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Presidential Election Sharpens Ethnic Divide

Nov 19, 2019 2:32:27 PM - colombotelegraph.com

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The remarkable feature of the voting pattern on 16 November was that 60 to 65% of Sinhalese, hence one can conjecture about 75% of Sinhala Buddhists, voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a bigger share of SB voted than SWRD in 1956 or JR in 1977. In Tamil and Muslim districts, he polled less than 10%. Tamils and Muslims did not really vote for another Sinhalese, Sajith Premadasa; they have hardly heard of him. It was as overwhelming Tamil and Muslim vote against Gota, as overwhelming the Sinhala Buddhist vote rallied to him. If there were a way of knowing how Tamils and Muslims in the South voted, I think less than 10% opted for Gota. I am not debating whether the Tamil grouse that Gota caused the death of thousands of Tamil civilians is true. Nor am not I asking whether Muslim fears that Gota’s slogan of a national security state is intended to paint the community as terrorists, is correct. No, I am not asking these questions. I am saying something much simpler; that the overwhelming majority of Tamils and Muslims think these are true and that is how they voted. The vast majority of Sinhala-Buddhists, in contrast, wanted a strong and determined leader of their own genre and that is how they voted.

Like it or not (and I don’t like it) these are the facts and we must not bury our heads in the sand and pretend reality can be wished away. I guess everybody knows all this and its implications which are bad. Neither Tamils nor Muslims would like to live under a government, de facto, of another community from which they feel excluded. Another civil-war is not an option after the failure of the last one. This time it will be truculence, non-cooperation and political dissent. As time passes skirmishes of protest are possible which will be put down harshly. Economic policy, class dichotomy and liberalism will concede centre-stage to nativism and nationalism. Sri Lanka is again entering a phase in which the communal issue, this time three-dimensional (Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim) will be the hegemonic dialogue.

French philosopher Althusser used a catchy term. He said society may be “overdetermined” by some factor; that’s what I mean when I say the communal issue will become hegemonic again. Ideology has a material existence, he argued, because “an ideology exists in an apparatus and its practices” (quote from Lenin). Ideology manifests itself through actions, the role of the state etc, which are “inserted into practices” (Lenin again). So that’s the story; in the next period communalism will be the determining factor in politics, state and society. Pretty lousy, but no point denying reality.

My last point is what can be done about it. Gota can do nothing to bring about reconciliation given the nature of the forces standing behind him. To cure a national ailment people must change their minds. This is slow, takes decades. There could be remissions of the disease; aren’t we now back to the mindset of 1956 and 1983 again? The University of Chicago has done an annual survey for 47 years (1972-today) on society’s attitudes to abortion, gay rights, state support for underprivileged groups and whether certain political views should be banned. It found steady progress over time. Good you will say. But hang on! On dividing the sample into age groups (those born before 1928; between 1928 and the war; those born in the two decades after the war – baby boomers; those born 1965-80, the millennials, and so on) they made a surprising discovery. The views within each stratum hardly shifted over the years. What was happening was that more and more of the oldies were dying off while the number of people in consecutive samples belonging to newer generations was increasing. The truth then, is not that people learn and progress in their views; no, people are pretty stuck in their mindsets and exceptions are few. It’s just that the composition of the sample was changing with younger ones increasing in number and oldies dying off. Therefore, the average changed and social opinion seemed to evolve though individual opinion hardly did. (For a summary of the Chicago studies and graphs see Economist of 2-8 November 2019, page 81)

The depressing lesson is that few people change their views on fundamentals in their lifetime – religion, communalism, socialism, marriage. Most stick to their opinions till they conk. Looks like we need to await the arrival of the great reaper before we can do much about entrenched communalism.