Understanding Extreme Sinhala Nationalism

aa-lionelLionel Bopage, in The Island, 10 April 2002, reviewing article entitled  Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism by Michael Roberts (see details below)

Current conflict in Sri Lanka is explicable by nothing less than an analysis of Sri Lanka’s entire history. But “all history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,” says Emerson. In his article “Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism” Dr. Michael Roberts presents a broad but concise ‘culturalogical’ perspective of the development of Sinhala consciousness between the 16th and 20th centuries. This helps us to better understand today’s events in Sri Lanka that are mostly justified in the name of history and culture.

There was a continuing force of oral story telling and poetry among Sinhala people until the mid-twentieth century. However, faced with the task of superimposing capitalism on a feudal (or Asiatic type) set-up, the British colonialists proceeded with building infrastructure needed for the capitalist economy, bringing the country under one administration and making English the language of administration. Against this background, Michael explains how various communities such as Burghers, Jas, Yons and Ceylon Tamils came to occupy niches in that socio-economic order.


Coining the term “cultural nationalism” to encompass various dimensions of the current conflict in Sri Lanka, Michael indirectly raises the necessity to carry out the debate and dialogue in Sinhala language. To do this effectively, one needs to understand Sinhala psyche and the inter-related flexibility and complexity of day-to-day Sinhala communication and terminology.

Michael explains the basis of Sinhala ideology is Vamsa ideology, which projects the land “as a blessed place, blessed by Buddha and the Sinhala people as a chosen people”. He suggests that Sinhala collective identity was never egalitarian, given explicit expression in opposition to ‘sadi demala’ and a range of other foreigners such as ‘Kannadi, doluvara, Kaberi and Tuppahi’. Nevertheless, an encompassing ideological capacity is also visible in the process of incorporating vannirajavaru with feudal aristocracy and also indigenising larger bodies of people as Sinhala. Thus the principal socio-political interaction of the time has not been solely that of rejecting the outsider but if not assimilated over time, they became ‘children of a lesser god’. Michael also cites examples of exclusivity with styles of inclusivity.

Michael critically analyses the concept of ‘nation’ building in the colonial and post-colonial Sri Lanka. The development of the concept “Ceylonese” (Lankika) around the late nineteenth century shows the beginnings of a Ceylonese nationalism of an all-island, trans-ethnic kind. I believe this testing is restrained by the self-imposed disciplinary boundary of culture. If not constrained by this self-imposed boundary it would have been able to combine the relationship of this detail with the broad nascent capitalist means of production throwing more light into understanding current perspectives of extreme forms of nationalism.

Was there a conceptual mismatch between the Sinhala word “Lankika” and the English word “Ceylonese” which had an all-embracing multi-ethnic connotation? The rise of Dharmapala’s Movement in the early twentieth century paved the way for the use of terms such as “the sons of the soil”, “the Sinhala Buddhists”, “Sinhalese” instead of all-inclusive term Ceylonese and remarks on degeneration of the Sinhalese and castigation of westernization. And Michael suggests that the term “Sinhalese” in effect commences to subsume what was inclusive in the term “Ceylonese”.

The socio-political developments in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably the revival (or birth?) of Sinhala nationalist ideology, led to an unselfconscious equation of Ceylonese-as-Sinhalese. Michael lists a number of events that promoted Sinhalese nationalism in that period. The other contributing factors were the domination of the English language as a hold on power, modes of public opinion and anti-colonial imperatives. I feel, however, that Michael has not analysed the influences of Buddhist “Nikayas” in safeguarding their feudal cum Asiatic privileges in the new capitalist social formation. I am of the view that these influences significantly slowed down the transition of socio-economic relations from feudalism to capitalism, thus helping the society to retain a major part of its feudal characteristics.

The other aspect that is not looked at by Michael is the close proximity of Buddhism to the power centre and the close relationship between the Buddhist hierarchy and the political leadership during feudal times. During the colonial rule this close relationship broke down and it was only in 1950s that the proximity of Buddhism to the post independent ruling elite was re-established. The incompatibilities and paradoxes of different Buddhist ‘Nikayas’ are apparent in their diversity, in their concepts of transcendence and sacredness, and in problems of factionalism. However, since 1948, in a broad sense collective Sinhala Buddhist identity and consciousness become stronger in emphasis.

