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Race, class, and Wigneswaran’s historiography­

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By Uditha Devapriya

Former Chief Minister Wigneswaran made two remarks at the commencement of the 16th parliament. First he contended that Tamil is the oldest surviving language, presumably in the world. Then he contended that the Tamil people are this country’s original inhabitants. Since I do not know much Tamil, I am not sure whether something got lost in the translation provided by the TV channels and news outlets which broadcast the parliamentary session. In any case, this essay should not be construed as a refutation or an endorsement of what the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province, now an MP from a splinter group of what was not too long ago the dominant political party in that region, said.

Regarding MP Wigneswaran’s first assertion, all I can say is there’s much evidence for his view. He is certainly not the first South Asian politician to make such a claim, nor will he be the last. In September last year at the UN General Assembly, for instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Tamil “the most ancient language in the world.”

Spoken by more than 70 million people, including the present CEO of Google, Tamil has gone on record as the first language with its own grammar guide: Tolkāppiyam, reputedly published in 2500 BC. As one scholar remarked, “who can publish a book on grammar when other languages were in trouble [just] to shape out their alphabets?”

Archaeological evidence points at a considerably old, rich history, with different estimates for the age of the language. On the border between Madurai and Sivangangai in Tamil Nadu, for instance, is the village of Keezhadi, where excavations made around seven years ago have been dated by historians at between the fifth century BC and third century AD. The remains of earthen urns in Adichanallur and Kodumudi, on the other hand, tell us of a history that goes back 2,000 to 2,500 years. A stone inscription in Thanjavur, more than 160 kilometres from Kodumadi, hints at a linguistic history spanning 10,000 years. There is much debate about which came first, Tamil or Sanskrit, but the popular view is that since it used Sanskrit rather sparingly in its early days, Tamil came first.

Does this validate or vindicate ex-Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s second assertion? It really depends on how you look at it. I assume, given the emphasis he puts on it, that when he talks about Tamils being the original inhabitants of the country, the ex-Chief Minister and now MP is seeing them in racial terms. Thus a long history of 2,500 years, if we are to take the Adichanallur-Kodumadi remains as our foundation, is reduced to a single community, a single race, bearing the same characteristics then as now, and presumably harbouring the same aspirations. This is something even those on the other side, i.e. the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist crowd, do: assume that a racial community, as it stands today, stood in the same light from its inception. That is how films and novels projecting Sinhala or Tamil nationalist narratives pit one race against the other, as though every historical battle involving these communities was exactly that: one race versus another.

When we make such assumptions, we automatically graft modern day labels and epithets on a past that is as elusive as it is ineffable. This view of the past, paraphrasing R. A. L. H. Gunawardana in his groundbreaking essay “The People of the Lion”, happens to be moulded by contemporary ideology, so much so that popular works of art based on what happened 2,000 years ago use such terms as “demala” and “sinhalaya” broadly, crassly, and carelessly, without accounting for the specific historical context in which they were uttered, written down, and recorded, even by monks and priests.

The writings of those who critique Sinhala nationalism can just as well be used to critique Tamil nationalism. H. L. Seneviratne in a lecture delivered at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in 2002 (titled “Buddhism, Identity, and Conflict”) observed that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Dutugemunu-Elara conflict was “more complicated than is generally understood in the nationalist reading of the Mahavamsa.” He cited Gunawardana for this view, having noted earlier that in ancient Sri Lanka, “there were Sinhalas who were not Buddhists and Buddhists who were not Sinhalas.” It is only fair to apply this to the Tamil community as well: after all, Dutugemunu’s army had soldiers of Tamil extraction, just as Elara’s army had those of Sinhala extraction. Unfortunately, for some reason or the other, while many Sinhala scholars are willing to take up the cudgels against nationalists spouting historical myths, not many Tamil scholars seem to do so.

It would be better to accept the available historical evidence and go on believing that the evolution and growth of identity and group consciousness in Sri Lanka was less moulded by race and religion than what scholars from both sides of the divide suggest. In the service of historians, nationalism turns out to be a petty bourgeois ideology, representing the interests of a stunted middle class searching for more room in a diminishing economic space. It is this ideology that goes into the production of big budget historical epics, and it is this ideology that both Tamil and Sinhala nationalists alike propound.

