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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century >Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) >  Second Sivaram Death Anniversary :Memorial Lecture - Lakshman Gunasekera, 21 June 2007

Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Second Sivaram Death Anniversary: Memorial Lecture1
Lakshman Gunasekera2, at Mahaveli Kendra, 21 June 2007
“Good news for The Good? Media, the Fantasy of Empire
and Sri Lankan Futures – some journalistic reflections”

"..The biggest single obstacle to peace is the ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-supremacy and the hold that this ideology has on the Sri Lankan State... The historical imperative that confronts us, Sinhalayo, then is not merely 'constitutional reform'. We must look forward to building a new Republic or Republics. We, Sinhalayo, need no longer feel so alone, so besieged and under threat of dissolution - because we will be part of a larger, encompassing, regional society. Secession, then, will no longer be a 'threat' but merely a new configuring of our State with new forms and structures that enable inter-relationships between groups and sub-groups. Indeed, 'secession' will lose its meaning... Surely, with all our modern technology and tightly connected market economies, could we not envisage a complex of inter-dependent polities that is as complex as those highly complex and successful polities that configured our lands in the past centuries? Is this not 'good news' for The Good (sujana)?"

Comment by tamilnation.org  Mr.Lakshman Gunasekera's Sivaram Memorial Lecture comes as a breath of fresh air from a Sinhala intellectual, and if his lecture encourages  more and more Sinhala people and Tamil people  to have an honest conversation with one another, on the way forward in the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka, the talk  would have served an useful and helpful role.

The question is whether the Sinhala people and the Tamil people sitting together as equals can honestly discuss  political structures which secure the equality and freedom of each as a people and  which address not only the aspirations but also the concerns, the fears, and the apprehensions of each people.

In the end, it is for the Tamil people and the Sinhala people to be unafraid (yes, unafraid) to have an open and honest conversation with each other and in this way help mobilise a critical mass of people committed to secure justice and democracy - a democracy where no one people rule another. An independent Tamil Eelam may not be negotiable but an independent Tamil Eelam can and will negotiate.  Tamils who today live in many lands and across distant seas know only too well that sovereignty after all, is not virginity.  But  they also know that it is only the independent who may negotiate the terms on which they may become inter-dependent.

Admittedly, the negotiating process may be complex but if Germany and France were able to put in place such 'associate' structures despite the suspicions and confrontations of two world wars, it should not be beyond the capacity of Tamil Eelam and  Sri Lanka to work out structures, within which each independent state may remain free and prosper, but at the same time pool sovereignty in certain agreed areas. Mr.Gunasekera is right to ask - " Surely, with all our modern technology and tightly connected market economies, could we not envisage a complex of inter-dependent polities that is as complex as those highly complex and successful polities that configured our lands in the past centuries? "  [see also additional  Comment on Marxism & Nationalism and Comment on Scots and British]
 


Sivaram

I must thank my colleagues, comrades and friends in the Free Media Movement and the allied journalists' and media professionals' organisations for the honour they have bestowed me by asking me to deliver this First Memorial Lecture commemorating the life and untimely death of journalist/ social activist and, Tamil nationalist liberation fighter Dharmaratnam Sivaram. The invitation to lecture came with just over a month's notice - not the kind of time period one would expect to be given to prepare for something as formal and significant as a Memorial Lecture in honour of a distinguished citizen. But, given the exigencies within which we must live today, I understood the difficulties of the organisers and accepted, despite the short notice.

Some in this country and elsewhere will balk at describing Dharmaratnam Sivaram as a "distinguished citizen", given his long involvement in rebellion and guerrilla warfare. Others, more fanatical about citizenship and nationality issues, would argue over the 'nation' to which Siva might owe citizenship. Knowing the man as I did/I know that Siva would have enjoyed the multiple controversy. To me, Sivaram is a Good Citizen: That is, a useful member of human society who contributed something of creative significance to that society.

