Sunday, January 29, 2012

Some extra honesty about ‘Sri Lankaness’ and ‘Sri Lankan identity’

Published in my column in The Nation ‘The Painted Goose’ on January 29, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Sometimes, certain sentences lodge in my head until I have to exorcise them by an act of writing. The following are from an essay titled ‘Back to Basics: The Need for an Honest Conversation About ‘Sri Lankanness’ and ‘Sri Lankan identity’ by Achcharya published in Groundviews last year.
“But when those who take part in the Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic project assert ‘Sri Lankanness’, as Rajapaksha did in his end-of-the-war speech (the no-minorities in Sri Lanka speech) many quite rightly suspected the motives behind such an agenda. To assert Sri Lankanness within the present political status quo (without challenging it) is to sign up to this agenda of Sinhala Buddhist hegemonism.”

That last sentence presents an interesting idea. What interests me is how it links ‘present political status quo’ with ‘Sinhala Budhist hegemonism’ in a mutually nourishing equation. I think one may be excused in concluding that, in the writer’s conceptualization, the present political status quo (bequeathed by the departing British) placed the entire socio-political space of sovereign Lanka under Sinhala Buddhist hegemonism; a novel state of affairs not at all reflecting the pre- colonial political status quo prevailing at the time of the Portuguese advent. The political status quo the Portuguese encountered here being (I am still guessing the writer’s reasoning process) the result of centuries of political evolution and restructuring powered by the time honoured medieval mechanisms of warfare, invasion, trade, migrations, pestilence and jungle tide, it was uniquely suited to the socio-political landscape of Lanka. The pre colonial political equation was in fact a home-grown status quo, springing from the very soil of this country and by departing from it the Brits created a rip in the space-time continuum of this country leading to chaos. 

Pre-colonial equation
Let me say that there’s nothing in his essay to commit Achcharya in a concrete way to this chain of reasoning. He does not talk about the pre-colonial equation at all. (except for a tell tale, taken for granted posit he lets slip- “In fact for reasons that I hope that are obvious the Sri Lankan identity is historically a later creation”) I am only trying to reconstruct the synaptic junctions in the writer’s deductive pathway, which may have lead him to come out with the interesting duet of sentences quoted at the start. I don’t think mine is a preposterous or a far-fetched reconstruction because even a casual upward glance into the ideologisphere of this country will reveal this idea floating around like a large and pregnant cloud casting its shadow very far and wide. 

The Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic overtones present in the current collective identity brew of this country was illustrated subsequently by Dr. Michael Roberts in a complementary (and complimentary too in subtext) article to Achcharya’s; ‘Ancestry and Ethnic Identity in the Australian Census… and thus to Sri Lanka’ also published in Groundviews. (However please note that Roberts’ contains a footnote “However, I would place caveats around Aachcharya’s claim that “[the assertion of] Sri Lankanness within the present political status quo (without challenging it) is to sign up to this agenda of Sinhala Buddhist hegemonism.”

 It seems that Dr. Roberts has been trying for the past so many years “in deadly seriousness” to initiate a project of his own to counter the Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic project. This lovely project involves causing hyphenated Lankan identity labels (Sinhala-Lankan, Tamil-Lankan, Muslim-Lankan, Mixed-Lankan) to take root in local vocabularies. This project is intended “as a means of undermining the insidious, but powerful, tendency among some Sinhala people to treat “Sri Lankan” and “Sinhalese” as synonyms”. Dr. Roberts “spotted this tendency initially in some of the Anagarika Dharmapala’s writings in the early twentieth century”. 

 My gut feeling is that after this initial discovery he did not spot this tendency at all in a Sri Lankan context at a time post dating Anagarika Dharmapala. Incidentally I spotted a similar tendency within a USA context. The following is from ‘Sins of the Fathers’, one of my all time favorite novels (first published 1980) by Susan Howatch;
“At the age of nine I had walked into my school classroom to find that someone had written on the blackboard: HANS-DIETER KELLER IS A NO-GOOD GERMAN PIG. Then a gang of older boys had beaten me up and I had run crying all the way home…. Anti sentiment had been common in 1917 and my family had probably suffered less than other German-American families since my father had refused to be intimated. After the incident in the classroom he had hung a large American flag on our front porch and announced to the principal of my school that my constitutional rights as an American Citizen would be violated unless steps were immediately taken to reprimand my assailants. The principal, a fair-minded man, had responded satisfactorily and the rest of my school days had passed without incident. It was my father who had suggested that it would be better if I had an American name. He had favoured Hank, since it was similar to Hans, but I had insisted on Sam, the cowboy hero of a popular comic strip.”

