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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, July 04, 2011

Academicians in making and unmaking of a nation: relevance to Sri Lanka

Transcurrents, 1/07/2011, by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Naro Udeshi Commemoration Lecture,
Mahatma Gandhi Centre, Colombo, June 30, 2011

Chairman Sir, Members of the Naro Udeshi family, Nirupama my old friend from her days as the Hindu’s Colombo correspondent, distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

Good evening. I am pleased to be here and honored by the invitation to speak today. When the Gandhi foundation asked me if I would speak today on academics in the making and unmaking of a nation, I readily agreed; not least because as an academic I found the subject fascinating and this an occasion, even an excuse, for me to think more deeply and formally on the subject.

I soon came readily to recognize that I had stepped into a quagmire without quite realizing it. For as I thought more and more I came to the conclusion that it is a dangerous topic in Sri Lanka given the times and, further, academics have played a more negative than positive role. Indeed this is a lecture that the army would not permit in Jaffna.

But I had given my word. So here goes. Academics have failed at nation building rather than contributed to it. When there is so much that binds us as Sri Lankans, we academics have written foul histories that distort our heritage.

I am no specialist in history, but as a fairly well read layman who has lived through very violent times, I share with many others a deep sense of anxiety about how bad history writing by academics furthers ethnic distrust and conflict. Fortunately in India a scholar like Abdul Kalam could be recognized with pride as among the greatest living Indians.

And yet the enormous Muslim contribution to the making of modern India and the plural character of India are not adequately acknowledged by historians. Muslim rule of many parts of India is treated as a violent intrusion. Hinduism is somehow treated as the ancient religion of Indians.

And yet a careful reading of the same history books would tell us that South India was largely Jain and Buddhist before the 7th Century AD and thereafter there was considerable persecution of Jains and Buddhists with strong indications of severe violence in some instances.

Is it a mere coincidence that conversion to Islam from about the thirteenth Century AD coincided with Hindu pressure on Buddhists and Jains, and the growth of a more intolerant form of Buddhism in Lanka?

We would also see that wars fought by Muslim conquerors were no more cruel than wars regularly fought by Indian rulers among themselves. In all these wars the winning faction captured loot and carried off women. Indeed the wars of Lankan Kings such as Parakrama Bahu I in South India were no exception. Yet Lankan historians have reserved the term invasions for the conquests of Indian kings in Lanka (when indeed the Indian kings were often the blood relations of their Lankan counterparts).

For a country supposedly fighting separatism, few scholars in this country have understood the middle ages. Local historians speak of the greatness of the reign of Parakramabahu who is credited with uniting the country. Likewise thirty years after his death in 1215 AD, the invasion of Kalinga Magha (identified by many Sinhalese as an incarnation of evil) is associated with the division of the country, eventually to be made a cetralised administration by the British. Did Parakramabahu really unite the kingdom if it fell apart 30 years after him? The events cannot be understood without the militaristic excesses of Parakramabahu giving rise to widespread insecurity and resentment, and after him, frequent changes of monarchs and instability. Very likely the country was already fragmented well before his death. The kingdoms of Southern India including Lanka were already in a state of decay, owing to corrupt administration, extortionate taxation and wasteful wars. Rebellion was incipient. Modern Lanka has learnt little from the middle ages. It is easier to blame Muslim and other invaders like European colonizers than ourselves.

There has been a general failure among scholars to come to a rational understanding about relations with India which appear inseparable from the ethnic conflict. We still do not understand the consequences of the grossly iniquitous citizenship acts of 1948/49. Dissatisfaction among the minorities was parallelled by official anti-Indian rhetoric and the use of history as propaganda.

Almost no scholarly reflection emerged from our universities after the 1977 and 1983 communal violence, except a mob attack on Tamil students by fellow students at Peradeniya in May 1983. There were also two papers also from Peradeniya by leading professors of geography and history, supporting Sinhalese ideological claims to the North-East and indirectly justifying colonization by state-sponsored Sinhalese paramilitaries of land in the North-East from 1984, where many original Tamil inhabitants were massacred by the armed forces.

