Monday, December 23, 2013

The Perpetual Conflict (3)

The politics of language and identity

It seems all too obvious that the regular cycles of violence that have emerged in Sri Lanka’s recent history since 1915 are distinctly communal in character. Indeed, every battle of every war in our history has always been characterised as those between communities on either side of cultural or religious divisions. However, there are two problems with that characterisation. First, Sri Lanka is – generally – an ethnically homogenous country consisting of an ancient mix of North Indian, South Indian, Persian, Arabian and South East Asian ethnic groups that have long lost much of their distinct differences. We were right in the middle of the Indian Ocean and for a very long time, the only country that had cinnamon; when spices and elephants were pretty much the only commodities worth trading and the entire Muslim world believed that it was the island that Adam and Eve got banished after tasting the forbidden fruit. Vestiges of the diverse cultures that settled and mixed in this tiny cosmopolitan island that lay in the path of the busiest sea routes of the ancient world, can be found in the names of its peoples. The fact that Sinhalese has always been natively spoken uniquely in Sri Lanka bear testimony to the fact that we were never a distinct ethnic group that migrated to this island en-mass, but that our unique identity evolved as a result of the mixing of diverse cultures over hundreds – I f not thousands - of years. 

Before the British built our modern road network and motorised transportation made it possible for us to traverse the length or breadth of the island in under a day, we only travelled long distances to migrate and settle. Much like the Sri Lankan migrants who settle in foreign lands adapt the native tongue of those countries, those of our ancestors and their children who settled in Tamil speaking areas became Tamil and those who settled in Sinhalese areas became Sinhalese. That is why Sri Lankan Tamils share closer genetic ties with their Sinhala brethren than they do with their Indian cousins. Those from similar caste backgrounds inter-married and when Sinhalese kings could not find suitable brides from among their clansmen, they married Tamil princesses from South India. It was a country whose population was made up of migrants – shivaite hindu’s from prehistoric times who settled in the island saw many waves of migrants; those who came from the southwest of India spoke Tamil and cooked ‘thosai’ and ‘vadai’ while those who came from the south east of India ate 'aappam'' and 'idi-aappam'. Muslims and Persian Christians came to trade and some settled down in and around the major trading hubs and ports. What differentiated communities in that feudal society was ‘caste’ – not language.

But the West came to the East and the world became one empire. Anyone who aspired for power or wealth had to learn the emperor’s language. To the extent that information makes the world work, and all its human inhabitants think in words, those who could speak and read English would not only gain access to larger portions of wealth and power, but they would also inevitably be transformed by it in ways that monolingual Sinhala and Tamil speaker weren’t. On one hand, they were exposed to a broader flow of information; and on the other, they would absorb western liberal values and worldview. The masses who were the kingmakers in our democracy, spoke only their mother tongue for the most part. That not only shielded them from the liberal democratic values that are usually associated with a vibrant democracy, but also limited their ability to interact with and understand the diverse cultures and communities that constituted the modern state of Sri Lanka. Even though the British empire had waned after WWII, English was still the language of the new ‘American’ empire. While small nations like Singapore realised that and structured their language policy accordingly, the burden of history weighed too heavily on Sri Lanka to be able to carve out a more visionary language policy. The leaders who inherited the reigns of democracy in Independent Sri Lanka and their citizens perceived their newly acquired independence from British colonial rule as a dismembering of the empire. What they failed to realise was that the world remained as connected and interdependent as before, and ruled by a new superpower to whom the words “conquest” and even “empire” meant different things; even though they spoke the same language. Politics in those early years since independence would give rise to a narrow and fiery brand of nationalism. Four centuries of colonial rule had eroded and adulterated the newly independent nation’s historical and cultural memory; paving way for overly romanticised notions of history and grandiose perceptions of cultural superiority.

Even though we have coexisted in this land from time immemorial, most Sinhalese and a large number of Tamils do not speak or understand each other’s languages. Is that why the Sinhalese and Tamils went to war against each other? Well, it’s not so clear that they did. Apart from the riots of July 1983, Sinhalese and Tamils not only coexisted but mingled with each other in the southern half of Sri Lanka largely on peaceful and cooperative terms. The tales we still hear about Sinhalese families sheltering their Tamil friends weren’t aberrations of reality – those who did were merely acting on their natural impulses. Even through the riots of 1915, a majority of Sinhalese and Muslims got along just fine. Therefore, differences in language, culture and faith do not offer straightforward answers to questions about the causes of conflict.

The cycles of violent conflicts in post independent Sri Lanka are described in the language of identity politics, as “youth insurrections”, “race riots” and “religious tension”. Yet we do not pay attention to who was involved and who wasn’t, why did some choose to fight while others chose not to? These are not easy questions to grapple with, let alone answer. But when one inspects more closely, the demographics of those who participated in and endured the violence, a clearer pattern emerges. It was predominantly the poor, historically oppressed and marginalised classes and casts that have been directly involved in each of these conflicts while the educated and privileged classes and casts have – by an large – have been commandeering it from a significant distance behind the frontlines.

The greatest burden that the British Empire left behind in most of the regions that they occupied was the useful, but nevertheless unnatural, idea of the modern nation state. In the many thousands of years that a myriad nationalities and tribes had lived side by side in the East, we never had state borders. Yet in the wake of independence, the various constellations of nationalities that the British had mixed and matched throughout the empire were hastily grouped together and state boarders were drawn by novice barristers to contain them for a thousand years to come. The words ‘class’ and ‘caste’ have not entirely lost their socio political relevance in the Indian Subcontinent. The decades that followed have pitted historical grievances between nationalities and castes, classes and religions, the native and the foreign, historical and modern against each other; where no river or mountain exists to mediate the conflicts that would inevitably erupt among them.

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