By Izeth Hussain –
My primary purpose in this article is to point out that the main instrument of most of our Governments since Independence in dealing with our ethnic problems has been duckspeak. It is a neologism coined by George Orwell in his Swiftian satire on totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty Four. This is what he writes about it: “Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions that were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment”.
I feel the term should have much wider currency than it has had up to now. The reason why it has had scant, or rather no currency at all, is that Orwell was writing about the future in which totalitarian bosses make the people’s speech inane like the quacking of ducks. But that inanity has been a notable characteristic of the speech of politicians all over the world. Sometimes the speeches of politicians are deliberately inane, the purpose being to fool the people. Sometimes the politicians themselves are unaware that they are no more meaningful than the quacking of ducks. Both varieties of duckspeak flourish mightily in Sri Lanka at election time. Let the symbol of the Sinhalese people be the Lion – I am rather fond of the old flag. But the symbol of Sri Lankan democracy should be the duck.
Before making my comments on duckspeak on the Muslim ethnic problem I must make an important qualification. Duckspeak is a fairly normal human propensity, not something that is confined to politicians. All of us are guilty of it to varying degrees. It is something that we share with our politicians because there is no absolute divide between the people and the politicians. But there is a divide, though not an absolute one, in that the politician is far more devoted to the pursuit of prestige, money, and power, than the average member of the public. Consequently there have to be important differences in the way the two groups use duckspeak. It is with the people for the most part a lapse, while with politicians it is an art form that can be used with much finesse and sophistication. It has been the main instrument in dealing with the Muslim ethnic problem.
I left the Foreign Ministry in 1989 after having been subjected to stinking anti-Muslim racist discrimination, one of the worst examples of such discrimination in the world. The first thing I did in the public realm thereafter was to address a meeting at the ICES on the SL Muslims, which was chaired by the late Regi Siriwardene. Regi was a genius, a world class literary critic and intellectual, a man of total and fearless integrity, a friend since 1951, and for me the greatest Sri Lankan of his time. Furthermore he was perfectly at home in Sinhala unlike most Westernised Sri Lankans of his time, and he could speak with authority on Sinhalese society. Coming from him weight had to be given to his statement, which he made just after I finished my speech, that the Sinhalese hated the Muslims even more than they hated the Tamils. There seemed to be total assent from the largely Muslim audience. That statement fitted in perfectly with details I had gathered to show that under the racist JR gang discrimination against the Muslims, particularly in the upper echelons of the State sector, was even worse than against the Tamils. I have recently discovered that a segment of the Tamils – probably not a majority of them – hate the Muslims even more than they hate the Sinhalese. In the claustrophobic Paradise Isle of today the stench of racism is everywhere. I believe that this is the consequence of our failure to take action to counter racism. Instead we have had duckspeak on racism.
From 1989 onwards I wrote many magazine and newspaper articles, as well as some seminar papers on the SL Muslims. I noted that from 1975 to 2002 there had been anti-Muslim ructions practically every year, sometimes trivial, sometimes extremely serious such as the Hulftsdorp riots of December 1993, which I covered in a two-part article in the Lanka Guardian. Over the years a regular pattern in the anti-Muslim ructions was established. After the incidents some Muslim politicians would visit the area, there would be meetings between the Sinhalese and Muslim notables of the area, and normalcy would be officially restored. Of course the ructions would erupt again the next year. And of course there was no question of taking punitive action of the sort that would have a deterrent effect. I pointed out in my article on the Hulftsdorp riots that if anything comparable had occurred in Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew would have resorted to extremely tough punitive action without much scruple about the niceties of the law, and there would have been no further riots of that sort.
Why was it that no punitive deterrent action was taken? To answer that question we must first look at the public reactions to the anti-Muslim ructions. Around 2001 MIRJE issued an excellent detailed report on them. MIRJE was an NGO, and I won’t be surprised if the report had been inspired by foreign concern about what was being done against the Muslims. The indigenous reaction can be gauged by that of the newspaper editors, who were almost certainly reflecting the view of the great majority of the Sinhalese public. Every case was explained in terms of fracas between thugs without any ethnic dimension to them at all. It was not noticed, certainly not acknowledged, that although the riots began with fracas between thugs, in the aftermath one ethnic group, the Muslims, suffered consequences at the hands of another ethnic group, the Sinhalese, and therefore there was inescapably an ethnic dimension to the riots. Very probably the Government shared that view, and certainly saw no need whatever to take any corrective action on Sinhalese-Muslim relations.
I must mention that in the meanwhile the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress had emerged as a significant force in our politics. It was an avowedly ethnic party, established on the basis that all our other parties are also ethnic parties, that we have no politics except ethnopolitics, and that the only way of safeguarding and promoting legitimate Muslim interests is through a Muslim ethnic party. The emergence of such an explicitly Muslim ethnic party as a significant force, together with the ethnic ructions that I have outlined above, should have made it imperative for the Government to take effective action to repair Sinhalese-Muslim relations. But successive Governments have refused to take anything more than nominal action on contentious issues such as the proliferation of mosques, the spread of madrasas preaching the Wahabi version of Islam. Cattle slaughter and so on.
I believe that the reason, or the main reason, why successive Governments have failed to address such problems effectively is that they have become habituated to dealing with Muslim problems through duckspeak. The duckspeak is more or less along the following lines. Unlike the Tamils who have made excessive and unreasonable demands, including even a separatist agenda, the Muslims have shown a cool and shrewd pragmatism in pressing their claims, and consequently have done very well for themselves. The result is that Sinhalese-Muslim relations are essentially sound and will remain so, the ethnic ructions and so on to which I point being no more than passing hiccups to which no great importance should be given.
That that was duckspeak was shown spectacularly by the sudden eruption of the BBS and its protracted hate campaign and anti-Muslim action. As I have argued in several articles, all that had the backing of the State racists, by whom I mean the Sinhalese racists who have their hands on the levers of State power and their associates. This development has been accompanied by two other fateful developments which could have enormous consequences. One is that some Muslim representatives have been speaking out for the Muslims whereas earlier Muslim representatives have on the whole been notorious for bootlicking the Sinhalese power elite. At this point I must shout, Bravo Rauf! The other fateful development is that the Muslim ethnic problem has got internationalized. I don’t know what the consequences will be, but I am sure on one point: the Sinhalese duckspeak on the Muslims will continue.