Forging an inclusive and pluralist Sri Lankan identity

l by Shanie



“I reason, earth is short,

And anguish absolute.

And many hurt;

But what of that?

I reason, we could die;

The best vitality

Cannot excel decay;

But what of that?

I reason that in heaven

Somehow, it will be even,

Some new equation given;

But what of that?” – Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

( February 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Writing twenty years ago, Reggie Siriwardena, one of Sri Lanka best known writers and human activists, quoted Justice D Wimalaratne who was the Chief Guest at the Prize Giving of his old school S Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. That was soon after the 1983 pogrom. Recalling his schooldays, Wimalaratne said: ‘Whether one was a Molamure or an Abeysekera, a Saravanamuttu or an Abdulla, a Mugabe or an Arndt, all were equal and no one was considered superior to the other except, of course, when a boy showed his superior talents in the classroom or in the playing field.’
Reggie Siriwardena said long ago that what we should celebrate, if we are true to our national identity, is not purity but hybridity. ‘It is an idea that will be hateful to all those who cling to a single monolithic identity, a single truth, an unchanging, uncontaminated tradition. But where will you find these in the real world? Certainly not among our island people, not shut away behind mountain fastnesses or desert but exposed from time immemorial to the changing winds and tides of the outer world. In fact the highest praise of the (Sri Lankan) people is that before the rise of insular fanaticisms, they were free and open, taking from everybody that could add to the richness and variety of their culture.’
Today, we celebrate Sri Lanka’s National Day. It is sixty four years since we obtained independence from colonial rule. Sixty four years ago, what Wimalaratne said of S Thomas’ was perhaps true of most schools, whether the schools were urban or rural or whether they were bilingual or monolingual or whichever social strata the students came from. The Kannangara reforms had seen to it that quality education was provided through quality schools headed by Principals, some of whom were products of schools like S Thomas. These fifty+ schools were spread throughout the country, from Piliyandala to Ibbagamuwa, from Nelliyady to Vantharamoolai, from Passara to Talatuoya, from Tholangamuwa to Telijjawala. Combined with compulsory and free education, we had near 100% literacy, in par with the more advanced countries of the world. The University College established in 1921 and the autonomous University of Ceylon in 1942 provided for university education in all major departments of study within the country.
Sixteen years earlier, the Donoughmore reforms had introduced universal suffrage and limited self-government. This was a huge forward step by the colonial government. We were the first Asian country to have the privilege of universal suffrage – all adults over twenty-one, male and female, having the right to vote and to seek election to the newly established State Council. Even Britain had universal adult suffrage only three years earlier. The Donoughmore Commissioners had rejected communal representation which had been a feature of the earlier Legislative Councils. They felt that only the abolition of communal representation would promote true national unity. The trust that the Commissioners and the colonial government placed in the people of Ceylon by introducing universal suffrage proved well founded. By the time the first General Election was held in 1947 to the new House of Representatives in independent Ceylon, the electorate had already voted at two elections to the State Council under the Donoughmore Constitution. The electorate showed remarkable maturity at the first General Election. A strong government and a strong opposition followed the election. But more than that, communal considerations did not, by and large, prevail. Colombo Central with a negligible Burgher population elected a Burgher to represent them. Batticaloa, with a Tamil majority electorate, elected a Muslim. Bandarawela, with an overwhelmingly strong Sinhala population, preferred a Tamil over a Sinhalese in what was virtually a straight contest. Haputale, a Tamil majority electorate, elected a Sinhala Member of Parliament. Of course, it would be naïve to say that ethnicity, religion, caste and social standing played no part in the election but the numerous exceptions show that a mature electorate rejected communal considerations.
The first elected government in independent Ceylon was also strengthened by a professional public service. The Ceylon Civil Service was a model of efficiency and was by no means an elitist administration with no understanding of the hardships faced by the humble men and women in the village. The Police Service was professional and performed their duties with competence. They maintained law and order and hardly any crime, major or minor, went unsolved. The Judiciary enjoyed a high reputation for integrity, independence and fairness. The same went for all our public services. They were models of efficiency. A letter, for example, posted in Colombo to a town address in any part of the island was delivered the very next day. There were three deliveries of letters in Colombo each day, and a letter posted in Colombo in the morning to an address within the City was delivered the same day.
What has gone wrong?
