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Modern nation-state: A blow from Digana

2018-03-09 00:00:28
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Relative calm after days of violence in Digana: Are we incapable of co-existence and nation building? 

Sri Lanka’s nation-building process, it appears, is a farce and the state-building process a failure. The communal tension in the past ten days, first in Ampara and then in Digana, Kandy, when seen together with the three-decades of separatist war and seven decades of ethnic disharmony between communities, tells us that Sri Lanka is yet to become a modern-nation state. 


A nation’s development is assessed not by the number of highrise buildings or flashy cars on the road, but by its people’s collective will to regard humanity as one and rise above differences based on group identities, such as race, religion, caste or ideology.  A state reaches the height of civilization when a human being within its boundaries is safe from the actions, words and even thoughts of another human being.  Although, even the most liberal states have not reached the idealistically preferred level of civilization, it is progress when states strive for it. On the contrary, it is degeneration, when a state allows or encourages racism, prejudices and communalism.


With Sri Lanka yet to be liberated from dirty communalism,  incidents such as those in Ampara and Digana deal a crippling blow to efforts to establish an overarching Sri Lankan identity or “I am a Sri Lankan first” identity. 


Defining a nation-state only on the basis of a majority community is archaic, feudal in nature and preposterously inhuman. The modern definition of nation-state is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and secular.  Sri Lanka, since receiving independence in 1948, has not taken serious step towards establishing the modern multi-ethnic nation state.  Instead, Sri Lanka’s post-independence leaders have played communal politics -- and as a result, the country was plunged into a 30-year separatist war, and, for the past several years, ethnic tension involving Sinhala racist groups and Muslims.  
We simply failed to build on the ‘Ceyloneseness’ we wrought at Independence and rise like Singapore, a multi-ethnic nation that has, by practising meritocracy, succeeded in establishing an overarching Singaporean national identity and emerged as an exemplary modern nation-state.  Last year, Singapore refused to issue visa to a world famous Muslim preacher, because he had said in a fatwa that it was un-Islamic to greet non-Muslims on their festivals.  The government contended that his views promoted religious discord. 


While Singapore has discarded ethnic politics, Sri Lankan politicians have adopted racism for short-term petty political gains, while causing long-term damage to the country’s well-being.  

While Singapore has discarded ethnic politics, Sri Lankan politicians have adopted racism for short-term petty political gains, while causing long-term damage to the country’s well-being


Racial prejudice is an acquired attitude. No child born into one community develops prejudices against other communities through instinct. Rather it is the parents, elders, politicians, religious figures, teachers, journalists and now social media bigots who poison innocent minds and make them racists.  In other words, it is society at large that makes one a racist.  The extent to which a person is racially prejudiced depends on the extent to which the society she or he lives in is enlightened. If children are brought up in an enlightened environment, especially the home and school environment, they would be less prejudiced.  Successive governments’ monumental failure in bringing about an enlightened society through the education system and government policy has nurtured prejudice and racism. 
A sociological explanation of prejudice is that it arises from competition over jobs and resources and also from political disagreements.  When groups vie with each other over these matters, they often become hostile towards each other.  A socio-psychological view of prejudice is that it arises when individuals who experience various kinds of problems become frustrated and tend to blame their troubles on groups that are often disliked in the real world (e.g., racial, ethnic, and religious minorities). These minorities are thus scapegoats for the real sources of the majority’s misfortunes.  In Europe, Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague and Germany’s economic recession.  (http://open.lib.umn.edu/sociology/chapter/10-3-prejudice/).  In Sri Lanka, Muslims are blamed for the low population growth rate of the Sinhalese.  


A fair share of the blame should also be placed on the minorities themselves.  For ethnic harmony sake, a minority community in a multiethnic society needs to be inclusive, while preserving its cultural and religious identity, without allowing the majority community to develop racial prejudices against it.  In this regard, the behaviour of a minute section of the Muslims indeed was provocative, to say the least, when they supported Pakistan while the Sri Lanka cricket team played against that country.  Such preposterous anti-national behaviour, seen at cricket stadiums and live on television, was condemned by the majority of Muslims, but, given the prejudicial nature of society, the entire Muslim community was stereotyped as anti-national. 


Racism and prejudice are not peculiar to one community.  They cut across all socio-economic barriers. Stereotyping the ‘other’ is part of prejudice.  So are efforts to assume a sense of superiority based on caste, race or religion. 

In a multicultural society that is partially prejudiced, majoritarianism represents the view that minorities can co-exist but whatever rights and privileges they enjoy are at the pleasure of the majority


In a multiethnic society highly steeped in prejudice, majoritarianism promotes the view that minorities need to be eliminated or expelled. This is happening in Myanmar where the Rohingya minority is being ethnically cleansed.


In a multicultural society that is partially prejudiced, majoritarianism represents the view that minorities can co-exist but whatever rights and privileges they enjoy are at the pleasure of the majority. This is what Narendra Modi’s India is turning out to be. Under his government, India’s Muslims feel they are second class citizens.


In an enlightened multiethnic society, majoritarianism epitomizes a caring older brother willing to share the parental property equally with his younger brothers.  Examples are Singapore, where the president is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, and several Western nations, including Britain where a Muslim can become London’s mayor and a national cricket team captain.  


In Sri Lanka, majoritarianism manifests in all these forms. While the ethnic-cleansing majoritarianism is responsible for the Aluthgama, Gingtota, Ampara and Kandy mob attacks, the caring-brother-type majoritarianism manifested in the statements made by cricketing greats Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara and in the powerful speech made by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in parliament this week.  


But the responsibility to make Sri Lanka an enlightened society rests not with civil society alone. The Government should have a commitment towards nation-building – the creation of an all-powerful Sri Lankan identity.  Paying mere lip service to reconciliation and having ministries and offices for national unity and reconciliation would not help the nation-building process.  Politicians should become statesman or stateswomen with vision.


The mob attacks on Muslim properties and mosques rekindle the ugly memories of the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils.  Disregarding the pleas of the enlightened segment of society, the then President J.R. Jayewardene deliberately delayed the imposition of an islandwide curfew to teach the Tamils a lesson they would not forget.   


That this week’s attacks continued despite a curfew and the declaration of emergency is a serious indictment on the Government’s inaction and a breakdown of law and order.


There could even be a political conspiracy behind the race riots, given the undercurrents of the 2020 presidential race. Such ugly incidents -- taking place in the 21st century in a country blessed by the world’s four main religions -- shows the depth of darkness that we are in.  Are we a failed state, incapable of co-existence and nation-building?


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