| by Daya Somasundaram

When a wise man, established well in virtue,
Develops consciousness and understanding,
Then as a bhikkhu ardent and sagacious
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle.
- Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga (~500)

The Emergence of Ethnic Consciousness

( November 17, 2014, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) The fundamental process fuelling, sustaining and driving the ongoing, seemingly intractable and, at times violent, civil conflict in Sri Lanka has been the polarized ethnic consciousness of two groups—Sinhala and Tamil. However, it has not always been this way, though some have said that this is ancient hatred and the two groups have been fighting each other throughout history. Until the recent past, relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils had been harmonious. They shared many religio-cultural practices, lived side by side as friends, colleagues, neighbours, or in the same house as family, husband and wife or as lovers. The Sinhala and Tamil identities were not so salient, exclusive or polarized: both had multiple, cross-cutting, overlapping, inclusive and hybrid identities (Silva 2002). As Eller (1999: 95–96) describes the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict:

This conflict has not been a continuous or ancient sequence but has resulted from particular and recent action, decisions, and interpretations that have selectively exacerbated certain potential differences between cultural groups while overlooking or even denying other differences or, for that matter, certain levels of similarity. In fact, there may be no place on earth where the ‘use’ of culture and history is more conspicuous, where present claims and past grievances are couched in terms of the ancient battles and kingdoms and of cultural revival and survival—where history, mythology, archaeology, are all political tools and weapons. We will also see that the cultural picture in Sri Lanka (as in Leach’s Burma) is much more complicated than a mere bi-ethnic face-off and that other groups, and groups within these groups, contoured along other cultural or political or economic lines, exist and help to move and shape the overall and dominant national conflict.

Modern political developments, socio-economic factors, increasing population pressures and a stagnant economy (Abeyratne 2004) have created the conditions for the elite to mobilize the population along ethnic lines for their own electoral and power needs. What had been a proto or nascent ethno-national consciousness (Indrapala 2007; Pieris 2010; Roberts 2004), a strand in the multi-textured quilt of myriad possibilities, has been made salient and rigidly defined with clear boundaries set against the ‘other’; a condensation, jelling (Byman 2002), crystallization of hostile and exclusive group identities.

Worldwide, nationalism, perhaps partly based on older, historic identities, is a modern psychosocial phenomenon that developed due to a confluence of global, historical, psychological, socio-economic, religious and political factors (Anderson 2006). The appeal of nationalism to a core group identity helped bring communities together, forge a cohesive consciousness, define boundaries and create nation states with ‘profound emotional legitimacy and attachment’ and ‘generate colossal sacrifice’, a willingness to kill and die for it (Anderson 2006). During the colonial period, the world witnessed the growth and development of powerful nation states in America and Europe and their subsequent imperial expansion into global empires. The fierce European (and Japanese) nationalistic rivalries resulted in the two destructive world wars of the twentieth century that affected every part of the globe (Chatterjee 2010) and set the stage for what was to follow: the breakup of the colonial empires, superpower rivalry for the spoils (the Cold War) and eventually smaller, intra-state, ethnic civil conflicts. The postcolonial struggles of the twentieth century have seen the growth of nationalism and ethnic differentiation, unparalleled in history. This vigorous affirmation of distinctions and exclusiveness has meant struggles for self-determination and autonomy. However, national and ethnic assertion cannot be constrained to follow just the boundaries wished by those who helped create them. Frantz Fanon (1967) wanted to create a positive black African identity, but what eventually emerged was a host of conflicting national and even tribal identities, a veritable Pandora’s box. The dangers of too much differentiation and exclusiveness are only too clear for us to see today—the problems of ethnocentrism and chauvinism. This is the tendency where the positive elevation of group identity progresses to the extreme position of the group thinking that it is special and superior to all others, as it happened in Nazi Germany.

That group identity can arouse ultimate loyalties and sacrifice, particularly when it is felt to be under threat, is abundantly clear from numerous examples of current ethnic conflicts around the globe (in former Yugoslavia, former USSR, Ireland, Rwanda, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Burma, Thailand, India, Philippines, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries). It is this mystical feeling of belonging to something greater than the individual self, of belonging to the larger group, a patriotic fervour, that has driven communities to extreme action; ‘militant enthusiasm’ as Konrad Lorenz (1963) terms it. According to Sivaram (cited in Whitaker 2007), modern ruling elites have found ethno-nationalism to be the most effective principle to organize and run modern nation states. Gilroy (2000) eloquently opposes the ‘emergence and entrenchment of biopolitical power as means and technique for managing the life of populations, states and societies’. Biopolitical power is based on ethno-nationalism, a form of ‘New Racism’ in the modern postcolonial world, arising out of beliefs in discrete and exclusive racial and national identities with genomic undertones. The tragic consequences of creating divisive ethno-nationalistic groupings can be seen from three modern examples, among many.