Again, some may be repelled by the application of the adjectives 'good' and 'creative' to someone who had enthusiastically engaged in war. I choose to argue my case for such usage by means of a Lecture that explores some of the dimensions of the social conflict in which Sivaram found himself/ the immense compulsions that overwhelmed him. and continue to overwhelm us in that conflict/ and the enormous challenges that confronted him and continue to confront us.

Dharmaratnam Sivaram lived a relatively short life that was fuller than that of most people in terms of the intensity with which he lived his various roles and fulfilled the tasks that he took on. Looking at his life in terms of the ancient social traditions that he upheld - even as a Marxian social revolutionary - one can see the dynamism of both the Khatriya as well as the Brahmana.

But, despite the more recent recognition given to him as a journalist and "scribe" (to use a label favoured by mutual friend, the late Ajith Samaranayake), I would argue that Siva was far more a Khatriya and warrior than a Brahmana. Indeed, even in his second great career as a journalist and writer, Siva not only continued the same struggle he had previously engaged in militarily, but did so exploiting much of the analytical skill and knowledge that he had honed during his first career as a guerrilla fighter and strategist of the People's Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam.

Both as guerrilla warrior and as writer, editor and analyst, Siva has made a singular contribution to the great cause of a whole people, a community, struggling - and yet struggling - to find human security, dignity and fulfillment in new nationhood and political community.

Thanks to his endeavours (along with the endeavours of many other Sri Lankans), that people may now be on the verge of a new political community, while still undergoing immense pain and tragedy in the process of achieving it.

Even if he has not seen the formal, institutional, achievement of Tamil self-determination, Siva did see some of the early exciting signs of it in a separate, militarily won and militarily administered, 'liberated' territory with some vestiges of indigenously created 'national' institutions such as a judiciary and administration, however imperfect that they might be.

Even as a 'journalist', Sivaram located himself firmly on one side of the barricades he had already helped erect in defending his community against the awesome odds of a legitimized, ethno-centric State domination and a majority community's social violence. With the relatively high standards of journalism he met through Tamilnet.com, he helped bring to the world the Tamil community's own counter-legitimacy; high standards that he further distinguished by his individual contribution as probably the most incisive analyst of the politico-military aspect of the current war.

While I was never a close friend of Siva's, I first knew of him as a PLOTE strategist and then got to know him personally when he was astutely recruited by Editor Gamini Weerakoon as a columnist for The Island - Sunday Edition newspaper in which I worked at the time. Siva's 'Taraki' column made as much waves, albeit in a shorter time, as D.B.S. Jeyaraj had previously done through his 'Behind the Cadjan Curtain' column. If his newspaper columns were brilliantly analytical; many of Siva's papers and commentaries written for various seminars and publications were even more brilliant.

Even if I had been given adequate time, I doubt whether I could, in this Lecture, hope to match the kind of intellectual depth and quality achieved by Sivaram. Lacking the time for the build-up of specific references and data for my contentions, I would rather describe my Lecture as "some journalistic reflections".

In this Lecture I will reflect on my own experience and perceptions of the functioning of the Sri Lankan mass media in the context of the on-going ethnic conflict, the nature of this conflict and the possible Sri Lankan futures arising from it. Sivaram lived and gave his life for the future of his people. We can only take up that same spirit of anticipation and envisioning.

Mass Media, Community and Conflict

The Sinhala Marxist tradition is notable for its failure, unlike most other Marxist movements, to firmly and authentically base itself on the intellectual and spiritual wellsprings of its own society.

It is possible that this failure is due to the non-availability of a coherent and full-bodied indigenous tradition following the massive triage of five centuries of colonial domination. Nevertheless, it is perhaps this immense theoretical lapse that has contributed most to the waywardness and debility of the Left's politico-organisational life, indeed its very failure, so far, as a social movement.

