Daring to hope for change

Foolish statements about minority communities are being made on an impressively regular basis at the moment, despite the fact that such utterances invariably provoke an outcry and then generate a lot of bad publicity for this country.  Many end up being withdrawn or at least clarified to explain how the speaker was deliberately or otherwise misinterpreted, but they seem to just keep on coming. Government has to monitor comments by those in positions of influence, even though it has plenty of other things to be getting on with.

Champika Ranawaka stirred things up most recently.  He claimed in an interview with another newspaper that minority communities were making what he called undue demands.  This was appalling ingratitude for the compassion shown in allowing them to settle here in the first place, he apparently said.

I don’t propose to offer an opinion on the contested history of the different ethnic groups in this country.  What Champika Ranawaka meant when he tried to justify his position by claiming that the Sinhalese were the only organic race, I don’t really want to know.  And I leave it to others to discuss whether or not he was right to say that the Tamils are only here because Sinhala kings permitted them to take refuge when the Moguls were invading their lands in India and that the Muslims wouldn’t be around if not for the generosity of Sinhala kings who invited Arab traders to come and settle down with their people.

It hardly matters.  What happened one thousand or even one hundred years ago is academically interesting and should certainly be talked about to develop a full and preferably common understanding, but it doesn’t change the fact that these communities are here now.  The Sinhalese haven’t anywhere else to go, and the same is true of the Tamils and the Muslims.  Champika Ranawaka may like to think that the latter two groups could easily set up home in India and the Middle East, but this is pretty ridiculous.  None of the communities should feel the need to compensate for their presence, as there is no question of any of them having imposed themselves by force. Nobody was here one million years ago, I suppose we might agree.

The debate that has ensued in the media amongst those who like to spend time gossiping about the latest antics of the elite classes has followed entirely predictable lines.  Champika Ranawaka has been called a racist by some, while plenty of others have backed him almost as if their life depended on it.  People have generally aligned with one of the two extremes or kept silent on the matter, and society has ended up looking rather polarised.

I was very interested to find a similar if a bit less significant argument going on at home in Britain.  We have our problems with minority communities, but I didn’t think people could accuse them of making undue demands.

Cornwall is the issue.  It is a district in the far south-western corner of England with a population of about half a million.  The Celtic people who lived all over Britain at one time were gradually pushed out by invaders from Europe and ended up living on the fringes.  Scotland and Wales developed and maintained their own distinct identities, but Cornwall was after a few centuries overrun by the English.  The Cornish people have their own language, and there is a long tradition of Cornish music, art, sports and so on.  And England largely doesn’t care. The British government refuses to acknowledge them as one of the minority communities and activists are preparing to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights.

Before going any further, I should take this opportunity to dispute a claim made by Muttukrishna Saravananthan in one of the numerous pieces that have appeared in recent days about the election of Barack Obama.  Everybody is asking whether a similar thing could happen elsewhere, meaning if other countries are prepared to see people from minority communities at the top of their governments.  Muttukrishna Saravananthan suggested that English racism against the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish was such that it was a Herculean task for anybody other than an Englishman to become Prime Minister.

Things really aren’t that bad.  Saravananthan is correct in saying that Gordon Brown is caricatured and sometimes ridiculed in the media as a dour Scot, but this is just an exaggeration of his nature in the same way as the nickname Iron Lady was applied to Margaret Thatcher.  The Scots are in fact very much overrepresented in the British government.  The two most powerful individuals – the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister – are both Scottish.  A Scotsman was also the Defence Secretary until a few months ago.  Scotland has only 59 constituencies out of a total of 646 in the British parliament, but there is more than double that percentage of representation in the Cabinet of 23, and at the very highest level.  This is particularly striking now that Scotland has its own devolved administration, because those elected to the British parliament from Scottish regions are making decisions that won’t apply in their home areas, which is a genuine concern for British democracy. Gordon Brown may not win the next election, but that won’t have anything to do with his roots in one of the minority communities.

That said, the Cornwall debate is important.  Looking at public reaction to an article written in a left of centre newspaper on the subject last week, I was struck by the commonalities with such arguments in this country.

Passionate interventions were made on both sides.  Some commentators described the Cornish people as an oppressed nation.  It was claimed that their political, economic and cultural rights are being denied.  Reference was made to a peace deal imposed by an English king after defeating a rebellion from Cornwall some five hundred years ago in which he granted a local parliament the authority to veto any law passed in Westminster.  This must still apply, we were optimistically told.  Then there was harsh talk of the attempts made by English rulers to wipe out the Cornish language some four hundred years ago.  Somebody even brought up the remarkably unimportant fact that the Cornish flag was excluded from the Union Jack.  Other writers argued that struggling for recognition as one of the minority communities is all very well, but what is really needed is either more devolution or separation.  We were told that Cornwall might do well to link up with the allegedly genetically similar region of Brittany in Northern France. The British government was called racist for its approach to the Cornish people.

In response, it was argued that these are undue demands.  Somebody argued that the Celts are a myth invented by the Victorians.  Other people questioned the very existence of the Cornish language because a survey in the year 2000 found only 300 people who could speak it fluently.  The European Union was accused of plotting to break up England by providing funds to support the revival of Cornwall.  Some commentators highlighted the fact that Cornwall has been a part of England for the last one thousand years or so, and it really isn’t any more different than Yorkshire or Lancashire.  We were told that many groups are alienated from the central government, and economic deprivation gives this a nationalist tinge in places.  If Cornwall is to receive greater recognition and powers, many writers felt that other regions should get them too.

It was all a bit heated, and I wondered how we would fare if there were a real nationalist movement in Cornwall. The Cornish party has very few representatives in the local government, and hasn’t ever been close to getting anybody elected to Westminster. There was also once a group pursuing independence for Cornwall through violent means, but it was almost completely ineffective.

The undue demands Champika Ranawaka was mentioning so disparagingly referred to calls for everything from greater devolution to separation.  Eelam is obviously included here.  But he also means proposals like the one that was presented to the All Party Representatives Committee by the Up Country People’s Front last week suggesting that a power-sharing unit be established for Up Country Tamils in relevant parts of the Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa provinces. The Up Country People’s Front wants to redraw district boundaries to create an entity in which Up Country Tamils will no longer be one of the minority communities. Champika Ranawaka would likely suggest that they should just count themselves lucky they have been allowed to stay and pluck tea for Aitken Spence, the Tata Group and others.

I wouldn’t presume to suggest that any of these are good ideas. Indeed, the Up Country People’s Front makes reference in its proposal to the constitutional set-up in Belgium, while the recent upsurge in antipathy between the French- and Flemish-speaking communities there doesn’t encourage me to look positively on attempts to apply the same model here. However, I do believe that the whole objective of representative politics is for groups to express their aspirations and try to convince the rest of the country of their worth.

Minority communities surely ought to be encouraged to share their proposals, as long as these aren’t backed up with the use or threat of violence. Finding a way for all citizens to live together and work to improve their lot sounds like a good start.

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