By Laksiri Fernando –
“How is an antagonism to be resolved? By making it impossible.” – Karl Marx
There is no mystery about ethnicity. Ethnicity is a product of social history and there is no eternity about it. Evolution of a language, sometimes a religion or religious beliefs, living together in a geographical proximity, development of a close customs and traditions, and political formations, if not states, are the forces that create ethnicities or ethnic communities. There are over 5,000 identifiable ethnic communities in the world, but all are not in conflict.
Most of the above attributes or forces have been present in the formation of the Sinhalese, the Tamils or the Muslims in Sri Lanka. The formation of the Sinhalese ethnicity has primarily been within the confines of the island while the Tamil ethnicity in its formation has been overlapping with the developments in the adjacent subcontinent. Even the Sinhala formation cannot deny the influences of the subcontinent. The key factor in the Muslim ethnic formation undoubtedly is the religion, while migrant communities initiating the process.
None of these communities can claim complete homogeneity, while the differentiations with the others also being relative and overlapping. They all have evolved interacting with each other in their separate as well as combined developments.
Similarities and Differences
It may be true that the Sinhalese formation absorbed or assimilated more from the Tamil formation than the other way round. The reasons perhaps being (1) the predominance of the Tamil culture in the closest areas of the subcontinent, making inroads within the island since historical times, and (2) the Sinhala formation primarily being a ‘hybrid’ nature, based on proto-‘Aryan’ as well as proto-‘Dravidian’ groups in the initial or even latter stages. The ‘Aryan’ influence also cannot be denied in the formation of the vast Tamilian ethnicity/ethnicities in the subcontinent particularly in the case of religion and culture. The ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ distinction here is made primarily based on language, however not without other attributes including ‘relatively racial’ characteristics.
What have made the two formations categorically apart in modern times are ‘religion and language’ and ‘nationalisms’ based on them and promoted particularly for political purposes. Nationalisms are creations or constructions, and not necessarily natural developments. This is one reason why ‘nationalism’ sometimes more prevalent among the upper classes than the ordinary masses. Otherwise, logically speaking, ‘nationalism’ should be less among the educated (i.e. English educated) and secular sections. But this is not always the case. Here the ‘nationalism’ that we refer to is mostly ‘ethno nationalism’ and not nationalism proper to mean civic or political nationalism.
While Sinhala nationalism is mostly based on religion (Buddhism), Tamil nationalism is more in terms of language and culture. While the former claiming the ‘superiority’ of religion, the latter seems to claim a ‘superiority’ of culture. Both have intermittently articulated ‘racial’ overtones, based on heritage, lineage or ‘blood.’ Or otherwise, the two could have been considered arising out of unequal conditions, one out of a ‘majority position’ and the other of a ‘minority condition’ and grievances. This is one reason why the conflict cannot be considered purely on ‘majority-minority’ dimensions.
Perhaps, Tamil nationalism has transformed from one based on ‘grievances’ towards an ‘ideology of aspirations’ for political reasons. I am particularly referring to the period after independence. This would make reconciliation difficult even if Sinhala ‘majoritarianism’ becomes moderate which is not actually the case.
It is not clear whether the Muslim politics can be considered ‘Muslim nationalism.’ If it is possible, it is similar to religion based Sinhala nationalism in many respects. That may be one reason for the conflicts particularly in recent times, the aggressive role coming from the Sinhala Buddhist side. Muslim community undoubtedly can be considered an ethnic community, the recent developments geared by increasing religious cohesion, exclusivity and international influences.
Glorification of Ethnicity
It is an intriguing psychological or sociological puzzle why people try to glorify their own group or ethnicity, and make conflictual claims and counter-claims, real or largely imagined. A major portion of these controversies are about the past, and ancient past. Who were here in the island first? Although not articulated sometimes directly, who is superior and who is inferior? Some of the thinking and thought processes are in fact absurd.
We are living in the 21st century. This is an interdependent world. What matters actually are ‘human needs, dignity and rights,’ here and now! Ethnic and religious conflicts, pure ethnic or religious claims, whether from the majority or the minorities, are quite a distraction from the actual human problems and issues such as poverty, social inequality, justice or environmental challenges.
There is nothing wrong in anyone, in any of the groups, appreciating their religion, language, culture or customs. They all have the right to do so without infringing others’ rights. Under the circumstances of colonialism, there was some meaning why people tried to ‘discover or glorify’ the past as a process of assertion or emancipation. However, even the struggle against colonialism could have been conducted on the basis of ‘needs, dignity and rights.’