The construction of India from a multitude of princely and chieftaincy regimes through diplomacy, statecraft, conspiracy, cunning, terror and subversion, for economic interest and administrative efficiency, was an achievement of the British Raj and the East India Company. In the process, there arose the need for an overarching concept of ‘Hinduism’, to make sense of and unify a myriad and kaleidoscope conglomeration of diverse practices and beliefs into the communal interpretation of a two-nation theory. Hinduism was contrasted with Islam and people were compelled to identify with one or the other. This divisive categorization eventually led to partition, with the creation of Pakistan and later Bangladesh, and continuing tribulations within and without (Chatterjee 2010; Frykenberg 1993; Ludden 1996; Pandey 1990; Thapar et al. 1969).

The story of Rwanda is more illustrative (Cordell and Wolff 2010; Gourevitch 1998; Volkan 1997). Belgium, and to a lesser extent Germany and the Roman Catholic Church, succeeded during their period of colonial rule in creating racial consciousness and divisions between the Hutus and Tutsis, through racial theories based on such origin myths as the story of Ham from the Bible (Gourevitch 1998) and divisive actions like issuing ethnic identity cards indicating which group people belonged to, whereas in precolonial times, their ascriptions had been tribal, clannish and proximity to power. They had shared the same territory, religion and language and a system that allowed for intermarriage and social mobility between caste and clan (Cordell and Wolff 2010). The resultant political ambitions, mutually exclusive discourses, division, animosity and suspicion erupted in Hutu–Tutsi violence for the first time in their history in 1959 and led to the genocide in 1994, which spilled over into neighbouring countries.

The strategy of ethnically dividing Iraqis into Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd sects for governance – ethnic quotas in the Governing Council, single district electoral law and process (Chandrasekaran 2006) after the invasion led by the United States, conveniently (for Western powers), split the Islamic world in the current ‘clash of civilizations’ ideology (Huntington 1993). Chandrasekaran (2006) quotes Saad Jawad, professor of political science at Baghdad University, thus: ‘We never saw each other as Sunnis or Shi’ites first. We were Iraqis first. But the Americans changed all that. They made a point of categorizing people as Sunni or Shi’ite or Kurd.’ These impressions were confirmed by my key inform¬ant interviews of Iraqi refugees in Australia from the Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

Many of these ‘ethnic’ groupings are not de novo constructions by any means, but may have already existed as potential or floating possibilities among many in ‘proto-nationalistic’ form. It is possible to trace the strands of many modern-day ethnic identities back into history. ‘Hindu’ conceptions can be found in Vedic literature.

But there was a broad inclusiveness and universality of vision in the Hindu concept of spiritual insights, discernible from Rig Vedic times, that was able to encompass other religious traditions within its folds (Coomaraswamy 1977). Buddhism had an extremely tolerant tradition, welcoming Jain, Islamic and Hindu practices and beliefs. It is reported that when Christian missionaries first came to Ceylon, Buddhist monks invited them to preach in their viharas. It was only when the missionaries started to actively proselytize and rebuke Buddhist practices that antagonism started (Scott 1996, 2000). Saddam Hussein dictatorially ruled Iraq—having a Shi’ite majority—using a Sunni minority. Admittedly, the situation is much more complex.

The Kurds straddle the current geographic divisions of Iraq, Iran and Turkey, while Shi’ites in Iraq may look to Iran and the Arabic communities in Iran may look to Iraq, all of which became complicated by the Iran–Iraq war. All these loyalties and belongings antedate the American invasion. However, ethnic divisions and conflict can be aggravated or engendered by the way policies are formulated, frameworks are adopted, governance and power issues are formulated, blocks and identities are emphasized, configured and drawn out.

There are many different ways of analysing or looking at a situation. The tangle starts with trying to carve the world into neat nation states with convenient boundaries, which the imperial powers proceeded to do in a hurry, trying to understand and rule the myriad and esoteric world they had conquered.

The modern Western or European predilection for concrete, reductionist categorization (the category fallacy of Kleinman (1977), where one finds all the characteristics of a predetermined category), Orientalism (Said 1995) and receptive local conditions have selectively accentuated, reinterpreted, focused, emphasized and objectified (Cohn 1987) certain aspects while ignoring others to bring out, subtly influence, construct and mould or transform (Van der Veer 1994) modern perceptions, consciousness, ways and pat¬terns of thinking and world views into current ethnic groupings.

