The country was in a crisis even before the Easter Sunday attacks. Now, in the aftermath of this attack, the situation has become worse – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Although the fire has been extinguished on the surface, the fire beneath the ashes is not doused yet. Though there are signs of extinguishing the surface fire, there appears to be no serious effort to douse the fire beneath the ashes.
What does the President expect to gain by releasing Gnanasara Thero at this juncture, using the prerogative of presidential pardon, who can be considered a major exponent in sowing the seeds of anti-Muslim sentiments? Though the real motive of this action in not clear, obviously it is a political decision.
It can be seen clearly that numerous rumours with the intention of creating fear and hatred against Muslims are being liberally disseminated in society. The recent story of a Muslim doctor alleged to have sterilised thousands of Sinhala Buddhist mothers during caesarean sections while delivering their first child has come to the forefront, giving a new dimension to the old story that the Muslims had been engaged in an organised, unscrupulous plan to make the Sinhalese nation sterile. Rumours play a significant role in keeping the embers underneath smouldering. It is also clear that most of the media are not only acting irresponsibly, but also playing a very destructive role in these instances.
There are some arrests made under Emergency law without reasonable grounds. Recently, a poor mother was reported to have been arrested for wearing a dress with a picture that apparently resembled the Dharma chakra – the wheel of dharma. It appears that the authorities had mistaken a picture of the helm of a ship as the Dharma chakra.
There was another incident reported from Ratnapura in which three students had been arrested and remanded for photographing Vesak decorations. Of them, two are Muslims and the other a Sinhalese. They are friends living in the same area. It was a Buddhist monk who had caught them and handed over to the Police while they were photographing Vesak decorations using their hand phones. Despite the fact that the Police was convinced of their innocence, they have been kept in remand as the Buddhist monk had threatened to set himself on fire in front of the Police station if the three boys were released.
The father of the Sinhalese youth who had been arrested by the Police on the instigation of this Buddhist monk is a surveyor. There had been a dispute between the surveyor and the Buddhist monk over a survey issue. Apparently there is a connection between this dispute and the handing of youths to the Police by the monk.
Mostly it is the Muslim students, both male and female, studying in Sinhalese schools who have become victims of mental stress. It is said that, almost all over, they have become innocent victims of ridicule and derision not only of fellow Sinhalese students, but also of some teachers as well. A similar situation can be seen operative in factories, workplaces and offices as well.
Groping in the dark
The apparent disregard of political authorities for the massive damage caused to the wellbeing of society and the economy of the country by adverse incidents that have occurred from time to time can be considered the most dangerous thing that has happened.
Would it be adequate only to control violent conflicts when they occur in the form of an explosive outburst of a burning issue that has remained latent in the society for a long time? Would it be beneficial for the common good of the country to remain aloof in the face of frictions and tensions created as a result thereof?
This situation has invariably created mutual distrust between Muslims and non-Muslim people. Muslims living in the areas where the majority is Sinhalese and Sinhalese living in the areas where the majority is Muslims appear to be living in constant fear and suspicion. On 13 May, the residents of three Muslim villages in Anamaduwa area were reported to have spent the night in the jungle and not in their houses. Similarly, residents of a Sinhalese village surrounded by several Muslim villages in Kurunegala District had spent the night of 13 May sleepless. This situation is similar to the condition that prevailed in the border villages during the time when there was an internal civil war in the country.
The country was in a crisis even before the Easter Sunday attacks. Now, in the aftermath of this attack, the situation has become worse. The crisis has become more acute and complex. Though it is essential to prevent the outbursts of violence, that alone will not help resolve the crisis the country is facing. It is equally important and essential that the mental and psychological wounds caused by mutual distrust and violence are healed. The rulers of Sri Lanka are not used to adopting integrated approaches in exploring the causes of an issue when a complex problem crops up and resolving it in a sustainable manner before it becomes out of control except for groping it on the surface.
The Tamil terrorism
The Tamil problem could have been avoided if preventive measures had been taken on time. Similarly, there was a capacity to prevent it from getting out of control. But the rulers of our country lacked the vision for that. The unrest of the Tamil community could have been avoided easily if the Tamil language was granted official recognition and Tamils were allowed to work in their native language instead of following the Sinhala Only policy. Had the injustice caused to Tamil people by the official language issue been rectified at least in the aftermath of the 1958 riots, perhaps the subsequent occurrence of Tamil terrorism could have been avoided.
