Sri Lanka, Pakistan, South Asia

A Pakistani journalist has recorded his observations from a visit to Sri Lanka. He has asked a lot of questions but not provided too many answers; and some of the answers can be debated. I am extracting parts of the article that are of interest to us and hoping that readers would enrich the arguments and fill in the gaps.

On the regional bond: Everything told me this was still South Asia, that Colombo was not very different from Lahore, that somehow our regional bond held. Yet, something was very different, and I was struggling to pinpoint it.

Note: Why do we feel this regional bond in Colombo but not in Bangkok or Teheran?

On literacy – a question asked by a Sri Lankan: Why were so many Pakistanis illiterate, when Sri Lankans were so educated, when Sri Lanka boasted a literacy rate above 90 per cent? How could a democracy work with so many illiterate people?

Journalist’s anwer: It was not because Sri Lankans ate so much fish, but because of Pakistan’s feudal history, because of its unstable dictatorships and its ingrained class system.

Note: We have speculated in an earlier post that we may be what we eat. Any thoughts on that? Also, we cannot stop at the journalist’s answer. We have to explain where the engrained class system in Pakistan comes from and why it differs from the one in Sri Lanka.

Cricket – Journalist’s question: Why did I see no games of street cricket?

Sri Lankan’s answer (on not comprehending the question): Children played cricket in schools. Or in grounds. Why would they play in the street?

Cricket – Journalist’s observation: School matches [in Sri Lanka] are regularly played in the national stadium, several schools end their season with a match there, giving schoolboys the opportunity to dream. 
I don’t know of a similar practice in Pakistan.

On child labor: I had not seen any child labor in Sri Lanka.

Civic services: Why there was no rubbish on Colombo streets. Of course there was rubbish on the streets, but the small piles of human discard did not compare to the mountains of refuse in Pakistani cities, towns and villages.

Media: But “illiterate” Pakistan has an aggressive media, and the high literacy rate in Sri Lanka has not translated to a free and aggressive media.

On the origin of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict: the tyranny of democracy meant that a group that had felt marginalized in colonial days now had the power of numbers… the Sinhala had felt marginalized by Tamils on the island, who made up approximately 20 per cent of the population, but held 60 per cent of government jobs – a legacy of missionary education… In 1956 Sinhala was made the national language, forcing Tamils out of jobs. In 1983, the civil war started.

Note: For reference see our earlier post on democracy in Sri Lanka.

On the explanation for differences in literacy: Pakistan, a country with little feel for grassroots democracy, declared Urdu as its national language, foretelling disaster when half the country spoke Bengali, and when the ruling classes had no incentive to educate or compromise with the masses. Why cut deals with the masses if your families, your clans, will lose their grip on power?

Could it be that Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority was proportionately large enough to impose its culture on the rest of the country? Did this, coupled with a populist, democratic culture and ethnic nationalism provide the incentive to educate? Was this the reason for Sri Lanka’s high literacy rate compared to its neighbors and why its ruling elite made education a priority?

Do you agree or disagree with the writer’s explanations? Do you have any answers for the questions that the writer has asked but not answered?

The complete article is here.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:44h, 17 July Reply

    Why do we feel this regional bond in Colombo but not in Bangkok or Teheran?
    We form instinctive bonds based on immediate perceptions of similarity. I think racial similarities go a long way in making such bonds. South Asians are more racially and in economic-appearances (the quality of our dress, skin, shoes, vehicles) are more similar to each other than to those of an Iranian or Thai.

    In relation to eating fish and literacy, I’m hard pressed to find a connection between the two. But I tend to agree with the writer’s explanation for the differences in literacy given at the end of the post.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:03h, 22 July Reply

    Vinod: I did not have in mind a one-to-one relationship between literacy and eating fish. I was referring to the earlier series of posts on the socialization of behavior as a function of labor practices in primary occupations. A fish and rice society might involve a lot more cooperative interaction than a wheat growing one. In Pakistan, no one person really cares about another; it is really every person for his or her own self. So there might be an indirect relationship between societal values and high literacy in Sri Lanka.

    However, I agree that the writer’s explanation at the end of the post has more merit.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:30h, 24 July Reply

    I have something to say about the regional bond mentioned in the article. I have just finished reading ‘India’s Newspaper Revolution’ by Robin Jeffrey. I would highly, highly recommend that you take a look too.

    Among the many interesting things in the book, one was Jeffrey’s analysis of the role that Indian language newspapers played in nationalism. Jeffrey claims that there was not much development of national consciousness among the various linguistic groups of South Asia before the arrival and mass consumption of newspapers. He says that large scale Tamil consciousness, Bengali consciousness etc. began to develop only after the mass consumption of newspapers which due to technological reasons became possible only in the late 70s.

    The technological obstacle was the fact Indian scripts were difficult to mold into a cast before computers came along and totally changed printing.

    Anyway, once the technological obstacles were removed and the literate population had reached numbers enough to sustain newspaper consumption, they became agents of formation of national identity. Jeffrey argues that if they wanted these newspapers could have acted as agents of only Bengali or Tamil nationalism but they did not, and this was due to the decisions of the capitalists that owned the newspapers. Some genuinely believed in the idea of India, others just wanted to retain their access to the large Indian market.

    Growing up, I read the Times of India daily, and I remember it had a City section, a Nation section and then a World section. It is through such selective presentation of information that newspapers create nationalisms, include and exclude communities from the nation.

    One thing that can encourage a South Asian identity is the presence of a South Asia section in Indian newspapers before the World. But I havent found any Indian papers with such a section.

    Here is a list of the largest selling newspapers in India,

    Note that only 4 are in the English language. This is a huge contrast from even thirty years ago when the Indian language newspapers were in the minority.

  • Whacko
    Posted at 17:00h, 11 September Reply

    Interesting post. As a Sri Lankan who has absolutely no knowledge of the intricacies of Pakistani post-independence history, i can only speculate what the reasons for our differences may be. For instance, the Pakistani people are much more idealistically motivated and will speak up in the face of injustice while the Sri Lankan masses are far more tolerant and tend to have faith in their leaders even when its plainly obvious to all and sundry that they are not worth it.

    As for the literacy rate; even though the national language was made sinhalese, tamil medium education was still carried out. there was a push for free education somewhere in the sixties which changed the face of the local education sphere and the government has ever since been pushing the people towards it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:51h, 12 September

      W: I guess one could describe Pakistanis as less tolerant compared to Sri Lankans. But less tolerance is not the same as idealistic motivation. I doubt anyone could ‘accuse’ Pakistanis of idealistic motivation – outside of family ties it would seem a jungle of selfishness. We had speculated that such differences might have to do partly with the socialization that occurs with the cultivation of different staple crops (wheat versus rice, for example). Extreme differences in climate also have a hand. This does not apply to Pakistan and Sri Lanka but should be obvious if one compares either to Tibet. Of course, these were nothing more than hypotheses for further discussion.

      On literacy, the point that was made in the discussion was that if a dominant minority is more advanced in education and a political change transfers power to a less educated majority, the latter has a strong incentive to narrow the gap. This would provide an explanation for the push for free education in Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, by contrast, the dominant minority remained in power and never felt any incentive to extend education to the majority.

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