Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Shielding reconciliation from the nationalist

A reply to Malinda Seneviratne and C. A. Chandraprema

The Final Report of the Consultation Task Force (CTF) on Reconciliation Mechanisms has been derided by both sides of the political divide. The nationalists, predictably, argue that it attacks, vilifies, and in general tries to do away with Buddhism (as enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution). The anti-nationalists (if you can call them that) argue that it doesn’t do enough to crack down on majoritarianism. Both sides have their point, but for the moment I am interested in the thinking of the former group. 

Two articles, penned by columnists who can be described as nationalists, caught my attention last week. C. A. Chandraprema in his article “The 58 preconditions to obtain GSP+” conjectures that in return for the GSP+ facility, the government has been forced to, inter alia, review or repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, expedite and conclude all cases relating to all remaining LTTE detainees, and set up a transitional justice mechanism in line with the Human Rights Council. The latter precondition, implies Chandraprema, privileges outside intervention so much that “it obviates the need for an elected government in Sri Lanka.”

Malinda Seneviratne in his article “So you want to take out ‘Buddhism’?” criticises the CTF and argues that the authors of the Task Force envisage the kind of secular state for Sri Lanka that doesn’t exist and has never existed in the West (the Global North, this clearly assumes, is behind the Task Force’s recommendations). ” The CTF hasn’t gone into these important areas of secularism simply because it wants non-Buddhists to have religious privileges,” he concludes. Like Chandraprema, he observes that we are being suckered into congratulating our government over something they didn’t achieve without those proverbial strings attached.

Chandraprema is more concerned about sovereignty. Malinda is more concerned about identity. Both are acutely aware of the tendency of outside interventionists to play pandu (wreck havoc) with the democratic process here and both are (to a considerable extent) correct. My contention with their (in particular, Malinda’s) arguments is hence not their sincerity or their premises, but the extrapolations they lead themselves to (even as they warn their ideological opponents against other such extrapolations). Before I get to what these are, though, I will try to sort out the dichotomy between identity and nationhood the likes of these columnists have for better or worse unearthed.

When I wrote on reconciliation and the rift between secularism and multiculturalism some months back, I was acutely conscious of two points: one, that conceding ground to the minority isn’t coterminous with taking away from the majority, and two, that secularism wouldn’t and won’t work with collectives that think of themselves as collectives before individuals. This led me to a third, as salient point: that reconciliation must begin with equality and end with equity. While I trust myself to have been correct with the latter argument, I realise now that I used the wrong comparison to validate myself: the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. No, not because it was a failure, but because I thought that equity superseded equality there, when it has not.

Malinda has been in the United States. He knows the institutionalised racism that exists there and he has written about it. That is why it bothers me when he implies in column after column that Sinhala Buddhists have been vilified unreasonably, even though they clearly have got the better deal (regardless of attempts by successive governments to ignore them) owing to their local (not global) numerical strength. I believe he is aware of identity politics and the nexus between it and the legal process of a country. I also believe that he is aware of how even the most stringent anti-racism laws, whether or not paved with good intentions, have not stopped the majority from stabbing, raping, maiming, and in other ways injuring the minority, in America or in Sri Lanka.

Let me explain. The Civil Rights Movement in America did not do away with the White American hegemony engendered in the laws of that great country. What it did was equalise everyone in the face of that law without doing away with the racist base in which that equality was rooted. In other words, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t end with equity, only a formal equality that birthed and propped up Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and (more recently) Black Lives Matter. That is why Critical Legal Studies turned to Critical Race Theory and that is why legal scholars contended (quite correctly) that the law was not the last resort for the achievement of racial equality. That is also why those same legal scholars proposed that to resolve the race issue, the equality discourse as such should be stripped of the White America hegemony and its buttress, classical liberalism.

The law has not been enough to stop pogroms, xenophobia, paranoia, and race riots. The law has not been enough to contain majoritarianism. It has not been enough to lead America and Sri Lanka out of their hate-driven past. In this context I don’t think anyone can contend against the CTF's efforts to institutionalise secularism, given the pitfalls we (the Sinhala Buddhists) have let ourselves fall into. “The Sinhalese forget easily,” Prabhakaran is reported to have said. He could have added, and I would have agreed, that they also fight amongst themselves and pick on other collectives without righting their wrongs.

