Govt. initiatives to counter extremism can become counterproductive
by Jehan Perera
The draft resolution on Sri Lanka, sponsored by a group of countries, led by the United Kingdom, is to be put to the vote in Geneva. Key members of the government have been working very hard to ensure that the majority of countries in the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva, will give their support to Sri Lanka when the resolution comes to a vote. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa defied fears of the Covid pandemic to take the flight to Bangladesh. This despite the fact that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has tested positive, showing the dangers of international travel. The Prime Minister would have felt impelled to make the journey to secure that country’s support at the forthcoming vote. In the meantime, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a telephone call to the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, who praised the President for his willingness to reach out to international organisations and permitting Muslims, who die of Covid, to be buried.
However, a series of poorly-timed government proposals that have targeted the Muslim community appear to have alienated long standing allies of Sri Lanka, whose wholehearted support would be decisive in changing the direction of the vote. The three proposals – to ban the wearing of the burqa, to close down over a thousand Muslim madrasas, and to supplement the Prevention of Terrorism Act with a regulation that would enable government authorities to take actions to de-radicalise those who are considered to be veering to the path of extremism, will likely be seen in a negative light, internationally. The 57-member strong Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Pakistan, in particular, put out strongly worded statements that should serve as a wake-up call to the government that it is risking its relations with long standing allies and also the hope of obtaining their support in times of crisis.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation said that it “condemns Sri Lankan ministers’ statement to ban burqas and madrasas being violative of Art. 18 and 27 of ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) which guarantees minorities the right to freely profess, practise and manifest their religion.” During his conversation with President Rajapaksa the Secretary General of the OIC, Dr Yousef Al-Othaimeen reaffirmed the OIC’s determination to defend the rights of Muslims in all parts of the world. An even stronger statement was put out by Pakistan which said, “The likely ban on Niqab in Sri Lanka will only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe. At today’s economically difficult time due to pandemic and other image related challenges faced by the country at international fora, such divisive steps in the name of security besides accentuating economic difficulties, will only serve as fillip to further strengthen wild apprehensions about fundamental human rights of minorities in the country.”
It is unfortunate that the present government appears to be repeating the mistakes of previous governments in terms of an inability to take a consistent approach to governance. The government has been giving an impression of moving in fits and starts, with one step forward and another backwards on several occasions. In the aftermath of the international furor over its proposed laws, Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella referring to the burqa and madrasa ban said that it was a decision that required “consensus and consultations” and “It will be implemented with a consensus and consultations with Muslim organizations and leaders. We won’t rush through the proposal, since it is a serious issue.” The Foreign Ministry Secretary Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage has also voiced similar sentiments.
The fallout of lack of harmonization between different sections of the previous government led to the failure to prevent the Easter Sunday suicide bombings that had tragic consequences to hundreds of people who lost their lives or were maimed and to millions of people who suffered due to the collapse of the tourism industry. The massive majorities secured by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the present government at the last presidential and general elections was due to the desire of the electorate to vest power in a unified and coherent government.
The Easter bombings which generated a tidal wave of antipathy against the previous government also made the Muslim community become a target of suspicion. The three fold proposal for national security that a section of the government has put forward in the form of the burqa ban, closing down of a thousand madrasas and the new de-radicalisation law are targeted at the Muslim community. The de-radicalisation law is particularly pernicious as it will enable public officials to detain persons they suspect of preparing for violence or spreading of disaffection between communities and have them sent off to rehabilitation centres without a trial. Such a law could be misused heavily.
Today, members of the Muslim community live in considerable fear of being taken into custody on charges of fomenting extremism. According to the government, a total of 676 persons were arrested in connection with the Easter attacks, of them 202 remain in remand custody, 66 have been detained for questioning and 408 released on bail, yet investigations on them are continuing. Rasheed Hajjul Akbar, who headed the Jamaat-e-Islami organisation for 24 years, until last September 2019, was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) recently. He was also arrested after the Easter bombing and released after being questioned for several weeks. The social service worker was arrested for allegedly promoting extremism in the country. According to the police, he was publishing articles in a magazine published by the Jamaat-e-Islami organisation to promote Wahhabism and Jihadist ideology in Sri Lanka.
