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Sinha-Le and the ethno-religious identity wars

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 3 February 2016 00:00


 tMinorities assert their identity by overtly ethno-religious or other ideological displays as a reaction to dominance by a majority. The majority feels threatened and jacks up its own displays of identity, ensuing an escalation of identity wars



One has to admit that the Sinha-Le poster is well designed in terms of aesthetics. The quality of the poster indeed points to some level of sophistication in design and execution though the message it attempts to convey is unwholesome. Apparent spontaneity of its acceptance too shows that the message has hit a chord in society. Pictures of private property spray-painted with the symbols send shivers up the spine, but to attribute the lawful display of the symbol simply to racism or stupidity is not the right reaction. 

Sadly it is exactly what we are hearing. Recently a senior minister was heard repeating a quote found on social media. Sinha-Le means that The Sinhalese have their beginnings in Bestiality (Suppadevi copulating with a Lion), Patricide (Sinhabhu killing the lion, his father), Incest (Sinhabahu marrying his sister Singhaseevali) and so on. These smart quotes miss the point, I believe.j

All ethnic or religious identities are based on stories that are more fiction than fact. Often these stories are atrocities dressed up as heroic deeds. In his essay ‘How to build a nation,’ Fukuyama quotes from Machiavelli to note, “All just enterprises including current liberal democracies originate in an original crime.” Over time these stories get whitewashed and embellished and become part of the culture. Ridiculing or even dismissal using logic makes these stories all the more precious to those who find meaning in them.

As Fukuyama further notes, building a new nation can only be done from within. That means whether you are a minority or the majority you need to understand the fears of the other, leaving arguments of who came first in what manner to historians.


Identity wars

One approach is not to blame but to view actions and reactions of various communities as part of the ethno-religious identity wars that continue unabated in Sri Lanka or across the world for that matter. Minorities assert their identity by overtly ethno-religious or other ideological displays as a reaction to dominance by a majority. The majority feels threatened and jacks up its own displays of identity, ensuing an escalation of identity wars. 

Unfortunately, the current discourse is exclusively about the concerns of the minorities and calming their fears. There is justifiable fear among the Sinhalese in the rural heartland that there is nobody to speak for them. Former President Rajapaksa, though justly rejected by a majority at the last presidential election, is still seen as the voice for these communities. 

President Maithripala Sirisena has a formidable task of being appointing himself the sane voice of the majority while he does justice to the minority. His team has to carefully forge a communication strategy with an understanding of the different identity wars and their escalation or subsiding. At least three types of identity wars can be identified with all three to do with Sinhala Buddhist v. the other.


Buddhist v. Christian

I am not aware of any recent writing on Sinhala culture, but writings of late Martin Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka’s eminent author and intellectual, are always helpful. Wickramasinghe in his Sinhala language book ‘Sinhala Lakuna’ or ‘Sinhala Identity,’ sees Sinhalese as more readily adaptable in regard to external influences and contrasts this adaptability of Sinhalese to Western ways, for example, with the more traditional bent of Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula. He attributes the differences to the rigidity of Hindu religion in contrast to the flexibility afforded by the Buddhist religion (Sinhala Lakuna, 2006 edition, p. 34].

The flexibility of the Buddhism as a religion has its strengths and weaknesses. As intellectuals sympathetic to the religion noted at that time, after three centuries of colonial rule, it was feared that Buddhism would disappear from country. Colonel Olcott, an American Buddhist of formidable organisational skills worked with active Buddhist priests and scholars to bring more structure to the religion. 

Olcott was in a way the Buddhist missionary who was needed to counter Christian missionary zeal and organisational power at that time. Colonel Olcott was instrumental in giving overt expression of religiosity to Buddhism. The Buddhist flag, Buddhist carols or Bhakthi Gee, Sunday Dhamma schools and Buddhist schools teaching in the English medium were his innovations. He also negotiated with the colonial government to mark Vesak as public holiday.

