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Ethnic Nationalism Must Give way to Economic Nationalism and then to All-Embracing Sri Lankan Nationalism

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N.Sathiya Moorthy

The parliamentary exchanges on the UNP joining the PSC should once again set off the thinking on the contours of a national discourse to the ‘national problem’. It should not end with the forum where the issues are to be debated and decided upon. Instead, it should address the ‘basic issues’, where ethnic perceptions differ wildly. It is more so if the ground realities are considered. They are different from the political perceptions projected for consumption for both the local constituencies and the international community.

The parliamentary exchanges were flawed for two reasons. One, the Government’s invitation to the UNP, revived by Chief Whip and Minister Dinesh Gunawardane, came when media reports were talking about the proposed abolition of the devolved powers on Police and Land, which anyway were non-operational under 13-A. For his part, UNP Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe once again linked the party’s joining the PSC process to extraneous issues such as the revival of ‘17th Amendment institutions’, nullified since by the 18-A. The last time the UNP did it, the ‘Chandrika Package’ with its personalised clauses, went down the line – and with that hopes of an ethnic solution.

The early Ceylonese/Sri Lankan concept of nationalism may have derived from a perceived need to suppress subterranean tendencies that had the potential to divide the nation. What has however emanated since is not ‘Sri Lankan nationalism’ but ‘ethnic nationalism’ distinct to the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community and the more vocal of the ‘minorities’, namely, the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ in this case. In the process, the other minorities like the Upcountry Tamils and the Muslims got branded as ‘ethnicities’, whether or not they wanted it, but their muted voices have not been heard.

An easier way to address the possible concerns of the Founding Fathers could have been to identify communities with the spoken language, and not ‘ethnicity’ as the marker. If the societal status quo got altered politically after the Donoughmore Constitution introduced universal adult suffrage in 1931, the ‘ethnic division’ did not serve purpose. Within the Sinhala majority that was on the ‘denial mode’, constitutional acknowledgement of the status quo in the form of affirmative action strengthened the traditional Left first, and the militant Left later, when the new ‘nationalist’ Left failed to address deep-seated concerns.

It’s ironical that even the ‘Left leaning’ leaders on either side of the ethnic divide in the country had problems identifying with a larger ‘Sri Lankan nationalism’, which if encouraged had/has the potential to alter the status quo, if only over time. The JVP owed its first uprising or insurgency of 1971 to socio-economic issues that were a threat to the status quo on the Sinhala-Buddhist side of the ethnic divide. When they got a second chance in 1987-89, they had to try and upstage ‘ethnic nationalists’ by seeking to hijack their ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ agenda.

The status quoists would not forgive them for the past. Nor could the former trust them with the future should a successful JVP revert to the old ways and old slogans. In addition, the emergence of a leader outside of the status quo could not have suffered competition. The JVP had to go the way it did, despite the shared angst in the name of ‘Sri Lankan nationalism’, which however was nothing more than ‘Sinhala nationalism’.

It was no different with the Tamil community – meaning the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ status quoists. A ‘linguistic division’, even if some division had to be identified for maintaining a national equilibrium, if only to keep the Leftist ‘wolves’ at bay when the ‘Free World’ was still apprehensive of global communism, could have served the cause. It was not to be, however.

At the bottom of it was preserving purity of the ‘ethnic culture’ on either side of the linguistic-divide. It boiled down to the preservation of the ‘ethnic culture’ of not an ‘ethnic group’ but that of a vocal, vociferous and thus-dominant status quoist section within either side of the ethnic-divide. The larger and identifiable linguistic-divide was kept out of the ‘national discourse’ once more.

This has resulted in ‘culture’ of the status quoists on either side of the ethnic-divide getting entrenched in mindsets as the ‘ethnic culture’. In political terms, it first acquired the form of ‘ethnic nationalism’. In the post-war era, as during the years of war and earlier too, whenever a solution is sought for the ‘national problem’, it has had the tendency to identify itself (and without asking) as ‘cultural nationalism’ for a cause. It’s nothing but a defence of, and protection for the status quo.

The results are there for everyone to see, but not everyone would see it that way – the way it should be seen and interpreted, if ‘ethnic nationalism’ has to give way to the more basic ‘economic nationalism’ – and on to the all-embracing ‘Sri Lankan nationalism’.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation)

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