Jamaat-e-Islami is organised on lines such as the YMCA or Sarvodaya and with a similar social mission of uplifting the lives of those who are its members, both in terms of morality and in social empowerment. It was established in 1954 and works on promoting values, peace and harmony, alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. Organisations such as this are part of the mainstream of Sri Lankan society and should not be driven to the margins. Laws, such as the proposed burqa ban, closing of a thousand madrasas and the de-radicalisation law are likely to generate resentment which is the breeding ground of extremism. The government needs to reconsider all three proposed laws as overbroad and not in keeping with the ethos of a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society that Sri Lanka truly is, or for that matter any democratic country.
In addition, those government spokespersons, proposing legislative changes or making public statements, need to take care not to add to the polarization of communities at political and religious levels. They need to also permit public discussion on concepts such as Wahabism, Thowheed and Jihad, and the different interpretations of them as befits a modern society. It is extremism and violence in particular that need to be countered and not the plurality of ideas. Those who wish to be true national leaders need to empathise with the feelings and aspirations of minority communities in addition to that of the majority to protect the country from extremism rather than to set in motion a vicious cycle that can only benefit the extremists, on all sides, to the detriment of the country’s development and unity.
Murders, exhumations, sacking: hence never a dull day in Paradise
Greatly saddened and given to discussion were Cass and her batch of friends on reading about the death of a 42-year-old Tamil domestic servant come to slave in a rich home in Colombo to support her very poor family in far-away Badulla. She worked at the home of teledrama producer cum businesswoman Sudharma Nethicumara. We have seen and read about this near socialite who was often featured in newspapers, and who, some time ago, invited the then First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa as chief guest for a film event.
The very unfortunate servant was accused of stealing a gold ring of Mrs Nethicumara’s. We friends imagined how in high dudgeon the rich lady would have summoned the police pronto and ordered the arrest of the by now petrified with fear ‘Letchimi’. That was on May 11. We wonder whether she was even questioned before she was forced away; guilty before proven thus on the word of the powerful employer. Cass makes bold to add the epithet ‘heartless’ here. And now three poor innocent children are without their mother.
The woman died after being admitted to hospital having complained she suffered difficulty in breathing. The life of a young mother given to compensate for a lost ring which could very well have been misplaced by the owner and not been stolen. Power, influence, greed, affluence – against stark poverty, ignorance and helplessness with no one to intervene. The IGP ordered the Police Special Investigation Unit to conduct an investigation; this prompted by suspicion raised by the Tamil woman’s relatives and other parties, the newspaper reported. Were the ‘other parties’ good Samaritans moved like Cass and her friends by this sad tragedy?
We hope against hope that the enquiry will proceed justly and equitably with no giving into political or money clout. Also, if the woman was found to have succumbed to injuries, won’t the employer too have to be investigated? Some remedial steps have been taken. A Sub Inspector, two Police Sergeants and Constable have been interdicted and three other police officers including two women transferred. But the crux of the matter is the result of investigation into the cause of death of the woman.
Messengers found guilty The Island
of Tuesday May 23 carried the following headline “State Minister won’t be probed” with subheading: “Allowing Chinese carrying two passports to enter SL.” Monday’s TV news elaborated on this story: a Chinese person presented himself at the Katunayake Intl Airport Immigration Desk with two passports and when questioned, the Chinese turned unruly. As a TV newsreader reported: State Minister of Urban Development and Housing, Arundika Fernando, had allegedly intervened in the matter and requested the Chinese be allowed to enter the country.
Public Security Minister, Tiran Alles, announced at a media briefing that the immigration officers at Katunayake who were involved in the fracas would be questioned and dealt with suitably. When questioned about the State Minister Arundika Fernando’s involvement and probably being guilty of influencing the immigration officers, Minister Alles replied: “regardless of representations made by politicians, or anybody else, including the media, public officials have to carry out their duties and functions properly.
” Of course yes, but how about being coerced by a politician to act contrary to rules. Public officials are harassed by unscrupulous politicians and they do as told to save their jobs. Additionally how can a person who influenced the incorrect decision go scot free? He too is guilty. But we in this fair Isle invariably see the hapless messengers being caught, quartered and even slaughtered and interfering politicians and those with clout going completely free: the sender of the message escapes all censorship.
