Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 2 August 2015





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Orphaning the Lion

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," that great English litterateur, Samuel Johnson, is supposed to have said, according to a biographer. Although the exact context in which he uttered this dictum is unclear, Johnson had already written much on British politics and, about patriotism in Britain in particular. Thus, he was probably not referring to all patriots in general but to those politicos who spuriously used patriotism as cover for their nefarious purposes.

In Sri Lanka, patriotism has long been opportunistically linked to ethnicity alone and not to inclusive nationhood. It has been used in the most dangerous ways to stir up hostilities, suspicion and even physical violence between communities. Readers need not be reminded about the dangers of communalism - not after the political repercussions of legislation in 1956 and subsequent ethnic politics, which took the country into a 'crisis of civilisation', as noted by President J. R. Jayewardene even as the country burned in July 1983.

That 'crisis' grew not only into a civil war between ethnic groups and terrorism by many sides, but also into the complete distortion of the Sri Lankan state. The polity became a morass of inter-ethnic division and mistrust. This rendered it even easier for the entire state edifice to become authoritarian as rulers and their henchmen and women greedily plundered national resources and institutions, all the while chanting invocations of patriotism.

If opportunistic communal politics of the recent past has brutalised the state and its institutions, including the military, the genuine values of a great island civilisation are again threatened today by a desperate revival of communalism in the on-going contest for parliamentary power.

Our national flag has united the Sri Lankan people through thick and thin: race riots, assassinations, successive Constitutions, structural changes to the State, such as provincial devolution, social class rebellions and, separatist insurgencies. Throughout all these challenges, the heraldic lion, with raised sword of just governance, girded by the multiple colours of a richly composite culture, has been the symbolic guardian of the island civilisation in its post-colonial life.

The flag is a wonderful composite of Sri Lankan medieval heraldry - the sword-wielding lion - together with colours and traditional artistic motifs symbolising the indigenous religions and ethnic communities. This symbolic synthesis is currently being dismembered into separate symbolic formations that are then differentiated into exclusive cultural identities.

Barely had the nation's military defeated an ethnic separatism that had been engendered by an ethnic supremacism, than those same troops must now watch some of their political leaders opportunistically displaying flags that seem to mirror such separatism and supremacism.

The revered Lion flag is being dismembered and torn into discrete cultural symbols! Some recent political platforms, trod by national leaders who claim to be standing again for national leadership, have been festooned with a flag that resembles the national flag shorn of the colours and motifs that symbolised the composite culture of our society. It is a flag that solely displays the symbol of a single ethnic community and denies the existence of all other ethnic and religious communities that comprise our nation. Is the Lion being orphaned - separated from the embrace of the Sri Lankan nation?

On the one hand, this politics of the flag is a deliberate message of ethnic exclusivism and supremacy; a desperate hypnotising of the socially weakest with the narcissistic pleasures of dominance and purity. On the other, this emphasis of an ethnic singularity creates a psychology of ethnic isolation and loneliness among those very sections of the population so beguiled into this exclusivism. Hence, the xenophobia and fear of the 'Other that stultifies social collaboration and cross-fertilisation, those wellsprings of social progress. Hence, the violent and potentially violent backlashes of paranoia that this country has been beset with for decades.

At the same time, this emphasis on a single ethnic symbol is a message of estrangement to the other ethnic and religious communities - of social exclusion and rejection. It is a perpetuation or revival of those very stimulants of communal hatred and mistrust that fuelled ethnic and religion-based rioting and civil war over decades. Those excluded communities then seek their own discrete symbolism - the tiger is as much an authentic historical symbol as the lion.

To his credit, the Commissioner of Elections has already noted this communal tendency creeping into the campaign discourse and, last week, categorically warned against it. Encouraged by the careful good governance practices of the current regime, the Commissioner, has, in recent weeks, launched an unprecedented campaign himself to combat the whole range of election malpractices that once were a virtual trademark of Sri Lanka election politics. His professional conscience had drawn him to comment on the communal aspect that might impinge on campaign propaganda as well.

Those standing for election must heed the injunctions of the Elections Commissioner, if not their own conscience. Those voting in the election must unhesitatingly choose as our future leaders those politicians not engaged in such dangerous and inflammatory politics. And those manufacturers and wavers of ethnically exclusive flags must choose between civilisation and barbarity.


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