Thursday, December 28, 2006

For a Sri Lankan Nationalism

Initally posted at Groundviews.

From time to time at various forums and speeches the idea of promoting a single Sri Lankan identity has been put forward as a factor in finding a solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Rarely though, these sometimes passionate pleas to build a common Sri Lankan identity have proven to be anything more than lip service, or speech enhancers. Given the historic context of the evolution of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state, and its monumental mistakes of the post-independent era, there is a need to institutionalize or at least put in place institutional enablers which could prosper a common identity.

For lessons in cultivating a common national identity we need not look much further than across the Palk Strait and into the multicultural India. The Indian freedom struggle led by Gandhi and the Indian Congress managed to induce a form of Indian nationalism it seems out of nothingness. India at the time was nothing but a country put together by the British, and therefore the primary source of agitation the congress cultivated was based on ant-colonialism, not religion, ethnicity or language. The congress managed to put together sort of a Noah’s Ark nationalism which glued together India’s diverse population. Unlike in Sri Lanka, where whatever pre-independence multicultural cooperation was soon replaced by Sinhalese chauvinism, the Indian congress went on to create pluralist constitution in India despite the partition and the creation of Pakistan.

Mukul Kesavan, the author of secular commonsense and an opinion writer for the Culcutta Telegraph goes on to great detail on the topic here. I would take the time to just post a relevant extract when he goes on to deduce what would happen had India taken the majoritarian route :

The violence that India as a majoritarian state would have generated can be estimated by looking at a south Asian parallel in miniature, the example of Sri Lanka. In terms of social indicators, Sri Lanka, like Kerala, represents the best of south Asia. Yet, even in this oasis of literacy, female emancipation and all-round loveliness, the absence of a pluralist nationalism led directly to Sinhala chauvinism, Tamil disaffection and chronic civil war. And this in a small island nation with just two substantial ethnic communities: the violence that majoritarian politics would have created in a country as diverse as India, even a divided India, is unimaginable. [link]

It’s worth exploring some of these pluralist characteristics as well as the fallacies of the Sri Lankan state both in its structure and its being which hinder the formulation of a pluralist Sri Lankan nationalism.

Unlike in India the ideological premise for nationhood in Sri Lanka is and has always been Sinhalese Buddhism; and therefore Sinhalese Buddhists are made to feel that they are the sole proprietors of the nation, something which almost naturally results in the alienation of all other minority communities. This supremacy is both constitutionally guaranteed and practiced in earnest by the state and its various branches. Government officers, police stations and most other state institutions operate (for all practical purposes) in Sinhala, the spirit of Vesak is enforced by law, and the most visible monument built for the 2004 tsunami is a Brahmin Buddha statue. This of course is to say nothing of the more violent expressions of the ideology displayed so nakedly in the ’83 riots.

If one thing is clear, the Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology to carve out a Sri Lankan statehood is a failed experiment; to repeat it means to aspire to fit the very definition of insanity. If Sri Lanka is to build a sustainable pluralist nationalism, the state must be made secular. The state should not give precedence to any particular religion or any other cultural, ethnic or linguistic identity.

Another necessary condition is of course, is devolution of power. The current steps in that direction is encouraging, but these efforts should be backed by solid political will which so far has not been forthcoming.

These may not necessarily be pre-conditions for building a true Sri Lankan identity but something which goes hand in hand to formation of such. What may be a pre-condition to induce a true Sri Lankan nationalism is perhaps a ‘national grievance’; almost all nationalist movements was based on such a common grievance; the Indians found it in British colonialism, the Tamils in Sinhalese majoritarianism, and the Nepalese in undemocratic monarchism.

What is then, the truest most universal Sri Lankan grievance? I have no obvious answer. I can only wonder, perhaps if the state can be more accommodative to the minority communities, especially the Tamils, then such a grievance could be borne out of the ‘war’ and the current conflict itself.

The minority communities of this country, especially the ethnic minorities need to see a change of attitudes and practices of the state, and its institutions. They need to see real steps in a direction which ultimately results in equal citizenship and institutional protection both in word and in deed. Only then can we perhaps even speak about creating a true and a sustainable Sri Lankan nationalism.

Without these things, I’m afraid all pleas for a Sri Lankan nationalism or an identity would merely be cosmetic.