This resulted in mainly LTTE massacres of Sinhalese. In the resulting embitterment the latter were actively or mainly passively justified by Tamil scholars, several of whom became experts at showing different faces to different actors.

The recent UN Report and Channel 4 revelations should not have evoked so much disbelief and resentment and the events described there should not have happened had our scholars been leaders of the public conscience rather than providing fuel to extremist ideologies.

The respected scholar M.D. Raghavan, who was for many years an anthropologist working for this institution, the Colombo Museum, has in his book India in Ceylonese, History, Society and Culture, painstakingly shown that Kerala influence forms the bedrock of Lankan culture, both Sinhalese and Tamil. There has been hardly any response from local scholars.

Instead, leading history books speak of Indo-Aryan migration as being the origin of the Sinhalese. This falsification by scholars is taken to new heights by state propaganda as in forced training for university entrants in a military environment where they are trained to become virtual cadres of the JHU or the SLFP Rightwing.

The Friday Forum comprising prominent intellectuals comments thus on the training:

“The curriculum reveals extremely problematic aspects. A prominent photograph of the Defence Secretary on the cover of the study guide suggests authorship by the Defence establishment.

The predominant focus is on military regimentation including a five-kilometre walk to be completed in 45 minutes irrespective of individual physical fitness … What is more problematic is the content of the module on history and national heritage. The topics are, in order, the arrival of the Aryans, foreign invasions, and the development of Sinhalese kingdoms. ‘National heritage’ focuses exclusively on prominent cultural symbols of the majority Sinhala community … with none from other communities. Subjecting new university entrants … to a course which focuses exclusively on the majority community, undermines all the official statements on national reconciliation after three decades of civil strife. If this is an officially sanctioned method of national reconciliation what hopes do we have for a peaceful, conflict-free future in this country? On the whole the curriculum seems to discourage tolerance for viewpoint difference, and sensitivities for the pluralism and diversity of our country. “

In many ways the contraction of our worldview into those of two narrow nationalisms lies at the root of the ethnic conflict. Only two generations ago India was part of our natural environment, where we went, studied and imbibed of its culture with no artificial barriers. Around when I was born my mother was the Maths teacher at Christ Church College, Tangalle. The principal then was Mr. Samuel from Kerala. The Attapatus were our friends and neighbours. When I began schooling in Jaffna the principal of St. John’s was Mr. P.T. Mattai and the principal of its sister school Chundikuli Girls’ College was a Miss. Mattai. The children of Sindi textile merchants were my friends and playmates. The contraction of my world is also reflected in the contraction of our collective mind. I believe more open relations with India are essential to our healing.

When children have to read nonsense as history, they are trained to ignore contradictions and are being uneducated and readied to believe anything that is fed to them! We are in a trap. We Tamils deny we were once Buddhists and Sinhalese see anything Buddhist as Sinhalese. So a friend of mine now living in Canada tilling his fields in Mullaitivu in the 1970s quickly broke up and reburied a statue of the Buddha he came across thinking that it proved that his fields were once Sinhalese fields. Tamils take no interest in the Buddhist ruins of Kantharodai in Jaffna, which date back to the early centuries AD when dialects resembling Tamil were common currency in this region and Sinhalese had, like Bengali, yet to emerge as a Creole of Prakrit used by the post-Asokan elite. The dual influences are reflected in early inscriptions. On the other hand the government has taken over the land calling it Kathurugoda and is in the process of settling Sinhalese there. This is what we academics have done to Lanka.

While a few academics have taken a broad, liberal inclusive view of national life, most take a sectarian parochial view, even a self-centered view, and little can be expected of us. For instance we all know that our university system is beset with severe problems. The chief of these is the absence of the rule of law. Even the UGC violates the very rules it is supposed to uphold. Millions are siphoned off. Council members unlawfully do business with the university to the tune of hundreds of millions of rupees and the UGC is too scared to ask how. Promotions are undeserved and against the rules. The administration is rude to the academics and the academics in turn are rude to students. In violation of the Act elected student leaders in Jaffna are asked to come to terms with Minister Devananda before they are recognized. In general there is total impunity for those in high office. In my years on the UGC I saw lots of corruption and only one Vice Chancellor was punished and that was by mere removal. We can cheat with almost guaranteed immunity. I think it has something to do with Sri Lanka’s culture which guarantees respect for those in high position. So when they steal, how can we show disrespect for them by filing charges? When on the UGC I saw the UGC employing its regulatory powers only on three occasions to forestall corruption and order those universities to set things right – once with Peradeniya and twice with Colombo – and they simply ignored the orders and nothing happened.

