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Reflections On State Racism

| by Izeth Hussain

( October 22, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) For some time I have been using the term "State racism" and I have even used it for the headings of two recent articles. It is an unfamiliar formulation, unlike "State terrorism", and it obviously amounts to a neologism that requires explanation. I will not try to provide a definition because practically all definitions are open to contestation, and there is hardly ever any finality about them even after a hundred definitions as is the case with "terrorism". Instead of a definition, I will therefore provide an explanation by putting down what I have in mind in using the term "State racism". I believe that this is of central importance for getting to grips with Sri Lanka's ethnic problems.

First of all there is the racism that is to be found at the level of the people to varying degrees. That could exist without there being any racism at the level of the Government or the State. But what really do we mean by the terms "Government" and "State"? By "Government" we usually mean the President or Prime Minister and his Cabinet of Ministers, the apex body from which all power flows. We can have a situation in which there is no racism worth speaking about at the level of the people or Government, and yet the country could be ravaged by a vicious and virulent racism. An example is provided by the tragic case of Sri Lanka.

We have now to consider how racism could manifest itself through the State as distinct from the people and Government. But what do we mean by the "State" in this context? I mean by it the President or Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers, the armed forces, the police, the bureaucracy, and the Judiciary. In other words, by "State" I mean the ensemble of institutions through which coercive power is exercised over the people. The important point for the purposes of my argument is that that coercive power could be deployed not just by the Government but by others as well, by persons who for one reason or another are especially privileged and powerful, and who can get their hands on to the levers of State power, or who can prevent the legitimate use of State power. I have in mind persons such as family members of powerful leaders, politicians who are not necessarily Cabinet Ministers, members of the armed forces, of the Police, and others who are within the network of State power.

Perhaps we should include also some who are outside that network, such as thugs and crooks of outstanding ability, without whom some nefarious jobs of the State cannot be carried through. When such persons are racists with a racist program to be put into effect, and are given a free or fairly free hand, we get the phenomenon of what I call State racism.

Bodu Bala Sena

The anti-Muslim campaign of recent times provides a very convincing example, in my view, of State racism in action. A protracted hate campaign went on for about two years, with something like nineteen web-sites going at it full blast. There was no adverse reaction from the Government. It is arguable that the Government did not want to take any counter-action because it would then be instantly pilloried for trying to destroy media freedom. It could however have made official statements deploring the hate campaign, but it chose not to do so. That was typical because none of our Governments have been really serious about forging national unity. There suddenly erupted the Bodu Bala Sena, which was quickly identified by the public as a racist anti-Muslim group. But it was given space in a Government-owned building for its headquarters, and the Defense Secretary made a statement warmly endorsing its objectives.

There followed a series of anti-Muslim demonstrations, about which I will not go into details as they are quite well-known. Instead I will focus on just one point: the police played the role of passive spectators during those demonstrations. Commonsense tells us that there had to be very powerful persons at the level of the State who could command that police inaction. There was no evidence of mass Sinhalese hatred against the Muslims, and certainly there was no Government decision commanding that police inaction. It was a clear case of State racism in the sense that I have explained above.

Sinhalese Buddhists

It has been widely supposed that President Rajapakse and his associates are not necessarily racist because they side with the extreme racists, and that they are doing so for political expediency and for no other reason. The supposition behind that is that a substantial majority of the Sinhalese, or the Sinhalese Buddhists, are extreme racists.

But elections have shown that the JHU, widely regarded as the Party representing those extremists, has comparatively speaking negligible support in the country. Two Island columnists, Jehan Perera and Harim Peiris, have noted that the recent PC elections have spectacularly confirmed that the substantial majority of the Sinhalese Buddhists are nationalist, not racist: even the traditional Marxists, regarded by the hot-hot Left as well as others as first-class jokers, have managed to win seats but the JHU, the MEP, and the NFF, which are regarded as racist parties, could not win even one seat.