Christianity is no longer seen as a major threat to Buddhism, but the lesson here is that the encounter with Christianity experience has shaped the Buddhist majority’s suspicion of more organised religions. 

Sinhala v. Tamil 

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict manifested in in the form of language issues, access to public higher education and jobs in government and we all know how that led to a long and brutal war. The LTTE was vanquished but the identity war of ‘we came here before you or we are better than you’ is continuing. Extremists’ claims on Sinhala superiority are quite public including the current Sinha-Le campaign, but less publicised are inciting speeches by Tamil leaders, the Chief Minister (CM) of Northern Province, in particular. 

In a public speech delivered on 19 January in Jaffna he claimed: “[T]here is no ethnic group called the Sinhalese. The Sinhala language itself came into being only around 6th century AD. There was no Sinhala language before that. It is ideal to get a group of international historians to investigate these facts. There is on the other hand contrary evidence of the existence of pre-Buddhistic Hindu culture in the north and east available.” (Wigneswaran, 19 January 2016; Jaffna).

If I recall correct, he made the same remarks in his inaugural speech or similar with no counter-response from the media or intellectuals. A responsible response by the media in my opinion would be to point out that for somebody with his stature it is not ok use unresolved academic argument to ‘diss’ or disrespect the majority community.

For all one would care, the Sinhalese could be aliens who descended in the 16th century not the 6th, but the fact is that 75% or more of the people in this country claim Sinhalese as their language and that should be respected. We should leave history to historians and take the attitude “here we are and so we are”. Perhaps international agencies and foreign diplomats who pay frequent visits to the north should gently nudge the CM towards civility if nobody else does. Otherwise, the Sinhalese majority has reasonable grounds to feel that their concerns are ignored. 

Sinhala Buddhists v. Muslims

The latest sense of insecurity for the Sinhalese seems to be the apparent rise of an aggressive form of Islam in the country. Attire is a case in point. Salvar kameez which was the hallmark of a decent Muslim girl in the sixties stood in contrast to the mini-skirts that were widely adopted by the Sinhalese girls even those in the villages. 

Elders those days were heard to remark, “Why can’t you girls wear the salvar kameez like the Muslim girls?” Today the attire for Muslim women is the hijab with a full covering except the face with some adopting the niqab or a full-covering of the body except for the eyes.

Nobody in the majority community is likely to express admiration and seek emulation of these new fashions. Whether the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has transformed itself in a manner that is out of tune with the sensibilities of Sri Lankan society at large should be a matter for discussion. 


Escalation of identity wars

The identity wars are escalating, with the latest being the Sinha-Le poster campaign. One phenomenon that foretold this trend is the battle over airwaves in Central Colombo. Having moved to the city sometime back I enjoyed rising to the call to prayer from mosques. Irrespective of the religious difference, I found the melodic call to prayer a soothing reminder of the spiritual side of life. But, over the years the sound got louder and it got to be a disturbance. Not to be outdone the Buddhist temples in the vicinity started responding with louder chants and tom-tom beating katina processions on workdays starting at 4 a.m. or before. Now my response is ‘tone it down, you both’.


Can we really tone things down?

It is easy to say, but, difficult to do. How far should go assigning the blame? Is it the Black July pogrom or is it the Kalinga-Maga invasion? Did the overt display of religiosity begin with the niqab or the practice of erecting a Buddha statue in every corner? Then the more practical question of who shall go first? We can ask the Chief Minister of the Northern Province to stop ‘dissing’ the Sinhalese language but he will retort back saying ‘why don’t you ask the Government to stop sending me letters in Sinhala?’ Clearly the Government can do much. We need our leaders and civil society keep nudging each community one small step at a time while giving all parties the signal that the concerns of each are valid. The President and his team need all the communication expertise they can muster in this regard. Perhaps those who designed and executed the Sinha-Le campaign can be enticed to help.

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