We have been at our wit’s end of late, lamenting certain stirrings of latent ethno-nationalism in our land. First over the halal ha-ho. Finally about all this hijab business. The battle lines were being drawn by a handful of passionate but possibly misguided monks. That certain very influential bureaucrats seemed to support them in thought, [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

I’m an islander: So what’s your race?


We have been at our wit’s end of late, lamenting certain stirrings of latent ethno-nationalism in our land. First over the halal ha-ho. Finally about all this hijab business. The battle lines were being drawn by a handful of passionate but possibly misguided monks. That certain very influential bureaucrats seemed to support them in thought, word, and deed added to civil society’s worries. These could be the beginnings of another pogrom – the likes of which we have had enough of as a nation, state, and country.
Here, then, in response, are a few thoughts on how we can return to that happy state in which we found ourselves before a sword was used to wedge an artificial divide between conservative Sinhala Buddhists and beleaguered minority Muslims. And, if it is taken well, we can even hark back to those halcyon days when the Tamils and the Sinhalese were not at swords drawn. If the hiatus can be applied for long enough, we may even venture to those idyllic times (1996, 1948, etc.) when – for a brief shining moment – we were all Ceylonese or Sri Lankan or (whatever we called ourselves) one island-race. It is a return deeply to be desired. It is a spirit or ethos that still evades us.
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood expressed the concept well when she hoped that “people will finally come to realise that there is only one ‘race’ – the human race – and that we are all members of it”. The idea has been adopted by many right-thinking citizens of the one planet we all have. Most recently, a group of European anti-racist scientists published a telling manifesto – ‘There Is Only One Race: The Human Race’.
Such a lofty view may be merely wishful thinking of an idealistic few – until decent, normal, average, civilised, conscientised Sri Lankans across the ethnic spectrum acknowledge the nature, extent, and gravity of the problem. Racial or ethnic superiority is a relatively modern ideology which systematically categorises humans based on physical features – such as skin colour, facial features, and hair type. When such an ideology becomes the basis for assigning value, it becomes racism or ethnic chauvinism.
In the end, the ideology of race is a myth because biologically, scientists have not found enough difference between humans to create sub-categories such as those used for social division. However, although scientists have abandoned the notion of race, the myth still exists today and continues to be used – and misused and abused – widely. It falls on the many to disabuse the few of their bias, bigotry, and shameful prejudices.
While worldly approaches to race and ethnicity differentiate individuals along political, economic, cultural, and social criteria, this method of distinguishing people is quite alien to the ideal Sri Lankan zeitgeist. Most islanders have little time for petty-minded majoritarianism. Except when political agitators persuade them that it is in their narrow interests to safeguard their identity, rights, and other chimeras. In times like that, the historical existence of diverse peoples in our land – constantly acknowledged by constitution as well as citizenry – is forgotten.
There is neither a super race in Sri Lanka nor a superior nation in Sri Lankans in the eyes of the world. Sri Lanka’s special calling – if any – always follows from a nexus of surrounding or supporting nations: India now, Pakistan then, China in the time ahead. No pure or racially distinct group can be pinpointed in our past, and a ‘mixed multitude’ of peoples populates our present. If only we were willing to see such a real plurality as a strength, where individuals transcend their ethnic quiddity (thus they are), the factors that would otherwise limit, curtail, or prohibit the full development of our potential could be curbed; even eliminated.
Such a balanced and sober view encompasses the thinking that every single Sri Lankan, no matter how much the image of their citizenship is marred by age, gender violence, illness, weakness, power struggles, nature (personality/temperament), culture (religion/language), politics, or any other factor, still has the status of being Sri Lankan – and therefore must be treated with the dignity and respect due to a citizen. This has profound implications for our conduct towards others. It means that people of every ethnicity deserve equal dignity, rights, and treatment in the course of national life.
Significantly, while ethno-chauvinists treat ethnic and cultural identity as fixed, Sri Lanka’s chequered colonial experience shows how these develop, borrow, fragment, and reform within the history of our island-race. Show me a “pure” Kandyan Sinhalese or Jaffna Tamil or Ceylon Moor and I will show you how some of us live in denial, despising our hybridity and commingling as an insular community. Thus, truly national-minded commentators on ethnic strife and tension now need to propose radical shifts away from simplistic, ethnically-loaded categories assumed by ethno-chauvinist ideologues.
Present concerns point to the disturbing reality that outside the constitutional frameworks of a pluralistic society, many of the multiethnic peoples of Sri Lanka are uncertain of their own place, purpose, and identity in our democratic socialist republic. Due to pathetically ignorant attitudes among a few rabble-rousers, many citizens are unfairly and unnecessarily marginalised in determining their destiny under a common sun. Instead of reflecting on the kind of society we ought to create, in order to accommodate individual or communal heterogeneity, perhaps we all need to explore what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others.
Most among the majority seem to realise that rampant ethno-nationalism has a long, ugly history and will bring Sri Lanka shame and sorrow eventually. But many erstwhile moderates now militate towards an ultra-nationalistic ethic, following from the incendiary manipulation of a latent tendency to marginalize and dominate the ethnic other. How the chauvinistic discourse is handled by the state and society will play a critical role in determining the world community’s response to us an emerging nation only recently liberated from the spectre of terrorism. Some growing challenges to Sri Lanka’s global well-being corresponding to concern over ethnic chauvinism have yet to be comprehended and convincingly addressed by our island-race as a whole.
If we are to move away from thinking in terms of disastrous majoritarian exclusivity, we must rethink some sacred texts, stop worshipping some sacred cows, and responsibly re-examine the meaning of what it means to be Sri Lankan at this stage in our joint history. This may be a utopian idea in the current context of egregious nationalism; but it is a necessary one. We have to start rethinking what it means to be members of an island-race, in a melting-pot that defies definition and discrimination; and also begin the process of socializing the next generation into this new kind of identity.

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