is taught and the form it takes. It has to be by means that would spark the often latent passion in us, so that it shows on the outside, like the Sri Lankans carrying the National flag at a cricket match even though they are thousands of miles from home. It cannot be taught like a classroom subject, only to be vomited on to exam papers, often without true understanding of the subject matter. It is amazing how receptive to information children are: In the education of National identity, a sense of National pride will endear them to an informed discussion and debate where the internal complexities of the concept are taught alongside alternative constructions of national identity across the World.
The literal translation of the German poet Heinrich Heine, says: ‘I wish to compose a new, a better song for you, my friends. We want to be happy in this life and not to be in need any more. No lazy wastrel should consume what hard-working hands have acquired. There is enough bread on earth for all mankind, and tulips and lilies and beauty and joy and sugarplums too.’ The altruism of the author resonates my sentiments. A common National identity, where we stand together in our diversity, is not about finding the reality of our past but because it is about the future we want to build. If it is a dream, then I want to dream on.