To put it briefly, identities never evolved as races; they evolved as lineages, which in turn were rooted in occupations and professions rather than ethnicity. For instance, the Brahmi inscriptions, of which there are many in Sri Lanka and India, emphasise a donor’s station in life: Kaboja, Milaka, Dameda, Barata, and so on. Moreover we have Yaksha, Naga, Vedic, and Puranic inscriptions, and they all allude to the status of their authors, their families, and their occupations. The Puranic inscriptions in particular tell us of pre-Buddhist religious cults that revolved around Vishnu and Siva, which lends credence to G. P. Malalasekara’s view that as a monarch, Vijaya was tolerant of all faiths.

Significantly, not a few of the inscriptions include the terms “upasika” and “upasaka”, denoting what could be the beginnings of a religious identity. But this is at best peripheral. I have written on these inscriptions in an essay elsewhere, where I attempted to trace the contours of Sinhala nationalism in the 20th century to the Hela Havula’s historiography, as seen for instance in their view that Kuveni’s act of spinning a wheel at the time of her first encounter with Vijaya showed that, prior to the Indo-Aryan colonisation, there had been a flourishing, advanced civilisation here.

It is dangerous to rely on such literal interpretations of historical texts. Even more dangerous is to deconstruct the narrative in such texts in terms of contemporary notions of ethnicity. Mervyn de Silva, in one of his last essays, prophetically noted that “in this age of identity, ethnicity walks on water.” This has always been the case. To contend otherwise would be to read into the meanings of words and epithets, and to claim, as ex-Chief Minister Wigneswaran does, that this country was inhabited originally by one race or community. What results from such a crass reading of these texts are thus not historical documents, but alternative histories and worse, exclusivist narratives.

That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Racism and racialism are not products of Western civilisation and they are not its preserve either. But race as is understood today was certainly the product of two Western trends: imperialism and orientalism. The term itself dates, in Europe, from the 16th century onwards: the era of Hobbes, Locke, and later, Montesquieu, the likes of whom actively sought to prove that democracy, the rights of the individual, and sovereignty did not apply to dark-skinned and “inferior” people. The work of William Jones, who tried to show the link between Sanskrit and European languages, must be cited here, as must that of Max Müller, who claimed superiority for Indo-Aryan culture and provided the ideological rung for the Nazi ladder.

The end result of it all was, as Vinod Moonesinghe correctly noted many years ago in this paper, that the British, subsequent to their occupation of this country, played up the divide-and-rule game by trying to prove that the Sinhalese (“Aryans”) belonged to a superior race and Tamils (Dravidians) were of a lesser order: a tactic which boomeranged spectacularly when Sinhala elites used this logic against the British themselves.

I mentioned this as the tip of the iceberg. Why? Because when we talk about race so crudely and simplistically, we not only forget that they meant completely different things to people from centuries ago, we also lay aside the fact that any talk of race must necessarily be at the expense of class, undoubtedly most pervasive social division today.

Thus those opposed to Sinhala nationalism claim that there has always been systematic discrimination by Sinhala people, of all backgrounds, against the Tamil community, failing to distinguish between the lower and the higher ends of the social hierarchy. When it is made clear that under British rule the two most discriminated communities were Indian plantation workers (Tamil) and Kandyan peasants (Sinhala), academics argue that the Kandyan peasant was not as marginalised as the evidence points out, simply by virtue of the fact that he had elite backing. Thus Mick Moore writes of a “Sinhalese myth of the plantation impact”, while Vijaya Samaraweera writes of “nationalist political leaders.” What is forgotten here is that class can often, if not more often than not, override ethnicity.

One of the many things I agree with Marx is his view that agrarian communities can be collectively considered as a class in itself (rather than a class for itself, since it did not in the beginning have representation). This is certainly applicable to the Sinhala peasant, which often makes me wonder why it is that we don’t read Marx more.

The truth was that class, and caste, determined the fortunes of political representatives and elites from that era. The class limitations of the colonial bourgeoisie, despite their supposed liberalism and support for the peasantry, can be seen in the fact that they vetoed proposals for universal franchise and, later, free education: proposals which, if implemented in full, would have had their biggest impact on the peasantry.

