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For the Sinhala Ultranationalists, ‘The Nation’ (‘Jaathiya’) is the Sinhala Nation, and the State is a Sinhala Buddhist State.

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Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka


“Ignorance never helped anyone yet!”

— Karl Marx

The crisis is escalating and proliferating daily. It is a crisis of the Yahapalana model and strategy. It is a crisis created by UNP’s unacceptable cosmopolitan neoliberalism with its program of foreignization of the economy, combined with the provocative proto-secessionist behavior of the Northern Provincial Council that has generated a reactive social groundswell, which in turn has impacted upon the base of the SLFP and caused a crisis of the ‘unity’ government, all of which has deadlocked the state machinery and the economy. In the vortex of the crisis, toxic extreme nationalism, Sinhala and Tamil, is incubating, metastasizing. To turn Yeats’ famous poem into political prose, with the center unable to hold, things are falling apart, the falcon cannot hear the falconer and a pair of rough beasts are slouching to Bethlehem, or in this case, Colombo and Jaffna, to be born.

The UNP had to fall in 1956 and 1970. It would have fallen right into the fire in 1988 had it not been for Premadasa. In 1956, the UNP’s fall yielded Sinhala Only. In 1970, it yielded Standardization and a new Constitutional architecture in which safeguards for minorities were removed. Today’s UNP is even more out of touch with reality than it was in 1956 and 1970– the reactive defection of JR Jayewardene’s grandson Pradip to the SLFP-MS is proof and symptom. What will the inevitable fall of the UNP in 2020, bring into being? An administration which is more influenced by Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism and the vision of a quasi-theocratic state, a Buddhist state in all but name?

Never in my politically conscious lifetime (which senior politicians know goes back over 50 of my 60+ years), I have never known an Opposition movement to be more influenced by and responsive to the Sinhala Buddhist clergy than it is now. Nor have I known Sinhala ultranationalist Far Right discourse to be quite so acceptable in the social mainstream, including among the middle classes. This does not portend well for the fate of Sri Lanka, because the country will be heading back to 1956 or 1970 or pre-1987, while the world’s consciousness, and global and regional power relations have moved on in the opposite direction. Sri Lanka will be doomed; torn apart in our lifetime, between Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim militias—with the Sinhala militia enjoying state power, or actually being the state– and spheres of influence, and soon enough, external intervention will carve up this little island in our lifetime.

The current crisis must be resolved and it can be done only by shifting the axis of this Yahapalana government and creating an interim administration of a moderate-centrist nature, capable of bringing political stability and sustainable economic development. This equation must incorporate Mahinda Rajapaksa and the forces he represents, bearing in mind that those forces are in the ascendancy while the Yahapalana Establishment is on the decline. Today, Mahinda Rajapaksa is a far more important moderate than R. Sampanthan.

Two things must not happen. The status quo must not remain and it must not be replaced by the radical Right. The status quo must be replaced by a national-democratic and social democratic center-left, not by a Trumpian Alt-Right. The country must escape this confusion and disintegration and go forward, not back. The neoliberal UNP wants to take the country back to pre-1956 if not pre-1953. The Sinhala Alt-Right wants to take it back to pre-1987; preferably to 1970 or 1956—if not an earlier millennium. The new Establishment must not be replaced by the old, still less the archaic and ancient.

Ex-President Musharraf is back in politics at the head of a broad multiparty coalition. These days, when everybody is pontificating about Sri Lanka’s ethnic question and what should and should not be done, I constantly recall a point that Musharraf made in his autobiography. He said that it was bitterly ironic that parents spent so much of their hard earned money, finding the best qualified tutors for their school-going children, while going by the opinions of mullahs who are abysmally untrained in political subjects, giving opinions on complex matters of national politics and foreign policy! As in Pakistan so also Sri Lanka, and as with mullahs, so also civil society figures and those retirees from different professions which provide little training and experience in politics, Constitution-making, ethnic relations, foreign policy etc.

While making the obvious allowances for the difference between the exact or ‘hard’ sciences and the Social Sciences and Humanities (which UNESCO calls the Social and Human Sciences–SHS), it is truly awful when the body politic has been suffering from an affliction for decades but those who respond to it and are if a position to do something about it, simply cannot make the right diagnosis. I refer to the problem of nation-building and within it, the national/nationalities, ethnic, and center-periphery or majority-minority question.