Friday, December 22, 2006

How to change the world

If there ever was a book on the subject you would think it would be a best seller, there is one – and it isn’t a best seller. Partly because no one wants to change world, and partly, because the book is about social entrepreneurs; a set of stories of people who have used entrepreneurial spirit to solve social problems. This post is not meant to be a review of the said book but to just put down a few thoughts on social entrepreneurship and a couple of trends which I thought were wonderful.

No doubt, the term ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ is a buzzword, but a bit more than that. Ashoka - whose founder Bill Drayton is credited for coining the term - defines social entrepreneurship as “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.”

Around the world hundreds, If not thousands of people and organizations are engaged enterprising initiatives which benefits not only themselves but many more people around them. They are in every imaginable sector from education, health care, environment, finance and more. From Florence nightingale to Muhammad Yunus and Bono they have lived through the ages. Due to advances in technology, globalization, freer and more open societies, these social entrepreneurs along with the rest of the ‘citizen sector’ is getting more mainstream and more prominent. I wonder whether we are seeing a new phase of socially oriented capitalism. This may or may not be the case.

I would not take the time to go much further into whole concept of social entrepreneurship for more intensive exploration on the subject and an extensive collection of stories on different social entrepreneurial initiatives I’d recommend the book by David Bronstein of the same title as this post.

For the purpose this post I would just touch on two initiatives, or rather phenomena’s that I’ve found interesting.

One is the (Red) initiative designed to harness the power of consumerism to combat AIDS and other ills which plague the African continent. The initiative is led by Bono, the U2 lead singer and has support of people like Opera and Kanye West; it was also featured on the Google home page in recent the International AIDS day. The model works by companies creating specific (red) products such as iPods, phones, watches and Amex Cards, etc where portion of the profit is given to the global fund to combat AIDS in Africa. The campaign has so far raised more than $10 Million in Europe alone. The model itself is easily replicable and overcomes problems of similar models by having solid products that can’t be easily ‘pirated’. There is even room for it to be replicated for local causes within the Sri Lankan context. Will any Sri Lankan be that enterprising and committed remains to be seen.

The second phenomenon I’d like to touch on is Microfinance. The concept is nothing as new and has been around, it seems, for ages. Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus pioneered the concept of micro-credit in which his Grameen bank gave out loans for groups of poor people (mostly women) where each member is responsible for the due repayment of the others in the group, failure to make repayments in time would mean the whole group loses access to further loans, thus creating a sort of a social pressure in the absence of hard collateral, like say land, which is necessary in the case of traditional lending institutions.

Grameen is by no means alone, there are many other institutions offering similar programs elsewhere in the so called, developing world, especially in places like Africa where lack of formal property rights makes it impossible, for poor people to access traditional loans and thereby alleviate themselves from poverty. The key ingredient in all these initiative is localization, just because it worked in Bangladesh doesn’t mean it will work in Ethiopia, or Monaragala. Diversification is an another critical element, it may be the case that the need for a particular community may not be credit per se, but other financial needs such as insurance, or leasing. Microfinance institutions (MFI’s) have therefore developed microinsurance, microleasing and other innovative schemes to address the needs of that particular community. A good report on the subject is available at the Globalisation Institute, which is well worth a read.

I’m not sure of any Sri Lankan Microfinance initiatives, I suppose ‘grameeya’ Banks which are quite prevalent in some (somewhat rural) areas serve a similar purpose, but they are state-run and therefore inherently impotent, and I’m not sure of the extent they could be termed as microfinance institutions. There may be others, but I’m not aware. Perhaps the Sri Lankan situation is different that there may not be a dire need for Microfinance, for the uninformed inquirer (I confess I have no clue as to the proper numbers) it seems that Sri Lanka has comparatively stronger property rights and therefore have access to more traditional forms of credit and other financial services. This of course is a guess, in any case though, microfinance will have its place, and it has proven to be more effective and dignifying than traditional charity.

No one, including the very pioneers of Microfinance claim that it’s a silver bullet solution to poverty. It’s not. Roots of poverty fundamentally lies in ‘bad governance’, lack of property rights, over-regulation, corruption, I think we are familiar with the list. Addressing these issues is a must if any country seeks to ‘alleviate’ its citizens from poverty. But a more economically empowered ‘poor’ are best placed to demand more from their governments in terms of getting out of the way, as opposed to queuing for handouts of free-milk, or subsidized pohora (fertilizer). In most occasions people just need a hand-up rather than a hand-out.

