Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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'National Ideology' in a Buddhist Country

by Kanishka Goonewardena, Himal, October - November, 2007

As neoliberalism emerged globally triumphant during the 1980s, socialism in general ceased to be a popular alternative for whatever was left of the left. Into that political space stepped fundamentalist nationalisms devoid of any memory of Marxism or anti-imperialism.

It is therefore no accident that the leading ideologues of Jathika Chinthanaya ['national ideology' in Sinhala] in Sri Lanka are ex-socialist anti-Marxists...

The consequent search for a radical indigenous alternative to both capitalism and socialism aligns this cultural-political movement very much with contemporary Hindutva discourses in India, while also recalling the ideological backdrop of National Socialism of Germany...

In this way, both Jathika Chinthanaya and Hindutva claim to be respectful of minority cultures – but only insofar as those minority cultures accept the norms of the dominant culture as their own...

These groups desperately needed a community with which to identify, as well as an enemy to identify against, both of which were powerfully forged in these cases – as the fates of Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Muslims and German Jews demonstrate.

From a special issue on fundamentalism...

Despite its emphasis on national ‘harmony’, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, as with other fundamentalist ideologies in Southasia, is incapable of mitigating the oppressive social structures still rampant in the region today.

Globalisation – the universal codeword for the latest stage in the uneven development of capitalism at the planetary scale – points neither to a ‘global village’ nor to a ‘flat earth’. Indeed, popular metaphors of vanishing space and virtual networks represent only a misleadingly limited view of this eminently dialectical and contradictory historical process, the very internationalism of which has given rise to a potent wave of postcolonial – but hardly anti-imperialist – nationalism.

The latter, in contrast to the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century, today typically assume cultural-political agendas focused on ethno-religious matters, rather than political-economic projects promoting social democracy. These days, the fundamentalism of cultural identity, particularly in the garb of Southasian nationalisms, stands in inverse proportion to its inability to muster opposition to the globalisation of neoliberalism. Yet the relentless colonisation of this region by the logic of capital, following the last salute of Lord Mountbatten, has much to do with the current successes and excesses of communalist politics within it.

The recent resurgence in Sri Lanka of Jathika Chinthanaya, which translates from Sinhala as ‘National Ideology’ or ‘National Consciousness’, offers an instructive case in this regard. This discourse refers primarily to a set of influential ideas concerning the cultural identity and historical trajectory of the country. In the context of neoliberal globalisation and ethnic conflict, it assumes an urgently prescriptive tone, by drawing on the island’s traditional cultural-historical virtues to formulate an authentic model of ‘development’. Invariably, the ‘national’ aspect of it centres, in ethno-religious terms, on the dominant Sinhala-Buddhist community.

All major Sri Lankan political parties, except those specifically representing Tamils and Muslims, draw on Jathika Chinthanaya’s ‘common sense’ to various extents. While Jathika Hela Urumaya (the JHU or National Heritage Party), which is controversially led by Buddhist monks, espouses the most aggressively Sinhala-Buddhist version of it, only a negligible fraction of the Buddhist clergy actually belong to this small but vociferous party. The popularity of this ideological formation owes less to party politics than to the dispersion of Buddhist sentiments throughout civil society. Thanks to the literary efforts of its organic intellectuals in the Sri Lankan public sphere and in cultural life more generally, Jathika Chinthanaya has become the discursive ether through which cultural-political debate now necessarily moves in Sinhala-Buddhist milieus.

The historical origins of Jathika Chinthanaya can be traced back to the ‘revival’ of Buddhism that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, this was less an anti-colonial consciousness than an ideology of Sinhala elites engaged in competition with their Tamil counterparts and other upper-class representatives of minority communities for wealth and privilege within the colonial dispensation. As such, the type of Sinhala Buddhism popularised by such proselytising religious ideologues as Anagarika Dharmapala (whose role in the propagation of Jathika Chinthanaya is comparable to that of V D Savarkar’s in India’s Hindutva) amounted to a joint production of Sri Lankan elites and British divide-and-rule policies.

Cultural revolution
This dynamic of elite competition continued even after independence in 1948. The Sinhala-Buddhist ‘cultural revolution’ of 1956 thus involved a combination of the battle of the upper classes with a populist attack on the hegemony of the English-speaking ‘class’. The latter was orchestrated by the Oxford-educated founder of the newly formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), S W R D Bandaranayake, whose prospects of becoming prime minister had seemed slim within the nepotistic United National Party (UNP). Following a landslide electoral victory, Bandaranayake’s opportunistic Official Language Act of 1956, which decreed Sinhala as the country’s only official language, appealed to the aspirations of the Sinhala middle and lower classes, while delivering a painful political blow to the island’s Tamil-speaking communities.

