31 October 2022

Sunak, dual-citizens and mistaken identity

Asad Heider in his highly acclaimed book ‘Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump’ contends that identity politics cannot be equated to anti-racism. He argues that identity politics is essentially an exercise that lends to the neutralization of its movements. Moreover, he shows that identity politics subverts the passage from identity to solidarity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure.

Heider’s thesis is obtained from movements in the USA. He focuses on collectives, not individuals. And yet, individuals and their rise in particular social structures in particular contexts can benumb anti-racist movements while distracting from engagement with structures which affirm and perpetuate all kinds of dispossession, disenchantment and destruction. At least for a while. We see this with Rishi Sunak and we saw it with Barack Obama.  

There are people going ga-ga over Rishi Sunak becoming the Prime Minister of Britain. ‘Yay, an Indian,’ some Indians salivate. ‘A South Asia, wow,’ exclaim some Sri Lankans. Some ask, slyly, ’When will we get someone who is not a Sinhala Buddhist as President?’ Some even celebrate the fact that Barack Obama, an African American, became President of the USA (he was the fifth, in fact). Again, ‘when will we get someone who is not a Sinhala Buddhist as President?’ 


First of all Sunak is no Indian. And ‘India’ didn’t exist before the British Invasion. Sunak is a rich, right-wing citizen of Britain whose ideological preferences completely outweigh any fascination he may have about ancestry and DNA. Obama was a creature of the deep state of the USA, a genocidal maniac whose racism was not in any manner dented by the fact of his skin colour. 

Now had Obama campaigned as an African American politically invested only in African American issues, one might have some cause for celebration, forgetting of course that his views on the role of the USA in international affairs didn’t diverge from those of his predecessors. If Sunak was all about Indianness, strident critique of the colonial project, the need to fully compensate countries, people and cultures plundered and subjected to mass murder and cultural genocide, lambasting the USA for fuelling a global economic crisis and withdrawal from NATO, that would have been something.

But no, Obama had a skin color that was different, Sunak has a name that has a subcontinental trace. An individual ‘other’ rising to high office does not necessarily indicate a break from the past.   Was the status of Sri Lankan women enhanced significantly when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister or when Chandrika Kumaratunga was President? No. 

The flip side makes interesting reading too. A Sinhala Buddhist in power does not necessarily mean that the Sri Lankan political structure and culture are overwhelmingly chauvinist. Sri Lanka is often described as a Sinhala Buddhist state. It is typically named as such by people who are rabidly racists or are religious fundamentalists, only they belong to ‘other’ ethnic and religious collectives, insisting that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country a la ‘one ethnicity one vote’ or ‘one religion one vote’ never mind numbers or percentages and completely disavowing history and heritage. But let’s forget all that. This ‘Sinhala Buddhist state’ regularly slaughtered Sinhala Buddhists. Sinhala Buddhist leaders consistently ridicule Sinhalese, Buddhists, Buddhism and all cultural and historical matters associated with these collectives, while crying foul if practices that are the cultural preferences of other communities are called into question. 

Would a Tamil president, for example, deliver ‘Eelam’ or indeed be inclined to address Tamil aspirations (aspirations, ladies and gentlemen are ten cents a dozen, even in these inflationary times)? The history of the world says, ‘unlikely.’  

Perhaps we could talk of the ‘thinkability,’ let’s say, of an individual who is not from a majority community coming to power. The problem is that it is, simply, unmeasurable. Good for rhetoric and the tossing around of half-truths. Good for rabble-rousing. That’s about it.    

Crucially, though, the identity-fascination completely shelves issues of and deriving from structures, especially economic. Sri Lanka is a test case, in fact. How many self-labelled leftists and Marxists still talk of class, still critique capitalism or factor imperialism into their analysis? When did it become more convenient to shift to identity politics? Typically, they dismiss such questions with the assertion that first they need to do away with the ‘Sinhala Buddhist state.’ And typically, they get their whatnots twisted when they feel compelled to look away when any community other than Sinhalese or Buddhists wreck the party (of principled, non-racists, non-sectarian politics). They would say, for example, ‘there are no pure races,’ but strangely but not surprisingly talk of ‘Exclusive Tamil homelands,’ even as they disavow ‘history’ as being merely someone’s version. 

They devote oodles of years to constitutional reform which, in their minds, would strike off any special privileges that Buddhists may enjoy, never realising that such never existed and even the cursory acknowledgment of history and heritage has been negated already.  And they forget class. They forget capitalism. They forget imperialism. Indeed, they collude with the capitalist class They collude with imperialists.   

And all this is not unrelated to the hue and cry about dual citizens and dual citizenship. The assumption is that citizens are by the fact of citizenship loyal to the nation whereas dual citizens by definition have split-loyalties. 

In the end such exercises are recognised as the fancies of the deluded and disingenuous. The identity project, if you will, is wrecked by the identity-fascinated. Solidarities are compromised and collective struggles discredited. A doctoral thesis can be obtained by using Heider’s theoretical window to gaze upon the ‘Aragalaya,’ its antecedents, the way it unfolded and what it yielded (and squandered, to be more precise).

Not true. Take all those ‘blue-blooded’ citizens castigated over the years by those opposed to dual citizens holding public office. Can it be said that regardless of their shortcomings and crimes they were, all of them, better than any dual citizen?  Citizenship does not guarantee patriotism. Patriotism that ignores class, one could argue, mollycoddles a particular class and a system that essentially disenfranchises, exploits and periodically assault other segments of citizens. 

Blue-blooded citizens have throughout history sided with invaders, facilitated invasion and in many ways cleared the way for plunder, genocide and such. Let’s take villains, so named, from recent decades: J R Jayewardena (citizen), Velupillai Prabhakaran (citizen), Rohana Wijeweera (citizen), Mahinda Rajapaksa (citizen), Chandrika Kumaratunga (citizen), Ranasinghe Premadasa (citizen), S W R D Bandaranaike (citizen), Mangala Samaraweera (citizen), Appapillai Amirthalingam (citizen). We could add many who make up the Candlelight Ladies, Rent-a-Protest Agitational Fronts, Bornagainazis, Stink Tanks, Funded Voices and other Kolombians who are blue-blooded citizens but who have supported moves to wreck sovereignty and who have benefitted from corrupt and tyrannical systems that have brought upon misery on the majority of the citizenry.

For the record, also, let’s not forget that policy in this country is driven by the dictates of the IMF and World Bank. Let’s not forget that India is not Sri Lanka and Indians are not Sri Lankan citizens. They aren't dual citizens. Let’s not forget that Julie Chung and her ilk aren’t Sri Lankans. They aren’t dual citizens either. 

So Sunak has ‘Indian’ blood. Big deal. Barack Obama is black. Big deal. Leaders of Sri Lanka have been Sinhala Buddhists. Big deal. This country has been and is being governed by the only true minority: the bourgeoisie. Interestingly, it is the bourgeoisie that gets the biggest kick out of identity politics. Coincidence? Nah!