It is not only that this error was not rectified subsequent to the ethnic riots of 1958, but also the coalition of SLFP, LSSP and CP did not allow the UNP Government, which was in power then, when it tried to correct it in the latter part of the 60th decade. Thereafter, there was an opportunity to correct it on the occasion of making the 1972 Republican Constitution. But, the leftist Coalition Government not only abstained from doing it, but also incorporated the Sinhala Only language policy, which deprived the Tamils of their self-respect, into the Constitution itself, thereby making it a policy that could not be changed or amended easily.
The leftist Coalition Government did not stop at that in suppressing the rights of the Tamil people. It introduced a policy of standardisation for university enrolments, causing a significant drop in the ratio of Tamil students entering the university. The ultimate outcome of all these actions was to plunge the Tamil community into an extremist path, driven by the belief that there is no other alternative but to fight for a separate state.
President J.R. Jayewardene corrected this mistake belatedly. But it was too late. By then, the Tamil people had reached a point of no return of their animosity. They had already lost their patience to make a careful and rational assessment of the facts of the issue. President Jayewardene lacked the political wisdom to change their mindset, which eventually resulted in plunging the country into a protracted internal civil war as its inevitable consequence.
After a very long period the Government of Sri Lanka was able to defeat the LTTE which had gone a long way in achieving its object of a separate state. But, the victorious Rajapaksa regime completely ignored the need for understanding and curing the wounds of war, afflicted externally and internally, and finding solutions to them other than enjoying the victory through vivid celebrations optimally. Even the Yahapalana Government which came to power later failed to rectify this error.
There is hardly any difference in the way the present Government is handling the issue of the Muslims. Is it adequate only to suppress the terrorist activities in a complex crisis like this? The rival attitude of non-Muslim society against Muslims and the policy of boycotting Muslim shops by non-Muslims will undoubtedly push the Muslim society into a psychological and economic distress. The Government has failed to realise the consequences this situation may bring about in the future.
Nation building – Gandhi’s approach
Internal harmony is an essential prerequisite for the development of any country. During British colonial rule, Sri Lanka changed over from feudalism to a capitalist system, giving way for the emergence of the modern nation state replacing the old monarchical system in which the rulers inherited their power from their parents or relatives. It was only after that the country gained a system of governance with definite territorial boundaries.
Building of the nation state is an essential condition for healthy existence of the modern state. The nation state does not arise spontaneously in the countries which remained under colonial rule for long periods. It is a state that has to be invented and established.
Most of the countries which came come under colonial rule had to fight against colonial supremacy to gain independence. To defeat colonial supremacy, they were compelled to mobilise the full strength of all indigenous communities by eradicating internal divisions in the society and creating an integrated society bounded by a common national sentiment. Building of a common national integration was achieved by many countries in different forms. Of the Asian countries which were under colonial rule, it was India that can be described as a country which adopted an excellent and democratic approach to gain independence.
The caste system, ethnicity and religious differences had been the main factors that caused social divisions in India. The Indian Congress headed by Gandhi didn’t expect these divisions to disappear spontaneously. Instead it adopted an ideological movement to remove the social recognition accorded to them.
The Indian independence movement considered the caste system as an adverse element that should be eradicated as it is not in keeping with the needs of the modern era. It was the people belonging to ‘untouchable’ communities in the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy that were being oppressed mostly by the caste discrimination.
The eminent leaders of the Indian Congress entertained hospitality of Harijan homes. Harijan (children of God) was a term popularised by Gandhi for referring to communities traditionally considered as so-called ‘untouchables’. Gandhi often made it a point to set up his mobile ashram in a premise where there were shanty dwellings of Harijan people. This practice compelled the social elite who wanted to meet Gandhi to visit Harijan premises, in violation of caste restrictions.
The Congress leaders explained to the people about the inconsistency of the caste system with the present-day world and the evil impact it has on the self-respect of the people. They enlightened the people on the importance of extending the same human respect and equal rights to all people of oppressed castes. They conducted massive sathyagraha campaigns all over the country against the laws and traditions which prevented against low caste people entering religious premises and sacred sites.
Gandhi and the leaders of the Congress knew very well of the difficulty of abolishing the impact of the age-old caste system at once. But they launched their movement against it to abolish the official recognition it enjoyed in the first round of their campaign itself.
Ethnicity and religious differences were the next factor which caused a big division in India. The division between the Hindus and Muslims stood prominently among them. The leaders of the Congress were aware that the ethnic groups and religions were essential social elements that could not be eradicated. They were equally aware that India had a strong foundation and a background that was conducive to strengthening the caste, ethnic and religious differences.
