One Nation – Divided Country | Diverse Nationalities – One Country

The only foundation, the definitive purpose and the eternal principle of Sri Lanka’s future development must be “to preserve the land we call Sri Lanka with all its living and non-living resources for the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher children of the future, and their children; and theirs, in a state better than what it is of today.” These words were mindfully written by me for the speech I delivered at the Viyathmaga Convention 2018.

Its apparent meaning is that we should live today without destroying the resources of this land in order to secure the ability for the future generations to enjoy them. I will write about this in detail in the future. But there is another more deeper meaning which I’m trying to convey through the above statement. It is to propose a future-proof solution to our national identity crisis. This article is that supplement.

The Land and its Name

Sri LankaThis land has been called by different names in the past. Sihaladiva, Lanka, Thaprobane, Serendib, Sinhale, Eelam, Ceylon were names used by different people at different times. As written in the Kandyan Convention, it was the “Sinhale” kingdom which was betrayed to the British Empire in 1815 by the short-sighted aristocrats of the time. For the next 133 years this land was to be called “Ceylon” by the imperial British colonisers.

“Sri Lanka” is the short form of the present-day name of this land. According to the legendary epics of Ravana, “LankaPura” was his capital city. Although it is debatable why, when and how the name “Lanka” was used to call this land, there is evidence to believe our ancestors used it throughout the history. It is by the 1972 Constitution, that name once again gains its official binding to this land which we now call the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”.

The one letter Sinhala prefix “ශ්‍රී” (etym. Sanskrit, pronounced as ʃri or Shree) was written as “Sri” by those who wrote the original constitution. That’s probably why some foreigners call it “Siri Lanka”. Some old enterprises still use “Ceylon” in their brand name. Bank of Ceylon is called as “Lanka Bankuva” in Sinhala, and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation is called as “Lanka Khanija Thel Neethigatha Sansthava”.

Tamils often call this land as “Elankey”. Americans, Australians and the Lankans who lived a year or two in the US or Australia call it “Shri Laanka”. Tweeps use #lka. What I’m trying to say is that the nomenclature used to refer to this land is never consistent or permanent. It will certainly change in the future as it did in the past.

Race, Race and Race

PeopleThe Sinhala word “Jaathiya” is the common word used to express Race, Ethnicity and Nationality interchangeably. Although we can talk about these nuanced constructs in length, the purpose of this article is not such. For the ease of understanding let me simplify them. The concept of “Race” is a complicated, highly debatable, biological and sociological classification. Ethnicity is a human-social-religious-cultural-historical classification. Nationality is a state-legal classification. However, “Jaathiya” by its original meaning of “birth” conflated with its simplistic meaning of “types” has become a convenient and controversial term used for all above constructs.

It would be a wonderful scientific experiment to analyse the genotypes and phenotypes of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and other many different races who are born, migrating and dying in this land. But as someone who holds a Degree in Genetics, I doubt it will solve the national identity crisis in Sri Lanka.

In this context, “Jaathiya” is more closer to the concept of “ethnicity” (Janavargaya), i.e. A large enough population that demonstrates similar behaviour in language, social norms and values, religious beliefs and rituals, traditions, customs and exclusions, art, culinary, fashion, sports and games, dances and celebrations; and similar thought patterns driving those behaviours can be identified as one “Jaathiya”.

It may or may not have a biological basis. However, because the primary reason for the propagation of identity is being “born” to that “Jaathiya”; and many of the above characteristics are passed from generation-to-generation, it is reasonable to call it “Jaathiya”.

Jaathiya and Nationality

Race, Ethnicity, Nationality, IdentityWhether for scientific reasons or for philosophical reasons, saying there is no such thing as “Jaathiya” is to be ignorant. There is a clearly identifiable population called the Sinhala Jaathiya. There is a clearly identifiable population called the Tamil Jaathiya. There is a clearly identifiable population called as the Muslim Jaathiya. Even with smaller numbers the Malay Jaathiya and Burgher Jaathiya can be clearly identified.

That is because each of those populations demonstrates unique human-social-religious-cultural-historical characteristics different from one another. They are complicated characterises which evolved in the past, evolving in the present and will continue to evolve in the future. It is those characteristics which are experienced and expressed by the people of those Jaathika or National identities. He or she who does not accept such identities of others is either a fool; or a nihilist or an opportunist with a hidden agenda.

In addition, calling there is only one “Sri Lankan” Jaathiya or Nation or Nationality is extremely ridiculous. There is no identifiable identity whether as Jaathiya or race or ethnicity or nationality called “Sri Lankan”. Not here, not anywhere.

The attempts to disavow the identities of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher; and forcing them into an artificial, non-existent, unnatural “Sri Lankan” national identity is a violation of their human-social-religious-cultural-historical rights. In fact, it is a soft national massacre.

“This is where Sri Lanka’s national identity crisis is at in the 21st century.”

Nation-State and Republic Contradiction

Some countries have “Nation-states” which were created by the vast majority of a single race or ethnic population thereby making them a nationality. Germany, Egypt and Bangladesh and many more are Nation-states.

