16 November, 2018

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“Trapped In Constituency Politics”

By Laksiri Fernando –

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Raj Gonsalkorale’s recent article titled “Sri Lanka trapped in constituency politics; A point of view” (Asian Tribune, 16 June 2012) merits serious thought both by the Sinhala and Tamil intellectuals and those who wish to promote reconciliation in the country. By subtitling the article as “a point of view,” he has shown that his views are not rigid, but subject to change and debate. As far as I know, Gonsalkorale is one of the pioneers of the Sri Lanka Reconciliation Forum in Sydney, Australia, formed in 2009, and therefore his efforts are not merely theoretical but practical to see some progress in the reconciliation front in tangible measure.

The basic premise of the article perhaps is indisputable that Sri Lanka is unfortunately trapped in constituency politics. While he admits that there can be some inevitability in this constituency formation in the country, the main thrust of the argument is that ‘the trap’ perhaps is the main reason for the conflict, engineered and exacerbated by the politicians. Although in the latter part of the article, he has paid some attention to the Muslim constituency in the country, the main theme of the article rotates around the bi-polar conflict or the polarization between the two major constituencies, the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

Interpretation of History

One reason for this weakness or for other weaknesses as well, if I may say so, is the too historical (or ancient) narrative that he has taken into consideration in mapping the contours of the conflict as well as the parameters for its resolution. History always is a bone of contention. Even with well documented history of a country, which is not the case in Sri Lanka, the interpretations of events and particularly the ‘claims’ can be highly disputable. This is the case both on the Sinhala side and the Tamil side. The debates can never be ending. Most of the times we interpret history from the point of view our present interests or values or what we consider important for the present.

Gonsalkorale seems to be of the view that for a reasonable solution to the conflict some special consideration should be accorded to Sinhala/Buddhism or otherwise it might not be accepted by the majority. Even if that is the case given the vociferous insistence of Sangha and others at present, the problem is how he has come to that conclusion. Here is a relevant paragraph.

“In this regard, one could say without much debate that the historical centre of the Theravada Buddhist civilization is Sri Lanka, although Buddhism, different schools of it including Theravada traditions, thrives in other parts of the world today. These countries however recognize that the centre for Theravada Buddhism is Sri Lanka, not in Thailand or Cambodia or elsewhere.”

Perhaps he has forgotten that in the 18th century, Buddhism was at a sharp decline in Sri Lanka, whatever the reason and Upasampada had to be brought from Siam (present Thailand) in 1753 and thereafter, the Amarapura Nikaya from Burma because of the caste disputes. It is also questionable whether it is reasonable to claim special status for Sri Lanka among other Buddhist or Theravada countries, although other countries might not dispute it understanding Sri Lanka’s special ego! More controversial might be the following paragraph in terms of reconciliation with the Tamils.

“Secondly, in respect of the Tamil Hindu civilization in the world, the centre of that civilization is Tamil Nadu, not any part of Sri Lanka. Tamil Hindu literature, its poetry, prose, and art go back thousands of years, and no other part of the world would be as representative of that old civilization as Tamil Nadu.”

The above may appear as an indirect way of saying that there cannot be ‘special claims’ for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka unlike for the Sinhala/Buddhist community which can be highly problematic in respect of reconciliation. Of course Gonsalkorale has suggested extensive devolution for the North and the East although within a unitary state and he is against any discrimination against the Tamils as he perceives. But the major problem that I see in his article is the method of approach or the historical method that he employs. It has led him to wrong conclusions, I might argue.

Let me say that the history that we learn from Mahavamsa or other chronicles is problematic unless we strictly consider it for the “joyful pleasure of the ordinary people.” That is exactly what Mahavamsa says at the end of every chapter. The same goes for Ramayanaya or any other epic.

‘World Time’ History

There is another way of looking at the past history of our peoples in terms of reconciliation. That is the framework of ‘world time’ history. In analysing the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, or any other country for that matter, it is important to view the evolution or claims of that conflict within the broader framework of ‘world time’ history. This approach is part of comparative history methodology on the time scale. When we view our national history from that perspective, the petty stories of our chronicles or epics might become insignificant. Let me give some landmarks of that world time history to paint the picture on a broader canvass.

There is increasing understanding and evidence that humans existed over 3 million years ago in Africa, even before ‘Lucy,’ and spread over the globe somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago. This is the ‘out of Africa’ theory.

The oldest skeleton found in Sri Lanka dates back to over 40,000 years. There is no point in asking whether the ‘Balangoda Man’ was a Sinhalese or a Tamil. The human evolution shows different social formations from indigenous to tribal and from tribal to ethnicity. There are several tribal names mentioned in the inscriptions dating back to around 3rd century BC and some of the names could even be found in other countries in South Asia.

The state formation has been key in the transformation of tribes to ethnicity, except in Empires. According to the inscriptions in Sri Lanka, the initial state formation must have occurred somewhere in the first century BC. But the first appearance of the state dates back to around 6,000 years in Mesopotamia.

It is true that the Sinhala ethnicity evolved in the ‘island’ of Sri Lanka and the Tamil ethnicity in South India but overlapping on Sri Lanka given the proximity. Until modern times, the two ethnicities were porous formations and the practices of two religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, also interrelated. In modern times, the societies reveal the possibility of multi-ethnic nations under democracy.

There have been many migrant communities absorbed or not absorbed into the main two communities due to religious and other reasons. The Muslim community is one that arrived in the country in different waves. It is an ethnicity itself.

There is no racial difference between the Sinhalese, the Tamils or the Muslims having evolved in close proximity of ecology. The differences are sociological or ethnic to mean cultural, linguistic and religious.

For Reconciliation

Viewed from the above perspective, some of the propositions proposed by Gonsalkorale can be problematic for reconciliation. The most problematic might be his belief or argument that, after giving his own interpretation of the history, that “A solution therefore has to address the historical premise that influences contemporary thinking within these constituencies.”

Let us assume that his interpretation of the ‘contemporary thinking’ of the Sinhalese community is correct. But how can we assume that his interpretation of the Tamil community is correct? There is a profound theoretical premise to suggest that the ‘existing ethnic consciousness’ of both communities are largely false. That is why the conflict exists with harmful consequences. Therefore, the need is to change that ‘false consciousness’ but not to formulate a solution based on that consciousness. We are living in the 21st century.

Of course he has suggested, with good intentions, country wide summits of political leaders, civil society actors and any others preferably conducted by an independent organization to arrive at ‘consensus.’ But without keeping the agenda open ended, he has unfortunately suggested that, then “Hopefully there will be a better understanding as to how one could meet Tamil aspirations about being a “Tamil” within a unitary State rather than within a “Tamil nation.” This may easily be construed as denial of political rights of minority communities or ‘national groups’ while confining them to mere social and cultural rights at best.

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