The Root and the Hour

by Vajra Chandrasekera in his blog, September 4, 2022

The “Sinhala nation” does not exist, and yet the state is designed in its service, and all politics revolves around its fears and desires. This is how we got where we are.

This is not the need of the hour, you might say: we were talking about gas, and food, and fertilizer, and the absent dollar. I agree. This is not the need of the hour. The hour, which has many needs, is greedy. It wishes to swallow up all thought with its many mouths. The hour has no time for the day or the decade, much less the century. With nothing but the eternity of hours in our hands, we exchange the important for the urgent. The hazard is not simply that the one goes unaddressed in favour of the other: it is that the many branchings of the urgent are rooted in the important, and by ignoring the root for the branch, we address symptom but not cause. Worse, we accept the unaddressed cause as a given, take its framings for histories, incorporate its agendas into our purported solutions, and thereby create more and more urgent needs for the hours to come. That, too, is how we got where we are.

El incendio de noche, Francisco Goya, c. 1793

Ever since independence, and in fact, even before independence, Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination, boycotts, and pogroms against minorities—“riots” is how they are often described, but we are beyond euphemism and out of fucks to give—are the basis of how this country works. The pogrom, in particular, is not a moment of aberration. It is fundamental. The pogrom is a disciplining engine. Its purpose is to restate the nation-state. The pogrom is a ceremonial recitation of the vision statement, for a country defined in the attempt to create a clear-cut, fixed Sinhala majority that would forever rule the island: rendering of half the Tamil population stateless, boycotts against Tamil businesses, the erasure of the Tamil language, violence against peaceful Tamil protestors. This was the defining issue at independence, and, with hundreds of thousands dead and the North under occupation, it is the defining issue today. This is not, as it is usually framed, “the Tamil question.” This is the Sinhala question.

The baseline environment of discrimination, punctuated by the regular cycle of pogroms, serves economic purposes, ideological purposes, and political purposes: undermining, destroying, and looting minority businesses; intimidating and terrifying minorities and dissenters into submission; and creating security crises that can be exploited for political power. It reinforces the border of the nation: who belongs to the majority and who does not. It is a simple machine, containing no sophisticated electronics but only mechanical wheels and levers that any fool can oil and maintain. Many fools have.

There is a problem of rhetoric in describing the pogroms as solely either disorganised or organised. Casual descriptions tend to fall into one or the other, but neither works as an explanation by itself.

On the one hand, if you say the Sri Lankan pogrom is solely disorganised, spontaneous violence by Sinhala Buddhists against Tamils or Muslims, then you risk absolving state actors (or other ruling-class actors, such as opposition politicians attempting to destabilise the state) of responsibility. The direct involvement of the likes of Rajaratna and Mettananda in the 50s or Cyril Matthew in the 80s or any number of contemporary examples demonstrate that state and ruling class actors are absolutely a factor and cannot be ignored. Much scolding of “ignorant mobs” or appeals to the better nature of said “mobs” relies on the underlying idea that violence erupts spontaneously because of bad ideas held by other people, and can therefore be avoided by exhorting said other people toward personal growth. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that a lot of perfectly ordinary people have terrible, racist, violent ideas, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine many of them happily joining a mob given the opportunity. We can accept this as a contributing factor, but not the sole or ultimate cause.

On the other hand, if you say such violence is solely organised, entirely managed by the state and/or other nefarious actors, then you risk absolving the Sinhala Buddhist polity at large—it’s essentially a denial that widespread or structural racism is a serious contributing factor, which it undoubtedly is. Pogroms require years of indoctrination and propaganda, to prime and maintain a sufficiently large segment of the population in the necessary cultural separatism, supremacism, paranoia, and ethical illiteracy required to make mass outbreaks of violence possible when its instigators demand it.

