The Roots of Communal Politics

5 May 2014 05:24 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The emergence of the Bodu Bala Sena and its continuing militant, anti-Muslim political activism has irritated many liberally-minded people. Some of those who are agitated have responded by proposing simplistic solutions to contain the movement such as banning it. Like many other such groups, BBS also did not emerge from nowhere; it has its social and political roots. It is necessary to understand these roots to find a satisfactory resolution of the deeper issues involved.

As is well known, in spite of the efforts of the leftist and liberally-oriented parties to promote class or citizenship-based politics in the country even before the country gained political independence from the British, communal politics emerged as the dominant form of politics in post-independent Sri Lanka.

As many analysts including the present writer have pointed out on many occasions, the result was that the post-colonial public policies with respect to language, education, land settlement and employment have further reinforced rather than marginalized communal politics in the country. The ethnic and religious conflicts that emerged after independence further solidified ethnic consciousness and ethnic divisions. Consequently, competition for resources in a context of rapid population growth and rising aspirations of the masses for a higher standard of living was perceived by many as a zero sum game involving ethno-religious communities. This competition became even more intense after economic liberalization. This became evident during the 1983 ethnic riots, when racist groups openly participated in the violent campaign.


The thirty-year war that devastated the country and a large section of the population does not seem to have taught the leaders of the country a lesson



Increasing economic pressure after economic liberalization compelled most people to look for more lucrative income opportunities through a highly competitive process. In spite of the adoption of market friendly, liberal economic policies and the rise of the market forces, the post-1977 Sri Lankan state continued to play a dominant role in land alienation, resettlement, provision of education, employment of educated youth and infrastructure development. Leading ruling party politicians continued to allocate public resources largely on the basis of political loyalty and personal connections. Given the dominance of the majority ethnic community in government, the general perception was that much of the resources flowed into the hands of this ethnic group, though minority community members of the government could also follow the same practice to favour their own communities.

Persisting communal politics coupled with the continued reinforcement of the ethnic consciousness of the wider population, including many members of the elites, by educational institutions and the mass media led to a widely held public perception that it is ethnic groups that compete with each other for life chances, not individual citizens on the basis of their personal attributes and their relative social class position.

As I have pointed out in a number of articles in this column, ethno-linguistic segregation of the education system over many decades, even in so-called elite government schools in Colombo and other major towns have continued to facilitate the formation of exclusive, ethno-religious identities even among upwardly mobile members of ethnic groups. So, it is not just the underprivileged, monolingual members of ethnic groups who are sympathetic to ethno-religious extremism but also the more privileged people who have had their education in segregated schools where they had no opportunity to interact with children from other ethnic and religious communities and get acquainted with their cultures and social practices.

The prevailing cultural differences and the social distance between ethno-religious groups often facilitate the formation of settlements segregated on the basis of ethnicity and religion. So, even in the ethnically mixed regions of the country, we have exclusive Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim villages and there are not many villages where people belonging to different ethno-religious groups share the same space. Such a settlement pattern, though it does not necessarily lead to conflict, does not facilitate social interaction across communities. Community based organizations functioning at a village level also often remain confined to their respective villages without having many opportunities to work together and transcend long established boundaries.

So, in an increasingly competitive socio-economic environment, segregated ethno-religious groups tend to perceive one another as being engaged in a zero sum game when it comes to securing resources such as land, employment and business opportunities. Recent controversies at a national level over admissions to the law college, settlement of people in the Wilpattu national forest reserve in the North-West, Halal certification of manufactured food, etc. clearly point to this perception. Then, there are literally thousands of such disputes at a local level in almost all parts of the country. The latter often do not come to the attention of the national media.
Allocation of public resources and resolution of disputes between contending groups cannot be done in an amicable manner in a country where the state and the public institutions appear to fail to treat citizens equally on the basis of their inalienable rights. Rational public policies and independent state institutions are critically important here. When the allocation of public resources does not appear to be guided by rational public policies and handled by independent institutions and public officials, and when it is increasingly perceived by people as a process which is micro-managed by numerous, sectarian politicians at all levels, extremist groups can easily arouse communal sentiments among ethnically conscious people across communities. This is what is happening today with the BBS.


The prevailing cultural differences and the social distance between ethno-religious groups often facilitate the formation of settlements segregated on the basis of ethnicity and religion


This is not the first time that communal politics derailed rational public policies and undermined public institutions. Well-conceived Kannangara-education reforms were subverted by communalists in the recent past with disastrous results. The monolingual, segregated education system that came into being as a result has continued to divide the younger generations into rival ethnic camps engaged in violent communal campaigns themselves, to divide up not just public resources but the country itself. The thirty-year war that devastated the country and a large section of the population does not seem to have taught the leaders of the country a lesson. If so, they would strive to move away from communal politics and take steps to adopt rational public policies and empower public institutions to ensure that public servants manage public institutions in keeping with the rules, regulations and state policies rather than take a backseat, virtually allowing politicians to take their place. Given the long established tradition of patron-client politics, deep ethnic divisions and widespread political corruption, most politicians will not be considered by the general public as impartial actors in the public domain. The situation appears to have got worse in recent years when national politics became more communal and sectarian, not less.

So, in conclusion, what is argued here is that there are no short cuts to resolving inter-community disputes when social and cultural institutions like education and the media continue to reinforce ethno-religious divisions in society and promote the public perception that it is ethno-religious groups that compete with each other for life chances, not individual citizens and classes on the basis of merit, need and socio-economic standing.

Then, we are asking for politicians to move into a new kind of politics, either of a social democratic or at least of a liberal variety.
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