Writing in the context of Canada’s political and constitutional crisis, generated by the rise of secessionist nationalism in the French-speaking Quebec, Charles Taylor commented:
The “two solitudes” of Hugh MacLennan are still a fundamental reality in Canada; the ways that the two groups envisage their predicament, their problems, and their common country are so different that it is hard to find a common language. They are like two photographs of the same object taken from such different points of view that they cannot be superimposed (Taylor, 1993:24).
Charles Taylor is perhaps the leading academic political thinker and philosopher in Canada today. His essay, ‘A Canadian Future’, from which the above quote is taken, first appeared in 1970 in a volume entitled The Pattern of Politics. Taylor’s reference to Hugh MacLennan is the latter’s novel The Two Solitudes, published in 1945. The novel chronicles the impossibility of communication and solidarity between an English-speaking Canadian and a French-speaking Canadian during the early decades of the last century. The novel is about the solitudes which deep attachments to ethnic identity nourishes.
Sri Lanka after the ending of its long drawn out civil war in May 2009 is no different from the Canada which Charles Taylor described in 1970. Even five years after the war ended, the two solitudes of the Sinhalese and Tamil appear to be a fundamental reality in the post-war Sri Lanka as well. The ways in which the leaders of the UPFA and the Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil nationalist party, “envisage their predicament, their problems … are so different that it is hard to find a common language” for them to have a meaningful and sensible political communication. Although they have been talking to each other, they have not been having a dialogue. They have been talking through public pronouncements that are designed to re-assert and re-iterate political positions that have once again become non-negotiable. Exactly like what happened in the past during peace negotiations, the two sides have been re-discovering, and re-inventing mutual differences, suspicions, apprehensions and even hostilities. Retreat to solitudes is the preferred path of politics. Reconciling is not.
Why reconciliation has become so difficult in post-war Sri Lanka? This presentation is an attempt to reflect on this question.
Phenomenology of Ethnic Solitudes
Let us begin by trying to understand why post-war reconciliation is so difficult. Perhaps, one explanation in that in the Sri Lankan context, reconciliation presupposes new imaginations for shared politics among competing ethnic projects. Ethnic projects are by their very nature, mutually exclusivist, built on the ‘we’ and ‘the other’ dichotomy.
Ethnicity and democracy are the two most important political imaginations which modernity has brought to our society. Ethnicity provides each cultural community – Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and a few others – a framework of thinking about itself as a political community, and as a political collectivity. Democracy has enabled each citizen to relate himself/herself to the state as a rights-bearing individual, and with entitlement to be treated by the state with dignity and equality. These are no mean achievements of modernity. The two are sources of the political self of all Sri Lankan citizens. Through ethnicity, our citizens understand themselves first as belonging to cultural-political communities, — Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher etc. The larger nation-state identity – the Sri Lankanness – comes second and that persists despite the promise of democracy to facilitate a trans-ethnic political identity of citizens with equality. Ethnic imagination of group identity has over-powered the democratic imagination of nation-state identity for a range of good reasons. The individual and negative rights discourse of democracy has not provided a language of expression to articulate either group predicaments or visions of emancipation for collectivities. That has been the context in which Sinhalese, Tamil and later Muslim ethno-nationalist ideologies and mobilizations developed as the most powerful political dynamics in modern Sri Lanka. This becomes all the more alarming when we realize that it is ethno-nationalist ideologies, not democratic ideals, which propelled forward the three-decades of protracted civil war. Ethnicity’s triumph has been the failure of our democracy. The challenge in the post-civil war Sri Lanka is to reverse this process, to bring democracy back in as a political force with a capacity to blunt the sectional, parochial and exclusivist promise of ethnicity and ethno-nationalisms.
However, dealing with ethnicity requires caution and care, because, like religion, ethnicity responds to phenomenology of suffering, fears and redemption. Secularism cannot deal with religion, because it denies the phenomenological justification for the very existence of religion. In a world of individual despair and disappointment, religion provides an imagination of solace and fulfillment, which a secularist might find it no more than mere illusion. Yet, religion defies the rationalism of the secularist, because it provides to the human soul what secularism even fails to recognize as existing – a specific way to understand and deal with this-worldly deprivations. The relationship between ethnicity and democracy is somewhat similar. A good liberal democrat may find it difficult to justify why parochial ethnic imagination has become so attractive, when there is a better promise of Universalist political emancipation in the form of individual freedom, rule of law and equality. In political theory, these two perspectives have also been framed in the debates between communitarianism vs. individualism, and cultural relativism vs. universalism. Without falling into the trap of seeing the political world through antagonistic binaries, one can still see why some form of dialogue between ethnicity and democracy is both necessary and possible.
