Towards a cultural critique of Sri Lankan politics – Conclusion

by Izeth Hussain


Read the previous parts of this series: Part One and Part Two 


( February 3, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the second part of this article I argued that those who are exceptional achievers in the sphere of economics are motivated by self-interest but they benefit the public all the same. How does private vice, shown in the selfishness of the successful, conduce to the public good? I argued that Adam Smith was wrong in thinking that the explanation was to be found in the self-correcting mechanism provided by the “hidden hand “of the market. I thought that it was rather the sense of unity in the society as a whole that was the determining factor. I took as the best exemplars of unity the Western countries and the countries whose economics and politics have been shaped by a Confucian cultural background, pre-eminently the East Asian and to a lesser extent the South East Asian ones. The contrast is provided by the South Asian countries. Their politics have been far messier, their economic performance has been comparatively very disappointing, and significantly their societies have been far more divisive.

At this point I must digress slightly to say something about how cultural factors shaped Western perceptions about their colonies. There used to be in the Colombo Public Library a book called Orientations, originally published in the ‘thirties, by Sir Ronald Storrs who was earlier a Governor of Cyprus. He predicted that after decolonization the two stellar performers among the ex-British colonies would be Cyprus and Ceylon, both of which would retrospectively provide the best justifications for British imperialism. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Cyprus broke up, Sri Lanka also broke up temporarily and could yet do so on a permanent basis. As for its economic performance, it has been so far below its potential that it can only be regarded as utterly moronic in comparison with that of Singapore. Why was Storrs so wrong? I believe that the explanation is that he had inherited the British tradition of individualism which prioritizes the individual over the group, so that the ethnic divisions in Cyprus and Ceylon were inconsequential for him. It was the same tradition that led Soulbury to imagine that Section 29 in the Constitution would suffice to contain the potential for ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. There was no understanding of the need for forging a transethnic identity, for unity. Consequently there has never been any serious attempt at nation-building in Sri Lanka, not even today. What we have had in lieu of that is a never-ending assertion of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy.

***

What is the explanation? I would focus on the cultural factors behind Sinhalese divisiveness because it is the Sinhalese majority who mainly determine the economics and the politics of Sri Lanka. For instance, if not for the Sinhalese divisiveness which makes whichever Party that happens to be in the Opposition to oppose any and every attempt at a solution of the ethnic problem, that problem would have been solved long long long ago.


In the remainder of this article I will do no more than provide a few details about divisiveness in Sri Lanka, and further I will merely mention a cultural factor that could possibly explain that divisiveness. The reason is that in this three-part article I have broached a subject that is huge, complex, and difficult, requiring several articles to be dealt with adequately. Our divisiveness has been shown at its deepest over the Tamil ethnic problem. Some time ago I suggested a shift of focus, a paradigm shift, in our approach to the ethnic problem: each side should counter not only the racism on the other side but also the racism within its own side. The need for that has become gradually apparent. The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957 was aborted because of opposition from the Buddhist monks and the UNP. But ten years later the Dudley-Chelvanayagam Pact was also aborted, that time because of opposition from the Buddhists monks and the SLFP. The latter abortion was enigmatic because the D-C Pact was similar to what the SLFP itself had proposed in the BC Pact. The probable explanation for the enigma is this: both major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, have their quota of racists who find the idea of making concessions to the Tamils unbearable and therefore when there is the prospect of a solution they scuttle it. Consequently when Chandrika Kumaratunge made proposals that might have led to a solution the UNP scuttled them in 2000. Today, we can be sure that if there is the prospect of a solution the Joint Opposition will oppose it. The Tamil side does not seem to be much different from the Sinhalese one as shown by the recent plot to assassinate Sumanthiran. We must recognize that the endlessly protracted ethnic imbroglio has underlying it a deep divisiveness in our society.

That divisiveness was shown also in the ridiculous travesty that we made of our democracy over several decades. General elections were seen as wars and the victorious Party behaved like a conqueror, which led me over two decades ago to write a satirical piece on what I chose to call “conquest democracy”. In the old days after 1931 we used to have pre-election violence but after 1948 the institution of post election violence became firmly entrenched. It rose to a mad crescendo in 1977 when JR, the hooligan President, gave leave to the police force so that the Jay Gang could make merry at the expense of the conquered SLFP. Three weeks later they made merry at the expense of the conquered Tamils, setting off a war that led to a hundred thousand deaths. After the elections the conquering Party treated the state sector as a private estate, making appointments on the principle that “We have the right to appoint anybody we like to any post we like”.  That was one of the two principles on which both major parties were agreed, the other being the right to keep on increasing their perks for the benefit of the people. A peculiar feature of our democracy, probably unique, was that every village in Sri Lanka was divided between adherents of the two major Parties, and democracy became organized hatred. A British scholar noted that a festival that had been celebrated in common in our villages down the millennia came to be celebrated on two different days in two different locations by adherents of the two major Parties.

We tend to think of our divisiveness only or mainly in terms of the divisions between our major ethnic groups, the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and the Muslims, failing to note the divisions within each of our ethnic groups – an important failure because intra-ethnic divisions can impact adversely on inter-ethnic relations. For instance, it has been a commonplace that the three low-country castes, the Karavas, the Duravas, and the Salagamas, most of whom came from South India after 1505 have been since the nineteenth century more chauvinist towards the minorities than the Goigama. The most divisive of our ethnic groups are the Muslims who by way of compensation have been ostentatious about their supposed solidarity. That could be the explanation why their politicians have been notorious over the decades for their failure, or rather refusal, to speak up for the legitimate interests of the Muslims, which I believe has contributed in no small measure to deteriorating Muslim relations with the Sinhalese. All this divisiveness in Sri Lanka is doubtless the main reason why its performance has been so far below its potential.

What is the explanation? I would focus on the cultural factors behind Sinhalese divisiveness because it is the Sinhalese majority who mainly determine the economics and the politics of Sri Lanka. For instance, if not for the Sinhalese divisiveness which makes whichever Party that happens to be in the Opposition to oppose any and every attempt at a solution of the ethnic problem, that problem would have been solved long long long ago. The most important factor behind the divisiveness is I believe the “Karmic theory”. There is rebirth and stations in life are determined by Karma, by the good and bad deeds in an individual’s prior lives, which results in the caste system. Louis Dumont in his classic on the Indian caste system, Homo Hierarchicus, argued – correctly I think – that the caste system is not just another system of social stratification like the Western stratification according to class. The difference is that the latter valorizes equality whereas the caste system valorizes inequality, which furthermore is given a religious validation under Hinduism. It is not given that validation under Buddhism but the belief in rebirth and karma leads ineluctably to the caste system which valorizes division and hierarchy. That could be the main reason why both the Sinhalese and the Tamils produce such obnoxious racists. They are in a minority in both cases but it is they who in matters ethnic have been calling the shots. It is time to extirpate them.

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