‘Nationalism’ disambiguated
Posted on February 7th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

Like ‘secularism’, ‘nationalism’ is a much abused term in the vocabulary of the opponents of the unitary status of the Sri Lankan state. A previous article of mine (‘Why secularism is good for Sri Lanka’/Lankaweb/posted January 23, 2020) explained my opinion that the principle of secularism in governance is a good thing for Sri Lanka and that it is not against religion, although it is often attacked as anti-religion, and hence immoral. In the West, USA, UK, and Norway, for example, are accepted as secular democracies while being avowedly ‘Christian’ nations. There is no contradiction here; it only means that a secular democratic government needs to respect the dominant religious culture of the people (nation), but need not accommodate totalitarian dogmatic tenets, if any, like death for apostasy, that go against modern scientific knowledge and secular ethics. The same applies to predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka with relevant adjustments. Considering the current besieged state of the Buddha Sasanaya, despite the age-old Buddhist civilizational  foundation of the Sri Lankan state being its cultural lynchpin, the constitutional recognition of the need to protect it is in the interest of all Sri Lankans. It does not harm the secular credentials of the unitary state.

When we adopt the term nationalism to the Sri Lankan context, it should be similarly disambiguated. While secularism is viewed as a positive principle in Western political discourse, nationalism is treated as being almost identical with racism. That is the meaning that the enemies of the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state – such as the mercenary foreign NGOs battening on the misery of millions in weaker nations, separatists among Tamil expatriates in the West , and communal political survivalists at home who have no plausible reason to justify their existence – attribute to the term. However, nationalism is implicitly accepted as a key element of a country’s development and security by the Western countries on whose deliberately equivocal definitions and double standards they rely.

The Wikipedia provides a short unclear ‘definition’: ‘Nationalism is an ideology and movement that promotes the interests of a particular nation (as in a group of people) especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation’s sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland.’ This nebulous definition seems to equate a nation to a race, or an ethnic group, which is seeking to gain sovereignty over its ‘homeland’. The homeland of a nation is the distinct native country or area where that nation developed its unique civilization with its own language,and culture (way of living, values, arts, moral and spiritual traditions,etc) and over which it can legitimately claim and exercise sovereignty. Google.com dictionary offers the following, which sounds better than the above. It defines ‘nation’ as ‘a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory’. In this sense, the Sinhalese are a nation. They have a common descent, a recorded (written and epigraphic) history of over 2500 years, a language of their own that originated in the Sihela ‘deepe’ (island) and nowhere else, a unique culture fashioned by Theravada Buddhism, and their only homeland, which is their inalienable native land (the same ‘Sihela deepe’). Sinhalese nationalism is well founded and inclusive. A few fast disappearing Tamil racists like Sampanthan and Wigneswaran, a mere handful among the sensible minority Tamils who account for about 15% of the island’s population in terms of the 2011 census (Sri Lankan Tamils 11% + 4% Indian Tamils), are pushing for a separate state by devious means in the name of a Tamil nation and an exclusively Tamil homeland in the North and the East without any scientifically verifiable historical evidence to support them. But Tamils (15%) and Muslim (9.7%)  are dignified members of the single nation that Sri Lankans are, absolutely on par with the members of the majority Sinhalese community.

Tamils’ historical homeland is Tamilnadu or Tamil Land in South India, where they originated and where their unique Tamil Hindu culture evolved. Tamils, like the Muslims, live in every part of the island, mingled with other races, though less than half of all ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka are concentrated in the north and the east provinces. Wherever they live, it is the South Indian Hindu culture that characterises them. There were over 80 million Tamils in Tamilnadu last year (2019). There must be over 20 million more in countries around the world outside Tamilnadu. Ethnic Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and outside number just over 15 million, perhaps, and Sinhalese language speakers come only from Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese have never ever asked the minorities to depart from Sri Lanka because it is their (the Sinhalese’) original native land, and not theirs, the way Wigneswaran is demanding that the Sinhalese leave the North. They have always treated the Tamil minority with kindness, humanity, and equality except when the latter became aggressive instigated by the racist few among the sensible majority of Tamil politicians. 

Nationalists comprise all Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnicity or religious affiliation, though unsurprisingly, the majority of them are from among the Sinhalese. What they say or have been saying to dissenting Tamils is: Why talk about separate homelands? Sri Lanka is the common homeland of all of us. Let’s us remain as the one nation we are, in spite of our ethnic and other differences, occupying the same piece of land and breathing the same air above it and keeping abreast of the positive developments in the fast changing world outside. 

