The political formation of cultures

Outcomes such as the sharpening of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the growth of Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu are often seen as political expressions of deep-seated cultural mores and cultural differences. Even if the levels of conflict or cooperation between ethnic groups may vary depending on changing political circumstances, the boundaries between these groups are themselves often taken to have been cast long before mass political movements mobilised people based on group identity.  If ethnic kin living in different states feel an affinity with each other and act on that basis, this is often considered a natural expression of group belonging. Ethnic mobilisers lend such views credence when they claim to express the enduring spirit of cultural groups.

Does identity-based mobilisation express a pre-existing cultural logic? Or does it form the cultures it claims to represent? My work on the Dravidian parties of south India points to the political salience of different visions of community in Tamil Nadu from the early decades of the 20th century to the 1950s. On the one hand, the main representative of pan-Indian nationalism, the Congress party, was much stronger than the political vehicles of Tamil nationalism through this period. On the other, many activists of the pan-Indian parties shared Tamil nationalist sentiments. The Dravidian parties mobilised behind appeals to the middle and the lower castes at least as much as to the glory of the Tamil language and the need for the greater recognition of this language. However, their relationships with the associations of particular intermediate and lower castes were fraught with tension, and such associations allied themselves as often with pan-Indian parties as with the Dravidian parties. If the Dravidian parties appealed to marginal groups, so did the communists, who spoke the language of class more than that of caste even while they drew much of their support from lower caste groups. These ideologically diverse political forces aggregated the concerns of a range of Tamil Nadu's major groups in different ways, and enjoyed significant pockets of support by the 1950s. The cultures of 20th century Tamil Nadu could clearly be incorporated into different political projects, articulating various views of political community.

The Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu were not exceptional in their ambiguous relationship with the local cultures that preexisted their growth. The Pakistan movement claimed to represent the Muslims of British India, who they claimed constituted a distinct nation. Yet, the All India Muslim League, which led this movement, enjoyed greatest support until the late 1930s in regions which remained a part of India after decolonisation, rather than the Muslim-majority regions, most of which became a part of Pakistan in 1947. So, the party's leadership was largely drawn from Muslim-minority areas and reflected the concerns of Muslim elites in these regions. The Pakistan movement spread rapidly to most Muslim-majority regions (except Kashmir) through the 1940s due to the growth of anxieties that Muslims would be marginalised in a Hindu majoritarian postcolonial India. It was also significant that the leaders of the Muslim League crafted coalitions with Muslim political and religious elites in the Muslim-majority areas.

Did the social terrain of late colonial Southasia make the emergence of a movement representing a distinct Muslim nation very likely, perhaps inevitable? Some features of the colonial state's understanding and governance of British India made religious identities important bases of solidarity. Religion was the major basis on which colonial officials categorised the population of British India, although they also gave importance to caste and language. This was best reflected in the census exercise, which aggregated the members of particular religious groups into communities of definite sizes. Credible claims to represent religious groups often gained people access to state patronage.  Separate electorates were carved out for Muslims. These were among the reasons for the growth of mobilisation behind religious identity, specifically the formation of the Muslim League. Muslims being the second largest religious group, and forming the majority of the population in large areas of British India also aided the imagination of the Muslims of colonial India as a nation.

However, incentives remained strong to mobilise along other lines too, such as language, caste and class. They urged the majority of the Muslims of British India to support parties and movements not primarily associated with religious banners until the late 1930s. For instance, the Krishak Praja Party which dominated Bengali politics in the 1930s drew substantial support from both Muslims and Hindus, and the Unionist Party which dominated Punjabi politics through the same period counted many Hindus, Muslims as well as Sikhs among its supporters. Even in the Muslim-minority provinces, only a minority of the Muslims voted for the Muslim League a decade before the formation of Pakistan. The nature of late colonial Indian society clearly left space for political alternatives not based mainly on religious identification.

