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Politics of ethnic-outbidding

by Admin - Lanka Forum

As the ongoing political campaigns demonstrate, Sri Lankans seem to interpret the responsibilities of their politicians narrowly along ethnic/religious lines. With Sinhala politicians (from various parties) promising to push the interests of Sinhalese, Tamil politicians the interests of the Tamils, and the Muslim politicians of the Muslims etc. In our previous post we described this as an outcome of a skewed social contract where citizenship privileges are negotiated with leaders of our respective ethnic/religious groups and not so much with the state. Though this style of thinking made us go through a costly war with immeasurable damage, we seem to continue to think along the same lines. Unfortunately, this has become the very foundation on which the Sri Lankan state is built.

How did this come to pass? Where in our history did we lay the first flawed brick? To us, the antecedents seem to lead all the way back to the events surrounding our independence struggle where the broad contours of an independent Ceylonese state were been negotiated. The primary interlocutor negotiating on behalf of the locals at the time was the Ceylon National Congress (CNC)—composed of members of the local elite including feudal aristocracy, new urban-based entrepreneurial groups, and upwardly mobile professionals—who were the main beneficiaries of British rule. This group, which cut across Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim lines—was initially looking to mirror the policies of the British to maintain the status quo that favored them. But when an upstart political force emerged to threaten their claim as the sole representative of local interests, their policy orientation began to change.

A couple of decades earlier, in response to the evangelic activities of Christian missionaries, a Sinhalese Buddhist revivalist movement started to take root in the country’s rural areas. Under the charismatic leadership of Anagarika Dharmapala, this movement started gathering momentum by vocally opposing the aggressive proselytization practices of the Anglican Church and the drastic reduction of state funding/patronage to temples. This movement became even more powerful when they linked up with disgruntled sections of the Kandyan goyigama feudal elites some of who were significantly marginalized under British rule. Together, they became a formidable force agitating against British rule on a chauvinistic Sinhala Buddhist platform.

This put the Sinhalese leadership within the CNC in a quandary. Their inter-ethnic message was starting to sound increasingly irrelevant in face of the Sinhala Buddhist message, which claimed the Sinhalese had suffered disproportionately more under colonial rule. Therefore, in order to prevent being completely outflanked by the populist Sinhala Buddhist story line, the CNC’s Sinhala leadership also adopted a hardline nationalist stance (for instance, promising a Sinhala Only language policy).

For us, this was where the first skewed brick was laid in the country's flawed foundation. The new hardline position adopted by their Sinhalese colleagues disappointed the Tamil members of the CNC causing most of them to defect and form a new party called the Tamil Congress in 1944. This made ethnic outbidding standard fare of Sri Lankan politics. Narrow group based interests quickly replaced national interest in political calculations. This situation crystallized still further when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike founded an entirely new political party—the SLFP—exclusively aimed at aggregating interests of the Sinhalese.

We are continuing to see this trend of ethnic outbidding prevailing through the current political campaign as well. Unfortunately, it seems like no amount of bloodshed and mayhem would motivate us to change our default settings.

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