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
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
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.