For the Sinhalese there is no difference between nationalism and patriotism. Generally, in the West, both terms are defined rather negatively. The Google.com definition of patriotism runs as follows: (patriotism is) ‘the quality of being patriotic; devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country’.  Among synonyms given are chauvinism and jingoism suggesting that patriotism could degenerate into such evil traits. The Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive and  a bit more positive explanation of the term: ‘Patriotism or national pride is the feeling of love, devotion and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with other citizens who share the same sentiment. This attachment can be a combination of many different feelings relating to one’s own homeland, including ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects. It encompasses a set of concepts closely related to nationalism’. For the Sinhalese, from their hoary beginnings, nationalism has been identical with patriotism. They have always fought for the motherland, that is, for preserving or regaining lost sovereignty over its territory. The modern nationalist slogan consists of the evocative triad ‘rata, jaatiya, aagama’ (country, nation, religion). The patriotic Sinhala scholar Kumaratunga Munidasa (1887-1944), the founder of the still operative Sinhala language study circle known as ‘Hela Havula’, introduced  the secular ‘triple gem’ of ‘desa, basa, raesa’ (country, language, nation). Not that he neglected the Buddha Sasana; he took that for granted in his personal dedication to the study of the Sinhala language and its literature in those dark days of foreign domination. Actually, at the beginning, he studied Pali and Sanskrit in order to become a Buddhist monk; but he had to give up the idea because of lack of parental assent. The ‘country’ came first in his case, too. Even today, while a handful of racists among Tamil and Muslim politicians talk exclusively about the interests of their own Tamil and Muslim people respectively, without any friendly reference to the majority communty among whom they live without suffering discrimination, the non-racist nationalists among the Sinhalese and minority politicians speak up for the country in the name of all, irrespective of ethnic and other differences. 

The fervent nationalist sentiments – rising with growing awareness among the youth connected through the You Tube about  their inestimable historical heritage – found graphic expression in the form of wall paintings across the country soon after the inauguration of president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in November 2019. Meanwhile, a young man named Nalaka Senadheera from Dedigama has initiated a voluntary movement for re-cultivating thousands of acres of previous paddy lands left fallow over the years in various parts of the country.  During the disastrous, nation-denying Yahapalanaya, its immoderate neoliberalist economic policies such as selling off invaluable national assets met with the passionate anger and disapproval of the nationalists. For Sri Lanka, this surge of nationalism is a very welcome development. It is independent and non-aggressive.

Not so with the Americans. Wherever they go, American leaders boast that their aim is promoting the American interest. This means they are nationalists, though they never explicitly admit they are. Instead they pretend nationalism in others to be a negative tendency. Our common experience is that their policy is exactly what the Google online dictionary definition says nationalism is, and what critics falsely accuse Sri Lankan nationalists of: ‘identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.’ The Sri Lanka traducers subtly imply that the Tamil minority is another ‘nation’ within island, thereby undermining the country’s communal unity. This demonstrates Americans’ double standards in respect of weaker nations like Sri Lanka that are expected to betray the interests of their own people to accommodate ‘American interests’!.

Linguist, philosopher, social critic, and political activist Noam Chomsky (‘Who Rules the World?’/Penguin Books, 2017) traces the source of the Americans’ current national security policy to the administration of president George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. It was a new national security strategy formulated in reaction to the fall of America’s global enemy the Soviet Union. Though the threat from Russia was fast becoming a thing of the past at the time, they  wanted to maintain ‘a military establishment almost as great as the rest of the world combined and far more advanced in technical sophistication…’, as Chomsky says, to defend against the growing technological sophistication of Third World powers! Chomsky adds in an aside: ‘Disciplined intellectuals understood that it would have been improper to collapse in ridicule, so they maintained a proper silence’.

The new policy, the writer further explains, insisted on the US maintaining its defense industrial base”. The phrase is a euphemism, according to Chomsky, for high-tech industry which heavily relies on large scale state intervention for research and development, often under Pentagon cover, in what continues to be called U.S. free-market economy”. The new plans had an interesting provision that had to do with the Middle East. It stated that Washington had to maintain intervention forces focused on a region of pivotal importance where the major crises could not have been laid at the Kremlin’s door” (as quoted by Chomsky in the book named above from National Security Strategy of the United States”, White House, March 1990). On this ridiculously vulgar fumbling about for an excuse for something base, Chomsky makes this comment: ‘Contrary to fifty years of deceit, it was quietly conceded that the main concern in this region was not the Russians, but rather what is called radical nationalism”, meaning independent nationalism not under U.S. control’.  

 Sri Lanka is not in the Middle East, but in what the Americans have recently chosen to call the Indo-Pacific region. Have America’s security strategies or its attitudes towards weaker nations changed for the better over the past thirty years? Most probably not. A leopard does not change its spots, as the local saying goes, though it may change its hunting grounds. Currently emerging revelations in international media show how the narrow self interest of fiercely nationalistic  America is plaguing the whole world. The moral of Chomsky’s narrative may be applied, with necessary alterations, to Sri Lanka’s current predicament vis-a-vis the global superpower in her desperate nationalist struggle to preserve her independence and sovereignty.

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