These categories are then propagated as natural and a ‘history’ found for them. The Western way of thinking and seeing the world (Nisbett 2003) in concrete, reductionist categories with clear divisions has come to dominate the thoughts of not only academicians but also laypersons. John Lennon’s (2005) refrain for peace comes to mind: ‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for.’ A more ancient verse by the poet Kaniyan Poongkuntran in Purananuru of Sangam literature sings of the universal concept of being a global citizen, ‘Yathum oore yavarum kelir’ (To us all towns are one, all men our kin, listen…); it has become part of Tamil folklore. This is not to blame the West for all that is happening, for other imaginations and configurations may have led to different cleavages, fault lines, conflicts and violence. Nevertheless, current conceptualizations and subsequent developments are outgrowths of dominant Western frameworks. At least, if the relativity and contextuality of ethnic consciousness can be realized, it may reduce our fanaticism and enthusiasm for fighting each other!

Unfortunately for multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, which has become a case study for what can go awry, various ‘sub-nationalisms’ have tended to assert their own separate identities, resulting in ethnic confrontation. Though secular scholars (Bastian 1994; Committee for Rational Development 1984; Jeganathan and Ismail 1995; Obeyesekere 1988; Roberts 1994, 1997; Spencer 1990; Tambiah 1992) have, belatedly, tried to disentangle and deconstruct the divisive consciousness, the nationalisms have already become invested with considerable emotions and are supported by strong mythic beliefs that defy rational arguments.

Ultimately nationalisms are, in modern social science parlance, ‘constructed’ from multiple socio-economic, psycho-cultural and politico-historical contextual determinants. Anderson (2006) termed the process ‘imagined’, while Marxists criticized the ‘false consciousness’—material and class interests, they claimed, should be more progressive determinants of consciousness.


Later, under Lenin, they did recognize the importance of solving the ‘national question’ with the recognition that national consciousness arose out of the more recent development of capitalism, from feudalism as well as anti-colonial struggles (Fanon 2004). Marxists have also described the process of ‘interpellation’, where the nationalistic ideology would define and constitute the subjective experience of belonging to a particular nation or social group that changes from time to time or conjecture to conjecture (Ismail 2000). Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, most of the left parties, rather than help solve the ‘national question’, eventually capitulated to the lure of ethno-nationalism for the easy ride to power.

Then there is the Buddhist and Hindu metaphysical concept of construction, vikalpa, or the illusionary maya, like outer clothing or kosha one puts on, the cloth spun as a product of the socializing process from childhood, but becomes strongly identified with. It would take a Buddha to transcend these constricting boundaries (see Figure 1A.1), to liberate oneself by developing better understanding and deeper insight by clearing the misperceptions and compelling hold of ethnic identification, to disentangle the tangle. This is not to say that ethnic consciousness is not real. Ethno-national consciousness gives rise to cultural diversity, which is the beautiful flowering of the differentiation of humanity. It is when ethnic consciousness becomes exclusive, without respect and tolerance for the ‘other’, chauvinistic, blinding ethnocentrism that the trouble starts.

There have been a few genuine Sri Lankans from different communities who have managed to break away from communalism but their voice for peace and reconciliation is easily drowned by the vociferous clamouring of ethnic entrepreneurs (DeVotta 2004). Current socio-economic realities (Abeyratne 2004; Bastian 1994; Gunasinghe 1984) and powerful myths, legends and passions (Kapferer 1988) shape how the different ethnic groups perceive themselves, interpret what is happening around them and determine herd behaviour with tragic consequences.

panel graph

Group and ethnic identities are linked to self-esteem, dignity and sense of belonging, defended or sacrificed with life itself, developing a self-fulfilling, transgenerational, reproductive capacity to pass on to future generations through the socialization process. Unfortunately they harden and become rigidified into polarized, exclusive categories impervious to change after bitter conflict, violence and war (Kaufman 2001; Thiranagama 2011; Volkan 1997). These identifications and belongings become fixed social reality, overdetermining how ethnic groups perceive themselves and how others perceive them. These are collective psychosocial phenomena affecting whole communities that provide the fuel for the ongoing ethnic turmoil capitalized upon by aspiring leaders and ethnic and conflict entrepreneurs.

Ethnic Group Dynamics

Ethno-national consciousness is the way an ethnic or national group perceives and experiences itself, the outer world and other groups. Central to ethnic consciousness is the group or collective identity based on a way of life—culture, language, religion and home territory among other characteristics (which could yet include clan, tribe or caste in some societies)—usually in opposition to other groups. Group identity is given sustenance by strong mythical beliefs about its origin, life, history, ‘chosen traumas’ (Volkan 1997), and the future. Ethnic identity becomes invested with considerable emotions, a sense of loyalty and belonging felt at the core of the being. Susan Greenfield (2000) explains that emotions, though often subterranean, subconscious and apparently irrational, are the most basic building blocks of consciousness.