Imagine how frustrating it can be for a trained specialist in a branch of medicine, when he/she hears that the patient’s family has preferred to go to a witch doctor to find a cure? That’s the way that I feel as a trained student (with post-graduate degrees), a former teacher and an internationally published author of books in the field of Political Science, when I listen to and/or read about discussions regarding the Tamil Question. My sense of exasperation is all the more when I have to revisit and reiterate points that I made on matters I published about at length when I was 22 years old, in 1979!

The ideology, worldview and mental universe of the Sinhala Alt-right remind me of those who continued to insist that the earth was flat, the sun revolved round the earth, or stranger still, that the earth rested on the back of a giant turtle who rested on the back of another one and it was “turtles all the way down”!

For the Sinhala ultranationalists, ‘the nation’ (‘jaathiya’) is the Sinhala nation, and the state is a Sinhala Buddhist state. The nation is seen as the State and the State as essentially the monks and the military. By contrast, for any politically literate, rational-minded democrat and Realist (I) the nation –any nation–is built upon a viable, non-hierarchical relationship between the constituent, component communities, while being above and larger than any community or combination of them and (II) the State protects the country and fights against armed enemies, internal and external, while being the impartial mediator, umpire and judge, between the constituent communities.

Five major points are made by the Sinhala Alt-Right with relation to the ethnic issue. Firstly, what and where’s the problem that needs addressing, and isn’t that problem imaginary? Secondly, how can there be a solution of devolution of power to a territorial unit when most Tamils live outside the North and East? Thirdly, isn’t the very notion devolution of power as a solution a dangerous non-solution, forced upon us by Tamil separatists, federalists and the West? Fourthly, wasn’t the 13th amendment forced upon us by India and therefore shouldn’t it be undone or at least ignored and not implemented? Fifthly, why can’t we be like Israel in the face of international pressure—after all, wasn’t the Goldstone report on Gaza overturned?

All this not only reveals an abysmal level of ignorance due to a lack of formal education in the subject—since no First year undergraduate in Political Science could pass an exam while holding on to such unscientific views. Secondly this reveals a dangerous mindset; a collective mindset which in power, would inadvertently and inevitably take us beyond the traumatic events of the coercive external intervention of July 1987, to one of partition a la Cyprus, Pakistan-Bangladesh, and former Yugoslavia, through external intervention and a permanent external presence on our soil.

Perhaps the most grotesque absurdity is the Sinhala Alt-Right line “what’s the problem? It is an invention or a conspiracy; there was no ethnic problem, only a terrorist problem and now it’s over”. One of the greatest, most original political thinkers and leaders of the 20th century, Antonio Gramsci, wrote that:

“A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity)…(Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 178)

When one has had a problem of “exceptional duration”, that led to a Thirty Years War, but existed long before it and continues after it, then surely it is a symptom of a deeper structural malaise, the roots and the cause-effect nexus of which have to be uncovered and addressed; managed if they cannot be solved.

The Sinhala Alt-Right spokespersons and ideologues are obviously quite unaware that a whole football field at the least could be covered with scholarly books written over the last hundred years, in all international languages and taught at universities as well as higher military and Police academies the world over, on the related and variously defined cluster of issues embracing the national/nationalities question, the ethnic problem, self-determination, minority rights etc.

These Sinhala Alt-Right ideologues are also ignorant of the fact that the concept of national self-determination they are scoffing at were first put forward around the same time, by two of the finest minds of the 20th century from quite opposite sides of the ideological spectrum: President Woodrow Wilson of the USA (former President of Harvard University) and V.I. Lenin of Russia. Now it is one thing to argue that this concept does not apply in the manner the founders intended, to countries such as Sri Lanka, or that it does so only to a limited extent, or that it does not apply except in a limited manner to minorities —as I do, among so many others—but it is quite another to be blissfully ignorant of the paternity of the concept, its seriousness and its universal recognition.

The argument that the Sinhala Alt-Right waves about with a flourish, namely that the majority of Tamils live outside the North and East and therefore the devolution of power would be no solution at all, is an argument that no undergraduate towards the end of his or her year as a ‘fresher’ would deploy. That is because he/she would have read enough books from the library to know that ethnic self-determination, devolution etc. pertained precisely to territory. It is not a question of how many or what percentage of a community live outside a given territory it identifies with, but a question of the political status of the territory in which that community, speaking that language and sharing that identity and culture, constitute a majority, and have resided in for a long historical period.

(To be concluded tomorrow)


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