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Two wrongs don’t make a right

The LTTE is a terrorist organisation — it is impossible to defend them. However, if their defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan army leads to a consolidation of Sinhala chauvinism, it will be impossible to defend that, too, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2009 23:06 IST

In a recent essay in the Economic and Political Weekly, the political scientist Neil DeVotta quotes a Sri Lankan Government Minister as saying: ‘The Sinhalese are the only organic race of Sri Lanka. Other communities are all visitors to the country, whose arrival was never challenged out of the compassion of the Buddhists. But they must not take this compassion for granted. The Muslims are here because our kings let them trade here and the Tamils because they were allowed to take refuge when the Moguls were invading them in India. What is happening today is pure ingratitude on the part of these visitors’.

Commenting on these and other such statements made down the years, DeVotta says they form part of a ‘nationalist narrative that combines jeremiad with chauvinism’. In this narrative, ‘the Sinhalese only have Sri Lanka while the island’s other minorities have homelands elsewhere; Sri Lanka is surrounded by envious enemies who loathe the Sinhalese; those living across the Palk Straits in Tamil Nadu, especially those who want to overtake the island; and NGOs, Christian missionaries, human rights groups, and various Western powers and their organisations conspire to tarnish the image of the Sinhalese Buddhists and thereby assist the LTTE. Those who subscribe to this narrative are patriots; the rest are traitors’.

Although DeVotta does not make the comparison himself, in reading the sentences he quotes, as well as his own analysis, I was irresistibly reminded of the rhetoric used by the majority chauvinists of my own country. The main ideologues of the tendency known as Hindutva, such as V. D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, have argued that Hindus, and Hindus alone, were the true, original and rightful inhabitants of the land known as Bharat. In their view, the other communities were late-comers or interlopers, whose presence here was permitted only because of the ‘tolerance’ of the Hindus. Regrettably, these minorities — Muslims, Christians, etc — were often not grateful enough to the majority. Hence the need to periodically issue them a warning.

In the perspective of the chauvinist, a proper, good and reliable Sri Lankan must apparently be a Tamil-hating or at least Tamil-distrusting Sinhala. Change a word or two, substituting ‘Indian’ for ‘Sri Lankan’, ‘Muslim’ for ‘Tamil’, and ‘Hindu’ for ‘Sinhala’, and you arrive, more-or-less, at the core beliefs of Hindutva. The parallels run further still. Consider the strong element of paranoia that characterises the Hindu as much as the Sinhala chauvinist. Thus the Sinhala bigot venerates the memory (or the myth) of a king named Dutegemunu, who back in the 2nd century BC is believed — or alleged — to have defeated a Tamil king. The exploits — real or imagined — of Shivaji and Rana Pratap serve the same symbolic purpose for the Hindu bigot, which is to invoke a militantly nationalistic past in which the foreigner or invader was humbled or killed.

In India, as in Sri Lanka, the myths of the past inform the poisonously practical politics of the present. Thus the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh also rants on about the various Western powers out to demean and defeat Bharat Mata; it also reserves a particular opprobrium for NGOs and human rights groups. But it goes further — singling out, as particular enemies of the Hindu nation, those independent-minded intellectuals whom they deem to be in thrall to the unholy Western Trinity of Marx, Mill and Macaulay. (Since there is no substantial intellectual class in Sri Lanka, the Sinhala bigots can, fortunately for them, claim one enemy less.)

To be sure, similar forms of chauvinism can be found in other countries as well. In South Asia itself, the Islamists in Bangladesh and Pakistan consider their chief enemy within to be the Muslim liberal who engages with the West; and their chief enemy without to be the malign Hindus of India, here accused of conspiring to keep the Islamic umma from claiming its rightful place. Looking further afield, we have those Americans — such as the late political scientist Samuel Huntington — who claim that only those who speak English, celebrate the achievements of the West, and have an allegiance to the Christian creed can count as wholly reliable citizens of the United States of America.

Many years ago, the great Kannada writer Sivarama Karanth insisted that it was impossible to talk of ‘Indian culture as if it is a monolithic object’. ‘Indian culture today’, he pointed out, ‘is so varied as to be called “cultures”. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times: and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples. Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise that there is no place for chauvinism.’

These words need to be read afresh in India. But, as the civil war in Sri Lanka nears its end, they need to be read and heeded across the Palk Straits too. Far from being ‘the only organic race’ of their island, the Sinhala almost certainly migrated there from eastern India. In any case, in later centuries the culture of the island has been influenced and enriched by many races and peoples, among them Tamils, Arabs, the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British, who in religious terms were variously Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Parsi and atheist as well as Buddhist. The LTTE is a terrorist organisation — it is impossible to defend them. However, if their defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan army leads to a consolidation of Sinhala chauvinism, it will be impossible to defend that, too.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and the author of India After Gandhi