By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“What we must pursue…is not a competitive bruising arena for the claims of ideology or religion, but an open marketplace for both ideas and faiths.”
Wole Soyinka (Convocation Address, Wake Forest University – 1999)
July 2016 could have become a very small-scale reproduction of July 1983, attacks and counterattacks, panicky actions and fear-filled reactions, hysteria, mayhem and some murder. It didn’t because this July the lunatic fringe was not bestriding the politico-societal mainstream, calling the shots, firing the shots.
Pastor John Hagee, an American evangelical preacher decried Rock and Roll as “Satanic Cyanide” and condemned Harry Potter books for “opening the gates of your mind to the Prince of Darkness”[i].
The BJP student union thrashed the Head of the History Department at Delhi University for including a critical essay on Ramayana by AK Ramanujan[ii] in the BA (Hons) curriculum; they said the essay offended Hindu sensibilities.
A group of Islamist lawyers in Egypt tried to get the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights banned for promoting ‘sin’[iii].
Buddhists extremists in Sri Lanka attacked a workshop for ‘the crime of promoting atheism’, even though atheism is a crime only in fundamentalist countries like Saudi Arabia.
The lunatic fringe will always be with us. So long as they are kept in the fringe, so long as they are not allowed to decide policies or to take the law into their hands, the harm they can do it limited.
The problem is when the lunatic fringe overrides the mainstream and tries to or does take power.
Like Donald Trump or Mahinda Rajapaksa; the IS or the LTTE.
Had the Rajapaksas been in power this July, the army would have been sent to the University of Jaffna over the recent clash and a hysterical campaign against ‘LTTE resurgence’ launched island-wide with imprisonments and abductions galore. In stark and welcoming contrast, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s response to the clash was characterised by moderation and sense. In this the government was aided by the TNA’s own praiseworthy moderation (the JVP too abjured immoderation). The issue was treated as a law and order problem, the head of the students association which allegedly launched the attack was arrested and released on bail and attempts by the Joint Opposition and the JHU to benefit from the clash nipped smartly in the bud.
Unhealed Societies; Unfree Universities
In his Nobel Lecture, Irish poet Seamus Heaney referred to ‘wounded spots on the face of earth’. Sri Lanka is such a place. With the LTTE defeated and the Rajapaksas gone, Sri Lanka has a chance to heal old wounds and not create new ones.
Racism is not the birthright of any one race. It is a mental virus which can affect every ethnic community.
The clash over a dance item in the Jaffna University was not a Tiger conspiracy or even a sign of Tiger resurgence, let alone the first salvo of another war. But it is equally specious to insist that racism had no hand in the affair. Racism was an ingredient, though not the only one, of the motley cocktail which made that deplorable incident possible.
The Alumni Association of the University of Peradeniya planned to stage Kaushalya Fernando’s drama ‘Dutu Thena Allanu’, an adaptation of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi at the Ediriweera Sarachchandra Open Air Theatre (the legendary Wala) on July 12th. Opera Woyonsi, a humorous social commentary about African dictatorships, couldn’t be staged at Peradeniya because a group of university students – who presumably have never heard of Wole Soyinka – objected, excoriating the play as morally and culturally opprobrious. Had this act of moral policing been opposed by another group of students, a clash would have definitely ensued, with several hospitalisations.
What happened in the University of Jaffna was something fairly similar, made more contentious by the added factor of racism. Taken together, the two incidents demonstrate a disturbing truth about Lankan universities; our centres of higher education are – and have been for a long time – far more unfree, undemocratic, uncivilised and intolerant than the society in general.
Lankan university students are less willing to accept difference and less capable of settling differences peacefully, through negotiations and compromise than Lankan citizens in general. Violent clashes are far more of a norm in Lankan universities than they are in the country as a whole (to mention just one recent example, on July 7th, two groups in the University of Peradeniya Science Faculty clashed during an anti-dengue campaign, resulting in the hospitalisation of ten students.) Lankan universities are – and have been for decades – the breeding ground of extremism, retrogression, obscurantism and violent intolerance.
When Philip Pullman’s provocatively titled book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, hit the bookstands, it provoked many to comment, including Dr.Rowan Willamas, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. No, the prelate did not scream ‘heresy’, nor accuse Pullman of denigrating Christianity nor demand the immediate banning of the book. Instead he penned an interesting critique of the book, conceding a point here, disputing a point there, and concluding by reiterating his unaltered belief in the superiority and relevance of the New Testament.
