Wednesday, February 14, 2018

70 years of resilience, 70 years of romanticism

Just the other day I came across a Facebook post written by a foreigner (British, Australian, American, I can’t remember). He or she wrote something to the tune that Sri Lanka, widely vilified as a failed state even after we had defeated arguably the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world, had much to be grateful for: free education, free healthcare, freedom of religion, an integrative society that rehabilitated terrorist cadres, and the resilience of the people. This coming from a foreigner who probably set foot in the country for a short time reminded me, rather cynically I should say, of the many glamourous accounts of the former Soviet Union by first-time idealists who had never visited Russia before.

It’s okay to go overboard sometimes. Okay to say your country is the greatest in the world. Okay to say that there’s much to be grateful for. What’s not okay, though, is turning a blind eye to certain realities. Hours after that well-intentioned foreigner posted on social media, a Sri Lankan posted some of those realities which I felt needed to be made clear: in a nutshell, that the free education we receive suffers from qualitative deficits, that the free healthcare we get has become bureaucratised (need we mention the many strikes that doctors and nurses perpetuate every day?), that freedom of religion is okay as long as you’re Sinhalese and Buddhist, that integration works for LTTE cadres as long as they flirt with the Establishment (think of Karuna Amman), and that while the people are resilient, their lives are deeply complicated.

Obviously, not everyone agrees. Not everyone would consider what was posted palatable. One week after the free nation in us turned 70, perhaps it would do well to revisit history, to privilege facts over frill, to understand where we are and where we are, and to keep the debate this compels from romantics on both sides of the divide. Naturally enough, this provokes a significant question: when it comes to that debate, who are the romantics?

The romantic nationalists are easier to identify. They are the idealists who believe not just in a better tomorrow but a better today. They turn a blind eye to the realities that occupy our lives because they privilege the nation over the individual. Their opponents would suggest that they suffer from apathy, indifference, and a not-so-healthy dose of an inferiority complex, that what they idealise in terms of historical monoliths is miles away from the true status of those monoliths. Even in the arts, this apathy persists. We are wont to inflate the national hero without delving into what turned that hero into who he or she eventually became. We are very often anti-American at heart, regardless of political affiliations, but what we borrow from the United States is their romanticised disregard for history. The cowboy film in America, and the Cinemascope epic, is adapted here into the final battle in Aloko Udapadi, which turns out to be so inflated that we can only suspend our disbelief.

The romantic anti-nationalists are less easy, but still not that hard, to identify. They generally hail from close academic circles, and if they are not wont to rubbishing the nation and all its ills without considering the arguments put forward by their ideological opponents, they go a step further and perpetuate the ultimate myth: that we were better off under the colonialists. These are the same academics who criticise the Buddhist clergy’s involvement with the independence movement and what is felt to be their orientation towards socialist politics, and at the same time praise the status quo authoritarianism of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (H. L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings, otherwise an interesting sociological document, fails precisely because it sustains this contradiction throughout). In other words, we had better prospects as a Dominion, never mind that we were never free, because we had it both ways: we would be defended by the Queen’s Army while the locals would be free to pursue their own national interests.

The latter opinion is, even today, widely disseminated, though only by a diminishing demographic: the generation of the fifties and the sixties, educated in the Ivor Jennings-styled University system, largely in English, and comprising, for the most, those academics pointed out above. They are a rare breed, but what they lack in numbers they make up for through academic and ideological unity. To put it in perspective, what they privilege – economics – is so important to them that everything else – culture, identity, national freedom – dissolves away and can be thrown to the dust.

If we empathise with the first of these two groups on the basis of their affiliation with the ideal of nationhood and sovereignty, then it goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong in empathising with the second of those groups on the basis of their rational, albeit flawed, conception of economics and technocracy. The romantic nationalists have been put down, in print, by the young and the old, everywhere, since time immemorial. Their critics snigger when they hear Sekara’s Me Sinhala Apage Ratai and in particular the following words: mulu lova eya ratata yatayi. There’s nothing wrong in healthy criticism of this sort, the way I see it, because going overboard with nationalism risks a serious problem.

Which is this: in any country, trying to shackle itself from colonialism, the most immediate nationalists, who emerged after the dawn of independence, hailed from a rather elitist English-oriented (if not bilingual) background that gave them access to the University and the Civil Service. We see this in other postcolonial societies too – Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya – and we see in the best of them an ability to transform their elitist backgrounds to a populist base on which complete independence was sought. Neither Nasser nor Nkrumah nor Kenyatta, on that count, were content in perpetuating the elitism that they had imbibed in their early years: they succeeded in making their backgrounds the buffer on which they based their populist, nationalist calls for freedom.

But those who followed these elites-turned-nationalists, born from the structures of empowerment which those elites opened (in Sri Lanka, free education; in Egypt, the concept of Pan-Arabism), were somewhat doomed because they repudiated any need to imbibe the modernity their forefathers had. In other words, especially in societies run on religious lines, the spiritual was raised to a position higher than the material, which proved to be the undoing of both in later decades. The ultimatum here is that these societies were contorted by their own independence struggles and movements.

As a final point though, if these points are adequate for us to criticise the romantic nationalist, it’s only fair to consider that the base on which criticism of over-the-top nationalism is sustained – the existence of elites – is also the base on which we can constructively assess the romantic anti-nationalist. Here too, the argument is both simple and complex: that Dominion status, while superficially emboldening us through the fact that our defences and foreign affairs would be handled by a foreign entity, would not embolden us to look after our own economic interests, because those in charge of handling those interests, before and after independence, were fatally tied to the interests of the colonialist: the colonial bourgeoisie.