Isabel Wilkerson in her seminal book ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent’ writes about how “the lower caste performed the unwitting role of diverting society’s attention from its structural ills and taking the blame for collective misfortune”. The lower caste, being identified as those who were historically stigmatised (in the case of Wilkerson largely referring to the African American in the USA), as scapegoats would help unify the favoured castes to be free of blemish as long as there is a visible disfavoured group to absorb their sins.
The concept of the word scapegoat is quite interesting. First coined in the 16th century, it was used to describe the ritual animals that the Jewish community placed their sins onto in preparation for Yom Kippur. A key part of Yom Kippur, as described in the Torah, is the ritual slaughter of two goats; one for the Lord, and the other is designated “for Azazel”. Jewish tradition takes “Azazel” as the name of a rocky headland off which one goat, having the sins and faults of the community symbolically placed upon it, would be banished to the wilderness, to suffer the sins of others, thus freeing the community to flourish in peace. The other goat, the one for the Lord, would be slaughtered as part of the general Yom Kippur rituals. This slaughter would bring atonement to the community. Over the years, the concept of the scapegoat has mutated from being the bearer of misfortune to being blamed for bringing misfortune, thereby relieving the scapegoaters of their own responsibilities. In this sense, scapegoating means finding the ones who can be identified with evil or wrongdoing, blamed for it and cast out of the community as a sense of atonement of the remaining members, those from the dominant class or majority community.
So why is this important for the topic at hand which is a reflection on the state of affairs for Sri Lanka at 73 years? In a normal trajectory of human life, once you reach the seventies timeframe as I have been continuously reminded by those who have reached that age, you know that you have some limitations of time as you are ‘retired’ and just wiling away time. You are unable to actively contribute towards society as you may have done previously. All you can do is provide the benefit of your knowledge, wisdom and experience. You try to look forward and reflect on what you have achieved. You try to see if you can atone for your mistakes but at the same time, try to enjoy the remainder of life.
73 years of a nation’s history should also accord us the same reflection. As Wilkerson (2020) alludes “looking beneath the history of one’s country is like learning that alcoholism or depression runs in one’s family. You don't ball up in a corner with guilt or shame. You don’t if you are wise forbid any mention of them. You do the opposite. You educate yourself. You learn the consequences and obstacles and then you take precautions to protect yourself and work to ensure that these things don't happen again”. So in that spirit, we reflect on the past 73 years on whether we became ‘independent’ from a colonial power just to become ‘dependent’ on our closed patriarchal and monolithic thinking. In that reflection we also ponder more widely on how the country has evolved. As we celebrate the nation’s independence which in effect meant freedom from the rule of an outside force allowing all people the ability to take part in the decision making of their country, we must reflect whether this has been achieved and what should be achieved?
Whilst the formal system of caste is not something that Sri Lanka practices as strongly as its neighbour India, the concept of caste as an artificial construct of a ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups, very much exists. In this construct, the presumed inferiority is based on ancestry and other immutable traits that are ascribed life and death meaning in a hierarchy favouring the dominant caste (majority community) whose forebears designed it (Wilkerson 2020). In a similar guise, the concept of scapegoating has been present since independence. From the disenfranchisement and the stripping away of the citizenship of Indian Tamils; to the disillusionment of youth from the south in the seventies; to the marginalisation and harassment of Tamils initially based on language but later on historical mythology, ultimately leading to a bloody conflict and a violent conclusion; to the increasing harassment, hate speech and incitement to violence against the Muslim community over the last 12 years including a disregard of the basic funeral rites for COVID-19 victims, all of these in one way or another have become a scapegoat for the State’s failure, since Independence, to correct structural ills and the inequities associated with these ills. In particular the forced cremation issue over the last one year has displayed a disregard for the community and are a sign, in the words of the UN Special Rapporteurs, of “discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethno centrism amounting to persecution of Muslim and other minorities in the country.”
So in this failure, there is a constituency full of an anticipation of their entitlement simply because of which community they come from, and with a sense of precarity for the loss based on the incompetence of the State to provide for them, becoming complicit in advancing this narrative that scape goats and punishes the minorities as being disproportionately privileged or undeservedly benefitting. A tragic irony given that the very machinery upon which the majority have been afforded the chance to build their lives and assets is often forbidden or made difficult to access for the minorities.
After 73 years, Sri Lanka is facing its biggest international challenge in this regard with the recent UNHRC report that has berated the Government for an accelerated deterioration in civic, political, minority, religious and other democratic rights in recent times, “a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations”. And whilst there will be a push from the State as in recent times to go an offensive, deny and confront these ‘external’ influences, the fact of the matter is that unless it confronts the failure to fix the structural failures and to deal with the minorities (or lower castes using the terminology of Isabel Wilkerson) in a way that acknowledges, respects, understands, accepts and includes them, this is a problem that will not go away.
Sri Lanka is not a homogeneous monolithic structure but one where cosmopolitans come together to provide agency and expression to the multiples identities that every person has and performs on a daily basis. Your single identity of faith or ethnicity or gender or age or social standing cannot and should not be a limiting factor to your agency of full expression of being Sri Lankan.
So in the reflections for independence, the responsibility for all of us, but starting with the majority community, the dominant caste, who have the agency, the power and the privilege, has to reflect on accepting the diversity amongst your fellow countrymen: that the ‘privilege’ that you can have is based on your abilities and achievements not because you were born into wealth or a certain ethnic group or family or in a certain city.
Being ‘Sri Lankan’ is not just coalescing around the national team or flying the flag at Independence or as an option for the majority community to selectively choose and appropriate different cultural foods to articulate their preference or for the minority community to show that they are ‘true patriots’. It is not in the rhetoric or the clothes one wears. When people are oppressed due to their ethnicity or their faith; when they make ‘Russian roulette’ decisions based on their economic circumstances; when they know their gender might limit their agency; when those in power steal, cheat and lie; then this is a pain that all of us should feel. When one Sri Lankan is hurting, all of us should be hurting.
Reflecting on Sri Lanka and being Sri Lankan is to challenge those who say and do wrong even if they are from our own faith and ethnic grouping simply because this is the right and just thing to do.
So 73 years on, there has to be a recognition that to be Sri Lankan is to accept that the country belongs to all. Some of us may not have been in control of what happened in the past, but a majority of us have control of what can happen in the future. There is no political vision for nation building and nothing that respective governments have given us that give us confidence that this will be addressed. perhaps the failure is not with them, but is a collective responsibility as we ourselves in our own daily lives perhaps do not respect the very foundations of a nation. After all, how many of us are guilty of the selfishness of looking first to our own communities, to abusing the environment and also not necessarily understanding the hardships of the most vulnerable and marginalised?
Finally to be Sri Lankan is to accept that the above though seeming idealistic can be achievable if we can work together. Though we may not all get there in the end and that there will be many mountains to climb, we will persevere on this journey because we are Sri Lankans - who love this island, its different tastes, smells and colours - and this is the right and just thing to do.
(Amjad Mohamed Saleem is a Geneva-based scholar on peace and conflict resolution. He works for an international organisation and the views expressed here are his personal views and not of the organisation he works for).