27 October 2011

A note on the history-phobia of devolutionists

‘It takes centuries of life to make a little history; it takes centuries of history to make a little tradition.’ – Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan

The term ‘power sharing’ (like its typically recommended, on-the-ground articulation, ‘devolution’) has been used for a long time in the Sri Lankan political discourse, especially in the context of resolving what are called ‘minority grievances’. 

Now ‘devolution’ can be argued for outside of ethnic politics as well -- for example in discussions of development, better distribution of wealth, greater degrees of participation in decision-making processes etc.  On the other hand, there is nothing to state that the objectives relevant to these other arguments can only be obtained through devolution.  Better structures of governance and decentralization of administrative functions can do the same job.  As for ‘development’, the current thinking on relevant economics actually rebels against ‘devolution’. Indeed, in the Sri Lankan context, the devolution argument, when played to its logical conclusion, can result in exacerbating regional disparities. 

While many devolutionists have alluded to economic and governance factors (selectively and erroneously), these have been little more than addendum to the principal argumentative thrust, i.e. resolution of issues pertaining to the ‘ethnic’, in particular the grievances/aspirations of the Tamil community.  This in turn is predicated on two claims/assumptions: the notion of a ‘traditional homeland’ and demographic realities pertaining to ‘ethnic concentrations’.  The former necessitates a reference to and substantiation in terms of historical evidence.  The latter, often framed in terms of a description of Sri Lanka as a ‘multi-ethnic’ and ‘multi-religious’ country, necessitates a discussion of relevant numbers and demographic data.  On both counts, the advocates of devolution appear to fumble and tongue-tied. 

Let’s begin with the numbers.  First of all, in today’s world of massive demographic shifts within and without countries and continents, there are no pure mono-ethnic nations. The only mono-religious state would be the Vatican.  Thus the notions of multi-ethnic and multi-religious often amount to gross misrepresentation. Moreover, leaving them unpacked in terms of numbers indicates political and ideological sleight of hand.  Interestingly, though, the devolution advocates who use these terms liberally also talk of ‘majoritarianism’.  That term ought to be followed by a demographic breakdown but devolutionists are consistently loath to engage in any such exercise.  They don’t do this and one wonders if this is because the term implies that there’s something more than one-collective-one-vote in these things that have the ‘multi’ tag. 
When they do talk numbers and demography the discussion almost exclusively focuses either on ‘status quo’ or charges of deliberate attempts to alter the same through racism-motivated colonization.  There are three problems with hooking the number issue onto ‘status quo’. First, it assumes that people are born and die without moving around at all.  Today’s ‘status quo’ was not yesterday’s and will not be tomorrow’s and as such ‘resolution’ of ‘grievances’ relative to ethnic-enclave based status quo demands re-resolution each time the compositions get altered.  Secondly, ‘status quo’ by definition rebels against history and summarily throws out all arguments about ‘traditional homelands’ since this is a notion that is embedded inextricably in things historical and not ‘momentary’.  A third objection would be that the ‘multi-ethnic, multi-religious’ essentially calls for an erasure of citizenship anomalies across the board.  One cannot demand this and also want a privileging of certain collectives over another in a given territorial unit.  Devolutionists consistently gloss over these issues and this indicates a rank disavowal of fact and reason and thereby an unholy deference to myth, obfuscation, error and crass communal politics.

The question of ‘history’ is as interesting. Ask anyone who talks of traditional homelands how far back in history he/she wants to go. Ask him/her about substantiating claim.  Clamming up, shifting gear and diverting attention usually follow.  It is remarkable how those who strongly advocate devolution and liberally use terms such as ‘traditional homeland’, ‘self-determination’, ‘power-sharing,’ etc. are also extremely reluctant to talk about the history of this country.  We often here statements such as ‘the past is all over, let’s focus on the present’ uttered by devolutionists, even as they use history-laden terms such as ‘traditional homelands’.

It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those who get intellectually fidgety with respect to the above happen to be non-Sinhalese or non-Buddhists or else subscribe to apparently identity-less or identity-disavowing ideologies such as Marxism or at least have had their political baptism in such doctrines. 

The length of historical memory preferred indicates political location, ideological bent, preferred outcome and of course the defensible claim on historical time in terms of the particular individual’s ethno-religious identity.   Those who don’t have the ‘centuries’ relevant to Dr. Radhakrishna’s observation above cannot afford to talk history. They can, at best, fudge it (by tagging ‘multi’ to the ethnic and religious) or take it out of the equation by talking ‘present’ and ‘status quo’ (and of course fiddling with the curriculum as was quite effectively done in the nineties).  Without the centuries and the histories not much ‘tradition’ can be made except of course in the fly-by-night, one-hit-wonder kind of formulation that simply cannot replace ‘tradition’ made of way-of-life, cultural ethos and artifact-reality that show undeniable longevity and resilience.  An ‘I was here’ fact of an odd artifact or mention in a verse has very little historical weight and perhaps this is why the historically light would rather not talk about it.

No nation can move towards a better future if it is stuck in the past.  On the other hand, a nation that disavows the past, is destined to walk into trap and confusion.  Only clarity and a certain deference to reason, both about the past and present, can produce useful thinking when it comes to thinking about the future.  A greater claim on the past does not and should not translate automatically into greater citizenship privileges, but a reluctance to acknowledge that past and the who-did-what of civilization-building, it must also be acknowledged, is a recipe for communal disharmony.  If Community A, whose history is two days old, tells Community B whose history is 17 centuries old that history never happened and even if it did happen it is no longer relevant, no one can fault Community B for treating Community A with suspicion.  If Community B tells Community A, ‘we made this country, so you have to live with the fact and moreover submit to us,’ the Community B cannot claim to have acquired any civilization worth talking about.

History-Phobia is not healthy. It reveals pernicious design. History-Fixation is also unhealthy.  History-disavowal is a malicious project that seeks to erase ‘centuries of life’.  It is good to be clear on these things.  The more we try to hide history under the political carpet, the more untenable becomes the matter of inter-communal embrace on a common humanitarian floor.  We would all trip and fall flat on our faces.  We’ve done that enough now.  It is time to acknowledge fact and toss myth out.   It is time to name those who are reluctant to do this as political frauds, racists and chauvinists, and in some instances religious fundamentalists who for their so-called evangelical ‘mission’ fervently seek the erasure that the ‘multi’ tag gives, a kind of politics they would never ever advocate in countries where the particular faith is dominant.  The reason why this last category champions devolution, perhaps, is the knowledge that when you pull the rug from under the Sinhalese (in terms of land-theft for example), the vast majority of those who fall will necessarily be Buddhists. 

We are history-made.  That’s the bottom line.  Anyone who denies this denies instantly his/her parents. To begin with.  He/she then calls his/her child a bastard.  That’s also ‘bottom line’.