29 June 2012

Thou shalt label at thine own risk!

[This article was first published in November 2010.  I re-post it given the TNA's re-affirmation of the communalist ideology which birthed the LTTE and bathed the nation in blood.  I re-post it in the interest of national reconciliation and sustainable peace]

For years anyone who opposed a ‘negotiated settlement’ to the conflict in Sri Lanka (even on the basis of its impracticality given the LTTE’s many times proven intransigence) were called ‘war-mongers’.  Since most of those who argued that the LTTE should and can be militarily defeated happened to be Sinhalese and indeed Sinhala Buddhists, they were gifted the additional tags ‘chauvinist’, ‘religious supremacists/fundamentalists’, ‘bigots’ etc. 

Now what if these ‘bigots’ had not turned idea into ideology and not convinced a critical mass of people in key segments of the population of the superiority of their position?  I believe it is quite likely that Mahinda Rajapaksa would have had a tough time balancing the political equation, military realities, the key players in the international community and his own doubts, if indeed he was convinced of the above position which I seriously doubt.  I believe the LTTE would have been very much alive and in all likelihood being painted as ‘peace-partners’ and ‘legitimate representatives (of Tamils)’ by an adoring I/NGO community. 

I am sure there are still some people who are nostalgic about those happy days when terrorism ruled our streets, junctions, railways stations, and shopping complexes if not for anything, because it meant the Rajapaksas had to be on their toes and therefore could be tripped politically.  Few though would in their most private moments be unhappy that the LTTE is out of the political equation and off the streets they and their loved ones walk.  They are not raising a toast to the bigots, the chauvinists, the religious fundamentalists and warmongers. 

The Eelamists are now doing the ‘next best thing’.  In these dismal times where the ideological and political setbacks are so formidable that many loyalists have abandoned the separatist ship, they are fighting to keep the Eelam-feeding terminology alive.  They have to keep the labels ‘real’ and ‘current’ because language is not just political, it is in many ways the core of what we call ‘politics’.  The entire Eelam story was a product of carefully crafted terms and phrases such as ‘(exclusive) traditional homelands’, ‘aspirations’, ’50-50’, ‘multi-ethnic; multi-religious’ and characterizations such as ‘The North’ (as opposed to ‘The South’ and thereby creating an imaginary dividing line right across the island to legitimate the ’50-50’ proposition), ‘Kilinochchi’ (to refer to the LTTE leadership, as counterpoint to ‘Colombo’, the capital of Sri Lanka) and ‘de-facto state’ (forgetting conveniently that a even the cattle-shed that ‘Kilinochchi’ was compared to Colombo was essentially subsidized by this very same ‘Colombo).

I can understand people, especially ‘minorities’ being wary of an overarching ‘Sri Lankan’ identity that might, at least in theory, end up erasing cultures or at least key strands in various identities.  Identities, like cultures, I believe are far more resilient than people think they are and very often survive despite legislative mechanisms designed specifically to obliterate such things.  The European invaders, some empowered by Papal Bulls engaged in a kind of zealotry that was marked by violence unseen until the LTTE turned up and yet it took just one individual, the Sangharaja Welivita Sri Saranankara Thero to turn things around. That’s an example, if you need one.

I don’t think however that the iteration of certain terms is about cultural survival; it is powered rather by a need to expand political terrain, geographic and otherwise.  Take ‘multi-ethnic, multi-religious’ for example.  Which nation in the 21st century can claim that it is not ‘multi-ethnic’ or that it is not ‘multi-religious’?  Few, if at all, and if so they are probably nations made of very small populations.  ‘Multi-ethnic, multi-religious’ is thin ice to stand and pronounce anything if one is asked to name the core sources of a ‘Sri Lankan’ culture.  One can say ‘nothing’ or ‘everything’ but it will betray only one thing: the political and ideological need to suppress the Sinhala and Buddhist elements of the overall identity-make up of this nation. 

We have the issue of labeling, indeed of demanding labels.  I was told there are notices in certain parts of the Jaffna Peninsula requesting ‘visitors’ to be sensitive to ‘local culture’.  It is good of course to be sensitive to others, other traditions, religious faiths, cultures and ways of being.  In general it is better to educate all people about all people so that such signage becomes irrelevant, but the existence of the sign has implications that are extremely disturbing. 

The moment you put up a sign saying ‘Mine’ or ‘Do as I say!’ you are essentially asking for and giving legitimacy to someone else putting up similar signs elsewhere.  There’s nothing ‘wrong’, then, in Sinhalese putting up signs saying ‘Respect our culture’ or Buddhists saying ‘Respect our traditions; desist from animal-sacrifice’ or ‘Theism reigns here, so don’t offend us by claiming there is a creator god’.  The Buddhists could, theoretically, wave the Buddhist flag in Kandy.  In Akurana, Muslims could, theoretically ban the chanting of pirith.  I need not elaborate, but Christians (of all denomination), since they do not constitute the majority in any district could, theoretically, have to tone down on ritual and expression in deference to ‘local culture/tradition’. 

It should not be like that, should it?  But this is exactly the kind of outcome that this kind of identity reiteration can produce. Some 53% of Tamils live outside the North and East. What of their ‘cultural assertion’ in those other provinces?  Some may argue that they are culturally ‘second-classed’ anyway, but that’s as bigoted a statement as anything that bigoted Sinhalese might say of Tamils.  There are citizenship anomalies but nothing as severe as those experienced by certain minorities in many part of the world.  There are insecurities that can be sourced to racism from all quarters. I don’t believe we have crossed the point of no-return.  If that were the case there wouldn’t be any churches, mosques or kovils in the city of Colombo. We would be like Gujarat, periodically snuffing out thousands of lives over a few hours.   But we could get there let us have no illusions about this.  We could get to the point where tolerance is needled out of the politico-cultural equation by short-sighted territory-carving attempts in the manner of claim-squirting canines. 

When someone says ‘hands off’ he/she is at the same time agreeing to concede pre-eminence in other politico-geographies.  Not the way to go if we want to get out of the divisive and in the final count dismembering mind-set that dragged us all down as a nation and as various ethnic and/or religious collectivities. 

We have to be careful about labeling, the tags we pin on ourselves and on one another, for even as they demarcate sovereignties (shall we say?), real or imagined, tenable or otherwise, they immediately create spaces in which the demarcators (shall we say?) are marked out and made lesser.  



sajic said...

I believe that the notices in jaffna asking people to 'be sensitive to local culture' etc,were posted during the sudden influx of visitors to jaffna and Nagadvipa after the war ended. They were relevant then because the busloads of visitors did not observe simple rules of cleanliness. They were not meant to be communal-minded.
They are not relevant now and have no bearing on the present situation.

Anonymous said...

Whilst I am in agreement with most of the contents the 'notices' in Jaffna I believe - as sajic says - were not meant to be divisive. I notice that many travel brochures advise western tourists to be sensitive to South Asian cultural norms - on beaches, places of worship and so on.

Anonymous said...

In the context of I/NGOs and their propaganda:

I must say my rspect for World Vision and Rev. Tim Costello is down to zero.

Commenting on the asylum seeker issue Costello makes a sweeping statement that the asylum seekers are fleeing Afghanistan and Sri Lanka due to 'persecution.'
This is the kind of irresponsibe (to put the kindest interpretation) statement that the Sri Lanka High Commission should take up with the people who make them.