Sivaram is but one example of how Tamil Marxian revolutionaries transcended this theoretical weakness and nurtured a revolutionary movement that was and is largely Marxian-inspired but socially revolutionary on the basis of both its modernist ideological goals as well as its profoundly civilised traditions and culturally derived community identity. The Tamil national liberation movement, whatever its failings in terms of military brutality, patriarchy and authoritarianism (among others), has never had difficulties in fusing its nationalist and social revolutionary thrusts.

Thus, it has been extremely difficult, in our Southern society (unlike in the North or much elsewhere in the world), to intellectually draw out the complex strands that tie ethno-cultural identity together with social class-based differentiations, without facing accusations of obscurantism and populism.

The intellectual debate among southern Marxists has preened itself on the podium of a culturally barren 'rationalism' thereby crucially failing to negotiate, until it was almost too late, the vital nexus between community and class. The first generation leadership of the JVP made a valiant effort at this, but lacked the intellectual depth and self-confidence to build a solid theoretical discourse. In any case, the lack of a rich tradition itself undermined that effort.

Comment by tamilnation.org  Here, there may also be a need to reflect on the views of those like Benedict Anderson and V.Kiernan -  (see also, generally - What is a nation? and On Civic Nationalism & Ethno Nationalism)

 "Nationalism has proved an uncomfortable anomaly for Marxist theory and precisely for that reason, has been largely elided, rather than confronted. How else to account for the use, for over a century of the concept of the 'national bourgeoisie' without any serious attempt to justify theoretically the relevance of the adjective? Why is this segmentation of the bourgeoisie - a world class in so far as it is defined in terms of the relations of productions - theoretically significant?" (*Benedict Anderson: Imagined Communities - Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism )

"'A nation is not merely a historical category , but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism.'  Stalin's formula appears in many ways close to the mark, but it applies much better to the handful of original nation states in the West than to their imitations further a field; it applies far less well still to the majority of nationalist movements as distinct from nations. Marxism has often slurred over the distinction between these two things, and made modern nationalism, as well as the classical nation state, an alter ego of capitalism... Like religion,.. or any other great emotive force, nationalism is ambivalent, and can escape very completely from a prescribed political channel. Even in its origins, it was a complex phenomenon, deriving both from the solidarity and from the divisions of society. It would have astonished Marx to see socialism owing so much to partnerships with nationalism in Afro-Asia and in the Soviet Union during the second world war... " (V.Kiernan - 'Nationalist Movements and Social Classes'  in Anthony D Smith (Ed): Nationalist Movements)

If the Southern Left failed to grasp the importance of culture and community, then one cannot be surprised that the Southern elite also similarly failed. In the context of such intellectual debility, it is not surprising that the Sri Lankan understanding of the specific subjects of communication and mass media also lacks an appreciation of the subjective, cultural elements. To the Southern Left as well as to the Southern mainstream, mass media continues to be largely seen both as a didactic instrument and as a propaganda tool.

Whether it is the bureaucracy, with its neo-colonial command-and-control mentality, or social activist organisers and animators or, politicians, the mass media is, to them, a useful (seemingly) tool of public instruction, social guidance and reform, and mobilisation. Marshall Macluhan and mass communication theory reigns while Stuart Hall and the Cultural Studies school remains esoteric.

If there was some appreciation of the political theorising of Antonio Gramsci, his exploration of the power of consciousness was less imbibed here. Benedict Anderson may be toyed with in relation to 'ethnicity' but Dick Hebdige, Raymond Williams, Michael Gurevitch and Lisbet Van Zoonen are virtually unnoticed. While in more recent years there has been an increasing number of academics and intellectuals who have transcended this theoretical straitjacket, the Culturalist approach is yet a marginal and maverick tendency in Sri Lanka.

Mass media professionals here have even a less structured understanding of their societal function although, at the level of industrial tactic and professional instinct, most successful journalists are adept at navigating cultural streams and symbolic markers in making effective connection with audience and market.

