03 January 2022

On grievance, anxiety and belonging

In the matter of voicing, assessing and addressing grievances and apprehensions, it is my contention that there’s grievous neglect of acknowledging (say) ‘error.’ Communities, or rather those claiming to represent such collectives, are big on pointing fingers, wailing and stamping redress-feet, but seem all too ready to navel-gaze when their own faults of omission and commission are brought to the table. And so we have a shouting match.  Or worse. It gets us nowhere.

The last four decades, at least internationally, we’ve seen the Sinhalese (and sometimes ‘Buddhists’ or ‘Sinhala Buddhists’) being painted as the principal if not the only villain of the piece. We can debate about the how and why of it all. There’s political economy in the process and of course the hue and cry. Being the majority community hasn’t helped for there are those who like to think that minority-blemish has to be reactive, regardless of how horrendous the ‘reaction’ and regardless of the truth or otherwise of instigation. Yes, we can talk about the how and why of it all. Things have roots (plural, note). Things have sources and not all of them can be attributed to ‘some other villain.’

For ‘ease of business’ let's assume that the Sinhala-Villain narrative is the only tenable story. In other words, the British had no role, India had no role, Tamil chauvinism was absent; it’s just that Sinhalese (or Buddhists or Sinhala-Buddhists if you will) are alone responsible for perceptions or realities of non-belonging among Tamils, Muslims and other communities, ethnic or religious. If you want to make it more spicy, you could even say ‘the Sinhalese engaged in land-theft to boot.’ Only, you would have to substantiate that claim outside of rhetoric and frilled and fancied historiography. So let’s stick to the un-sexed version: Sinhalese made ‘belonging’ untenable and this caused grief and anxiety. It led to Tamil Nationalism, the 50-50 demand, the federal-cry, the separatist-demand and militarisation (yes, we leave out ‘terrorism’ in the interest of keeping things sanitised).


We could talk, then, of ‘Sinhala Only,’ the various anti-Tamil riots, the 6th Amendment to the Second Republican Constitution, the depravations and horrors associated with the armed conflict, the various ‘pacts’ which sought resolution and associated delivery-failure on the part of the Sinhalese, assuming for business-ease again, shifting of goalposts and non-delivery on the part of the other protagonist(s).

This is stuff for a doctoral dissertation and I am sure that there are tons of pages dedicated to the pernicious twisting of stories for purposes of pushing not-so-innocent agenda. For purposes of brevity which should not be taken as ease-of-business, I shall flag moments or issues where the Sinhalese or rather those claiming to represent them failed.

A caveat is needed here. Anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist and anti-Sinhala-Buddhist groups have for convenience labeled Sri Lanka as a Sinhala State (or ‘Sinhala Buddhist State’). They’ve used such descriptives when talking of governments and the major political parties/coalitions. Such is the ‘sin’ of a majority community that representational democracy always seat in power its members, regardless of whether or not such representatives are adherents of majoritarian or chauvinistic ideologies.

Riots. We’ve had our share. Tamils, in the main, but Muslims not excluded, have suffered. Now we can compare and contrast. We can talk of similar situations, how they evolved, their frequency and the relevant numbers in, say, India. We can talk of who fired the first salvo. We could trivialize and we could say ‘only so many victims but they are trivial compared to the numbers saved and the properties protected by Sinhalese,’ but that’s a copout. We can say ‘well, those were instigated by the UNP’s trade union,’ but that’s a copout too. A Tamil could be grateful to a Sinhala friend or neighbor who saved his/her life and protected his/her properties but it is still tragic that he/she was put in a situation where such protection was necessary. Also, it is undeniable that the identity of the belligerent was ‘Sinhala.’ They acted in the name of a community and it is natural for the victims to blame the agent as well as the community the agent (in their minds or in fact) represented. 

Those Sinhalese who claimed to represent the community and had the voice to issue statements, did not. Those governments, even though they didn’t represent the Sinhala community, could have made the relevant distinctions, explained contexts and separated the thinking, intent and acts of the thugs from those of the community, but they did not. The shining, intent and acts of individual Sinhalese were effectively removed from the narrative. Whether the scribes were pernicious in this absenting and misrepresentation or attributed to a collective the crimes of a few because they knew no better is only of academic interest. Bottom line: the feeling ‘we don’t belong’ got a boost.  The politics that came thereafter, including embracing the military ‘option’ obtained credence.

The above is true of all the violence we’ve seen post-independence. There were other moments that can be picked and discussed, but let me focus on just one. The Vadukoddai Resolution moved by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and adopted on May 14, 1976.

Now we can talk about the history of the TULF. We can talk of Appapillai Amirthalingam and the forefathers of Tamil chauvinism. We can talk of the merits and demerits of the Resolution. We can talk of what it engendered. We can identify many villains. We can point to a lot of villainy too. However, there’s one thing that Sinhalese or rather those who claimed to represent them missed: Tamils perceived a sense of not belonging so great that they felt a separate state was an option. The electorate overwhelmingly voted for the TULF in the 1977 parliamentary election. One might speculate that a community with thin or at least contentious histories, being a minority, could get excited about such an idea, but we cannot ascertain this conclusively. In the very least, the indication of a preference for identity-politics over issues such as class, for example, has to be recognised. It was not.

There are many ways to read the riots, the resolutions, the pacts and their ‘failure,’ the word 'sri' in number plates, the design of the national flag, the language of the national anthem and the descent into full-scale armed conflict. The issue of ‘belonging’ (or otherwise) hasn’t got much play in most of these things in the clash of arms, the bugle calls, the war-whoops and such. The Sinhalese, more than other communities, especially given perceptions of privilege and villainy, could have noted and addressed. They did not. They, for the most part, cherry-picked antecedents, pointed to the undeniable transgressions of their ‘enemy,’ the villainy of the enemy’s friends (India, primarily, but also the US, UK and the rest of Europe whose efforts were less products of cause-sympathy and mostly about benefits that may accrue). That was easy. That was too easy. It is still quite easy, at least in political debate.

And yet, here we are in the year 2021, with a war all done and dusted but with a fraternal community which, for the main part, is still aggrieved and anxious. The Sinhalese can revisit the moments flagged above and all such moments we could flag if there was space. The Sinhalese can say what their so-called leaders did not say. That would be necessary, but not sufficient. They could also do the brave and right thing: call for a historical audit so that ‘historical claims’ can be assessed and the results factored in when identity-related ‘solutions’ are discussed. There are probably a dozen or more ways to bring the issue of ‘belonging’ or lack thereof into the picture. This country hasn’t seen much of it. The longer we delay, as long will grievance and anxiety last.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]