Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chandrika Kumaratunga's point

Politicians are wont to speak frankly on issues that ail them, particularly with regard to issues they feel should be prioritised in the interests of the country. Sure, there’s no such thing as a clean motive when it comes to them, but it is true that once in a while, they tend to slip up the truth, though conveniently hiding part of it under ideology-garb. Can’t help. With politicians, here and elsewhere, this is as timeless a truism as it’s going to get.

Former president (and present head of a government-mandated office to promote inter-ethnic reconciliation) Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was noticeably irked when she delivered a speech recently. She commented on the trend of some schools in the country to restrict admissions to students of a particular race or religion, and had earned the ire of these schools on social media. She made some points and tried to clarify.

Firstly, she named names. She pointed at Buddhist schools. “Students in them don’t even get to hobnob with Tamils and Muslims. Is it any wonder that this country breeds wars, when we have a set of educational institutions that breed racialism?” She recounted an anecdote from her term in office, when she’d visited one of these schools and found out that not a single student was outside the Sinhala Buddhist community. She admitted a Muslim student, but that act was opposed when the student had to face harassment at the hands of his “friends” (not surprisingly, he had to leave).

And so she offered her bomb: “We need to enforce a minimum quota of minorities in these schools.” She didn’t drop it. She didn’t need to. That was enough. From that point on, therefore, she became a target on social media.

One can question (validly) why she picked on Buddhist schools in particular, but to her credit she argued that the situation was just as despicable in Muslim and Tamil schools. The reaction she got was predictable and respectful of historical realities: “These schools have existed for over 100 years, they were founded at a time when non-Christians were rubbished, and they served a function which continues even today.” Put briefly, the argument is that this country has enough and more space for schools dedicated to “missionary activity”, but very few dedicated to the faith followed by the majority.

There’s nothing wrong in identity-assertion. Human beings are not, and will never be, lotus-eaters who fell from the sky. Even those who brand themselves as identity-less, who renounce faith and embrace a nebulous cosmopolitanism, are marked out well by their cultural, hereditary roots. To demarcate an entire educational institute as “racist” is to miss the point, and to miss some pertinent historical facts.

The point is that these schools were not started with the intention of preserving race and racialism. They were there purely because the Buddhists of this country couldn’t find a proper set of schools that suited their religious requirements. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Church of England could resist sidelining them, and in the end what happened was the creation of a Sinhala Buddhist consciousness that matured and was stunted in later decades. In other words, this consciousness wasn’t birthed by a need to exclude, but by a need to assert. Which is why, from their inception, such schools welcomed and embraced students of other communities.

This doesn’t marginalise what the former president said. But it does raise a problem. A pertinent one. If we’re so insistent on increasing the minority quota, as she suggested, why do we choose to go quiet over other educational institutions that privilege some and discriminate others? No, I am not talking about Muslim and Tamil schools. I’m talking about schools that are assisted only partially by the state, which are handled and managed by religious denominations. If Kumaratunga thinks that only Buddhist schools indulge in such crass selectivity with respect to admissions, she is wrong. And selectively so.

And to be fair, the claim that Buddhist schools make – that very few leading schools exist which cater (exclusively and specifically) to the needs of the Sinhala Buddhist community – is correct. Compare the number of (leading) schools which cater to the Christians, contrast with the number that exists for the Buddhists, the Muslims, and the Hindus, take into account ethno-religious “proportions”, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Isn’t it an injustice, then, to claim that such schools should not exist, that they should be branded as racist by those who themselves sanctioned, by omission or commission, selectivity back in their day?

Of course, the former president hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, argued for completely doing away with privileging an identity. She has asked for increasing the minority quota (to about five or 10 percent). She has also demanded (implicitly) for other schools to follow, though she specifically didn’t mention the Christian ones. She should.

So what’s the solution? Promoting an amorphous identity-less identity in our curriculum? Hardly. As I’ve written elsewhere, in our education discourse what’s privileged is secularism, not multiculturalism. Utterly crass. To remove religion and culture from our syllabus on the pretext that both subjects inject and promote majoritarianism and minoritarianism is to call for a reality that doesn’t exist. Not because it’s untenable, but because it’s useless: identities aren’t just created by school, they’re created outside it. Racists aren’t birthed by the syllabus, but by their social conditioning. Change and reform that, and you’ll see peace and harmony eventually.

I think Kumaratunga’s proposal was misinterpreted on social media. “Increase the quota,” she said. “She’s asking us to change our history!” howled commentators. To be fair by them, Kumaratunga wasn’t (and isn’t) exactly perceived as a supporter of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. But that’s beside the point. She made a suggestion. Like all suggestions, it was open to debate. Doesn’t mean we should go on a tangent and trash her. And doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of how that suggestion can be interpreted and abused in favour of those who continue, for worse I should think, to grind an axe with the Sinhala Buddhists of this country.

The education discourse in this country, as I’ve implied before, is shaped by identity. To do away with it isn’t the answer. But to accommodate the “other”, to get rid of this conception that views minorities as the “other”, and to affirm an identity that’s neither amorphous nor hostile, is the solution. I’m not sure whether increasing the quota is a panacea, because de-segregation without the attendant and necessary changes in mindsets among our people would be useless.

Put simply, the lady has a point. But that paints just half the picture. Going on a tangent and losing temper isn’t the answer. The answer is to confront the issue, examine history, and be fair to all. Picking on Buddhist schools while sidelining others will NOT help reconciliation. Purely and simply.

We need to work fast, hence. We need to change ourselves. By ourselves.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at