The Sinhala Maha Sabha, which was inactive in the 1930s, came to forefront in early 1940s under the guise of fostering “Sinhala nationalism” as a preliminary building block for friendly relations with other communities’ and using “Sinhalese must first try to unite the Sinhalese” as its slogan. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, a leading member of the Sinhala Sabha, bridged the regional divide through a strategic marriage and the religious divide through conversion to Buddhism.

With the growth of Sinhala nationalism the tendency to equate “Sinhala” and “Lankika” and to subsume the latter within “Sinhala” became strong. In 1956 and beyond, the strength of Ceylonese/Lankan nationalism declines through its replacement by strong Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. These nationalisms nurture each other in conflictual ways, comments Michael. Today, Ceylonese/Lankan nationalism is a marginalised force, albeit not dead, Michael states. What was “communal” with regard to Sinhala before 1956 became “national” afterwards. With a majoritarian sanction, Sinhala- ness was legitimised as “Sinhala nationalism”. In the 1940s Tamil-ness was conceptualized as “nationalism” but the Sinhala “renaissance” of 1956 ushered in a radical shift in Tamil politics and brought the Federal Party into the status of the predominant Tamil party. Thus “Sinhalese nationalism” became politically correct while Tamil nationalism became labelled as “communal”.

Significant number of Sinhalese continue to believe in the lurking danger of Tamilnadu, “the geo-political demographic factor”. Country political leadership exercised no restraint on populism and extreme Sinhala chauvinism. Arguing that there are attitudinal blockages among a significant segment of the Sinhala population, Michael suspects that the Dhammadipa and Sihaladipa concepts are deeply entrenched in the “thinking of some segments of the Sinhala population”. Since 1940s, extreme Sinhala groups have consistently opposed giving at least minimal concessions to Tamil minority. The refusals of accommodation have compounded the situation by pushing a sectional nationalism of Tamils to the position of a separatist nationalism.

In spite of growing nationalism in 1950s and 1960s, it is interesting to note Sinhala peoples’ rejection of Rajaratne’s extreme nationalism couched in socialist slogans and Tamil peoples’ rejection of extreme nationalism couched in separatist slogans ascertain this matter beyond doubt. Further verifications are witnessed in the recent voting patterns of the Sinhala people, latest being in voting for a peaceful negotiated settlement in 1994.

Michael’s thesis on deeply entrenched nationalist thinking appears to hold ground in the context of the recent Sri Lankan political history. However, the true test of this thesis will be an analysis of the expression of the will of the Sinhala people since the 60s. The current petrifying situation is not, l believe, due to “deeply entrenched nationalist thinking” but due to cyclically peaking, treacherously extremist nationalist positions taken by power-starving readerships of the mainstream political parties.

The other aspect that has not been analysed is the “culture of violence”. What is its relationship to national and cultural, particularly, religious aspirations? Current emphasis appears to be on emphasising the cause for violence in individual psychology which is broadly construed as a result of socio-political and economic deprivation of people rather than in “cultures of violence” of social groups. On the other hand the religious, in particular the Buddhist and Hindu, interpretations and justifications provide sanctity for today’s violence and the bases for its authorization. In my opinion, religious violence has much to do with the nature of the religious imagination, which has always had the propensity to absolutize and to project images of cosmic war.

Another significant issue is the attempt to place violence within the context of a cosmic, symbolic and transcendent conflict. This is accompanied by the immortalisation where casualties of each side becoming martyrs to their side with increasing demonisation of the casualties of opponents. The cure for religious interpretation of violence may ultimately lie in a renewed appreciation of religion itself and in the acknowledgement of religion in public life. Violence has a lot to do with the current social tensions in the context of growing trend of economic globalisation, that demands absolute solutions. In this volatile atmosphere of uncertainty, many cultural communities experience a sense of humiliation and indignity by whose aspirations, as a result of the loss of their selfrespect, integrity and dignity in the wake of virtually global and local social and political shifts.

