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Sunday, 14 June 2015

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Ethno-Politics and Constitutional Reform

Ethnicity and politics have gone hand-in-hand in this country throughout modern times.

Modern historians are divided as to when ethnicity and cultural identity became key dynamics in this island's social evolution.

Some have argued that ethnic identities are a creation of colonial demographic arrangements and modern social class aspirations, especially bourgeois class aspirations, from the 19th century onwards. Others have argued that ethnic consciousness emerged somewhat earlier prompted by both colonial invasions as well as social consciousness arising from a weakening of the cultural umbilical cord that linked the Lankan island with the adjacent vast sub-continental civilisation. A few scholars cling to old-fashioned theories of inherent ethnicity that has lasted since the fabled naughty boy Vijaya landed here at some mythologically defined date.

Today, after decades of ethnic-led politics, a civil war, pogroms, and inter-ethnic distancing, neither the people of the country nor its politicians can extricate themselves both from the compulsions as well as the temptations of ethno-politics.

The brave moves to reform the political system cannot escape the dynamics of ethnic community interests nor the temptations to indulge in ethnically divisive politics and propaganda for the selfish benefits of electoral power. The Government of today is clearly mandated by the bulk of Sri Lankan citizens to move away from purely ethnic-motivated politics. That was the firm stamp of the voting patterns in the presidential election of January 8, 2015.

The very profile of the current coalition regime demonstrates an ethnic cohesion and consensus that probably has never previously existed in Sri Lanka's modern democracy.

While almost the entirety of the ethnic minorities seem to have enthusiastically voted for the Maithripala-Ranil-led coalition, a good half of the ethnic majority Sinhalese have also voted for it. Indeed, the only 'opposition' in Parliament is a faction - dominant, no doubt - of the UPFA that almost exclusively represents a section of the Sinhala community.

Thus, the key dividing factor in electoral politics today is no longer simply ethnicity. Rather, issues of social and economic group interests as well as policies and styles of governance are all in the forefront along with the ethnic dimension. People no longer think simplistically along ethnic lines.

Not even in the Diaspora - as revealed in the dialogue initiated by External Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera with some hardline Tamil Diaspora groups in London recently. Previously pro-Eelamist Diaspora groups are pragmatically re-thinking their own politics of divisive nationalism - a lost cause if there ever was one given the voting patterns in the North on January 8.

The challenge before the current Constitutional reform initiative is to realistically modulate immediate electoral power interests with the larger interests of the nation as a whole for a more genuinely representative democracy. We should look towards a democratic republic that will articulate not just the interest of ethnic communities but the range of social as well as individual interests, concerns and aspirations that emanate from ethnicity, caste, class, gender, region and even life-style.

After all, both the bling and the bajaar and the machangs and goiyyas and punks and karaas all live on this island of ours, no?

A band of saffron-robed activist-clerics, whose activities often seem to take place near scenes of communal violence, has now begun a new campaign that also arouses communal misunderstanding, fears and hatred in ways that could lead to violence. In the past, the activities of this band of slogan-shouting and street marching clerics have occurred very close to sites of social violence in which the shops, workplaces and homes of ethnic minorities are burned or otherwise destroyed or damaged and people of these minorities suffer displacement, destitution and the trauma of physical attack.

The latest target seems to be the Islamic banking industry in Sri Lanka. This group of avowedly religious activists claim that Islamic banking imposes a form of religious economic practice on the whole society in which the majority of people are not Islamic.

This campaign against Islamic banking either betrays a complete ignorance of the historic economic role of Islamic trading communities in sustaining the medieval economy of Sri Lanka or, demonstrates a cynically deliberate ignoring of this heritage for the purpose of arousing inter-communal suspicion, fear and hatred.

The role played by Islamic trading communities in the late medieval period of the Kingdom of Kandé Uda Rata is best demonstrated by the continued existence of thriving Muslim villages and townships in the hillcountry especially in the Kegalle area. Historians have well documented the deliberate establishment by the Kandyan kings of settlements of Muslim trading communities in this region as intermediary trading centres between the Kandyan territory and the coastal regions. Most of South Asia today, as, indeed much of the advanced capitalist regions of the West, has thriving Islamic banking industries. India is likely to facilitate Islamic banking very soon. History also shows us that some financial transaction practices that became key elements of European capitalism were invented and practised in Islamic and Arab societies centuries earlier.

The wearing of the saffron robe should symbolise sensitivity to economic practices that reduce profit-oriented desires (khaama) and inter-community cooperation rather than activism that generates fear, suspicion and hatred.

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