While sowing the seeds of Tamil separatism, the 1956 ‘revolution’ also brought forth a cultural renaissance of sorts. There was an unprecedented proliferation of Sinhala literature in various print media, including newspapers, magazines, historical-cultural journals and novels. While certainly some of this popular discourse espoused a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in line with the chauvinistic style of Dharmapala, not all of it did so. In fact, the best literature of this period was much more nuanced and liberal, even socialist. Leading Sinhala writers of the time, with due respect to Buddhist values and local traditions, also engaged other cultures, including Western. Martin Wickramasinghe, the most accomplished and erudite Sinhala writer, whose life spanned both colonial and post-colonial times, remains particularly exemplary in this regard for his cosmopolitan humanism, nourished by sympathies not only Buddhist but also socialist.

In spite of its Sinhala-Buddhist tendencies, the more or less social-democratic character of the Sri Lankan ‘developmentalist’ state from 1956 until 1977 provided the minimal material conditions for cultural expressions that were at once indigenous and modernist. This was best represented in the literary realm by Wickramasinghe, though a similar cultural-political orientation can be seen in the contemporaneous cinema of Lester James Peiris, and in the pioneering drama of Ediriweera Sarachchandra. A comparably sophisticated attempt to mediate between Sri Lankan and western influences, although without any trace of the socialism found in Wickramasinghe, also became evident in the distinct architectural idioms practised by Valentine Gunasekara and Geoffrey Bawa.

Everything changed after the ‘open economy’ landed in Sri Lanka in 1977. The steady erosion of the welfare state, in tandem with the penetration of neoliberalism into the island, inaugurated by J R Jayewardene’s UNP regime, forced the middle and lower classes suddenly to confront the disorienting vagaries of the free market. These classes, along with the Sinhala big businesses that had benefited most from the favours of the post-1956 state, were the hardest hit by this process, even as the pressures placed by local and global agents of neoliberalism on free education, healthcare, housing and social services adversely affected most of the rest of the population.

This new reign of laissez-faire economics was accompanied by rapid ‘Westernisation’ in everyday life, especially in a spectacular culture of technological consumption made possible by the relaxation of import controls on all manner of consumer goods. As colour television was introduced in 1979, a phantasmagoria of commodities quickly spread over Colombo and other growing cities. The gap between socio-economic reality and consumerist fantasy – between the food people ate and what they tasted on TV – became painfully palpable. The twin experiences of economic insecurity and cultural angst, compounded by the violent turn of Tamil separatist nationalism and an unprecedented militarisation of the Sri Lankan state from 1983 onwards, provided the necessary conditions for the present stage of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

Nationalism or National Socialism
Yet another vital enabling factor of Jathika Chinthanaya, which often presents itself as a resistance to the West, must be seen against a global-historical perspective. The Marxist historian Perry Anderson has noted how, from the French Revolution until the end of the Second World War, nationalism has been a prerogative of the bourgeoisie, while socialist opposition to capitalism remained (in principle, at least) internationalist in scope. But an inversion of this alignment of political forces – right nationalism, left internationalism – has taken place since the middle of the last century. The institutions of Bretton Woods were able, for the first time, to internationalise the right, effectively globalising the bourgeoisie. These same organisations also initially restricted left forces into nationalist frames, notably during the era of decolonisation in the Third World. As neoliberalism emerged globally triumphant during the 1980s, socialism in general ceased to be a popular alternative for whatever was left of the left. Into that political space stepped fundamentalist nationalisms devoid of any memory of Marxism or anti-imperialism.

It is therefore no accident that the leading ideologues of Jathika Chinthanaya in Sri Lanka are ex-socialist anti-Marxists. Nalin de Silva, a professor of mathematics at the University of Colombo and perhaps the most prolific writer espousing a hardline Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology, was a hardcore Trotskyite as late as the early 1980s. Champika Ranawaka, a leader of the virulently Sinhala-Buddhist JHU and currently Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, was prominent in Marxist-inspired politics as a university student activist during the mid-1980s, a pivotal time for Jathika Chinthanaya. Gunadasa Amarasekara, the leading Sinhala novelist today and organic intellectual of the Jathika Chinthanaya, likewise harboured profound sympathies for Marxism during the 1980s. In fact, a recurrent motif of Amarasekara’s fiction and literary criticism had been the need for a rapprochement between Marxism and Buddhism – until this idea was fully disavowed, by the early 1990s, as a youthful indiscretion.