Perhaps the first such local exploration came in the early 1980s/ even before the cataclysm of July 1983, when a research project launched by the Council for Communal Harmony through the Media (CCHM) used hard data gained from the analysis of newspaper reportage to point to explicit ethnic biases in the Sri Lankan news media (at the time there was no television and only the single. State-owned radio station).

In a series of circulated newsletters titled Media Monitor and Maadhya Nireekshaka, the CCHM tried to draw the attention of media people as well as critical audiences to this clearly noticeable phenomenon of newspapers catering to the perceived ethnic interests and concerns of their readerships.

The media of the time as well as the intelligentsia gave little attention to these arguments by that little band of activist-researchers led by Reggie Siriwardene. A CCHM study of the school curriculum revealed an ideological content that alarmingly complemented the media's ethnic duality of 'majority' identity and 'minority' identity with its own powerful discourse of a similar duality and privileging of the 'majority' culture.

Thus it was not surprising to those researchers that a subsequent survey of a sample of high school students that was undertaken after the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom had many Sinhala student respondents describing that episode of mass violence as simply the period of "jaathi-aalaya" ( = love of race).

If that pioneering work that predates but anticipates the current ethnic hatreds and paranoia was largely ignored, the subsequent violent upheavals prompted greater retrospection, resulting in more and louder voices in a similar vein. Even though relatively little study has still been done in this area, there are & few works that have not only agreed with and legitimised CCHM's early work (without reference to the CCHM, though) but have also served to mainstream a critical understanding of the Sri Lankan mass media's contribution to the conflict's dynamics.

Audience as market and constituency

The cultural studies school has influenced my approach to mass media and, consequently, I view the media as a system or structure of social communication; indeed, as the modern, dominant social communicational structure of our society. Traditional mass communication theory views the media institutions as functioning quite separately and independently of the public and, as having the potential to influence public opinion in a direct, didactic manner.

The Cultural Studies School, which influences my perspective, sees the mass media as representing the interests and views of the public that constitute its audience. The mass media is ultimately linked to the public which are its various audiences. The Sri Lankan mass media, therefore, must be seen as a social communicational structure involving media institutions (e.g. radio, TV, newspaper companies) as well as media audiences in an intimate, mutually influencing relationship.

The most significant aspect of this intimate linkage is the fact that the audience of the media is not only its market but also its constituency. That is, the ownership and staff of a particular media organ (such as the editorial staff, proprietors, managers etc.) are predominantly constituted by members of the same social group or cluster of groups that comprise its audience. It is this social linkage between media and audience that prompts and enables the media producers to represent the interests and concerns of their audience.

For example, the ownership of the Sinhala language newspaper 'Divaina', which caters to the Sinhala-speaking people of the country is, itself, ethnically Sinhala. Almost the entirety of its editorial staff - that is, the professional communicators working for that newspaper - are ethnically Sinhalas. Thus the Sinhala community, which is the principal, if not the sole, audience of the 'Divaina', also has provided its editorial staff and its ownership.

A similar logic will apply to the major Tamil-language newspapers such as the 'Veerakesari' or 'Thinakkural'. Even if the proprietors of a media institution do not solely originate from a specific language and ethnic community to which that media institution (be it radio, TV or the press) caters, the professional staff will. In the case of the English language media, there is only a slight modification to this logic.

Even if the owning people are not from the westernized socio-cultural layers, their media content producers or editorial staff are likely to originate from those layers. (Or, they become very hybrid, multi-lingual product operations that cater to very specific market segments.)

In fact, it is possible to argue that a specific newspaper (or radio or TV channel for that matter) would not successfully cater to its intended audience and retain that audience as its market if that newspaper's editorial staff - i.e. the producers of its editorial content - did not belong to and culturally be immersed in the social group that constitutes that audience. Indeed, the more socio-culturally immersed a media practitioner is, the more successful will be her/his professional contribution to the marketing success of that media institution.