That is how differences and controversies should be conducted in civilised societies.
Imagine a book supportive of Buddha but critical of Buddhism as a religion, even sans such a provocative title as Pullman’s being published in Sri Lanka. The author would be stoned (if not worse) and the book will be burnt. Actually no Sri Lankan publisher will touch such a book and the state will not permit its importation. Instead of reasoned debate, there will be invective, screechy and fuming; and violence.
Lankan universities should have been places where diverse and antithetical beliefs and cultures could have had civilised encounters, places where controversial ideas could have been discussed and debated. Unfortunately nativism and religio-cultural purism are greater menaces within the Lankan university system than in Lankan society. Take for instance the attempts by some seniors in the Kelaniya University to impose a dress code on newcomers as part of the ragging. The girls were banned from wearing trousers. The senior-student authors of this ban probably consider trousers to be a Western product, proudly ignorant of the fact that the oldest known trousers were found in Asia, in an ancient Chinese cemetery[iv].
So moral policing is alive and well in Lankan universities, with a minority of students deciding, according to their limited knowledge, mean intelligence and narrow vision, what sort of conduct, music, dance, cuisine, dress, art, science, education, health and living is acceptable or not.
Ignorant and Proud – this seems to be the common motto of universities of Sri Lanka.
There are no pure races/religions/cultures; every race/religion/culture has been shaped and changed by cross-pollination. We are all racial, linguistic, religious and cultural mongrels and fortunately so. It is this reality the ignorant cohorts calling the shots in Lankan universities are trying to deny, from North to South.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is only marginally better than its Rajapaksa predecessor when it comes to corruption, nepotism and venality. But in one important respect, the new leaders are a decided and a very substantial improvement on the Rajapaksas – they are not racist.
Under Rajapaksa rule, religio-cultural differences were turned into political problems and every little incident of racial/religious disharmony turned into an existential crisis. Issues were manufactured, when none existed. The best case in point is the anti-Halal campaign conducted by the BBS with toxic ferocity. The anti-Halal appeared from nowhere, occupied the centre stage and vanished, all in just three months.
The campaign to terrify the minorities into submission and forcibly weld them into a Sinhala-led nation ended on January 9th. That political transformation saved Sri Lanka’s mad rush into new conflicts, including with her Muslims (we would have become a target of the IS by now, had the Rajapaksas been in power).
The Jaffna students who opposed the inclusion of a Kandyan dance item form the Tamil mirror images of those Sinhala extremists who advocated Sinhala Only in 1956 and screamed from rooftops against singing the National Anthem in Tamil in 2016. They are ideologically related to the LTTE, the Bodu Bala Sena types and those Wahabit extremists who attack religious places of non-Wahabi Muslims, such as the destruction of a 150 year old Sufi shrine in Ukuwela in 2009[v]. Sinhala or Tamil, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Islamic, these extremists are united in their abhorrence of moderation and compromise and their fidelity to the belief that “….anyone who dresses or speaks differently is not simply a different person, but a different animal from a different sty with whom there can be no accommodation, and who must be hated and hounded out”[vi].
Extremism and fundamentalism do well in times of economic crises or socio-political upheavals, because they provide the illusion of a straight-line way out for those who are conflicted and confused by complex realities and incapable of dealing with facts. Democracies must not outlaw them. They should be allowed to have their say but never to have their way, so that the havoc they can wreak is severely constrained. The multi-pronged and many-layered battle against extremism of every type is not a digression from the struggle for democracy, peace and humane development but an essential component of it.
The triumph of extremism over moderation, especially of racial and religious variety, is rarely a spontaneous phenomenon. More often than not, it is a top-down process, driven by megalomanic politicians who see in racial/religious extremism an ideal tool to achieve/safeguard power by controlling the masses. Where political leaders play an enabling role, the harm that extremism does increases exponentially; where political leaders abjure pyromania, the spark of extremism remains a spark without turning into an all consuming inferno.
Racism is alive and well, both in the South and the North of Sri Lanka. But it is not in control, it is no longer commanding the fate of the Lankan nation and it is not above criticism. The memories of that other July, when racism took control and turned the pearl of the Indian Ocean into a charnel house, are a sharp reminder of the need to keep the lunatic fringe firmly in the fringe.
[ii] Three Hundred Ramayans: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.
[iii] Fortunately Egyptian intellectuals successfully fought against this inanely bigoted demand http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/05/05/107772.html
[vi] Victor Klemperer – The Language of the Third Reich