Before exploring the possibility of such a dialogue, it is necessary to be aware of the limitations of the kind of exchange of ideas that ethnicity, or ethno-nationalisms, often promotes. If we take Sri Lanka’s own experience of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms, we can see that these two dominant forms of group political imagination have not really facilitated a constructive political dialogue as such between themselves and across the communities they represent. This problem of impossibility of dialogue has been dramatically demonstrated during peace negotiations between representatives of the Sri Lankan government – both UNP and SLFP-led governments and the Tamil community, the Federal Party, the LTTE and now the TNA. Negotiations from the mid -1950s to 2012 meant to find a political common ground for the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, for the majority and minority communities, to live in the nation-state of Sri Lanka as equals, and all such negotiations led to the discovery of not a common ground, but differences, irreconcilables and hostilities.
By looking at the political history of Sri Lanka since independence, one can find many reasons to explain this failure. Scholarly literature on the escalation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict is replete with useful explanations. One theme that stands out in the literature is the inherent incapacity of the two dominant ethno-nationalisms in Sri Lanka to understand each other, even though they speak the same language. This is one of the key paradoxes of modern ethno-nationalism. As political phenomena, ethno-nationalisms within nation states have many structural and existential similarities. They give expression to fears, anxieties, hopes and aspirations of each community. They invoke the past to explain the present and map out the futures in more or less similar ways. The way in which they invent heroes and villains, invent and invoke historical memories, and appeal to certainties of historical change are amazingly similar. However, no two ethno-nationalisms within a nation-state can have a productive dialogue through the language of nationalism. The reason lies in the peculiarity of nationalism itself. For two nationalisms to enter into a constructive dialogue, they need to find a language outside nationalism. This is where democracy, the other legacy of modernity, comes to our assistance, and to the assistance of ethno-nationalisms to find a framework of solidarity and co-existence.
Nation-Building and Political Integration
After the war ended, the centrality of nation-building and political integration has returned to the country’s political agenda in a new context, but with the same old challenges, perhaps with greater intensity. Two questions are at the heart of the debate, although they are not explicitly articulated by our political elites or in the media. They are: (a) what kind of a nation do we want to build in Sri Lanka after three decades of civil war, and (b) what kind of a state we want to build in Sri Lanka?
Quite understandably, there are many perspectives from which answers to these questions are framed. In the political debate, there are two major perspectives in conflict, one shared by the UPFA government and the other articulated by the TNA. They are different in their key assumptions, and analysis and conclusions.
The government appears to think that economic development in the North and East is the key to post-war national integration and nation-building in Sri Lanka. This position is based on the assumption that the ethnic conflict was more a terrorist problem and a security challenge to the sovereignty of the state than a political problem arising out of political grievances and therefore calling for political-structural reform. Therefore, as the UPFA government’s thinking appears to suggest, what is necessary is to strengthen the national security and defense capabilities to crush any future insurgency threats while integrating the north and east with the rest of the country through rapid infra-structure and economic development. This combining of national security, strong state and economic integration makes the government’s vision for post-war political and economic change paralleled with the developmental state experiment in some South-East Asian countries a few years ago, particularly Malaysia.
The TNA, on the other hand, gives primacy to the political root causes of the ethnic conflict. In its approach, the military defeat of the LTTE has not obliterated the Tamil community’s political aspirations for power-sharing in an advanced form of devolution. In this analysis, ethnic conflict is a political problem that calls for a political solution. And a political solution presupposes reforming the state.
Now, these two approaches have certain differences and similarities. Differences emanate from ethno-political standpoints on which each approach based. The government’s approach has a clearly Sinhalese nationalist and ethnic majoritarian framing of Sri Lanka’s conflict and solutions it demands. It views the outcome of the war as restoration of state sovereignty, which was earlier threatened by a minority secessionist rebellion. It sees devolution as a potential threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state. Devolving power to a political entity that has had links with the LTTE, the TNA in the present case, is viewed by the government leaders as unacceptable, unwise and even dangerous. Why take steps that will negate the political gains of the military victory? This rhetorical question in a way summarizes the dilemma of what one may call the ‘victor’s peace.’ This dilemma is further heightened by the fact that the war victory has enabled the UPFA government to claim the veto power over the terms and conditions of any political settlement with the Tamils. Thus, the post-war triumphalism that the government has been invoking is not only a state of mind; it is also an expression of a specific political logic, a new political equilibrium, germinated by the way in which the civil war ended in Sri Lanka.
Then, there is the peace of the ‘vanquished,’ which the TNA continues to articulate with little positive response from the government. The ‘peace of the vanquished’ demands devolution, equality and dignity to Tamils. In this perspective, political rights and the right to share state power takes primacy over the material benefits of rapid economic development. It views devolution as the essential pre-condition for post-war state-building and national integration. However, the TNA does not have a bargaining strength to realize any of its political demands. Its strength emanates from its weakness, being the political representative of a vanquished minority. Yet, this is only a moral strength that does not have a material value in the way in which politics is taking shape in post-civil war Sri Lanka.
