The launch of the book entitled ‘Nation Building’ provides an occasion for all of us to reflect on some of the major challenges facing our society after the restoration of peace and normalcy to our country as a whole.
The term "nation" and the concept of a "nation" have been at the heart of the violent conflict that has ended. That conflict was largely rooted in our failure, in the inability of the different communities in our country, to agree on the character of the nation that was to be built in Sri Lanka after independence. The end of the military project launched by the LTTE has also ended one long and tragic phase of Sri Lanka's post independence struggle to define its nationhood. Now we are at a different stage.
The post war situation and the lessons that have been learnt over the last three decades have provided the authors of the book the opportunity to formulate the issues of nationhood and pose the critical challenges from a new vantage point, a new perspective. Let me try to explore very briefly this perspective in the book and share with you some of the conclusions I drew from a quick reading of it.
First, I find that this fresh perspective to which I refer is implicit in the whole process which went to the production of the book.
Those who gave leadership to the initiative that has led to this publication have been able to bring together a group of committed Sri Lankans representing all its main ethnic groups - Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, the Tamil Community in the plantation sector. This representative multi-ethnic character of the team has been integral to the task that was undertaken and gives it its unique quality, its credibility and seriousness of purpose. Together, these persons have been engaged in a collective effort to inquire into a wide range of issues all of which have a critical bearing on the task of what they describe as "nation-building”.
Consequently what we have here is the outcome of a process of exchange and interaction which included Sri Lankans drawn from all our main ethnic groups; in brief what we have is a rich constructive multi-ethnic dialogue. We need to foster and proliferate such multi-ethnic encounters and dialogues on nation-building of the type Gnana Moonesinghe and her group have been able to do in this initiative. What the book has been successful in doing is developing a framework of communication that enables us to inquire into our common problems in a spirit of equanimity and reasoning, free from adversarial confrontation, without recrimination and acrimony. The task of nation-building in a society which includes different ethnic and religio-cultural identities requires such a framework; the participants in the discourse must have the capacity to listen with respect to dissenting points of view in a collective search for a cohesive whole that can reconcile these differences. This means that we come together in the knowledge that none of us can claim to possess the entire answer to the problems and that each of us must contribute to the total resolution of the conflict.When we have adjusted our mode of communication in this manner a formidable obstacle is overcome; a fundamental change of attitude has taken place.
Second I was impressed by the breadth of scope, the width of range of the discussion in the book. This substantiates the claim which the book makes to be holistic in its approach. It views problems as parts of a totality and endeavours to examine them within that totality - the totality of human development. This approach also enables the authors to place the ethnic dimension in a more inclusive perspective and mitigate its divisive characteristics. The problems that people face, whether it be in public administration, education, media, the economy, the judiciary , are the common problems they face as citizens in an imperfect democracy; they are problems of good governance and human development that cut across boundaries of ethnicity, religion and region.
The authors are persons who have dealt with these issues at first hand in their own professional careers - e.g Leelananda de Silva on administration, Tissa Jayatilaka on education and Lyn Ockersz on the media. They provide valuable insights on the substantive issues and problems they discuss and make useful recommendations for remedial action. The strong emphatic message that comes from these contributions is that the task of nation-building is the common task of strengthening the foundations of good governance and human development that can effectively deal with these problems.
The point made here is well taken but it also underlines the importance of a political framework which is fully participatory, through which all communities can freely and fully engage in the task of ensuring good governance and development and by that very engagement promote the process of building a united nation. The authors in the relevant chapters go on to point out that power shared on ethnic lines and elites that acquire power based on ethnic criteria are not a guarantee of good governance and human development. This process of power sharing helps in the aggregation of power in the hands of ethno-centric elites who have no vision of collective national goals that must include all communities. Susil Siriwardene, Gnana Moonesinghe, A.C. Visvalingam and Javed Yusuf move along a path which is the opposite of the ethno-centric adversarial approach of the political parties. They move away from the path which goes towards the ethnic identity and strengthens it; they try to find the path that inquires how we can move from ethnic identity in the direction of a national identity that is inclusive, with common goals to which all Sri Lankan citizens can commit themselves. This is not a loss of ethnic and cultural identities but a reconfiguration and fulfilment in a larger unity. This path- finding effort can be singled out as the principal concern and focus of the book.
There is of course a tension between the different approaches taken to nation building in the book. Susil Siriwardene discusses two paradigms - the successful paradigm of a collective national identity in which all groups and collective identities have a place in what he calls the grand narrative of the " greater nation" and the other a paradigm of what he calls"state building" on ethnic lines which leads to division and separation. He considers that the political processes of India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia were driven by the first paradigm while those of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh were driven by the second. Visvalingam argues for a nation-building approach which seeks to efface the distinctions of ethnicity in all its forms and bases itself on a secular rights- based citizenship which is enjoyed by all Sri Lankans. Lakshman Marasinghe in his discussion on devolution calls for a more tempered inclusion of ethnic and religio-cultural diversity in a unifying framework of nationhood.
