How could we disentangle the knot that we all helped to tighten?
resident Maithripala Sirisena recently said the policy of the new Government was both reconciliation among communities and development of physical resources.
Addressing the 6th commemoration in Matara on the dawn of peace through the defeat of separatism, the President emphasised that reconciliation and development should be considered as equally important requirements to overcome today’s challenges and called upon all to unite to rebuild the country.
It is an appropriate comment because of all the urgent problems that have accumulated in the past five decades, the most painful seems to be that of ethnic relationship between the Sinhala and other minority communities in Sri Lanka.
No other question arouses such explosions of resentment, malice and mental agony.
It is generally agreed that the blame for the present situation cannot be laid at one community’s door and that to a certain extent all of us are to be blamed. We have all had a hand in creating the deadlock that now confronts us.
The question to be asked then, should be how we could hope to disentangle the knot that we all helped to tighten.
It is beyond the comprehension of the writer to understand why some individuals and groups believe that different races cannot live within the bounds of a single country of their own free will and for the benefit of all.
Of course it is true that in recent history there has been a tendency towards the formation of ever smaller states but it does not prove that the trend is practicable.
The small and minuscule states that have appeared in the world map in recent times are too weak. They are doomed in all possible respects to become dependants and hangers-on of larger states.
On the contrary, different people in different races in cooperation can give birth to a high quality culture than any of them in isolation could achieve. And, geniuses of small communities achieve worldwide significance, something that would be impossible unless they were a part of a kindred culture – as the Scotsman Walter Scott was of the greater English culture.
Hundreds of vivid illustrations come from our own culture.
For example, P. Arunachalam. great as his genius, was one may say, yet he could not have blossomed so profoundly attained as such a pinnacle of human achievement had he not been enriched by the Sinhala history and culture.
His influence on his countrymen would have been negligible if all Sinhala culture had not been illuminated with his light.
In “Sketches of Ceylon History” he says: “It is scarcely creditable to us to remain in such profound ignorance of the history of our motherland and to be so indifferent to our past and surroundings… Would it be right for us Ceylonese if we too kept fresh in our hearts the great deeds done and the great ideals cherished by our ancestors’ ad strove to make ourselves worthy of our inheritance”. Arunachalam demonstrated his desire to be a Sri Lankan as well as a Tamil writer.
This path is not closed to the communities of our country but finding it will not be at all easy. It will require much effort and goodwill and changes in our mental attitudes.
Discussions of race in Sri Lanka are rarely as finessed or complex as they need to be. Most of these, whether in the form of Parliamentary discussions, town meetings, TV panel discussions, or consciousness-raising groups-are set up as a reaction to big, are sensational.
Their relevance remain intact only until the fire burns down and the incident recedes into the past: their effect tends to be fleeting and, more often than not, predictably divisive.
Most discussions on race in Sri Lanka inadequately consider the vulnerability and fragility of their participants. Choosing to talk about race in public is a difficult act.
Most of us are reluctant to talk about race in the first person, let alone in dialogue. Even before we can talk to each other, we must first think for ourselves about things that embarrass or upset us-in private, where we can be honest and not fear humiliation or retribution.
Ultimately, the politics of the individuals is central to the politics of race. Virtually all aspects of life and culture can play a role in the formation of racial attitudes. It can be the ancestors who make up our ethnic past, the parents, relatives, and siblings we grow up with, the teachers and clergy who guide and instruct us; the colleagues we work with, the friends and neighbours we live with, the films we watch; the books, magazines, and newspapers we read. Thus, the process of self-inquiry into our own behavior, the act of delving deeply into the meaning of these personal and public influences and our own actions, is crucial to understanding how racism is constructed and how it operates.
In attempting to undo our dogmatism, it is ultimately these personal, and somewhat banal, attitudes that are our greatest enemy.
To be honest about race demands that one must be honest about one’s racial attitudes. The fear of revealing these secrets has hindered ‘race-talk’ for decades.
It might make better sense for those officials, teachers and institutions committed to improving race relations in Sri Lanka to encourage self-inquiry on the most personal, rather than the most public level.
Affinity of outlook
Instead of advocating national conferences, meetings, and other public discussions on race, we should be blunt with ourselves. Nothing less will prepare us for the difficult conversations on race, both public and private, that undoubtedly lie ahead.
This question is insoluble unless we renounce our ingrained prejudices. It is insoluble on a basis of hatred and mutual recrimination. To this end we must endeavor to change habits that have been built up over decades and centuries, transforming the forces of repulsion into forces of attraction.
This is essential not at all simply in order to try to preserve the links that exist between our country’s ethnic groups. Such affinity of outlook and certain ability to understand one another are essential not only in order to be able to live together but also to enjoy company.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents sections of Tamil people of the Northern and Eastern provinces, as evidenced by the elections held so far including the Northern Provincial Council election, is presumably reflecting the sentiments of these people when it states that it is for a united country and is not for secession.
"The small and minuscule states that have appeared in the world map in recent times are too weak. They are doomed in all possible respects to become dependants and hangers-on of larger states."
However, as in every society there are fringe groups who espouse extreme positions. Such groups are usually very vociferous about their stand but this does not mean that the silent majority agrees with them, it only means they have no time to join in such debates as their priority is rehabilitation of their shattered lives in the war devastated areas. As the TNA has made its stand explicit that should be an end to the matter.
There are the least, real grounds for hope that in many respect the lesions of the past have not be totally wasted on people. Our experiences have inoculated us against many temptations
– but not all.
Class hatred can probably never again light the flame that engulfs our house in time to trouble – but racial hatred
The Bodu Bala Sena’s instigation of anti-Muslim attack in Aluthgama, for example, is a recent tragedy. We felt its overwhelming tremors and they should enable us to judge how destructive it could be, once it erupts.
We must not be naive as to support them. The forces of hatred and violence are subject to their own laws and always consume those who unleash them.
And who can say which community would survive yet another cataclysm – perhaps more viciously – that either of them have been obliged to endure so far. Herein lies the last reason for the extreme acuteness of the ethnic problem – it may well become a problem of the continued existence of all communities.