By Uditha Devapriya –
What is it about nationalism that irks academics? Why has scholarship for so long denigrated nationalist ideologies as repelling, alienating, negative? More specifically, why has Western scholarship treated nationalism as an ideology of the Other, thereby denying it any validity and monopolising its validity in the West? I believe it was Vaclav Havel who once complained that soon after the Iron Curtain collapsed, the same Western powers which had compelled its collapse began reserving the same economic and political freedoms it had promised the former Soviet bloc to itself. “Free trade, but only for the West,” he observed rather sardonically. The same can be said of nationalism: only for, by, and against anyone other than the West.
We have endured sloganeering for so long that it’s become a part of our political culture. Firstly we were promised a dharmishta samajayak. Then came neo-liberalism. Then came neo-liberalism with a human face (the biggest whopper of them all). Then came a chinthanaya that even those who had authored swerved away from. Most recently, we’ve had yahapalanaya. From these slogans emerged other, as dubiously picked on slogans. The best and most ambivalent of them has been one that has pitted itself against nationalism, and as such is vaguely defined. Sanhindiyawa.
I don’t have a problem with reconciliation. I do have a problem with the way it’s perceived, implemented, and in some instances perpetuated by people who pretend to know its true meaning. Pretty much like procedural democracy, it’s seems harmless and indeed positive on the surface, but when it comes to its implementation, serious questions tend to crop up. And none more problematic than that topic of importing reconciliation, and with it multiculturalism, secularism etc to our schools.
When Chandrika Kumaratunga (heading the Task Force on Reconciliation) contended last year that schools with mono-ethnic, mono-religious student populations must be diversified, and when she picked on certain schools (the Olcott ones) which she accused of harbouring racism, she was critiqued and insulted, even by those who couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be associated with the kind of racism those schools were and are. I noted at the time that while she had made a valid point, there was enough and more evidence to suggest that given her track record on ensuring rights for the Sinhalese and on Eelamism, one couldn’t be blamed for criticising her.
That didn’t mean I disagreed with her point: it was a case of disagreeing with the person making the point. And in disagreeing with her, I think we all conflated the one with the other and abandoned the opportunity for any constructive debate we could have had over the topic she touched on. My contention on the matter is this: just as much as Western scholarship has defined and de-validated nationalism to suit their interests (one only has to read Chomsky and Edward Said to ascertain how well this deception has been perpetuated), it also defines reconciliation in the developing world. Despite that, however, I personally believe that BOTH nationalism AND reconciliation can nurture a better future for a country, ANY country. In my book the two aren’t mutually incompatible. They are one and the same.
Benedict Anderson strived with his research to prove that nationalism inspired selflessness, the kind of selflessness that cosmopolitanism could not inspire. Nations were formed out of nations, and as such were composed of tightly knit, at times self-contradictory societies. They were as subject to the ebb of love and hate that individuals are. Out of this ebb and flow came some form of destiny, some higher calling, which while rooted in emotion was also rooted in historical realities. As I noted in this column weeks ago, the fact that we have foregone on those realities in our curriculum meant that an entire generation grew up apathetic to our heritage. Bringing in multiculturalism to that generation, without a concomitant shift in the way we teach them who we are, and what we did, would be disastrous and paradoxical.
There’s a difference between a multiculturalism that is rooted in identity and a multiculturalism that is blind to identity, just as much as there is a difference between a nationalism that is respectful of the Other and a nationalism that is rooted in hatred of the Other. The latter can’t be sustained, while the former can. I believe it was Dr Dayan Jayatilleka who drew a distinction between the multicultural liberals who swept across our political landscape decades ago and the rootless intelligentsia who are parading themselves as their successors today. That’s the kind of distinction I want to make here, a distinction that is at once fundamentalist and tragic, since the latter group have made strides in the reconciliation game. Blind to history, blind to the aspirations of the majority, they have succeeded in repressing the hardcore extremists so much that those extremists are bound to come out. Sooner than later.
The only thing worse than ignorance is indifference, particularly when it comes to history and heritage. And yet, we are indifferent, if not our generation then the generation that will follow us. We are open to modernity, but we haven’t really grasped it to take that necessary leap from imitativeness to ingenuity. We can only translate and use what we translate to rubbish who we are.
So why make the case for reconciliation in our schools at all? For the obvious reason that there’s never one nation as far as this country is concerned. A multicultural student population (and not just secular) is the great leveller. Not only does it teach you to be alive to others, to be curious about how another collective acts and thinks, it also is the least flawed mechanism for inculcating in our people respect for the Other. Extremism is never bred at adulthood; it’s there from childhood. Compelling students to mingle with one another isn’t merely good for reconciliation, it also prepares them for a world where collectives flourish by mingling with one another.
Long, long ago, before 1956 and the Buddhist Commission and even before 1948, economic status and racism were inversely related: the more affluent your clique was, the less room there was for interethnic hatred. The problem with liberalism and cosmopolitanism is that both those terms are predicated on a bourgeois lifestyle and ethic. I came across this troubling dichotomy in Ruwanthi de Chickera’s recent play, Dear Children Sincerely, where in the space of about 20 minutes an old lady reminiscences about life before the attempted 1962 coup: full of dinner parties, unfinished puddings, and indifference to those outside her circle.
I believe 1956 changed all that, but that aforementioned dichotomy never truly went away. Regi Siriwardena correctly noted that 1956 merely preserved class discrepancies in a more insidious way. The middle and lower classes were emancipated, yes, but the theoretical elite, i.e. those who have morphed into the rootless intelligentsia today, continued to call the shots in our political sphere. Not even Mahinda Rajapaksa was immune to this elite: the Chinthanaya he advertised for all to see was undone and even subverted by the modernist discourse on development that he followed (even while substituting China for India and the USA).
It is this elite that continues to head and lead our reconciliation game. In itself, this isn’t a problem. The problem is that by being indifferent to history as they are, these liberals (I am rather troubled to use that term on them) clamour to rob that same class which was emancipated by 1956 by importing a form of reconciliation, into our schools, that is shorn of any cultural or historical imperatives. Not unlike the missionaries who came with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other, they are charging through the china shop, forgoing on a constructive, meaningful reconciliation process that can truly enrich our children. The greatest damage to this country wasn’t inflicted by the racists, I believe. It was inflicted by those who, being blissfully unaware of the racists, pushed and repressed them into doing what they did.
History tends to repeat itself. Naturally, I am worried. I think we all should be.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org