Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Perpetual Conflict (2)


Perhaps it is a tragic coincidence of our time; or maybe it was inevitable given the passage of generations, that we are marking the thirty year anniversary of Black July at the same time as we are approaching a centenary of such violence since the communal riots of 1915. With the escalation of religious intolerance and communal tension in recent months resembling the events of a century ago, we are faced with a peculiar dilemma: which anniversary shall we commemorate? The commemoration of historical events may be about preserving those memories for future generations to learn from, and for its darker chapters never to be repeated. But they must also compel us to be vigilant, and pay attention to the history that is in making today. In the space of four years since the war ended, communal intolerance is spreading its deadly tentacles through the cracks in our fractured national identity. Are we an inherently violent people who are incapable of peace? Of course not! But despite the significant influence of Buddhism on our civilisation, there is no evidence that we are inherently peaceful either. Ours is not unique among the ancient civilisations of the world. We adapt to our times and react to our environment like any other and we have always had choices to make about how we do so.

Before European colonisation, our society was organised hierarchically along social classes and castes. It may have been a strange twist of fate that the civilisations of the East and the colonial project of the West had to collide on our shores in the renaissance years, but in many aspects, it was only a matter of time. When that did happen, it was inevitable that our ancient social order which organised society in a stable – but broadly oppressive – caste based social structure would face direct competition from an alternative model for social organisation based – at least in principle - on the egalitarian aspirations that the reformation has unleashed in Europe.

A successful empire needed an efficient bureaucracy. Even though we tend to think of the colonial project in Sri Lanka as a time of foreign occupation, in truth it was run mostly by Sri Lankans who carried out the will of the British Crown. The colonial government and missionary movements were expanding an education system that the British had pioneered and perfected – aimed at producing the cogs and wheels of the machinery of empire. As a result, the late 19th century saw the emergence of a distinct class of educated Sri Lankan professionals and bureaucrats who symbolised avenues for upward social mobility that had never before existed in the island. The Ceylon Civil Service and other professions saw an influx of a new band of local elites. Aspirations of social mobility would no longer be restricted to those with a birth-right.

Education in colonial Ceylon; was designed to produce an efficient bureaucracy and disciplined professionals. It was not designed to produce leaders who could inspire the masses which may challenge the empire. The products of most elite missionary schools were accused of being ‘brown sahibs’ who thought and spoke like their imperial masters and far removed from their own countrymen and women who constituted the masses. Such accusations were not unfounded; nor were they broadly unfair. Students who spoke in a native tongue was often punished for it – and such punishment was accepted by parents who was adamant that their children must learn English – if they couldn’t wholly shed their own identity and learn to be English. This philosophy was not without its detractors and peculiarly enough, its dissenters were mostly found among the foreign educators. A. G. Fraser who became Principal of Trinity College, Kandy at the turn of the twentieth century was one of those few dissenting voices. Early into his tenure at Trinity, he wrote that:

“A thorough knowledge of the mother tongue is indispensable to the culture of real thinking power. More, a college fails if it is not producing true citizens; and men who are isolated from the masses of their own people by ignorance of their language and thought can never fulfil the part of educated citizens or be true leaders of their race” 
~ Fraser of Trinity and Achimota by W. E. F Ward, Ghana University Press, 1965 (p 49)

The views articulated by Fraser and others like him were radical then, and they remain at the fringes even today. They found little traction even in the institutions they built – which had to cater to the aspiring middle class parents who send their children to them. An ‘English education’ in an elite school still offer the safest – if not the only – avenue of entry to the middle class of Sri Lanka.

The Ceylon Legislative Council which was established in 1833 was expanded in 1889 to accommodate more ‘unofficial local members’. The idea that the colonial government had even symbolic local representation even in those early years would be obscured by the fact that those local members had little to do (and even less in common) with the ‘local people’ they were meant to represent. More significantly however, those local representatives to the legislative council were chosen based on their ethnic and religious identity – giving birth to the divergent ‘communal’ ideas about what it meant to be Sri Lankan that would eventually penetrate the public conscience – if not the political discourse in our country that persist to this day. The currents of democratic politics, as they flowed through the land in subsequent decades, would entrench those communal divisions in a society that was also remained stratified by caste and class. Those divisions would eventually become the fault lines along which subsequent conflicts would erupt for the next century and more.

Neither the colonial government nor the local intelligentsia that emerged from the education system would ever actively challenge – let alone try to dismantle or undermine – the hierarchical social order of the old world that persisted. Instead, they would perpetuate it with their own elitist ambitions and by using their privileged position in society as an entitlement to high status. They would use their education to gain proximity to power centres of society rather than to serve the underprivileged masses.

The democracy we enjoy today was prematurely inherited – long before it was demanded or earned. Therefore our political values have remained feudal, allowing the existing social divisions to get further entrenched. That is why political parties in independent Sri Lanka have often been tempted to carve out constituencies along the same narrow communal lines; which the unofficial representatives to the Legislative Council had been chosen from long before, by their colonial masters. Nothing really changed except that the old order that stratified our society by notions of caste and class had been democratised. A society that had in turn been fractured along communal divisions allowed the long subjugated majority to rise up on its own. They would do so in the form of a “pancha maha balawegaya”, to impose their own cultural and religious identity on the state. They would redefine what it means to be Sri Lankan in their own image.

As Fraser had feared half a century before Sri Lanka gained her independence; very few of the English speaking, cosmopolitan elite that inherited political power in the newly independent country were able to understand – let alone empathise with – the masses that they ruled. They represented, and rose to power, on the back of a powerful middle class that dominated industry, land and enterprise. Ironically, those elites who led the nationalist movements in newly independent Ceylon, could hardly speak the language of their constituents. The republic that subsequent generations inherited had been shaped irreversibly by the communal divisions and unbridled political forces that they had unleashed for petty political gains. Even today, political parties are forced to balance those same communal interests as well as class or caste interests in the constituency; both to assume power and to retain it amidst the many conflicts that would inevitably arise along those historical fault lines.

Starting with the land reforms of the mid 1950s, the tables would turn on the dominance of the middle class. Details of the subsequent social transformation may be analysed elsewhere, but today the English speaking middle class is too weak and not found in sufficient geographic concentration outside Colombo to be politically relevant. Outside of the sports and business pages of the English media, only the local blogosphere and Internet forums bear any evidence of their ghostly existence. The leaders they vote for do not get elected and the thoughts and ideas they express – mostly in English – rarely penetrates the public discourse (and its irony is not lost on me).

The tragedy of the middle class elite in Sri Lanka is not merely that they are politically or socially irrelevant. On the contrary, middle class Sri Lankans of all communities distinguishable not so much by their communal identity but rather by their shared liberal values and progressive political outlook. The small and shrinking numbers of Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims and Burghers of middle Sri Lanka who listen to the same kind of music, watch the same movies, read similar books and discuss very similar topics have more to do with each other than with rural cousins from their own ethnic or religious communities. Yet their ‘education’ separates them from the rest of their countrymen and women. The promises they make to never allow events such as Black July to happen again – though honest and well intentioned - are inherently unreliable; because they never understood the communal tensions and class struggles of the masses that have torn the social fabric of our country for over a century. They still remain ignorant of the dangers that A.G. Fraser had warned them about a century earlier.

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