By Lukman Harees –
Astrologers are no strangers to Sri Lankan politics. Sumanadasa predicted a MR victory in 2015 and later gave some interesting reasons when it misfired. There was another type of astrological prediction recently in a newspaper which was both comical and uncanny. An astrologist named Sameera Chandrasiri from Helabima newspaper in his column, in a crafty way predicted an impending Sinhala-Muslims conflict soon and attributed cattle slaughter during Ramazan time( there’s no cattle slaughter during Ramazan time!), Deforestation (reference to Rishard Badurdeen), illegal settlements (reference to Murichikutti settlements of War refugees) and humiliating/insulting and challenging the Sons of the Soil/ Maha Sangha, as possible causes/ sparks for such a conflagration, and underlined the need to remove them as otherwise it will be harmful to the country’s rulers.
Leave aside the comical aspects of the prediction itself and the possible causes, there is truth in the fact, that there is an impending racial conflict involving the Sinhalese and the Muslims in the brewing and Sri Lanka is sitting atop a social volcano waiting to explode at any moment. There is no need for an astrologer to predict this calamity, as any observer with a fine tuned common sense will and can see telling signs of this gathering storm.
Ethnic or religious clashes or conflagrations have not been anything novel or new to the Sri Lankan Dharma Dweepaya. Modern Ceylon’s first ethno-religious riots targeted not Tamils but Muslims in 1915. Then, ever since Independence, there were many ethnic conflagrations mainly between Sinhalese and Tamils. Many have argued that the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in post-independent Sri Lanka bear much responsibility for today’s ethnic conflicts between the majority Sinhalese state and the minorities. Upon the heels of the end of a protracted Sinhala Tamil ethnic conflict which aggravated with the now infamous 1983 pogrom against the Tamils , there came the well-orchestrated hate campaign against the next biggest minority –the Muslims, which culminated in the Aluthgama dubbed by many analysts as a mini-1983. Sinhalese Christians were targeted too.
Drawing parallels between 1983 riots and 2014 Aluthgama riots may not be fair, but few similarities can be identified. One such similarity being not just the inaction on the part of the then-governments to act decisively and firmly on time but also shameful attempts to brand the victims as perpetrators. Post-war period under MR was a time of immense pressure for the minorities. Tamils after difficult times under the ruthless Tigers were thrown into disarray and marginalized due to the arrogant ,supremacist and majoritarian polices adopted by MR. Many were languishing in refugee camps while no plausible solutions were offered to sort out their genuine grievances .International community put Sri Lanka on the dock for the excesses committed by the Armed Forces during the last stages of the War. Muslims on the other hand went through hell when many hate groups with implicit State support, operated without fear or sanction throwing all decencies to the wind, while the silent majority watched helplessly. Muslim politicians were caught napping. Sri Lanka became once again ,almost a pariah state in the eyes of the world.
However, Sri Lanka always being a blessed country, Divine Providence intervened and Sri Lanka went to the Polls in 2015. The powerful MR regime was booted out by the people, including the racist based parties lie BJP (BBS) which focussed more on anti-Muslim hate propaganda. The incoming Yahapalana government promised many things, particularly to make promotion of national reconciliation as one of their priorities. Of course, there were positive developments in this direction and the minorities harboured lot of hope in this government delivering their promise to create an inclusive Sri Lanka. It needs no soothsayer to tell the policy makers that without national reconciliation, there is no prospect of national progress. There is an imperative need to build mutual trust and understanding among communities after decades of divisive politics and this process takes time and commitment specially from the Top, as clearly pointed in the PRC Report which summarized people’s suggestions in respect of Constitution making process.
Unfortunately, the BBS viruses and hate groups have re-emerged and begun to wreak havoc on this nation which has grown weary of decades of conflict and racist politics through hate mongering. Demagogue and the face of Buddhist Terror in Sri Lanka Ven Gananssara and his likes are roaming the streets with renewed vigour in Mahiyangana and elsewhere, spitting hate venom threatening a repeat Aluthgama, arrogantly challenging Muslims to send their petitions even to Allah through Prophet Mohamed, thus harming Muslim sensitivities.In competitio , there are other outfits emerging such as Sinhaley, and Mahason Balakaaya supported by rogue elements among the Maha Sangha spreading fear among Sinhala people at the grass-root levels about Muslim community being a threat to their existence and their heritage. These groups are making maximum use of the government’s ‘deaf and dumb’ attitudes.
