To be truly Sri Lankan

Rohana R. Wasala, in The Island, 7 & 8 July 2011

The Sinhala word ‘jathiya’, has been rarely used as an exact equivalent of the English word ‘nation’ which, in terms of its modern meaning, refers to all the people living in a country with their own government. Nowadays, however, ‘jathiya’ is occasionally used in the same sense without any ambiguity, for example, in a sentence like: “janadhipathi jathiya amathai” (The President addresses the nation), in which ‘jathiya’ embraces all Sri Lankans as citizens of one country. But ‘jathiya’ usually means ‘race’. The English term ‘nation’, also used to mean race originally. It entered the English word stock somewhere between 1250 and 1300 CE as a derivative from Old French ‘nascion’ from Latin ‘nationem’ meaning “nation, stock, race”; it literally means “that which has been born” from ‘natus’, which is the past participle of ‘nasci’ “be born”. At first ‘nation’ denoted “a body of people with a common language, culture, and history occupying a territory under a government of their own.” Over the centuries, this racial meaning has been gradually replaced by the political notion “all the people living in unity as inhabitants of one territory/country”. The Sinhala term ‘jathiya’ has a similar etymology. It’s a word with multiple meanings: it can mean the same as race, e.g. Sinhala jathiya, Demala jathiya, etc., or kind or type, for example, ekama jathiye sapatthu (shoes of the same type); ‘jathiya’ can denote birth as in “me jathiyedi berinam labana jathiyedi” (if not in this birth, then in the next birth, a phrase that might be used by lovers who pledge undying faith to each other amidst insurmountable opposition); jathiya in some contexts is the same as “caste”. Out of these various meanings of the word ‘jathiya’ the one relevant to this essay is ‘race’. That is the meaning it usually carries. Therefore it cannot always be offered as a translation for ‘nation’ in the non-racial sense, except in a sentence like the one given above. However, today, it’s common knowledge that the adjective ‘jathika’ , though derived from ‘jathiya’ has no connection with its racial meaning; instead it means ‘belonging to or relating to all the people of the country, making it identical with ‘national’. Again, we can talk about a ‘Sri Lankan nation’ in English, but cannot translate the term into Sinhalese as ‘Sri Lanka jathiya’ for then it will mean ‘Sri Lanka race’ which is non-existent. The proper translation of ‘the Sri Lankan nation’ is something like ‘srilanka janathawa’ or simply ‘lankika janathawa’, which are equivalents of ‘Sri Lankan public’ or ‘Sri Lankan people’. It is possible that the political meaning of ‘jathiya’ will gradually substitute for the racial, as in the case of the English word ‘nation’. (Readers please note that I am using the neutral adjective ‘racial’ not ‘racist’) But we call Sri Lankans (or Sri Lankan nationals) ’lankikayo’ (singular: lankikaya) in Sinhala. So, the adjective ‘lankika’ is today completely race-free.

I firmly believe that all Sri Lankan nationalists accept this to be the case, though understandably various detractors of nationalism will find the fact hard to stomach. In modern Sri Lanka, Sinhalese is not synonymous with Buddhist; nor is it synonymous with ‘lankika’. If someone can prove that, in the vocabulary of the average Sri Lankan nationalist, the Sinhalese term “lankikaya” refers exclusively to Sinhala Buddhists, I will stop counting myself among such ‘nationalists’; but, in that hypothetical situation, I’ll not stop hoping for the emergence, before long, of a trans-ethnic, trans-island Sri Lankan nationalism. Yet my conviction is that it’s already there. That is what the President affirmed, in the wake of the extermination of terrorism two years ago, when he said that there are no majorities or minorities, but only those who loved the country, and those who didn’t.

Now, before our country became a republic under the 1972 constitution, it was always known to the ordinary Sinhala speaking people by the name of ‘Lanka’, and by no other name; the Tamil pronunciation of the same Sinhala name is Ilankei. Even today it is ‘lankawa’ among Sinhala speakers, and ‘Ilankei’ among Tamil speakers. The adoption of the name ‘Sri Lanka’ (which is actually a Sanskrit form) at the inauguration of the republican constitution signified the restoration of the country’s lost identity after centuries of foreign occupation.

Incidentally, Lanka is Sri, just as Britain is Great. The same way as the people of Great Britain are called ‘British’, the inhabitants of Sri Lanka should be called ‘Lankans’. Our country was called Sri Lanka (Siri laka in its Sinhala form) in ancient Sinhala literary works. The Sanskrit epithet Sri, (which is pronounced ‘shree’, but becomes Sinhalised as ‘siri’ in ordinary conversation), means resplendent, shining, or splendid.

