Challenge and Response - what makes or breaks a people | Sunday Observer

Challenge and Response - what makes or breaks a people

Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) who was at the London School of Economics was not as well acknowledged as he was outside the UK, after he suggested that the Chinese and their language were well positioned to be dominant soon.

He, I think is proving to be right, almost two generations after his demise. His magnum opus, I think was his theory of ‘Challenge and Response’ – explaining why some civilisations did well while others fell back. This theory is that challenges, together with our response to them are what makes or breaks a people. If there is no challenge, civilisation becomes one of lotus eaters. He applied this to tropical Africa, which, well-endowed with nature, led to little progress.

If a challenge is too strong, the response it evokes may break the civilization. When the ice age set in, the igloo exploiting the fact that ice is a good insulator, was a major advance in technology.

A little candle in the ice-insulated igloo, can raise the temperature significantly to protect the people from the cold. However, this response of the igloo, took the Eskimo civilisation nowhere. On the other hand, when there is a challenge to a society that is not so severe as to crush it, that society develops a response under elite minorities who lead it to growth and advancement.

Thus, when Sumer faced the threats from the swamps of Southern Iraq, their response led to irrigation systems and growth in the Sumerian way of life. Similarly, the challenges of winter led to the use of fire which in itself was an advance that in turn led to other advances in cooking, and food preservation. While all this is not against any race, it should be no surprise that Toynbee was accused by some, of being a racist. I simply think he was correct and brilliant.

Application to the Tamils

Toynbee can be applied with some profit to the challenges faced by the Tamil society in Sri Lanka. When the challenge of the civil war overtook us, there were three broad responses. Some of us fled abroad.

Did that response lead to growth? I think the diaspora has done economically well. Jaffna really had no sustainable society. We produced many educated people who had to leave Jaffna to get jobs. They came back for wives, but essentially left us. They left for Colombo but that too was not sustainable when a small group qualified for the best jobs through missionary education.

The tensions were mounting – through standardisation, for example – when the 1983 riots opened many doors to us in the West. Those who never would have gained entry to universities here see their children becoming professionals, speaking good English. That and their family discipline make them professionally successful in the West. Culturally? Whether they would remain Tamil is a question. From the Tamil society’s point of view, it is a terrible calamity when they marry outside and cease to be Tamil.

From their point of view, assimilation is the road to success. In the long term, the cultural values that make the parents successful are likely to disappear with time. Whether they continue to be Tamil or not should not be a measure for their success as individuals. The social ills that beset our now-western brethren may lead their response to turn them into failures. However, it is too early to tell.

These who moved South have certainly been liberated from Jaffna’s strict way of life. They quickly became bilingual, even trilingual, and are a lot more successful than if they had stayed on in Jaffna. They see more success as those who went to the West come back to pick the best of them as spouses. Whether that is good or bad is also, too soon to tell. Some are becoming Sinhalese. As a Tamil I do feel uncomfortable and even resentful when I see potentially good matches for my children marrying Sinhalese. There is a tendency among Tamils to label them as traitors. However, are they? When they marry Sinhalese and become successful, who are we to say that is wrong? The Tamil community certainly is diminished in numbers and strength. But, the individual who left the community probably will be more successful as a Sinhalese. There is nothing from his individual perspective to say it is wrong.

To be sure, most Sinhalese would say we are one people so what is wrong? It is easy to say that when such mixed couples almost invariably become Sinhalese whose existence in this country is not under threat – either to life or culture. In fact, we can see in our own lifetime, the west coast, north of Colombo, has switched from Tamil to Sinhalese. Those who so switched are successful as Sinhalese, although that process has weakened the Tamil community. In fact, I would go so far as to say, we were all once Tamils (or Dravidian speakers of some sort) and Buddhism created the Sinhalese people. Is there any right and wrong in that?

Those who stayed in the NE

Those who stayed behind are those who could not run away. In that sense they are the weakest (except for a meagre few who stayed behind out of some sense of service or duty to aged parents). Their response of staying behind condemned them and their children to economic stagnation. Today, experts generally agree, gang violence and drug addiction are huge threats to the children of families left behind (See table)

Gullible people

President Sirisena may be excused for promising a red carpet welcome to returning exiles and doing nothing about it. However, the Government is responsible for bigger untruths.

Consider the ethnic cleansing during the war which by UN figures saw 40,000 individuals massacred. Former President Rajapaksa is on record saying there was no casualty during the war as soldiers advanced with the Human Rights Charter in hand. Then, the Government agreed to war crime trials with foreign judges but many insisted, there were no war crimes. Now, the Government wants to renegotiate its agreements in Resolution 30/1 at the UNHRC. (The President was fully briefed on what the Government signed in Geneva, but now wants us to believe otherwise).

Then, Army Commander Mahesh Senanayke said, there were some crimes for which the soldiers need to be prosecuted. The faithful continued to insist there were no massacres. This week, Minister Champika Ranawake wants amnesty for both sides, i.e. for those soldiers who murdered thousands of Tamils (and against whom there is a mountain of evidence in Geneva) and a few Tamils in prison without any credible case against them and are locked up out of hatred for them.

After all these flip flops, do the Sinhalese really believe there was no mass-scale murder of Tamils? We are a nation of gullible nationalist fools.

Mahaweli Colonization

Sinhalisation is now coming to the North in full force, not just to those who voluntarily moved South. On August 25, there was a meeting of Northern MPs and administrative officials at the Presidential Secretariat. TNA Officials alleged, there were ongoing Sinhalese settlements in the North. The President, in the presence of all there, called up the Mahaweli officials who denied any settlement in recent times. The President announced that the accusations were false. Tamil officials like the GAs who know that settlements are being expanded, kept mum as to be expected of those who are insecure and fear transfers.

However, as the top part of the land alienation deed pictured shows, somebody is lying. It is dated “2018.08.06,” almost three weeks before the President’s denial. Colonisation is ongoing. There are at least seven other deeds like this of recent days, in addition to 25 acres gifted to the sister of Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, earlier.

That is our Government! How do we trust it? The President’s broken promise of a red carpet welcome to returnees pales into insignificance when the promise of good governance, especially, with respect to reconciliation is breached so shamelessly through lie after lie against the Tamil people.

The only way out for a Tamil seems to be to agree to Sinhalisation and satisfy the Government’s appetite for genocide without a single Tamil left on the island. That may be the only Tamil response to the challenge of state hegemony that can succeed under Toynbee’s description.

(The writer is an academic and currently serves as a member of the Elections Commission of Sri Lanka)