Opinion: Building a common Sri Lankan identity a challenge

ECONOMYNEXT – Amongst the qualifications, one needs to become the President of the country according to government party Legislator, Chamara Sampath Dassanayake is that the person must be a Buddhist.

He also said that only the married with children could aspire to that high position, but let’s leave that for another discussion.

Meanwhile, the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Harin Fernando also raised a moot question in Parliament.

Could, he asked, Muthiah Muralitharan or Farvaiz Maharoof, the former being a Tamil, the other a Muslim, captain the Sri Lanka cricket team despite their exploits on the field?

While Fernando drove home the point that unless one belongs to the Sinhala Buddhist community which makes up most of Sri Lanka’s population, heading the national cricket team could only be a dream, Dissanayake’s call to allow only Buddhists to be President, reinforces the very idea that he laments about.

Complex and divisive issues no doubt, but if the oft-touted “one country one law” mantra or the United Sri Lanka ideal is to become a reality, then, shouldn’t a single identity of a Sri Lankan be created first? And shouldn’t every public office, at the very highest level be open to any Sri Lankan citizen of whatever ethnicity?
No easy task. Like all other nations, Sri Lanka’s population is made up of an array of ethnicities, faiths, castes and social classes, which are further broken down into being Kandyan, Low Country, Upcountry, Easterner, Southerner and Northerner etc.

One common thread that binds all these divisions is the use of the term ‘minority’ in identifying anyone who does not fall within the Sinhala Buddhist group.

So, is it time to address this minority-majority divide? Do we work towards creating a society of equals on all fronts, instead of the belief that those who do not fall within the Sinhala Buddhist category must never forget the benevolence of the former under whose shadow everyone else must live?

In a New Year message, Dr Tush Wickremanayake, a medical doctor by profession and an ardent rights advocate suggested it is time the term ‘minority’ is dropped. Instead, would the term “non-majority citizens’ lend a better representation and acceptance of all the communities that do not fall within the SB group?

An interesting term, though academics and social activists, whose opinions were sought on the matter, feel, that while the issue must be addressed positively, such a phrase would still be grouping people according to numerical strength.

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Says MP, Dr Harini Amarasuriya, of National People’s Power (NPP) that the negative connotation is not in the term ‘minority’ but it is the manner in which minorities are treated. It is a structural issue and not a linguistic one, she adds, where “it is a crude rendering of democracy to mean majority rule.’ Such an idea has resulted from the historical grievances, some legitimate, that the Sinhala Buddhist community has experienced during colonial rule she says.

Indeed, the divide and rule policy of the colonial masters resulted in not only the creation of an elite class drawn from all communities but also the concept that some of the numerically smaller groups and those of the Christian faith enjoyed preferential status.

But, as Amarasuriya goes on to state, this policy of divide and rule continues, even though the colonial powers left our shores seventy-two years ago. What we have today, says Amarasuriya, is the exploitation of the populace by a political elite, who have continued to nurture the grievances between communities for their gain.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s inauguration at the Ruvanveliseya in Anuradhapura/PMD handout

Sociology Professor Subhangi Herath explains, that being in the minority does not necessarily mean being less powerful. She points to the South African situation between the 1940s and 1990s where the numerically smaller White population held sway, dominating social, economic and political structures and subjugating the indigenous population. Similarly, in the Russian Federation, there have been minorities holding the upper hand. Therefore, wherever an ethnic group feels they are stronger, they also believe others must bend to their will, she says.

Herath recalls the story of Dutugemunu and Elara. Though Dutugemunu killed Elara in battle, he had built a memorial for Elara and ordered every passerby to pay homage irrespective of the fact that the latter was a Tamil and one who had been defeated in battle.

Lorna Devaraja’s ‘The Muslim of Sri Lanka, One thousand years of Ethnic Harmony,’ traces the rich and cordial relations shared between the Sinhalese and Muslims, who played an important role in the courts of our ancient kings.

But what can be seen today is the reverse; a refusal to acknowledge Muslim burial rights and the demolition of the memorial to the dead at the Jaffna University are two such examples.

Don’t such acts amplify the belief that smaller communities must live according to the whims and fancies of the stronger and larger group? Is there a forced subject-hood?

