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Cultural Nationalism to Society: Unlikely boon and unavoidable bane

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By W.A. Wijewardena

Hello Friends

W.A. Wijewardena is a former deputy governor of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank. He now writes a regular column on economic matters for the “Financial Times”(daily) published in Colombo by Wijeya newspapers.

In a welcome deviation from his usual writings ,Wijewardena wrote an article recently on the rise of Cultural nationalism and about whether it was a boon or bane to society. He drew on the works of Amartya Sen and David Mclelland to substantiate his point of view in the article.

Although cultural nationalism in “moderation” has some plus points an excess of it bordering on national mysticism has led to adverse consequences particularly in diverse, plural societies. We see such examples in our own Sri Lanka as well as neighbouring India.

We are able to witness the unbridled rise of cultural nationalism aggravating intolerance in multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious societies such as India and Sri Lanka

I do feel that sharing WA Wijewardena’s article with readers would be a worthwhile exercise leading to a healthy conversation.

I am therefore reproducing it on my blog with due acknowledgement to the daily Financial Times.

Here it is Friends>-DBS Jeyaraj


W.A. Wijewardena

The veteran artiste and free thinker Asoka Handagama in delivering the Independence Day Commemoration Oration at the Central Bank on 4 February, as reported by the Sinhala Weekly Ravaya, had left his audience with a message: As long as people of a nation fail to recognise, tolerate and appreciate varying behavioural patterns of different groups of people in a society, it leads to conflict, violence and bloodshed which any progress-loving individual would have no hesitation in abhorring and condemning.

This was not the situation in Sri Lanka, according to Handagama, in the not-too-distant past. The lyricist Andrew Joseph had, for example, beautifully captured the variety and diversity in the St. John’s Fish Market in a typical day of its business with many different people of ethnicity patronising the market liberally without displaying ill-feeling against each other covertly or overtly.

Though Handagama had not said it directly, he had implied that Sri Lanka has now lost this social toleration when he quoted many instances of intolerance from its recent history. He had therefore pointed to his audience that it is time to amend its ways if it is desirous of progressing as a nation and entering the modern world as one of its partners.

The wave of cultural nationalism

What Handagama has talked about is the wave of ‘cultural nationalism’ which has swept across many emerging nations in the recent past like wildfires effectively stumbling their progress, modernisation and integration with the rest of the world.

Cultural nationalism is not a new development; societies throughout human history have resorted to practising it in different forms and different intensities to their own peril because those practices have engendered conflict, violence and bloodshed.

But the 18th century Britain was an exception. It learned new techniques from many other nations, steered industrial revolution by using that knowledge and engaged in trade as recommended by Adam Smith in 1776 in ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ discarding the then rampant and popular ideal of mercantilism that had advocated only one way trade, exports but not imports.

As noted by the Columbia University academic Sylvia Nasar in her 2011 book ‘Grand Pursuit,’ an unusually narrated story of economic genius, this has led not only to swell the wealth of Britain but also to bring about an extraordinary advance in luxury and refinement of taste. So, cultural internationalism, as against cultural nationalism had paid bonuses to Britain at that time.

What is cultural nationalism?

Cultural nationalism is an obsessively elated feeling and exaggerated superiority which one group of people holds over another group in the society or one nation over another nation. This superiority also leads to insecurity and through insecurity, suspicion and protective action. The protective action at its extreme form is manifested by its polar opposite, namely, offensive action under which anyone outside one’s own group is considered an enemy worthy of being destroyed.

Accordingly, when feelings of cultural nationalism are at its peak, groups fight with other groups, religions fight with other religions and nations composed of a majority of a particular group fight with other nations. The results are obvious: using the stamina, tact, energy and resources belonging to groups not for their own advancement but for generating violence and bloodshed. In economic terms, it is an unnecessary wastage of one’s skills, talents and resources.

Culture is not fixed, but changing

Culture is simply the way a particular group of people behave: how and what they eat, how they reproduce and raise their offspring, how they play games, how they perform arts, what type of beliefs they hold, to mention but a few of such behavioural patterns. It is illogical to expect these behavioural patterns to remain unchanged over time.

With new knowledge, experience and exposure, culture too changes constantly and is in a process of its own evolution. Those who go through this evolution do not feel this change because they are a part of the change that is taking place. But those who have failed to go through this change feel it odd and hard held customs threatened by the envisaging change. For them, their old culture has been destroyed by the imposition of a new culture on it and that old culture therefore need be protected against influences coming from outside.

