Nationalism for political gain is an uncontainable force – Dr. Jehan Perera

As was the case in the run-up to the November 2019 presidential election and earlier, there is a discernible rise in nationalist sentiment. The general election is to be held on 5 August – and with it, propaganda is once again being proliferated for political gain.

This has been a common phenomenon at election time since the watershed ballot of 1956 where the issue of the official language took centre stage in ‘ethnic politics.’ To its exponents, the use of nationalism in an ethnically divided polity is part of a winning formula.

The sense of identity and belonging to a nation is a powerful sentiment that can take precedence over other considerations. And the use of nationalism at elections has not been limited to any single community but has formed the bedrock of the country’s politics.

A rise in nationalist sentiment in the approach to elections is generally attributed to political parties and their candidates. They are the people who directly benefit, and win votes by polarising the population along ethnic and religious lines.

At the presidential election, some of the most potent slogans were generated by politicians. One was against the cosponsoring of the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva, which targeted war crimes and other transitional justice issues during the war with the LTTE.

Another referred to the failure to protect the country from the ravages of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings. The failure of the former government to take action against external powers was denounced as an act of betrayal.

Among the issues that took centre stage at the presidential election was the claim that the previous administration was giving in too much to the Muslim community. The fact that the Easter Sunday bombings were perpetrated by a group of Muslims added to this.

The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had popular support following the Easter Sunday bombings, which signified a massive security failure on the part of the former regime and its leadership.

Moreover, the attack renewed existential fears of the ethnic majority who believed that Islamic extremism was extending further into the country and would soon relegate them to the status of a threatened minority albeit in international terms.

During the presidential election, political parties and leaders were not the only voices that promoted nationalism and aversion to both the local and international ‘other.’ Influential religious clergy, professionals and mass media also joined the battle; they echoed the politicians and their messages added credence to one another.

The Buddhist clergy alleged that this was the last chance for the country to be saved from destruction and that the people needed to vote against the incumbent government, which they described as having engaged in many anti-Buddhist actions and being supportive of those forces that were opposed to the Sinhalese people. These messages were magnified by the media and rationalised by professionals.

With the shock of the pandemic on the wane amid the transition from an extended curfew to a lockdown, these same political and social forces are being mobilised once again ahead of the forthcoming general election.

Anti-Muslim slogans are returning to prominence: old slogans claiming that the Muslim community is disloyal to the country and accusing them of injecting birth control pills into food served to Sinhalese customers at Muslim owned restaurants continue.

Yet, this time, a section of the Sinhalese nationalists have also begun to criticise politicians in the government whom they feel are not dealing sufficiently with those they perceive to be ‘anti-national minorities.’

Hate speech and propaganda against minorities need to be countered. The forces of nationalism have no limit. Once they are unleashed, primordial ethnic and religious passions cannot be controlled.

We cannot be complacent that the barbarous and impossible will not happen in Sri Lanka as it once did in 1983. Instead of attempting to ride the wave of nationalism to win the next general election, the government needs to counter the false propaganda that makes people hate one another because of ethnic and religious differences.

In his inaugural speech, Rajapaksa pledged to be the president of all Sri Lankans, which heartened ethnic and religious minorities who felt insecure by a president elected on a Sinhalese nationalist platform.

However, it is increasingly clear that the establishment has more to do to make the president’s upright promise come true.