Another exhumation leading to … probably nothing
Courts have allowed the exhumation of the laid-to-rest body of Dinesh Schafter on May 25 to help investigators into his suspicious death in hospital after he was found strangled in his car in the deserted Kanatta cemetery premises. The death of this very humane businessman just before he enplaned for Britain sent shock waves around the country. Now another sacrilege. Bearable by his family and millions of Sri Lankans if some solid evidence is found to determine the cause of his death/brutal murder. We feel doubly sad about this bit of news since we are, justifiably sceptical and doubtful about the usefulness of this disturbance to a body laid to rest.
Cass says she is sceptical and yes without hope that the case will be brought to a close with the discovery of how he died, who murdered him and importantly who ordered the murder. It could prove how he was suffocated. Or, it could even prove he took his life, as rumour had it. But Cass repeats she is doubtful the case sees closure so that family, friends and even persons like Cass can feel sadness at the death but heave sighs of relief that the murderer/s and instigators are identified and will face due justice.
Scepticism, the lack of hope and doubts are because of sure-fire cases where exhumations proved useless, just further trauma to loved ones and disturbance to the dead. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s body was exhumed on Sept 27, 2016, seven years after his terrible assassination. Was there closure? Were the murderers and those who gave orders to murder named, blamed and punished? The same questions are asked about Wasim Thajudeen, whose body was exhumed on August 10, 2015. In this case, it was almost drawn to an end after much had happened before, including evidence made to disappear, etc. Then kaput.
What happened? To Cass’ jaundiced eye, ear, mind and the sense organs of millions of others, the intention to exhume was good; evidence would have been collected but within this evidence prominent names would have surfaced. So, a quick retreat; no more investigation, case closed again. All this suffering and no peace to even the dead, sorry – murdered. VVIP names must have cropped up. So shut the case immediately. Is it going to be a repetition with the case of much respected and much loved Dinesh Shafter?
Speak independently and out you go!
The Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) – Janaka Ratnayake – has been in hot water with his Minister and the government on various issues; even debarred from his own office, it being sealed and placed out of bounds. But he battled on. His latest ‘crime’ has been his criticising the electricity tariffs and saying that a 27% reduction could easily be implemented. Now, his continuing in his position is being debated in the public domain and scheduled for debate in Parliament on May 24. Cass lauds the Opposition parties who support Ratnayake and will vote against the motion brought forth in Parliament. She hurrrays the MPs who have spoken for the Chairman PUCSL. He seems to be one official who does what needs to be done in the service of the people and is no slipper licker or even Sir-er of those in power. May the nay votes exceed the SLPP aye votes for his dismissal from his post.
Indians and of Indian descent in the news
Prime Minister Modi has been given a rousing welcome to Australia and he will speak to a hugely packed audience in Sydney. The thought that flashes through the mind is that we were streets ahead of India just three decades ago. While India is being courted internationally and Modi feted, Sri Lanka is looked askance as a failed state; sparingly assisted and its people suffering immensely while those who pushed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean to penury and begging are continuing to live luxurious lives and bubbling with hope for future power.
If you watched Rishi Sunak among top leaders of the world at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima and heard him deliver his address excellently, you would have shared pride with him and his Indian ancestors as a co-South Asian. But he faces a problem at home.
The Home Secretary of Britain, Suella Braverman, also of Indian descent, has landed herself in another tight spot and people of her own Party and others are thirsting for her blood; demanding she be relieved of her Cabinet post. She was caught speed driving and given a ticket which entailed she attend driving classes or sessions. She tried dodging it by sending an aide instead of her or to have the lessons on–line. No, and outing were the answers. She was made to leave by Ms Truss when she was PM for another misdemeanour. Then with Rishi Sunak succeeding her, he got Suella into his Cabinet. Now he faces the music and has to make a very difficult decision.
A spot of obscenity
Janet Daley writes in the Daily Telegraph of May 13: “America’s dream is dying. That is why Trump may still win. Class mobility is what built the United States. This is no more. The ex-president is master at channelling the anger of those left behind.” She goes on to make herself better understood, and I quote: “Among all the absurd delusional things that Donald Trump has said in his second incarnation as a prospective president, there is one statement which should – by all standards of conventional wisdom – have put an end to his campaign.