Until 1815 there must have been a Nation-state in this land. Majority of Sinhala people accepted the Sinhale Kingdom until then. But thereafter for 133 years this land was a colony of the British empire. And when we received this land back from the British in 1948, we did not get what we gave up originally. There is little value in debating about that choice which was taken by the British and the local aristocrats of the time.

There were and there died Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay and Burgher people in the fight for independence. The local and foreign circumstantial contingencies were complex at the time. Nevertheless, when this land became fully independent in 1972, it definitely became a democratic socialist republic, a land of the its people, ruled by the people, for the people. That, I think is the greatest achievement of our civilisation in the 20th century.

But it no longer was a “Nation-state”. There is no one nationality anymore. This land and all its resources truly and irrevocably belongs equally to the different nationalities of Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher.

Equal rights for different Nationalities

Equal RightTherefore, it is wrong to call Sri Lanka as one nation with one Sri Lankan nationality or Jaathiya. You can’t change the Jaathika identity of a population every time the name of the land changes. It’s a far worse mistake than the 1956 Sinhala language policy. Conflict between races, ethnicities or nationalities occur when their identities are challenged. “Identity” is the root cause of the 30 year long internal war which exploded on the issue of language. In the Republic of Sri Lanka there lives different nationalities of Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher with equal rights and responsibilities.

If you prefer Sinhala identity, for it you have the fullest freedom. If you prefer Tamil identity, for it you have the fullest freedom. If you prefer Muslim identity, for it you have the fullest freedom. If you prefer Malay identity, for it you have the fullest freedom. If you prefer Burgher identity, for it you have the fullest freedom. If you prefer no identity, for it too you have the fullest freedom.

Any other “national” has the freedom to legally become a citizen of this country and live as their preferred national identity. In a country where citizens are born free with the absolute sovereign rights to this land, the government has no right to force us into any one or more nationality. The people’s representatives who are trying to do that must be rejected at full. This highly important clarification must be amended to the constitution.

You might be wondering then what you should write under “Nationality” when filling print and digital forms. Because we are not a “Nation-state” it is wrong to write as “Sri Lankan”. We should correctly write our national identity “Sinhala”, “Tamil”, “Muslim”, “Malay”, “Burgher”, “British”, “American”, or “None”

Accordingly, “National Flag” should be changed to “State Flag”, and “National Anthem” to “State Anthem”. It will remove the “Jaathika” affiliation with these state symbols. Government bodies which has the word “National” in their name should be changed to “State” (Raajya).

But let’s not confuse this with “citizenship” which is merely a legal convention to identify the geographic location of a person. Therefore, it is correct to write as “Sri Lankan” under the label of citizenship. Besides, people change their citizenship when they migrate. But evidently change of citizenship hardly changes one’s sense of national identity.

Children of the future

Unity in DiversityIn a country where different and diverse nationalities live with equal rights has a mature society. In such a country the competition between nationalities will weaken. When your identity is not challenged in any way, why would there be any competition. Then we can stop the insincere reconciliation political tactics.

As the old racist political actors succumb to their age in the next 10-20 years, the golden age of the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” will begin. In that future, the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher will not only protect their own nationalities but will protect the others’. Only then we will see a mature “Democracy” beyond the barriers of identity politics.

A garden is not beautiful when it has flowers of the same colour. It will be beautiful when it is filled with a multitude of diverse flowers with different colours and fragrance. With the interaction between different nationalities great art, literature, architecture, engineering marvels will blossom. A land where people of different nationalities live with mutual respect and trust will emerge. It is the task of us who are living today to make that renaissance happen in the future.

Please comment below.

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  1. M Sri Saravana
    Sorry for the delayed input sir. Little bit work, but read the article a few days ago. I was thinking about it, in fact pondering about it. For all those years, I considered myself Sri Lankan; I never liked the idea of Sri Lankan Tamil. I never liked the idea of separate state and just calling me by Sri Lankan Tamil sounded like I distant myself from my mother country. I thought maybe these separate cultural differences are the root reason for the problem at hand – even worse it is being used as an active fuel in the political agenda for votes and championship. So I thought maybe just calling ourselves Sri Lankan, but we can have our cultures, might be a better way – but. Your article made me think about that choice in a different way. I am all ears if anything that will produce unity and peace. If we can or able to achieve this one nation with diversity (we already have diversity, what you are talking about marked diversity if I understood you correctly) that is even better. But it sounds more theoretical to me than anything in short-term practical – this is why I want to see you develop some framework to this approach. This, your approach is great, I love it and I want it to work – but you got to show how this can be achieved. I want to see more on this. I want to see your idea on how this can be achieved. Not just what needs to be done. I want to see how it needs to be done. I am interested in how it should be done, because that is the next step, IMO. We already identified the problem as such. Let’s see how we can plan to solve it. I want to see the framework you can develop and I like to put my inputs if that helps. All I want is some peace, smiles, and happiness. Sorry for the late comment. These are just my personal opinions. I like to see more! Please forgive me if I have said anything wrong.
    • Dear Saravana, you haven't said anything wrong and please don't apologise for speaking openly. You are correct, we need to make practical changes on top of this. Let's work on it. The most important thing is that the majority of the people understand "Diversity and Equal Opportunity". Education has an important role to play. I will share my ideas in the future.
Eranda Ginige
Social Innovator, Writer, Speaker