Applying The Racism Paradigm

By Izeth Hussain –

I have two main purposes in mind in this article, the first of which is to point out that the Tamil ethnic problem can be best understood, and can therefore be best handled, in terms of a paradigm of racism. My second purpose is to point out that the prolongation of the problem without a political solution in a seemingly endless imbroglio is due not just to the racism of the Sinhalese. It is due also to the racism of the Tamils which – as I will show later – there is good reason to believe is even worse than the racism of the Sinhalese.

Before proceeding further I must make some clarifications as it might be alleged that I have the sinister purpose of wrecking ethnic relations on all sides. My view that the Tamils are more racist than the Sinhalese is not an impressionistic evaluation but is based on solid empirical evidence, which I will cite later. I do not hold that the Tamils are morally inferior to the Sinhalese because they are more prone to racism. Cultural factors – such as the fact that the Tamil caste system is much more rigid and hierarchical than the Sinhalese one – would explain the difference. An ethnic group would deserve moral opprobrium not because it is prone to racism but because it refuses to recognize the fact and refuses to take counter-action.

The most important reason why I am writing this article is that there is a need, a desperate need, to make the international community, most particularly India, aware of Tamil racism. After the forthcoming General Elections we could have the racist neo-Fascists ride to power again but it is far more probable that we will have a Government that is really in earnest about reaching a political solution to the ethnic problem. It may need prodding and pushing because there could be resistance from racists from within its own ranks. What the international community must realize is that there could be racist resistance within the Tamil side also. It will help if the international community is persuaded that the main reason why peace initiatives failed from 1994 to 2006 was that the LTTE would accept nothing short of a confederal arrangement on which no Government in Colombo could be expected to deliver. The reason for that LTTE intransigence was the racist belief that the Sinhalese would never give fair and equal treatment to the Tamils.

Mahinda Namal WimalI will now set out briefly and in point form what I mean by racism. 1) In the modern context the term applies mainly to relations between ethnic groups and not races. 2) Practically every ethnic group tends to believe that its way of life incarnates all the best of which human life is capable. That could lead to ethnocentric prejudice which need not necessarily issue in racism. 3) For racism there has to be the perception that the Other is inferior and/or threatening. 4) For racism there has to be action, not just perception. The Other perceived as inferior is confined to lower positions in a hierarchical system, or is excluded from it altogether, or is even killed. 5) What might be called essentialism is at the very core of racism. It leads to the formation of stereotypes. The Muslims are seen essentially as traders and therefore the racist sees every Muslim as having a trader’s mentality, as being cunning, devious, and unscrupulous. 6) Essentialism leads to the notion that cultural characteristics are more or less unchanging. In traditional racism, genes were seen as determining unchanging characteristics. Today’s racist sees cultural characteristics as changing, if at all, only over a very long period of time. In practice cultural characteristics are seen as unchanging. 7) Today theorists speak in the plural of “racisms”, meaning that there are different kinds of racism. At the time of the Renaissance the coloured races were seen as genetically inferior. It was a way of legitimizing imperialist exploitation under the guise of civilizing missions. 8) In the cotemporary world, economic development and the aspirations to upward mobility lead to rivalry and conflict between ethnic groups. This seems to be at the root of the prevalence of identity politics today. Sri Lanka’s ethnic problems could fit into this model. 9) However, it would be a mistake to explain all ethnic problems in the modern world in terms of economic drives. Hitler’s Holocaust cannot be explained in such terms. Perhaps at the root of all ethnic problems there are obscure psychological factors that relate to the primordial need for group solidarity and security. There seems to be a large element of the irrational behind ethnic problems. Irrationality seems to be integral to racism, not something of an ancillary order, as shown for instance by the phenomenon of the scapegoat.

I must now make some clarifications before I apply the racism paradigm that I have sketched out above to the present phase of the Tamil ethnic problem. Ethnocentric prejudice, as I have noted above, is practically a universal phenomenon, which has therefore to be regarded as part of the human condition about which little or nothing can be done. It need not slide into racism, which is a much more limited phenomenon. However, it has to be expected that practically in every ethnic group there will be a quota of racists, but – since no human group is a monolith without any fissures – there will also be non-racists and anti-racists. We should bear in mind Foucault’s profound observation that wherever there is power there is also the contestation of power – I would say resistance to that power. Where there are slaves there is also a potential or actual Spartacus. Consequently there are two processes involved in ethnic problems: a struggle between two ethnic groups, and also a struggle within each group between moderates and extremists. I believe – or maybe I would like to believe – that the latter process is becoming more important in Sri Lanka and that that possibly heralds a political solution.

Consider also the record of our Governments over the ethnic problem since 1977. The State in Sri Lanka has been racist and has indisputably promoted the ethnic problem with stupendous stupidity. Conditions seemed very propitious indeed for a political solution when President JR assumed power in 1977. But he turned out to be a necrophiliac in Eric Fromm’s sense, a man of blood who unleashed State terrorism against the Tamils from 1977 to 1983. It was that that led to a quarter century of war. But at the same time something else was going on that retrospectively seems of tremendous importance. There was a struggle between extremists and moderates within the Sinhalese camp. That was most clear in the struggle over the policy on University admissions, which had many ups and downs but seems to have ended with the ascendency of the moderates. In the struggle over language policy also the moderates gained a clear ascendency.

But with President Rajapaksa the extremists again gained ascendency, and the racist neo-Fascists showed their strength particularly in the period after 2009. The moderates could gain the ascendency after the next General Elections, in which case the conditions could again become very propitious for a political solution. In this situation it becomes important to recognize the ethnic problem for what it is: a problem of racism that can be best handled within a paradigm of racism. It seems to me even more important to bring about a recognition that Tamil racism was the major obstacle to our reaching a political solution in the period from 1994 to 2006. India in particular must try to ensure that that racism is not an obstacle to a future political solution as well.

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