Jathika Chinthanaya came to regard socialism as yet another nefarious manifestation of pernicious Western thought, rather like a bickering brother of capitalism. The consequent search for a radical indigenous alternative to both capitalism and socialism aligns this cultural-political movement very much with contemporary Hindutva discourses in India, while also recalling the ideological backdrop of National Socialism of Germany, which was contributed to by such influential intellectuals as Oswald Spengler, Ernest Junger, Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. Echoes of the latter’s powerful critique of Western metaphysics and ‘technology’ can be heard in the musings of the Amarasekaras and de Silvas of present-day Sri Lanka – as among the followers of Savarkar and M S Golwalkar in India – as they outline the ‘harmonious’ character of a national state.

According to Amarasekara, the search for an alternative to the Western path of development for Sri Lanka constitutes the prime rationale for Jathika Chinthanaya. “Before choosing a path of development,” he writes, “we must have a clear understanding of its objectives and goals.” He then asks: “What is the knowledge that gives us this understanding?” The answer is clear: “This knowledge is contained within nothing else but our national culture,” that is to say, “within the Jathika Chinthanaya, which can be considered as both the expression and the vehicle of that culture.” Nalin de Silva agrees with Amarasekara when he says that “there is a common culture in this country” and that “we must seek solutions to our problems within the framework of that common culture.”

Little is left for doubt concerning the content of this ‘common culture’. For Amarasekara, “Our national ideology is the Sinhala Buddhist ideology that has evolved through a period of about two thousand years.” Again, de Silva complements: “The inherent common culture in this country is … to live in harmony with nature, the Middle Path, lack of greed,” all of which “is best described in Buddhism.” He is prudent enough to acknowledge the eclectic and dynamic nature of this common culture: “No one says that this culture was pure and perfect,” because “various things were borrowed from various countries.” Of course, “culture changes”, but “there remains a certain tradition in spite of such change,” and “it was within the context of this tradition that everything was borrowed.” The implication is clear: “What we must do is to understand the essence of the … traditions we had and to borrow anything, including knowledge, in accordance with that essence.”

Amarasekara elaborates further on the meaning of this ‘common culture’. For him, “The main assumption behind Jathika Chinthanaya is that, although there are many ethnic groups in this country such as the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims, all of them belong to the basically same culture; as such, they must be referred to as one nation.” In other words, all the people of Sri Lanka, in spite of ethno-cultural differences, are “heirs to the same Jathika Chinthanaya”. He goes on to confidently raise a rhetorical question: “What is racist about that?” Nothing, if you follow his painstaking reasoning, which draws on such diverse sources as the Buddha and Samuel Huntington to make the case for a persuasive cultural essentialism. In this way, both Jathika Chinthanaya and Hindutva claim to be respectful of minority cultures – but only insofar as those minority cultures accept the norms of the dominant culture as their own.

A new internationalism?
In spite of obvious historical and cultural differences, there exist some remarkable parallels between the ideological forms and epistemological claims of Jathika Chinthanaya, Hindutva and National Socialism: their emphases on harmony, community and nature; and their critiques of materialism, modernity and socialism. Above all, these derive from the distinct yet comparable social formations that gave birth to them, all of which were marked by rapid economic development and cultural change, which led to heightened experiences of alienation and anomie, especially for the lower and middle classes. These groups desperately needed a community with which to identify, as well as an enemy to identify against, both of which were powerfully forged in these cases – as the fates of Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Muslims and German Jews demonstrate.

In no case, however, were the social bases of such existential anxieties adequately addressed. After all, the very form of these nationalist ideologies, predicated as they are on conceptions of social harmony, militates against the recognition of exploitative class, caste or gender relations. Herein lies the greatest political weakness of the fundamentalist nationalisms of Southasia today: their inability to acknowledge and redress oppressive structures of social relations. So long as this is the case, the cultural-political resolutions that they concoct will remain in the realm of the imagination alone, leaving intact the real contradictions of everyday life. The latter, meanwhile, offer a reservoir of resources for a renewed radical opposition to fundamentalist nationalism on the part of left forces – socialist, feminist and internationalist.