There are nationalists and they are vilified. There are people who vilify nationalism and nationalists and they are called traitors. It’s a pick-your-enemy kind of political culture that we live in. It makes for easy, convenient and in the cheap political engagement. People are spoiling for a fight. Perhaps out of boredom, but more likely because ‘fight’ is what makes certain people feel their lives are worthwhile. It’s the fighting that counts and not necessarily the cause.
Typically the focus is on symbols rather than substance, for example the national flagand the national anthem. Neither existed in their current forms 100 years ago and yet people swear by such things or vilify them.
Today the song and dance, so to speak, is about the national anthem. The issue is whether it should be sung in Sinhala only or in both Sinhala and Tamil. Obviously, to the extent that the idea of ‘nation’ inevitably attracts symbols, affirming or contesting the notion takes the form of quarreling over the symbolism.
Some insist that the national anthem should be sung in just one language. Others believe that this excludes those who do not culturally or historically identify with that language. ‘In protest,’ they have sung the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil, and posted relevant videos on social media.
[For the record, I am less fascinated by national flag and national anthem than I am about ‘nation’. I think the Tamil version of the national language is beautiful. I believe that ‘nation’ loses nothing by the Tamil version being sung. I also believe that the nation would also lose nothing if the national flag is not hoisted at all or if we didn’t have a national flag.]
Getting back to the subject, it is all about notions of inclusivity and exclusivity. These things are no doubt important. Just as they are fought over in terms of the lived, material and everyday of the particular individual and community, so too are they contested over in terms of symbols and even trappings. Meaning, often, is everything. And yet, we have to stop and ask ourselves certain damning questions. Are we less of a nation if we have a single-language national anthem? Are we more of a nation if we have the national anthem multi-languaged? If we didn’t have anthem and flag would we be richer or poorer? Is our sense of citizenship and belonging enhanced by these things are or they diminished?
Arrogance and fear. These are the key sentiments that fuel the politics over symbols. History and heritage are brought into play, inevitably. Myths and myth models are nudged into the story. Selectivity underlines everything. History is referenced in part. That which is uncomfortable and might even detract from a particular thesis is suppressed, glossed over or left out altogether. That which buttresses claim is mentioned, underlined and shouted out.
The problem in all this posturing, preening and chest-beating is the inevitable foot-noting of substance. In affirming a version of the nation through symbols what tends to be forgotten is what ‘nation’ is all about. The people. The resources. Solidarities without which chances of collective survival diminish. Instead politics get reduced to a quarrel over colours, lines, melody and lyrics.
How can a Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist, say, scream and shout about the language of the national anthem and yet remain silent when national assets are sold, the treasury is robbed, protective areas vandalized, the entire environment polluted by poor or non-existent regulations on the use of polythene and fellow citizens ripped off one way or another? And yet this happens. Often.
How can those who cry out against so-called majoritarianism remain silent when in the name of equal treatment of communities certain groups take up arms? How can those who scream about Article 9 of the Constitution remain silent about relevant clauses in Articles 10 and 14? How can those who object to what they believe is a privileging of the Buddhist community twiddle thumbs over the number of Christian and Muslim holidays? How can those who speak of a secular constitution not object to marriage and divorce legislation that are specific to a single religious community? How can those who talk about a Sri Lankan identity also champion ethnic enclaves and separatist struggles and even defend terrorism?
We have to return to a discussion on what constitutes ‘The Nation’. The nation, if it resides only in anthem, flag and national identity card, is not a nation but a shadow of the nation it can be. A nation whose overall economic policy is written, essentially, but people who have little interest in the betterment of nation and security is a client state. A citizenry that abdicates responsibility can quibble over flag and anthem but in the end are perhaps deserving of their true status as rootless, unimaginative and self-disempowered sycophants.
On the other hand, if being ‘nationalists’ of one kind or another (even those who want the national anthem in multiple languages would consider themselves ‘nationalists’) makes one feel ‘deeply’ engaged in the forging of a nation, a national identity and such as per designs closer to the heart, so be it.
The nation existed long before we were born and will probably survive our passing. What makes the nation is not necessarily what ‘nationalists’ (of one kind or another) believe are a nation’s building blocks or foundational components. Perhaps the longevity of the nation is embedded in the kind of misnaming, misrepresentation and mis-identification that one and all are guilty of. Simply, it distracts these protagonists from that which could truly harm the nation.
In the end, what needs to be understood is who needs who or what and for what. Those who know the nation, would see it in things less transient and much older than flag, anthem or identity card. Those who don’t, typically, quarrel over such things. Maybe that’s something we could reflect on, come Independence Day.