With all these things that need to be raised to address the quality of education we deliver, in the ongoing FUTA trade union action, the only thing the academics saw fit to raise is the issue of their salaries. I sympathise with my colleagues and do not blame them. Sometimes the students we teach come out and get jobs that pay more than our own. The nature of recruitment ensures that we work under our own teachers so we dare not question the judgement of our superiors whom we improperly called Sir as students and now continue to call Sir working as their juniors. So the patronage continues. Reform evades us. Speaking up is alien to our very being.

At the highest level the Vice Chancellors are beholden to ministry officials and I have seen VCs addressing ministry officials as Sir although I believe a VC is higher up on the protocol hierarchy and at least the equivalent of a ministry secretary. So we saw the recent spectacle in May this year when at the meeting of Vice Chancellors and Directors – the CVCD – a resolution was approved condemning the UN Secretary General over the Report and the VCs rabble rousing by raising alarm over regime change, meekly and dutifully passed it. There was inquiry as to whether the findings of the report are right or flawed. I doubt that they even read the report, showing how much our VCs understand scholarship.

We in Jaffna know the report is essentially correct. Several of our students suffered personal losses and we regularly see people without legs or hands or both legs and hands.

To us the claims of zero casualties by soldiers with the human rights charter in one hand and the gun in the other are hardly credible. We know of no soldier who goes about with the gun and the charter! Do you in the South?

Generally speaking therefore do not expect much by way of leadership from academics. I do not know if it is fair to expect so much from us when the rest of society is just like us. As an academic let me try to make up for my colleagues. When it comes to academics, I see a strong correlation between those educated in the national languages and those educated in English. Of those academics who write on national integration matters, the most respected academics across the ethnic chasm – here I include those who are engaged in the NGO sector as also academics – nearly all are foreign educated in English, often even for their undergraduate degrees. The top echelons operate in English in the NGO sector and even when they are employed in universities, their most important works are through seminars organized by the NGO sector. It is a sorry indictment on the university sector. It is my opinion that the most useful seminars in Sri Lanka are organized by the NGO sector and not by universities. For example when I lived in Colombo I was a regular attendee at the almost weekly seminars at ICES where I could pick up a broad cross section of views which I could not hear at our universities. Not at Colombo and not at Peradeniya. NGO-sector institutions were doing exactly what we in the universities are called upon to do and are paid for – generate ideas and question unproven assumptions.

Indeed there may be many independent persons writing in Sinhalese. But their writings are not subject to criticism and correction as would happen with English for lack of wide access.

I assert, strongly assert, my opinion that the fault lies in the idea of mother-tongue education. Let us be honest. However much we may love our own languages, Tamils numbering some 80 million people throughout the world and a fortiori the Singhalese who number a mere 16 million, do not – cannot – produce in our own languages the literature required for a broad intellectual discussion with a cross-section of views within the communities. Even where we produce good material there is no one outside of our closed societies to read and criticize us and thereby engage us as intellectuals in the process of fine-tuning and even rejecting or disseminating our ideas. That is the intellectual process – to test our ideas through dissemination and discussion. We do not have the numbers to sustain that process within the narrow confines of our own communities. The market will neither allow it nor bear it. Intellectual discourses need to be in an international language and this language today often is English. That is our dilemma. To reach the masses we need to write in Tamil or Sinhalese but for our writing to be respected through the test of widespread reading and critiquing, we must write in English or some other international language.

