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
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
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
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.