Written to mark the forthcoming publication of Challenges for Nation Building: Priorities for Sustainability and Inclusivity, Edited by Gnana Moonesinghe
We are no closer to nation building post war than we were during it, and before it. More accurately, we are no closer to the recognition that nation building needs to embrace the possibility, and arguably, desirability, of many nations in a State. This brings with it the complex challenge for a democracy to manage, based on the need for social cohesion, the centripetal and centrifugal forces of nation building – an enduring contest between inclusion and exclusion. These challenges can be in the domain of ideas, or they can be in the theatres of war, but they never go away. Nation building’s telos is not some nirvana of harmonious co-existence. It is a process, and like any other that involves history, emotions and multitudes of peoples, it will always be messy. And yet, how is it that we have failed so tragically to agree to a broadly shared vision – call it a supra-national, Sri Lankan identity – that in comparison India, even with its incredible diversity and difference, has managed to find in much greater abundance? Again, this is not to project a model of perfection to our Northern neighbour’s jai hind. It is to flag the singular absence of a Sri Lankan equivalent.
We have seen violent conflict in our country because we have dramatically failed to negotiate the ideas debate that undergirds nation building. Ideas that seek to define, devolve and sometimes deny determine a nation. This is a fluid dynamic, for ideas mutate as much as a context changes. There is no going back for example to ideas of nation building that dominated the politics of the 50’s and 60’s in Sri Lanka. These failed, and how! The challenge then becomes how we now foster ideas that flow from, but are not hostage to history. You can look at this through the lens of politics, education, language, media, rights, gender, law, identity, religion. Each will submit that nation building is founded first and foremost on that specific pillar, but the reality is what in Sinhala can be expressed as ‘mana sankalanayak’ – a bricolage of ideas. This is reflected in this volume, with contributors recognising that nation building is not a construct or process divorced from the politics and negotiation of identity and language. It also focuses on education, and in particular, the importance of a civic identity – how we see ourselves, and how we want to be seen. I believe ‘new media’ – media that leverages or is based on web, Internet and mobile technologies can help in this regard. In the vernacular, but also in English, leveraging new technologies can help those usually without voice take part in and feel part of debates that post-war, seek to define what and where we must go, be, avoid and emulate.
Often, these are definitions arbitrarily, self-servingly created and sustained by politicians, then justified by apparatchiks in various domains. The danger – much like WMD’s in Iraq – is that fiction risks, if it is repeated enough times being perceived as fact. Post war Sri Lanka’s nation building efforts smack of denial, decrying violently any counter-narrative to what is projected by government as the whole and only Truth. This is not just detrimental under the present regime, it sickeningly exacerbates a larger systemic problem – the rabid fear of what the Economist calls the “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. Simply put, if we don’t have the confidence to embrace difference and its expression as the foundation of nation building, we risk seeing the mere absence of war as the best glue that binds our peoples. A timbre of debate that celebrates participation over domination, difference over conformity, creative conflict over supine compliance, critical questioning over mindless submission still eludes us.
The Editors Note to this volume suggests that nation building is “about upholding ethnical values, high standards in morality, about sharing and about redressing people’s grievances”. I feel it is also essentially about human dignity. We are used to seeing its tragic loss in the IDP camps post-war. These images endure, and it is a grave mistake to think that any meaningful nation building will occur in an ahistorical vacuum removed from the emotions and violence they generate today, and will continue to generate even outside Sri Lanka.
Perhaps nation building post war should tap into progressive ideas within diasporas. A growing number of groups such as Lanka Solidarity are forging progressive networks and generating ideas that contest and transcend what they have been told by elders, often those who left Sri Lanka in the early 80s, to be immutable facts. This can and must surely encourage radical thinking within Sri Lanka, for the most progressive processes on nation building will be despite governments and politicians. They will begin with dignity and respect, include diversity and tolerance, debate identity and difference and denounce hate and harm. Nation building’s success is when we see it not as some pretentious academic or partisan political construct, but a process that continuously defines what is the best of us – a proud peoples, at peace with ourselves, progressive in our outlook, courageous in our ideas, innovative in our governance and confident in our democracy.