Consider that arts – or the humanities and social sciences – in which area education was switched for us to the mother tongue in the early sixties and the last English medium arts graduate came out of our universities early in the second half of the sixties. Now consider who our writers are who can write in sufficient depth and volume to sustain a vigorous intellectual engagement which naturally must include the test of debate and argument. Hardly one or two! Our best arts graduates are now in retirement – Thambaiya, Obeysekera, Pathmanathan, C.R. de Silva, Arasaratnam, Indrapala et al. Professor Carlo Fonseka is a rare non-Arts person from that generation who, though a medic, had had his works on human rights published by the UN.

Jayadeva Uyangoda and Sumanasiri Liyanage are two mother-tongue educated people from Sri Lanka contributing usefully to the literature and intellectual life on national issues. Since it is arts graduates who can think on and contribute to national issues as part of their active fulltime work, we have this hiatus in our midst.

Some of these above named so-called liberal writers too, have taken contradictory positions perhaps driven by their funding. It is argued that there are many more extremists among the English educated and those who wear the liberal label get to be intolerant when challenged. The point is well-taken. During the ceasefire, they bent over backwards to gloss over the violations of the LTTE, especially with child soldiers. But the fact is that what they wrote, being in English, was in the international domain and therefore subject to criticism and they continue to be a matter they need to explain as a result and cannot run away from.

This peace work therefore was unusually done by science graduates who perhaps were meant to study in the arts stream but because of pressures from home and society ended up as scientists. Science was taught at least from grade 9 onwards in English and from 1969 was in English only from the university. This pre-1969 period produced some prolific scientist writers in the English language working on political issues – Rajan Hoole, Rajasingam Narendran and Rajan Philippupillai are some of the few in this category. Rajan Hoole and K. Sritharan went on to earn that prestigious prize, the Martin Ennals Prize for Human Rights Defenders. I am unable to find the reference but an English academic has singled out with some admiration this unique phenomenon of Sri Lankan scientists taking to political writing. These are the more liberal writers on the Tamil side. For some strange reason there do not seem to be many Sinhalese writers from this period who were trained as scientists. Perhaps it is because politics was not a life and death issue for them as it had become for Tamils.

English newspapers have also cultivated a group of writers who, though educated in the mother tongue, built up on their English picked up at home, Church or big cities like Colombo and Kandy and through years of practice have become good writers. They however will not come under the category of academics with the intellectual training that comes through university education.

There are a few scientists, Sinhalese as well as Tamil, who though educated as scientists write rabid stuff and I do not need to mention them because in my judgement their writings have little intellectual content.

In the subsequent period – the post NCGE period when the essay and the précis disappeared from the school syllabus – English fluency in Sri Lanka collapsed because students were rarely called upon to form a sentence in English and English lessons consisted of filling in the blanks or circling the right answer. Even English language graduates could often not write properly. In these circumstances the few who could write soon became the even fewer from that age group who could contribute material of substance and were capable of thoughts beyond their narrow specialties. Writers I can think of in this category are Suresh Canagarajah, Neloufer de Mel, and Neluka Silva whom I have occasionally heard on issues of peace and justice when they are not working on their subject of work, English.

The 1980s and 90s onwards saw the phenomenon of bright school leavers paying from family funds or getting scholarships to study in the West, rejecting admission from the UGC. Although many of these studied in English full-time for 3-4 years in western universities, it was often too late to pick up the language with sufficient fluency to wield the pen effectively for essay-type writing. But especially those going to the US on scholarships were already fluent in English. For without sufficiently high scores in the SAT Verbal section they just would not have qualified for scholarships. These persons with the vigorous writing training that is part of American undergraduate education, have done well. Some contribute to Sri Lankan intellectual life from the NGO sector and with their higher degrees are certainly academics even though they do not work for universities.

