Monday, May 27, 2024

Assessing Nalin de Silva and Jathika Chintanaya

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Going by the tributes and condolence messages, going by what everyone is saying and writing, it’s hard to see Nalin de Silva as the polarising figure he was frequently touted to be. Ostracised from the academic establishment – one could argue that he ostracised himself from that rather hoi-polloi community – de Silva co-founded, with Gunadasa Amarasekara, the most influential contemporary nationalist movement in Sri Lanka. To say this is not to agree with the ideals of that movement, still less to embrace, but to acknowledge that, for a good half-century, he charted a powerful intellectual trajectory in Sri Lanka.

To limit de Silva’s contribution to Jathika Chintanaya would, of course, be inadequate. And yet, for critics and supporters alike, it seems this was his main achievement. Even if it was his sole achievement, it was one to be justifiably proud of. Jathika Chintanaya earned the ire of those calling themselves radical-progressive, embraced by those touted as chauvinists and racialists, and viewed with cool intellectual detachment by other humbler souls who did not want to get involved in the fiery debates that it often invited.

I think a brief autobiographical digression is called for here. As a writer and columnist, I admit I fell into the latter category. This was largely because, for a good five years, I figured in among that not insignificant crowd that believed in Jathika Chintanaya fervently, almost as the gospel truth. Then I recanted, almost as an afterthought. Now, a movement’s popularity outlasts and survives its heretics. And, in a way, such movements continue to influence if not shape those who left it. I was no exception. The more I read about Jathika Chintanaya, the more I read into Jathika Chintanaya, the more I watched Nalin de Silva, the more I wrote to him and conversed with him – never physically – the more I felt there was much more to this movement and its founders than the liberal intelligentsia would have us believe.

Marxist movement

Fundamentally, Jathika Chintanaya was borne out of the failures of the Marxist movement in Sri Lanka. I saw several tributes by leftwing ideologues which praised Nalin de Silva and justified his antipathy to the Left by claiming that he was opposed only to certain forms of Marxism, that he would have viewed Marxism better had it bred figures who were rooted in the culture and civilisation of their country, like Mao and Stalin.

This is an erroneous judgment. At no point did Jathika Chintanaya make distinctions between different schools of Marxism. But Nalin de Silva, and Gunadasa Amarasekara, were nurtured in Trotskyism, which Regi Siriwardena, hardly a fellow traveller of Jathika Chintanaya, once called “the variety of Marxism most unsympathetic to nationalism.” This too is an argument I differ with. Trotsky himself did not undermine the power of nationalism: not for no reason, after all, did he choose to support Haile Selassie against the Italians in Ethiopia. Yet the argument is powerful enough to detract us. What it does is to justify Nalin de Silva’s retreat from Marxism on the basis of his disillusionment with Trotskyism.

The Trotskyite movement in Sri Lanka did suffer from several ideological flaws. Lack of engagement with the culture of the land would, however, not be among them. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party’s own stalwarts were connected to that culture, in one way or another, from N. M. Perera to Anil Moonesinghe, the latter a scion of Anagarika Dharmapala’s family. It bred Philip Gunawardena, none less than the Father of Socialism in Sri Lanka, whose embracement of cultural nationalism moved him away from the LSSP into the clutches of the UNP. It brought within its fold and orbit some of the most internationalist and nationalist figures. By the 1980s, with the Tamil issue and the question of Indian intervention in mind, one could see a triumph of one section over another.

Sinhala Buddhist majority

These two issues – the Sinhala-Tamil conflict and Indian intervention – drew a wedge between the Marxist movement and the Sinhala Buddhist majority. This is not to say that the Marxist movement embraced the same position everywhere, regardless of consequences to their electoral prospects. But Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara sensed, in a way their critics did not, how badly these issues would impact the Sinhalese consciousness. In a way, it was a tragedy of the Left not to recognise this in time. In failing to recognise it, the LSSP and to a certain extent the Communist Party ceded territory or real estate to Sinhala nationalism and the New Left, the latter epitomised by the JVP – which, in a way, was also an expression of Sinhala nationalism, particularly in the rural South.

