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In Memoriam Qadri Ismail: Limitations of Sri Lanka’s nationalisms

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by Rajan Philips

Qadri Ismail, Professor of English, Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, in the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, passed away recently. His death was sudden and shocking. Yet another Sri Lankan scholar, writer and activist has been prematurely snatched away. Everyone who reads Sri Lankan politics in English knows of Qadri Ismail. I hardly knew Qadri apart from his writings. I have met him only once, and that was in Minneapolis, in 2007. The backdrop to our meeting was the rather long review article I had written on Qadri’s (thesis) book: “Abiding by Sri Lanka: On Peace, Place and Post-coloniality.” The article was published in 2006, in The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities. I owe a debt of intellectual gratitude to Dr. Senath Walter Perera, now Emeritus Professor of English and the Journal Editor at that time, who invited me to review the book and then introduced me to Qadri. In keeping with the many themes that Qadri touched in his book, and following up on my recent articles on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1971 insurrection, it is appropriate that I write this sequel on the limitations of Sri Lanka’s three nationalisms as a homage to the memory of Professor Qadri Ismail.

 

Exceptional Accomplishments

It is also appropriate to highlight and celebrate Qadri’s exceptional accomplishments. He was an A’ Level science student who gained admission to the Medical Faculty to study Medicine. Instead, he turned down the admission to Medicine, changed course to pursue an Honours Degree in English, and completed it with a First Class in 1984. Qadri was only the second Sri Lankan to accomplish this feat. The first, nearly thirty years before Qadri, was Prof. Ashley Halpe who too gave up his admission to Medicine and went to on to secure a first in English. Halpe also topped the CCS (Ceylon Civil Service) examination after graduation, but chose university teaching over a career in the prestigious civil service. Qadri initially chose journalism and political activism over university teaching.

Beyond his vitriolic wit and irrepressible irreverence to customs and conventions, Qadri brought to bear a heightened commitment on what he wrote and what he did. The commitment to “read the world as structured hierarchically and to confront, contest and combat hierarchization, oppression and exploitation.” And to nurture the faith and optimism that “something that has never existed,” in Marx’s felicitous phrase, can be brought about.” He carried this commitment and hope to Columbia University, where he spent his graduate decade (1989-1998), the secular North American version of the old seminary, completing his M.A. and his Ph.D.

At Columbia, Qadri Ismail became probably the only Sri Lankan to be tutored by the two pioneer giants of postcolonial studies and scholarship, the great Edward Said and Gayathri Spivak. Qadri was a graduate assistant to Said, the pathbreaking Palestinian American scholar with “an unexceptionally Arab family name (and) … an improbably British first name.” Said was born to Arab Christian parents in pre-partition Jerusalem and later became an agnostic. Gayathri Spivak is the multi-lingual Bengali American scholar and a prominent figure in Subaltern Studies, who, Qadri charmingly acknowledges in his book, “quite simply, taught me how to read.” Perhaps true to his ‘doctor parents’, Qadri blossomed into a postcolonial scholar, writing his own script, in his own inimitable tone. The list of his writings and the thesis topics of graduate students whom he advised and/or examined at Minnesota, is indicative of his scholarly sweep and comparative breadth. His 2015 book “Culture and Eurocentrism,” according to the publisher’s note, challenges the “dominant default assumption” of “discrete” cultures, and contends that “culture … doesn’t describe difference but produces it, hierarchically.”

While at Columbia, Qadri wrote what I think is the first forceful formulation of the Muslim question in Sri Lanka: “Unmooring Identity: The Antinomies of Elite Muslim Self-Representation in Modern Sri Lanka,” that was published as a chapter in the 1995 symposium, “UnMaking the Nation,” that Qadri co-edited with Pradeep Jeganathan. What is unique about Qadri’s approach to the Sri Lankan national question is the demonstration of even handed forcefulness, namely, the assertion of “justice for the minorities,” on the one hand, and the commitment for “abiding by Sri Lanka,” on the other. There was a third dimension to Qadri’s commitments. To fiercely fight the sacred cows and bigotry within his own community and against the new fundamentalism of his old religion.

All of the above, Qadri fitted seamlessly within his generously global and passionately postcolonial perspective. A key part of that perspective was to aggressively question the colonial legacies of European enlightenment, manifested in everything that makes up Sri Lanka’s postcolonial polity and society – from the constitution to lopsided parliamentary representation, from quantitative privileging of the majority over qualitative parity with the minorities to inequitable socioeconomic development, and from the reactivation of old pre-colonial follies to their emergence in new postcolonial forms.