Their nationalism, as with their reformism, was limited by their economic interests. “They were men acting in the interests of their classes,” wrote N. Shanmugaratnam: “the native landed proprietors, the native owners of graphite mines, and the comprador bourgeoisie.” There was nothing to suggest, as Moore does, that the conflict was solely between colonial officials and capitalist elites. “The interests of the Ceylonese planters,” observed James Peiris in 1908, “are identical with those of the European planters.” In such a situation, it is difficult to imagine that Sinhala peasants were behind Sinhala elites, and not behind the more cosmopolitan Left, which, after all, agitated for reforms that benefitted them: not just the franchise and free education, but also the Paddy Lands Act.

So the Sinhala peasantry, along with the Tamil peasantry, ought to be considered apart from the Sinhala bourgeoisie. Where Sinhala and Tamil nationalists, who are overwhelmingly petty bourgeois and thus allied, with or without their knowledge, with a class that has a definite stake in dividing communities to maintain its hold, have gone wrong is their belief that all these communities and formations can be considered as one. Sinhala peasants are accordingly put into the same basket as Sinhala elites: a classic error.

In a later essay I will elaborate on the pitfalls of that kind of reasoning, but for the moment all I can point at as evidence for how political history rebels against this reasoning is the fact that, in the 1982 presidential election, the Jaffna people gave their preference to the SLFP candidate over the UNP candidate, beating J. R. Jayewardene to third place. The reason was simple economics: the Jaffna farmer had benefited under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s agrarian policies. Had the Jaffna farmer considered himself a descendant of the original inhabitants of the country, he would not have given his vote to a “Sinhala Buddhist” party so openly. Now the thing with history is that it has a habit of repeating itself, as the ex-Chief Minister and MP ought to be aware: in the recent general election, the Jaffna people again gave a sizeable chunk of their votes to the SLFP, over the SJB.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Sat Mag

Notes on a not-so radical class

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By Uditha Devapriya

A little over a year ago, Devani Jayathilaka, the Gampaha Division Wildlife Officer now on a crusade against the government, stood up to a State Minister and got away with it. Objecting to Sanath Nishantha’s proposal to build a children’s playground on forest land, she stood her ground even as the Minister and his acolytes attempted to intimidate her.

Videos of Devani retorting to Nishantha and those acolytes gained supporters across social media. Public opinion being very much with her, the government quickly began feting her: Bandula Gunawardena said that the Cabinet took her side, and S. M. Chandrasena regretted the incident while half-heartedly exonerating the Minister.

Devani Jayathilaka’s courage was seen at the time as a symptom of the President’s resolve to make the bureaucracy more independent and efficient, free of bias and politicisation. As such, supporters of the government jumped on the bandwagon. The Daily News dedicated an entire editorial to her, calling her “the toast of all environmentalists, nature lovers and generally all those who cherish our country’s legal and constitutional integrity.” Hopefully, the laudatory piece concluded, “this signal act… will be a beacon to others in the public service to do their bit in fulfilling their public duty while resisting the pressures of politicians.” The subtext was unmistakably clear: the President’s reformism had empowered the officer’s activism.

A year later, and here we are: the premature love affair aborted, the feeling of celebration dampened. Yet could one have expected otherwise? At no point here in living memory have environmental concerns permeated every layer of society, from Colombo’s civil society to Sinhala nationalist outfits, as they are now. A broad conjuncture of oppositional forces, some drawn from organisations that fuelled the ideology which brought the government to power (such as the Sinhale movement), has pitted itself against that government’s apathy over the environment, while social media continues to enthrone activists: environmentalists and state officials. The President’s men, meanwhile, seem to be resorting to a policy of either ignoring or retorting to these voices. In both cases, it’s the government that has lost out.

It is hard not to side with the activists. They have a point: no regime has engaged properly with the environment. Between 2017 and 2019, forest cover reduced from 29.7% to 16.5%. It was the yahapalana government, remnants of which are tweeting against the present regime’s environmental record now, that held

the reins of power then. Yet the administration before it was no different: in 2012, to give just one example, roughly 1,585 hectares of primary forest land were lost, the biggest annual loss in a decade. The numbers for 2020 and 2021 have not been released yet, but there’s no doubting they are as big as, if not bigger than, these figures; according to the Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka, forest cover stands at 17%, above what it was in 2019, but well below the 30% promised by the president.