A great many critics of Jathika Chintanaya, and of Nalin de Silva, have not read de Silva’s books. Until fairly recently, I was guilty of this too. De Silva’s most implacable ideological rival, Carlo Fonseka, once spoke of his ideas, that “those which were true were not novel and those which were novel were not true.” In a way, he was right. De Silva’s central assertion, that the way we think is conditioned by the culture we hail from, had already been formulated by other writers and historians, including from the very West he chose to critique. But it would be a mistake to reduce this to a mindless critique of everything Western. De Silva did not critique the West per se: only the way the West had hegemonized knowledge. This, too, was hardly unique to de Silva: Edward Said made the same point in his masterpiece Orientalism, from another standpoint.

Yet de Silva’s intervention helped unmask certain sections of the liberal and left-liberal intelligentsia for what they were. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as Aijaz Ahmad once contended in a critique of Orientalism, the Third World – what is the Global South today – witnessed an exodus of middle-class intellectuals. With the onset of neoliberal globalisation, and financialisation, these elites, most of whom sided with the Left, became prey to some of the most dubious political projects. The Left in effect touch with its preoccupation with class in favour of ethnicity and identity. This, coupled with the NGO-fication of civil society in the 1980s and 1990s, helped antagonise nationalists against these trends.

Nationalist elements

In Sri Lanka, the organisation that led the way here was Jathika Chintanaya. They mobilised nationalist elements in pursuit of a great many causes, including against the onslaught of multinational beverage companies (banning Coca-Cola from university canteens) and multinational hotel projects (Kandalama). The NGO-fied Left, the Left that soon became a handmaiden of forces which could hardly be counted as allies of the Left, viewed all these issues dispassionately, from a faux-Left perspective. Regarding Kandalama, for instance, this intelligentsia argued that the rupturing of traditional social relations would bring in more benefits to Sri Lankan society than costs, snidely ignoring the environmental fallout of such projects. De Silva, in all this, was seen and condemned as an eccentric, a man out of step with the times. In a way, he was. In another way, he was not.

In this regard, I understand the sentiments of those leftwing activists and socialists who call him a “true patriot” and “anti-imperialist.” But I also understand those who argue that his anti-imperialism was mere rhetoric, or “verbiage.” To agree with one is not to disagree with another. One can acknowledge that Jathika Chintanaya’s fixation with culture did not qualify it as an ally of Marxist movements, yet take issue with those “Marxist” or liberal elements which have now caved into neoliberal, even neo-imperialist, agendas. At the same time, one can contend how, in pursuit of cultural issues, groups like Jathika Chintanaya forewent on issues of class, conflating the interests of the deprived sections of the Sinhalese with those of theireconomic superiors. It is this tendency that spur Sinhala nationalists to argue that the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, at least the leftwing MPs in her Samagi Peramuna Cabinet, enacted policies that destroyed the Sinhalese businessman.

The irony here, of course, is that in conflating the interests of the one group with those of the other, Jathika Chintanaya, at least a section within it, managed to essentialise the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. In totalising it, it committed the same mistake made by the left-liberals, the radical chics, the faux-Left, which today more or less tars the Sinhala community as majoritarian and communalist by default. I have grown up sufficiently to appreciate that life is more complex than either of these movements would have us believe, and life would be better, for all of us, if we acknowledge those complexities.

To be sure, the likes of de Silva did draw distinctions. Perhaps the sharpest of them was the line he drew between two forms of Buddhism: Sinhala and Olcott. This distinction was made around the time Gananath Obeyesekere had formulated his thesis of Protestant Buddhism: essentially, a modern-day Buddhism, capable of responding to the needs of a capitalist society. De Silva located this distinction within a cultural-civilisational matrix. This resulted in the most Cartesian demarcations possible: Olcott Buddhists spoke or thought in English, and espoused a form of Buddhism opposed to all wars, even those fought on behalf of their creed; Sinhala Buddhists, by contrast, were the true heirs to Sinhala civilisation, who unlike the liberal crowd viewed Dutugemunu as a hero and not warmonger.

Nalin de Silva, the co-founder and handmaiden of modern Sinhala nationalism, opened our eyes to these complexities. In doing so, he revealed the contradictions inherent in Sinhala nationalism. He and Amarasekara may not have discovered a Rosetta stone there, but they charted, as I wrote earlier, an intellectual trajectory. I followed this for a while, then let go like a heretic. Yet even the most fervent heretic must admit that de Silva’s ideas trumped over many of Jathika Chintanaya’s rival camps, including Marxism. One can disagree with those ideas and still concede they were powerful enough to generate a large following. This, ultimately, is the tribute we can all pay to de Silva, and to his movement.

Uditha Devapriya

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