A picture of concentrically increasing and expanding identities and loyalties is given in Figure 1A.1. Similar concentric circles of loyalties (Allport 1954), applicable to the Sri Lankan situation have been described by Arasaratnam (1979, 1998) and Somasundaram (1998). Smith (1998) describes the ‘onion character’ of ethnicity, its capacity for forging ‘concentric circles’ of identity and loyalty, the wider circle encompassing the narrower. Multiple identities can be coextensive, if not symbiotic, as in multicultural societies where there can be harmony, and does not necessarily lead to destructive, violent conflict. Family and group identity and feelings may be more salient in collectiv-istic societies like many Afro-Asian communities where membership and loyalty to the community are much stronger than in individualistic ones like in the United States and Australia (Hofstede and Hofstede 2005; Hofstede et al. 2008; Nisbett 2003).

Within the concentric circles of identities, the narrow inner circle is individualistic self-interest. In the Western world view of the social contract described by Rousseau, egoistic individuals come together to form groups or society out of self-interest, agreeing to conditions of mutual benefit.

But unlike the coalescence of individualistic identities, group identity is determined by how the group or community defines itself, who belong and who do not, socially accepted practices, rituals, beliefs, interactions and relationships, collective memories, the past and the present, history, myths, narratives, stories, songs and dances that are passed on to future generations by a socialization process starting from birth.

This results in self-effacement, interdependence, cooperative behaviour, relationships and networks, group norms, common goals and motivations where people can act for altruistic reasons, for the common good, sacrificing self-interest (Chun et al. 2006; Heppner et al. 2006). Ethnic consciousness arises from this background, as does the sociocultural context to mould the way the community sees the world. Collective consciousness and unconsciousness of ethnic groups, collective memories, cultural world views and group identity are manifested in their psycho-cultural narratives (Ross 2007). Collective stories, dramas, songs, art and other creative productions, images, metaphors, rituals and symbols reveal the inner world, chosen memories, deep fears, perceived threats and grievances that determine day-to-day behaviour, choices, motivation and, more pertinent to our purpose here, drive the ethnic conflict. The collective narratives are thus good reflectors, entry points that give insight and access to understanding the inner workings of the group mind.

Group identity is a basic need that determines a community’s well-being; its cohesiveness, relationships and networking; its social capital. When it is lost or weakened, the group undergoes loss of dignity, esteem, status, confidence and pride; feelings of inferiority, disempowerment and lack of direction and control over their fate rise to the fore. There may develop various forms of social dysfunction like anomie, suicidality, crime, domestic and child abuse, alcohol and drug problems, a motivation, helplessness, dependence (on outside help), mistrust, paranoia and a host of other social ills.

These kinds of adverse social consequences can be seen in indigenous communities that have been destroyed by colonization, as in the Americas (Erikson and Vecsey 1980), Australia (Atkinson 2002; Krieg 2009) and by assimilation among the Veddas in Sri Lanka (Thangarajah 1995). Signs of collective trauma and loss of social capital can be seen today among communities that have faced the brunt of long civil wars, as in Africa (Abramowitz 2005), Cambodia (Somasundaram et al. 1999), among the Tamils (Somasundaram 2007a), which will be described in the sections to come (see Table 3B.1), and other minorities experiencing repression. A strong sense of group cohesiveness, confidence, identity and collective efficacy is positive, leading to resilience and is protective against stress from adverse events. But when group identification becomes extreme, transforming into ethnocentrism and chauvinism, it can lead to difficulties, first for other groups that are in its path and then the group itself, when emotions can turn inwards becoming exclusive, puritan and paranoid. Buddhaghosa’s (~500) insightful description about entanglements of the ‘I’ consciousness (and unconsciousness) can be logically extended to exclusive ‘we’ consciousness (and unconsciousness).

The individual and collective unconscious negatives tend to be projected, as defence mechanisms, attributed onto the ‘other(s)’, which according to Jung (1931) ‘leads to collective delusions, “incidents”, war and revolutions, in a word, to destructive mass psychoses’. Jung blames politicians and journalists who ‘unwittingly unleash (these) mental epidemics’. Short of mass understanding and awakening, politicians, journalists and educators hold the power to reverse the process. Eastern traditions, Frieir’s (1972) pedagogy of ‘conscientisation’ and psychotherapy (Watts 1973), claim that vidya (right knowledge), vipassana (insight) and clear perception can be liberating from these entanglements, complexes, bondage.

