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The Symphony of National Identity: Embracing the Power of Storytelling

Sri Lanka’s journey toward a cohesive national identity can be guided by embracing the transformative
potential of storytelling, transcending divisions, and weaving a tapestry of unity and understanding.

By Madhuri Ranasinghe
Stories are a mirror reflecting our own humanity, a canvas where we paint our dreams and fears. Storytelling
is the beating heart of our shared human evolution, a symphony of words that reverberates through the
chronicles of time. From the earliest cave paintings to the digital age, it has been an enduring thread,
weaving us together as a species. Like a time-travelling guide, storytelling transports us across epochs,
unveiling the wisdom, joys, and sorrows of our ancestors. Through tales of courage and cowardice, love and
loss, we glimpse the vast spectrum of human emotions and experiences.
This offers us a looking glass into our collective soul, igniting sparks of empathy and understanding. As we
tell and retell our narratives, they become the building blocks of culture, the scaffolding of societies, and the
foundation of our identity. In the journey of human evolution, storytelling is the North Star that lights the
path of knowledge, compassion, and growth.
If we look deep into the stories and their connection to national identity, we find fascinating combinations of
human connectivity across continents. Stories of valour and conquest have motivated citizens to band
together in support of a shared cause, while stories of tenacity and triumph over adversity have rekindled the
spark of hope in the darkest of times.
Each country treasures its own idiosyncratic narrative, which has been passed down through centuries and
encapsulates its cultural heritage, values, and hopes. These stories not only bond communities but also instil
a sense of belonging in citizens, establishing a common sense of purpose and pride. They act as a mirror to
reflect on the past and a compass to guide us into the future. As the threads of stories continue to interlace
and entangle, they build the unbreakable fabric that is a nation’s own soul, maintaining its heritage for future
generations.
The Power of National Identity and its Construction around “ The Story”
The concept of national identity construction relates to the idea that a nation’s identity is produced and
shaped over time by a combination of historical, social, political, and cultural processes. It is a complex and
changing mixture of shared experiences, values, beliefs, symbols, and myths that contribute to a sense of
belonging and unity among individuals who identify as belonging to a specific nation.
National identities fluctuate or are contested as societies evolve and encounter new problems or pressures.
This construction frequently entails the deliberate promotion of specific narratives, historical events, and
cultural components in order to strengthen a particular identity or distinguish a nation from others.
Using the United States of America as an example, we can see how the country has built its identity around a
story. It is founded on democratic, libertarian, and happiness-seeking ideas. It takes inspiration from
historical events such as the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the concept of the “American
Dream.” American symbols such as the flag and the bald eagle are important in instilling a sense of
belonging.
National identity, as a construct, has played a pivotal role in shaping cultural definitions, but it is fraught
with bounded and essentialized notions of ‘being’ that perpetuate exclusion. The intertwining of ‘being’ and
‘belonging’ in citizenship concepts has often marginalized certain groups, notably Black identity in regions
like Australia, the US, the UK, and Europe. This mutual exclusivity between being Black and being
perceived as authentically English or Australian reveals the underlying racial biases woven into the fabric of
national identity.
Even prominent critics and historians, like Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm, have
unconsciously reinforced the ethical and racial pretensions of national (ist) mythology in their pursuit of
native traditions. This ethical oversight further alienates communities that do not fit the mould of a narrow
national identity. The label of ‘non-native’ thrust upon Black English individuals due to their perceived

