This article appeared in the June 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) under my real name of Michael O’Leary. The strapline was: “Will Sri Lanka be able to forget its past and fashion a new entity that subsumes history, culture and ethnicity? muses Michael O’Leary.”
In Ireland, nationalist rebels fought to unite the north-east with the rest of the island. In Sri Lanka, nationalist rebels fight to separate the north-east from the rest of the island. ‘Nationalism’ became a common concept in the mid-19th century. Today, most people live in multi-ethnic independent nation-states. Eric Hobsbawm defined a nation-state as “a territory, preferably coherent and demarcated by frontier lines from its neighbours, within which all citizens – without exception – come under the exclusive rule of the territorial government and the rules under which it operates”‘
Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny'”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future”. Kemal Atatürk – founding a modem secular nation – co-opted the Hittites and Sumerians into the project. Ernest Gellner asserted: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness- it invents nations where they do not exist.” Paul Ignotus wrote about Hungary: “A nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.” It has been said that the literary renaissance in Dublin, which helped to forge the Irish national consciousness, probably came about because five or six people happened to be neighbours and cordially hated one another.
Sri Lankan nationalists such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement, and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century. Ratmalana Sri Dharmarama Thero and Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote of an ancient, highly-developed Lankan civilisation. Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said: “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it'”. Anagarika Dharmapala wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber … We were a great people'” Ponnambalam Arunachalam wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”
Historical symbols are selectively reinterpreted to create a myth of historical continuity, including a community of common ancestry and destiny. Anderson uses the term ‘imagined communities’. He describes how Indonesia, a vast polyglot multi-ethnic accumulation of 3,000 islands under the colonial rule of the Dutch, imagined itself into a nation.
A very different nation is Switzerland, a country of three (or should that be four?) languages which was, until recently, poor and backward. The Swiss Confederation was supposed to have been founded 700 years ago. In fact, the Swiss nation only came about in 1891.
How did these very different agglomerations imagine themselves into nations?
EM Forster wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”” Orson Welles had a similar attitude: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask: ‘What’s for lunch?”
A country is an aggregation of rocks, soil, plants, animals and humans existing under certain climatic conditions in a geographical location. Can the result of a succession of such accidents inspire love? Nations can inspire profoundly self-sacrificing love –Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Anderson said: “Dying for one’s country -which usually one does not choose – assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association or, perhaps, even Amnesty International cannot rival … for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will.”
Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud exchanged letters on this topic. Freud believed that the human psyche is motivated on one side by erotic instincts that seek to “preserve and unite” and on the other by destructive instincts that seek to “kill and destroy”. Politics embodies an aspiration to promote identification and love, alongside permission to foster aggressiveness. It is unfortunate that love of country often has to entail hatred of something else.
Peace has descended on the north of Ireland and the south has been blessed with wealth. Those who sought peace have been marginalised and those who cynically destroyed power sharing and devolution now share power in a devolved statelet, advising other countries – like Sri Lanka – how to achieve peace. After some 30 years and 3 000 deaths, Paisley and McGuinness are now a double act as lovable as Laurel and Hardy. The IRA s bombs failed to achieve a united Ireland. It was the EU that brought peace, because republicans and loyalists could join together in cross-border pan-European institutions without ‘surrendering’ to the institutions of the old enemy’.
As the old imperial blocs disintegrated, regions and aspirant nations voluntarily subsumed themselves in other blocs. Could Sri Lanka strengthen its unitary sovereignty and economy by subsuming its disparate parts in a larger Asian association?
Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of the Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of what France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Will Sri Lanka be able to forget and fashion an entity combining all cultural histories as successfully as its cricket team?