If colonial knowledge and colonial institutions privileged religious identity in India, they privileged language identity in Sri Lanka. While this encouraged mobilisation behind language identity, it did not rule out other forms of solidarity. The revival of Buddhism was a more important focus of mobilisation than the promotion of the Sinhala language through the first half of the 20th century, and remained an important aspect of Sinhala nationalism even later. Buddhist revivalists sometimes opposed Sinhala-speaking Christians more than Tamil-speakers in the early decades of the last century. While various Sri Lankan Tamil elites presumed to lead all the residents of the country who spoke the Tamil language, their efforts encountered resistance among Tamil-speaking Muslims as well as Tamil-speaking plantation workers. This led to the formation of distinct parties representing these groups, the Muslim Congress and the Ceylon Workers' Congress, which continue to play significant roles in Sri Lankan politics. Later Sri Lankan Tamil political forces would respond to such impudence with attempts to expel Muslims from the eastern province. Contrary to the claims of many later Sinhala and Tamil militants, it was not preordained that language would be the major cleavage in the postcolonial Sri Lankan polity.

Identity and cultural change
If identity movements and parties do not express group cultures in the only ways in which they can be expressed, do they reshape cultures in the process of mobilisation? If they are successful in gaining considerable support among their target community, do they thereby come to represent group culture in important ways? What changes in institutions and strategies accompany such political formations of culture?

Identity-based political forces attempt to sharpen group boundaries to clearly delineate the groups they wish to mobilise and differentiate them from other proximate groups.  This is true to some extent even of movements which are inclusive to an extent and deploy subtly-layered identities.The Dravidian movement was one such political force.  One of the its major leaders, C N Annadurai, the founding leader of the DMK, related in his journal Nam Naadu an experience he had while engaged in an agitation in 1953 to augment the territory that would be part of the state of Madras, later renamed Tamil Nadu. Language identities were crucial in this context as the boundaries between the states of Madras and Andhra Pradesh were being drawn along the lines of language use.  Annadurai was campaigning in the regions that are now along the borders between these states. When he asked a shepherd he met in the course of his campaign whether he was a Tamil or a Telugu, he found to his dismay that the categories and distinction he introduced meant nothing to the boy. Perhaps the boy's speech included words from both languages. Perhaps the boy was aware of Tamil and Telugu as referents to languages, but not to the identities of individuals.

Annadurai bemoaned what he considered the boy's low level of ethnic consciousness, clearly wishing to urge people to assume a definite and exclusive language identity. The shepherd in question did not seem to suffer because he did not share his interrogator's classificatory scheme. I understand that the same was not true of individuals who attempted to reject the vision of the so-called rioters who questioned them about their ethnic identity on the streets of Colombo on 29 July 1983. Over a generation of ethnicised politics had sharpened the boundaries between the two categories that mattered most, Sinhala and Tamil, so that people could not evade their comprehensive and mutually exclusive character. In response to the question, "Are you Sinhala or are you Tamil?", answers such as "Sri Lankan" and "Christian" made little sense that day.

The ways in which political forces construct group cultures are associated with particular political strategies. For instance, the dominant constructions of Sri Lankan Tamil identity until the 1970s emphasised the long history of literary production in Tamil. This view of Tamil identity was associated with the significant roles of group members in Western education and the bureaucracy, and with electoral participation to promote constitutional changes such as the introduction of federalism and the greater official recognition of Tamil. The Tamil Congress and the Federal Party, the major Sri Lankan Tamil parties of the first postcolonial generation, had limited success in achieving these goals. The decrease in the recruitment of Sri Lankan Tamils to the bureaucracy and the professions suggested that aptitude in education would be no guarantee of reasonable life chances.  The army's attack on the Jaffna Library in 1981 directly destroyed some of the textual artefacts which occupied a central place in the sense of identity of many Sri Lankan Tamils. These circumstances raised questions for many Sri Lankan Tamils about the viability of an ethnic strategy focused on electoral participation and recruitment to the bureaucracy, and the value of a predominantly textual construction of group identity.  The militant movement, which came to dominate Sri Lankan Tamil politics from the 1980s, adopted an alternative strategy of armed insurgency, perhaps for secession. It associated this strategy with a reconstructed group identity emphasising the military powers of ancient Tamil kingdoms and memorialising the militants who died in the civil war of the last two decades.