In this backdrop, they engaged themselves in an arduous ideological campaign to put up a strong foundation necessary for the removal of obsolete practices which were not in conformity with present-day needs and also to build a strong foundation to promote mutual co-existence among the diverse factions. The Congress campaigned against the caste system and ‘Sathi Pooja’ in Hinduism, which is an obsolete funeral custom where a widow immolates herself on her husband’s pyre, the child marriages practiced by both Hindus and Muslims and the policies of depriving equal respect for men and women.
Despite the Indian Congress being unable to prevent the division of India, it was however possible for the Congress to retain a large portion of the Muslim population in India which was very much higher than the population that preferred to migrate to the newly-created Pakistan due to the pluralistic policy adopted by Gandhi.
At the end, Gandhi was assassinated by an extremist Hindu youth as a result of this ideological struggle that he initiated and fostered against racism. By the time Gandhi was assassinated, the fire of racism had not been doused fully. However, Gandhi’s assassination doused the fire of racism and made the flame of his thinking, his ideology, the only fire that had been burning in India.
By the time Gandhi died, the strong foundation required for building the nation had been laid down and the Constitution which had been adopted subsequently, while ensuring human respect and equal rights for everyone irrespective of narrow social divisions, provided a strong legal basis for the Indian nation so created.
Path of Sri Lanka
It was not as an outcome of a strong national struggle that Sri Lanka gained independence. It can be described as an independence gained as a reward. As far as Sri Lanka was concerned, the need did not arise to build the nation to gain independence. The Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim leaders of Sri Lanka didn’t possess any knowledge of the concept of nation building. None of them had a pluralistic vision. They all had their biases based on race, caste and religion.
After gaining independence they did not take initiatives to abolish the feudal land tenure system. There were a large number of people who had served in the Vihara and Devala Gam (lands belonged to temples and Kovils) as official servants under the feudal system. They were not released from feudal ties and bonds. The official recognition of the caste system which deprived human respect of the people of oppressed castes was not abolished. Strong reforms were not introduced to change outdated social and religious practices and promote coexistence between ethnic groups and religions.
In short, no attempt had been made to change the old and obsolete order of society which had been corrupted by caste, racial and religious divisions and transform it into a modern society conducive to building the Sri Lankan nation.
The ethnic factor had an impact on the Sinhala Tamil riots of 58.The caste factor had a significant impact on the two JVP insurrections which broke out in 1971 and 1986-’89. The ethnic factor also had an impact on the JVP insurrection to a lesser degree. Besides that, anti-Tamil sentiment was employed as a weapon to excite and inspire the JVP youth.
It was because of the major impact of the caste factor on JVP rebellions that the Government focused its attention on exploring the caste background of the youth who were under arrest at the ’71 insurrection. Not only race, even caste had an impact on the LTTE rebellion, which became a protracted armed struggle.
The Commission appointed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa to examine the causes of youth unrest that led to the JVP insurrection was of the view that the element of caste had served as a significant factor in boosting the rebelliousness of the JVP and the LTTE activists. However, Islamist terrorism has taken completely a different form compared to the JVP and the LTTE. The religion seems to have assumed an important factor of Islamist terrorism, which is responsible for Easter Sunday attacks.
What is the solution?
Bloodsheds and terrorist activities witnessed after independence have seemingly been impacted by the elements of race, caste and religion. Had the country been capable of building the nation at independence or thereafter, the violent conflicts that arose from time to time could have been avoided. It is not only the social system of Sri Lanka that led to compound the conflicts that arose on account of race, caste and religion, the political system too created problems. Just as Sri Lanka does not have a formal social system, it does not have a formal political system as well. Both are in a big quandary. The State and the overall system of its institutions are completely putrid and are in a state of degeneration.
After concluding the internal war, the structural reforms that were required for recreating the social and political system should have been introduced. That was the best occasion available for the initiation of a program of this nature. But the winner of the war failed to realise the catastrophic disaster the socio political system had undergone, except for celebrating the joy of victory at its maximum. Even the Yahapalana Government which came to power has failed to touch the real problems except for dealing with false reforms which aggravated the problems the country is facing.
The Easter Sunday attacks can be considered as a warning given and a punishment imposed by history for their negligence. Now, the present socio political system is not in the same bad condition as it was. It is in a far worse situation. It is unfortunate that even after the recent tragedy our leaders have failed to open their eyes. They are groping in the dark ignoring the essential structural reforms. Are all of them waiting till the dilapidated structure of the building which is beyond repair falls on their heads to open their eyes?