Let (us) not to the marriage of true minds – Admit impediments….
Posted on February 1st, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

The embryonic beginning of representative government in Sri Lanka occurred in 1833, just eighteen years into the British occupation of the whole of the country, with the establishment of the Legislative Council of Ceylon along with the Executive Council of Ceylon on the recommendations of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission. At the beginning, however, there wasn’t even a modicum of people participation in government, but there was a clear suggestion of the divide and rule policy of the British and the particularly discriminatory treatment of the majority community deemed necessary by the rulers for the purpose of putting them in their place and for ensuring a firm grip on their new ‘possession’. This is not to say that the other native Sri Lankans came to be treated any better, except when and where it served the colonialists’ selfish interests. The Legislative Council had 16 members six of whom were appointed, unofficial members. Three of these were Europeans, one Sinhalese, one Tamil, and one Burgher. (There was no seat for Muslims in this council.) The six unofficial members could take part in discussions, but could not contribute to the legislative process. After a staggered evolutionary history since then, the parliamentary system of government is today a mature adult.

With the recent presidential election result ensured by an array of diverse political groups and individuals whose coming within even hailing distance of one another would not have  been in our wildest dreams, we see that a certain possibility has turned into probability. The possibility is that of chances emerging for a successful national engagement with the minority-majority problem. Now the inescapable duty of the country’s leaders is to turn the possibility that has  become a probability into actuality. What I have in mind here is the possibility of all the minority and majority communities relinquishing or thoroughly modifying their hitherto unsuccessful, intransigent positions in order to work out a universally acceptable framework for resolving the national problem. It has to be something new that would be acceptable to all the people in the country. Instead of assigning communities to ethnic enclaves, traditional homelands etc. a new approach must be devised by consensus, and designed for a people inhabiting a single homeland that equally belongs to them all.

Personal development gurus advise us on how to transform personal and professional life by drawing on the principle of ‘thinking out of the box’. ‘The Art of Possibility’ by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (Peguin Books, 2000) deals with this principle. Novel, constructive ways of thinking liberate us from accustomed constrictive modes of trying to solve problems, allowing us to explore other possibilities, thereby increasing our chances of success. It is an infinitely desirable alternative to frustration in our personal and professional spheres. And I choose to extend the application of the art of possibility to our participation in public affairs (i.e. in the political sphere) with which we are concerned here. Instead of feeling frustrated and resorting to fratricidal violence in the face of our failure to resolve the longstanding  minority Tamil majority Sinhalese problem, we need to move out of the box into the promising land of limitless possibility.

But, what does it mean to think out of the box that is supposed to open infinite vistas of possibility? This needs some explaining: We humans are a highly evolved biological species and we possess the highest evolved brain among animals. But we haven’t transcended the processes of evolution; we are still subject to them, because we can’t escape biology; and these processes will go on until the end of time as far as we are concerned, unless we get completely wiped out from the face of the earth in some way before that. In sensory perception of reality, we are similar to other animals, though we are infinitely more complex: our brains are programmed to receive only those sensations that are critically needed for our ‘survival’ in the special sense that the term is used in biology; and our awareness of the environment is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only those sensations for which we have mental maps or categories or frameworks or paradigms (meaning the same thing). That is why scarcely any succeed in working out the answer to the well-known nine-dot puzzle.

To state the nine-dot puzzle verbally for those to whom it might be new: On a sheet of paper, draw nine dots arranged in three parallel rows, each dot equidistant from its neighbours (only nine dots altogether, three to a row, and you get a kind of box or square). What you have to do is to join the nine dots with only four straight lines without raising the pen or pencil from the paper. If you want to try this puzzle at this point before reading on, please do so. {Pause if necessary to do the experiment.} If you find it difficult to find the answer, let me give you a cue: your straight lines need not lie within the box/square; you can use the space outside it. If you are able to find the answer now, you know where the phrase ‘think out of the box’ comes from.

Given this puzzle, nearly everybody recognizes a flat square with a dot at each of the four corners, and tries to connect the dots within the square, ignoring the space around. This is because of the human mind’s inherent necessity to classify information into categories in order to perceive it. The brain establishes this arrangement of the dots as a box even though no box exists on the page, and gets stuck there. The abstract ‘box’ here is a framework or model that our minds create. Such paradigms define and restrict our perceptions. All problems, dilemmas, and dead ends that we encounter in our personal, professional, political, and social situations, that we think are unsolvable are seemingly so because they are framed within a certain set of assumptions or model (a paradigm) that doesn’t work. So, it is necessary to break free from that ‘box’, or enlarge it, and try the new opportunities that arise. Then the problems disappear. The popular phrase ‘paradigm shift’ refers to a striking or revolutionary change in such a model of perception.

Just as the tsunami disaster of December 2004 threw thousands of people in the affected areas in the same calamitous situation irrespective of their different ethnicities, social ranks and political ideologies, the overall result of the recent election, most representative presidential election ever held perhaps, has forced all Sri Lankans into a propitious state of shared expectancy about the future. The way we behaved during that catastrophic experience ten years ago demonstrated the best qualities inherent in our common culture: spontaneous fellow-feeling towards the affected and readiness to extend mutual support in the face of adversity. We showed generosity and kindheartedness towards those who needed help, humility and selflessness in the discharge of self-imposed responsibilities in relief work. Volunteers from the south visited the north and east on relief missions, similar workers from the north and east, including LTTE supporters visited the south with relief supplies. Of course, this reaching out to each other between the northern Tamil representatives and the southerners was an isolated event. That too occurred during a tenuous ceasefire agreement signed under less than ideal conditions in the country’s political landscape. There was no chance for the friendliness to be reasserted.

The current meeting of hearts and minds between the minorities and the majority under clearly fortuitous, even somewhat forced, circumstances must nevertheless be consolidated by the respective leaders, taking into consideration our common humanity and the brevity of time that we live on this earth for better or for worse. The Sinhalese majority on the one hand and the minorities (particularly the Tamils) on the other have always been labouring under a mutual ‘siege mentality’ that dates from the time early in the twentieth century when  the nationalist agitation for self-rule started in earnest. It is a fact that during the colonial times  minorities generally received preferential treatment (while, however, the masses were subjected to equal fairly apportioned dispossession and exploitation irrespective of their ethnicity). During the struggle for independence, some Tamil leaders opposed legislation that they believed would create conditions in which the Sinhalese would dominate. They were skeptical about their chances of securing their due under the Sinhalese. However much the Sinhalese leaders wanted to convince them that they were mistaken, they didn’t succeed in doing so. The Sinhalese started thinking that the minorities were constantly out to get them. After so many decades of fluctuating majority-minority relational fortunes, we are now arriving at a stage of political maturity in this regard, where we are wise enough to ‘ditch the box’ and launch into the land of promise, that is, possibility.

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