Many contentious issues which arose recently such as Minaret Issue in Kandy, Bhatiya Road mosque issue in Dehiwela, are certainly not issues where battle lines should be drawn between Muslim and Sinhala communities as a whole and sorted out with knives and daggers on the streets. They were local issues which could be sorted out at the local / Police level or at worst in Courts. There were also many who tried to make CM Nazeer Ahmed insulting the naval officer into a communal issue. Wilpattu issue was turned into a communal issue rather than an issue against Minister Badurdeen , and was shown as if the whole community was plotting against the Sinhalese people. Despite public knowledge that the Muslim politicians and SLMC have lost credibility among the Muslims, Hate groups tried to blame the whole community for their unwise acts; for example ‘separate Muslim majority Muslim unit’ proposal put forward by them. It will be foolhardy to expect the entire Muslim community to offer an apology whenever a person with a Muslim name commits a crime or misdeed like what happened when a group of ‘Muslim’ drunks set fire to the Buddhist flag. It was a shameful act which should attract maximum punishment under the law.
It should help national reconciliation if the Sinhala community also acknowledge how the Muslim community has been taking more and more initiatives openly to integrate further with the Sinhalese, particularly in the recent past. They have increased their visible involvements in public amenity projects – Zam-Zam Foundation’s initiative to help poor students of all faiths, many blood donations and public benefit projects being organized at the local level, more collaboration between mosques and Buddhist temples at the local levels , active involvement of Muslims in flood relief, and the initiative taken by a Muslim to purchase a PET Scan machine were few such examples. There are many initiatives taken by the mosques and ACJU too to inculcate the need for Muslims to further integrate. Muslims are part and parcel of this country and their heritage goes back to more than 1000 in history and never advocated division and had any intentions to invade Sri Lanka. Therefore, they do not need lessons on national reconciliation and patriotism from unpatriotic hate mongers such as BBS.
The government therefore should recognize the need to put a stop to these majoritarian dog whistle hush talks and open barks whether in parliamentary corridors or in temples by openly declaring its’ policy on the nature of Sri Lanka – a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Sri Lanka and not a Sinhala State. Sri Lankan Muslims no longer can be the punching bags of these hate mongers at a time when the Muslims all over the world, are facing the brunt of a well- orchestrated Islamophobia campaign and asked to assume collective guilt for the action of the Un-Islamic ISIS. What happened in Medina should put the argument that ISIS is an Islamic group, to rest. It is the duty of the government to safeguard the dignity of Muslims ( of course all communities) by taking decisive action against those groups who are hell bent on making the life of the community difficult, fearful and insecure. All contentious issues whether regarding an illegal construction or a mosque or a conduct of a Muslim, should be dealt with in accordance with the law without dragging all Muslims into the equation. If there are concerns about ISIS infiltration in Sri Lanka, it is upto the defence authorities to take action, as the collective security is the concern of the Muslims as well.
Therefore, government should not play a waiting game to act as telling signs are already appearing on the horizon of an impending major Sinhala Muslim clash. Muslim patience in the times of the MR regime when these hate groups were at their peak, was admired even by the international community. However it does have its’ limits, as there are likely elements who may get provoked when insulting remarks are made about their religion. Cross party consensus should therefore be sought to fight hatred and religious bigotry and to promote national reconciliation. Urgent action should be taken to introduce Hate Speech Law, of course sorting out concerns of civic rights groups of the possibility of provisions being used to persecute political opponents. Legal action should be taken against all ‘Gnanassaras’ without fear or favour. A comprehensive plan of action should be drawn out to inculcate the importance of national reconciliation and the dangers of racist and religious extremism in schools, universities and Daham Paaselas of all faiths. Powerful social media should also be used for this purpose. More importantly, a mechanism should be worked out to sort out contentious racial and religious issues at the local level involving religious leaders and social activists. Civic activism is however paramount to force the hands of the government to take steps to fight racial and religious hatred and to promote national reconciliation.