Sixty-four years on, we should have progressed in all areas of public services. It is truer to say that we have regressed in every area. What then has gone wrong? It is easy to blame the politicians for the sorry mess our country is in. While that is true to some extent, all our leaders – in religion, in civil society, in education and in the professions – have to take the greater share of the blame. The calibre of the politicians whom we now elect has undergone a sea-change. The days of visionary gentleman politicians have long gone. Now it is the age of the corrupt, the turncoat, the opportunist and the self-seeker who seek to interfere in every public activity and turn them to ruin and disaster. We can wax eloquent about the corrupt, arrogant and meddlesome politicians who prefer advancement of their personal power and self-interest to the national well-being. But where are the professionals and the civil society and religious leaders who should be taking the lead in arresting this downward slide?
Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen once delivered a lecture in New Delhi about the need to forge an inclusive Indian identity. What he stated applies with equal or greater force to Sri Lanka in 2012. Professor Sen stated: ‘The nature of Indian identity raises issues both of external and internal relations. (There is) the need to resist external isolationism. It is, however, the pull towards internal separation of communities that has presented the strongest challenge in recent years to the integrity of the Indian identity. Political developments in India over the last decade or two have had the effect of forcefully challenging, in several different ways, the broad and absorbing idea of Indian identity that emerged in the days of the independence movement and that helped to define the concept of the Indian nation. If we believe that there is something of value in this inheritance, we need to understand precisely why it is valuable, and also examine how that recognition can be articulated.’
Amartya Sen went on to say that there were differences in the way ‘Indianness’ was seen by the Indian leaders at that time. Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, shared a belief in a spacious and assimilative Indian identity but both had different emphases on their interpretation of that idea. There were other differences in the characterisation of Indian identity by other theorists and intellectual leaders of the independence movement. ‘These distinctions,’ says Sen, ‘were and remain important in many contexts, for example, in interpreting the respective roles of science, ethics and analytical reasoning in India’s past and in its future. But these varying interpretations all share an inclusionary reading of Indian identity that tolerates, protects and indeed celebrates diversity within a pluralist India. They also reflect an understanding of India’s past as a joint construction in which members of different communities were involved. Tagore and Gandhi differed substantially, both in their respective cultural pre-predispositions and in their in their religious beliefs and personal practice. But in interpreting India and the Indian identity, they shared a general refusal to privilege any one narrowly circumscribed perspective (such as an exclusive religious approach, or, more specifically a Hindu view).’
Pluralism and Receptivity
Sen’s inclusivist views seem so relevant to our position now in Sri Lanka as we keep our National Day. It was the combination of internal pluralism and external receptivity that was being ‘challenged by separatist viewpoints, varying from communitarian exclusion and aggressive parochialism on one side, to cultural alienation and isolationist nationalism on the other.’ It is to meet these challenges that our professionals, the civil society and the religious need to provide the leadership. They must give the leadership in forging an inclusive and pluralist Sri Lankan identity. They need to have the courage to take on the charlatan, the parochialist and the false nationalist and the corrupt politician, irrespective of their power and position.
This brings us back to the question, where have we as a nation gone wrong? It is by our failure, and the failure of our leaders in all walks of life, to promote a sense of national identity, a Sri Lankanness that celebrates our diversity, our willingness to accept the equal rights and privileges of the other, the other who differs from us not only in the language they speak or the religious belief they profess, but also in the political ideas they hold, and in the economic and social status they find themselves in. We have and seem to continue moving away from accepting the other. We seem to passively accept, without challenging, those, whatever position or power they wield, who are unwilling to accept the other.
Reggie Siriwardena said long ago that what we should celebrate, if we are true to our national identity, is not purity but hybridity. ‘It is an idea that will be hateful to all those who cling to a single monolithic identity, a single truth, an unchanging, uncontaminated tradition. But where will you find these in the real world? Certainly not among our island people, not shut away behind mountain fastnesses or desert but exposed from time immemorial to the changing winds and tides of the outer world. In fact the highest praise of the (Sri Lankan) people is that before the rise of insular fanaticisms, they were free and open, taking from everybody that could add to the richness and variety of their culture.’

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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