Muhammad Yunus appreciates the fact when he says:

Grameen believes that charity is not an answer to poverty. It only helps poverty to continue. It creates dependency and takes away the individual’s initiative to break through the wall of
Poverty. Unleashing of energy and creativity in each human being is the answer to poverty.
The message could not be clearer – traditional charity, handouts and most other governmental or indeed nongovernmental good intentions sustain poverty. The best help therefore that anybody can give is not to throw the ‘poor’ scraps, instead create or help create systematic mechanisms which let people help themselves. As can be seen by many examples of social enterprise, given the right conditions, and structural requirements there are many individuals ready and willing to help themselves, their communities and others - at a profit.

Merry Christmas

Related Links/Reads

Gift of Giving
Microfinance Report - Globalisation Institute
How To change the world
The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else By Hernando De Sato
[Any person feeling particularly charitable this Christmas are most welcome to donate this book to me ]

Sunday, December 03, 2006

To Delhi and back

I’ve been back for more than a month, but had this half-done blog post lying around, so I thought I’ll just blog it anyway, I’ve let these little things go without really penning keying my thoughts on them, it’s a worthwhile exercise to do, for my own recollection more than anything else.

If I find time, I might dwell on some of those past experiences, but that’s just a big ‘if’, ‘cos despite having this blog for about a year now, I’ve never really got in the habit of blogging. Which might actually be a good thing, but I’ve always had plenty of things to say, and not nearly as many people to listen to. So perhaps I would blog more.


The reason for the visit was a Beyond Borders Camp, perhaps the last major gathering of BB members before we wind up next year.


The UL flight we were supposed to be on, was Usually Late taking off from Katunayake and as such, our arrival in New Delhi was somewhat delayed. The Delhi Airport was all right, without being really great; you could probably rate it alongside the BIA.

Once the annoying paperwork was done, (btw, Airport procedures, worldwide - are crap. I just can’t understand why I have to fill in the same info a million times, within the same trip– it’s the 21st century for haven’s sake) we were greeted first by our chauffeurs then by a bald headed man, in a Ghandi-like suit carrying a fair sized rock who in no kind words asked us to bugger off to where ever we came from. Apparently there are some, ahem.. ‘Nationalist elements’ roaming about the airport. I found the whole thing funny, but a few of my female companions were a bit shaken. Obviously this man was a bit mentally handicapped (perhaps like most nationalists).

Our destination was about a forty minute drive from the airport. Delhi certainly has its own flavor, but bits of it reminded me back home, most of it is a mix between pettah and Flower road. Sometimes you’d see boutiques, sometimes gardens. The cars on the road were mostly Indian, Tuk-tuks are painted green and yellow, you could hardly see a Mercedes or a BMW, but they tell me it’s more common than it used to be. Cable TV means most of the Indian brands and even products, are familiar. I could even hum the Airtel tune if I wanted to. The roads though, are invariably better than back home.

The Sanskiriti Kendra, the location of our residential camp was situated at the very outskirts of Delhi, the Kendra a very calm sort of place, a sanctuary for artists and the likes, wonderfully landscaped with cottages, trees and ponds. The place serves 100% vegetarian food, now this was an experience I’m going to remember. Thankfully though the food was good, and I liked the change.

Food-aside, I was looking forward to meeting the BBites. Some of whom I’ve met before. Beyond Borders worldwide is a one big family of sorts, I’ve never met a bunch of people who are as vibrant and accepting as these ones. Sadly, BB Bangladesh, and Pakistan were not in attendance for the camp. This was pretty much a Delhi-Mumbai-Colombo affair.

The Sessions

Beyond Borders, as a project under the British council was initiated under the themes of Identity, Diversity and Active Global Citizenship. Abstract nature of these themes, means there’s room for much exploration within these concepts, and the sessions at the camp dealt with these concepts, some times in an abstract sense and mostly in their practical manifestations. Some of the sessions were on topics such as secularism, social entrepreneurship, public policy, gender stereotypes, media for social change, faith, and many more. A thorough treatment of all these would mean a kind of a report on this blog, something I’m not prepared to do. Therefore I would touch on a few sessions I really liked, and perhaps blog about the rest in more detail later.

I most enjoyed the session titled Public Policy, conducted by Dr. Parth J Shah from the Centre for Civil Society, a leading think tank and an advocacy group based in Delhi. Part of the workshop involved coming up with policy solutions to common problems. Our subgroup focused on the problems of the Indian three wheeler (or auto-rickshaws as they call it) industry, I was ecstatic since I was finally given a chance to put my tuk-tuk observations to the test. Sri Lankan three-wheeler industry is a shining example of the how industries without regulation can prosper, compared to the Indian scenario, where the industry faces heavy regulation, which serves neither the drivers nor the consumers.