The politics of the campaigns against the government, however, goes well beyond a simple dichotomy between political representatives and wildlife activists. Frustratingly enough, it’s not easy to put a finger on the dynamics of these protests, to draw a line between protagonists and antagonists within them, not least of all because a simple twofold division – government versus us – has been replaced by a threefold one in them: the government (high level officials included) on one side, activists and officials on another, and us on yet another.

Led by a mostly Sinhala and Buddhist lower middle-class, including the clergy (no less than the Sinhala Ravaya), these campaigns, which have mobilised activists and officials, appear to have unearthed a rather interesting contradiction from within that middle-class: a distrust of political representatives, and an ambivalent attitude towards lower level officials. To identify this contradiction for what it is, and explore it, is not easy: that requires research, the mettle of an anthropologist or ethnographer, and I am neither. Yet from what little I have been able to gather, it appears that this recent spurt of activism has facilitated a shift in the character of anti-state activism, particularly in its class composition. How so?

Devani’s message resonates profoundly with a section of the country’s upward aspiring middle-class, educated mostly in Sinhala but idealising a better life: one to which they feel both government representatives and private interests are obstacles.

They hold contrasting views regarding the state. As far as the government proper – Ministers plus high level officials – is concerned, they are against it. It’s a different story with officials, not least because of the latter a great many hail from the milieu they do: Sinhala educated and upward aspiring. This is the demographic Patali Champika Ranawaka is targeting through his “43 Senankaya”, a demographic parties have not tried to court until fairly recently.

What explains their relationship with the state? Regarding government representatives, their opposition is easy to rationalise: most of these representatives are seen to have risen to where they are now by foul means, not fair. That irks an educated middle-class bereft of political or economic power; simply put, they feel hard done by, left out, unrepresented.

Such feelings of distrust cut through parties; indeed, a defining characteristic of the middle-class is the absence of a unifying political ideology. Any Opposition which believes that by coming to power on the strength of their convictions it can expect support from them forever is therefore walking on water, for this lower middle-class happens to be adamantly protean. It is their protean character, incidentally, that explains their response to state officials.

Their view of the latter is borne out by two main considerations: that they hail from the same class background, and that, since of late, these officials have taken up arms against political authorities, a group whose actions are seen as burdening the lower middle-class.

Indeed, far from berating officials like they berate political authorities, the lower middle-class rebelling against the regime share a desire to enter the bureaucracy as either professionals or administrators, though through education attainment, and not political backing. This desire is essentially a retread of the demand made by unemployed graduates: they want to fill a post in a state institution as soon as they leave university. Under Gotabaya Rajapaka their integration into the bureaucracy has been remarkably rapid: by September last year, for instance, around 60,000 graduates had been absorbed into the Public Service, as part of his “Rata Wenuwen Weda” programme. Yet even this rather modest realisation of lower middle-class aspirations has failed to dampen, or stunt, lower middle-class opposition to his government.

To sum up, what we are seeing here is a division between state officials, assumed to have entered the government through merit, and political representatives, assumed to have entered it through influence. That Devani Jayathilaka continues to be idealised by this class therefore points at the consolidation of a uniquely petty bourgeois consciousness, which at once aspires upward in the bureaucracy, and pits itself against the government overseeing the bureaucracy. Gravitating to meritocratic ideals, they have become a huge floating electorate.

This raises another point: their disavowal of party politics. Let’s not mistake karawala for mallum here, however; the line this milieu touts, that they lack party ideology, should not mislead one into thinking that they can’t be co-opted into any party ideology. For those who believe that a non-political middle-class rebelling against an elected government, even one infringing every other norm in the book, is incapable of political manoeuvring, the case of Anna Hazare offers a counterargument: opposed to political groups, what Hazare achieved in the end was an electoral landslide for just such a group, Narendra Modi’s BJP.

