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Communal intolerance in Lanka: Cry my beloved country

by Shanie


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I many times thought peace had come, When peace was far away;
As wrecked men deem they sight the land at centre of the sea,
And struggle slacker, but to prove,
as hopelessly as I ,
how many the fictitious shores
before the harbour lie.” – Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Alan Paton, the South African anti-apartheid activist wrote his first and most celebrated novel Cry, The Beloved Country in 1948.

Apartheid laws came into force in South Africa a few months later and were to remain in force for the next four decades. Paton’s novel is about racial tolerance and justice.

Paton, a devout Anglican, weaves into his story his religious values, and his heroes in the novel, white and black, despite huge personal tragedies they have had to face, courageously stand up against racial bigotry and in their small way contribute towards healing and creating the ‘rainbow nation’ that was to emerge much later in the nineteen nineties.

Paton’s powerful novel has many lessons for us in Sri Lanka. When South Africa finally emerged from the dark apartheid era, they had the good fortune to have two outstanding leaders in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who ensured that the country and her people adopted political and moral values of tolerance and accommodation.

They marginalised the tribal demagogues and extremists and saw to it that the country moved forward in a spirit of unity and strength. This was similar to the moral and political leadership that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru provided India as that great country emerged from colonial past. Not even the assassination of Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic would deflect Nehru from the path of pluralism and inclusivity.

Soon after South Africa emerged from the wreckage of its past of intolerance, hate and violence, all parties agreed on the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All agreed that there was a need to acknowledge and record the past. That was the only way for people to get over the pain and humiliations of the past. Simply asking them to forget old wounds would have healed nothing.

There was a need to acknowledge the hurtful past of a divided society characterized by strife, violence and injustice, and to move forward to a future based on the recognition of human rights, democracy and equality. There was ‘a need for understanding but nor vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu (a Bantu word basically meaning humanism but is much more inclusive) but not for victimization.’

Our own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, though with a much narrower agenda, also had similar objectives. The LLRC could have said with Bishop Desmond Tutu who at the end of the long process of gathering evidence and testimonies from those affected said: ‘We have been wounded but are being healed. It is possible even with our past of suffering, anguish alienation and violence to become one people, reconciled, healed….’ The sentiments he went on to express about the TRC Report could well have been said of the LLRC Report: ‘Not everybody will be happy with the Report.

Many have already started to discredit it in advance. But even should they succeed, what will they achieve? It will change nothing of the facts.’ In the case of the LLRC Report, what do its detractors hope to achieve? Do they want us to be one people or remain a divided society? Do they want to advance democratic rights for all our people or do they want to suppress those freedoms and rights for a section of our people?

Dambulla Mosque and Kovil Issue

It is clear that it is these detractors who are trying to foment religious tensions in Dambulla leading to tensions in all parts of the country. From all available reports, the mosque at Dambulla which these chauvinistic elements seek to destroy has been in existence at that very site for fifty years. But it does not matter whether it has been in existence for fifty years or for only five years.

It does not matter if the mosque or a Hindu kovil or even a church is situated within the demarcated sacred area or not. A place of religious worship is sacred and as long as it has been built with legal sanction and the necessary authority from the state, it should be respected and receive the recognition that is due to a place of worship of any religion.

The whole episode stinks. It is a disgrace that a senior Buddhist monk openly led a mob of a couple of thousands to destroy the mosque while the Friday Jumma prayers were being said. In the face of the violence, the Muslims were forced to perform the Jumma prayers outside while the mob ransacked the mosque.

The Venerable head monk of the Dambulla Raja Maha Vihara calls the video and other videos showing the violence and mayhem created by the mob as fakes. Just like the Channel 4 videos. No doubt, some “expert” will be produced who will confirm that the videos were indeed fakes, even though the viewers saw the action live.

We also saw the hapless District/Divisional Secretary being intimidated into promising to deliver on the mob demand within two days. The way the monk spoke to a Tamil woman who said that she had been worshipping at the Hindu kovil since she was a small child was nothing short of disgraceful.

The woman was told in an intimidatory manner that if the kovil was not moved out, not only the kovil but the Tamil community in Dambulla would also be pushed out. It just shows that Prabhakarans exist not only among the Tamils; and we have the capacity to produce new Prabhakarans.

The role of the Police and the Army during these incidents seemed to suggest that the whole incident was a result of some sort of planning. A government parliamentarian also from the Matale District is widely reported to have been one of the master-minds.

The only silver lining is that many responsible citizens of Dambulla seem genuinely ashamed of the happenings. Even Janaka Bandara Tennekoon, the government politico in Dambulla has reportedly been making some responsible statements.

After all, he belongs to a true-blue SLFP family that helped propel SWRD Bandaranaike to power in 1956. In fact, it is reported that many senior SLFPers are perturbed at the way the newcomers seem to be wielding too much influence over the political establishment and causing harm to the values of the old SLFP. Alarmingly, the government policies and actions seem to be shaped by fascist and extremist elements and not by the senior SLFPers.

Communal Intolerance and violence

It is over sixty years since we regained our independence from colonial rule. But almost throughout this period, we have had pogroms against the minorities, terror and counter-terror unleashed against the civilian population by fascist forces and a gradual decline towards authoritarianism. This is not the time for a blame-game. The crying need is to restore our lost values and marginalize the fascist forces who try to re-create communal and religious tensions in the country.

The need is for all democratic forces to get together and seek a consensual approach to meeting these threats. As the LLRC stated on their report, time and space has been created for healing and building sustainable peace and security in the country. Only the government can take the initiative in getting together all democratic forces in the country to build a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Sri Lanka at peace with itself. But, for this there must a political will on the part of all leaders to take decisive steps towards peace-building.

Nehru was a visionary politician. He left his clear imprint on the direction which India was to take as an independent nation. He once stated that India was a secular state; but he said he was not happy with that description but used secularism only for want of a better term. Secularism, he said, did not mean that religion was discouraged.

It meant freedom of religion and conscience, including for those with no religion. It meant free play for all religions, subject only to their not interfering with each other or with the basic conceptions of the state – a plural India that ensured justice and equality to all. Nehru steered India in the early years through many problems with her integrity as a plural secular state.

Whenever religious tensions arose, he and the liberal elements among the Congress Party leadership constantly stressed the importance of religious tolerance and emphasised that communal harmony was a core value of the Congress Party and of free India. In 1949, Hindu nationalists attempted to politicise a dispute over the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya. He blunted that by pre-emptively arresting members of the Hindu Mahasabha and others who were behind the agitation. That these nationalists succeeded later was a blot on India’s commitment to communal harmony.

Y D Gundevia, who was India’s Foreign Secretary in the early nineteen sixties recalls Nehru attending a Friday morning meeting of Foreign Office staffers and in response to question about Communists coming to power in Delhi replying: ‘Why are you so obsessed with Communists and communism?

The danger to India, mark you, is not communism. It is Hindu right-wing communalism.’ In other words, the danger to India’s integrity was from right-wing majoritarian communalism. His prescription for India then is certainly valid for Sri Lanka today.

“I many times thought peace had come, When peace was far away;
As wrecked men deem they sight the land at centre of the sea,
And struggle slacker, but to prove,
as hopelessly as I ,
how many the fictitious shores
before the harbour lie.”
Cry, my beloved country!

courtesy: The Island

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