Colombo Telegraph

Understanding Patriotism, Nationalism & Sri Lankan Identity: A Reply To My Critics

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The thing about being 58 years old and having been to at least thirty countries, is that one becomes bemused at the attempts to lecture Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans on patriotism and nationalism. From the ubiquitous US flag on porches to the carved names in the mairies (municipal headquarters, town halls really) of Paris of every soldier from the locality who died in every war fought by France (including inter-imperialist and colonial wars), you see patriotism and nationalism around you. Anyone who knows the meaning of the words of the revolutionary national anthem of Republican France, La Marseillaise, which was sung as Napoleon’s armies spread the ideas of the Enlightenment through Europe, knows of the invocation of “blood” as a marker of nationhood.

When someone pontificates on Sri Lankan patriotism and Sinhala nationalism from the safety of the Diaspora, not having been through the existential experience of the fires of suicide terrorism and civil war, one cannot help but smile wryly. When persons criticize Sinhala nationalism and Mahinda Rajapaksa without once mentioning Prabhakaran or the Tigers, leave alone the appeasement by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the feeling turns to disgust. When someone criticizes Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sinhala nationalism and the Nugegoda mass mobilization without once mentioning critically (or at all) the recent 11 page anti-Sinhala, proto-secessionist, Genocide Resolution of Wigneswaran and the Northern Provincial Council, then the feeling turns to revulsion.

As for the politically illiterate assertion that one cannot be nationalist and internationalist at the same time, there is Regis Debray’s point that no revolution—with the conspicuous exception of the Russian—ever took place against nationalism and only succeeded or stood any chance of success when it went with the tide of nationalism. The history of the 20th century is replete with examples from Cuba to Vietnam, from Nicaragua to China, of heroic revolutions and iconic revolutionaries epitomizing the fusion of patriotism, nationalism and internationalism.

To give but a single example, Liu Shao Chi, the great Chinese revolutionary and Communist wrote : ‘It is clear that the genuine patriotism of the masses of the people in all countries is not in contradiction to proletarian internationalism, but is, rather, intimately connected with it. During the period of the Anti-Japanese War, Comrade Mao Tse-tung wrote: “ For us, patriotism is intimately connected with internationalism…“Patriotism is the application of internationalism in the national revolutionary war.”… Lenin evaluated patriotism as one of the most profound manifestations of the sentiments of countries in the process of consolidation after having been split up in the course of many centuries of even millenniums.’ (Liu Shao Chi, ‘Genuine Patriotism is intimately connected with Internationalism’, in ‘Internationalism & Nationalism’, 1952)

In part a mini-manifesto, my interventions on Smart Patriotism and a New Nationalism represent an attempt at an approach which is classifiable, if one may coin a phrase, as political existentialism.

Scholarly texts from ideologically diverse quarters, published in recent years, are relevant to assumptions concerning Sri Lanka’s identity and nation-building project and process, as well as its orientation in the world system.

The three texts are an essay in Foreign Affairs (March-April 2008) by Prof Jerry Z. Muller entitled “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism” (and the ensuing debate in the July-August 2008 issue), Prof James Petras’ online essay of June 9th on “Separatism and Empire Building in the 21st Century” and Kishore Mahbubani’s “The Case Against the West”, also in Foreign Affairs (May-June 2008).

While many liberal or progressive critics uphold India’s model of national integration as the norm from which Sri Lanka has lamentably deviated due to Sinhala chauvinism, SWRD Bandaranaike, 1956 and the SLFP, the historical facts show that admirable and worthy of emulation as the Nehruvian model was and remains, it is not a norm from which Sri Lanka departed, but a glorious exception. As Jerry Z. Muller’s essay demonstrates, the project of 1956 was the norm, not a deviation, and a norm not merely in the postcolonial world but earlier, in the West. That path of development was almost certainly not the best available option, but it was no particular perversity of the Sinhalese, or the Sinhala Buddhists, still less of SWRD Bandaranaike and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. That path has certainly been one of those that led to our contemporary tragedy, but our problem is a common one, and our search for solutions must also be from among those commonly arrived at in world history.

The two outstanding success stories of national building, those of the USA and India, must be understood in perspective. The United States is a story of migration, mobility and opportunity. Most societies such as ours have far older histories and smaller geographic spaces. This does not confer any intrinsic superiority upon Sri Lanka, as the parochial among us claim, but the specificity of the American Experience, a specificity that Americans celebrate—hence the notion of American Exceptionalism—must be grasped. Sri Lanka’s story is much closer to that of a great many others.

India’s success as a multiethnic state is largely the product of enlightened leadership but also of sheer size and scale. Secessionist movements have persisted in the far corners of India since 1947, and had the country been Sri Lanka’s size, the impact of these conflicts would have been far less peripheral and containable.

Professor of History at the Catholic University of America, Jerry Z. Muller explains “Why Ethnic nationalism will drive global politics for generations”. He argues that in societies unlike the USA, “for those who remain behind in lands where their ancestors have lived for generations, if not centuries, political identities often take ethnic form, producing competing communal claims to political power…far from having been superannuated in 1945, in many respects ethno nationalism was at its apogee in the years immediately after World War II. European stability during the Cold War era was in fact due partly to the widespread fulfillment of the ethno nationalist project. And since the end of the Cold war, ethnonationalism has continued to reshape European borders.[i]

“In short, ethnonationalism has played a more profound and lasting role in modern history than is commonly understood…Whether politically correct or not, ethno nationalism will continue to shape the world in the twenty-first century.”[ii]

While the liberal view of nationalism, also called civic nationalism, is in a normative sense clearly superior and must constitute our goal, the story of Sri Lanka and the rise of Sinhala nationalism, was not a deviation reflecting some intrinsic quirk, but the more probable trajectory. Muller writes that “the liberal view has competed with and often lost out to a different view, that of ethno-nationalism. The core of the ethno-nationalist idea is that nations are defined by a shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith and a common ethnic ancestry”[iii].