By no means am I saying that Anna Hazare was/is to India what officials crusading against political representatives are/will be to Sri Lanka. Yet not unlike Hazare, these officials have given what little of an Opposition that’s there in the country some much needed ammunition (with which to topple the government). Far from welcoming such a state of affairs, I see two problems with this: the lack of a proper policy on the environment from the Opposition (apart from a few perfunctory protests), and the risk of letting what environmentalists are combating continue under a future administration led by that Opposition. As environmentalists and Left activists have pointed out only too clearly, much of what is being protested against, including the Sinharaja debacle, can be traced back to the yahapalana period. How wise would it be to trust the party that held the cards then so much as to return them to power now?

To these two problems one can add a third: the contradiction between the social conditioning and the activism of the middle-class. That contradiction translates itself into another: between political ideals that pit this middle-class against political authority, and social aspirations that orient them towards personal achievement in education and employment.

One can ask why this is a problem, why it’s so problematic. In matters of political concern, so the idealists say, personal matters are of no relevance.

But that’s precisely the issue. How pertinent are one’s personal aspirations to one’s political inclinations? Not pertinent, some would say; pretty pertinent, in my book.

That leads us to a crucial issue, the most important to crop up from what we’re seeing today: the extent to which those leading the protests are willing to own up to how class aspirations, and not just state complicity, have contributed to environmental degradation.

Let me reduce this to a simple query: how much do you attribute everything wrong with the environment to the government’s doing and non-doing, and how much do you attribute it to, say, our propensity to import, a major factor in environmental degradation?

To be fair, of course, it’s not only imports. The truth is that degradation of the environment is linked inextricably to an economic model rooted in consumerism and urbanisation.

But that merely reinforces my point: consumerism is promoted by the private sector, and urbanisation by the public, because both have an audience: the same middle-class blaming the government for what’s happening to our forests, our rivers, our way of life.

To restate this as simply as I can, then, the problems of environmental degradation today are the result of a decades-long experiment with capitalism and neoliberalism that has failed. The crisis is thus a crisis of a consumerist and exploitative model based on a capitalist framework. Now no critique of what is happening to our forests can evolve without taking this model into consideration. As perhaps its biggest beneficiaries, the middle-class must hence recognise the need to formulate an alternative model to it, in line with their activist inclinations.

However, in continuing to ignore if not marginalise this need, those taking the government to task over the environment are offering an inadequate response, radical enough to question the regime for its failings, yet not radical enough to question our embracement of an acquisitive, consumption-led economic model that has contributed to the quagmire we are in. Now I hate gazing into crystal balls, but if this is what will continue in the future, then these protests, no matter how laudable, will someday, somehow, fizzle out. That would be a pity.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

CELEBRATING EARTH DAY: THE VOICE OF THE NEXT GENERATION

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Our world needs transformational change, and it is time for us, those of the present generation to hold ourselves accountable for our role in the environmental crisis while also calling for bold, creative, and innovative solutions. This year marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day and this Webinar is designed to commemorate the occasion and to support the worldwide efforts to conserve and revitalize the environment of the blue planet that is our home. If we are to succeed, we must listen to the children who will link hands from around the world during this webinar and voice their concerns and ideas to preserve a pristine environment for their generation.

This is the 17th of a series of virtual zoom panel discussions hosted by the America-Sri Lanka Photographic Art Society in Los Angeles California, USA (ASPAS); Member of Photographic Society of America (PSA) and The International Federation of Photography of Art in France (FIAP). The objective of the series is to showcase the beauty of world fauna and flora and promote environmental conservation in the context of nature photography and tourism, with a special focus on the grandeur of Sri Lanka’s natural habitat. The upcoming programme will commemorate World Earth Day 2021.

At a previous ASPAS Webinar, Dr. Peter H. Sand, former Secretary-General of ICUN, stated, “Pandemics, such as coronavirus, are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, as well as the devastation of forests and other wild places, are the driving force behind the increasing number of diseases leaping from wildlife to humans.” The ASPAS Webinars are intended to offer a platform to discuss a more balanced relationship with these ecosystems and the tools that can help us reach this objective, so that future generations can continue to enjoy and benefit from them sustainably and responsibly.

Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970 which gave voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. Our planet is an amazing place, but it needs our help to thrive! That is why each year on April 22, more than a billion people celebrate Earth Day to protect the planet from pollution and deforestation and environment related issues. By taking part in activities like picking up litter and planting trees, we are making our world a happier, healthier place to live.

