Identity vs. belonging

Thursday, 23 July 2020 00:16 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Registrar of Persons has said that the new digital birth certificates will have two critical changes from the conventional one, which is that they will no longer specify the marital status of parents and will not include the ethnic identity of the newborn. 

There is little disagreement over the former change because social consciousness is evolving to understand that a child’s status in the world does not need to be defined by whether or not their parents were married. This will also be a step forward to reducing the discrimination and social stigma faced by countless children over something they had no control or say over but have been affected by though no fault of their own. 

But the question of ethnic identity is a more double edged change. At first glance given Sri Lanka’s deeply troubled history it may seem a positive move to term all newborns as Sri Lankans and help to build a common or shared identity. However, the worry is that in a country that has generally focused on giving Sinhala Buddhist identity pride of place and has in recent times kicked this obsession up a few notches to a type of super-charged nationalism, this change can be used to erase minority identities. It also belies the fluid nature of identity and how it interacts with different stakeholders and in different spaces. 

Identity is also a very individual element, often changing over the course of a person’s life and how they see themselves. If genuine “Sri Lankaness” does not exist in greater society and there is no celebration of diversity then the change on the birth certificate is likely to be tokenistic rather than a symbolic one. There has to be meaning in changing policies and simply tagging people as Sri Lankan does not automatically promote national unity. 

Of course there are counter-arguments for this with perhaps the most obvious being that ethnicity exists in many many other aspects of life, including but not limited to, families, communities, books, dance, songs, stories and the multitude of mundane and monumental capturings that make up living culture. Even adults rarely care how they are identified in their birth certificates and prefer to define their own identities in different ways and in relation to the different realities they are part of. 

Much depends on whether the change in the birth certificates will lead to other policy changes, such as how the national census will categorize minorities in the future. How will places of worship or other spaces occupied by minorities be allocated? Will the national languages policy be taken forward? Will there is sufficient attention to archiving, studying and memorializing minority culture? And will the Government actually take forward reconciliation at a meaningful level? And perhaps more pertinently will their different cultural practices be respected in a pandemic or other emergency situations? 

A large part of this is also dependent on Sri Lanka’s wobbling legal system. Will all Sri Lankans, as they will be henceforth identified, be given the same rights and privileges before the law? These are weighty matters that deserve the attention of the Government. Then all Sri Lankans may know what it feels like to truly belong.