There are not many societies in the world that are socially and culturally uniform. This is particularly so in societies that attracted migrants from other territories. America attracted and accommodated a wide range of ethno-religious groups into its fold. The process of accommodation of diverse communities there was guided by the dominant idea of a melting pot; the incoming groups and individuals were expected to adapt to the dominant ideas and values of the country of their destination. This did not mean that people had to always give up their cultural and social practices and the latter often remained part and parcel of their day to day lives, usually in their private domains. What came to dominate the public life of the country were liberal values of individual freedoms, basic social and political rights and the ethos of competition and individual achievement. It should also be noted that America is not the only country in the world that had gone through a complex process of state formation in a context of mass immigration. Other examples are Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Sri Lanka, being a small island in the Indian Ocean located in close proximity to India had naturally attracted immigrants from many parts of the subcontinent and other territories in the region. The people’s own legends and myths as well as historical facts attest to this fact. Both people and ideas have found their way into the country from time immemorial and our understanding of the processes of accommodation of people and ideas is based as much on objective facts as on myths and legends. In spite of the great diversity of people who had migrated to the island over time and also perhaps the considerable diversity of pre-existing ancient, indigenous communities, through an array of social, cultural and political processes unfolding over a long period of time, the country has reached a point where diverse groups from different ethnic, caste, linguistic, and religious backgrounds merged into a few communities defined by ethnicity, religion and language. Subsequent political processes associated with the formation of the state no doubt led to the consolidation of these divisions into the distinct and often competing ethno-religious communities that we find today. Such divisions are taken for granted by many people and how they came into being is immaterial for them, in particular for those ideologues who treat ethno-religious divisions as almost natural.
Today, most people living in different countries of the world take the boundaries of nation-states for granted. Not many people dispute the importance of national borders, the only exceptions perhaps being illegal migrants and the displaced people who flee their countries to save their lives. But, it was not long ago in human history that people were pragmatic and moved across territories in search of food and other necessities like water, much like the animals do. Only impenetrable physical barriers stopped them .
But, later when people could travel long distances either over land or across the seas, some people planned and engaged in expeditions looking for new territories and resources. These later evolved into colonial invasions and annexation of territories into ever larger empires. There were no international treaties or global institutions to regulate extra-territorial relations and safeguard territorial boundaries and the sovereignty of people living in different territories.
As is well known, the rise of modern nation states and the adoption of international treaties by some countries changed the above situation drastically. The way human societies dealt with endogenous and exogenous problems also changed in keeping with the above change. While the management of public affairs including the regulation of inter-personal and inter-group relations became the prerogative of the state, extra-territorial matters came under the purview of global institutions like the UN. Yet, our experience over the years has shown that these arrangements do not work as expected and there are serious problems at both national and global levels. In this article, the focus is on the national level.
As mentioned before, the ethno-religious composition of the population in this country has been mostly the result of immigration of people from different parts of India and elsewhere in the distant past and the ensued processes of accommodation, assimilation and acculturation. Some incursions had taken the form of invasions leading to conflict and change of territorial arrangements. Western colonialism added more to the complexity. However, the unification of the country did not result in any significant weakening of some of the pre-existing divisions and in fact, helped perpetuate them as these broad divisions often became the building blocks of the political system that came into being. The liberal idea of a multitude of individual citizens becoming autonomous stakeholders within a competitive polity did not take root in a segmented society where collective consciousness did not evolve very much beyond the boundaries of primordial divisions of family, kinship, caste, ethnicity and religious congregation. Though some of the state policies and interventions, both before and after independence, were designed in keeping with universal values such as equality and social justice, political mobilization of people tended to follow the fault lines largely determined by primordial divisions. This pattern has not changed very much to this day. Ethno-religious conflicts in the recent past and the present communal tensions in the country clearly attest to this fact.
Too many politicians, irrespective of their ethno-religious identity, talk about their communities, their problems and their welfare and rarely make an effort to concentrate on the collective well-being of the citizenry as a whole.
The management of ethno-religious differences to create a conflict and tension-free social and political environment and maintain public order has been a challenge for many societies across the world. While some have done well with regard to the above, others have failed to do so leading to serious adverse consequences. Sri Lanka obviously belongs to the latter category. While the reasons for the failure are many, the most important one is our continuing pre-occupation with narrowly defined ethnic identity and religion almost at the expense of the wider concerns of citizens. Too many politicians, irrespective of their ethno-religious identity, talk about their communities, their problems and their welfare and rarely make an effort to concentrate on the collective well-being of the citizenry as a whole. This tendency itself is a product of the persisting competition among political parties and politicians on the basis of ethnic and religious identity. So, it is a vicious circle in which many political parties and their leaders are trapped. When communalism helps win elections, it is perhaps not logical for them to move away from the practice. But, they ignore a more important and larger logic that goes beyond the politically convenient Sinhala-Tamil–Muslim equation. Consequently, communal politics in a de facto centralized state continues to threaten public order and create tensions and uncertainties in the minds of people. This is certainly not conducive for sustainable development in the country and the collective well-being of citizens. So, the sooner we go beyond politicized ethnicity and religion in our efforts to find solutions to the problems faced by citizens, the better the chances will be for solving them to the satisfaction of everybody irrespective of his/her ethnic and religious affiliation. Yet, we should not be blind to the fact that there are many people who are simply incapable of thinking beyond ethnicity and religion.