By Lionel Bopage –
I can recollect the early sixties when the Federal Party launched their Satyagraha campaign against the Sinhala Only policy of the Bandaranaikes. The Bandaranaike government having declared a state of emergency under the Public Security Act, Major General Richard Udugama was dispatched to Jaffna to suppress peaceful protests. Tamil leaders were arrested to stop the Federal Party campaign. I can also recollect the late seventies when Tamil militancy was taking root in Jaffna dissatisfied with the peaceful protest campaign of the Tamil leaders. The Jayewardene government, having armed with extensive powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, dispatched General Tissa (Bull) Weeratunga to Jaffna to wipe out Tamil militant groups. Despite the career promotions these military men received, peaceful protests of Tamil people grew into a militancy and then into a war. Again, the communalists in the south appear to build up a similar scenario without genuinely working towards addressing the issues of non-majoritarian communities. Instead they continue to aggravate those issues so that they can use them to retain their power and privileges.
Sinhala was taught as a subject in schools in the north and east. The Tamil people did not reject studying Sinhalese until the ‘Sinhala Only Policy’ was adopted in the fifties and used that policy to discriminate against Tamil students in their studies, Tamil public servants in their career promotions, university entrants through standardisation of results, and so on. The religiously and ethnically segregated school system of today was established by the majoritarian led communalistic SLFP and UNP governments, not by any communalistic non-majoritarian community. Thus, the attempts to force Sinhala down the throats of the Tamil people failed and backfired. The outcome was escalating communal riots, and the rise of fundamentalist groupings that ultimately entangled Sri Lanka in separatist and jihadists currents.
Peaceful protests and civil disobedience of Tamil leaders against the Sinhala Only policy and the economic competition between the two communities preceded the riots against Tamils in the south in 1958. Those riots were initiated with the backing of the SLFP led government. Since then, almost every decade there were riots against Tamils in the south resulting in the Sinhalese being attacked in the north. The July 1983 pogrom against Tamils launched by the then UNP regime, and the subsequent war of two and a half decades, ended up causing massive casualties to life, property and economy. The latest was the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 carried out by Islamic fundamentalists that brought devastation to many, particularly to those of the Christian faith. These incidents are well-known, and we need not go into details.
Most of these incidents were the result of manufactured communalism by the political parties who have been in power for the last seventy odd years. Divisive politics are employed by almost all political parties who had been in power and who want to maintain or acquire power. Uneven development, class divisions, poverty and unemployment have aggravated insecurity among the working people and the rest of the society, making them vulnerable to political manipulation. All major political parties driven by political considerations, and guided by their vested interests, have taken decisions promoting communal violence. The ongoing economic competition between people of diverse ethnicities and faiths, particularly among lower middle and middle class strata, has fuelled communalistic ideologies.
Social media has become a dominant medium of spreading messages for creating communal tension and riots in any part of the country. In addition, some media outlets and political establishments are polarising society along ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural lines. Many media outlets play a devious role often by sensationalising and disseminating rumours as “news”, thus creating and arousing further tension and clashes between rival communalistic groups. Relative deprivation among all communities is caused by failure to adopt scientific and technological education, and therefore, their insufficient representation in the private and public employment market.
Lack of law and order
Lack of inter-personal trust and mutual understanding between diverse communities often result in negative perceptions of threat, harassment, fear and danger from one community to the other, which in turn leads to hatred, tensions and ultimately to riots. One of the causes for communalistic violence is the failure of law and security enforcement agencies, as they themselves are influenced by communalistic political ideologies. They have become onlookers and/or instigators of violence abetting the intent of their political masters. Ignoring the rule of law and accountability has been an ongoing cause of communal violence during the last seventy odd years, but not a single regime of green, blue or red political hue has taken any effective measures to rectify this situation. Instead regimes have granted them more immunity to commit such violence with impunity.
If the author were genuinely concerned with the cancer of communalism then he could start by introducing reforms to the existing criminal justice system to have speedy trials, with arrangements to provide adequate compensation to the victims. There are also several other measures that he could use to deter communalism, such as:
* Revamping educational discourse to focus on values of peace, non-violence, compassion, secularism and humanism, and developing scientific attitudes and rationalism as core values in children at all levels of the education system
* Increasing representation of non-majority communities in all sectors of law enforcement, and providing specialised training for the police to handle communal riots
* Training law enforcement forces on the importance of protecting human rights and enacting basic principles on the use of force and firearms, as provided in the UN code of conduct
* Setting up special investigating and prosecuting agencies that may assist damping major communal discontent, and establishing hotlines to receive complaints and inquiries on racial discrimination
* Using early warning systems for alerting racial tensions and violence that monitor quality of life index (utilising criteria such as housing, health, income and education), and an index to perceive people’s needs and feelings about race relations in specific areas
* Encouraging and supporting civil society projects to create communal awareness, build stronger community relations, and cultivate values of communal harmony
* Establishing community relation units to promote harmony between diverse races and faiths, and conduct community awareness sessions on diverse cultural traditions and anti-discrimination frameworks
* Adopting pro-active approaches for promoting communal harmony, enacting legislation that would help curbing communal violence and then genuinely implementing them.
We forcefully drove the non-majoritarian communities to become inwardly focussed and communalistic, to look after and fight for their community’s specific interests only. Ultimately, we forced them to become outsiders and turned them into our enemies. State suppressed them using every means adoptable, including armed violence, killing many thousands with impunity, like it did in the south in 1971 and 1989 against the Sinhala youth who rose up against injustices of the communalistic minded and discriminatory political parties and their leaderships.
How ironic that this very same author, who during the entire war consistently pledged to the international community to offer a ‘13 plus solution’ to address the issues affecting Tamil people, is now branding any devolution of power as communalistic? Dismissing constitutional amendments as communalistic is patently untrue, and a distortion of facts. What we need to do is to adopt constitutional provisions to curb discrimination not only against other racial and religious groups, but also against the Sinhala speaking rural people in the south. That will assure them that treating others and equals and being treated as equals would bring everybody respect and dignity.
Let us not get distracted by this naked attempt to grab political power. If it succeeds it will leave us in an even more perilous state politically, economically and communally. It is high time that the voters of Sri Lanka think of the lack of foresight, direction and leadership of the communalistic political parties that have been in power for the last seven decades, and use their votes wisely to get rid of the corrupt and criminal elements who are solely interested in capturing and maintaining power to safeguard their privileges and interests at a huge cost to the people of Sri Lanka.
Then only we can work towards building a saner, safer, and harmonious country in which all communities could survive and, future generations prosper!