Thus one could say that the audience of a media organisation also constitutes its staff and often its ownership, at least in cultural and ethnic terms if not also in terms of its gender and socio-economic class. If I may simplify this formula, it is possible to say that media consumers also constitute the media producers.

Media as representing Ethnic interests

This interaction and relationship between audience and media content producers will help explain the conclusions by analysts in studies of the Sri Lankan media. What little studies that have been done have found that the different linguistic sectors of the media function differently and cater directly to the interests of their language-defined audiences.

Thus to quote a recent analysis of the Tamil press: "... .the impact of the press was also seen in ........ the inculcation of a sense of pride among the Tamil-speaking groups in their cultural and literary heritage.... ." Similarly, "..... the private sector Sinhala dailies..... ..have been ever mindful that they depend on a Sinhalese (predominantly Buddhist) readership, and have shown sensitivity to the attitudes, responses and interests of that segment of the population, especially in respect of the ethnic conflict.

Another study observes: "Sri Lankan newspapers of the three language media cater to sets of individuals who inhabit different worlds and espouse different worldviews."

That same study concludes that "Broadly speaking, the effect of the Sinhala-English coverage of the North and the East is to create and nurture a war mentality.. .. When combined with the findings that media reportage of the conflict offers different perspectives to different audiences based on ethnicity and language, these and other studies that have been done have all gone to show that the content of the mass media's production and the behaviour of the mass media institutions themselves, in terms of owners' policy and media professionals' behaviour and attitudes, have had a bearing on the ethnic conflict."

It is abundantly clear that more than the deliberate intentions of the media content producers themselves; it is the compulsions of the market that drives ethnically biased media content. This is why it is wrong to simply 'blame' the mass media for 'bias'. Very often media practitioners tilt their content emphasis quite unconsciously in accordance with their instinctive reading of audience preferences and sensibilities rather than in accordance with deliberate policy or political motive. This "instinctive reading" is derived by these media practitioners own affiliation to the social groups that comprise their audience. This is not to downplay the degree of influence of policy and human motive on media content.

The studies referred to above, however, are primarily an assessment of print media behaviour and impact and were done when the electronic media was only just beginning to make its presence felt in Sri Lanka. The past decade has seen the gradual market consolidation of television and radio and, today, the sizeable impact of these media must be seen as having a considerable influence on social attitudes and social consciousness. The difference in the nature of audio-visual media opens up new possibilities in terms of audience responses.

In terms of ethno-cultural differentiations, the rise of the audio-visual media has some significant outcomes. If the print media, by its very logo-centricity, sharply divided audiences linguistically, the audio-visual media/ by its very graphic communication capacity, does the opposite.

The captivating power of the audio-visual breaks through the linguistic divide to encompass a range of, otherwise separated/ audiences into a single, unified meta-audience that collectively enjoys the visuals and the ambience within the aesthetic of a regionally common culture.

Thus, Tamil and Hindi language films and teledramas gain the largest audiences by far, bringing together the entirety of the non-English speaking population – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim - in a collective aesthetic enjoyment that serves to bridge cultural differences seamlessly.

The constant trans-cultural identification can only help draw together ethnic communities rather than distance them. The emergence of indigenous fusion music on the platform of a multiplicity of radio stations is also a new cultural bridge that is helping bring Sinhala and Tamil speakers together in a single musical entertainment market.

Of course, the devastating trajectory of the ethnic conflict has been such that the power of the trans-cultural audio-visual media is wholly inadequate today to overcome the rigid barriers of communal hatred and vengeance that have arisen along with the sheer attrition of the war.

For that, there has to be a comprehensive change across the canvas of the Sri Lankan social configuration. This is something to which the mass media can contribute, but ultimately it is up to the peoples of this island to adjust their perspectives, make realistic choices and/ to discard fantasies - both of hegemony as well of vengeance.