Identity-based political forces vary in the extent to which they aim to promote cultural change. They may be divided into two ideal-types: first, those which instrumentally deploy cultural banners to help build broad social coalitions and gain access to resources and power; and second, those which prioritise cultural change, sacrificing some support, resources and power if necessary to promote the norms they value. Instrumental identity movements usually keep their constructions of group culture capacious, to broaden the coalition which can identify with such a cultural vision. Movements such as the Pakistan movement, the Bangladesh movement, Hindu nationalism, Kashmiri nationalism, and Moro nationalism belong to this category.

The Pakistan movement's major leaders were modernists, in some cases atheists, who operated with a secular geography of a Muslim-majority state or autonomous region. However, they also built alliances with some religious literati (ulema) and invited some of the faithful to entertain a millenarian vision of Pakistan as the land of the pure. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists claimed to offer an inclusive cultural vision of the Hindu as he (not she) who conceived India as his fatherland, his native land and his sacred land.  They focused on the practices of the upper and upper-middle castes of northern and western India to animate their sense of Hindu identity, but also reached out to other groups – the middle and the lower castes, and eastern and southern Indians. The Moro nationalists of the southern Philippines used the Moro category, which the Spaniards had employed in earlier centuries, to refer to the Muslims of Spain, North Africa and the Philippines. This blanket category included the speakers of different languages – the Tausug, the Maguindanao and the Maranao; and included people with different attitudes towards the relative value of local customs and textual Islam.

The purposive type of identity movement specifies group norms more precisely, and equates them with the practices it values. The Sikh movement in India, the Islamist movements of Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Protestant fundamentalists of the United States are examples of such movements. The Sikh movement associated Sikh identity primarily with the practices of the Gobindpanthi sect, and built a vision of the Sikh man as a militaristic lion among certain agrarian and artisanal castes. In the process, it marginalised sects like the Nanakpanthis which regarded Sikh tradition differently, as well as the lower castes. The main party which emerged from this movement, the Shiromani Akali Dal, deployed such a vision of Sikh identity, although in the process it lost the support of most Sikhs of the lower castes to its major competitor, the Congress party. Some Sikh secessionists of the 1980s attacked members of the Nirankari sect located along the Sikh-Hindu boundary as much as they attacked those who identified themselves exclusively as Hindus. Many Islamists of Indonesia value the so-called santri practices associated with either Islam's founding texts or the practices of the Arab peninsula, in the process abandoning the so-called abangan Muslims more attached to local custom.

If identity-based movements and parties mobilise considerable support, their understanding of group culture and the style in which they articulate this understanding acquire some authority. Group members who are uncomfortable with such characterisations or opposed to them face the dilemma of either conforming to the dominant style and swallowing their misgivings or risking marginalisation. This is particularly true of purposive identity movements. The Sikh movement associated in the popular imagination the image of the Sikh man with practices initially specific to the Gobindpanthi sect such as the wearing of long hair and a turban, and carrying a double-edged knife or sword. The Islamists of Southeast Asia increased practices originating in the Arab peninsula such as the wearing of the hijab and the burqa among Muslim women, and devalued local practices such as wearing the sarong, providing daughters inheritance rights equal to those of sons, and recognising extensive post-divorce rights for women.  Besides, they increased popular knowledge of Islam's founding texts, as well as contact with the Arab world.

Even instrumental identity movements often introduce some changes in group practices and in the institutional recognition of these practices, although they do not prioritise such changes. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Pakistan movement, was an atheist who did not observe Muslim taboos against drinking liquor and eating pork. However, he began to assemble the coalition for the formation of Pakistan through the introduction of the Muslim Personal Law Application Act (also called the Shariat Act) in India's Central Assembly in 1937. This Act decreed that Islamic law, rather than customs specific to sect, caste and region, would govern India's Muslims in most family law matters. Jinnah saw in the Act's recognition of British India's Muslims as sharing a way of life a basis to argue that this group was a distinct political community. By initiating the passage of the Act, the Muslim League gained the support of sections of the ulema, who wanted somewhat conservative interpretations of Islamic law to govern family life among India's Muslims.