But we can be sure, all the same, that President MR and his associates who have their hands on the levers of State power will side, not with the Sinhalese majority, but with the inveterate racist minority among them. This is a gigantic paradox that cries out for explanation. This paradox applies not just to the present Government but to most of our Governments since Independence. In earlier articles I have pointed out that while practically all countries produce their extremists - felicitously called the lunatic fringe - the peculiarity with Sri Lanka is that here the lunatic fringe is very close to the Centre: indeed, it might be said that Sri Lanka is unique because here the lunatic fringe is the Centre.

Let me provide some details in illustration. It will be agreed that both SWRD and Dudley Senanayake were true-blue democratic leaders, unlike JRJ and Premadasa, who would never have mooted their pacts with Chelvanayagam unless they believed that they would be supported by the mass of the Sinhalese people. We must bear in mind that both headed mass-based parties with extensive grass-roots networks through which a reliable estimate of what the people thought would have been possible. Clearly both believed that the Pacts would have mass Sinhalese support, but as soon as the extremists objected both succumbed to their pressure. The lunatic fringe prevailed at the Centre with the greatest ease.

Consider also the period of extremist ethno-lunacy at the Centre from 1977 to 1983. There was mass participation during the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 because at that time many Sinhalese believed that the Tamils were highly privileged at the expense of the majority. Only an extremist ethno-lunatic could have believed that in 1977. When JRJ came to power the general expectation was that he would briskly proceed to hold the All Party Conference, after which devolutionary arrangements on a modest scale would follow, which together with the opening out of the economy would lead - with many hiccups along the way - to a virtual solution of the ethnic problem. Instead, JRJ unleashed his first violent anti-Tamil pogrom in 1977, after which his State terrorism mounted to a crescendo in 1983. The stage was set for the violent Tamil rebellion which began in April 1984. The lunatic fringe had prevailed at the Centre. And it has prevailed yet once more in the ongoing anti-Muslim campaign.

I will now try to explain the gigantic paradox that our State racists have shown a distinct predilection for turning, not towards the wholesome nationalist majority among the Sinhalese, but towards the extremist racists among them. A full explanation will require several articles, not just the concluding part of this article. Here I am providing no more than some jottings or notations for a full explanation.

First of all we must note certain powerful trends, in Sri Lanka as well as in other third world countries, which clearly conduce to racism. One is the contestation between two kinds of nationalism. One is based on citizenship, which confers on all citizens equal rights and privileges irrespective of ethnic or other affiliation. In the other kind the majority ethnic group is seen as constituting the core of the nation. In Sri Lanka the second kind has prevailed, and it has strongly conduced to racism.


The other powerful trend is a contestation between democracy and neo-Fascism. At this point I must declare that I am not using "Fascism" as a term of abuse but as denoting a powerful political trend in the contemporary world, though it is not sufficiently recognized as such. Democracy has a very wide appeal in the contemporary world, not because of the power of the Enlightenment ideology of the West, but because it answers best to universal needs and aspirations.

I hold that it was the universal form of government before the rise of the State. By Fascism I mean essentially authoritarian ultra-nationalism which aims at national regeneration. Present-day Fascism is not a replication of the Fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, and therefore I call it neo-Fascism. The neo-Fascist drive was very powerful under JRJ, and it has become powerful again in recent years. It strongly conduces to racism.

There is much, much more to be said on neo-Fascism and racism in Sri Lanka, but instead of writing an excessively long article I will conclude by making three essential points. Neo-Fascism is essentially authoritarian and anti-democratic, and therefore the will of the people is not really supreme for the neo-Fascist power-elite, who know what is good for the people better than the people themselves. That is why that elite goes along, not with the wholesome nationalist Buddhist majority, but with the extreme racists among them.

My second point is that the State racist is a far more noxious creature than other racists because he can get his hands on to the levers of State power, and has the power therefore of wrecking Sri Lanka. My third point arises out of the fact that there are now widespread hopes that something very positive could come out of the Northern Provincial Council, provided the TNA and the Government are flexible and co-operative. The neo-Fascist State racists will go all out to prevent that. It is time to stop their depredations.