By Janaka Wansapura
Unlike in the past, today, Sinhalas are not shy to talk about their history, identity and political aspirations. Young and old Sinahala Buddhists are drawn to practices of Buddhism in large numbers. Some even envision a pure Buddhist state; whatever that may mean. Looking at the world at large, the same pattern can be seen everywhere. Muslims around the world are overtly engaged in promoting their culture. Even in Sri Lanka it is quite apparent in the way the Muslims are conducting their affairs compared to how they did so just a couple of decades ago. Caucasians in Europe, US and Australia are reacting to the ever growing culturally non-western populations in their countries by converging into their own Christian cultures. At times these reactions have been violent. But overall I think this is a worldwide phenomenon of ethnic polarization rather than acts of racism although it could lead to that.
In principle, cultural diversity is a good thing. I don’t think we all need to belong to one such “world culture” in order to live in harmony. This is a myth that is being propagated by the western modernity. To me, as a Buddhist, ethnic tolerance is not to say that we all belong to the same group, nor it is to say that you can be different as long as it does not affect me. Ethnic tolerance is to accept that others are different and trying to endure it even when it adversely affects you. So I do not see people pledging allegiance to their ethnicities and religions as a bad thing. But at an extreme, ethnic polarization can strain the integrity of a nation and we need to make sure it does not happen in Sri Lanka.
When two cultures are in social, economic or political contact, an ethnic polarization force can be both felt and exerted by each culture in a mutually dependent manner. The cold war between Islamic and Judeo-Christian cultures can be viewed as a result of a mutually dependent ethnic polarization force. When one culture “feels” the force from the other it converges into a narrow ethnic identity. Consequently it “exerts” a force on the opposite culture, which causes that culture to converge into a narrow ethnic identity and exert a force back on the first one. This goes on cyclically until the two cultures are polarized. In this sense each culture can be considered to be feeling both superior and inferior at the same time with respect to the opposite culture.
Historically, the prominent culture in Sri Lanka has been Sinhala Buddhist. The strongest polarization force it experiences is from the Judeo-Christian culture. This is probably because the core values of Sinhala Buddhist culture, such as the idea of anathma are directly in opposition to the values of the Judeo-Christian culture. Although Sinhala Buddhists have been culturally oppressed from the colonial times, what irked us in recent times was the liberalization of the economy and the west’s support to the separatist war. But it wasn’t until the nineties that Sinhalas realized that it was taking a toll on their way of life and began damage controlling. Predictably, rallied by national leaders, Sinhala’s reaction was to converge on to their cultural identity. In this respect, the role of Kadirgamar in the nationalist movement is interesting since he was not a Sinhala Buddhist. Some pundits opined that it was the fact that Mr. Kardirgamar did not have any regard to his ethnic and religious identity that made it easier for Sinhalas to embrace him. According to these pundits he represented a new Sri Lankan identity in a secular Sri Lanka. They were obviously wrong in their assessment. Sinhalas considered Mr. Kadirgamar a hero because he stood against the west when it came to fighting the LTTE. Whether he was a Tamil or a Sinhala was irrelevant. In the end, though it was the LTTE who lost the battle, in the minds of Sinhalas their win was also against the west. Sinhala’s much criticized yearlong victory celebrations that followed signified as much. It certainly was not a case of rubbing salt on the wounds of Tamils; as it was never an ethnic war against the Tamils as far as Sinhalas were concerned. Most pundits either miss this point about Sinhala psyche or dishonestly misinterpret it.
Although we have experienced some upward movement with the defeat of terrorism, Sinhalas are yet to gain cultural prominence in Sri Lanka. Yes it is true that we are the majority and as such have the political power at the center. But for Sinhalas nationhood is as important as the statehood. Culturally we have been defeated by the western culture since the colonial times. For generations we have been told; and we believed; that we were not good enough. Our folklore is abundant with stories that speak degradingly about Sinhalas. These are often enjoyed by the so called educated Sinhalas and by their elitist cousins from other ethnic minorities as well as social climbers who want to distance themselves from the ordinary folks. These stories must have been invented by our colonial oppressors and their servants at one time though they have become folklore and with these stories Sinhala Buddhists have come to accept defeat over the years. It is not surprising then that in the late seventies we were not even taught our history at school. Imagine that we let this subject to be removed from the national curriculum without even an iota of opposition at a time when a so called nationalist government was in power. No country would have allowed such a thing; not least one that has a two thousand year old story to tell. Fortunately things are slightly different now although it is an on going struggle to the top for the ordinary Sinhalas in general and particularly the Sinhala Buddhists. The struggle is both an internal as well as an external one. But what is important to realize is that this struggle is not against the ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka, a point often missed in heated discussions on this topic.
However as ordinary Sinhala Buddhists struggle against the western modernity it exerts a polarizing force on the other ethno-religious groups particularly on the Tamils and the Muslims in Sri Lanka. The ethnic polarization can heighten as minorities react to this force by converging to their own identities in a cyclic manner. While this is a natural phenomenon that should achieve a balance, it could be manipulated by interested parties who want to create a rift between Sinhalas and the minorities thereby paving the way to an instable state. Communal leaders should be mindful of this while the government should ensure that the interests of the Sinhala Buddhists are served legislatively in such matters as unethical conversions and unlawful construction of religious buildings and so on so that no communal group can take over the proceedings. Although lately lot of media attention has been given to various Buddhist groups led by activist monks it is unlikely that they have the support of the majority of Sinhala Buddhists. Traditionally Sinhala Buddhists have not wholeheartedly supported communally based parties. It is in the interest of the country that they remain so.