Although rationally, ethnicity can be understood on the basis of a common way of life, language, religion or territory, membership of an ethnic group usually bases itself in an overpowering and ineffable belief of sharing the same primordial essence (Smith 1998; Isaacs 1989), a sense of solidarity (Smith 1986), having the same origin and descent, an extended kinship1 network (Horowitz 2000).

There is often a deep-seated faith of sharing the same pure blood (Allport 1954; Volkan 1997) or belonging to the same native soil (bhumiputras or sons of the soil). During ethnic identity formation and conflict, appeals to blood and soil become common in the images, symbols, mass media, political rhetoric and rituals as seen in the north and south of Sri Lanka.2 An important feature of social identity formation is that once committed to a particular group, often a small subgroup, the members of that group become ‘tribal and clannish’, intolerant and cruel in their exclusion of other groups, while pledging total and blind obedience and loyalty to their own group. Groups have a need to externalize, project their fears, feelings of threats, frustrations and aggressions on to an outer group, the ‘other’, an enemy to hate (Kaufman 2001; Volkan 1988).

This process of in-group formation and exclusion of any out-group was brought out by a series of revealing experiments. When subjects are assigned to a group, any group, even arbitrarily (for example at a weekend camp), they immediately, automatically, almost reflexively, think of that group as ‘us’, as an in-group for them, as better, attributing positive qualities and showing in-group preferences. To them any alternative is an out-group, ‘them’, the ‘other’, attributing negative qualities and showing discrimination against them and depriving them of resources even when it is clearly detrimental to their own interests (Brown 1965, 1986; Tajfel 1978).

These result in zero-sum games, with competitive and incompatible goals, where both sides lose, the overriding emotional concern being that the other side loses more (Jesse and Williams 2011). Being social animals, humans seem to have the intrinsic tendency and need to form groups that had survival value when competing for food or security.

Erik Erikson (1968) describes this need for psychosocial identity, both personal and collective, to be of a ‘special kind’ and to project all the negative qualities on to others which ‘in conjunction with their territoriality, gave men a reason to slaughter one another in majorem gloriam’ (see also Erikson [1963]). Reggie Siriwardena (1984) describes the ‘mystical belief in blood’ in the racist vocabulary to denote racial purity, saying, ‘If you really believe that your blood is inherently superior to that of another race, you will have less compunction about shedding the latter.’ Allport (1954) points out:

Both family and racial pride focus on blood. Race is a fashionable focus for the propaganda of alarmists and demagogues. It is the favourite bogey used by those who have something to gain, or who themselves are suffering from some nameless dread. Racists seem to be people who out of their own anxieties, have manufactured the demon of race. Others, like Hitler, have found racism useful in distracting people from their own troubles, and providing them with an easy scapegoat.
A very important component of ethnic consciousness is perception of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘other’, against whom or in reference to whom the group becomes more clearly defined. As Kapferer (1988) argues, the Tamils have become the demonic, evil ‘other’ in the Sinhala psyche. Perception of the ‘other’ includes attitudes and stereotypes concerning the ‘other’. Stereotypical labels usually have an associated emotional tone, often negative. Thus, the terms Demala for the Tamil and Cinkalavar for the Sinhalese, though strictly neutral and used in formal writing, can be used in a derogatory way or as means of exclusion by the other group. Labels paradoxically also influence the person labelled, compelling him to fit the mould. The label can become an inner command (Sartre 1963; Solomon 1974), forcing the individual to behave in a way expected by others. Thus, stereotypes can become both self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling by influencing our behaviour towards those we stereotype as well as drawing out the stereotyped behaviour.

1 Tamil co-ethnics were addressed as brothers and sisters by the LTTE.
2 Tamil militant youth used to cut their fingers with a blade and put pottus (mark of different colours applied in the centre of the forehead or between the eyebrows of religious or cultural significance) on themselves and each other as symbols of their loyalty and commitment at political rallies, which had a profound, electrifying effect on the audience. These stories were then passed on in awe by word of mouth. The phrase raththathin raththam (blood of our blood) was a common metaphor in political rhetoric and nationalistic songs, as was sontha mann (this is our common soil).

© Dr Daya Somasundaram



Ethnic Consciousness by Dr Daya Somasundaram. An excerpt from the book Scarred Communities Psychosocial Impact of Man-made and Natural Disasters on Sri Lankan Society reprinted by special permission of the author, Dr Daya Somasundaram, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna and a Consultant Psychiatrist and the publisher, SAGE Publications. 2014/520pages/Hardback: Rs 1250 (9788132111689)

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