What Is Sri Lankan Identity Even?
Someone keyed my car with big scratches on all four sides reading DON’T PARK HERE. Kavindu fucking parked it there and it wasn’t even blocking anyone but nevermind that’s not the point.
I am at the police station, sitting on a plastic chair, trying to file a police report. There is someone in the tiny remand cell asking for water and they are ignoring him. They are barely paying attention to me.
The cop finally drags out the giant police report book and two pens - blue and red. He writes down what happened in blue then he grabs the red pen and looks at me. He asks me what I am.
There is a right answer to this question. I know the right answer. But I try something different. I tell him Sri Lankan. We just look at each other for a while and then I sigh and give up.
“Sinhala. Buddhagama,” I say. Sinhala, Buddhist.
He writes this down in red.
If you go to a police station or most places besides an airport or a cricket match, it’s not clear that the Sri Lankan identity exists at all.
A Legal Sri Lankan
The legal definition of Sri Lankan began as:
Was your father born here before 1948?
I’m paraphrasing but that’s basically it. After millenia of migration and mixing, they just called FREEZE on an arbitrary date. Also dicks. You had to be on this island and have a dick.
This is the basic core of Sri Lankan identity. Do you know who my father is? Only in this century did it become possible for women to pass citizenship, and that’s the only type of citizenship we have — citizenship by descent.
This is a very weak sort of identity. One you cannot choose or achieve. It has no particular content at all, no meaning. It’s just something inherited, about as relevant as a blood type really.
Spite Vs Mix
This is not to say that a Sri Lankan identity doesn’t exist. Or can’t exist. But the way we’ve defined it makes it very difficult. Because our forefathers defined it out of spite.
At independence thousands of Indian Tamils were here, but they were unlikely to have fathers born here, or any form of documentation at all. Our politicans wanted to keep them out, so they wrote the law this way. They made these poor people stateless. This also made our state somewhat meaningless.
If there is a Sri Lankan identity it is defined by mixture. Mix Buddhism from India with local traditions, Thai ordination and an American Protestant and you get Sinhala Buddhism. Mix Kerala cuisine with colonial imports of chili and local ingenuity and you get Sri Lankan food. But that mixing is a living thing.
The minute we limited citizenship to a certain group of men, we froze that culture in its tracks. Other countries have similar citizenship laws — India and China for example — but those are huge populations with a lot of internal diversity (and I still don’t think it’s right). Sri Lanka was an island dependent on constant mixing and we stopped that process in its tracks. In my opinion, we killed the Sri Lankan identity before it could even begin.
What we created as a ‘Sri Lankan’ identity is in effect a race — genetic descendents of certain men. But these men had little in common besides falling out of a vagina at a certain place and time. It’s a meaningless, boring race with no story at all.
So of course people default to their other identities. The Sinhalese people descended from a freaking lion. Tamil people have a culture that goes back to the beginning of history. Moors are connected to the broad and vibrant culture of Islam. The Burghers have fun. What does being Sri Lankan get you? A shitty passport and an increasingly mediocre cricket team?
Still Sri Lankan
Of course, if you ask me, I’ll still say that I’m Sri Lankan. That’s the identity that I’ve chosen and I don’t know what else to call my mixed race children. But I don’t think it’s a common identity, at least not in the pluralistic sense that I think of it. But it could be. Given the costs of racial division, it really should be. But for that to happen I think we really need to stop holding on to it so tightly.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but I think that in order to have a strong national identity we need to open up to immigration. As an island we were historically open for millenia, and many successful modern democracies have pathways for people to join. In pure economic terms the free(er) movement of labor unlocks billions in value. But in social terms, immigration can make national identity about shared values more than blood.
Right now Sri Lankan identity just something you inherit. But if it’s something you can choose then it means something. I think this sort of identity is more suited to us as a democracy than blood and soil.
The argument against is that this will destroy our culture, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what culture is. Of what our culture is. Our culture is a mix of influences. Culture itself is a process of change. This is of course a difficult to impossible sell, but it is nonetheless true.
Historically, this island was never closed. That’s what makes us so interesting and magical. We obviously need to stop short of getting colonized again, but we also need to break out of colonial mindsets and laws that are frankly holding us back. Right now our default response to anyone (or anything) new is DON’T PARK HERE and this insular mindset is what has us retreating further back into ancient identities. And fighting each other.
But there is another way, where we open up and let our culture live and breathe, as modern Sri Lankans. Different but united, and moving forward into the future. It seems impossible at this time of increasing division, but I honestly don’t know what else to do. I like this island and my family’s too mixed up already. As messy an identity as it is, I don’t have any choice but to be Sri Lankan. I just hope that that identity can become more inclusive, and come to mean something more.