Such changes occur naturally in any culture with the passage of time or, as the behavioural economists call it, the forward movement of the time machine that cannot be reversed. Cultural nationalism tries to keep that old culture as perceived by its advocates unchanged. In other words, they want to reverse the time machine and go back to an era which is already gone by.

Sleep all the time and find fault with culture

The difference between those who have gone through the evolution and those who have failed could be understood by the following hypothetical situation which the writer has been exposing to his students at the university to drive the point to them.

Suppose a man is captured in the year 1900, put to a long sleep, awakened in the year 2000 and released just at the gate of the university. How would he feel now? Would he feel it strange or natural? Students who are exposed to this case usually come up with the reasoning that he would feel it strange because everything he sees around him is different from what he has experienced in his own time: girls clad in tight denim trousers walking hand in hand with boys, super luxury motor cars plying along the carpeted roads, supermarkets flickering with neon lights selling almost everything, men, women, boys and girls holding hand phones to their ears and constantly communicating with people far away and computers with facilities to log onto the internet that is capable of passing massive volumes of information from one place to another within a fraction of a second are the salient oddities he would see.

He would therefore, according to the students, feel that his culture has been destroyed. But what about the feelings of the students? They would not feel such strangeness or oddity because they have gone through the evolutionary process and therefore all those oddities are simply a part of their own life.

Amrtya Sen on cultural nationalism

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has discussed the rise of cultural nationalism in India in the recent past in two books: the first his 2005 book titled ‘The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity’ and the other his 2006 book titled ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’. A notable feature which one could gauge from his analysis is that what he has found in Indian case has exact parallels in what Sri Lanka has experienced with respect to the cultural nationalism in the recent past.

BJP’s visible hand in inventing history

Sen has documented in ‘The Argumentative Indian’ how India’s Bharatiya Janatha Party or BJP resuscitated an old Hindutva Movement or Movement for establishing Indian-ness in India in mid 1970s by misrepresenting facts, fabricating established historical evidence, inventing history and using violence and force on moderate Hindus as well as other ethnic and religious groups.

While India is a country of diversity with many religious beliefs, languages and ethnic groups, the Hindutva movement has tried to project India as a Hindu country. To reclaim this land exclusively for Hindus, it has rewritten Indian history as essentially a Hindu civilisation, an essential prerequisite for establishing a grand Hindu vision of India.

This has, according to Sen, also helped Hindutva to marshal the support of Indian Diaspora which is bent on maintaining an Indian identity in their host countries in the midst of a perceived threat from the dominant cultures there; it is a solace to feel that Hindus reign at least in their old native land.

According to Sen, this is what BJP did following its electoral victory in 1998 and 1999: “Various arms of the Government of India were mobilised in the task of arranging ‘appropriate’ rewritings of Indian history. Even though this adventure of inventing the past is no longer ‘official’ (because of the defeat of the BJP led coalition in the general elections in the spring of 2004), that highly-charged episode is worth recollecting both because of what it tells us about the abuse of temporal power and also because of the light it throws on the intellectual underpinning of the Hindutva movement.”

Accordingly, fresh textbooks were written with focus on Hindu supremacy by deleting the objective analyses written by reputed academics earlier. The hastily completed work also contained numerous factual mistakes and serious omissions drawing severe criticism from academia, press and media. Yet the BJP Government, which was bent on establishing its own political agenda paid no heed to them, according to Sen.

The worst was yet to come in the form of fabricating archaeological facts: The Indus valley civilisation that had existed in North West India and Pakistan much before the recorded history of Hinduism was also projected as a Hindu civilisation by renaming it ‘Indus-Saraswati civilisation’ focusing on a non-existing river called the Saraswati River mentioned in Vedic texts.

To prove their point, the BJP-led intellectuals in fact had invented new archaeological evidence, according to Sen, by producing a computerised distortion of a broken seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a fraud committed on Indians at home and abroad in the name of justifying the Hindutva movement.

Illogical social though finally ends up in spurious public policy

In ‘Identity and Violence,’ Sen says that propagandists’ hard work led to the development of a collective social thought, a thought which has no rational foundation but believed by many as the truth. The social thought then leads to collective political action, presenting a distorted view to an already emotionally worked up electorate and thereby easily securing electoral victories. Once political power is secured, it is now easy to translate the illogical social thought to public policy, which even at first glance is spurious but defended tooth and nail in the name of cultural nationalism. This is what has happened in India and in many emerging countries including Sri Lanka.

