Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • July 2011
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Sangakkara speaks on being Sri Lankan

Posted by harimpeiris on July 14, 2011

Cricket is not merely a sport in Sri Lanka. Like in the rest of the sub continent, it is a passion. Arguably it is Sri Lanka’s secular religion with millions of adherents, characterized by a zealous commitment and passion. In Sri Lanka, the high priests of cricket are the nationally treasured team and the icon who serves as its captain. The high standing and credibility of the national cricket captains are among other ways demonstrated through two of them Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya being popularly elected members of the national legislature, one on each side of the political divide.

1.     Kumar Sangakkara

Kumar Sangakkara is no ordinary cricketer. With over eight thousand runs in test cricket and even more in the limited over game, he captained the national team from 2009 till the conclusion of the World Cup in April. A former head prefect and Ryde medalist of Trinity College, he is also a law graduate. The invitation to deliver the Cowdrey Memorial Lecture at the MCC was a rare honor on the global cricket stage. The MCC is for cricket what the Oxford Union is in academia. It was here, before a distinguished audience of over a thousand of cricket’s good and great that the former Sri Lanka cricket captain choose to speak on being Sri Lankan, from a national cricketer’s perspective.

2.     A Sri Lankan Identity

The issue of a Sri Lankan identity is crucial to nation building and reconciliation in post war Sri Lanka. Never was the issue of a Sri Lankan identity as much under assault as when the LTTE fought for a mono ethnic enclave in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Sangakkara draws on his experiences as a young boy during Sri Lanka’s darkest hour of July ’83, when goon squads roamed the streets hunting down Tamil persons for murder and mayhem to decry the narrow ethnic chauvinism that spawned such murderous violence in Sri Lanka.

The concept of a Sri Lankan identity, one that is reflective of the diversity of our people is sadly not the dominant concept on which our society is built on. The commitment to and the acknowledgement of a pluralist, multi ethnic and multi religious society is often subsumed in Sri Lanka by arguments and appeals to more narrow, ethnic or religious identities or both. Such narrow ethno religious identities not overlaid and dominated by a more unifying and common Sri Lankan identity spawns the seeds of parochial politics and sectarian violence.

It is truly in cricket that Sri Lanka demonstrates her best, both on the playing field and outside. The team and its ethos is a celebration of Sri Lanka’s diversity, with a distinctly multi ethnic and multi religious, pluralist flavor. Cricket transcends the narrow divides and ethnic polarizations of Sri Lankan society and in that triumph lies the possibility of a Sri Lankan identity. To Sri Lankans, Murali is not a Tamil, he is Sri Lankan.  “Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burger. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today and always, proudly Sri Lankan” (Kumar Sangakkara, MCC, July 2011).

3.     Patriotism verses Nationalism

Sri Lankans are regularly exhorted to be patriotic. But this call to patriotism, in the absence of a Sri Lankan identity becomes in its substantive essence more often than not an appeal to narrow ethnic nationalism. Patriotism is a love of one’s country and her people. Ethnic nationalism is the love of one’s race. National patriotism is inclusive, ethnic nationalism is exclusionary. Patriotism is generous and accommodating of diversity, nationalism is mean spirited and divisive. Apartheid in South Africa, Srebrenica in Milosevic and Mladic’s Serbia and Darfur in Omar Al Bashir’s Sudan all took place in the context of an over abundance of ethnic nationalism.

Sri Lanka has an opportunity to forge a Sri Lankan national identity that accommodates and celebrates the ethnic and religious diversity of her people. Sri Lankan cricket has done that, transcending the polarizing divides of her society. It is now to be seen if the Sri Lankan State can follow suit.

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