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Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

Now in a 2nd Edition, with a new preface, and a comprehensive index.

"Stimulating... Excellent..." -- Journal of Asian Studies. 

"Will be of great value to all those concerned with... nationalism [and] violence..." -- Arjun Appadurai.

"...[F]orces us to think about Sri Lankan symbolic and social formations in an entirely novel fashion." -- Gananath Obeyesekere

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Thursday
Feb232012

Running Round the Round Table

We, citizens of Sri Lanka, are again caught up in the shifting, ephemeral  sands  of the thirteenth amendment, plus and minus, and of course, its pluses and minuses. There are many, no doubt. There are the issues of land and police powers on the one hand; that the Tamil National Alliance argues is crucial, as perhaps are finance powers. One the other hand, another headline tells me, that the Muslim Congress would ask for a South Eastern provincial council, if the TNA’s arguments are successful. A smaller column tells us, that the Wimal Weerawansa faction in coalition with the government will leave it, if the TNA’s arguments are conceded. Indeed.


We’ve been around this table, running around it in fact, sitting when the music stops, finding chairs, pretending to talk and then running again, as the music starts, in a never ending circus from the 1950s. In those early days, talks were in English, behind closed doors, leading to pacts that were torn up later. It was in the late 1970s, that the whole idea of the round table talks began. Then the music started.


Basic issues
We confuse two fundamental issues when we conceptualise this matter. The matter of the centre   and rest; the majority and minority, what is called by many now, with little thought or understanding, the ‘national question.’ Let me try to add to the confusion; with small hope of clarifying.
First, the idea of communal representation is not ours. It is a colonial idea; even the word ‘communal’ is an old fashioned colonial English term, meaning of course, a perverting of community. Until the Coolbrooke-Camaron reforms of 1833, the theory of political representation in this island was independent of claims of blood, descent, soil and putative community, ethnicity or race. In fact, we didn’t even know what race was, that too is a European idea. The Kings of Kandy, and before them, kings in Anuradhapura and Pollonnaruwa ruled, and were legitimate with no argument of blood, descent and soil, that connected them to any community. They took to the Sasana, but that’s an open philosophy. Anyone can take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sanga.


It is after 1833 that the argument that the unofficial legislative council should have a Sinhala representing the Sinhala, and a Tamil representing the Tamils and ‘Mohamadans’ was born. By the 1950s, two strands intertwined in this caricature of democracy left us by the colonialists, as their great legacy. Nationalism, which was then about language, and resource hunger, then in an agricultural economy about government jobs, as teachers and clerks, become intertwined.
This is the simple root of Bandaranaike’s MEP and Chelvanyagam’s Federal Party. Inevitably the majority won, and 30 years later, we were at war. Let us not be confused: there are two issues, nationalism and resource hunger. They are not the same.


Trilingual children
Language has now ceased to be at the core of our nationalisms. We are all agreed that schools should produce trilingual children. But nationalisms don’t die; they just change hues. The Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim nationalists now all want to control the last of the state land that is not in private hands. So we are now at loggerheads over it. Land is a dead resource unless it is recapitalised, supported by infra-structure like water, roads, electric power and drainage; it is only then that it will be productive.


Every time we start running around the round table, to bad music, we are trying again to sit when the music stops, in seats that will once again, confuse these issues: nationalism and resource hunger. My suggestion: address the second in a fair, just and equitable way, and the first, will mature into tolerance.


In a previous column, I suggested that resources should be allocated through a Cabinet, say of 27, where three members were elected from each of the nine provinces, with one reserved for a representative of an undercapitalised district in that province. That’s a sketch of an idea, but the point remains – it is a solution to the problem of resource hunger and capital, not confusion with that of the three competing nationalisms. We’ve tried to do this. We have decentralised budgets for each elected MP, irrespective of party. How much is it? Rupees five million.  Isn’t that rather like nothing at all? What if it was most of the spendable budget? What if there was a small, nine member body, one from each province that didn’t spend the money, but supervised and was responsible for its disbursement? There are many ways this can be elaborated; it is the basic form and concept that I argue here.
We don’t need to run around the table, being lions and tigers and chasing each other’s shadows and tails. We need to delink nationalism from resource hunger, and just lay the table, sit down and eat.

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