In its modern form, the origins of the so-called National Question go back to the early twentieth century. As understood by the man in the street, this intractable problem was created by the claims and counter-claims made by politicians of all races, particularly the Sinhalese and the Tamils, over several decades as to how the “national cake” should be divided. The armed conflict that eventually ensued came to a decisive conclusion in May 2009. Nevertheless, a solution acceptable to all the racial groups is no nearer.
Going back to fundamentals, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “ethnic” as “of or relating to a group of people having a common national or cultural tradition; denoting origin by birth or descent rather than by present nationality”. It defines “race” as “each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics” and also as “an ethnic group”. Regrettably, these definitions do not provide a fail-proof test procedure to determine anyone’s ethnic or racial origins. Nevertheless, the use of this terminology is unavoidable when it comes to discussing the National Question.
Dr E.W.Adhikaram, a highly regarded scholar, wrote an article in Sinhala on the irrationality of thinking on racial lines and had it published in the SILUMINA a few days before the first serious race riots broke out in 1958. In this piece, Adhikaram had tried to clear up the thinking on the issue of classifying people by race. An English translation of his contribution, under the title “THOUGHTS – Pamphlet E1”, was published on 15 December 1983 – that is, a few months after the conflagration of July 1983. He mentions in Pamphlet E1 that “Some received it (the original article in Sinhala) with much appreciation and understanding, while some others showed deep resentment. I am glad to note that the article is now receiving increasingly better attention and appreciation”.
In a simple test, he had asked persons claiming to be Sinhalese or Tamil, how they knew whether they were one or the other. If a person claimed to be a Sinhalese (or a Tamil) by virtue of having had both parents of one race, Adhikaram asked them how their parents would have known whether they themselves were Sinhalese (or Tamil). Repeating the same question about each preceding generation, we would inevitably reach a time which was before the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples even came into existence!
Examining the matter a little more deeply, a person would have had to have 4 grandparents of a pure race to be certain of the racial purity of one’s own parents. Going back a generation further back, that person would have had to have 16 racially-pure great-grandparents if his grandparents were to be accepted as racially pure. Another generation earlier, all of one’s 64 great-great-grandparents would have had to be of unblemished race. At this point, it would probably be safe to say that there is not a single person in Sri Lanka, however well-connected, who could provide, with proof, a list of 64 racially pure great-great-grandparents. Thus, claiming to belong to a race because one’s parents are of that race is a far from sound approach to establish that one belongs to a specific race.
Adhikaram also considered whether a person could be classified as a Sinhalese or a Tamil if he spoke Sinhala or Tamil respectively – presumably as the mother tongue. Following Adhikaram’s logic, let us now take the case of a couple who claim to be either pure Sinhalese or pure Tamil, and have emigrated. Their foreign-born children may not even be able to manage a simple sentence in Sinhala or Tamil. Can such children claim to be Sinhalese or Tamil in terms of this classification? What about a Tamil child who was adopted in infancy by Sinhalese foster parents? Would that child be Tamil or Sinhalese?
The above process of inquiry could be applied with equal effectiveness to the subject of caste.
Adhikaram’s position was that a right answer cannot be given to a wrong question. He inquired whether there is any special mark or feature on a person’s body that would help identify that person as a Sinhalese or a Tamil. Search as you may, you will not find such a key. Adhikaram explained that, although a new-born child’s race or nationality is not marked on its body, it is nevertheless given a racially-distinctive name by his parents and deemed to belong to a particular race or nationality. Accepting what was thrust upon him by his parents, he comes to believe that he belongs to that particular race and is prepared sometimes even to kill to defend his race’s interests! What could be more blind and absurd?
At the time that Adhikaram examined the issue of race, the scientific study of evolution had not yet conclusively revealed (as it has now) that the entire human species originated in East Africa tens of thousands of years ago. It is presently accepted that the first individuals and tribes from there migrated in all directions. Their DNA can be traced in all the races and ethnic groups on earth, including nations and races as diverse as Africans, Arabs, Jews, Europeans, Indians, Red Indians, Chinese, Maoris, Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays, Burghers and so on. However, by a process of natural selection over tens of thousands of years, some physiological characteristics changed (eg. skin colour, hair colour, average height etc) so as to cope better with the climatic conditions and other natural constraints in the new habitats where these migrants settled.
As our ancestors, the East Africans, were themselves descended from apes, what on earth is the sense in being so attached to one’s race, whatever that might be? Arguments based on cultural heritage are even weaker. Sinhalese and Tamil have innumerable features in common because they absorbed substantial cultural and other contributions from those who came from Persia (modern Iran) and North India. In addition, Sinhala culture has hefty contributions from Tamil, Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and English sources. Over the next few decades a whole host of extraneous cultural influences will be irresistibly absorbed by our nation, causing the differences between our indigenous cultures to become less and less distinct. No amount of atavistic screaming from public platforms will be able to halt the march of these influences. Therefore, we need to find less divisive and more productive approaches to resolving the National Question without harping on the subject of race or ethnicity.
Sri Lanka has lost huge numbers of its citizens by migration to other countries, tens of thousands maimed or killed, and thousands of billions of rupees in destruction, loss of development and disincentives to investment. In the mind of most ordinary people, the origins of these losses can be traced back to the quarrels and fighting caused by racial thinking by various groups. Of course, there is very little that can be done about what we have lost in the past but we need to refrain from holding on to those irrational concepts about race which have prevented the evolution of an all-encompassing Sri Lankan identity.
What we have to accept first to help solve the National Question is that anyone born in Sri Lanka is a Sri Lankan and the equal of every other person born in Sri Lanka, with the same rights and responsibilities. He is free to practise any religion of his choice and adopt any cultural elements that he finds congenial as long as he does not interfere with the similar rights to which every other Sri Lankan is entitled. The State should not encourage or interfere or get involved in these matters, especially if it ends up by either showing a preference for one citizen or group of citizens over others.