We are now in the period where English school education has returned and good writers, Tamil as well as Sinhalese, are emerging again. Initially this group consisted of those who picked up their English from Church or home or big cities and then studied in English in India or the West. The Diaspora also has children who studied from grade 1 in English, were not biased towards science in their education and are good writers except when they are stricken by rank communalism of one sort or another and are engaged in activism of a divisive kind where their intellectual training has failed them. From this group, however, are emerging organizations with much potential such as Lanka Solidarity whose writings have been excellent so far. They consist of young intellectuals, Sinhalese and Tamils as well as persons of mixed parentage. Their weakness may be in their not being here in Sri Lanka and not reaching the Tamil and Sinhalese speaking segments to whom good content is scarce. Time will tell whether they can sustain their usefulness or become a mere forum for graduate school credential generation and for career building in their lives in America.

Let me now turn to nation building per se. In Mahatma Gandhi’s version of nation building we see truth, love, non-stealing, fearlessness, removal of untouchability, and tolerance as requirements for nation building. Gandhi’s list of ingredients also included some typically Gandhian ones, namely, chastity, control of food craving, nonpossession and bread labour. Some of these like chastity and not craving for food, as Jawaharlal Nehru would say, have no place in the modern world. On the other hand, the good things he had to say were in the context of winning independence from Britain. So we will seek our answers elsewhere for today’s context in Sri Lanka.

For me to speak about nation building, we must first define nation and that in itself is problematic. A dictionary defines nation as “a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own.”

On this basis of a definition, let me raise a hypothetical question as Europeans go into the European Union and America pushes NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Association. Why don’t we in South Asia all subsume our national identities and go into a new nation with a single united identity to be called South Asia with our own currency, one language Hindi, our own Parliament, one government etc.? Anyone could go and live anywhere in South Asia. In time Muslims and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis would be subsumed into the common South Asian identity and we would all be one happy people.

But it is an absurd proposition! We in Sri Lanka would all say no – a resounding no. Relying on that definition above we would feel we are not sufficiently conscious of our unity to seek or possess a South Asian government of our own, a common South Asian identity of our own. We would argue rightly that we the different and differing peoples of South Asia have our own history, our own geographic areas of inhabitation, our own language and culture and our own way of life. We rightly wish to preserve these and do not wish to be subsumed within a larger whole, to parts of which we feel little affinity.

Why then are our arguments for Sri Lanka the same? So different from the arguments for South Asia? When we see South Asia as our home such a bad idea, why do we hear politicians arguing for a unitary Sri Lanka?

One Sri Lanka will never work unless the different cultural groups have ways of expressing, practising and celebrating their culture. As Carolyn Stephenson notes quoting Immanuel Kant of the 17th Century:

“[P]eace can be achieved by developing a federation or league of free republican nations. Representative democracies, organized in an international organization, would bring peace.”

Kant’s argument is for a federational model for peace.

President Rajapakse in his recent sixty-third independence day message called out thus: “We must set right the error of both past and present in this march towards greater freedom. … Building a united Sri Lanka is the best means by which freedom can be secured and given more meaning.”

That word united. It is a profound word that no one could, ex facie, quarrel with. The President militaristically emphasized “a heritage of glory.” Be it noted, however, that the words culture and language used on that day are in the singular and not plural.

An inherent part of defining citizenship and national identity this way will in the same breath also define who is not a citizen and who lacks that united national identity. The title of the book by Sara Dorman, et al., captures this idea well: Making Nations, Creating Strangers. That is, in defining a nation, we also define strangers. The book explores how conflicts over the resources of the post-colonial state are legitimated through recourse to claims of nationhood and citizenship. Are we in Sri Lanka into the same game?

Under the authoritarian Francisco Franco who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1947 recognition for the Basque, Galician, and Catalan languages was rescinded for the first time and Spanish was declared the only official language for education and the transactions of the state. We see the ill-effects of this policy of enforcing one overarching culture in the separatist fissiparous tendencies in Spain to this day.

We may discern a similar tendency in Sri Lanka which is much like, as Rogers Brubaker notes, German definitions of citizenship based on blood lines as distinct from territory. As the BBC reported just a week ago, this leads to comical situations like at a dueling club. Some Bavarians felt that members with “non-European facial and bodily characteristics” did not qualify as Germans and so could not join their dueling contest, and that people who are not from the German family tree should not be admitted to student societies.”

