Towards a Lankan Nation?


by Tisaranee Gunasekara

"The history or the future of Sri Lanka does not belong to any one community."

Ranasinghe Premadasa

(Speech on 11.12.1990)

In 2013, as anti-Muslim hysteria was riding high, Jezima Ismail recalled an incident which was both a personal memory and a shared minority-experience: "Some years ago at a lecture session at the BMICH a professor waxed eloquent on the feelings he had for Sri Lanka and that this was the only place for him. In the course of this talk he turned round to me and said that if anything untoward happened I could of course seek refuge in Saudi or the Middle East" (The Colombo Telegraph – 23.2.2013).

Jezima Ismail is not a Saudophile; she is not even a Wahabist or a Salafist. She is a moderate Muslim. Moreover, she is a distinguished pedagogue, a citizen Sri Lanka can be proud of. But in the eyes of the obviously Sinhala (and possibly Buddhist) professor, even such a woman is not truly a Lankan. In his eyes, she does not have the same feelings for Sri Lanka that he has, because she is a Muslim. In his eyes, only a Sinhalese (most probably a Sinhala-Buddhist) can be a real Lankan; all others, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and even non-Buddhist Sinhalese are aliens, incapable of truly loving Sri Lanka. It does not have to be anything they did or said or even believed; it is a matter of birth.

The unnamed professor’s publicly expressed remark is symbolic of the Hosts and Guests concept of Sri Lanka, the belief which ensconces Sinhala-Buddhists as the sole owners of the country and defines all minorities as unreliable and undependable aliens, Untermenschen without inalienable rights. According to this belief you can be born in Sri Lanka but Sri Lanka is not your motherland, unless you are born into a Sinhala-Buddhist family.

The ideological underpinning of this belief is the Mahawamsa claim that the Buddha, on his death-bed, proclaimed Lanka the Buddhist Holy-Land: "In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect…Lanka". But this story is mentioned nowhere in the Maha-Parinibbhana Sutta, which recounts in poignant detail the final days of the Buddha. In that extensive account, the Buddha tells of the conditions under which his teachings will survive and the conditions under which his teachings will die. The conditions are all moral-ethical and not geographic or political. He does not say that his teachings in their pristine form will survive only in Lanka. He does not ask the gods to protect Lanka. He does not even mention Lanka. The Consecration story is therefore a Mahawamsa fabrication.

This ancient fabrication, possibly by a politically-minded Bhikkhu, has made a deadly contribution to modern Lanka’s inability to maintain civil peace. After all, if minorities are born aliens, if they are inherently incapable of considering Sri Lanka as their real motherland, if they are at best creatures of divided loyalties, then they cannot be trusted with anything, not power, not land, not even the vote. And any concession to them, however minute, endangers national security. The only way to manage them is to keep them quiescent through political and military power. Peace flows through the barrel of a gun held by a Sinhala soldier under the command of a Sinhala-Buddhist leader.

This was the basis on which every attempt to resolve the language issue was opposed, long before LTTE was born, when Vellupillai Pirapaharan was an adolescent, playing truant from school and killing birds with his catapult. This is the basis on which devolution was, is and will be opposed. And this is the basis on which the resounding victory of Maithripala Sirisena is being derided as illegitimate – to be the ‘real’ president of Lanka, what is necessary is not the support of a majority of Lankans but the support of a majority of Sinhalese. This is universal franchise with an ethnic bias, where a Sinhala vote is worth more than a Tamil or a Muslim vote.

The chutzpah is peerlessly stupefying: Minorities are considered aliens and treated as aliens; and when they feel alienated, an outrageous outcry results.

Misreading History

Last week, a group of Sinhala-Buddhists supremacists invaded the Dalada Maligawa, removed the national flag and tried to replace it with what they called the ‘Sinhale Flag’. Fortunately the malcontents were few, they failed to evoke a response in the general public and the police did their job.

There is something far more dangerous than forgetting the past; and that is remembering the past selectively. Such selective remembrance is at the root of the project of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism. The past these supremacists want to bring back never really existed. The nation-state they worship is a made-in-Europe construct imported by the British imperialists they claim to hate (Just as quite a large chunk of ethics and morality they venerate is Victorian in origin!). Lanka was a geographic island divided into several small kingdoms when the first Europeans reached here. And the last rulers of independent ‘Lanka’ were not Sinhalese but Nayaks of South Indian origin.

Historian Ibn Kanldun pointed out that, "Untruth naturally afflicts historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable.…. Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that falsehoods are accepted and transmitted…" (The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History).

A classic case of deliberately misreading history is the persistent efforts by Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists to depict Lanka’s historical relationship with South India as a straightforwardly and permanently inimical one. The truth is far otherwise. Armies did come from South India to invade and pillage. But armies also came as mercenaries, hired by this or that king of this or that city-state. Since Buddhism flourished in Southern India for centuries, that functioned as another positive link between the two neighbours. South India also provided non-theistic Buddhism with many a god and many an ancient Lankan king with royal consorts. And when the last Sinhala king of Kandy died without a legitimate heir, his Hindu brother-in-law, a scion of South India’s Nayak dynasty, was invited to mount the throne – a choice which seemed to have been endorsed by monks, aristocrats and people. One of the greatest kings of Kandy, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (who restored Higher Ordination in Lanka), was the second member of this Nayak dynasty.