This step, which the Muslim League took to consolidate a coalition in favour of the formation of Pakistan, reinforced in the eyes of many of the Muslims of Southasia the link between Muslim identity and being governed by Anglo-Muhammadan law. Anglo-Muhammadan law is the hybrid jurisprudence which emerged in the courts of colonial India by interpreting aspects of Islamic legal tradition in terms of British common law.  The link between Muslim identity and Islamic law did not get weakened in the three countries which emerged from British India – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. This was an important reason why Anglo-Muhammadan law continued to govern the family life of Muslims in these countries, with some modifications. The Pakistan movement's path to success, thus, had an enduring effect on the regulation of aspects of everyday life among most Southasian Muslims.

The cultural effects of other instrumental identity movements were more closely related to the movements' construction of group culture. For instance, Hindu nationalists valued the extensive use of words originating in Sanskrit, the language of many major Hindu texts, when speaking and writing the Hindi language. They increased the use of Sanskritic words among their core support groups, as well as in the official media when they were in power in India or in particular Indian states. The Dravidianists helped develop and deployed a form of Tamil in which the usage of words originating in Sanskrit or other North Indian languages was reduced. The political dominance of the Dravidianists gave the form of Tamil the Dravidianists preferred a preponderant role in public speech and the media. It relegated the more Sanskritic variants of Tamil largely to the homes of the Brahmin upper caste. Brahmins, who typically use a Sanskritic Tamil dialect, had to adopt the new Tamil if they were to succeed in
political life.

Prior alignments, pre-existing cultures
Do successful identity movements erase preexisting cultural affinities, social solidarities, political alignments and material cultures which are not compatible with their construction of group identities? Considerable evidence suggests that prior affinities, solidarities and cultures resist the homogenising drives of identity movements, even if these movements gather considerable support. To return to the example of the Pakistan movement, its rapid growth through the last colonial decade changed partisan alignments dramatically in the regions that became part of Pakistan in 1947. The Muslim League, which was barely present in these regions in 1937, won the elections of 1946 there, handily for the most part.

However, a crucial reason for the institutional growth of the Muslim League in the future Pakistan was the incorporation into the Muslim League of much of the Muslim components of some parties with prior local strength, like the Krishak Praja Party in Bengal and the Unionist Party in the Punjab. Such province-specific political forces retained their distinctive concerns even while they supported the demand for Pakistan. For instance, considerable autonomy for the provinces, the official recognition of the Bengali language, and the substantial redistribution of agricultural land were major priorities of the leaders of the Krishak Praja Party. This was true of Fazl-ul Haq, who led the Krishak Praja Party. The repression of the agitations in Bengal against the introduction of Urdu as Pakistan's sole official language urged Fazl-ul Haq to leave the Muslim League to revive his earlier party in 1953 with a slightly different label, the Krishak Sramik Party.  Parties like the Krishak Sramik Party joined hands to rout the Muslim League in all the provinces in Pakistan's first provincial elections of 1954.  The Muslim League had clearly not overcome prior alignments and concerns, which became more prominent after the formation of Pakistan.

Pre-existing regional parties and the concerns of language groups were not the only sources of opposition to the early postcolonial Pakistani regime. The name Pakistan referred both to the regions included in early dreams of the country's territorial contours and to the millenarian promise that this country would be a land of the pure. The latter interpretation was particularly relevant to the religious literati and seers who campaigned for the country's formation. These groups and those they moved were dismayed when Jinnah, Pakistan's first Governor General, declared in his speech to mark the transfer of power from the British that Pakistan would be a secular country. They had greater influence over early postcolonial policy-making than the Bengali nationalists did. So, the first Constituent Assembly could not decide on the role of religion in public life, delaying the adoption of a constitution until a different non-elected assembly adopted one nine years after Pakistan's formation.

