Tea Plantation Workers, Sri Lanka, Dennis Keller, CC-BY-SA-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Idea of Citizenship

April 23, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

To freely create, subscribe to and be part of an idea, without coercion or fear, underpins all social and political associations. Citizenship is essentially an idea, and a powerful one. On the one hand, a citizen is a legally recognised subject or national of a state or commonwealth, either native or naturalised, an inhabitant. But this definition alone does not address the fact that laws guaranteeing recognition, and by extension participation in democracy, maybe trumped by systemic conditions contributing to marginalisation.

Take our tea plantation workers for example. Indentured labour from India brought in by the British and stateless for decades, all are at present, technically, Sri Lankan citizens. But what does this really mean? As Nia Charpentier points out on Groundviews (1).

Being so heavily dependent on the tea estate owners for most of their basic needs such as healthcare, housing and water access, these communities have almost always existed socially and economically isolated from the rest of the country. As a by-product of this, plantation workers to this day suffer from low self-esteem, ill health and also have poor levels of education and language barriers to contend with. There have been countless reports of instances where tea estate owners have abused the rights of workers by demolishing parts of their homes in order to make room for more plantations, in a desperate bid to cope with growing competition on the international market. Furthermore, schools are often under staffed and estate children have few role models for alternative occupations, continuing this bitter cycle of dependency, isolation and vulnerability.

The injustice this community has faced, and continue to endure, is well documented. More recently, video productions like Flip the Coin’s The Bitter Taste of Tea portray the visceral reality of their lives that the placebo of Fairtrade does little to meaningfully address. Further, in the visible difference between the existential conditions of workers in small-hold estates in the South and those in the hill-country lies a cautionary tale of an idea and meaning of citizenship gone very wrong in Sri Lanka.

Primus inter pares?

I submit that it is only when a person feels that she / he is part of society that citizenship grows, and matters. This feeling is more than just the full enactment of existing laws regarding citizenship. It is pegged to how peoples can express themselves, are depicted by others and interact with the State. Here we find particular communities, identities and peoples in Sri Lanka, whether by conscious construct or by unquestioning conduct, portray themselves as the more legitimate citizens – the Sinhalese over Tamils, straight over gay and lesbian, the Buddhists over all other religions.

To a point of caricature, there are certain peoples in Sri Lanka who enjoy far greater benefits of citizenship than others. When ethno-political affiliation is the primary marker of citizenship, it is not hard to imagine the fate of those who do not fit the mould.

A good, if not tragic example of this is when over 400,000 Tamil ‘citizens’ in Menik Farm in August 2009 suffered horrific conditions of internment and flooding. The justification for their internment was on the basis of suspect credentials of citizenship, entirely defined by a majoritarian government. Media, especially the Sinhala media, did not report the ground conditions in Menik Camp exacerbated by the flooding. There were no SMS news alerts. Few English media picked up on the story. There were no visuals on television, no radio coverage, no government ministers who flew in to assess the situation. The very next week, when localised flooding hit an area in the South, affecting Sinhalese families and villages, the difference in media coverage and government attention clearly revealed underlying attitudes towards, inter alia, citizenship. To add to this sharp contrast, significant socio-economic disparities in areas outside the North and East also have a direct impact on how peoples see themselves, and by extension, notions of belonging and entitlement, of what are and should be ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ in post-war Sri Lanka.

Generally accepted in studies looking into these socio-political dimensions is the lack of a civic sensibility undergirding a pan-Sri Lankan identity. Citizenship is thus anchored not to a secular, liberal ideal larger than the sum of its constituent peoples and communities, but to reductionist fault-lines and groupings, based on and fuelled by communal hagiography and the chauvinism of majoritarian politics.

Voters without citizens?

A powerful expression from antiquity that offers a rather different and compelling idea of citizenship is E pluribus unum, Latin for “out of many, one”. The US used it to good effect in its formative stages, before the mid-50’s when their trust was for better or worse placed in God. And though at around the time this phrase was coined, only Plato disagreed that women were incapable of political participation, read today it resonates with the idea that the good life is only possible through policies and practices that do not favour any one identity or community to the detriment – real or perceived – of another.

But if we accept this idea, why we must ask didn’t more Sinhalese openly and volubly condemn the conditions of fellow citizens interned in Menik Farm? Moreover, why did so many go to the extent of justifying these conditions, disturbingly even suggesting that they were better than what those in the camps would have endured under the erstwhile LTTE?

Perhaps it is because the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka, comfortable in their dominance of polity and society, define citizenship in very narrow terms. The current political discourse, as petty as it is venomous, of patriots and traitors is also linked to an idea of citizenship that is communal, partisan and parochial. Active contestation of government policies and practices, participation in political opposition, dissent and increasingly, even the mere expression of ideas such as self-determination are seen as criminal and suspect. Disturbingly too, though we have regular elections and universal franchise in law, we know most voters do not exercise their franchise based on a critical appreciation of issues, policies and manifestos or hold elected representatives responsible for promises made and undelivered.

The problem as I see it, to re-engage with the question as to why more didn’t express concern about fellow citizens interned in Menik Farm, is perhaps we don’t know how to, or care enough to be critical.

Whither ideas domain

This lack of a more progressive notion of citizenship, linked to near absence of widespread condemnation when government falls far short of the democratic ideal, is partly explained by the failure of our education. As Prof. Siri Hettige observes (2), the segregation of education on ethno-linguistic lines significantly contributed to an education system unable exchange ideas and provide opportunities to learn about the ‘other’, transcending divisions of caste, religion and ethnicity. The end result is scarcely a citizen.

That many don’t care enough to be critical about vital issues regarding citizenship and in particular, restrictions on its fullest expression and enjoyment, is also linked to the absence of a critical culture. The guiding principle of the Economist magazine, which is to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing… progress”, is deeply resonant in this regard, for it is precisely the timbre of informed dissent absent in Sri Lanka. It is also a debate leading to stronger ideas and safeguards of citizenship the majority do not really want to see.

This majority is Sinhala and at least in name, Buddhist. You do not need to be either to be a citizen of Sri Lanka. But it is a combination that affords, inter alia, privileges in society and polity other communities are not, even post-war, able to easily enjoy, or aspire to. Those who disagree must ask themselves, when will this majority countenance a Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Moor, Adivasi, Colombo Chetty, Indian Tamil, Kaffir or Burgher citizen as the elected head of state?

The honest answer to that question is the central challenge to citizenship in Sri Lanka.

Written for Options, published by Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka

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