Cultural nationalism has used political power to reverse the time machine through public policy. But, is it not a boon to a country? Yes, it is a boon, if one does it to win the future and not to go back to establish the past which is already gone by. It is a spurious act committed by a nation especially when the rest of the world has moved forward. As Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had once advised Sri Lanka’s business fraternity, one could gain from history immensely if history is learned to identify past mistakes and thereby not to repeat the same.

A high need for achievement key to progress

The former Harvard University psychologist David C. McClelland has thrown light on the cultural aspects of economic growth which modern nations can effectively put into practice for their own benefit. In a book he published in 1961 under the title ‘The Achieving Society’ and in numerous other writings since then, McClelland argued that there have been episodes of civilisations, rising and falling, in tandem with the presence or absence of a high achievement motive in people.

This motive which McClelland called n-Ach, helps a society to achieve high economic growth on a sustainable basis. This is because high n-Ach leads to entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship leads to economic growth. Thus, if cultural practices, even cultural nationalism, can be used to build a high n-Ach, then, it is a sure way for a nation to build its production base and ensure continuous economic growth.

But what contributes to n-Ach? McClelland found that teaching self-reliance to young boys from an early age would help a society to build its n-Ach base fairly extensively. If mothers, instead of pampering their sons and daughters, allow their children to explore the world and learn for themselves, then, it helps to engrave a high n-Ach in them from an early childhood. This high n-Ach, together with an appropriate reward system in place, contributes to develop entrepreneurs who are infected with a fever to do things competitively with others in the best way possible.

In ancient Greece, mothers and grandmothers told heroic stories to their children; those heroic stories made them feel like the heroes in the stories. The result: they themselves wanted to make similar achievements. McClelland found that Greece was able to build a great civilisation and maintain it for more than 1,000 years because of the high n-Ach that had been inculcated in the young children from around 9th century BCE. With this cultural pattern changing in the mid-2nd century CE, the great Greek civilisation and its associated economic growth too went into a complete oblivion.

Toleration and not antagonism key to motivation

So, an economic system can deliver its promise of economic prosperity only if the people who have to carry it forward have been sufficiently motivated and that motivation is a cultural practice to be inculcated by elders, especially mothers, in youngsters as a habit.

But to motivate people, there are some prerequisites to be put in place. Humbleness and modesty in learning, appreciating and tolerating of habits and practices of others, peaceful coexistence instead of promoting violence and amicable resolution of conflicts are of paramount importance among them.

India and Sri Lanka: Time to follow the Buddha, Ashoka and Akbar

Surely, cultural nationalism which teaches children of an exaggerated superiority cannot deliver these prerequisites. Once one is inflicted with superiority complex, he cannot tolerate and appreciate others and therefore cannot learn from them too.

Amartya Sen has put it very cogently in ‘The Argumentative Indian’ as follows: “It was indeed a Buddhist Emperor of India, Ashoka, who in the third century BCE, not only outlined the need for toleration and the richness of heterodoxy, but also laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, with the opponents ‘duly honoured in every way on all occasions’. That political principle figures a great deal in later discussions in India, but the most powerful defence of toleration and the need for the state to be equi-distant from different religions came from a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar.”

Four hundred years before Ashoka, the Buddha himself advised the monks, according to the Brahmajaala Sutra in the Dheegha Nikaya, that the monks should not get angry when some people talk ill of the Buddha. If they hear such abuses, the monks are required to explain to those abusers the true facts without losing their heads.

Then, how should the monks behave when people talk well of the Buddha? Then, the monks should not get elated by such praises; they should with humility and modesty explain to them that the qualities which they have singled out for praising are valid, but there are many more such qualities possessed by the Buddha which those laymen have not been able to discern.

These principles that uphold toleration are equally valid to India as well as to Sri Lanka today where a high wave of cultural nationalism has swept across the sub-continent. In both countries, the goal of the propagators is to reverse the time machine and go back to the past. As long as the cultural nationalism aims at establishing the past, it closes the door for modernisation.

Cultural nationalism is, therefore, unlikely to deliver a boon to society; instead, it is unavoidable that it would become a bane of society.

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  1. Wijewardena,
    I can’t thank you enough for the timely speech – my frineds too are excited about it.

    Please find a way for this to appear in Indian media too this should appear all over India.
    This should be translated into Sinhala too.

  2. Cultural national nationalism in Srilanka is direct product of Mahavamsa mindset . it is as simple as that .

    Instead of abandoning the “Mahavamsa” as a myth the current president MR is doing the right opposite no need to say he considers himself as re incarnation of King Duttugamini.

    it is also expected Rajapaksa’s are to stay in power for at least another 20-25 years.

    as Wijewardane said “Sri Lanka has now lost this social toleration ” it is going to be worse unless some miracle occur.

