After I presented an old article in which I displayed and criticised the rantings of a Sinhala extremist named Chand Wijeywickrema (a Peradeniya graduate of my vintage), I was directly challenged by two Facebook members to clarify my depiction of Wijey (and like others) as “chauvinists” – or, in this situation, as Sinhala chauvinists.
Rather than heading immediately for a dictionary, I decided to explore the issue by raising the question with my tennis mates, mostly Australians from university or professional backgrounds and thus from the West. The term “chauvinism” generated puzzlement. It was not part of their immediate political vocabulary and a few of them referred to “male chauvinism” – immediately referring to recent trends of female emancipation and the feminist criticism of male dominance.
Ah, dominance! That is one clue in our assessment of the term.
In the history of the West over the last five/six centuries, inclusive of the recent history of that entity we know as the USA, the resistance to dominance has been etched in the term “racism.” This identifies the overweening claims of powerful White peoples over, say, the Indian tribes or Black (slave) people in North America. “Racism” also identifies reactions to black migrants to Europe and the awful phenomenon of fascist ideology in 20th century Europe — with Hitler as the epitome of a most excessive form.
The term “racism’ would also be applied by scholars (whether Western or non-Western) to the history of European colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia – a vast sweep in space and time. In contrast, when distinct African peoples clashed with neighbours or sought to dominate each other, the term deployed in the literature is “tribalism” – not racism. With good reason because the distinctions are not based on skin colour or putative lineage defined by outward appearance and the notions of heritage. That is, in Africa the major lines of differentiation were tribal heritages involving language, body markings, history and spatial affiliations in some marked combination.
So, too, in the history of thought originating within Asia: differentiation of collective identity is not founded on skin colour, though some nuanced references to colour may feature as a secondary characteristic. Given collective identities derived from language differences and putative histories, whenever such notions are taken to excessive lengths which imply, or exact, the subordination of other neighbouring collective entities, THERE then is where the term “chauvinism.” is employed in critical fashion.
This is a recognised phenomenon in the history of the English language within Asian countries (however unfamiliar the term may be among the intelligentsia in the West). Just visit the Cambridge Dictionary which provides the following definition of CHAUVINISM: “the strong and unreasonable belief that your own country or race is the best or most important.”
Again the definition within Wikileaks points in the same direction: ‘Chauvinism is a form of extreme patriotism and nationalism and a belief in national superiority and glory. It can be also defined as “an irrational belief in the superiority or dominance of one’s own group or people”.’
It is, I stress, in this connotation that I directed the pejorative at Chand Wijeywickrema and it is in this meaning that the concept is widely used in the scholarship on Sri Lanka. That said, it may be useful for me to expand on the usage by illustrative historical applications or examples with the proviso that “chauvinism” in Sri Lanka is not confined to the Sinhalese. That is. the Tamils and Muslims have also displayed collective prejudices of an extreme kind on occasions, while the British colonial personnel and a few of the Burghers operating within that dispensation displayed prejudices that were the equivalent of “chauvinism” – namely along the lines that embody the criticism “racist.”
Whether the instances merit the criticism “racism,” “chauvinism” or “tribalism,” each would clearly have more catastrophic implications in contexts where the aggressors were/are in a demographic majority or command the political institutions. Relative clout carries greater weight and on occasions more death and suffering …. and thereby generate greater condemnation. Relativities of power and outcome do inform historical assessments.
“Primordialism” as Handmaiden of Chauvinism
While chauvinism may be promoted by numerical clout or control over the main engines of government, it is also encouraged by historical claims and associations with place. Where this favoured place is an island, the claim contains a further decisiveness.
In Sri Lanka and its Sinhala peoples the history of Buddhism and the long history of peoples who spoke and wrote in hela, Sīhala or Sinhala, provided the claim to dominance derived from being the first to settle in the island – or rather, the first to initiate a civilisation and state-form within the island. In the standard histories associated with the researches of such individuals as Senarat Paranavitana and GC Mendis this foundation derives from the arrival of Buddhist missionaries in the time of King Devānampiya Tissa (307-267 BC) and the evolution of the proto-Sinhala script into the form identified as Old Sinhala.
But let me refer here to the opening lines in the challenge presented by Amare Kodikara, the individual who confronted me on Facebook:
“By the time of the advent and establishment of Buddhism as the state religion when Devanampiyatissa was ruling from Anuradhapura occurred [when the] Island was well established as Sihala country for centuries. Thereafter Buddhism proves to have evolved as the symbol of unity of the Island even over the concept of being considered as Sinhala land. The South Indian invaders if not chased out or annihilated were absorbed into this Buddhist culture together with some of the cultural aspects of the invader.”
In this passage we see evidence of a new development among the Sinhala intelligentsia at home and abroad: stretching their history back over centuries if not millennia on the foundations of whimsical imaginations generated in cyberspace, social media and cinematic extravaganza. That is a verdict on my part, speaking here as a non-specialist, which I will leave to such personnel as Sudharshan Seneviratne, KNO Dharmadasa, Reg Somadeva and JB Disanayake to address.
Kodikara’s comment is relevant to our discussion. It provides a glimpse of new strains of primordialism among the present generations of Sinhalese. Here, the emphasis is on the mythical figure of Rāvana and the autochthonous peoples without a written script. They are rendered into the founding Sinhala with one loud proclamation (supported by fantastic and powerful productions in the film-world).
These fictions, and that debate, should not obscure the thrust of my argument: well-established histories of settlement and state-formation in Sri Lanka by migrant peoples who were identified as Hela and Sīhala sustained the collective identity of succeeding generations. This is what can be called “firstness.” It threads the claims to plots which one has brought into productive form (i.e. asweddamized) as well as claims to larger tracts of territory by indigenous peoples who have been swamped by powerful state-making invaders.
The revival of new strands of primordialism among educated Sinhalese today which reach back to the pre-Vijayan past in stupendous imagination seem to be a response to the challenges created by the LTTE, the Global Tamil Forum and the Western juggernaut that has the UNHCR in Geneva as its battering ram.
Such threats, of course, arouse chauvinism and deepen chauvinism. Some reactions are as emotional as histrionic, with the transmissions of social media today encouraging such escalations. The frenzy, at times, is frightening.
An ILLUSTRATIVE COMMENT from Ajai Sahni, an Indian Scholar in Delhi and Editor of Faultlines
Very interesting piece. The surge in both tribalism and chauvinism is global now and ‘histories’ based on whimsical imagination appear to be the base that everyone is building on. In case you are not aware of this, a ‘leading scientist’ none other than the Vice Chancellor of Andhra University, claimed at the Indian Science Congress that the 100 Kauravas were born at once from one mother because of ‘stem cell and test tube technology’. There have also been claims that organ and brain transplant was common in ancient India (the proof being the elephant head transplanted on the god Ganesh) and more common assertions that we had flying machines and space ships then. All this is feeding a surge of Hindutwa chauvinism in India – and that strand of ideology is a real and strengthening political force.
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