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Defusing the ethnic bomb before it goes boom

1 February 2020 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Conspiracy theories aren’t the preserve of Rajapaksas

Mainstreaming of fake news hardly specific to Sri  Lanka

Sinhala Buddhists are the numerical majority, but are not economically privileged

Racism is not a sui generis phenomenon arising from itself 

 

Conspiracy theories come a dime a dozen these days. So does fake news. You can count on Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter for diminishing the space for truth. And yet, strange as it may seem, I understand why this is so, and why this will be so. Conspiracy theories aren’t the preserve of Rajapaksas, as commentators seem to think. They are everywhere, and they are pumped and dumped on everything. To give just three examples from many, there’s the theory that the Easter attacks were, in some way or the other, engineered and planned by Rajapaksas; the theory that the Israelis were behind the rise of ISIS; the theory that, before the election, the Rajapaksa camp made a deal with the Ranil Wickremesinghe camp to ensure victory for the former. 


In the wake of the Easter attacks, many questioned as to why people were gullible enough to swallow such half-truths and lies. The most obvious answer to that is that people aren’t educated enough to distinguish between reality and propaganda over here, something that the Kelaniya naga dathuwa fiasco, on the eve of the election, should have told us already. At a time when everything is filtered by self-censorship, it should come to no surprise that we take the news as it comes to us from unverified sources. The mainstreaming of fake news is hardly specific to Sri  Lanka but is a phenomenon recent to us. Media outlets taking sides isn’t new to us either, but their efforts at presenting a version of reality are, and it has contributed to a culture of fakery. Spliced, juxtaposed, edited out, the news has become as selective as those consuming it. We are what we eat, after all. 

 

 The liberal viewpoint has neglected until now to account for rifts that really, urgently matter – those of class and relative disadvantage – and it has focused exclusively on identity politics, forgetting that ethnicity is only one element in our society 


But I refuse to believe that lack of education is the reason for us falling for this bait, as much as I refuse to believe that politicians, journalists and vested interests are the ones enticing us with the bait. This in itself is a myth, conjured and perpetuated by those who believe that the country, at present, is divided into two irreconcilable halves: the superior, intelligent minority who subscribe to values such as democracy, separation of powers, judicial independence and freedom of expression and thought, versus the unthinking, unintelligent majority who do not and who moreover believe that such values are imports from the West. The divide isn’t really clear cut and shouldn’t be so because political realities don’t subsist on such dichotomies: if they did, the intelligent half should have triumphed by now, if not electorally, then morally. Yet, their conduct over the last few years – their selectivity in the causes for which they fight and the causes they ignore – leaves much to be desired. 


I have written on this before. When Ranil Wickremesinghe was deposed as Prime Minister in 2018, the vigils in Duplication  Road reminded me of something: the absence of such vigils when more pressing issues were coming down hard on the country. Where were the vigilators when farmers were committing suicide, fuel prices were rising and elections were delayed? These brought everyone together, cutting across ethnic, religious, and even class lines. They represented an ideal moment for Yahapalanists to show that they were not blind to party colours. By not doing so, and, as with the estate workers’ demand for higher wages, by siding with the status quo, all they showed instead was their selectivity. 


Let’s clear away a few misconceptions and false analogies. In a country like Sri Lanka, which remains a key strategic outpost in a world where the East and West have competing geopolitical interests, authoritarian strongmen will always make a comeback until and unless presidential aspirants demonstrate and prove that it is not only possible but also pragmatic to balance the imperatives of security with the demands of freedom. No country has freed itself completely from the conflict between these two values, because even modern liberalism, with its promise of stability and the upholding of individual freedom, serves interests which pit the one against the other. Modern liberalism is the ideology of 18th century white bourgeois civilisation, and given its incompatibility with civilisations still rooted in the past – such as ours – the result is a conflict between brief periods of reform and long periods 
of authoritarianism. 