These different approaches provide valuable and necessary insights into the complexity of the problem of nation building and makes us sensitive to the variety of concerns which must be taken into account in resolving the differences. We realize there is no simple either/or and that the dichotomies of ethnic identity and overarching national identity cannot be easily resolved. It was a problem that preoccupied the colonial rulers before the transfer of power under the Donoughmore Constitution and the Soulbury Constitution. They argued against the recognition and preservation of the ethnic identity in the new political system. They were of the view that the modern secular democratic state had no place for such identities and that the new democratic citizen will replace the ethnic identities. We have now learnt that these expectations were wholly unrealistic in the Sri Lankan context and we are as yet seeking for the national forms of co-existence that will resolve this dichotomy - a national identity to which all ethnic identities would be proud to belong - as probably would be true of the national identity that India has tried to forge to include its immense linguistic and regional diversity.
The discussion of the constitutional issues in Marasinghe's chapter recall for us the other dilemmas of nationhood with which we had to struggle and which we have not yet successfully resolved. It takes us back to the opportunities that were missed in the pre-independence period when the constitutions for a self governing, and later, an independent Sri Lanka were put in place - the Donoughmore and Soulbury Constitutions. Marasinghe discusses the constitutional reforms needed in a multi -ethnic polity. He analyses the different forms which devolution of power needs to take in different circumstances. This brings us back to some of the ground realities of the multi-ethnic context in which nation-building must take place and reminds us that an appropriate form of devolution of power must be an essential political foundation for nation-building. The chapter has to be read together with Visvalingam's discussion on sovereignty and subsidiarity.
There, the emphasis is on devolution of power or "subsidiarity" as the instrument for empowering the people and enhancing the participation of the citizens to ensure accountability and good governance. In such a process ethnicity is not the decisive criterion, the governing principle is the overarching civic identity. At this point we might recall two features of the Donoughmore Constitution which are relevant for this discussion. Unlike the Soulbury Commission, the Donoughmore Commission was more sensitive to the need to adapt the democratic institutions that evolved in their own country to the Sri Lankan context and the specific characteristics of its polity. The Commissioners in rejecting federal arrangements as not being feasible seemed to be aware that these arrangements were successful in cases where constituent partners were fairly well balanced in terms of economic resources and demographic weight and that it would not yield positive results in the Sri Lankan case.
While opting for a unitary system and an integrated polity they introduced a novel system of sharing power at the centre through the Executive Committee system.
This was reinforced with the recommendation they made to strengthen the local government system and provide for a considerable degree of decentralization of government. You would recall that one of their important recommendations was the establishment of Provincial Councils. Regrettably the Soulbury Constitution paid little attention to either the sharing of power at the centre or the restructuring of local government. In their deliberations they did not give sufficient weight to the plurality of Sri Lankan society. Isaiah Berlin in his perceptive analysis of the different types of liberty makes a comment on the special features of the liberty to which minorities aspire: "There is the universal craving for status and understanding, the desire to be an independent agent capable of self direction, achieve self-rule and autonomy, possess a share of pubic power to order the lives of all citizens ……These are part of the liberty which motivate liberation movements, minorities, and ethnic groups." This observation of Berlin's directs our attention to the majority/minority relations in our own country and the deep-seated roots of the conflict that emerged after independence.
The contributions of Gnana Moonesinghe, Susil Siriwardene, Sajeeva Samaranayake and Weeramantry emphasise another crucial aspect of nation building. They point out that political institutions and systems of government are by themselves inadequate to sustain a process of nationbuilding. If one were to bring together what they have to say about the other fundamentals of nation- building they are emphasizing that the process of nation-building will be successful only if it is inspired by a collective vision of the desired future and the good life to which all citizens can aspire and have equal opportunity to realize. The emphasis here is on values and the value system which a society is able to develop and which will determine the ethics of leadership in that society, the adherence to the virtues that must govern the exercise of power, the public concern that must motivate the citizenry.
Of course the value system that must sustain nationhood takes us beyond the political domain. Part six of the book contains contributions which tells us that the value system that builds our nationhood has to be nourished both by the secular values based on democracy and human rights as well as the values of duty, self denial and love of others that are an essential part of our spiritual heritage. These are issues which need to be located at the centre of our discussion on nation building.
Gnana and her colleagues have accomplished a great deal in the initiative they have already taken in producing this book. Their discussion opens a whole range of issues which have to be pursued further both by them as well as by other similarly committed groups. After reading ‘Nation Building’ I went back to Michael Ignatieff's book ‘Blood and Belonging’ where he chronicles what he calls his "journeys into the new nationalism" and reflects on the intense passion and violence of these new nationalisms that have emerged - he deals with Croatia and Serbia and Northern Ireland among others.
He distinguishes between two types of nationalism - a distinction which is very relevant for the task that is undertaken in the book ‘Nation Building’. One type he describes as "civic nationalism" which "envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values." The other type he terms "ethnic nationalism" based on the argument that "what gives unity to the nation, what made it a home, a place of passionate attachment was not the cold contrivance of shared rights but the people's pre-existing ethnic characteristics: their language, religion, customs and traditions". A society which has multiple ethno cultural identities needs to grapple with this dichotomy and find the right answers to the problems of nationhood it faces. The book we are discussing - ‘Nation Building’- directs us along the paths that can lead us to the answers. Let me end with a few lines from the final paragraph of Ignatieff's book which I found is a fitting conclusion to this brief review of ‘Nation Building’.
"What's wrong with the world is not nationalism itself. Every people must have a home, every such hunger must be assuaged. What's wrong is the kind of nation, the kind of home that nationalists want to create and the means they use to seek their ends . Wherever I went I found a struggle going on between those who still believe that a nation should be home to all, and race, colour, religion and creed should be no bar to belonging and those who want their nation to be home only to their own ."