“We need to inculcate in the majority community the idea that everyone is human and that no one is secondary, that everyone must have access to the same rights, goals and aspirations,’ Herath points out.

Unfortunately even those belonging to minority communities, believe they are different, she adds, and politicians have no qualms during elections, about using ethnicity, caste, social class, or anything else for that matter that would help drive communities apart to win votes.

‘There is no such thing as the purity of a race, though Sinhalese, Tamils etc. would prefer to believe that,’ explains anthropologist Dr Nandini Gunawardena. With so many inter-marriages taking place, embracing the idea of multiple identities is the only way out from the ‘nationalistic view of cultural or racial purity.’

Echoing Herath and Amarasuriya that ‘minority’ or ‘non-majority’, both denote numbers, Gunawardena states that the term minority in itself comes with a lot of baggage, and should not be used. At the same time,’ non-majority” puts us in a similar dilemma, because it registers the notion of “non” as in ‘other’, which connotes a counter status, one that is “less than” or in opposition to the majority,’ Gunawardena says..

She too agrees that politicians like to think in terms of numbers, as it is advantageous to them.

She opines that the better way to do away with the minority-majority classification would be is to refer to each ethnic identity; ‘Sinhala, Muslim, Tamil, Buddhist etc. community. That way, we signal to society that it is more than a matter of proportionate representation and that the nuanced aspects of history, culture, identity, social institutions etc. are what must be recognized, respected, and accommodated.”

Amarasuriya puts forth a similar concept;’ What we need is to re-think our idea that majority-minority relations have to necessarily be simply about majoritarian dominance – but consider how a democracy can accommodate and recognise a multiplicity of identities and positions.’

Explains Herath, generations past were widely read, exposed to other languages such as Latin and Pali and were more accommodating. A narrower perspective is offered through the current day education system, she says.

But, will lawmakers agree to go the extra mile and give individual groups their full identity, asks Wickremanayake. As evidenced, successive governments have made ‘U turns’ on these issues, she says, adding that the current tensions brought upon by the Covid 19 related burials is a case in point.

Jurist and Human Rights Activist, Basil Fernando meanwhile says that the issue of minority can be addressed by ‘strengthening the idea of citizenship as strongly as possible.’ ‘If the state is committed as a constitutional obligation to protect and empower the citizenship of ALL, then the framework can be created for any citizen who feels that he/she is denied what is due as a citizen. This is the way rights of African American were formulated from inception, in their struggle against unequal treatment. Their demand was that they also have the same rights as whites.”

For such a scheme to be a success, says Fernando public institutions must treat everyone the same way. Weakening public bodies result in a disempowered population, a major problem facing Sri Lanka, he adds, while advocating for a ‘common struggle for each other and thereby improving citizens’ power.’

Fernando, who has made his submissions to the new constitution in the making, argues, that ‘what we need is not new words but a richer constitutional concept of the relationship between the state and citizens.’ He refers us to India’s Dr B R Ambedkar’s untiring efforts to ensure their constitution upheld the rights of minority communities.

Similarly, says Fernando, in Sri Lanka too, “all citizens must have the right to use their mother tongue. Making some special provisions for this must not be used as an excuse to create a majority and minority complex.”

As Harin Fernando aspires, and Chamara Sampath would prefer not, in neighbouring India, where the population is mostly Hindu, and the country is made up of not just different ethnicities and religions but tribes, cultures and sub-cultures, castes, sub-castes and social classes, we have seen a Sikh and a Muslim respectively, elected to the post of President. What’s more, Italian born Sonia Gandhi the President of the Indian National Congress could have well become India’s Prime Minister, had she not turned down that opportunity.

Despite its ethno-linguistic and faith groups, regional, caste and class differences, Indians are first and foremost Indian, says Herath, who adds that in being so, they do not discard any of their unique religious or cultural practices. And that is what Sri Lanka too must aspire to.

How then should Sri Lanka go about building a truly Sri Lankan identity, while safeguarding and respecting the various ethnic and faith communities that call this nation home? (Colombo, January 14, 2021)

Edited by Arjuna Ranawana

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