Posing the question why the staunch Sinhala activists argue that devolution will divide the country, Michael points out that they turn a blind eye to the stark reality that Sri Lanka is facing division today. We must ensure that ‘Lankika’ secures a pluralistic meaning that encompasses island’s all ethnic and religio-ethnic categories, concludes Michael. But why do those protesting voices do not see that the repetitive refusal to grant concessions only pushed the Tamils further down the track of separation? He observes the need to transcend the difficulties and to work out the reasoning-cumemotions of the Sinhala nationalists.

The blindness to stark reality Michael refers to is not wide spread I believe. Many Sinhalese are not vociferous in expressing their thinking. Numerically small groups who are enormously vociferous have turned their blind eye to the stark reality. It is these groups who have manipulated political situation and readerships to unilaterally abrogate agreements multi-laterally reached. Root causes for this lie in my opinion in their proximity to power wielding elite, their business and personal interests being affected by peace prospects, their strong emotions emanated by the terror of the war and prevailing neo-colonial consciousness and feudal vestiges.

The basis for my minor disagreement with Michaei lies in the restricted cultural approach he adopts in his analysis. While the points, raised are absolutely essential and critical, he uses only one approach among many, and it neither spans the entire area of study nor subsumes all the other disciplines within itself. For example, one can study a problem of ecology without applying biochemistry, but the study will not be holistic in approach and will not divulge causes or solutions to the problem.

Michael’s writing is thought provoking and critically constructive. Developing such a critique has exposed some of the failings of Sri Lanka’s ‘socio-economic and political history and I believe that his antique of cultural nationalism has to be applauded. It will help “enlightening” intelligent readers genuinely interested in achieving long lasting just peace through a negotiated settlement to the ongoing conflict.

I feel that the material in Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism should be compulsive reading by all Sri Lankans irrespective of their divisive affiliations. The writing concentrates on the dilemma of understanding extreme Sinhala nationalism. Michael’s work is an attempt at challenging the tradition, conservative thinking and moulded attitudes, but one does not need expertise in history or culture to appreciate Michael’s contribution. This article can stand alone in the Marga series but in combination with the rest of the series may generate a holistic picture of the conflict to an enlightened eye.

*** This review is also available at  http://www.ozlanka.com/reviews/sinhalaness.htm   ***

Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism is No. 3  in the Pamphlet Series entitled A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka presented by the Marga Institute in the period 2000-03 or so after a series of Workshops in Sri Lanka….. for example see https://books.google.com.au/books/about/A_History_of_Ethnic_Conflict_in_Sri_Lank.html?id=aUBQAQAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y for reference to “


*  A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: The role of the Sangha in the reconciliation process

Front Cover

Marga Institute ……………………. by CR de Silva and Tessa Barholomeusz

* The Burden of History: Obstacles to Power sharing in Sri Lanka … also appeared in Contributions to Indian Sociology 35(1):65-96 · February 2001 

Abstract: For around seventeen centuries the Sinhalese have sustained a historical consciousness through oral and written modes of transmission. These vamsa traditions emphasise the moment of civilisational state formation through the founding father, Vijaya, a tale that enters modem history texts and thus receives the status of ‘fact’. This tale enters contemporary verbal battles of legitimation between Sinhalese and Tamil protagonists. A recent article by Wickramasinghe indicates how the Vijaya story can be a central pillar in the refusal to countenance devolution of power to the Tamils in the north-east. His unelaborated reference to Vijaya indicates how the belief in the Sinhalese claims to original possession operates in semi-subterranean ways among those extremists who deny the need for autonomy on various constitutional grounds in the vocabulary of democracy. One such is the Sinhala Urumaya (Heritage) Party that emerged in mid-2000 and around which many lines of opposition to the government’s ‘Devolution Package’ coalesced. Despite its poor electoral performance in October 2000, the SU represents a powerful strand of thinking that bears the values associated with the ‘revolution of 1956’, values which are now ingrained in all the Sinhala-dominated parties. …. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240716805_The_burden_of_history_Obstacles_to_power_sharing_in_Sri_Lanka


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