    Buddhist friends here I appeal to you if you want harmony in your country give up Mahavamsa mind set , , learn something from above article.


  3. ”the monks should not get angry when some people talk ill of the Buddha”

    Does this include Sinhala Buddhist monks or not ?

  4. Thank you MrW.A. Wijewardena,Ravaya and DBS to bring this fundamental reflection on human psychology which plays a great role in social harmony .
    sadly ,

    Cultural national nationalism in Srilanka is direct product of Mahavamsa mindset . it is as simple as that .

    Instead of abandoning the “Mahavamsa” as a myth the current president MR is doing the right opposite no need to say he considers himself as re incarnation of King Duttugamini.

    it is also expected Rajapaksa’s are to stay in power for at least another 20-25 years.

    as Wijewardane said “Sri Lanka has now lost this social toleration ” it is going to be worse unless some miracle occur.

    Buddhist friends here I appeal to you if you want harmony in your country give up Mahavamsa mind set , , learn something from above article.


  5. Sorry, I posted two comments because In the first one I may have fallen victim of culturel nationalism by failing to thank Ravaya and Mr W.A. Wijewardena.

  6. I am glad TC posted this perspective from W.A. Wijeyawardne.It is enlightening in certain ways.But it is not conclusive panacea in many ways to the problems created by their own political and religious leaders not only in Srilanka and India, but in other parts of the world as well.

    In certain ways, the posting is timely too and will bring more awareness about the false portrayal of supremacy or fear if it is translated into Sinhalese and made to reach the masses.

    The reality is Buddha born as a prince got enlightend and came out with the triple Gem well before Akbar and Ashoka started building their empires. That means even after WWII, even after Independnece from the Brtish both Indian and Srilankan ruling elites ( DS, SWRD,JR, Chandrika , Premadasa and others ) have not understood the superiority of Buddha’s preaching. That means all the other successful or superior countries in Asia, Europe and America, understood Buddhas preachings and have been practicing them by inbuilting them into their cultures.

    Dharmam Sharanam Gachami ! is the superior gem appealing to me based on the rising powers of the world. I do not think the revival of Nalanda is a panecea for better India or better Asia or better world order.

    This is not posted on TC but on my blog http://www.dbsjeyaraj.com………DBSJ

  7. Interesting post.
    Our “holier than thou” resident Indian poster of this blog will be very upset to read this I think.

    Cultural nationalism is not exclusive to India or Sri Lanka but it is common to any country. Countries that have very long histories – India, Sri Lanka, Japan comes to mind, it is almost a way of thinking. In Sri Lanka cultural nationalism is not exclusive to Sinhalese but is very much alive and well among the Tamils also. In the modern West it is there but the practice is much more subtle. Take for instance US, although without a long history, that country is well on its way to develop an define cultural-religious nationalism in its own way.

  8. Though W.A. Wijewardena “had not said it directly, he had implied that Sri Lanka has now lost this social toleration” and it is time to give up the controversial Mahavamsa mindset “if it is desirous of progressing as a nation and entering the modern world as one of its partners”.

  9. No culture on Earth is superior or inferior to another. Every culture has its own merits and every effort should be made to preserve and foster every culture without any exception. For this to occur successfully all nations on Earth should be free and there should be no subordination of ANY ONE nation by another. Unfortunately the global national liberation movement is far from complete.Cultural imperialism is still dominant in many parts of the world. Dismantling of cultural imperialism does not mean doing away with the differences in cultures. In fact the more diverse the human society is the richer it would be.If all develop this large heartedness, there will definitely be peace on Earth.The more cultures that are free, the better. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

  10. Instead of blaming each other I hope Singalese and Tamils will take essence of article to heart and do away with extreme forms of cultural nationalism

  11. This article of Mr.Wijewardena shows the Singhalese are better concerned about the developements around them than Srilankan Tamils. I thank him for quoteing Mr.Sen.

    But India is too simplified by his prespective. Mr.Sen wants to hold the prestige and Status quo of “Bhadraloks” – which also fits to many group of people around the subcontinent.

