Nation-building: yet no takers


by Lynn Ockersz

Hostile attitudes in some sections directed at the Muslim community raise the issue, once again, of whether nation-building, in the truest sense of the phrase, has ever got underway in Sri Lanka. While it could be argued that from 1948, there has been a measure of participatory democracy in this country, this does not necessarily translate into nation-building, correctly understood and conceptualized.

Essentially, the even-handed empowerment of communities based on the principle that citizens and collectivities should enjoy equality of condition and opportunity, is what nation-building is all about. That this standard was hardly reached by Sri Lanka was reflected in this country’s 30 year war which concluded in May 2009. The armed North-East militancy, which helped bleed this country white, was the proof that some sections of our polity were not convinced that equality of condition and opportunity exists in this country.

However, armed militancy and the shedding of blood, does not help in resolving conflicts either and inasmuch as the war established that things were not at all right in this country on the ethnic relations plane and that there were issues which needed urgent remedying, the failed uprising proved that violence is largely self-destructive and counter-productive.

If equality of condition and opportunity, in an absolute sense, is continuing to evade this country, this is the evidence that the democratic process, in the truest sense, is yet to mature and if the latter is the case, then, the conclusion should be drawn that over the decades we have had more bad governance than good governance. For, opportunistic politics and good governance do not blend. Playing what is referred to as the ‘communal card’ by politicians usually breeds divisions and hatred among communities and social groups, resulting in divisive ideologies. This is where Sri Lanka is at present and unless the situation is remedied through the adoption of enlightened and path-breaking measures it is open to question whether we would be experiencing durable and substantial social peace.

Therefore, nation-building is one of our foremost national priorities and in this context the principle that essentially needs to guide this country and its political and social elites is the scriptural exhortation: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ In fact, if any constitutional amendments are being contemplated for the furtherance of the democratic empowerment of the people of this country and for the consolidation of their rights, this principle should ideally be the basis for such endeavours. Efforts to expand and consolidate the rights of our citizenry and those of collectivities are doomed to failure if the just spelt out principle on equality is ignored. Unfortunately, over the decades, it does not seem to have occurred to most of our ‘rulers’ that social peace could be mainly determined by the steady materialization of the principle of the equality of condition and opportunity.

The conflict and turmoil which have characterized Sri Lanka’s post-independence history bear testimony to the fact that there has been no close examination of the concept of nation-building and of its full implications among our political and social elites. In other words, all that this country has been possessing in terms of political ‘development’ is the mere husk and not the kernel of democracy. For, democracy is essentially all about the equal empowerment of people and collectivities. If this process was in place in Sri Lanka, we would be having a minimum of ethnic tensions and it goes without saying that threat perceptions and deprivations are basically at the bottom of such divisions.

So, nation-building, correctly understood, must be pursued by governments and this paramount cause is not at all being served through the current splurge of ‘infrastructure development’ in our provinces. Nor is the cause of nation-building being served fully through the present reconstruction and rehabilitation endeavours which are reportedly being carried out in Sri Lanka’s North-East. All such efforts amount to putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

First, let us put, fully and concretely in place, equality of condition and opportunity and then get down to infrastructure and material development. It is only nation-building, thus understood, which would make everyone ‘feel at home’ in this country and bring about the desired social bonding among our communities.

The state is, no doubt, doing something concrete in the direction of nation-building but at snail’s pace and rather randomly. National unity cannot be established in this unfocused fashion. The state needs to take a searching look at the LLRC report and its recommendations and give the country and the world indisputable, substantive evidence that the relevant recommendations are being enthusiastically implemented.

It is an advisable move to get agencies of the state, such as the Police, to help defuse religious and communal tensions but these are mere half measures. First, constitutional, legal and practical measures need to be taken to completely outlaw religious and communal hatred. For instance, legal and constitutional measures must be initiated to prohibit any species of hate speech which could inflame communal and religious passions. As the hackneyed saying goes, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ Let us have concrete action that clearly establishes that the government is serious when it pontificates that it is for religious and communal equality.

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