Qadri discursively envisioned a Sri Lanka “that has never existed” – one that can only experientially evolve and not be built by brick and mortar. A Sri Lanka, where nationalisms are neither celebrated nor dismissed; where identities are neither encouraged nor questioned; and where differences are neither created nor denied. Qadri challenged the formulation of Sri Lanka’s national question as a privileged contest between Sinhala hegemony and Tamil self-determination to the exclusion of everyone else, and asserted that both the formulation of the question and its resolution must involve the dissemination of justice and equality among all Sri Lankans, including the Muslims, the Upcountry Tamils, and the Christians. The perennial failure of the State to attend to these tasks has reduced this naturally resplendent island to a politically, and violently dysfunctional family of nationalisms for 30 years. The failure of the State is only one side of the political coin. The other is the limitations of Sri Lanka’s three nationalisms.

 

Limitations of Nationalisms

The limitations of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim nationalism have manifested themselves in their respective domains. Insofar as the three nationalisms are constrained to co-exist within a small island, the effects of these limitations have been generally to contain the excesses of these nationalisms. However, not always with significant success. While Sinhala nationalism is the most powerful of the three, its limitations can be seen in its inability to totally dominate, or crush, and eliminate the other two. In fairness, there are many Sinhalese and in critically sufficient numbers who do not approve of total domination or crushing of the Tamils and the Muslims. That in itself is a limiting counterweight to the more domineering instigators of Sinhala nationalism.

As for Tamil nationalism, its limitations and even losses have mostly surpassed its gains. But at every turn it has proved itself to be resilient and capable of regeneration. At the same time, just as much Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism cannot be eliminated from Sri Lanka, it cannot also overcome its ultimate limitation – that of having to find its due place within Sri Lanka. The Muslims, although they have been in the country like everyone else from the beginning of modernity and even before, are latecomers to the Sinhala-Tamil nationalist bickering. Their expectations are limited, and so their limitations are also immaterial. Yet, their arrival has not only transformed the debate but also widened the scope for finding potential accommodations.

The main contests of the three nationalisms have been in the arena of the state. In many political societies the emergence of the state facilitated the making of the nation. Hence the concept and experience of state-led nations and nationalisms. There was always the possibility of the postcolonial State of Sri Lanka spearheading the making of an inclusive nation along the lines that Qadri Ismail envisioned. That possibility is neither far fetched nor Utopian. However, the Sri Lankan experience has been not one of a unifying and inclusive experience of nation making. On the contrary, the experience has been the rejection of that possibility, and the virtual appropriation of the state by Sinhala nationalist forces and agendas to the exclusion of others. But even that appropriation has shown its limitations, for while the state was able to conclusively defeat the challenge of Tamil separatism, it is not able to override the non-separatist expectations of Tamil nationalism.

At another level, the 2019 Easter bombings exposed not any limitations but the sheer incompetence of the Sri Lankan state and its functionaries. And while the last government could not prevent the bombing in spite of prior warning, including warnings by the Muslim community itself, the present government seems unable to find out, let alone reveal, who all the masterminds behind the bombings were. More than incompetence, there are also conspiracy allegations of connivance between the elusive masterminds and high echelons of not just the last government, but the present government also. And in a historic role reversal from the 1960s when the government of the day brought the Catholic Church “to its knees” over ‘Catholic Action’, the Catholic Cardinal of today seems determined not to let the government pull the rug over criminal investigations.

A common feature of the emergence of nationalism(s) in Sri Lanka is the virtual absence of a significant economic base. The absence of a robust economy was a major factor in the developmental failure of an inclusive Sri Lankan nationalism. To the extent Sinhalese nationalism has appropriated the state, it has also appropriated the national economy. But time and again the state’s failure to come to equitable terms with the presence of Tamils and Muslims in the country, has also undermined its efforts to grow the economy even to its limited potentials. On the other hand, the economic underpinnings of the origins of Tamil nationalism were nothing more than grievances over government jobs, and later over depletion in university of admissions. At its highest stage, Tamil separatism rose over a veritable domestic economic vacuum. At the same time while the economic factor is a serious limitation on the extrapolations of Tamil nationalism, it is not going to be fatal to its continuing survival within Sri Lanka. It is fair to say that the Muslim community is more aware of the limitations of its nationalism, but it has become justifiably insistent that it cannot be indefinitely taken for granted.

The mechanics of the emergence of the three nationalism are to be found in the workings of Sri Lanka’s electoral democracy, the sociocultural structures of the three communities, and the robust assertions of their religious and linguistic inheritances. But nothing in the emergence or the mechanics thereof would suggest that the three nationalisms are inherently incompatible. The limitations of the nationalisms have prevented their excesses from becoming too excessive. The overarching role for integrating them can only be undertaken by the State of Sri Lanka. There is scarcely any sign that those currently running the State are aware of this task, let alone undertake it.



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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