From Cultural to Political Community: the problem of ethno-supremacism

Such a scale of transformation at a socio-cultural level must necessarily involve the Sinhala community in a very central way. In order to do justice to the commemoration of an anti-hegemonist fighter such as Sivaram, I will, in this final section of my Lecture, focus on the complex issue of Sinhala hegemonism. This is a subject that I have focussed on often in the past, especially in my 'Observations' column in the Sunday Observer.

The biggest single obstacle to peace is the ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-supremacy and the hold that this ideology has on the Sri Lankan State. To put it simply, peace can come to Sri Lanka only with the defeat of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-supremacism. True, there are several other major elements in the Sri Lankan crisis that also need resolution, especially the question of a democratic self-rule for the Tamils, but Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism is at the core of the problem.

In exploring this problematic, it is imperative that I do so from the point of view of the interests of the Sinhalas themselves. This requires an examination of the Sinhala collective mindset - the mass psychology of supremacism (to paraphrase Wilhelm Reich).

After all, the very intent of Sinhala supremacism is the perceived survival and future of the 'Sinhala jaathiya' (or, race). The object of this ideology is the supremacy of a defined 'Sinhala jaathiya' over the Sri Lankan State and the maintenance of a State with a configuration that enables the continuity of this ethnic hegemony.

The rationale for this hegemony is the threat perception and presumed survival need for this defined "sinhala jaathiya'. What I will examine is the self-understanding of the Sinhalas as to their identity which would include narratives of their social evolution (history) as well as the contours of their ethnic description or self-description.

Most significant is the fact that the modern definitions of 'Sinhala' attribute a central role to a purely (or largely) internal or indigenous socio-cultural evolution without sufficient acknowledgement of the continuous other (i.e. 'external') influences in a way that would expose the composite nature of the Sinhalayo. Rather than giving an equal weight to the obviously very powerful influences from outside the island, the modern practise of Sinhala identity emphasises primarily an isolated, island-exclusive civilisation.

This historiographical logic then results in a major difficulty experienced by the Sinhalas in recognising the co-existence today of (a) various sub-Sinhala demographic groups as well as (b) other non-'Sinhala' ethnic groups, mainly the Tamils and Muslims/Moors/Malays.

This lack of a pluralist or, composite, perspective of communal Self (as comprising several closely linked sub groups) and related Others is in stark contrast to a similar island society that is the 'nation' of Great Britain. The Sri Lankan social evolutionary experience is similar to that of Britain and not of Japan or Taiwan or other off-continental island societies which are far more homogenous.

Just as Britain and its earliest indigenous population of Picts suffered successively or simultaneously very dislocative and powerful external influences via the Saxon, Angle, and Norse invasions, the Roman invasions and the Norman invasion, the Sri Lankan island and its population also underwent similar major intrusive experiences.

Given this historical memory, today's 'British" people simultaneously also identify themselves as being a composite of, firstly Scots, English and Welsh, and secondly, of mixtures of Nordic, Germanic and Norman (Norse-French) peoples.

Comment by tamilnation.org  Here, there may be a need to reflect carefully on the views of those like Alex Salmond and Sean Connery -

"The 18th-century Union (of England and Scotland) is past its sell-by date. It's gone stale for both our nations. What we both need now are the political and economic powers to make our nations work, to tailor policies to suit our different circumstances, and to speak for ourselves in Europe and the wider world -while acting together where our interests converge... As our world has become more complex and inter-connected, the need for nations to be independent with a direct say in regional and global affairs has become more important - not less. In 1945, there were only 51 members of the new United Nations. In our new century, there are nearly 200 independent UN members - and more than 30 of these have emerged since the end of the Cold War. Thus in the modern world, the processes of independence and interdependence are mutually supportive and reinforcing. The political imperative to share the same state for reasons of building a large domestic market, or great power projection, is a fundamentally outdated 19th-and 20th-century concept. In the self-determination stakes, the people of Scotland are ahead of the game both in thought and deed. But I suspect that the people of England are beginning to catch up. .." On Scotland and the "English Question" - Alex Salmond, Scottish National Party Leader, 20 March 2007

"..My politics come from a simple belief: that my country, Scotland, should have equal status with the nearly 200 other independent countries around the world." Sean Connery, in Making History in Scotland, Dawn 28 May 2007

For the Sinhalayo, however, a linear, very simple and singular composition of 'Sinhala' alone and none other is accepted as the civilisational identity of this island population.