We as observers of the German scene find it easy to laugh and even look down on this idea of citizenship by bloodline when we know how each of us has coursing in our veins quite many bloodlines. When it does not concern us, it is easy to be objective. But when the same thing plays out in our very midst, we are rendered blind. How often are we really chauvinists while thinking of ourselves as patriots?

Closer to home, we have Gnana Moonesinghe who in editing a book states in his Editor’s note that nation building is about upholding ethnical values, high standards in morality, about sharing and about redressing people’s grievances.”

Here we have it. The key to nation building – ethical values, high morality and redress of grievances. Let me repeat a couple of things I said in my LLRC testimony, arguing for a united but federal Sri Lanka:

“I have three daughters and a son. They are all equally my children and equally loved. But the girls have different bedrooms in our house because their needs are different. Under one roof we are one family but with different living quarters. The arrangement does not make my son unequal to my daughters.

Indeed the arrangement gives them greater freedom to lead fuller lives, one room with boy toys and comics and the others with dolls and wall posters and a library with books like Pride and Prejudice. Giving us Tamil people different space where we can give expression and life to our peculiar needs is not separation but true happy integration.

“Let me also paraphrase another family based argument that my daughter who worked for Dr. Jehan Perera heard from him. If I were to have a voting system among my children every time we go out as a family, the three girls would outvote my son and we would always end up shopping or eating at a classy restaurant. My son who would prefer Casuarina Beach would get outvoted. In time he would want to break off from the family and go to the beach with his friends. Majority vote would lead to separation but taking turns to integration.”

That is, the wishes of the majority cannot be forced on Tamils in the name of democracy and must be mediated through a federal arrangement. Yes, a good society must allow those who wish to be different to be different.

We make a serious mistake in thinking of differences as being confined to ethnicity alone. This takes me to Gandhi’s words on the removal of caste as integral to nation building. The very foundation of caste and its legitimacy is in our religions. Because most of us practice caste in some form, there is a hesitation to condemn it. It is comforting to say “Oh those days of caste are gone.” But let me tell you that I have even recently seen anonymous letters – letters in the plural – full of the repeated epithet “Nalapillai,” name calling Christians. True integration requires the equality of all castes. Only a person who suffers from caste will know how iniquitous it is. Caste in Jaffna is a big problem, I assure you. Recently in the municipal elections it was agreed within the EPDP of the ruling coalition that the Council member with the highest vote would be the Mayor. In the event, the person with the highest was illiterate and the second happened to be a Christian of the lower castes. The Minister in Jaffna bypassed him flouting the agreement and when this Councillor, Mangalanesan, protested, the Minister went to his home, physically beat him up and had Mangalensan locked up at his office complex at Sridhar Theatre till his choice from the higher castes was firmly ensconced in office. Many of Mangalanesan’s family members at Church have bitterly complained to me.

True nation building is about celebrating our differences without suppressing them and addressing grievances. I am afraid that the government is missing the point in its ever effervescent and exuberant pronouncements about unity.

In Sri Lanka we just do not seem to understand nation building. For example, according to an Editorial relating to the recent UN Report titled “A Welcome Stress on United Sri Lanka” it is said, open quotation, “Sri Lanka must forge ahead as one, united nation and country” … “President Mahinda Rajapaksa emphasized the necessity of Sri Lanka advancing into the future as one, united country, while engaging in events related to the Sambuddhathva Jayanthi celebrations,” … “one of the most disturbing results to flow from the Report – that is the UN Report – could be a re-opening of ‘old wounds’. This risk will be present to the degree to which the Report is discussed and debated hotly in the public domain.” Close quotation.

Now, as alleged in the UN Report, the LTTE used Tamil civilians as hostages in Mullivaikal and the government basically eliminated several LTTE cadres, some of them surrendering cadres, through executions and murdered tens of thousands of civilians through bombings including of hospitals. All the alleged war crimes, whether by the LTTE or government forces, relate to the killing of Tamils.

For a Sinhalese, what are the old wounds that will be reopened by an inquiry as claimed by the editorial? Indeed what are the wounds caused to the Sinhalese in the killing of Tamils?

