I come from a community that was both a victim and a villain in the thirty-year civil war that unsettled all of us. We were victims because the Sri Lankan state killed thousands of us, grabbed our lands and made us homeless; we were villains as we could not question the LTTE strongly when the movement massacred members of the Sinhala and Muslim communities and members of our own community who refused to conform to the movement’s ideology. We witnessed how the narrow nationalist politics that we romanticized, alienated us from the other communities on the island. We witnessed how our failure to criticize the decisions made by our leaders contributed in part to the death of thousands of Tamils in Mullivaikal in May 2009. We witnessed how our obsession with the particular—our language, our culture, our religion and our homeland—incarcerated us within the walls of purism and political decadence. It is true that there was no space for dissent when the LTTE ruled us. But we need to accept as a community that because the LTTE fought against a state that dominated us and persecuted us, many of us often, in our everyday conversations, justified its violence against other communities. Any community that clings to a narrow-minded nationalism has many a lesson to learn from the painful experiences that the Tamils in Sri Lanka went through during the war. When I read about the recent attacks on Muslims in Aluthgama, I remembered the Eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE and the violence that the LTTE directed at the Muslim community in the East in the name of Tamils. Thus, I do not want to understand, in its literal sense, the much-highlighted remark (in sections of the Tamil media) made by a Muslim woman who was affected by the violence in Dharga Town: “If Prabhakaran had been alive, they (the perpetrators of violence) would not have touched us.” It is possible that the Muslim woman made this remark without knowing the LTTE’s atrocities against the Muslims. However, rather than signifying anything else, this remark belongs to the kind of rhetorical statements that people make out of frustration and anger, when leaders let down their communities during times of crisis. It is somewhat similar to the anxious remark supposedly made by an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) in Menik Farm in 2009 that it would have been better had all the IDPs died in the No Fire Zone giving no room for the government to treat them like animals in a zoo. Is it correct to interpret these sentences in their literal sense? Can we read these remarks without paying attention to the contexts in which they were made? What we need now is neither retaliatory violence nor reactionary political activism, but rather a critical consciousness that liberates us from the iron grips of religious and cultural nationalism and helps us imagine ourselves in new ways as a political community that loves and respects all irrespective of one’s ethnicity, class, caste, religion, gender, sexuality, etc.
The racist speech made by Galagoda Aththe Gnanasaara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) was the immediate cause of last week’s ethnic pogrom against the Muslim community in Aluthgama in the South-Western part of Sri Lanka, though the BBS have been actively campaigning against the Muslim community in the country and seeking to expand its support base for the past two years. We need to situate the Aluthgama riots in the larger contexts of global and local shifts in religious, racial and cultural politics and in the light of neo-liberalism. Anti-Muslim sentiments are on the rise globally. To put it in a nutshell, the United States’ war on terror and the neo-liberal agenda behind it have exacerbated anti-Muslim feelings and Islamaphobia in the US and in the West. In neighboring India, the demonization of Islam is a corollary of the rise of Hindutva. These global (or transnational) trends catalyze the anti-Muslim forces in Sri Lanka. The civil war between the Tamil militants and the state put anti-Muslim sentiments on the back burner for the past few decades. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism required the support of the Muslims to carry out its military offensive against the Tigers. The state presented the war against the Tiger insurgency as a humanitarian mission to release the entire country, including Tamils and Muslims from the hold of terrorism. As a result, the state did not want to antagonize the Muslim community during the war. With the end of the civil war, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism has turned its gaze towards the Muslims and conjures up Islam as the evil, abominable ‘Other’ that needs to be crushed. Several people were killed (thanks to the media censorship that we don’t even know exactly how many people died) and scores of others were injured in last week’s violence. Several houses and shops owned by the Muslims in the region came under attack. Carried out in the name of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation, not only has this violence shaken the Muslims and other minorities in the country but it also suggests that the Sinhala-Buddhists, unbeknownst to themselves, are being incapacitated by communalist movements like the BBS and the rulers of this country who give protection to such movements in their bid to strengthen their hold on power. Thus, it is time for all of us including Sinhala-Buddhists to take a close and critical look at our own position in political, cultural and economic terms in contemporary Sri Lanka.
