Together, these two extremisms rendered reason and moderation obsolete and pushed Sri Lanka into a morass of violent disunity, irreconcilable enmity and brutal war.
Tiger fascism is no more, but Sinhala supremacism has made a triumphant return. Under Rajapaksa Rule it has become a guiding principle of post-war peace and nation-building, and thus a decisive influence on the future trajectory of Sri Lanka.
If there is an original sin in Sri Lanka’s descent into violence and war, it was committed by those Sinhala supremacists who derailed and destroyed the relatively more inclusive nation-building project of the first five years of Independence with their Sinhala Only demand. A fundamental aspect of the Sinhala Only demand was its visceral opposition to the Tamil language. That opposition was premised on the belief that Sinhalese are the only true owners of this land and minorities are guests in it with no inalienable rights.
This hosts and guests concept, which is the first precept of Sinhala supremacism, derives its politico-ideological justification from Mahawamsa, the Holy Book, the Bible-Koran equivalent, of Sinhala-Buddhism.
The ‘consecration myth’ in the Mahawamsa is the basis on which Sinhala supremacists argue that Sinhalese were, are and will be the true owners and rulers of Sri Lanka, not only because of their numerical preponderance, but also because the island was ‘chosen’ as the sole refuge for the Sinhala race and Theravada Buddhism by the Gautama Buddha himself, on his deathbed: “In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect…Lanka” (Mahawamsa).
This foundational myth creates a nexus between the land, the race and the religion, Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and Buddhism. The democratic nature of the modern Lankan state demands that all its current citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origins or religious beliefs, be granted the same rights. The tension created by the contradiction between this reality and the ‘ideal’ of a land bequeathed to and owned by Buddhist Sinhalese has had a devastating effect on post-independent Sri Lanka.
Voltaire in his ‘Philosophical Dictionaries’ ridicules those societies which unquestioningly and uncritically accepts colourfully apocryphal as historical facts: “Fabius Pictor relates, that, several ages before him, a vestal of the town of Alba, going to draw water in her pitcher, was violated, that she was delivered of Romulus and Remus, that they were nourished by a she-wolf. The Roman people believed this fable; they examined not whether at that time there were vestals in Latium; whether it was likely that the daughter of a king should go out of her convent with a pitcher, or whether it was probable that a she-wolf should suckle two children, instead of eating them: prejudice established it”.
Mahawamsa too is full of such tales. Some – such as the story of the union between a lion and a human woman – are ludicrous but innocuously so. Other tales are more dangerous because they have a bearing on politics in general and inter-ethnic/religious relations in particular – such as the many myths associated with the Hero-King Dutugemunu. For instance, the childless Queen Viharamahadevi was advised to seek out a sick Samanera and ask him to be born to her as a son. The samanera consented and the queen left the temple.
“Hereupon the Samanera passed away, and he returned to a new life in the womb of the queen while she was yet upon her journey; when she perceived this she halted. She sent that message to the king….” In other words the queen had a supernatural, a miraculous conception.
Such tales belong in religious literature and not in serious history. And they must not be taught to millions of children as facts which are both historical and sacred, and thus unquestionable – except by traitors and unbelievers.
Mahawamsa tales are at variance not just with reason and logic, nature and science but also with the teachings of Gautama Buddha. It is an insult to Gautama Buddha to claim that he furthered the political career of an unreconstructed criminal such as Vijaya.
It is an even greater insult to claim that an arahat justified the killings of millions of human beings in Dutugemunu’s wars because they were non-Buddhists: “From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts”. The first precept of Buddha’s teaching forbids the taking of life – any life, human and non-human. That is why the concept of ‘holy war’ has no place in Buddha’s teaching.
The author of Mahawamsa had different priorities; as an adherent of Maha Vihara he had an axe to grind (with the rival monks from Abhayagiri Viharaya) and an agenda to promote. Murder was acceptable to him, so long as it was done for ‘holy purposes’. The story of Dutugemunu’s conscience belongs in the annals of crusades and jihads and has no place in a religion based on ahimsa – to all living beings. (Incidentally, the Mahawamsa tale about Queen Viharamahadevi’s yearnings when she was pregnant with the future King Dutugemunu does that lady profound injustice by making her sound like a bloodthirsty barbarian, more akin to the Hindu goddess Kali than to a follower of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama).