The allegation is that the Tigers killed Tamil civilians, and government troops killed Tigers and Tamil civilians. That is, all those killed were Tamil. So what wounds for the Sinhalese? On the other hand, for a Tamil? Tens of thousands of us have been allegedly killed by government troops. The Channel 4 movie shows naked girls, some dead some seemingly dead but still groaning, being abused. It shows people being executed. If true, imagine the wounds arising from the incidents. Imagine further the wounds to those related to the dead or who narrowly escaped death from their own government saying no inquiries are necessary. Further, when I am told that we must engage in events related to the Sambuddhathva Jayanthi celebrations – I can hardly pronounce it – I do not even know what is being talked about. There seems to be no place for Tamils in this united Sri Lanka.

Just look at what is happening in Jaffna today. There is military rule. I was personally present when the army came and broke up an academic meeting on preserving ancient books. Our group is now scared of meeting again. PA/EPDP candidates can freely distribute posters for the upcoming local government elections. On the other hand, a private meeting of Federal Party candidates was broken up recently by the army beating up candidates.

As the Federal Party went to the police station to complain, Major General Hathurusinghe sent two high officers there to apologize and plead that no complaint be filed. After the Federal Party pressed ahead with its complaint, the Major General says he is unaware of the incident and no soldiers were present.

A cousin of mine, Ambi, was there as a candidate. He begged in Sinhalese and was spared an assault but in his presence another was beaten up and his glasses squashed under a boot. Several Federal Party friends have come out with the same consistent story to me. The government is untruthful about the incident and promises of inquiries are a part of the usual white washing.

There can be no nation building when we live under the military boot. Yes we just had an insurgency so the army has a legitimate role. But not displacing the civilian leadership to scare off opposition voters and candidates to ensure victory for Douglas Devananda. Not taking the front row at school cricket matches while we take the back seats. Not ordering about Hindu priests to do poojas at will while civilians need to stand out of the temple to give security to the soldiers. Indeed would Thomians and Royalists stand for the military on the front row at their big match?

The irony is that Provincial Councils were set up for us Tamils. But the North is the one place where there is no Council. Why? Because Douglas Devananda will lose. This is what the government is trying to forestall by beating up Federal Party candidates and scaring off supporters from the polls. Is this democracy?

This is not integration but disintegration all over again. My advice to the military: Be unobtrusive and just stick to law and order. Entering the civilian domain breeds resentment. My advice to the government:

Hold elections and deal with us through whom we elect, not thugs you impose on us. That is democracy.

We thus see that in defining a united Sri Lanka, Tamils of Sri Lanka and our feelings have been ignored. We are not building a Sri Lankan mansion of many rooms where Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Muslims and Malays and all cross-sections of these live together in amity. We are speaking of a Sri Lanka with a boring mono-cultural visage of imagined common bloodlines living in one large sultry Hall with no privacy. The enforced oneness appears so far to be entirely Sinhalese and Buddhist.

As Sanjana Hattotuwa, a young Sinhalese researcher and journalist educated for his first degree in India, correctly puts it,

“Post war Sri Lanka’s nation building efforts smack of denial, decrying violently any counter-narrative to what is projected by government as the whole and only Truth. … If we don’t have the confidence to embrace difference and its expression as the foundation of nation building, we risk seeing the mere absence of war as the best glue that binds our peoples. A timbre of debate that celebrates participation over domination, difference over conformity, creative conflict over supine compliance, critical questioning over mindless submission, still eludes us. … It is a grave mistake to think that any meaningful nation building will occur in an ahistorical vacuum removed from the emotions and violence they generate today.”

Continues Hattotuwa,

“The most progressive processes on nation building will be despite governments and politicians. They will begin with dignity and respect, include diversity and tolerance, debate identity and difference, and denounce hate and harm.”

I thank God that there are Sinhalese who think like this. I join The Rev. W.S. Senior in crying out to Almighty God for our land in the words of his Hymn for Ceylon:

Then bless her mighty Father,
With blessings needed most,
Give peace within her borders
Twixt man and man goodwill,


Thank you

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