The successive or parallel intrusions over millennia from the -sub-continent as well as from Arabia and from South East Asia have not been accommodated in the self-definition of 'Sinhala' even though some of the very ancient texts that are referred to for founding myths explicitly indicate variety in demographic origins.

There is no practice of identifying 'Sinhala' with a composite mix of Veddahs, Prakrit speaking northern sub-continentals, Prakrit-Tamil speaking southern sub-continentals, Keralites, Tamils, Arabs, Burmans, and Javanese.

Mahaavangsa and the 'feel-good' factor

Our community's very self-naming as "Sinhala" is a contemporary, lived, practice of a selective interpretation of especially the Mahaavangsa text, in, fact of its most  mythic section, and of other texts that derive from it (the Teeka, Saamanthapaasadikaa, Raajaavaliya, Poojaavaliya, etc).

Even if an individual Sinhalayaa has not read or does not read the Vangsa Kathaa, that Sinhalayaa's life practices are explained through the interpretation of these texts by other Sinhalayaas and, indeed by whole social institutions, including the State, social scientific professions, education, the Sangha, other processes of ideological production which derive their moral justifications from this corpus of texts and, finally, the mass media.

And the whole experience of self-identification via these ancient texts is further sanctified by that thread of justification that runs through the Mahaavangsa: "Sujanappasaada-sangvegaththaaya". And the Mahaavangsa declares this at the end of every chapter as this maha kaavya that we treasure inspires us with its imagery, metaphor, narrative, and direct moral instruction giving meaning to numerous currents of our lives here and now.

In our act of possessing the Vangsa Kathaa as "our" history, we, Sinhalas, then take possession of all its norms and definitions. Hence, the "Sujana" (in 'Sujanappasaada-sangvegaththaaya') that is, "the good people", are we, the Sinhalayo and defined today in accordance with the simplistic historical interpretations described above. And, the telling of our history is done for our further "pasaadaya" (prasaadaya) and "sangvegaya". That is, the telling of this history to ourselves, the "Good people", then makes us feel good (or better).

All the Vangsa Kathaa taken together enable us, Sinhalayo, to call ourselves many other beautiful things as well, including being the race of people that protected and nurtured a 'pure' form of humanity's 'most enlightening' philosophy (i.e. Buddhism) - 'most enlightening' as defined by these texts and the interpretations of these texts.

In short, we Sinhalayo, love ourselves and our ethnic community (as ideologically denned), and regard ourselves as being the 'best' (or greatest) community of humans in the world, and insist that we must have our own nation-state - which we already possess today in the form of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. In these living acts of self-definition, both individually and communally, as well as living acts of the self-love that is a part of that self-definition, we are no different from many other ethnic groups, be they the Americans, English, Indian, or Japanese in their own concrete affirmations of nationhood.

And, in a world where political relations are defined systems of relationships between political entities based on ethno-political communities, be they nation-states/ kingdoms or provinces, we, Sinhalayo too, are under the compulsion to fit into the dominant world system by 'being' a nation-state – Sri Lanka/ Heladiva/Sihaladiva/Hela/Lanka. Given this compulsion, the aspiration for, and retention of nationhood could be seen as perfectly justifiable and a viable practice of political community.

Colonised nationhood

However, the shape of this political community of nationhood is one that also derives from historical realities that are somewhat beyond the control of the Sinhalayaas. We have inherited, today, a structure of a State that was defined, in its immediate past not so much by us as by our European colonial masters.

