SRI LANKA: Can the idea of nationalism be separated from the idea of justice?
Perhaps one of the words that is most misused in the 20th Century is the word 'nationalism'. Sri Lanka is no exception to this.
Can the idea of a nation be separated from the idea of the social contract that the people of that nation have amongst themselves?
The idea of the social contract is of course an abstraction. At no particular place or time have the people got together to make such a contract. But it is a necessary abstraction to talk about the kind of agreement that people have about the nation they want to be a part of.
Of course, one of the great misconceptions is that the British, as the power that developed an administration for the whole of the country, created the Sri Lankan nation. However, the construction of the administration and the making of the nation is not the same thing.
The British were a colonial power and therefore did not have any interest in making Sri Lanka a nation. That would be self-contradictory as the making of a nation is a political activity and a colonial power that needs to have control over a people for their own ends could not have constructed a political entity on the basis of the agreement of the people.
The struggle for independence was therefore the time for constructing this idea of the agreement of the political entity that the people would have wanted for themselves. Did this, in fact, happen? Of course, answering that is a matter for the historians who are looking into what the discourse was then.
Looking at what that discourse was, from generally available sources and the popular knowledge, it is difficult to find any kind of serious debate about what the people wanted their country to be.
Phrases like 'obtaining freedom', 'ending colonialism' and the like were mere slogans and were not products that came out of a serious discourse of the future as the people wanted to construct it.
Though there were consultations at the time of the development of the country's constitution, there is no evidence of a serious engagement of the people amongst themselves, brought about by political parties or by any other social organisations, about shaping a basic identity for the kind of relationship people wanted amongst themselves.
Later, when two constitutions were drafted (in 1972 and 1978), those processes too did not involve any effort to try and forge the internal consensus on what people wanted their nation to be. In fact, the 1972 Constitution began the process of stealing the limited freedoms achieved by way of independence, and one of the primary areas attacked was the peoples' right to justice. Even the limited recognition achieved during the colonial time of having the courts adjudicate on the liberties of the citizens was attacked in 1972.
The 1978 Constitution furthered the process of the removal of whatever was achieved by way of freedom and liberties by removing the very idea of constitutionalism itself through the 'new constitution'. It was a constitution to gain all power for the regime and deprive the people of all power. The idea of public institutions itself was fundamentally attacked and consequently the paralysis of all public institutions developed since then was no surprise. Using the same constitutional framework the rights of the trade unions was attacked, as were the rights of the political parties. Together with those, the freedom of expression, association, and the freedom of having free and fair elections were fundamentally attacked.
The 1978 Constitution was one that removed whatever agreements the people had amongst themselves.
Thereafter they developed the security apparatus, making good use of the insurrections which arose in the south, north and the east. Under the cover of fighting against terrorism, a security apparatus grew like an octopus, strangling all the freedoms of the people. In that process, the country's criminal justice system was also crushed. See also, SRI LANKA: The rise of the security apparatus and the decline of the criminal justice system.
What then is the social contract of the Sri Lankans amongst themselves?
Can a people who are trapped within a security apparatus have any social contract amongst themselves anyway? Perhaps the metaphor of a fish caught in a net is a more correct depiction of what Sri Lankans have become, rather than people who are capable of making a social contract amongst themselves.
Thus, we come back to the original question of what nationalism is if there is no initial contract among the people themselves.
As against those who corrupt the word 'nationalism' for whatever abuses they want to achieve, it is time for a more intelligible conversation of what the Sri Lankans want their nation to be and how to create it.