Dr. Shah has is the founder and president of CCS is an organization which promotes freedom, both in people and in markets. I was truly inspired by the work of CCS and Dr. Shah, and the amount of minds their advocacy can change. It made a believer out of me, change truly is possible. I only wish they could do some of their seminars in Colombo.

Another wonderful person I met is Mukul Kesavan, a professor of history from the Jamia Millia Islamia (National Islamic University), in New Delhi who led a session on ‘Secularism, Religion and Conflict’. This was one of the most thought provoking discussions I’ve had for along time, as well as being a more than a relevant topic to the times we live in.

The discussion touched on conflicts around the world from religious to ethnic, we discussed at length about religious secularism around the world, from the form of secularism practiced in India, to the separation of church and the state in the US to the French model of secularism, to various comments made by Inzamam, Dean Jones, Jack Straw and of course the Pope. The discussion also focused on the types of nationalisms, based on linguistic, ethnic and religious identities and the formation of nation states purely on the said identities, he discussed at length about the Indian partition and the creation of Pakistan, to a fruitful discussion on the Jewish state of Israel, as well as the conflict in the Middle East. In particular he kept referencing with ease and at length to the Sri Lankan conflict, and the Tamil demand for self-determination.

This was refreshing as I’ve never met a foreigner having such deep understanding about the Sri Lankan conflict. Later over lunch in a conversation which touched on Kumar Sangakara as well as Mangustine, Mukul explained that ‘Sri Lanka’ is in fact, a quite a frequent topic in Indian academic circles.

There were few more interesting people and sessions worth extending this already extended post. One was a bloke called Arijit Roy of Jagran who led the session on Media for Social Change, blogging was mentioned in passing, but it would be stretching the imagination a little to suggest that blogs can be considered a serious tool for social change. Surely it would come along, but certainly its not there yet, not in the developing world at least.

Arijit’s choice of media was the mime theatre, where Arijit’s organization, - Jagran - uses it to explore difficult issues such as rape, sexual health and HIV. It was encouraging to note that Jagaran work with the Delhi police, who have taken a keen interest in the theatre as a medium to communicate with the general public, especially in cases of rape (sometimes by family, and extended family) which rarely gets reported.

We ended the sessions with a wonderfully colorful BB alumni night, where all of the BBites from past to the present was invited BB, I even had to dress up in the Mahinda Chintana outfit…ahh.. the things I do for my country..

Delhi Shopping

After winding up in Sanskirti Kendra we returned back to central Delhi, where we had a day and a little more for whatever we want to do. We haven’t done a whole lot of sight seeing except, a evening visitto the India gate. But my companions wanted to just shop.

Shopping in Delhi (like most places in the world) is more of a ‘woman-thing’, there’s the posh kind of malls you’d expect from a city and then there are like literally hundreds of boutique kind of shops which sells anything from pajamas to perfume and everything in between. In addition there are dozens of street-hawkers trying to sell stuff like socks, handkerchiefs and even books. Most buggers were annoying, they just don’t go away, so much so, that I felt like buying some of the stuff just to send them away. Stuff they have, of course are dirt cheap, but obviously inferior in quality. There are some useful ‘hawkers’ though, I managed to find a cheap copy of seven habits by Covey. Something I always wanted to pick up. All in all, Delhi’s probably not exactly my kinda place for shopping, there’s not a lot of electronic stuff, and the malls are kind of spread out. But it’s all right, especially if your after sarees, jewellery, cotton and traditional sort of stuff; I was obviously not, so while all the women were having a field day at these boutiques, and Saree shops I headed off to Ansal Plaza, the only sort of proper mall I had time to drop into, the mall is home to most international brands, like Lacoste and Marks & Spencer. There are also some music stores and watches and whatnots you’d also get the food outlets, with all the usual suspects and stuff like Subway, which you don’t get here.

All good things, as they say, have to come to an end. When all the good byes, and the hugs were done we had to fly back home. It was a wonderful experience; I’d never thought I’d actually miss India. Most of all I miss the Indians, and the sort of kick you’d get from being with like-spirited people. One moment you’re just singing some Hindi song, and the next you could be having a passionate debate on religion or language homogeneity. Good times.