There is great concern in the minds of thinking Sri Lankans as to how we are going to get out of the deep hole that Sri Lanka has dug for itself over the past six decades, and what we can do to counteract our poor economic performance and the social fragmentation that has been accelerating without respite. In this context, we recall some observations made at different times by Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake, President Nelson Mandela and Dr E.W.Adikaram, the educationist. Their insights provide useful guidelines for those who desire to build a stronger and more united country.
“Nan”, in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 9 February 2014, reminded us of the words spoken by Senanayake when Sri Lanka gained independence. After the national flag was hoisted and the oath administered to him, he said: “Freedom carries with it grave responsibilities. Our acts and omissions henceforth are our own. No longer can we lay the blame for defects and errors in our administration on others. It is therefore the duty of every citizen of Lanka to grasp this opportunity and to strive and toil willingly for advancing the happiness and prosperity of the country”. Foolishly, instead of following his advice, we continue to blame our misfortunes on everyone else but ourselves.
The responsibility for our shortage of unity and economic success lies with us alone. When campaigning, the majority of candidates for political office in Sri Lanka rely for their success on the blatant bribing of poor voters, providing cheap entertainment by joking about serious issues, and making unending insulting remarks about their opponents. Undisguised appeals to vote for race, caste and religion are heard incessantly. Valid criticism is brushed off with falsehoods and fraudulent statistics. Setbacks of every sort are attributed to Sri Lanka’s wide spectrum of enemies, most of whom are alleged to be in the pay of the Tamil diaspora. For such a small country, we seem to have acquired a formidable armada of foes!
Our failures are blamed on South Indian invaders, Portuguese invaders, Dutch invaders and the British beneficiaries of the Dutch invaders. On election platforms, candidates proudly recall the attacks carried out by a few brave rebels against our colonial masters. They do not like to admit that far more native Sri Lankans actively aided the foreign regimes. Candidates conveniently forget how their ancestors cooperated with foreign conquerors in exchange for being allowed to retain their hold over the poorer classes in their areas of historical authority. Other than those who resisted the invaders and those who actively cooperated with the enemy, the majority remained just as passive then as they are now in the face of widespread abuses of power and public trust.
After Minister Wimal Weerawansa began to loom large on the national scene, the words “traitors” and “conspiracies” began to be used with much abandon with reference to all independent citizens and many complex situations respectively in an effort to lay the blame on someone else other than our own violators of good governance and the Rule of Law. It is fortunate that, by reckless and excessive use, these words have now begun to lose part of their menace.
If only Sri Lankans divert the energy, effort and ingenuity that they display in finding baseless external factors to blame for their misfortunes and, instead, get on with devising constructive programmes and working hard to make a success of these with the willing cooperation of their fellow citizens, there cannot be many obstacles that could not be overcome. That is what Senanayake clearly had in mind.
We turn to Mandela next. His book, CONVERSATIONS WITH MYSELF, refers to an exchange of views that he had with his biographer Richard Stengel, probably in the early 1990s. The following three sentences spoken by Mandela were part of the record of their dialogue: “We have never really accepted multiracialism. Our demand is for a non-racial society, because when you talk of multiracialism, you are multiplying races; you are saying that you have in this country so many races. That is in a way to perpetuate the concept ‘race’, and we preferred to say we want a non-racial society”.
Too many things that we do in Sri Lanka tend to highlight the differences of race, religion and caste. Our national flag has a lion to represent the Sinhalese and a green and orange stripes for the Muslims and the Tamils. Without perpetuating the idea that we are distinct and different groups – that is, multi-racial – why should we not decide to be non-racial and have a flag that, say, shows a green Sri Lanka on a blue background to express the joy of living in a truly beautiful and fertile island surrounded by a brilliant blue sea?
By keeping on harping about race and religion, and finding formulas to cater to racial and religious differences at a political level, we have encouraged everyone to focus on the dissimilarities that dog us. Had we, from 1948, promoted the concept of a common Sri Lankan identity in keeping with a non-racial outlook, we would have not have had the resource-depleting conflicts that have dogged us for so long. It is still not too late to change course.
Of critical importance for national unity is the need to find a way to make the different language streams in schools to interact with each other for at least an hour or two every day by making use of the link language and the internet. All that is required is the political desire for a common Sri Lankan identity and the political will to take the necessary steps. This would undoubtedly be the most important single step that we could take now to ensure now that the next generation is not riven by stupid racial and religious prejudices.
THE ISLAND of 28 December 2013 reproduced a classic article by Dr E.W.Adikaram carrying the title “Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?” Adhikaram wrote his original article in Sinhala on the irrationality of thinking on racial lines and had it published a few days before the 1958 race riots. The English version of his contribution appeared in December 1983, a few months after Black July.
His article was written over thirty years ago and contains the following lines: “… that (infant) child who is common to the entire human race will be given a name and will be deemed to belong to a particular race or nationality. That child who at the time is incapable of logical thinking, who cannot discern fact from non-fact and who hasn’t the ability to compare and contrast, accepts unthinkingly and unknowingly the nationality that has been thrust upon him. Having accepted it he gradually comes to believe that he belongs to that particular 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? Please think over the fact that you become Sinhalese not because you had something naturally Sinhalese but because of the belief created and imposed on you by the environment and society including your parents”.
Adikaram had asked persons claiming to be Sinhalese or Tamil how they knew whether they were one or the other. By repeating the same question about each preceding generation, and finding that there were no answers after going back a few generations, the absurdity of claiming to belong to a particular race became evident. It is obvious that, if we continue backwards long enough in time, we would inevitably reach a point where there were no so-called races.
In an article titled THE NATIONAL QUESTION AND DR ADIKARAM’S VIEWS ON RACE that appeared in THE ISLAND of 24 December 2012, we developed Adikaram’s arguments in greater detail. We pointed out that, 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 over a hundred thousand years ago. It is presently accepted by anthropologists 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. So all mankind is related by blood. 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?