In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, the world was consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or the press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, the world remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health. Since, the great challenge for the environmental community is to combat the cynicism of climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent policy makers, and a disinterested public. In the face of these challenges, Earth Day prevailed and established itself as a major movement for global action for the environment.

Over the decades, it has brought hundreds of millions of people into the environmental movement, creating opportunities for civic engagement and volunteers in 193 countries. Earth Day engages more than 1 billion people every year and has become a major steppingstone along the pathway of engagement around the protection of the planet.

Now, the fight for a clean environment continues with increasing urgency, as the ravages of climate change become more and more apparent every day. As the awareness of our climate crisis grows, so does civil society mobilization, which is reaching a fever pitch across the globe today. Digital and social media are bringing these conversations, protests, strikes and mobilizations to a global audience, uniting a concerned citizenry as never before and mobilizing generations to join together to take on the greatest challenge that humankind has faced.

It is quite apparent that the youth of our world should also be engaged in this vital conversation as an absolutely indispensable partner.

Governments have recognized this for decades and many have introduced some level of climate and environmental education into their education systems. But the truth is that impact of climate and environmental education is in some cases week, cursory, and still in many countries non-existent. In the decades since the launch of the global environmental movement, it is estimated that more than 3 billion young people have graduated from high school having learned little or nothing about one of the greatest issues that will shape their lives and their livelihoods for decades to come.

The time is now, indeed it is long overdue, for a massive environmental literacy campaign that can create a generation of citizens, workers and leaders who really understand why and how to stop climate change and environmental degradation, ensuring that every student around the world completes their formal education as an environmental and climate literate citizen. A citizen who is ready to take action and speak up for change and build knowledge and skills for the growing green sector of clean energy, efficient transportation, sustainable business and making themselves competitive for new jobs.

The youth must also equip themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to build a better future and be stewards of this planet. They must learn that to sustain a functional society and economy, natural resources must be used wisely and efficiently while protecting the ecological systems to ensure clean air, clean water, and food security for all.

But just as vitally, we need to equip future generations with the knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to survive and indeed thrive in the decades to come. And that begins in school. Even world leaders recognized that pivotal role as far back as 30 years, when the countries that forged the original United Nations climate change treaty in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit enshrined climate education as an essential part of a national response to a global emergency.

Educationists believe every school in the world must have compulsory, assessed climate and environmental education with a strong civic engagement component. They have also pointed out that the onus for developing environmental consciousness in youth could not be the sole responsibility of schools as the young people need the help of adult allies. There is a role for everyone, parents, relatives, and society to support youth voices and stand alongside them.

It is in that spirit that the America-Sri Lanka Photohtaphic Art Society Los Angeles, led by its President, Suriya Jayalath Perera, has organized this Webinar to bring together 10 young people from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Sri Lanka to voice their concerns and present their ideas on the occasion of Earth Day 2021. Youth from ages six to 18, will address the entire gamut of environmental issues from climate change to plastic pollution. It would be a truly ground-breaking event, and you can be a part of it by virtually joining them on Sunday April 18th, 2021. The webinar will be moderated by Medini Ratnayake.

More Information: www.usacaaspas.com

Join us live on Sunday April 18th, at 8.30 P.M. 2021 https://www.facebook.com/aspaslausa/live Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana, Former Deputy Director-General, United Nations

 

 

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Sat Mag

How to flush cholesterol out of your body

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Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all the cells in your body. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The cholesterol in your body that you do not need comes from animal bodies.

If you have more cholesterol in your body than you need, then you are heading for heart disease and heart attacks. A build-up of cholesterol narrows arteries, causing a restriction of blood flow to the heart. Very often a person with high cholesterol levels has no symptoms until he has his first heart attack.

This is even more problematic if you are overweight – which you will be, because the food that causes an increase in cholesterol also increases your weight. Though some cholesterol components are stored in the liver and gallbladder, the main storage area is in fat cells called adipocytes. When you have too much cholesterol, these cells swell up and you gain weight. Too much cholesterol can be caused by eating too much fat or carbohydrates.