    Contrary to Fukuyama’s dream of a post-human liberal world without wars, globalization works the other way around: people become more culturally homogeneous, interact more—and clash more often. Globalization caused Japan to take offense at American trade restrictions in the 1930s, globalization made the Pacific front technically possible, and globalization accounts for some Afghani terrorists planning the 9/11 attacks halfway across the globe. Global projection of power is a function of globalization, which allows any two groups to fight, no matter the distance. Still more importantly, globalization pushes foreign images into our homes. Indonesian Muslims learn about evil Zionists they would otherwise never have encountered in their lives. This virtual contact amounts to intrusion and gives impetus first to xenophobia, then hatred, then war.

    In antiquity, resources were scarce but people still used them on economically irrational wars of honor. In our time of economic surplus, economically motivated wars have almost entirely given way to ideological ones. Irrationality makes modern wars unpredictable, common, and cruel. This kind of ideological war is only possible in a culturally homogeneous world: one can kill chimps, buffalo, or natives to gain unrestricted access to local resources and plunder them profitably, but no one would fight Polynesian aborigines for ideological reasons. One only enforces his ideological views on people who are at least remotely similar.

  12. Let all cultures be in the hearts and minds and not relegated to increasing number of concrete structures gobbling up the good environment required for peace and prosperity.

  13. Brilliant, and timely. Well written and am in total agreement.

    Nationalism coupled with religious fundamentalism are the bane of any society that wishes to be progressive.

    There is no cultural fundamentalism in the US or most western countries. In fact they dont teach any religion in any school, considering it an entirely private matter.

    Culture – as Mr Wijewardena says, should be like a river which flows. It changes and is a reflection of the society that exists at any one time.

  14. Coincidentally, the BJP in the southern state of Karnataka where three Ministers were caught on camera allegedly watching pornography during assembly session is on a seemingly hurried mission to cosmetically fix its damaged image. Reeling under in what is dubbed as the Porngate scandal, BJP is reportedly launching a training session named as Chintan-mantan to teach the ministers and legislators discipline and morality. BJP, the cultural warrior and guardian of morality, has set out on the unenviable task of repairing the severely battered image. Needless to say the cultural nationalism of BJP is currently on a tailspin.

    The three ministers who were forced out by the BJP high command are pleading that the images that popped up in the cell phones opened accidentally when the assembly session was in progress. Looking at the stale excuse of a response, it is hard to miss the cultural common thread that runs in tandem in the mainland and the island.

    One minister caught in the scandal had recently spoken on favor of enforcing a dress code for women, saying skimpy clothes trigger predatory sexual behavior. Denizens of Asian extraction in UN must have been blinking.

  15. CULTURAL NATIONALISM TO SOCIETY: UNLIKELY BOON AND UNAVOIDABLE BANE, W.A Wijewardena is insightful thoughts to read and reflect. I fully agree with W.A. W on his profound thoughts and his open sharing . Thanks to DBS for selective articles for for your readers.

    we would see how social structure is in place in Sri lanka and India. The main problem here is not observing the cultural Nationalism but,how the power relationship is built in Sri Lanka to promote cultural Nationalism. The issue of deaprtmentalisation and isolation which are in visible because of lack of understanding and respecting other ethic ‘s self determination and their dignity for decent life.

    we are only seeing the surfaced issues and not focusing on the root causes for its deviation .
    Why we can not promoting cultural nationalism simple accepting the fact that Sri Lanka is belong to every body and every body should respect each other existense- the right to self determination.

    I think W.A.W could go more deeper and suggest how we can move further to promote cultural Nationalism by accepting Nationalism of all.

    Thanks .

  16. [As long as the cultural nationalism aims at establishing the past, it closes the door for modernisation.]

    This guy wijewardene is spot on.You just can’t have cultural nationalism and modernisation happening together as they are pulling the country in different directions.One is focused backwards and the other forwards.

    After srilanka the sinhalse leaders were more concerned about cultural natinalism,than on modernisation.They encouraged sinhala bhuddhist nationalism and the mahawamsa mindset claiming ownership of the whole land from the sinhala bhuddhists,and making the minorities feel that they are guests only in this land of ours.They never thought of leaving aside all that happenned in the past and concentrate on a new path for the country,the path of modernisation,that would have probably made us today something like taiwan,which is a similar type of island like ours,half the size and same number of people but very modern technologically.Maybe these sinhalese leaders did not have the capability and brains to take the country on the path of modernisation,because they were either numskulls or very mean and small minded or a mixture of both.By embarking on the opposie direction of cultural nationalism,even today sinhalese and tamils are endlessly debating about the past and delving into history and arguing about who came first and who did that or this and owned this or that.that is all we have achieved so far after 65 years of independence and cutural nationalism.

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