So. obviously, the answer must be that the pogroms are both organised and disorganised. They have always been nurtured and prepared and heated up over years, then actively incited and led in the moment of boiling over. It’s important not to lose sight of this “both,” though, because what matters is the interaction between organisation and disorganisation. Instigation can but does not require conspiracy of the more obvious sort. Sri Lanka is, by design, a leaking gas cylinder and the political culture is to sit on it and light matches.

It is not enough to say “stop lighting matches.” Even the leak isn’t the root of the problem: it is the nation-state, framed as compressed, productive, explosive fuel. This is indeed useful for those who cook with it—we know their names and their dynasties well—and they are least inclined to change the state of affairs, because for them these are the affairs of state. But for those of us who are under pressure inside the cylinder, rendered and reproduced as toxic and flammable, the need of the hour and the need of the century are aligned: we have to find our own safe way out, because the only other destinies that shall be made available to us are conflagration or consumption.

The Sinhala question is not a question: it lacks precisely that sense of questioning, of openness or discovery. The Sinhala question is an assertion, a definition, a tautology; it is only a question in that it troubles those capable of being troubled, just as it comforts those who are not. The Sinhala assertion is simply this: the island belongs to the Sinhala nation from the strait to the ocean, and the state, coterminous with the island, must serve the Sinhala nation. The occasional attempt to gentle and liberalize this assertion simply adds one word (“first”) to the end of that assertion, acknowledging that those outside the nation may also be included on sufferance within the state. As our constitution puts it, Buddhism shall have the foremost place, while other religions shall have their rights assured; the official language is Sinhala, and Tamil shall also be an official language. The Sinhala state serves the Sinhala nation, which is formulated as a fixed, pre-democratic majority and therefore defines the Sinhala state, and in this way the two continually reproduce each other. And meanwhile other people may also be there, as long as they remain relegated and understated, which is to say, neither part of this nation or another.

The Sinhala assertion justifies the Sinhala state, but it produces the Sinhala nation as a given. It is easy to identify the Sinhala state. It is the deterministic finite state machine—the elected representatives, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the laws, the police, the military—dominated by those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests. It accepts certain inputs but not others, and produces predictable outputs in response. It is, by definition, unjust and undemocratic.

But what, exactly, is the Sinhala nation? Is it those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests? No, not quite. Imagine an enthusiastic Western tourist who becomes a de facto immigrant, perhaps living down south and opening a boutique bed and breakfast, who learns fluent Sinhala, adopts Sinhala customs such as the New Year, wears sarongs, converts to Buddhism and can quote his Walpola Rahula as easily as his D.T. Suzuki, goes to temple on Poya days, makes Vesak lanterns, marries a Sinhalese and fathers children, identifies so strongly with the culture that he says we when he speaks of Sinhala interests, and is proud of it. Is this person Sinhala or part of the Sinhala nation? Obviously not. The answer is “No, but his children are half Sinhalese.” This answer is not really an answer to a question: this answer is the Sinhala question, which is the Sinhala assertion. It is the statement that to be Sinhala is not in the mouth, not in the head nor body, not even in the heart, but in the blood.

This statement is a fiction, a fantasy—an epic fantasy, a myth of origins imbued with great power, for all that it is, at a very simple level, without meaning. It means nothing, and yet it means everything: it is why blood is shed. It is the essence of Sinhala racial-national thinking. Not to be too Sapir-Whorfian about it, but there’s something telling about the use of the same word for race and nation (and species for that matter,) especially when that word becomes a rallying cry.

What, precisely, does ජාතිය mean in Jathika Chinthanaya? It is usually translated nation, as in National Thought or National Consciousness, but Gunadasa Amarasekara, its primary theorist (most recently seen being cringe on main) has of course long since clearly identified the nation with the Sinhala Buddhist, so it could be translated more accurately as Racial Consciousness. That is indeed the great intellectual contribution this ideology represents: anxieties about birth rates, fertility, and replacement, racialized demographics as power. As with the Mahinda Chinthanaya, it barely deserves the description of thought, much less consciousness. It is, rather, the unexamined unconscious of an unconscious nation, tottering somnambulistically over brink after brink, doing itself terrible damage with each crash but so far, never waking up all the way.