After half a millennium of European colonial domination and manipulation, this island and its communities of people has been subverted, exploited, re-ordered and traumatised to a degree that with withdrawal of the British after the Second World War, we could do little but accept the half-baked, inorganically designed political structure that we were happy to call in 1948 the independent State of 'Lankaava' (Ceylon). The fact that we have, since then, tried to reform that State twice already (1972,1978) indicates the inadequacies of that State in effectively managing the various aspirations for social community on this island of ours.

The simplistic form of 'nation-state' left behind by the hurriedly departing British, was convenient to the simplistic self-conception of the Sinhalayo themselves. Given that our self-image is that of a 'pure', island-exclusive 'race' (ethnic group) which refuses to acknowledge the composite nature of our 'Sinhala-ness', the Sinhala defined 'nation-state' also fails to institutionally and symbolically accommodate the extremely composite 'nation' of people with several different identities that live within the boundaries of that nation-state.

Hence, the crucial failure of the successive post-colonial Sri Lankan polities (the Dominion State, First and Second Republics) to acknowledge the equal national-cultural significance of Tamils, Veddas, Burghers, Moors, Malays, and others, including the various Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim castes.

In fact, all three efforts at conceiving a 'State' were efforts and processes manipulated by the Sinhalayo without adequate regard not only for their own sub-Sinhala complexity, but also for other co-existing ethnic groups.

Consequently, the polities that emerged, including the current Second Republic, reflect that simplistic exclusivism. This exclusivism, however, today has the respectability of a vision of supremacy over the island 'State' - in short, a fantasy of empire. When Sinhala ultra-nationalist politicians today insist on something called 'unitary' (further revealing their English colonial subservience!), they are doing nothing more than clinging to that fantasy of empire.

But such polities cannot survive for long without making adjustments to accommodate those previously ignored complexities. Thus, we have been experiencing the pangs of the internal crisis in all three successive polities - since 1948. Today, since the succeeding polities have not only failed to remedy the problem but worsened it, the crisis is so severe as to bring the very survival of the Sinhala-dominated State itself into question.

Towards a New Republic: 'Good news' for The Good

The historical imperative that confronts us, Sinhalayo, then is not merely 'constitutional reform'. We must look forward to building a new Republic or Republics. Our self-identification has to undergo a radical transformation so that our very practice of identity will begin to be more inclusive and cognizant of the composite nature of our collectivity. In fact, if we become less singular in our self-identification, we will gain greater self-confidence in ourselves as being 'related' via our various composite elements to our neighbouring ethnic communities.

In short, we, Sinhalayo, need no longer feel so alone, so besieged and under threat of dissolution - because we will be part of a larger, encompassing, regional society. Secession, then, will no longer be a 'threat' but merely a new configuring of our State with new forms and structures that enable inter-relationships between groups and sub-groups. Indeed, 'secession' will lose its meaning.

Such a re-configuring of our 'national' identity enables us to fearlessly aspire to a new range of political communities, perhaps a series of republics, ranging from the local to the regional and even sub-continental, where 'nation' is not necessarily bound by a geographical island and our islands are, once more, the inviting, beautiful, safe havens to the many 'sujana' who arrive and depart from these shores.

We could then envision not only a composite nationhood but also a composite statehood not restricted by western colonial borders but inspired by our own centuries-old sub continental political traditions that have supported powerful polities and wonderful civilizations.

Surely, with all our modern technology and tightly connected market economies, could we not envisage a complex of inter-dependent polities that is as complex as those highly complex and successful polities that configured our lands in the past centuries? Is this not 'good news' for The Good (sujana)?


1.The Sivaram Memorial Lecture was organized by Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA); Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU); Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF); Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA); Free Media Movement (FMM); and Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI).

2. Lakshman Gunasekera is a senior journalist who has worked in many Colombo newspapers. He is currently Senior Programme Manager (policy and advocacy) at International Alert (Colombo).

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