In his deposition for the civil case in which he was found guilty of sexually assaulting E Jean Carroll, he was asked to comment on the notorious Access Hollywood tape in which he is heard to say that powerful men were able to ‘grab women’ in their genitals (he used another word) with impunity. He explained that this was simply a historical truth: for millions of years it had been the case that male ‘stars’ could do whatever they wanted to women – and then he added ‘unfortunately or fortunately’…
Can you imagine any American politician (let alone a presidential candidate) or public figure – any celebrity in any sphere – saying that without his career being vapourised? So what is going on? There is clearly a significant proportion of the American population that not only rejects the Liberal consensus but is so enraged by it that it will enthusiastically support views that are brazenly offensive.”
No different in Sri Lanka with male dominance and license to act grossly. On that dubious note, Cass says bye for another week
Popular Sinhala Cinema – III – Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
by Laleen Jayamanne
( Continued From Wednesday)
The Multi-Ethnic fan base
Gamini Fonseka, who introduced action (fights) with a new image of proletarian muscular masculinity into Sinhala cinema, was loved by both the Sinhala and Tamil male films fans for those reasons. His film Sarungale, where he played a rather sedentary Tamil Clerk (he spoke Tamil), was especially significant in this cross-cultural context. I read an account of how Tamil fans surrounded him on a platform once, when he got off the Jaffna train to stretch his legs, while returning from the film shoot there. He is that rare Sinhala artiste who spoken of wanting to appeal to the Tamil audience as well.
I have read that Gamini visited Tamil cinema halls with his cinematographer to observe the responses of the fans to Indian super stars. The super star Gamini Fonseka’s film persona as well as his ethical values must be remembered here. When Gunaratnam was murdered there was fear that it was too dangerous to attend his funeral as one might also be targeted by the JVP. Siva Sivanathan who worked for Gunaratnam described how Gamini insisted on walking in the funeral procession with the family, to honor this visionary film producer who had contributed greatly to the development of Lankan cinema and industrial development more broadly and built so many bridges between the North and the South.
Siva Sivanandan’s long experience as a film director and distributor for Gunaratnam was appreciated by Nihalsinha, the General Manager of the SFC who then hired him as Assistant General Manager of the vital revenue generating distribution wing of the new institution. He worked with great success for ten years, before emigrating to Canada with his family. Somasiri Munasinghe, in his tribute to Svianandan after his recent death, says that he left behind a whole library of publications, rare journals, news-paper clippings, etc, all linked to the Lankan film industry and multi-ethnic history from its beginning.
In another country this invaluable collection would have been swiftly obtained by a university library in the interest of future research. I am hoping that it’s still not too late for this to happen through a Lankan University. If that were to happen and along with oral history interviews with the several generations of older journalists who grew up with those film songs and films or rediscovered them laters, then we might get a more nuanced understanding of what has been achieved by our robust and dedicated multi-ethnic artists and technicians, working together under great odds.
Understanding the historical diversity of Lankan popular hybrid traditions of mass culture especially, can offer a corrective to the darker and violently self-destructive actions of virulent Sinhala Nationalism pursuing cultural purity and burning down cinemas and studios owned by Tamils and in the process also destroying a large number of their own Sinhala films stored in these very studios.
These acts of profound violence are not simply the work of crazed mobs, as some say. They are simply the impoverished, poorly educated lumpen proletariat mostly, given electoral roles identifying Tamil property. They are the weaponised end in a long chain of command, activated by nationalist state policies and ideology of an ethno-nationalist state. This deeply rooted ideology treats minorities as second class citizens, a threat to the majority and therefore not part of the culture.
Sound of Pure Sinhala Bera
Ethnomusicological research into Lankan music, by foreign scholars and locals alike tend to follow the official ethno-nationalist narrative of a ‘Pure, Original Sinhala’ sound, say as in Kandyan drumming. It is then differentiated from the Southern, more hybridised Yakbera, for example. The researchers almost completely ignore the decisive influence of mass culture (Nurti plays, the vast reach of radio, gramophone records, films, cassettes, Television and the digital technology) in creating hybrid sonic worlds in this small island nation from the early 20th Century for over one hundred years.
