Colombo Telegraph

Co-Existence And Communal Harmony In Sri Lanka Today

By Rifai Naleemi –

Rifai Naleemi

Sri Lanka is one of rare countries that has been blessed with multicultural and multi religious communities in the world. This diversity in culture, faith and tradition beautifies our cultural heritage. Moreover, it enhances our regional and international relation with many countries in the world. This diversity gives us more advantages and benefits culturally, politically and economically. Having four different religions in our Island is like having four types of flowers in a bouquet. Each flower gives different fragrances and yet when all are combined in one place it creates more aromatic setting.  We should gauge our cultural diversity from this positive perspective rather than evaluating from negative perspectives. We should reckon different of cultures and religions are complementary not contradictory.

We should see the cultural diversity as one of positive social phenomena. With the diversity in culture, religion and traditions we should build up Lankan identity. Look at India. How big is it? It is fifty times bigger than Sri Lanka.   More than hundreds language are spoken by different ethnic and religious groups and yet India managed to build up its Indian Identity. This is not based on any communal and religious line rather on the basis of broader Indian identity. Toady in major world cities like that of London or Washington hundreds of different ethnic and cultural groups live. This is the socio–economic reality of global village of our modern world. This socio-economic and communal interaction is unprecedented in human history.  We all should learn to live with this reality and otherwise we would be following the path of Somalia and Afghanistan which have been torn apart by more than 40 years wars. In our modern world security and peace are most important element for the prosperity and development. We do not have to be rocket scientists to know this elementary common sense in this modern world. Whoever sabotage peace and communal harmony should be punished in the greater national interest ofSri Lanka. I do not say this in any communal line rather I’m saying this as a Sri Lankan.

Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays, Christians have been living peacefully in Sri Lanka for hundreds of years. There is no point in arguing who came first and who came last toSri Lanka? Such arguments would not benefit Sri Lanka at all. It is an undisputable reality today there more than four different religious groups live in Sri Lanka today.  Even before colonial powers invaded Sri Lanka, different ethnical & cultural ethnic groups were living in Sri Lanka in peace and harmony:  All these communities are closely interacted one another in many ways: in their work places, industries, paddy fields, business places, offices and in other working environments. This is the reality of day to day life of our communities in Sri Lanaka: In all most all cities and townships  of Sri Lanka we see that all these communities live together side by side: Tamils live next to Sinhalese and Muslims , Sinhalese live to next Muslims and Tamils.  Muslims live next to both of these communities: each community participate in each other’s social- cultural events such as wedding ceremonies, festivals, birthday parties, funerals and other social events: each community share their happiness and sadness one anther. In time of happiness like that of festival time foods and sweets are exchanged. Millions people in many countries do not have such close-tied relationship between communities. Look at some African countries people are fighting hundreds of years on tribal and ethnic disputes:  Thanks to God we do not have tribal or caste system in Sri Lanka.

Although Sri Lankan communities have different linguistic, cultural and religious entities, socially they all are very close interacted one another.  Each community depends on others to meet necessities of day to day life. Muslims in large cities of Kalmunai and Kartharnkudi depend on Tamil builders and carpenters to build their houses and shops: In same way, Muslims in the South depend on Sinhalese builders & carpenters to build their houses: Likewise, Muslims traders depend on Sinhalese to trade their goods: I know many Muslim retailers go to village to village in Sinhalese areas to sell their goods: Similarly, many Sinhalese traders come to Muslims villages to sell their goods. In the same way, In Tamil areas Muslim lands are cultivated by Tamils and Tamils farmers are trading with Muslims.  I recall these events to illustrate close social interaction of our communities in Sri Lanka. This is the social reality of our communities in Srilanka:   To this extent communities are so closely interacted in Sri Lanka. This is one of the uniqueness of Sri Lanka inter-communal relationship.

I shall refer to some my personal experience and examples to illustrate this close communal interaction between our communities inSri Lanka.  These stories and anecdotes are not fairytale stories   rather these are true stories that happened to me when I was in Sri Lanka when I was in Sri Lanka before 25 years ago. I think the attitudes, mentalities and behaviors of people are not changed that much today.

