Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka

About the author

Nira Wickramasinghe is a professor in the department of history and international relations, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. She grew up in Paris and studied at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonneand at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate Among her books are Civil Society in Sri Lanka: New Circles of Power (New Delhi, Thousand Oaks/ Sage, 2001);Dressing the Colonised Body: Politics, Clothing and Identity in Colonial Sri Lanka(New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2003); and Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities(C Hurst and University of Hawaii Press, 2006). 

Reading Tariq Modood's article "Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity" (17 May 2007) led me to reflect on how different the public debate on multiculturalism is in the United Kingdom and in a country such as Sri Lanka where multicultural policies have been grudgingly agreed to in order to answer the need for recognition by groups that have a claim to nationhood and self-determination. If there is as yet no "backlash" of the kind that has evidently occurred in Britain, the reason is that the debate in Sri Lanka is centred elsewhere: not on the merits or otherwise of multiculturalism, but on whether we are or are not a multicultural state at all!

Nira Wickramasinghe is a professor in the department of history and international relations, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. She grew up in Paris and studied at the , Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne and at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate. Among her books is (C HurstUniversity of Hawaii Press, 2006) Also by Nira Wickramasinghe in openDemocracy: "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)

A ferocious disagreement on this issue divides those who read the nation-state of Sri Lanka as a multicultural country where all "ethnic identities" should be equally recognised and protected, and those who see the country as a Sinhala Buddhist country where other identities (principally the Tamil, though there is a significant Muslim population in the country too) are subsumed in this larger Buddhist culture and hence need only to be tolerated. In the first category would be generally liberal, westernised and even secular thinkers; their support of equal-citizenship rights would be underlain by an acceptance of William Blake's maxim: "Though our essence is the same our identities are different". In the second category would be the others: an array of patriots, religiously minded people, nationalist and Marxists, and the vast majority of people who watch the state-run TV and read state-run newspapers.

That Sri Lanka was a multicultural state was recognised in the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, passed in 1987. Legislation on language that broadly aimed at using both Sinhala and Tamil in the administration of the country followed but has not been successfully implemented for lack of will and resources.

I find myself in a difficult position. While I accept the need for respect and space for all forms of identity, I feel we should try to move away from an overtly cultural understanding of identities. The curse of multiculturalism is that while providing for more freedom and recognition to the group or community it is a closure in that it denies the contingency and ambiguity of every identity. Multiculturalism cannot help but essentialise the fragment. Amartya Sen makes the same point with relation to the Indian situation in his two recent books, The Argumentative Indian and Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

Nira Wickramasinghe is replying to the article by Tariq Modood:"Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity" (17 May 2007) Tariq Modood's article draws on his new book, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, May 2007) Also in openDemocracy, further debate on Tariq Modood's work: "Multiculturalism and citizenship: responses to Tariq Modood" (21-24 May 2007)– reflections from Sunny Hundal, Nick Johnson and Nick Pearce, in an ongoing feature Yahya Birt, "Multiculturalism and the discontents of globalisation" (25 May 2007)

Much debate on how to resolve the "ethnic conflict" in Sri Lanka is dominated by a faulty epistemology where it is assumed that each group "has" some kind of culture and that the boundaries between these groups and the contours of their cultures - namely the Sinhalese and the Tamils - are specifiable and easy to depict. How we think inequities among groups should be addressed and diversity and pluralism should be furthered has been influenced by this approach. The solution to the sovereignty claim by Tamil separatists is for believers in the boundedness and distinctness of cultures to divide the country on ethnic/cultural lines, instituting a more or less advanced federal constitutional arrangement. Multiculturalism is the theory behind this seemingly self-evident resolution of a nearly thirty-year conflict.

Clearly multiculturalism as it is practised in 21st-century Sri Lanka is a legacy of the colonial idea of society as being ordered in cultural groups rather than the outcome of a sincere and principled approach to equity and justice. The modern Sri Lankan state does not incorporate any of the subtle practices or complex theories that inform the multiculturalism of states such as Canada, the Netherlands or the United States. It is still the colonial frame that distinguishes the Sri Lankan understanding of multiculturalism.

The focus on culture has disabled all other transformations that need to be enacted to create a better state. We still need to invent a compromise between the two abysses which Aimé Césaire warned us against when he wrote: There are two ways to lose oneself: by a walled segregation in the particular or by a dilution in the "universal". Sadly, multicultural citizenship is an ideal one can only aspire to in the present state of war.