In any given society, the Great Reconciliation Game will be played between two factions; the nationalists and the cosmopolitans. The former will decry any attempt at changing the social fabric and landscape on which ethnic hegemonies and numerical majorities thrive, while the latter, logically enough, will try to change those hegemonies and majorities. The former would be content in seeing a rosy picture of history from their textbooks, while the latter will strive to present, project and perpetuate an alternative narrative that, unfortunately, is often at odds with historical realities. In other words, both sides are doomed to commit error after error, while the illusions of the former, the nationalists, will be forever vindicated by attempts made by the latter to forcibly change it, however sincere those attempts are. It’s a dichotomy that needn’t really exist or thrive here.
Tradition and modernity
At one level, it’s an offshoot of the (equally unnecessary) rift between tradition and modernity. You don’t have to be a cultural puritan to oppose the modernist economic and social discourse and paradigm, just as you don’t need to be a lotus-eater to oppose the backward elements of our past. I think the main problem we’ve almost always committed here is the choice of leaders we’ve gone for when it comes to supporting both sides of the divide. We pick the worst such leaders to lead the movements that stand for those two; the chauvinist on the one hand and the rootless cosmopolitan on the other. As long as these are the choices we make in terms of the leadership of the debates surrounding these contentious themes, we will forever be fighting without going anywhere. It’s the same story when it comes to reconciliation; those opposed to it are chauvinists who are known for spewing racist vitriol, while those who side with it are in the pay of certain vested interests that have no clue as to what they’re dealing with.
If reconciliation is to be more than a movement imposed from above, if it’s to be seen as something other than the arbitrary ideology it has come to be seen as today, we need an across the board, all encompassing movement that does away with ethnicity and addresses the grievances and concerns of each and every identity. Jehan Perera was absolutely right when he observed that Sri Lanka was composed of many nations. To get those many nations together, naturally, we need to think beyond the federalist-devolutionist discourse that’s coloured the debate so badly, and not ignore the Sinhalese Buddhist demographic. The Sinhalese Buddhists, on their part, have to embrace certain structural changes, beginning with the way they’re taught the history that we take for granted.
A curriculum that is run on the lines of memorisation and complete deference to authority cannot and will not yield a history syllabus which can enrich different communities to get together as one. All it will do is create chauvinists on the one hand and rebels on the other, both of whom falsify historical realities in order to embrace their warped definitions of reconciliation and so on. The best index for historiography we have, right now, is one that evokes compassion for the many players in our history, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliations. Such a historiography has never been the norm in our classrooms, now or then, purely because we have been taught that the subject is nothing more than a series of dates and times to be memorised and put out. Imagine how different our history would seem, then, if we were to instead go for the annals of school/method pioneered by that great writer himself, Fernand Braudel! When one reads Braudel, one is moved by the scope he unearths and the connections he makes, as opposed to the divisions which tend to form the evolution of any civilisation. Such a broad worldview is missing in our textbooks. Sadly.
As long as these are the choices we make in terms of the leadership of the debates surrounding these contentious themes, we will forever be fighting without going anywhere. It’s the same story when it comes to reconciliation; those opposed to it are chauvinists
The best antidote
A reconciliation that is rooted in historical realities is the best antidote, I think, to the purism we are asked to embrace from Day One at our schools. Going beyond the victorious/defeated mentality that, again, we are asked to embrace is a necessary precondition to this. For that to happen, we need to stop painting or tarring figures from our history as good or bad; the Sinhalaya (a Sinhalese) versus the Demala (a Tamil), for instance. Would it interest our schoolchildren to know that Saradiel, that irrepressible and indefatigable Robin Hood of Sri Lanka, had a confidante and sidekick in Mammalay Marikkar, who was arrested along with the latter, by the British? Would it interest them to know that far from being the benefactor of Buddhism he’s typically portrayed as, Valagamba dithered, out of expedience, to continue the campaign against the Five Emperors, because of personal clashes? History is not always about saints pitted against devils, though it’s written by the winners (this is applicable to sacrosanct documents like the Mahavamsa, by the way).
Braudel was concerned with nearly facet to history that he thought would inspire empathy and interest from the ordinary reader, which is why his writings are full of references to not just art forms
Bringing communities together Learning history without at the same time learning to love the arts and culture is pretty much like learning a language without learning to love literature; on both counts what is privileged is the ability to recall, at the cost of the humanist undercurrents of what is being learned in the first place. Cultural artefacts and art forms have a way of bringing communities together, of celebrating togetherness and diversity, in ways that dates and times and conflicts between ethnicities as coloured by our history textbooks cannot and will not match. The frescoes of Sigiriya, the masks of Ambalangoda, the architecture of mosques and kovils, and their intrusion on other communities; these can help bridge differences, if at all because they open up your world beyond the purism you’ve been forced to affirm at face-value. It’s the same story, obviously in another sense, with language and literature: the one has to do with getting your grammar right, but for the ability to wield it and win the world, you cannot do without the other.
Braudel was concerned with nearly facet to history that he thought would inspire empathy and interest from the ordinary reader, which is why his writings are full of references to not just art forms, but also social practices, economics, and even biology, which leads him to the conclusion, among the many others he draws, that Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was never a part of the Indian civilisation. When we read into such conclusions, we are somewhat taken aback by the eye we see them through. It’s not the crass, ethnically driven histories that are spouted by, for instance, the Hindutva publications in India, but an embracive, open approach to the way civilisations interact(ed) with each other. It affirms a firm grasp of everything that makes up the way we’ve evolved, and I for one would like to see it being used, and resorted to, here in Sri Lanka. For a history that embraces, that does not constrict in the name of maintaining hegemonies and ideologies, then, the Annales School is one school we should all be at, and in.
We’ve missed out on a lot of things. Like the arts. Or culture. Or a proper grasp and appreciation of the connections between material reality and abstract ideology that Braudel effortlessly pinpointed in book after book. We’ve become a nation of professionals – of engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, and so on – without being a nation of human beings. That, I think, is one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why we refuse to approach our own history with a pinch of salt: because we tend to see it as yet another subject to pass, to get into University with. Without a love for the culture, for what breathes life into our identity, however, there can be no reconciliation, no togetherness, no amity. The problem, now that I’ve stated it down, is, at the end of the day, as simple as that.