Sri Lanka is famed for a few things, tea, #islandliving, cricket, warm smiles and hospitality towards tourists, and ethnic violence and xenophobia between our own.
The waves of ethnic violence have been attributed to various factors. More often that not, ethnic violence has been a result of and reduced to one man’s political ambition; if they are not pandering to the ethnic majority, they are conning the ethnic majority in to a xenophobic fit to create just a little chaos for them to thrive on.
The fact remains that decade after decade Sri Lankans channel their misinformed patriotism in tearing each other apart. It is imperative then to understand what makes us vulnerable to political puppetry? How did we succumb to the status-quo where “Proud to be Sri Lankan” stickers alongside “Sinha-Le” stickers are commonplace and the paradox of it is lost on us?
The answer comes in the form of another question - ‘what does it mean to be Sri Lankan?’ A question we should ask ourselves more often at an institutional and socio-cultural level. Historically, our identities have been anchored to our ethnicities. By relaying history from a singular vantage point, and enforcing, and reinforcing ethnic divisions through language and discrimination, we have created a petri-dish for ethnic tension.
The truth is, we don’t have a ‘Sri Lankan identity’ and we have never attempted to forge one. One could eloquently articulate what it means to be a Sinhalese-Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Malay, a Christian, a Burgher - but do we have a cross-cutting identity that goes beyond our individual ethnicity? What is our shared identity?
Of course the semiotics don’t help in this regard - all the monuments and their overemphasis on one single ethnicity, our flamboyant national flag that identifies all ethnicities but subtle racism aside, doesn’t relay a cross-cutting identity that we could all point at and say, ‘look that’s us’.
I like to think that the absence of a common-identity is entirely for a lack of trying. 2015 was an important juncture in our contemporary social-fabric. Leaving politics aside, the year marked the admission of the first group of students born post-war in to the local education system. That is, little Lankans born post war in 2009 started their grade 1 in 2015.
Their lived reality is worlds apart from us war babies. Growing up, if we weren’t caught in the crossfire, we were watching it on the 6 p.m. news as though it were a normal thing to do. But for those born after 2009, war and terrorism is hearsay. If we as society had the slightest inkling of pursuing or forging a common identity, telling these kids that there is no ‘other’ but we are all ‘one’ would have been a good place to start.
But, in the land of missed-opportunities, our inability to commit to uniting the country at an ideological level still continues. Worst of all, it has left us vulnerable to every Gnanasara that is quick to steer us in the direction of conflict. As a result, we can now add home to a majority with a minority complex and a minority that doesn’t feel at home, at home, to the list of things Sri Lanka is famed for.
Image courtesy: videoblocks