By Izeth Hussain –
In this writer’s last article – BBS – farce or tragedy or both? – it was surmised that the Government was failing to take effective action against the BBS because the Government’s hallmark has been its hedonism: the pleasure principle reigns supreme so that knotty problems tend to be pushed aside. But is that the whole explanation? The question arises because the BBS certainly has nothing like mass support. That has been shown by its failure to ignite mass violence against the Muslims, and also by the fact that its representative at the last General Elections got no more than an utterly derisory 27,000 votes. The Government can therefore safely apply the law against the BBS but it prefers to make itself look ridiculous by whining that there has been a dereliction of duty on the part of the Police. So, the following question cannot be avoided: Is there a force that constrains the Government’s action on the BBS?
To give a satisfactory reply to that question we have to take into account certain facts about democracy, not at the theoretical level but how it actually works on the ground. Under democracy the Government does not have an unmediated relationship with the people as is commonly assumed, and it is not necessarily free to act with the backing of the people. Between the Government and the people there are the intermediaries of the Opposition and the civil society which can impose serious constraints on the Government. In addition there are interest groups, which can sometimes be shadowy entities that function in clandestine ways to determine the Government’s policy. In the US there is the military industrial complex against the potential power of which President Eisenhower alerted the American people decades ago. Another well-known example is the Zionist lobby which has been a powerful determinant of American policy in the Middle East.
The writer would postulate the existence of a shadowy ultranationalist group in Sri Lanka that can commandeer big money, and further that it is that group that has been imposing constraints on the last and the present Government’s action on the BBS. That money can confer power is of course a commonplace. After 1977 in particular big money has been a very potent factor in our politics. Consequently the Government has to heed the wishes of the people and it has also to heed the diktats of big money at least to some extent. Is the writer being irresponsibly speculative here?
At the empirical level the evidence is convincing enough. The focus of the BBS attacks both under the last Government and the present one has been on mosques and Muslim-owned business premises. That was partly for the reason that the Islamophobic hate campaign to ignite mass violence against the Muslims failed completely. It is reasonable to presume that the big money that has been behind the BBS right from its inception has had its eyes sharply focused on the prospect of getting hold of Muslim business and putting it into Sinhalese hands. It will be remembered that both the Sinhalese and the Tamils profited from the destruction of Tamil business during the 1983 pogrom. This time around Sinhalese big money could hope to get the lion’s share of the loot. We should recall also that one of the major reasons for the 1915 riots was that low country Sinhalese traders who were trying to break into the Kandyan provinces wanted to eliminate Muslim rivalry there. So, it is reasonable to think that the major driving force – at least at the indigenous level – behind the BBS is Sinhalese big money, and that the Government is wary about taking really effective action against the BBS because of its respect for that big money.
The Muslims seem to be peculiarly vulnerable to attacks on their business interests because of the widespread notion that they are inordinately wealthy, a notion that has had wide currency over several decades, perhaps from the time of Independence and even before that. It had particularly wide currency after a nexus was established in the ‘sixties between Ratnapura and the gem merchants around Beruwala, resulting in their displaying their wealth in a vulgarly ostentatious manner. How misleading was the impression that the Muslims as a whole were inordinately wealthy was brought home to this writer when he headed our Embassy in Manila from 1970 to 1972. A couple of Sri Lankan Catholics who worked full-time in serving lepers came to the Embassy and in the course of conversation made the point that the Muslims had a disproportionately high number of lepers in comparison to the other ethnic groups. Their explanation was that there is a correlation between leprosy and poverty and the Muslims as a whole were poorer than the others. Impressions can be misleading, and the continuing notion of inordinate Muslim wealth is almost certainly mistaken.
What should be done? The question arises because the Muslims as a whole feel threatened as a consequence of some of them, in fact a few of them, being very wealthy. It is understandable that they should feel threatened as a whole because the BBS hate campaign targets them as a whole. The particular targets chosen by the BBS are significant. The mosques are chosen because the Muslims are an intensely religious people and the outrageous insults to Allah and Islam are meant to convey that in the new hierarchical ordering of Sri Lanka the Muslims will have a very low, hardly human, place. That will be very appealing to the bestialized racist elite among the BBS. But it won’t have much traction with the average Sinhalese Buddhist who is not a bestialized racist. What will have traction with them is the idea of putting an end to the supposedly inordinate wealth of the Muslims. So the question really is what should be done about that supposedly inordinate wealth?
What requires to be done is to move from impressions to the hard facts, to the statistics about the comparative economic positions of our ethnic groups. At one time it was possible to establish that through statistics provided by the Government, not impressions but authoritative data. In the first half of the ‘nineties the writer produced a study on the Sri Lankan Muslims using a Marga Institute report which established, basing itself on Government statistics, that the specially privileged economic position of the Muslims was a myth and that the economic positions of all our ethnic groups were more or less the same, except of course for the estate Tamils due to very special circumstances. In 1998 the writer, anticipating the kind of development we are witnessing at present, wanted the Marga Institute to prepare a further study on the same subject, but it was found that appropriate Government statistics were no longer available. The Muslim leadership must now try to persuade the Government to prepare the statistics in a way that will make the relative economic positions of our ethnic groups once again visible.
That is crucially important both in the interests of the Muslims and of national integration. The reason is that the present wave of Islamophobic activity can die down but it can be expected to crest again. That is to be expected in terms of the paradigm of racism which provides the best tool for analyzing and getting to grips with our ethnic problems. According to that paradigm as economic development takes place, competition for scarce resources will increase, with ethnic groups functioning as interest groups, a process that can lead to ethnic rivalry and conflict. We must also bear in mind the raw facts about capitalism: it leads to no-holds barred cut-throat competition unless the State plays a regulatory role. Unfortunately the Sri Lankan state has a very poor record in playing a regulatory role over ethnic matters. It is therefore up to the civil society, representing all our ethnic groups, to move and save this country. Sri Lanka, after all, is worth saving.