The intellectual and political project of creating ‘pure traditions or apema sindu, rendered in the one correct, pure accent, (swara) of the Sinhala folk, their language and religion or music and films, ends up freezing traditions from evolving. Traditions need replenishing by being open to outside influences. Sound, even more than language itself, is fluid, never stable, given that the speed of sound (though not as fast as light), has the power to instantly penetrate us and vibrate our very nervous system directly like our drumming does.
It’s important to remember the historically informed important words of W.D. Amaradeva who, as a young violinist named Albert Perera, went to India with Baig Master and others to record music for Asokamala. This exposure led him to spend five years in India studying classical vocal raga music and the violin with a guru. It is after this rigorous training that he reinvented himself as Amaradeva. He said:
“Although we had a good folk culture, we did not have a developed musical tradition of our own. We did not have local musical instruments to play a melody even though we had a rich percussion tradition in Sri Lanka in the form of bera (drums).
But all instruments like the sitar, tabla and violin came from other countries. I wanted to fill this void. So, I started composing music for my country […] yet one cannot help being influenced by other types of music as well”.
Ranjith Kumara informed us that Baig Mater’s singing of Siri Buddhagaya was regularly heard all over the country, across villages and towns during Vesak and Sinhala new year festivities, played on the humble cassettes or blaring out on microphones at dansalas. Unlike Rukmani Devi’s voice, Baig Master’s voice was unmistakably accented with sonic traces of his mother tongue Urdu. And it remained so to the end. Would it not also be good then to hear Rukmani Devi sing that one Tamil song she is said to have recorded in a Tamil film and also hear Baig Master sing in Urdu or Tamil or HIndi (if there is a recording), during a national festive occasion? Perhaps at the Fourth of February independence celebration at Gall Face; a hybrid sonic gesture of reconciliation sanhindiyawa, mingling with the sounds of the Indian ocean.
After all, Baig Master did sing in Sinhala, at the 1948 Independence Day celebrations, with a sense of freedom in the air. This contemporary idea of ‘reconciliation’ was first created in South Africa after the white supremacist apartheid regime was defeated. But there was an allied concept essential to it, namely, ‘truth- telling’. The African leadership with Nelson Mandela thought there could be no reconciliation after such racial violence, without also acknowledging it truthfully and redressing the violence.
A Few Home-Truths
1.Sinhala Nationalists protested when the then Education Minister Badiuddin Mohamed arranged Baig Master to sing at the Non-Aligned Conference, saying he was not a Sinhala-Buddhist. When the minister threatened to resign, Mrs Bandranayake permitted him to sing to the gathering of world leaders among whom were Colonel Gaddafi, and other Arab and African Muslim leaders who received his Bodu Gee warmly.
2. When Baig Master performed for the Pakistani President Zia Ul Hak, he was so impressed that he wanted to take him back to Pakistan. When President Premadasa declined the offer, Zia arranged a tour in Pakistan for Master Baig.
3. He lived in a tiny overcrowded house and slept on the floor for forty years. As he lay dying in hospital, consoling his son Ishak, he had noted lightly that he finally had a bed!
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that D.S. Senanayaka (who later became the first Prime Minister), was the chief guest at the premier of Kadawuna Poronduwa (in January 1947 at the Kingsley cinema), as Minister of Agriculture and Lands and also Leader of the House under the State Council system of governance during the last stages of British rule. His presence along with business leaders denoted the importance of the event for Ceylon on the cusp of independence. Rukmani Devi, Eddie and BAW Jayamanne brothers and Mr Nayagam were celebrated for having dared to have produced the first film in Sinhala, under daunting conditions in India.
While the critics deplored the film’s dependence on Indian genres, the people, more receptive, gathered to see and hear it. It was screened in four cinemas in Colombo and in a large number of outer suburbs, while in Kandy, bus-loads of people arrived to view this historic film in a tent specially erected for the screening. Political patronage, Tamil entrepreneurship, Sinhala intellectual high disdain and robust popular mass appeal, were the jostling forces at play with the arrival of a multi-ethnic Lankan cinema and its film culture.