The similarity shared by these two contending approaches is more ironic and than real. It emanates from the ethnic foundations of the episteme of each. Both are ethno-nationalist projects, one majoritarian and the other minoritarian. The political language through which each expresses itself is not positively responded to by the other, for the simple reason that the two do not share the meanings of key words of each language. For example, devolution for the TNA is a minimum pre-condition for political unification whereas for the UPFA government, it is the stepping-stone to disintegration of the state. Self-determination for the TNA is the concept that frames the Tamil claims to political rights. For the UPFA government, self-determination is a demand for secession. For the TNA, political rights should take precedence over economic and infrastructure development. Fort the government, economic development is the best gift that the state can give to the Tamil people.
Inability of dialogue – this is one phrase which can describe the condition of stalemate into which talks between the UPFA government and the TNA have fallen. The political, ideological and cultural contexts that led to the deadlock in government-TNA talks are worth examining in order to understand why the inability of dialogue seems to persist between the two sides, to the great surprise of Sri Lanka watchers from outside. On this matter too, there can be many explanations. However, one troubling dimension of the way in which political debate in Sri Lanka has unfolded since May 2009 is the polarization of mindsets, or rather worldviews, in terms of victor and the vanquished.
The continuing debate between the Western governments and the UPFA government on reconciliation demonstrates in a dramatic fashion how this incommensurability of worldviews has constituted a major obstacle to Sri Lanka’s post-war political recovery. The Western governments and the UN insist that Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation should be based on two elements, (a) a political solution to the ethnic conflict, and (b) investigations into allegations of possible war crimes and related excesses during the last stages of the war. From the point of view of the advocates of this particular approach to reconciliation, both are necessary for post-war ‘healing.’ The UPFA government has been initially uncomfortable with this approach, and became hostile to it when the issue became a part of Western efforts to shape Sri Lanka’s post-war political trajectories.
The Western concept of post-conflict reconciliation has both liberal and Christian-humanist moral roots, as particularly seen in the South African experience of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In both South Africa and Guatemala, the process of reconciliation was made possible by the fact that conflict ended in both instances through a mediated and negotiated peace agreement. These were instances where there were no victors or losers in a moral sense of the term. The end of the conflict and violence through a peace agreement was seen there as a moral triumph for the entire nation. Sri Lanka’s situation, as seen by the UPFA government, is totally different. Reconciliation was thus seen as celebration of the return of humanistic values after years of hatred, violence and war. Here, post-war reconciliation suggests a different moral economy as well. It is about forgetting the past and moving forward, not returning to the past, either for collective therapy or retribution.
The issue of reconciliation in Sri Lanka has then moved away from its normative and value framework. It is caught up in the unending antagonisms between the government and the TNA on the one hand and the government and the global powers on the other. As a moral practice, reconciliation is a voluntary exercise. If it is practiced reluctantly, or in response to the pressure from powerful outsiders, it cannot be reconciliation and it requires some other word to convey what it is. This is Sri Lanka’s dilemma of post-war ethnic reconciliation.
What to do with Ethnicity?
It appears that ethnicity and ethno-nationalist politics has come to stay in Sri Lanka for quite some time. As the discussion so far in this essay suggests, it has not done much good to Sri Lanka’s people, although ethnic politics has been useful to highlight group grievances and aspirations. Ethnicity-based identity politics has provided our citizens modes of political imagination, a language of political expression as well as lenses through which to look at other citizens and their groups, and evaluate who they are and what they do. Ethno-nationalist politics has also made all Sri Lankan citizens acutely political, raising their political consciousness to unprecedented levels. Citizens of all communities – Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Plantation Tamil, Burgher, and small such small ethnic communities as Malayali, Thelingu, Colombo Chetty and the Veddha Adivasis – are acutely aware of who they are politically and what their place is in the larger schemes of things in society. They have a good sense of who their friends and enemies are, and the sources of threat as well as solidarity. As many opinion surveys have demonstrated empirically, citizens of all these communities also have firm political opinions about their grievances, rights, and even what kind of a state structure they want to live in. All of these are not altogether good; nor are they altogether bad. The real task now is to harness these political energies of the ethnically conscious communities to achieve the shared and collective goal of democratic, pluralist and peaceful Sri Lanka.
What is it that can hold these communities together as members of the political association called Sri Lanka? The present government of Sri Lanka appears to think that economic prosperity, or expectations of prosperity, is the common thread that binds disparate ethnic communities together. Its election slogan of “An Auspicious Future” (suba anagathayak) encapsulated this thinking. Some ethnic communities are likely to be attracted to the prospects of a prosperous future, precisely because the three decades of war and violence deprived them of benefits of economic well-being. However, the Tamil people appear to think differently. For them, men, and women, do not live by bread alone; they need collective dignity as well. Their conceptualization of an ‘auspicious future’ comes from the perspective of the vanquished, the defeated and the victim. In that conceptualization, dignity, equality and justice constitute powerful emotional expectations. Can the Sinhalese political leadership respond to the Tamils with a gesture of healing? This question is central to assessing Sri Lanka’s prospects for post-war political unification, nation-building, state-building, peace and democracy, because Sri Lankan Tamils live not by roads, highways, bridges and harbours alone.
