Our Perspective

Contemporary Nationalism


Since I’ve arrived to London, I’ve constantly encountered nationalism as a concept and topic in the discussion of the “nation-state”. Perhaps it is because I study the subject or because 60% of the student body at my university comprises of international students. But mostly, by living in a global city such as London: I’ve found myself amidst a crowd of hundreds of British-Kurds screaming at the top of their lungs condemning Turkey’s ‘war on Kurds.’ I’ve seen a group of British-Sikhs protesting the Indian government by sitting on the road in the midst of ongoing traffic outside the Indian embassy. I’ve woken up to a demonstration for Nigerian society rights outside my window. I’ve participated in a rally on Downing Street to stand in solidarity with refugees. I’ve spoken to a Caucasian British girl with the surname Vigneswaran about her voluntary work in Sri Lanka; about Arrack and pol sambol.
All of this prompted me to write about my personal experience and express my views on what I have learnt.  

In my first few weeks I was asked this question at least nine times a day, and I answered immediately.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Sri Lankan, I live in Colombo.”

Sometimes, it became complicated and I was required to elaborate.

“Oh are you Tamil…you don’t look it?”

“No, I’m a Sri Lankan Muslim. My mother is from Pakistan and my paternal grandparents are from India, but I am born and raised in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has a multi-cultural population that is majority Sinhalese with minority Tamil, Moor, Burgher and other communities.”

In my fifth week I learnt about nation and states. A ‘nation’ was defined as “a group which shares a common culture, inhabits a common place, has been (or is becoming) shaped by common experiences and shares a common vision of the future” and a ‘state’ is an “entity that successfully claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” States occupied by a particular nation are called ‘nation states,’ but most nation states have a minority population of other nations and some nations do not have their own state.

This, quite ironically, also coincided with the time when I learnt about the “Sinha-le” campaign. “Sinha-le,” literally “Blood of Lion,” signifies the pre-colonial name of the country and the Sinhalese population at the time. It aims to advocate Sinhalese nationalism and Sinhala Buddhist supremacy by prompting that the state belongs to the Sinhalese nation. This has been done by branding “Sinha-le” through social media and stickers on vehicles, which ultimately led to vandalism, various demonstrations and violence. It is the latest offshoot of other similar organizations, following “Bodu Bala Sena.” Bodu Bala Sena with its more violent and aggressive stance led to growing tensions between the Sinhalese Buddhist and Muslim and Christian communities. They called for the use of halal certificate and hijabs to be banned, and attacked property and mosques belonging to Sri Lankan Muslims. This in turn recalls, alarmingly, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which called for national self-determination and aimed to secure Tamil nationality by claiming for an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for Tamils. It resulted in the thirty yearlong civil war, and involved various forms of extreme nationalism including ethnic cleansing in the north and east. Learning the former made me contemplate my identity and learning the latter alienated me, which led to a further revival:

“I’m a member of a community that was born in Gujrat, India called Memon. During the Partition of India and Pakistan the community was forced to leave Gujrat and the people were scattered to different parts of the world. Inter-marriage has allowed the community to persist. We speak our own dialect, we follow the same religion and we share our own set of culture and traditions.”

Last week, I was asked to answer the question: is nationalism a source of social cohesion or conflict? An immediate response would be that yes, nationalism is a source of conflict; it is an “infantile disease” that has torn apart livelihoods and taken the lives of millions of human beings. It is what creates constant disarray in Sri Lanka, led to the partition of Pakistan and India and the current tension between them. It has made Kurds and Sikhs stateless people that are persecuted in their respective countries and triggered the refugee crisis. However, this would be a superficial answer as careful analysis of the sources of conflict reveals that nationalism is a symptom of conflict rather than the root cause. Most conflicts are elicited or compounded by political, economic, environmental and other reasons that lead to nationalism. Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that “none but those of German blood may be members of the nation,” and he accused the German-Jews’ economic success of robbery. By influencing the masses in this way, he was able to make the Aryans feel superior and lead them to perceive Jews as inferiors – which ultimately contributed to the holocaust.

Sri Lankan history has shown us that national conflict has always been instigated by powerholders or those that are in want of power. During (as well as prior to) the colonial rule the country was divided into three separate kingdoms. Later, the British amalgamation of the entire country into a single administrative unit and the post-independence struggles that ensued, turned the country into a majoritarian state. Jonathan Spencer argues that “war is an outcome of how modern ethnic identities have been made and re-made since the colonial period”. The ‘sinhalization’ of the government and political discrimination towards Tamils made the ethnic differences more acute which then led to the war. The National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2014 highlights results from the National Youth Survey (2013) which show that 46% of youth admitted that their awareness of ‘ethnic identity’ heightened after the end of the war. Similarly, there are clear associations between the recent conflicts and the political regime: the re-emergence of the pure Sinhala flag (used at political functions previously) by the Sinha-le movement indicates this, as does the response to and the treatment of Bodu Bala Sena’s acts. The National Youth Survey (2013) indicates that 22% of young people in the Western Province identify religion as an institution which fragments society. This only adds to the observation of how such religious movements are mostly popular among the impressionable youth and economically weak individuals; individuals who are vulnerable to manipulation and desperate for empowerment.

“XXX’s brother passed away.”

“That’s terrible. Is he a Memon?”

“No, he is human.”

Often, we are so caught up in the little details that we do not see the whole picture. In Sri Lanka, nationality, in essence, is so fluid: there are Sinhalese people that practice Christianity and Muslims that speak Tamil. In some households, there is a mixture of color and languages. We have collectively felt the anguish of the 2004 Tsunami and other tragedies, and collectively cheered our World T20 win in 2014 and other glories. We celebrate Vesak, Deepavali, Christmas and Ramadan as a country, and together we dream of a peaceful and prosperous future.

As Shehan Karunatilake wrote, ‘the truth is, whatever differences there may be they are not large enough to burn down libraries, blow up banks or send children out into minefields. They are not significant enough to waste hundreds of months, firing millions of bullets into thousands of bodies.’ On 4th February 2016, the Independence Day celebrations commenced with the national anthem in Sinhala and concluded with the national anthem in Tamil. Let this be the beginning of a new dawn, let us recognize the real divisions and face them together. But most importantly, let us look at the bigger picture together:

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from earth.”

blog series Youth Blog post Sri Lanka

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