The journalist-cinephiles on the ITN programs were unanimous in their view that both Rukmani Devi and Baig Master did not receive the care and support they deserved as figures of national (and even Indian) recognition, especially during the vulnerable later stages of their lives. While issuing stamps in their honour is a good thing, it is quite insufficient, given the magnitude of the reach of their haunting voices which still resonate politically as well. But Amaradeva and others who created a Sinhala light classical tradition, combining the rich Indian raga melodic patterns with folk songs, received generous state patronage.
Baig Master’s song Buddhan Saranan Gachchami, with lyrics by Karunarathne Abeyesekera and music by Anil Bishwar (an Indian), was 12 mins and 45 seconds long and was first performed in the Hindi film Angulimala, funded by the Thai government. In Ceylon, it was dubbed into Sinhala and the local version of the song commissioned by Gunaratnam. The film was a major success and the song, one of the most frequently requested on Radio Ceylon, according to Ariyasiri Withanage.
He associated with him and arranged the many song recitals at which Master Baig was a popular attraction right across the Sinhala areas of the country, where most of the shows opened with this devotional song. Of the many Bodu Gee he sang this was the favourite. Some Buddhist priests valued him and engaged with him and attended his funeral. This singular song, a collaboration among Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist artists of India and Lanka, is an example of what can be created when we abandon the stifling dead-end idea of ‘cultural purity’ promulgated by the ethno-nationalist state.
Listening now (after the Aragalaya), to the voices of Rukmani Devi and Baig Master singing love duets and shoka gee in those sweetly naive films (Sarala chithrapata) of the early Sinhala cinema just might resonate in a different way (if freed of high critical disdain), suggestive of our intricate cultural interconnections with India.
Al Haj Mohideen Baig and Rukmani Devi, in their highly skilled capacity to cross-sonic traditions and cultures and create hybrid fields of music touching our hearts and minds (hurda gochara and bhuddhi gochara songs, in the wonderful coinage of Ranjan de Silva), are exemplary artists for a confidently multi-ethnic Lanka open to the many creative influences of the sonic worlds at large. (Concluded)
New wine in old bottles: Anthropologising Sinhala middle-class
By Uditha Devapriya
Although it has always been something of a passing interest, anthropology has figured in my travels, studies, and writings over the last five years. My focus over these years has narrowed down to five areas: the different meanings that categories like race and ethnicity have acquired from the early historical period to the contemporary moment; the social, cultural, and political transformations of the colonial era, specifically the British Period and more specifically the early and middle British Periods; the folk revival of the mid-20th century, as exemplified by the work of Sunil Santha; the modern artistic and cultural movement, revolving around if not centring on the 43 Group; and the transformation or one could say transfiguration of social values that accompanied and continues to accompany the entry of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie to elite institutions.
Of these I would say that while the first four topics have engaged scholarly interest for years, if not decades, the fifth has not quite attracted the same interest. This may be because the topic is far more recent than the others. The Sinhala middle-class’s entry to elite institutions, specifically schools and the public sector or civil service, has been a fairly recent phenomenon: it can be dated, if at all, to the post-1956 period, when the language and education reforms undertaken by both SLFP and UNP governments – the former more than the latter – enabled a petty bourgeoisie to rise, if not to the top, then to the middle ranks of organisations that had been the preserve of a colonial elite and Anglicised middle-class for almost one and a half centuries.
My interest in this area grew because of two reasons. First, as a freelancer covering various school and commercial events, I inadvertently came face to face with people, particularly students and middle level executives and employees, whose values one simply could not associate with the history and character of the institutions they represented. That the most elite of schools in Colombo had sizeably non-English speaking populations did not, of course, come as a shock to me, yet it more or less fascinated me because of how such institutions continue to be associated with elite milieus and social classes. The reality is obviously much more different and complex, a fact I had to grapple with when it came to commercial firms and the country’s civil service as well.