In this, the ideology is far older than the late articulation given to it by the likes of Amarasekara. It is the same reasoning through which the demographics of the island, as represented in the flag, were set at 5:1:1; proportions obtained through not only the violent disenfranchisement and deportation of Tamil populations in the very moment of independence, but through the differential definition of populations by race and religion. Tamil-speakers are broken up by religious and regional groupings, and Sinhala-speakers are not, though they could also be: a grandparental generation contended with Kandyan and Low-Country Sinhalese as distinct races, and if Sinhala Christians and Sinhala Hindus and Sinhala Muslims had been counted in similarly distinct silos, the proportions would shift again. All such definitions are fluid, unfixed, and of relatively recent provenance: the “Sinhala nation” is about as old as the car, or the telephone, which is to say, a device utterly inextricable from modernity. It is impossible to use a colonial tool of division for anticolonial campaigning without opening the way to tremendous postcolonial violence. The inability to rid ourselves of this device is, at root, how we got where we are.

Ranil Wickremasinghe gave a speech the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to the island—under Ranil’s protection, as always, continuing his service as Gota-by-proxy for these past few months. In this speech, he cited Buddhism as an explanation and justification for a neoliberal capitalism. An incoherent one, in that he described it in terms of a national desire, rooted in Buddhism, to be free of debt 1, while the world he and Gota are building is one of deep and permanent indebtedness, but this is only incoherent at the level of mere economics, whereas Ranil is speaking on the level of Racial Consciousness. The appeal is to Sinhala pride, traditionally a precursor to tremendous violence (the Sinhala nation having willfully inherited the mantle of whiteness, “Sinhala pride” is merely Kandyan KKK kosplay, and nothing to be proud of) but Ranil wants to extend this technique to directly support economic violence as well.

This rhetorical gambit seems to be a pet theme for Ranil. A notable previous attempt was his 2005 book Politics and Dharma, presumably ghostwritten but no doubt to his direction, which argued, via a tiresome and irrelevant restatement of samma ajiva, that capitalism was fully compatible with Buddhist values. Perhaps it is: the idea of what “Buddhist values” are has been so severely degraded in this country, from Mahanama to Mahinda, that there seems to be no reason why Buddhism should object to mere exploitation once it has already enthusiastically condoned genocide. But unlike Buddhist jingoism and unlike Buddhist pogroms, which rouse passionate, violent support from much of the self-identified Sinhala nation, Buddhist capitalism only tends to rouse mumbling acquiescence at best. The Sinhala nation is a great many people who have been successfully taught to hate the other, while the neoliberal capitalist rhetoric has successfully taught a great many people to hate themselves (as witness the many people begging for their own impoverishment and exploitation that you will see in any conversation about privatisation: many actively wish for public services to go away and despise the notion of a public good.) But the two rhetorics do not (yet) fit together, despite Ranil’s attempts to try and make them click into place. Persuasion is a field of wrecked experiments from whose ruins you can trace the outline of many a political project, but just because something has crashed before doesn’t mean that failure is preordained.

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1: This, incidentally, is why it is important to look first at the dirty underside of things, whether speeches by a Presidentpress releases by the IMFstrategic meetings by a ruling party. There are always positive, or at least less-negative spins or aspects or readings that are possible. But if you don’t anchor yourself, then you risk getting lost in a frothy cloud of hypothetical positivities that may or, more likely, may not transpire. The worst that is openly spoken of, on the other hand, can be guaranteed to be the least of the trials to come. In most public statements from political actors, only the worst even approximates the real. The rest is sugarcoating, or more pyrotechnically, flares being sent up to distract any heat-seeking criticism. Top Gun isn’t the only 80s propaganda currently enjoying a massive resurgence. 

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