We have repeatedly noted that the Sinhala majoritarian state that offers institutional patronage to Buddhism is the root cause of the ethnic conflicts between the state and the country’s ethno-religious minorities. We have also said time and again that violence against the ethno-religious minorities in Sri Lanka is backed by the same state. Playing partisan politics, the state enshrines the languages that we speak and the gods that we worship in its constitutions and institutions in unequal terms and divides us along ethno-religious lines and pits us against one another. The state actively engages in (or backs forces that spearhead) the construction of a hegemonic Sinhala-Buddhist identity and its political institutionalization. This process is historical in that it invents an alien ‘Other’ from period to period to consolidate the idea of a monolithic Sinhala-Buddhist national self. It goes back to the colonial period, even before the post-colonial state came into existence. The violence against the Catholics in 1833 and the anti-Muslim riots in 1915 are some key moments in this history. During the post-independence period, the disenfranchisement and repatriation of plantation Tamils, the ethnic violence against the Tamils throughout the post-independence history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka and the violence against Muslims that we have seen for the last few years underline the role of the state in keeping the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist project alive. Competing economic interests of the mercantile classes within the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities further the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology as we see that business places owned by minorities often come under attack when riots hit the country. The exclusivist character of Sinhala-centric, anti-neo-imperialist/neo-liberal discourses that dominated Sri Lanka’s Left politics in the post-colonial era, especially under the JVP, also sharpened this nationalist narrative. Moreover, the competition between extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist forces like the Jathika Hela Urumaya, National Freedom Front, the BBS and Ravana Balaya to win the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency has exacerbated this nationalism and made it a frightening phenomenon in the last few years. The failure of the governments that have ruled post-independence Ceylon/Sri Lanka to transform the oppressive character of the state tells us that we can no longer depend on the ruling class for institutional solutions that would put an end to communal violence and ensure our peaceful co-existence on the island. It is quite certain that the government is not going to arrest the Galagoda Aththe Gnanasaara Thero or ban the Bodu Bala Sena; instead, it has decided to present itself to the majority community as their guardians by weakening the organs of the state that are responsible for maintaining law and order.
The Rajapaksha regime and the ruling classes are not going to address the rise of cost of living or take steps to eradicate poverty from our communities. They are not interested in creating jobs for the youth or providing the people of this country, including the Sinhala-Buddhists, with good health and educational services. The government wants the Sinhala-Buddhists to see the Bo leaves and the lion decorating our chauvinistic national flag, the images of our nationalistic rulers and hate-inciting Buddhist monks as well as anti-devolution, anti-minority, anti-West rhetoric as their source of progress, development and power. It presents Sinhala-Buddhist symbolism and anti-minority rhetoric and violence as substitutes to welfare programs that can alleviate the everyday economic problems facing the people of this country. The neo-liberal policies introduced in the education sector will make it difficult for our children to receive free education in the future. Our elders will be deprived of good health care facilities in the long run. Our youth will not get good jobs. The violence unleashed against the Muslims in Althugama is certainly a means to deflect the attention of the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency from their day-to-day economic grievances and aims to mobilize this community, by whipping up its religious sentiments, to supporting the government in power. What is unfortunate is that many of us do not see the ways in which this violence adversely impacts the Sinhala-Buddhist community, especially its marginalized sections. We begin our criticism of the riots in Aluthgama by framing the BBS as a Fascist organization that defiles Buddhist values like peace, love and non-violence and end it with the pronouncement that the violence occurred due to a lapse on the part of the government to maintain law and order effectively.
Reductive and short-sighted, this criticism is not going to change things not only for the minorities but also for the Sinhala-Buddhists. The government, of course, will be quite happy as long as the criticism coming from Sinhala-Buddhists does not translate into a scathing critique of the state and its nationalist project or of the government’s mismanagement of the country’s economy and the welfare system. The question before us now is how we are going to produce a criticism that penetrates into the system that serves the interests of the ruling regime in the name of all Sinhala-Buddhists. This radical criticism needs to come from all of us including the Sinhala-Buddhist community. Student leaders, educationists, workers, men, women, the clergy and activists have to lay bare the government’s deceptive politics behind its collaboration with the BBS. They need to demonstrate the ways in which Sinhala chauvinism undermines the economic strength of the people. They should expose the government’s bogus patriotic propaganda and the neo-liberal character of its economic policies that are against the interests of the poorer sections of the people of Sri Lanka. Highlighting the unevenness within the Sinhala-Buddhist community, we need to demystify the supposed homogeneity of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation. For instance, we need to read the sexist statement made by our Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affair, Tissa Karaliyadda that practices aiming at providing equality for women “go against our culture and religion” in light of the patriarchal cultural and religious underpinnings of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist project. Class and gender appear as forces that have the potential to disrupt this nationalist bloc from within, if our criticism of and mobilizations against racism and communalism succeed in bringing together the marginalized sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency and minorities to a common oppositional space.