But among foreigners Sri Lanka has had many different names from antiquity. Some of these are as follows: the Greek astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy (90-168 CE) made a map of the island which he called Taprobane (probably from Sanskrit ‘Tamraparni’, Pali ‘Tambapanni’, meaning ‘copper-coloured leaf); the Arabs had several names for it such as Serendib, Tilan, Cylan; the 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus called the islanders Serendives; the 6th century Greek sailor Cosmas Indicopleustes called the island Sielen Diva; the Latin name was Seylan; the Portuguese called it Ceilao, Spanish Ceilan, French Selon, Dutch Zeilan, Ceilan, and Seylon, and the British Ceylon. All these names, except the first, are related to the word Sinhala. Throughout history the country was also known as the ‘Sinhaladweepa’ (the island of the Sinhalese)’ This was similar to the land of the Angles/English being calledEngland). If, therefore, there was a tendency among the people to treat the Sinhalese as synonymous with Lanka or Lakdiva (Lankadweepa) especially in times of foreign aggression it was not surprising. Minorities which joined the Sinhalese under different circumstances, and chose to live among the Sinhalese without aggression were peacefully accommodated, and some of them got assimilated into the Sinhalese community. They stayed on because they found the Sinhalese to be a hospitable people , and the country to be a good place to live in.

From around 1800 to 1972, the British and other foreigners, the local English speaking elite, administrators, and business people settled for the name Ceylon. (Even today, there are those who show some nostalgic preference for the name ‘Ceylon’; however, it’s good that the Sinhalese did not clamour for a return to its original or historic form.) To the ordinary people including those who spoke and wrote in Sinhalese it was ‘Lanka’. From the noun Lanka we get the adjective forms lankika, lankeeya, and lankeiya, the latter two being somewhat more formal than the first. Those who live in Lanka are called lankikayo (plural of lankikaya, Lankan in English). Contrary to what some people say, I have never come across a single Sinhalese who says that being lankika is identical with being Sinhala. Of course, critics who do not know the Sinhalese language in order to interact with the Sinhalese in that language cannot understand this.

It is an incontrovertible fact that the Sinhalese as a race have no other country or territory to claim as their home country; they built the island civilisation; they have defended the country against invaders. When the European powers grabbed parts first, and the whole of the island later, it was the Sinhalese, who were perceived as posing a threat to them, and were subjected to repressive treatment.

I’m writing this not in ignorance of the fact that some well meaning people believe that raking over the past is no way to resolve present problems. But history matters; a nation cannot progress in dignity without being proud of their common history and common culture. It becomes sometimes necessary, metaphorically speaking, to go back in order to go forward by understanding the present in terms of the past, preventing the recurrence of past wrongs, and avoiding the pitfalls on the way, for creating a secure, happy future for our children and for ourselves, without being discriminated against for what we are.

During centuries of European occupation the vast majority of the ‘sons of the soil’, irrespective of ethnicity, were subjected to utter deprivation of all kinds – social, economic, cultural – while the wealth and resources of the land were being plundered; the Sinhalese Buddhists suffered the most as could be expected: their culture, their language, their religion, like those of the similarly dispossessed other sections of the native population, were trampled upon by the colonialists who were supposed to bear “the white man’s burden” a la Rudyard Kipling. At the turn of the 20th century, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), English poet and novelist, wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden”, in which he earnestly advised the Americans to assume the imperial role thatBritainand other white nations had already played in order to civilize

“Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child”.

In Sri Lanka the imperialists treated the downtrodden masses as if they were “half devil and half child”, except a small chosen minority of locals, (chosen and educated particularly to serve in the middle echelons of their administration, and to be their future proxies) which consisted of Burghers, and some mainly Westernised Tamils and Sinhalese, who were in the good books of the British on account of their Christian religion and English. After a long period of heroic struggles against the British – the Uva rebellion (1818) led by Keppetipola and the Matale rebellion (1848) under leaders Puran Appu, Gongalegoda Banda, and Kudapola Thera – the ordinary Lankans resigned to toiling under the burden of slavery imposed on them.

As the old political and social order was replaced by the new colonialist dispensation, rail and road systems were built to open up the country so as to help the mainly white-owned plantation and other industries. A middle class emerged. The rural agricultural economy which had been the mainstay of the country was mostly neglected. Traditional social ranks did not necessarily ensure power and privilege in the new scheme of things; money did. Sinhalese leaders such as Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harischandra, and Piyadasa Sirisena, though they were readily condemned as communalists by the colonialists and their local beneficiaries, were recognised as national heroes of the same order as Keppetipola and Puran Appu. Naturally, they sounded chauvinistic to those who had accepted the foreign yoke willingly. But we must remember that they lived at a pre-democratic time when the political significance of majorities and minorities was yet to be recognised, and when racist imperialist mouthpieces like writer Rudyard Kipling and British historian Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) were busy denigrating the nations that they were supposed to be ‘civilising’. The aim of leaders like Dharmapala was to enlighten the majority community about their lost heritage and culture, and inspire them to eventually free the country from the intruder, which was not to the liking of the imperialists and their local lackeys. If Dharmapala occasionally made (by today’s standards) discriminatory comparisons between the Sinhalese Buddhists and others, he did so, not out of malice towards the minority communities, but out of his enthusiasm to boost the morale of the ordinary Sinhalese who, he believed, had to be weaned from their laidback attitude and submissive acquiescence in colonial misrule. He expressed his abhorrence and rejection of colonial domination by foreigners, and utter contempt for the Westernised elements in no uncertain terms.