The Mahawamsa myths cannot be dismissed as harmless trifles, because they form the basis of a mindset which pushed Sri Lanka into a devastating war, and can do so again. Sinhala supremacism has its own rendition of ‘the clash of civilisations’ which pits ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ Sri Lanka against the ‘Christian, Islamic and Hindu worlds’. In this version of history (propagated by Mahawamsa and its offshoots), the last two and a half millennia have been a time of constant struggle to prevent alien races, religions and civilisations from taking over Sri Lanka. According to this worldview, minorities are untrustworthy aliens; since they cannot be displaced geographically, they should be confined to their ‘rightful’ place politically. The unity of the country is dependent on protecting this hierarchy, preferably through legislative means, such as the Sinhala Only.
All would be well if the minorities freely accept their ‘different status’ and their allotted place. Such quiescence would qualify them to become Sri Lankan ‘patriots’. They are free to rise as high as they can in every field, except in politics because however ‘patriotic’ (i.e. quiescent) a minority member is, the Sinhalese will always be assailed by doubts about the sincerity of this ‘patriotism’.
Consequently though there is no constitutional or legal impediment, a political glass ceiling keeps ethno-religious minorities away from the key posts of President and Prime Minister. The best case in point is the denial of the Prime Minister post to the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a fully integrated Tamil with a proven anti-Tiger record (and a Sinhala Buddhist wife). But as a Tamil Christian, he did not stand a chance against the infinitely less qualified Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sinhala supremacism does not accept the existence of an ethnic problem. According to this worldview, the war happened because the Tamils forgot their status as permanent guests and made unfair demands – initially language rights and then the right to their own state. According to the Sinhala supremacist worldview political solution based on devolution is not only unnecessary but also dangerous; by accepting the minorities as co-owners of the country with inalienable rights, a political solution would undermine the natural hierarchical order, paving the way for the destruction of the land, the race and the religion.
The Rajapaksas, unwilling to share power with anyone outside the family, have found in Sinhala supremacism the perfect justification for their anti-devolutionary policies and their vision of a peace at gun-point. This marriage of convenience between Sinhala supremacism and the Rajapaksa dynastic project will create a fertile breeding ground for new and old fundamentalisms.
Sinhala supremacism finds secularism anathematic because it derives its raison d’être from religious myths. Without the consecration myth, Sinhala supremacism cannot justify its existence; without the various Dutugemunu myths (especially the one about his conscience) Sinhala supremacism cannot defend its deeds. Sinhala nationalism in its predominant form is a religious nationalism.
Sinhala supremacism, like other political religions, advocates government of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of a primordial identity – ethnicity and religion.
And like all political movements based on an ideology of exclusion/suspicion towards the ethnic/religious ‘other’, the ideal of the adherents of this ‘politics of salvation’ is a land which is pure, a land which is the exclusive preserve of their own ethnic or religious community. Their programme therefore is essentially one of ethnic/religious purification/cleansing. For a plural society it is a recipe for strife, death and destruction.
The search for primordial identities (based on ethnicity/religion/culture-language) becomes more acute in societies in crisis. People will become more chauvinistic/religious – outwardly – in an effort to find and keep intact at least some of their moorings in the face of the winds of change which are often overwhelming and perhaps even frightening.
This creates the perfect breeding ground for fundamentalisms of all sorts. The manifestation of one type of fundamentalism encourages and fosters fanatics of every other sort, creating a vicious cycle (Sinhala supremacism and Tiger fascism nurtured each other).
A secular ethos is more essential in ethno-religiously plural countries than in countries which are less diverse in composition. In ethno-religiously plural countries the state must be secular if it is to remain above the different communities, aligned with none and thus seen as capable of being fair by all. A state which is secular and a society that is tolerant are perhaps the only bulwarks available to pluralist countries against ethno-religious polarisation and the consequent conflicts and fragmentations.
Historically religion has often functioned as a destructive force, tearing apart countries and communities. Modern religious nationalism is equally destructive in its impact on nations. Therefore if the ‘nation state’ is to be saved from disintegration, it must be keep separate and insulated from this immeasurably powerful force which under certain circumstances can flatten everything in its path and drag societies and peoples to places they never intended to go initially.
14 January 2012
By Tisaranee Gunasekara