Second, my travels to villages and far-flung communities in the country opened me up to the immense complexity of the social relationships, values, and mores governing them, and how far removed the reality these communities live through every day is from what is usually assumed or one could say imagined about them. Steven Kemper ends the last chapter of his brilliant study of advertising in Sri Lanka by recounting the lives and details of two families from suburban Colombo.
One of these families trace their roots to Kandy, but have shifted to Colombo because one of their sons obtained admission to Royal College through a scholarship exam. Kemper, outsider though he is, grasps the significance of this achievement: the son, in effect, becomes for his parents a link to the city, and all that it represents. The upward aspiring Sinhala petty bourgeoisie has gained its place in the sun because elite institutions, in essence, have been opened for them.
Whether one can reduce such phenomena to the dynamics of a social milieu in pursuit of social advancement is of course highly debatable. My argument is that this is a two-way process: elite institutions have become more accessible for the petty bourgeoisie, and the petty bourgeoisie has become the new elite. They are, in effect, the new kingmakers: they have voted and brought to power both neoliberal and nationalist parties and presidential candidates. This places them in an interesting conundrum. Numerically they are stronger and more representative of the country than the elites that preceded them, but their willingness to adapt to and adopt elite attitudes has distanced them from the vast multitude of their countrymen. They are, in other words, conscious of their kinship with those below them on the social scale and their subservience, so to speak, to the urban middle-classes above them. In his introduction to Gamanaka Mula, Gunadasa Amarasekara critiques Martin Wickramasinghe for having focused more on the colonial bourgeoisie than the Sinhala middle-class. But Wickramasinghe does examine the latter in his Koggala Trilogy, and what is more examines their contradictory position in the colonial social order, specifically in the character of Aravinda, Malin Kabilana’s friend in Yuganthaya.
20th century Sinhala literature has not, I think, given us a more concrete, flesh-and-blood archetype of the Sinhala middle-class, with the pressures and paradoxes that continue to assail it even today, than Aravinda. In Yuganthaya Aravinda serves as a conscience for Malin Kabilana. But instead of appealing to Kabilana’s better instincts, Aravinda serves as a vessel for the colonial bourgeoisie.
At one point he implores Kabilana to abandon his radical politics and return to his father Simon’s class. In one particularly memorable and evocative episode – evocative in a Proustean sense – Aravinda smokes a cigar and dreams of living in a house in the Cinnamon Gardens. By this point we have been told of the immense hardships and difficulties his father had to wade through to educate his son and ensure a position for him. Yet Aravinda is not shown as bad or indifferent: he prescribes medicines free of charge for his villagers, to his father’s consternation.
Aravinda’s dilemma remains emblematic of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie both of his time and ours. This has spilt over to the cultural sphere as well, sometimes profoundly. Here the contradiction is between the cultural values on which the Sinhala rural petty bourgeoisie have been raised and the avowedly secular or non-Buddhist heritage of the elite institutions that have been opened for them. Perhaps no better example illustrates this more, for me, than a recent complaint, written by an Old Boy of an elite school and published in a prominent newspaper, that his school was becoming less secular and more ‘Sinhalised” and “Buddhicised.” These are pertinent concerns, especially in light of lingering fears of Sinhalisation and Buddhicisation in the country’s north and east.
Given these concerns, one is compelled to sympathise with the writer. But one is also forced to recognise the inevitability of such transformations, at a time when a mostly Sinhala and Buddhist petty bourgeoisie has entered these institutions. There is in any case an interesting afterword to this episode. When shown the article, a younger student from this same elite school, who is by his own definition a fervent Buddhist, questioned whether his school remained the preserve of the elite or whether it was a “school for the best.” He obviously associated “the best” with his milieu, the Sinhala and Buddhist middle-classes who have obtained entry to these institutions through merit-based examinations and assessments. His next point was even more interesting: that the best invariably are bringing with them what he calls “rural cultural values”, and that these, in effect, were shifting his school from its secular origins to a much more culturalised establishment.
Sociologists and anthropologists working in Sri Lanka, who are studying the Sinhala and Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, should I think take note of these observations. These should ideally form the basis of a study, a study that to me remains as relevant for our time as it is for all time, and indeed for all societies: the transformation of elite institutions at the hands of a nascent, emergent middle-class, in effect the new elites of countries such as ours.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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