 

There are two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is good cholesterol which protects you from hearts attacks, and strokes, by mopping up excess bad cholesterol. It takes the cholesterol that you don’t need back to the liver. The liver breaks it down so it can be passed out of your body. LDL is bad cholesterol. This blocks the blood supply and causes strokes and heart attacks. Non-HDL take cholesterol from the liver to the cells around your body. Too much bad cholesterol (non-HDL) can be harmful because it sticks to the inside walls of your arteries. This can lead to fatty material (atheroma) building up – this process is known as atherosclerosis.

Cholesterol is found in animal foods, meat, milk, butter and cheese.

There are only two things that raise cholesterol in the blood: saturated and trans fats.

Saturated fats are found in meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods like biscuits and popcorn, margarine, deep-fried, and processed foods, basically junk food.

Trans fats occur in some fried and processed foods, also in junk food.

In adults, total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered healthy. 200 – 239 mg/dL is borderline high. 240 mg/dL and above is high. LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 100 mg/dL.

How do you know that your cholesterol levels are high? You usually don’t. There are no typical signs if you have high cholesterol, which is why it is so important to get it checked. It is a hidden risk factor, which means it happens without us knowing until it is too late. Some people get soft, yellowish, growths or lesions on the skin, especially round the eyes, called xanthomas. If you are lucky you develop left-sided chest pain, pressure, or fullness; dizziness; unsteady gait; slurred speech; or pain in the lower legs. Any of these conditions may be associated with high cholesterol.

How do you flush cholesterol out of your body?

Stop eating meat or drinking milk. Avoid ghee, butter and paneer, and seafood like crabs, shrimps and lobsters. Don’t smoke. Exercise. Eat fewer refined grains such as maida. Foods to avoid if you have high cholesterol levels include white bread, white potatoes, and white rice, highly processed sugars. Fried foods should be avoided, as well as foods high in saturated fats.

Eat fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, every day.

A report from Harvard Health has identified foods that actively decrease cholesterol levels: Oats, barley and whole grains, beans, eggplant and okra, nuts, vegetable oil (canola, sunflower), fruits (mainly apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus), soy and soy-based foods. Eating just one and one-half cups of cooked oatmeal a day can lower your cholesterol by 5 to 8%. Oatmeal contains soluble and insoluble fibre – two types that your body needs.

In June 2020 a report, led by Imperial College London Majid Ezzati, et al.​ and involving dozens of universities, “Repositioning of the global epicentre of non-optimal cholesterol” ​was published in Nature. It said that while cholesterol levels have declined in high income countries, particularly Europe, since 1980 , they have increased vastly in lower and middle income countries, with Asia, specially Southeast Asia, now being the centre.

The reason for this is the consumption of animal-based foods, refined carbohydrates (maida) and palm oil. In short, the heart attack and stroke risks have been globally repositioned with the shifting of a high cholesterol diet.

A group of nearly 1,000 researchers, from around the world, analysed data from 1,127 studies comprising 102.6 million adults, to assess global trends in cholesterol levels from 1980 to 2018. This is the largest ever study of global cholesterol levels.

Previously cholesterol was considered a problem in high income Western countries.

The report said that Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland (the centre of the milk/meat diet) and Iceland (meat) had shown the steepest declines in cholesterol, going from the highest to the lowest. There has been a sharp drop in LDL cholesterol in the UK, according to the British Heart Foundation.

China, which had the lowest levels of cholesterol in 1980, was among the highest in 2018. India, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have not covered themselves in glory either.

In 1980 Australian women ranked 32nd highest in the world in cholesterol levels. Today they are 146th . Australian men have fallen from 31st highest to 116th. 

Dr Avula Laxmaiah, National Institute of Nutrition, one of the authors of the research paper, said LDL cholesterol among Indian men ranked 128th in 1980 and remained the same in 2018.  Women are 139th in the global line-up.

Other conditions, that can lead to high cholesterol levels, include diabetes drugs that increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, such as progestins, anabolic steroids, and corticosteroids. India is one of the highest users of steroids – not directly, but through these being fed to chicken.

The authors have suggested that each country in Asia set into place prices, and regulatory policies, that shift diets to non-saturated fats. But, at the end of the day it is not prices that will decide – meat/chicken and milk are already expensive but it doesn’t stop you from eating them. You will have to take a personal decision, depending on how much you value your life or the lives of your family.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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