 

In a country like Sri Lanka, authoritarian strongmen will always make a comeback until and unless presidential aspirants demonstrate and prove that it is not only possible but also pragmatic to balance the imperatives of security with the demands of freedom 

 

The solution is not, as liberal commentators will propose, the making of a distinction between formal and substantive justice, and the forced imposition of liberal values much of which remain alien to a majority cut off from the bourgeois culture that produced them in Europe. In countries such as ours where colonialism has impeded on development, where the majority scrape through a living, and the divide between the many and the few is more shocking than the divide in developed countries, formal justice – the supremacy of Parliament, the sanctity of private property and the equality of access to the law – will not satisfy those hard done by it. The result is a hardening of hostilities to the system; the many who despise it try to find an alternative in a leader who can promise them what the system cannot. 


That explains the unpopularity of the 19th Amendment: it envisaged a transfer of power from an elected central figure to unelected peripheral figures and institutions. Such a system works well, both in theory and practice, in countries where the dilemma of underdevelopment isn’t as marked as it is here. And even there – as the rise of the alt-right makes it clear – continued exploitation by the privileged billionaire class – the one per cent – has blinded the poor among the majority into seeking their messiahs, be it a Trump or a Bolsonaro, and channel their grievances and fears through, and against, racial minorities. 


Even that is a false analogy for us. In the US and Brazil, the poorest of the whites have fared better than blacks, creoles and other racial minorities. In Sri Lanka, historically, the majority didn’t turn out to be so privileged: it was the Kandyan Sinhalese who first mooted a federal structure for the country, not the Tamils, and among Tamils the most hard done by were the estate Tamils, who were marginalised by not merely the Sinhala bourgeoisie – in 1948, it was the bourgeoisie of the UNP who disenfranchised them – but also sections of the non-estate Tamil and Muslim elite who voted for the curtailment of their rights with the Sinhala elite in the ruling party. What liberals and leftists fail to realise is that a numerical majority doesn’t always turn out be a privileged community. In Sri  Lanka, it hasn’t. One can argue that legally and constitutionally Sinhala Buddhists are privileged and that this compensates for the lack of economic privilege, but that’s hardly consoling: they are still worse off. 


In a context where resources are limited and everyone’s at it to get at it before everyone else, communities naturally tend to vie with each other for practically everything. It’s an economic battle, in which ethnicity is the bogeyman: “Sinhalayani, nagitiyaw!” and what not. We saw this palpably in the backlash against the Borah conference last year: more often than not, the backlash was from those who were finding it difficult to make the long trek back home every evening at the hour the conference opened. It wasn’t a case of privileged Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims demonising an unprivileged community; it was, on the contrary, the very reverse: those hard done by venting their frustration on what they saw as an unnecessary cosmetic. Left untended, such displays of hostility magnify and explode. 


The trick is to defuse the bomb before it goes boom. Unfortunately, we have not been able to do so. Part of the reason for that, as you would have guessed, is our inability to distinguish between ethnicity and economics, and also consolidate the two. Sinhala Buddhists are the numerical majority, but – a survey will verify this – they are not economically privileged. Racism is not a sui generis phenomenon arising from itself: it has its causes and reasons, not all of which are rooted in myths and imagined hostilities. 


The liberal viewpoint has neglected until now to account for rifts that really, urgently matter – those of class and relative disadvantage – and it has focused exclusively on identity politics, forgetting that ethnicity is only one element in our society. The left, barring a few exceptions (I am thinking here of the Peratugamins over the JVP, the New Left over much of the Old Left), has subscribed to this viewpoint: class has been sacrificed to identity. 


Thus, the failure of the liberal project in Sri  Lanka is its failure to trace the contours of racism and discover the root causes for racism: in economics, not merely in ethnicity. It’s not in the Mahavamsa that you find the reason for Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, but in the issue of underdevelopment, which displaced the numerical majority in favour of communities that occupied a position of privilege during the colonial era. Once we understand this fact, we can hope to grapple with it and resolve the reality of racism. Until then, we will be no better than ostriches with our heads in the sand, calling for us all to overcome differences while ignoring the real causes for those differences. I suspect we are already too late. 

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