I will recall two events that I personally experienced in my life. These two occurrences manifest kindness and loving nature of our ordinary people ofSri Lanka.  It was on the peak of JVP disturbance during the late President R. Peremadasa’s presidency.  I think it was in 1989. I was travelling from Colombo to Baticaloa on my way to work next day morning.  Unfortunately, our CTB bus broke down in Habarana. Luckily a replacement bus was given we managed to reach Polannaruwa in midnight. Any one who experienced JVP insurgency in late 1980’s knows how dangerous was to travel night times those days.  It was too scary to stay outside in Polannaruwa bus station: I did not know what to do and where to go: all shops were closed:  Those days, Sri Lankan army was suspicious of university staff and students due to JVP insurgency.

Suddenly, I was approached by one Sinhalese family who were sitting in the next seat in same bus I was travelling.  They instantly said to me: if I rightly recall their words:  (Bayawentta yepa puthey Oya apith Eka Enta).  Do not worry you come with us to our house.  We all went to their house in that midnight:  I was looked after well. They gave me dinner in that midnight with bread and coconut sampool: This was the first time I stayed in a Sinhalese house. Indeed, this was the first time I ate some thing in a Sinhalese people’s house. I stayed over night in their house and in the early morning one of their sons dropped me off to the bus station to continue my journey to Baticaloa: I will never and ever forget this favour that they happily offered me on that desperate situation.

Beyond racial, ethnical and religious boundaries they helped me on that extremely dangerous situation.  They feared for my life.  They did not want to leave me alone in the bus station at that time during those days.  They took me to their home to help me: I was a Muslim and they were Buddhists yet beyond this religious barrier they helped me. I think this is the real Buddhism and humanism.  I think this quality of kindness, love and helping mentality is inherent in the mind and heart of majority of our Sri Lankan Communities. During the Tsunami we have seen this unity and sense of humor and humanism.

We should think first and foremost as human beings beyond our colour, ethnicity, language and religion. We may have different faith and different ethnic and linguistic back ground but one thing unites all of us that that is first and foremost we are human being and we all belong to human race and humanity and unfortunately we all forget to note this fundamental fact that unites us all. In addition to this we all hail from Sri Lanka and our Lankan identity should unite us all. No way could we live in a water-tight compartment in this modern world. Whether we like or not we all are depended on one another for our material needs today. Jaffna Tamil need Sinhalese in South to sell the agricultural products.

One more my personal experience was that When I went toJaffaUniversityto work  I was invited for a lunch by a Tamil Teacher whom I did not even know him before. This teacher was working with one of my cousins inSaudi Arabiaand they became very good friends.  When he was on holiday inJaffnaI was invited to his house for a lunch. This was the first time I happen to eat in a Tamil house as well. I was very much surprised with his kindness and treatment. I think that this was the case with most of Sri Lankan communities: Most of people are kind and compassionate want to live in peace and harmony with other communities.

We do not appreciate the beauty and richness of our multi-ethnic and cultural heritage in Sri Lanka. . Each community learns a lot from other community’s culture, custom, tradition and way of life: Having different ethnical and religious groups is not detrimental for social and economic development of any country in modern world: Each community should  help and support socio-economic developments of the country: If we are true patriotic Sri Lankans , we all should first and foremost think as Sri Lankans, beyond our ethnic, cultural and linguistic entity: What I  mean here is  that national interest of Sri Lanka should be given preference over ethnical and cultural preference: in another word: We all should think first as Sri Lankan then we should consider our ethnicity and cultural entity:  this does not mean that each community assimilate into one community rather each preserve its own religious identity and yet works for the goodness of Sri Lanka.   Be a true Buddhist or be a true Hindu or a true a Muslim at the same time we all think as Sri Lankans: We should be proud to be Sri Lankans: We should work hard to develop our country collectively.

Unfortunately, since the independence all our Srilankan communities have been living in water-tight compartments: Each community gave preference to its ethnicity over the national interests: Sinhalese nationalism, Tamil nationalism and Muslim exclusionism began to flourish inSri Lanka: Even political parties were formed merely on the basis of ethnic interests over national interest. Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese political parties were formed exclusively to work on communal line: This trend has not only damaged national interest and development but indeed, such communal thinking has been a challenge for peace and harmony in Sri Lanka. Moreover, such exclusive mentality and social attitude is detrimental and discriminative in many ways:  Many times such social attitudes end up in social prejudice and discrimination.

To be continued

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