By Laksiri Fernando –
Another act of extremist ‘political voodoo’ was performed in Colombo on 12 August 2012 by burning the effigies of TNA leader R Sampanthan and ex-Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader M Karunanidhi with impunity. No one was so far arrested. The act was performed by an organization called the National Solidarity Organization (NSO) which is supposed to be a collective of Sinhala nationalist organizations, the Patriotic National Movement (PNM) linked to the Rajapaksa government through the National Freedom Front (NFF) of Wimal Weerawansa MP taking a leading role.
There is no question that the NSO or the PNM or the NFF has every right to protest against the Tamil Eealm Solidarity Organization (TESO) or its Conference in Tamil Nadu, peacefully, whatever the objectives of that protest, as they did in front of the Indian High Commission at Thurstan Road, Colombo. What is questionable is the burning of effigies of two living political leaders, one Sri Lankan and the other Indian, belonging to a different ethnic community with drastic implications on relations between the two communities and the two countries. The photo of the event posted on The Island newspaper (13 August 2012) online front page was simply gruesome, the burning of two persons. It was simply not freedom of expression or protest.
This is not the first time that burning of effigy of a political leader or any other has taken place in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. In June this year, the Tamil protesters in London burned several of effigies of President Rajapaksa, again with impunity, when he was attending the Commonwealth Heads of State meetings. In fact, he was prevented from attending some of the events as consequence of these protests. All the burnings of effigies of President were gruesome. That was London or Britain!
In India, however, whenever there were clear attempts to burn effigies of Sri Lankan political leaders either they were prevented and/or the attempters were arrested. Only few incidents escaped the attention of law and order in remote places. The latest event was in June this year when Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) activists attempted to burn an effigy of the Sri Lankan Minister, Champika Ranawaka, protesting against his alleged warning of a backlash against the Tamils in Sri Lanka. As the Indian Express reported, nine VCK activists were arrested and the attempt was foiled in Coimbatore. A previous event was in March when the VCK and the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) tried to burn the effigies of President Rajapaksa, along with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where over 125 persons were arrested.
There are countries in the West and in the East where burning of effigies of personages of the past are performed as a religious ritual or in remembrance of historical events, yet all these are mixed with hatred and vengeance. In orthodox Christian countries like Greece or some Catholic countries in Latin America, the effigy of Judas Iscariot is burned on the Easter eve as revenge of Judas and respect for Christ. The protestant communities in England burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes as revenge for his attempt to burn the English Parliament and destroy the protestant kingdom in 1605. Likewise in India, during the Hindu festival of Dussehra, the effigy of Ravana is burned to mark the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana.
The burning of effigies of living people however could be considered differently. For example, in March this year, an effigy of Barak Obama was burned in a local bar in West Alice, Wisconsin, in front of a cheering crowd. Many commentators considered it as a racist act and severely condemned. America has a history of Ku Klux Klan cross burning as a way of intimidation and even threat of death to the minorities or non-whites in society. The burning of effigies of living persons could be equated to witchcraft or voodoo. All these are pre-modern vicious practices that are reinvented even in modern circumstances for revenge taking. People turn to voodoo practices to get even, gain control, torture or even kill their enemies by maiming, dismembering or burning a ‘doll’ as a symbol of the enemy. But in ‘political voodoo,’ an effigy is created in the image of the enemy and similar treatment is performed.
Whether there is an immediate threat or not for a person whose effigy is burnt in ‘political voodoo,’ there can be a clear incitement provoking others to do similar or worse against the enemy or enemies. That is one reason why the burning of the effigy of particularly R Sampanthan should not be taken lightly. If the protests were against the TESO Conference in Tamil Nadu, then Sampanthan or any other TNA leader had not participated. If the act was against Sampanthan’s Batticaloa speech, then it is much worse. The Sinhala extremists must be considering Sampanthan as a permanent enemy like the Tamil extremists in Diaspora considering Mahinda Rajapaksa as a permanent enemy. These are two sides of the same coin and the tensions arising need to be effectively countered.
Whatever the government says about reconciliation, there is obvious ambiguity and clear incitement by certain government aligned sections against minority communities, both Tamils and Muslims. This is what prompted even a government Minister on the Muslim side, Rauff Hakeem, to call the President to defeat ‘Yellow Robe Terrorism.’ Now he has apologised to the Buddhist clergy, after making his point loud and clear. The Dambulla Mosque attack in April was a clear pointer. As this author pointed out previously, the main culprit of this violent attack Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera was a close supporter of the President who accompanied him to Myanmar in July 2009, in the very first overseas visit after winning the war against the LTTE.
Even before four months of this controversial event of Dambulla Mosque attack, early this month the President visited the Rangiri Dambullu Vihara where Sumangala Thera is the chief prelate and had discussions with him. On this issue of communal violence, the President has clearly been on the side of the perpetrators and not with the victims. Dambulla is not the only incident in recent times against particularly Muslim religious sites. There had been over a dozen of incidents this year in the South and the East. Simmering Tamil hatred is portrayed very clearly by the protest conducted by the NSO on 12 August.
It is in this context that at least the burning of effigies should be banned in Sri Lanka. Otherwise not only the trend might escalate but also they could lead to major assaults on the minorities in the country as these events incite people into action. Now it is only effigies, but next it would be real ‘enemies’ like what happened in 1958 and 1983. I still remember as a child the horror story of burning alive the Priest at Panadura Hindu Kovil, next to my village, in 1958.
There is an emerging understanding in many countries that burning of effigies should be banned to prevent violence, and incitement to violence. In July this year, there was a public interest petition filed in the Kerala High Court calling for a state wide banning of the burning of effigies. According to the petitioner, Ajimon Gangadharan from Mulavukad, ‘burning of effigies is an act against humanity and is a barbaric act and reflects the lack of culture of the persons engaging in it.’ A similar public interest petition might be in order in Sri Lanka before the Supreme Court, to arrest the emerging trends of communal violence and to warn the potential perpetrators that incitement of communal violence will not be tolerated.