Supra identity
I hope it’s clear that my intention is not to take a crude swipe at USA. The relevant part is the interesting juxtaposition of the American with the German-American while the other sentences are quoted just to create context. This interesting juxtaposition showcases the presence of the non-hyphanated supra identity, which enables (in the case of America) the Part (the Anglo-Saxon part) to equate itself with the Whole (American). In this critical conceptualization a part of America, the Anglo-Saxon people (actually their brand identity more than their corporeal selves), is equated with the whole of America. This (ideological? Nah I’d say natural and subliminal) act of merger is present throughout the American mosaic in a taken-for-granted, insidious and powerful manner causing even a German American to treat American and Anglo-Saxon as synonyms as in the above example. This is why one hyphenated category; English-American is obsolete in America. 

 Actually I am paraphrasing Dr. Roberts’ sentences. Let me reproduce his original sentences because a) it is unethical to paraphrase without doing that b) his sentences are crafted so masterfully to illustrate the part-whole relationship and the hegemonic overtones in the present day Lanka that by slightly paraphrasing them I can illustrate the hegemonic overtones that existed in the political unit called the Kingdom of Jaffna at the time of the Portuguese advent.
“… the insidious, but powerful, tendency among some Sinhala people to treat “Sri Lankan” and Sinhalese” as synonyms….I spotted this tendency initially in some of the Anagarika Dharmapala’s writings in the early twentieth century…..This type of slippage enables the Part (Sinhalese) to equate itself with the Whole. It is a hegemonic act, even when working without aforethought below the surface…In this critical conceptualization a part of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese people, is equated with the whole of Lanka. This ideological act of merger is presented in a taken-for-granted manner, thus, insidiously and powerfully”

Dr. Roberts does not know it (or maybe he does) but proving that destiny sometimes creates bizarre parallels in people’s lives, Professor T. B. H Abeyasinghe spotted(see ‘Jaffna under the Portuguese’ pgs 24, 25, 26, 27) the same kind of slippage in some of the 17th century Portuguese writings on Jaffna. This was a tendency to treat Jaffnese and Chingala as synonyms. Among those who suffered from this slippage was Fernao de Queiros, ‘the chronicler of Portuguese Sri Lanka par excellence’ (T.B.H, Jaffna Under the Portuguese). In pages 356, 357, 366, 371, 374, 375, 376, 377 of his text ‘The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon’ (Trans. 1930), this type of slippage enables Queiros to equate the Part (Chingalaz) with the Whole (Jaffnese). So in page 377, we are told that the reason for abandoning a certain fortalice is “…because it would necessarily remain in a continuous state of siege, on account of the tenacity of the King and of Chingala courage,…” . The king here is the king of Jaffna. In page 374, in a confrontation that takes place in Jaffna “Vincente Carvalho, Captain of a foist” is attacked by 200 men who become “the delighted Chingalaz” in the next sentence. So it goes. 

Hegemonic act
 In this critical conceptualization a part of Jafanapatao, the Chingalaz , (not a majoritarian part in this region’s demographic configuration according to conventional historiography), is equated with the whole of Jafanapatao. This act of merger, which is perceptual rather than ideological, is presented by Queiros in a taken-for-granted manner, thus, insidiously and powerfully. In other words Portuguese (For it was not only Queiros but also the Lisbon authorities and the Count of Vidigueira too) identified the idea of Jaffneseness with Chingalaness, the dominant identity of Ceilao. This is an example of how natural hegemony exercised by a dominant brand influences perceptions and shapes communications. This was a hegemonic act. It did not involve those committing it buying into any ideology. Nor did it involve the present political status quo.