Under the circumstances of independence, it is completely destructive for people or ethnic communities, particularly living in close proximity or intermixed, to conduct their politics based on conflictual ‘civilizational’ claims or glorified past. After all, the Sinhalese, the Tamils or the Muslims living in the island belong to a common stage of ‘civilization’ which is part and parcel of South Asia. It is more appropriate today to consider that all human beings belong to one single civilization, while recognizing certain broad variations based on the East or the West, or other differences (i.e. religious), which have not disappeared or harmonized.
More appropriate question is whether the people in general have achieved proper civilization yet, in the East or the West, considering the so many conflicts and atrocities that they are day to day involved in. ‘Civilization’ in any language means an advanced stage of human and social development.
Some Roots of Ethnicism
Ethnicism here does not mean just one’s ethnic affiliation or love for one’s ethnic culture. There is nothing wrong with that whether one is a Sinhalese, a Tamil or a Muslim. Ethnicism here used to mean prejudice and hatred based on ethnic origin (Wiktionary).
At an individual level, strong or mesmerized ethnic feelings might be a reflection of personal or social alienation. In many ‘radical’ or ‘mass’ movements, the ‘true believers’ usually come from this category of people. This is what Eric Hoffer said in his “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” (1951). However, at a collective or a group level, the reasons could be different.
The prominent reasons for ethnic conflicts are more political than anything else. They can be better called ‘ethno-political conflicts’ than pure ‘ethnic conflicts.’ In the case of Sri Lanka or elsewhere, the reasons could be mainly located within the political system or political culture, sometimes underpinning on some of the economic circumstances. What can be seen is ethnic differences or grievances being ‘politicized, manipulated and mobilized’ for power struggles creating ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality among the gullible people.
Take the example of Rwanda. Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, belong to the same culture and share the same territory. Even there is no religious difference. The apparent distinctions are occupational and perceived physical differences without any scientific basis. But the differences or identities became politically mobilized for a mini-holocaust in 1994. In this context, it is important to quote what the Carnegie Commission said in 1997 in the report on “Preventing Deadly Conflicts” with one qualification. Quote is the following.
“To label a conflict simply as ethnic war can lead to misguided policy choices by fostering a wrong impression that ethnic, cultural or religious differences inevitably result in violent conflict and that differences therefore must be suppressed.” (p. 29).
It is true that ethnic differences per se would not create violent conflicts. The necessary qualification however is that it is not only the politicians that manipulate or mobilize ethnicity. There are so many intermediary groups involved. The people themselves are involved in the conflict to a great extent through misguided notions or – to use a Marxist phrase – ‘false consciousness.’ That is why education is necessary. Young Marx analyzing the Jewish-Christian conflict (“The Jewish Question,” 1843) asked and answered the following:
“How is an antagonism to be resolved? By making it impossible.”
Marx perhaps used too much of ‘dialectical logic’ to say that ‘a religious antagonism should be resolved by abolishing religion.’ He meant secularization of the state, I believe, but not suppressing religion as some of the communist countries practiced. There is some truth in what he said, even in respect of ethnic conflicts. ‘Making a conflict impossible’ is a task for democracy and for the democratic state. It is a task for the international community as well. What he said subsequently on religion also has a relevance for ethnicity, or for possible ‘de-ethnicization.’
For example, if the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims recognize their specific ethnicities as a stage of their evolution, they can have a ‘critical, scientific and human relationship,’ as Marx opined for the Jews and the Christians. In Marx’s metaphor, ‘the task is like a snake shedding its skin at a particular stage and taking a new one.’ ‘Recognize the human as the snake that wore them,’ he said. ‘Then they will no longer find themselves in conflict.’ I am not quoting Marx, but paraphrasing him to suit our situation. Of course Marx was talking about Judaism and Christianity as two stages of the same process or the same snake. What we have here is a couple of snakes of the same species, wearing the same type of skin, the ethnicity!
Perhaps Marx was too optimistic at his young age. It might not be that simple to transcend ethnicity. But there is a valuable truth in what he said, at least for those who are ready to recognize the reality or human evolution. Ethnicity is only a stage in human development. What might be necessary to avoid conflict is to transform from ‘ethnicity’ to ‘common humanity’ at least in our understanding and outlook.