Prior affinities, solidarities and cultures mediate the cultural effects of enduring political forces like the Dravidian parties as well, and not just forces which rise and fall rapidly like the Muslim League. While the Muslim League fragmented and declined soon after Pakistan's formation, the Dravidian parties dominated politics in Tamil Nadu for almost four decades and continue to do so. The extent and social composition of support for the Dravidian parties and the orientations of their activists and supporters varied across region. These developments depended crucially on prior patterns of stratification and solidarity; and the strength, support bases and orientations of rival parties.

Political formation of culture in Sri Lanka
Having addressed the impact of various identity-based political forces on group boundaries, group cultures, and patterns of contention, it would be peculiar if little was said about Sri Lanka considering that ethnic politics plays a central role here, and the possibility is in the air of compromise over some of the central issues that have divided the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil militant movement for long.  So, I venture some comments on the political formation of culture in Sri Lanka earlier and the prospects of its re-formation now.

There have been changes in the ways that major Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic mobilisers constructed group identity with the emergence of the militant movement. The strategies of an earlier generation of Sri Lankan Tamil politicians involved electoral participation, electoral alliances with the major Sinhala parties, and non-violent agitation for constitutional change. The ethnic composition and geographic distribution of the population, the existence of a unitary state, the emergence of an ethnicsed party system, the tendency of the two major parties to outbid each other on Sinhala majoritarian policies and promises, and the first-past-the-post electoral rules gave the parties of the Sri Lankan Tamils very little ability to achieve their major goals. Sinhala majoritarianism grew and led to incidents of anti-Tamil violence of increasing frequency and intensity.

This led to the emergence of militant groups, their resort to armed insurgency, and the adoption of the goal of secession by some militant groups. An embrace of militarised constructions of Tamil culture accompanied these strategic choices. If many Sri Lankan Tamils felt that they and their community could seek justice only by taking to arms, the circumstances had much to do with the growth of this feeling. The militant movement appeared to hold the promise of giving Sri Lankan Tamils a more effective political voice, and contributing to the deepening of democracy.

The situation began to change in the mid-1990s. After over a decade of civil war, a sense grew among Sinhala policy-makers and Tamil militants that the war could not be won, and the feeling increased among many civilians that the war was a series of harrowing losses. This changed the context in which periodic negotiations took place between the contending parties to the civil war. A significant body of opinion grew within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and United National Party in favour of compromise on the crucial issues of the devolution of power and official language policy so that the war could be ended. This enabled the rise of politicians open to the introduction of such changes to the leadership of the two major parties. The pressure exerted by the militant movement was crucial to the emergence of these changes. If some powerful Sinhalese no longer roared like lions, this was crucially because some Tamils had growled like tigers for some time. The constriction of the militants' transnational resource networks, especially since 11 September 2001 also pressed the militants to consider compromise and the abandonment of secessionism.

The militant movement made possible openings for compromise and a peace more just than the one that preceded the civil war. However, the militarised construction of Tamil ethnicity and the strategic orientations which accompany it at least delayed a settlement, and might still prevent one. If the circumstances of the 1970s and the 1980s called forth a militaristic formation of Tamil culture, the situation today requires the re-formation of political culture.

We can only hope that the pressures operating on both sides will lead to a settlement.  If peace is to endure, it is crucial that a pluralistic polity be built. An important step towards this end is the effective contestation of militarised constructions of Sinhala and Tamil ethnicity. While visions which contest militarism exist, attacks from ethnic extremists eroded the sub-cultures embodying these visions. These sub-cultures need to be revitalised. The growth of alternative visions of identity and citizenship should constrain those who might wish to continue to roar like lions and growl like tigers. Or rather, more people should learn that the beasts of the jungle coexist at least as often as they threaten or attack each other, even if they see themselves as lions or tigers. Some of the legacies of the long civil war and the terms on which it ends may hinder efforts to build alternatives to militarism. However, peace will only brighten the prospects of such alternatives.

~ Narendra Subramanian is Associate Professor of Political Science, McGill University, Montreal. Canada

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