If the subordinate groups within the Sinhala-Buddhists initiate a counter-discourse that envisages their liberation in a concrete, material, economic and cultural sense from the Rajapaksha regime, the ruling class and their nationalist ideologies, there will be room for them to join the minorities of this country who are struggling to take the Sinhala-Buddhist nation out of the state. I agree that this is hard. It means that you have to act resolutely against the institutionalization of ‘your own nation’ in solidarity with people whom you have, all these years, been taught to see as the ‘Other’ or your enemies. As the first step in this direction, the marginalized sections within the Sinhala-Buddhist community need to question the Sinhala-Buddhist nation from an internal, economic, anti-patriarchal point of view as well as from a larger point of view of radical democracy that has plural ethos of co-existence at its heart. This process will require them to understand and come to terms with the truth that the rights and liberties (although limited) that they have access to are, in fact, privileges that are denied to the other communities that also call this island their home. This act of self-interrogation will produce among them a self-reflexive, critical consciousness that is necessary to challenge their ruling classes along with the oppressed minorities. When political solidarity binds all of us in our common quest for liberation(s), we can anticipate the nationalist constructions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ to fade away.
We often misconstrue political solidarity as a force that promotes strategic alliances between the different oppressed and progressive groups in a given historical conjuncture. Political solidarity does not mean the oppressed sections of the majority mobilizing the ethnic minorities to win their rights or vice versa. Nor is it about the Tamils taking advantage of the riots against Muslims to advance their nationalist project. It is, in fact, a practice that rejects selfish, opportunist alliances where one struggle dominates the other or one struggle is exploited in order to strengthen another struggle. We should also note that political solidarity is neither about political correctness nor about inclusive resistance. In a radical democratic mobilization, as Chantel Mouffe notes in her essay “Democratic Citizenship and the Political Community” (in Dimensions of Radical Democracy, 1992), what matters is not “establishing a mere alliance between [our] given interests” but rather our willingness to “construct a ‘we,’ a chain of equivalence among [our] demands to so as to articulate them through the principle of democratic equivalence.” The utmost objective of political solidarity is to create a political community whose members see themselves beyond the organizing principles supplied to them by liberal multi-culturalism and essentialist identity politics. To reinvigorate our political processes of resistance at this time of crisis, what we need is not the Prabhakarans that the Northern Province’s Minister of Agriculture, P. Ayngaranesan thinks that the BBS’ violence may create within the Muslim community, but Mouffe’s ‘we,’ that acts with a concern for everyone in a democratic spirit. Our search for the ‘we,’ the new political community, can no longer wait, as we are amidst a deep crisis that hits us in different forms from different directions and worsens swiftly day by day.
Political solidarity envisions a future that is not limited to institutional solutions, for institutional solutions alone cannot address deep-rooted social evils like racism and communalism. Sometimes institutional remedies ironically re-produce these problems by replacing old boundaries of race and religion with new ones. As the state is determined to divide us along ethnic, religious and cultural lines, we need to build alternative multi-ethnic movements, trade unions and platforms for radical political education and discussion at the grassroots. The activism stemming from these social movements need to be organic, transformative and grounded in our social landscapes and should offer credible alternatives to the superficial, technical, remedial measures proposed by Non-Governmental Organizations to manage conflicts through legal and institutional mechanisms. The dialogues that take place at these alternative gatherings can generate a singular emancipatory consciousness among us out of our plural concerns and struggles. It is encouraging to hear that from Colombo to Jaffna various groups have initiated discussions on the escalation of religious intolerance in the country and what our communities need to do to arrest this situation when the state itself aids and abets violence against religious minorities. We need small scale collectives and mobilizations to kindle people’s political imagination at the local level. In such spaces, people get to read each other’s poems and listen to each other’s stories as ways of learning and unlearning. Reaching our homes, educational institutes, work places and places of worship where we meet and converse with our family members, neighbors, friends and co-workers, these conversations will have the potential to unharness our societies gradually from cultural nationalism and religious particularism, and help us chart new routes of resistance. Then we will be able to develop a narrative of democracy and freedom that will also be a narrative that nourishes justice and equality concomitantly. This narrative will guide us in our efforts to radically renovate, if not dismantle, the oppressive state by clearing it of its cultural, linguistic and religious burdens along with its bourgeois, patriarchal, and heterosexist grids. This may sound utopian. But this needs to be our overarching political vision and political practice to re-imagine ourselves in new, revolutionary ways as a democratic political community in a time of crisis.