incongruence with the envisioned ‘Englishness’ reveals an exclusionary discourse that extends to morality,
biology, culture, and textual representation.
Beyond England’s borders, historian Simon Schama’s argument regarding the idealization of Arcadia as the
epitome of authentic indigenous culture echoes across continents like North America, New Zealand, Europe,
and Australia. This perpetuation of an idealized past at the expense of diverse cultural histories reinforces the
notion of ‘us versus them,’ segregating communities and hindering a harmonious global dialogue.
To progress beyond these exclusionary trappings, it is crucial to critically question the foundations of
national identity and confront the historical biases that have perpetuated these divides. Embracing cultural
fluidity and recognizing the interconnectedness of human experiences can pave the way towards a more
inclusive and compassionate society. Only then can we embark on a journey of collective human evolution,
dismantling the barriers of exclusion, and weaving a vibrant tapestry of unity and understanding.
National Identity in India
India stands as an exceptional exemplar of multiculturalism, boasting a pluralist nature that encompasses a
wide array of diversity. Within its borders, one can find a mosaic of religious family laws, granting legal
pluralism for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and more. Territorial autonomy is also accorded to various
linguistic and tribal groups, fostering a sense of inclusivity. Furthermore, India embraces the concept of
quotas, ensuring representation in legislatures, government jobs, and educational institutions for caste and
tribal minorities.
Storytelling in India has also played a crucial role in preserving historical events, struggles for independence,
and the journey towards a modern nation. Iconic leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru used
narratives of non-violence and freedom to inspire a nation’s collective consciousness. These stories created a
shared identity that transcended regional and linguistic boundaries, fostering a sense of belonging among
Indians from all walks of life.
The concepts of national identity and patriotism emerge as deep human expressions, reflecting our innate
desire to belong to a collective and contribute loyally to it. In a diverse nation like India, the essence of
national identity and patriotism can be inherited from past triumphs and failures to Colonize the country by a
number of other nations. Although, one could argue about the critical aspects of the national identity in India
in terms of power-sharing battles and separatist movements in certain areas of the country. This could be
inherently challenging for a country like India with a massive population.
Sri Lanka’s Struggle: Weaving the Broken Threads
In contrast, Sri Lanka has faced challenges in cultivating an inclusive national identity over the last century.
Ethnic and linguistic differences have often led to deep-seated divisions, hindering the creation of a
tenacious narrative that unites all Sri Lankans. The civil war that ravaged the nation for decades underscored
the complexities of forging a shared identity. Sri Lanka’s history is replete with diverse narratives of
indigenous communities, colonial influences, and ancient civilizations. However, these stories have not
always been woven together in a way that celebrates the nation’s diversity while fostering a sense of common
purpose. The failure to build an inclusive national identity has resulted in conflicts, exclusion, and societal
fissures.
When we embrace storytelling as a tool for unity and understanding, Sri Lanka can nurture narratives that
celebrate its pluralistic heritage and diverse cultures, taking India as an example. Recognizing the
interconnectedness of human experiences and transcending exclusionary discourses is paramount in building
a cohesive national identity. Since Sri Lanka has several similarities with Indian culture and heritage bound
by religious, and ethnic facts, referring to how Indian identity has assisted the country’s harmony and
development is a lesson we can learn.
While we look at India’s national identity, one can dive into valuable lessons about how national identity
works in the Asian context. While we delve into the positives we can’t deny the erosion of the same in India.
Rapid modernization, globalization, and socio-political shifts are contributing to the dilution of India’s
unique identity. The very essence that once bound the nation together is now at risk of being lost amidst the
onslaught of external influences and internal challenges.

Furthermore, the rise of divisive politics is fraying the social fabric that held India together for centuries.
Ethnic, religious, and regional tensions have led to a fragmented society, undermining the sense of a shared
national identity. The once-celebrated “unity in diversity” is giving way to factionalism and intolerance.
The economic boom has also come at a cost. As India’s economy grows, there is a growing emphasis on
materialistic pursuits, leaving behind the deeper spiritual and philosophical aspects that have defined Indian
culture for millennia. The pursuit of wealth and material gain is eclipsing the values of compassion, humility,
and communal harmony that were once the bedrock of India’s national identity. As the country grapples with
rapid urbanization, the once-pristine landscapes and ecosystems are disappearing.
Education plays a pivotal role in shaping national consciousness. By incorporating diverse stories from
various communities and histories, Sri Lanka can instil in its youth a sense of pride in their collective
heritage. Additionally, fostering open dialogues, encouraging cultural exchange, and addressing historical
grievances can heal wounds and build bridges toward a more inclusive future.
One should keep in mind that, storytelling plays a dual role in the formation of national identity. First and
foremost, it can be a unifying force, drawing diverse communities together under a shared narrative. The
epics and legends of a nation can cultivate a sense of pride and belonging among its people, fostering a
collective consciousness that transcends individual differences. On the other hand, storytelling can also
perpetuate division and exclusivity.
Certain nationalist narratives that prioritize one group’s experiences over others can alienate and marginalize
minority communities. This is why, in the context of Sri Lanka’s national identity, focusing solely on the
story of one community risks alienating and dividing the nation. It is essential to recognize that Sri Lanka’s
history and culture are a mosaic of diverse communities, each contributing to the country’s rich heritage.
The blank space in Sri Lanka’s national identity should be about the shared history and values that unite all
citizens. It can foster a sense of inclusivity and unity. By acknowledging and celebrating the contributions of
all communities, Sri Lanka can bridge the gaps that have long divided its people, paving the way for a more
harmonious and cohesive society.
Hence, Storytelling is a timeless beacon of human evolution and has the power to shape national identities.
Emphasizing the common threads that bind Sri Lankans together can create a narrative that transcends
ethnic, religious, and regional differences, forging a stronger and more resilient national identity.