If we try to understand the logic of the government’s position from its point of view, it is perfectly possible that the government wants to de-emphasize the ethnic identity dimension of what it may term as the ‘Tamil issue.’ That is not a bad thing, if it is paralleled with a similar de-emphasis of the Sinhalese nationalist agenda as well, which to a great extent informs the government’s overall policy. What the government should ideally do is to construct an overarching political identity for all ethnic communities that recognizes and accommodates all ethnic identities, but privileges none. The state thus constructed can be a kind of post-national constellation of many political communities who are moral equals with an equal stake at the state.
Building a new political association within and beyond the nation-state can thus be seen as a post-national project in a specific sense. ‘Post-national’ is a formulation which Jurgen Habermas, a German political thinker, used in support of his notion of ‘constitutional patriotism’. Habermas has been articulating an argument for a ‘postnational’ Europe, emphasizing that on the context of globalization and the influx of migrant populations, shared identity among citizens and residents can no longer be the old ‘national identity’ in the uni-cultural sense. Multiculturalism calls for a sense of belonging to the state which is other than cultural. Hebermas’s proposal for constitutional patriotism is based on the idea that political attachment ought to center on the norms and values of a liberal democratic constitution, rather than a national culture. Those are secular values too. They transcend cultural specificities. They offer to all a shared framework of civic allegiance to the state; a deeply political sense of belonging.
Has Sri Lanka reached a postnational phase in which cultural belonging can be replaced by political belonging alone? Obviously not. Sri Lanka’s story is one of reinforcement and re-stabilization of the nation-state through internal warfare. However, it is also story that calls for broadening the notion of ‘national belonging’ that can be equally shared by the victor and the vanquished alike. This is where some form of post-national citizenship can offer a deep sense of political belonging to all – to the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Upcountry Tamils and other small minorities who constitute a ‘political’ nation, rather than a ‘cultural’ nation. That sense of political belonging and political togetherness can best be understood as a set of political norms and values. Norms are ideals to be achieved by the polity for the common good of all. They provide the principles and commitments of the state, its institutions and personnel as well as the citizens and their elected representatives. Values are derived from norms and they constitute the yardsticks to evaluate actions of the state, its institutions and personnel as well as the citizens and their elected representatives. Norms and values are intertwined and they together enable political communities to forge unifying ideologies and define and redefine the unity project which Sri Lanka now desperately in need of.
What are these norms and values? They are actually there in the Sri Lankan society, in the people’s political consciousness, in the aspirations that people often invoke in moments of despair. They are peace, democracy, equality, justice and fairness. All of these are there in our political culture, notwithstanding the fact that they have been under attack, in retreat and are sometimes facing the risk of extinction. Nevertheless, they together constitute a powerful epistemic framework that animates people to thinking and action. People very often invoke them as a critique of the state, its institutions and practices. People employ them to critique, accept or reject the behavior of their rulers and representatives. They are deeply embedded in the collective political consciousness of all ethnic communities, whether Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or any other. Bringing them back to the center of the nation and state building projects in the present phase of political transition under post-civil war conditions as the guiding framework of norms and values is the task that requires a great deal of political energy. Because, this is a project that calls for a minimum value consensus among all communities, and something like a new political covenant among them.
Some civil society groups have recently called for a ‘new social contract’ for Sri Lanka. This metaphor of a new social contract suggests that Sri Lanka needs a new value framework that binds all citizens and communities, the state and its citizens, and the rulers and the ruled to a shared framework of political destiny as well. A new social contract requires a new process of political deliberation at every level of society. Deliberation requires a shared language of communication and dialogue. Ethno-nationalist ideologies do not have such a facility, because they do not promote solidarity across solitudes. A shared language of communication and dialogue for intercommunity solidarity has to emerge from outside the ethno-nationalist projects. Peace, democracy, inter-community equality, non-adversarial justice, social justice and human welfare, and fairness to all together can constitute the ontology – a world-view – for shared political dialogue and imagination beyond solitudes. These are political values, and normative frameworks, that have deep roots in all our cultures and forms of social consciousness.
Let me conclude this presentation by saying the following: Sri Lanka has passed the hour of inter-community reconciliation. Excessive politicization of the project of reconciliation has only fostered new suspicions, new sense of bitterness and betrayal, and new politics of hatred. What the people can, and ought to, look for now is ‘inter-community solidarity.’