This multifaceted relationship was interpreted and depicted as a uniformly antagonistic one by Anagarika Dharmapala and his fellow religious nationalists. They believed in and popularised a ‘clash of civilisations’ worldview. According to this belief, Lanka, the only haven of the true-faith, and Sinhala-Buddhists, its sole chosen people, are perennially threatened by the far more powerful Christian/Catholic, Islamic and Hindu worlds – and their local agents, the minorities.

This falsification is not limited to ancient history but extends to contemporary history and current issues as well. For instance, it glosses over the fact that until the anti-Tamil riots of 1977, Lankan Tamil problem was a non-issue in Tamilnadu. That was why in 1973 the Indian government was able to arrest and extradite Selvaraja Yogachandran alias Kuttimani, without any opposition from Tamilnadu. It was after the riots of 1977 (which killed around 300 people and caused large scale displacements, including of Upcountry Tamils) that Tamilnadu awoke to the Lankan Tamil issue, with a vengeance. The riots turned the hitherto indifferent state into the foremost champion of the cause of Lankan Tamils.

So when Tamilnadu police arrested Vellupillai Pirapaharan on May 19, 1982 and Colombo asked for his extradition, both politicians and people of Tamilnadu raised a huge outcry. In 1973 the DMK had unhesitatingly handed over Mr. Kuttimani to Colombo; in 1982 Muthuvel Karunanidhi rushed an emissary to Prime Minister Gandhi asking that Mr. Pirapaharan not be extradited.

Imagine the course of history if 1977 riots did not happen, or if the Jayewardene regime gave Tamils the political solution the UNP promised in its excellent 1977 manifesto!

Relations between Tamilnadu and Colombo and Tamilnadu and Jaffna have become over-determined by the unresolved ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. Once that issue is resolved even partly, relations will get back to a new normal. And the very real contradiction between the Tamilnadu fishermen and the Northern Tamil fishermen are indicative of what this new normal is likely to be! It is not accidental that no Lankan Tamil politician condemned Premier Wickremesinghe’s far from inaccurate remarks on the fishing crisis. (The government should put the NPC in charge of resolving this issue; fisheries is after all a devolved subject)

Ignoring this complex history – both old and new – is seminal to the new Rajapaksa project, as it was to the old Rajapaksa project. The Kandy ‘protest’ demanding the replacement of the Lankan flag with the ‘Sinhale flag’ is reportedly the first in a series of events being planned by the extremist fringe to commemorate the 200th anniversary of 1815. Their aim seems to be to draw a comparison between the Kandyan Convention of 1815 and the Presidential Election of 2015, as part of a larger plan to befuddle Sinhala minds with minority phobia and return Mahinda Rajapaksa to power, as soon as possible. (During his recent visit to Anuradhapura, the former president forgot to be coy and reportedly said that he will return to politics).

After all, how can permanent heroes and permanent saviours be, without permanent threats and permanent enemies?

An Alliance of Moderates

As political conflict between Britain and colonial America neared its violent denouement, Edmund Burke warned Britain that "A great empire and little minds go ill together" (Speech on Conciliation with America – 22.3.1775). A multi-ethnic country and a mono-ethnic consciousness too go ill together. A Lankan nation cannot be build on the basis of Sinhala politics, let alone Sinhala-Buddhist politics.

Post-January 8, there is a chance to rectify at least some of the past errors, to consciously and seriously undertake the onerous task of building a Lankan nation. For the first time after a long time, the more moderate elements on all sides of the ethno-religious divide are in control. The LTTE is no more; the Southern extremists have been electorally defeated and politically marginalised.

It is perhaps a sign of these (hopefully more sensible) times that neither President Sirisena nor Premier Wickremesinghe overreacted to the puerile genocide resolution of the Northern provincial council. The Southern polity and society followed suit, proving, yet again, that though Sinhala masses are not immune to extremism, extremism turns combustive only when political leaders/parties try to use it as a weapon of power. Had the government reacted the old way, a new and unnecessary political crisis with international ramifications would have come into being. Thanks to the government’s measured response,

the resolution has become a dead letter, a matter of importance only to Tiger-loyalists and Rajapaksa-loyalists.

In another hopeful sign, not only was President Sirisena warmly welcomed when he visited the North and the East; the protests against his British visit by hardline elements in the Tamil Diaspora were sparsely attended. TNA parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran in a video message spoke against the planned protests, an act of courage which clearly bore fruit. And instead of visibly fuming or ducking, President Sirisena waved cheerfully at the protestors, in a welcome display of civility and tolerance.

A political solution to the ethnic problem is necessary, but there is some ground to be covered before that point can be reached. And in that context, every act of forbearance or conciliation, every display of patience, trust and civility, however minute, count much.

Extremism begets extremism. Adolf Hitler inadvertently helped the cause of Zionism. Without the Holocaust, there may not have been a state of Israel, certainly not in its current form. Without the invasion of Iraq, there would not have been an ISIS. Aggressive nationalism on the part of the majority community cannot but give rise to a reactive and even more aggressive nationalism on the part of the minorities. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil extremisms often drew strength and sustenance from each other.

Perhaps now we can replace this vicious cycle with a virtuous one, with moderates of all communities helping, strengthening and sustaining each other. That is the only path to build a consensual peace, the only way to create a Lankan identity and the best bulwark against the disruptive ambitions of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ragtag band of loyalists.

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