Contrary to the view of many Sri Lankan intellectuals and academics, not only is ethnonationalism not a vice limited to blighted spots like Sri Lanka, it is also not peculiar to “backward” societies of the Third World. As Muller reminds us “The ethno nationalist view has traditionally dominated through much of Europe and held its own even in the United States until recently. For substantial stretches of US history, it was believed that only the people of English origin, or those who were Protestant, or white, or hailed from North America, were real Americans. It was only in 1965 that the reform of US immigration law abolished the system of national –origin quotas…” [iv]  

Even our myopic policies of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, have a fatalistic logic to them: “Economic growth, in turn, depended on mass literacy and easy communication, spurring policies to promote education and a common language—which led directly to conflicts over language and communal opportunities…Ethnic groups with largely peasant backgrounds… found that key positions in the government and the economy were already occupied… Speakers of the same language came to share a sense that they belonged together and to define themselves in contrast to other communities. And they eventually came to demand a nation-state of their own in which they would be masters, dominating politics, staffing the civil service, and controlling commerce.”[v]

The processes that affected the Ceylon Civil Service were part of a larger international phenomenon. In the debate that ensued over his essay in a subsequent issue of Foreign Affairs, Jerry Muller refers to Chinua Achebe’s 1960 novel No Longer at Ease about a young African civil servant torn between the norm of impartiality and the collective expectations of his community which regards the bureaucracy as “a form of group property”.

Muller concludes by blowing holes in the outlook of left–liberal social scientists. “Contemporary social scientists who write about nationalism tend to stress the contingent elements of group identity—the extent to which national consciousness is culturally and politically manufactured by ideologists and politicians… It is true, of course, that ethnonational identity is never as natural or ineluctable as nationalists claim. Yet it would be a mistake to think that because nationalism is partly constructed it is therefore fragile or infinitely malleable. Ethnonationalism was not a chance detour in European history: it corresponds to some enduring propensities of the human spirit that are heightened by the process of modern state creation, it is a crucial source of both solidarity and enmity, and in one form or another, it will remain for many generations to come. One can only profit from facing it directly.”[vi]

It is at this point that the second essay, that of one of the world’s most famous Marxist intellectuals (and one of my old professors from upstate New York) James Petras is utterly relevant. In a lengthy contribution, densely packed with historical and contemporary evidence he argues two points:  In any country in which the Empire building project “cannot secure a stable client regime, it resorts to financing and promoting separatist organizations and leaders using ethnic, religious and regional pretexts”[vii]. (They don’t have to be as heroic as Cuba to be a target; nor be like Cuba to possess the legitimate right of resistance or to be judged fit to be solidarized with!) In this, the Empire is repeating an old historical pattern and practice of divide and rule. Petras pays particular attention to the destruction of former Yugoslavia, right up to the secession under outright Western patronage, of Kosovo, the de-facto separate existence of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, and the agitation in and over Tibet. He spotlights the use of global human rights propaganda campaigns to “weaken the central government”.

His second point follows from the first. Petras cautions against federalism, pointing out with concrete examples, that “the shift from ‘autonomy’ within a federal state to an ‘independent state’ is based on the aid channeled and administered by the imperial state to the ‘autonomous region’, thus strengthening its ‘de facto’ existence as a separate state”[viii].

Conflict transformation and nation-building must develop a third track, and constitute a policy triad. It requires an appropriate external policy, and this is where the third scholarly essay comes into view. While James Petras argues that the West is prone to support or be sympathetic to secessionist strivings and therefore belies the notion that our international line must take as primary our relationship with the West, Kishore Mahbubani goes further. The Dean of the widely respected Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and that country’s former ambassador to the UN in New York, a post in which he was as controversially outspoken as his distinguished predecessor Tommy Koh, Mahbubani argues in the pages of Foreign Affairs that a great ‘power-shift’ in human history is underway, moving the global epicenter from the West to the East. In his appearances on western TV including BBC’s Hard Talk, he takes the offensive on the issue of human rights, pointing out that Asia is in advance of the West at a comparable stage of historical development, and arguably even today in certain theatres of western military engagement. Mahbubani concludes his Foreign Affairs essay, which in turn is adapted from his latest book The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, thus: “The West is not welcoming Asia’s progress…Unfortunately, the West has gone from being the world’s primary problem solver to being its single biggest liability.” [ix]

Kishore Mahbubani’s well-developed argument easily dovetails with the thoughts of our martyred Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar whose 2005 speech at the opening of the new BCIS building most clearly reflected his line of reorienting the centre of gravity of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards the rising East rather than one which privileges partnership with the West.


[i]Muller. Z. Jerry, Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism, Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2008.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Petras James, June 2008, Separatism and Empire Building in the 21st Century, Centre for Research on Globalization, available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/separatism-and-empire-building-in-the-21st-century/9246

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Mahbhubani, Kishore, The case against the West, Foreign Affairs Magazine, May-June 2008.

Back to Home page