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Rishi Sunak and the limits of skin-deep identity

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By Uditha Devapriya
“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.”

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia

The appointment of Rishi Sunak as British Prime Minister has sent more than a few ripples around the world. Sunak is the first British Asian to hold the post and the second “minority” Prime Minister since Benjamin Disraeli. He is not the first person of South Asian descent in the Conservative Party: he is the third, after India’s Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree and Sri Lanka’s own Nirj Deva (Niranjan Deva Adittya). These are historical precedents in a nation which, more than a century ago, equated Indians with dogs and banned both from its clubs. Insofar as Sunak is brown, South Asian, and desi in looks, then, his appointment is “progressive.”

World leaders have reacted positively to Sunak’s appointment. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe both tweeted that they looked forward to strengthening bilateral relations with the UK. US President Joe Biden mispronounced Sunak’s name (Rashni Sanook) in one of his many gaffes, but called the appointment “groundbreaking.” Justin Trudeau wrote that he looked forward to working with Sunak over several areas, including “the UK’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

And it’s not just world leaders. Scholars, including historians and commentators, have joined in, though some of them appear to have reservations. William Dalrymple, for instance, tweeted that whatever way one looked at it, Sunak’s ascent was a progressive development in a country still reeling from an imperial past. Whatever he feels about Sunak’s ethnicity and its implications for a nation where Indians are still discriminated against, however, he is hardly a fan of the Conservative Party, or the recent influx of South Asians to that Party. On several occasions, in fact, he has written against them.

As for Indians – in India, not Britain – Sunak’s ascent has bolstered both Hindu nationalists and critics of Hindu nationalism. Narendra Modi’s electoral base obviously sees Sunak as another example of what Indians, particularly Hindus, can do abroad. On the other hand, Shashi Tharoor observes that the British “have done something very rare in the world – to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office in their government.” He adds that despite the racist backlash Sunak inspired, “a majority of Conservative Party MPs did not hesitate to put his competence above his colour.” This, however, is not so much an outburst of pride as it is a rejoinder to the divisive politics of the ruling party in India, the BJP: “Can we imagine the day, in our increasingly majoritarian politics, when someone who is not Hindu, Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist can head our national government?”

Characteristically, Sri Lankans, particularly their politicians, have got it all tangled up in their praise of Sunak. The SLPP’s Sagara Kariyawasam has actually contended that if Sunak could become British Prime Minister, dual citizens should be allowed to enter the Sri Lankan parliament. Sunak, of course, is not a dual citizenship holder, because India does not allow dual citizenship. But Sri Lanka does. The SLPP, going by Kariyawasam’s logic, thus considers Sunak’s ascent as an argument against the 22nd Amendment – on which many SLPP MPs, Kariyawasam included, voted against or abstained from.

The SLPP, however, occupies just one end of the political spectrum in Sri Lanka. Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia occupies another. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga sees Sunak’s appointment as an opportunity to tweet out her thoughts on British politics: “Amazing that one of us could lead those who ruled us for centuries, only 3/4 of a century after the end of colonial domination! Speaks much for British democracy.” Kumaratunga has since deleted this tweet, because it sparked off a flurry of replies from South Asians that begged to differ over her view of Sunak as “one of us.” One reply, by I assume a Sri Lankan, caught the gist of them all: “You think that the billionaire Sunak represents one of us? Huh.”

These replies suggest that a section of Sri Lanka’s Twitterati, normally a liberal, Colombo-centric crowd, no longer sees one’s ethnicity as a criterion for progressive politics. To quote Kusum Wijetilleke, “Yes, there’s a brown man in the ring… but [he] also just happens to be one of the richest Members of Parliament and has sustained a rather meteoric rise to power. So, different but same same?” This is more than what the liberal intelligentsia will be prepared to admit, of course: within liberal circles, the assumption appears to be that if Sunak could become Prime Minister in the heartland of European imperialism, how come a Tamil or a Muslim hasn’t become President or Prime Minister here yet?

My own opinion is that Sunak’s ascent as Prime Minister shows the potential as well as the limitations of identity politics. I don’t understand the hype over his Indian origins: he wasn’t even born in India, and neither for that matter were his parents and grandparents. Sunak’s party includes a number of South Asians, and two of them are women. Yet both women, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, have taken controversial stances on, among other issues, transgender rights, the British Empire, and immigration – even from India. Braverman was probably not looking in the mirror or considering her origin story when she argued against a trade deal with India by suggesting that it would increase immigration to Britain. Priti Patel’s asylum policies, which would have delighted Enoch Powell, the man who railed against her ancestors coming to England, have been called “unjust, un-British” by The Guardian, which seems to have forgotten Powell’s not so un-British rivers of blood.

Sunak’s “visible minority” credentials – he took his oath of office on the Bhagavat Gita and sported a sacred thread in his first address as Prime Minister – should hence not blind us to his not so visible credentials. The other day I remembered the rather acerbic comment of a Sri Lankan poet, now based in Toronto: “The only minority is the bourgeoisie.” Going by that logic, Sunak is, and was, a member of a “minority.” A hedge fund manager who married into wealth, Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and became director of an investment firm owned by his father-in-law, who happened to be the founder of India’s second-largest IT company. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he ran into considerable controversy over allegations of his wife’s non-domiciled status and avoidance of taxes on overseas income, though subsequent investigations cleared him of all charges of breaking ministerial rules.

The question here, I suppose, isn’t about Sunak’s ethnic origins. For liberals he will always be South Asian; for hardcore nationalists, Hindus especially, he will always be Indian, even if some have railed against his beef-eating and what they see as his renunciation of his Indian heritage. Rather, it is about what has trumped what: his ethnicity, or his class background. Liberal and left-liberal politics have made a fetish out of skin colour and ethnicity: it glosses over one’s racial identity, presenting it as a criterion for progressive politics. This is the same logic which liberals in the US deploy over Hillary Clinton’s feminist credentials, even though, as Jacobin once put it, Clinton has never been a champion of women’s rights.

That is why no one, apart from Marxist Left commentators, has so far noted or emphasised the paradox between Sunak’s, Patel’s, and Braverman’s ethnic origins and the policies they have proposed or implemented which marginalise minorities. Here it must be pointed out that the likes of Sunak trace their origins, not to India, but to East Africa, to a class of traders and merchants who prospered under European colonialism. Rishi Sunak is Punjabi: like the Gujaratis, Punjabis have been a model minority, assimilating themselves to white cultures because their class preferences share more with White Europeans than they do with other minorities. Anyone who has read Hanif Kureishi, or watched Mississippi Masala, will notice how complex South Asian attitudes to these issues can be.

On the other hand, even though some will see a contradiction between their ethnic origins and their policies, as well as political beliefs, I see no such contradiction. The contradiction exists because we assume what has triumphed in Patel’s or Braverman’s case IS their ethnic origins. Those who think their ascent can, and will, bolster relations with India assume that they view themselves as Indian. But they do not. They see themselves as British, Canadian, and American. South Asians in Western societies have become the model minority, despite being at the receiving end of racial discrimination, because many of them see themselves as members of a class that is ahead of other minorities. This is as true of Sunak’s rise to power as it is of the many protagonists in Hanif Kureishi’s novels who cast themselves off as British first and Indian, Pakistani, or even Sri Lankan, last. “I have an Indian passport,” admitted one “Indian” business magnate, “but I regard myself as a global citizen.”

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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