The small privileged class, which mostly consisted of the English speaking Burghers, Westernised Tamils, and Sinhalese, had conceptualised a ‘Ceylonese nationalism’ which was trans-ethnic within their community instead of the Sinhalese language based Lankan nationalism of activists like Anagarika Dharmapala. These Burghers and others who worked in theCeyloncivil service were fed up with the arrogance of the British and wanted to ‘ceylonise’ the service. It is claimed that they were inspired by the achievements of the Sinhalese of theAnuradhapuraand Polonnaruwa periods, and that they initiated the independence movement that eventually led to the achievement of 1948.

They were the class which the British privileged over the rest of the natives, who comprised 95% of the local population. Even within this tiny minority, not all three communities were treated alike. At least implicitly, they were ranked in order of Burghers, Tamils, and Sinhalese. Apparently, the compradors had no problem with this ranking. But the downtrodden masses of the Sinhalese majority in whose collective historical memory the consciousness of their identification with Lanka was indelibly marked did not relish being treated as third or fourth class citizens. The members of the elite enjoyed a kind of unity among them, which was due to their privileged status, common culture, Christian religion and English language. (The masses also lived in similar harmony sharing their common plight.) This ‘Ceylonese nationalism’, sometimes hailed as ‘true’ nationalism, amounted to no more than what could be oxymoronically called ‘nationalised colonialism’; had it succeeded it would have merely perpetuated the inequities introduced by the occupiers to communally divide the subject population. Notwithstanding that, if these people were serious enough, they could have formed a political organisation, and canvassed support among the masses on their Ceylonese Nationalist platform when universal franchise was granted; they didn’t do anything like that probably because of the language barrier. Of course, even if they had managed to reach out to the overwhelming (in their opinion, unenlightened) multiethnic majority despite linguistic and other self-imposed cultural hurdles, the latter would not have agreed to the oligarchy of an elite clique in place of foreign imperialists that they (the masses) wanted to drive out.

The unjustifiable demonization of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority as racists, communalists, chauvinists, fanatics, extremists, etc which has persisted for over a century now is one of the biggest roadblocks to the re-establishment of inter-ethnic harmony in the country. Until all communities – the majority as well as the minorities – accept the fact that the needs and aspirations that they are struggling to realise are not opposed to each other, but identical or complementary or, where they are not, can be made mutually compatible through consensus and compromise, there will be neither peace nor reconciliation. People have great hope that today’s young will be able to achieve these by detoxifying their minds which may have been polluted through misinformation. The Sri Lankan nationalism that is emerging today, if it hasn’t emerged already, amidst opposition from those to whom it doesn’t matter, is the true nationalism that will take the country forward.

I had finished writing this column before I was able to watch on the Internet Kumar Sangakkara delivering this year’s Lord Cowdrey Spirit of Cricket Lecture at Lord’s,UK. He was given a standing ovation at the end of his brilliant one hour long oration. It was a monumental performance. My eyes filled with tears several times while I was listening to him. There’s no doubt that every Sri Lankan who listened to him felt proud of him. Sangakkara spoke about cricket in general, the state of cricket in Sri Lanka engulfed as it is in rank corruption, the passion with which all Sri Lankans have embraced the game, making it their ‘personal dream’, and most importantly for us, cricket as ‘a force for unity’. Sangakkara epitomises the true Sri Lankan of the young generation today that I touched on above. I am sure that all patriotic Sri Lankans are hoping that the authorities will accord it the recognition it eminently deserves. The praiseworthy fact that the young man was courageous enough, like a true Sri Lankan, to call a spade a spade with nothing but national interest at heart should not be ignored. For this reason I am dismayed to learn that the authorities have reacted angrily to the speech. If Sangakkara talked about corruption in the game (which is not unique toSri Lankaafter all), he was talking about the virtually obvious. He would have talked in vain unless the matter is investigated and remedial steps taken to stop the rot immediately. The government’s hostile reaction will get even more publicity internationally (in the current atmosphere of adverse media attention on the country) than the well deserved loud acclamation of the lecture heard from all corners of the sports world.

I had a different title to my essay before. I decided to change it and adopt a phrase from Sangakkara’s speech as my new title.

1 Comment

Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, world events & processes

One response to “To be truly Sri Lankan

  1. Pingback: The House that Thatha Built | The Lanka Project

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