My question to the likes of Malinda Seneviratne (and even C. A. Chandraprema), therefore, is this: since the CTF is laying the foundation on what can possibly be a process aimed at racial equality in the face of the law (after which, of course, they will do their best to level on equity), and since the majority in this country have asserted enough and more power for the past 2,500 years, what is wrong with bringing up secularism as a mere proposal and recommendation?

Not that he is entirely in the wrong, of course. The law and the Constitution will not, I know (and he knows), end the racist curse. It will in some instances help the racist. Despite this though, the law will be a helpful first step. A necessary first step. Not the only step there is. Secularism may or may not figure in there, but there I disagree with Malinda’s argument because of something he can count on to oppose it: the nationalists of this country (including myself), opposed to it not necessarily on racist grounds but for pragmatic reasons (prime among them, the fact that secularism will not work for communities that think of themselves as communities first and only then individuals).

As an enlightened nationalist (I hope), I am aware of the need to do away with binaries and extreme positions. C. A. Chandraprema argues convincingly that outside intervention figures quite discernibly in the strings attached to the GSP Package. To the point that this leaves room for a subversion of our sovereignty, I am in agreement with him. While I can’t pretend that I am aware of the intricate details of the process behind War Crimes Tribunals and transitional justice, I do admit that the argument against hybrid courts (which are in line with the Human Rights Council) by those who say that our Judiciary is adequate to the task of trying our Armed Forces is flawed on one pertinent point: that our laws also are adequate to this task. They are not.

As long as we live in a country where the law was not enough to stave off anti-Tamil riots and not enough to bring to justice the many police-officers and members of the Armed Forces who maimed members of other communities, we have no moral right to champion our justice system. Nationalists are fond of claiming that ours is a virtuous country and society, far superior to America, Britain, and the rest of the West. I don’t know what country these nationalists reside in, but I do know that the claim we are the most virtuous society is far-fetched when we rank highly in lists of countries which Google sex and engage in child prostitution.

There’s more.

We don’t really know whether the judgment of the Nadarajah Raviraj case is correct (given that we don’t possess all the evidence). However, we do know that the minute the judgment was given, the extremist faction of the Tamil Diaspora (andeven some of our Tamil politicians) were up in arms shouting, “No to a local (Sri Lankan) reconciliation mechanism!” I agree with them, even though I don’t agree with their politics, not (only) because our justice system is tainted with bigotry but also because those who’ve been tasked to prepare recommendations on reconciliation have been handpicked from a socioeconomic class wholly blind to the aspirations of the common Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese. That is why I personally have second thoughts about the CTF, and not (as Malinda or Chandraprema might contend) because of the insincerity of its objectives.

Where does this lead us to, though?

From 1994 to 2005, the Sinhala Buddhists got a raw deal. Through and through. They were ignored, scripted out, and antagonised. The Task Force is being chaired by the lady who presided over us in those dark, terrible years. While this should not make us cynical about the entire reconciliation process, it should make us aware of the inimical prejudices of those who’ve been handpicked to script the Final Report. On the other hand, however, the rants and raves of the discordant nationalist, in his or her attempt to belittle any step towards reconciliation, secularism, and multiculturalism, will amount to nothing if the end-result is an even more fragmented society. Reconciliation should continue. Those selected to head it should not. I am sure Malinda would agree, given his stances against black/white binaries. The one, he would know, does not imply the other.

So, to conclude: the law isn’t a miracle worker, we are not the most virtuous nation in this world, nationalism without a pinch of salt would be disastrous, and advancing the rights of the minority shouldn’t be equated with cracking down on the rights of the majority. The Civil Rights Movement was, admittedly, a partly successful project, but then (as Malinda would know) institutionalised racism has to end with a cohesive campaign aimed at equality (the transition from which to equity the Americans are yet to achieve). The problem with the nationalist is that s/he is unwilling to even level on equality. Why, I wonder. Haven’t we had enough privileges already?

The answer, I sincerely hope, is there. Somewhere. I predict that sooner, rather than later, the nationalist will have to acknowledge it.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

Written for: Ceylon Today, January 24 2017