By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“This is exactly what DJ is subtly doing in Sri Lanka today. Gnanasara is culpable, but Asgiriya escapes.”-Prof Laksiri Fernando
The operative passages of Prof Laksiri Fernando’s critique of my recent writing are as follows:
“When ‘incitement’ is linked only to violence, Islamophobia escapes. This is exactly what DJ is subtly doing in Sri Lanka today. Gnanasara is culpable, but Asgiriya escapes. To fudge the whole effort, he also defends all other extremists including himself. The following statement epitomize his ideology or enterprise.
‘It is with this experience and achievement that I make the point that what we should focus upon is not Sinhala and Tamil racism, chauvinism or extremism, but precisely and specifically the incitement to violence, i.e. the rousing of mob violence or individual attacks.’
To him, Sinhala racism, Tamil racism, chauvinism and extremism are all fine, what is wrong (or should focus upon) is only incitement to violence and rousing mob violence. He cannot understand the connection. He cannot or pretend not to understand the cause and effect, or the root causes behind violence and incitement to violence.”
To my critic’s charge that according to my argumentation “Gnanasara is culpable, but Asgiriya escapes” my short, spontaneous answer is: What’s your alternative? What is the opposite of Asgiriya “escaping”? Investigating and arrest the Asgiriya Mahanayaka who signed the statement?
Let us unpack this logically. If it is wrong for Gnanasara to be “culpable” and Asgiriya to “escape”, what is Prof Fernando really saying? That both Ven. Gnanasara and Asgiriya should “escape”? Obviously not. So it is that both Ven. Gnanasara and Asgiriya should be “culpable”. Culpable of what and culpable before what authority? I have suggested that Ven. Gnanasara can be found culpable before the existing law provided the issue of incitement to violence can be bracketed off. If the charges are broadened they are open to elasticity of interpretation, cannot be made to stick and would also be polarizing in a manner that is unfavorable to social stability. If the charges are narrowed to the most egregious offenses they can be made to stick.
If the suggestion is that both Ven Gnanasara and the hierarchs of the Asgiriya Chapter should be held culpable in a moral-ethical or ideological sense, it is one thing, but that means the law would not be brought to bear upon Ven. Gnanasara and his like. The alternative explanation is that the law, i.e. the state, should be brought to bear against the hierarchy of the Asgiriya chapter, including the Mahanayaka, on the basis of its statement.
Such a suggestion or implication indicates a serious loss of reason. It means state action against the apex of the Asgiriya Chapter, which is the kind of crass stupidity that even British colonialism never engaged in when it ruled most of the world. The British were careful to be seen to bow, if not bend the knee and tug the forelock, before the established Buddhist hierarchy.
No government of Ceylon or Sri Lanka has clashed head-on with either the Asgiriya or the Malwatte Chapters as a collective entity. Even the redoubtable JR Jayewardene limited himself to an exchange of letters with the Ven. Palipane Chandananda thero, combined with a strategy of cooptation. From the British onward, governments cracked down, coercively, legally or ideologically, only on individual monks, often rebellious mavericks or dissentient outliers, who did not have the imprimatur of the hierarchs, i.e. of the Sinhala Buddhist Establishment; the clerico-elite.
From the British Governors down to Yahapalana, the State power on this island has known that if it came to an open, frontal clash involving legal coercion, between itself and the Sinhala Buddhist establishment, it is the State power that would not prove sustainable.
Any attempt to hold the Asgiriya Establishment collectively “culpable” in a legal sense—which is the specific sense I suggested that Ven. Gnanasara and others can and should be held culpable—is a recipe for the kind of upheaval that can only result in a bloodbath. Can one even imagine the scene of senior monks being taken to courts? Curfew would have to be declared. Which Attorney-General would file a case against and which Court would actually indict a senior prelate or powerful ranking monk? The only agencies that can be deployed in a situation of mass protest involving large numbers of bhikkhus and laypersons, namely the Police, the STF and the armed forces, are composed of personnel who would not dare go against the Buddhist hierarchy (as distinct from campus activist monks) that they have as individuals and communities, have paid obeisance to for generations.
Any student of conflict, let alone author of teaching manuals of the subject, should know that a main principle is to separate the radicals or extremists from the mainstream. True, the Asgiriya statement does establish an ideological continuum of sorts with Ven. Gnanasara, but the fact is that Asgiriya is the mainstream, while the BBS is a lunatic fringe. If one can draw a distinction between the terrorist Tigers and the mainstream Tamil leadership which called them “our boys”, and still refuses to criticize them, their Fuhrer Prabhakaran, their war and their ideas, why cannot the same distinction be observed between the BBS and the mainstream Establishment of the Buddhism adhered to by 70% of this country’s populace? Do the Lankan liberals and liberal left (as represented by Prof Laksiri Fernando), wish to alienate, nay, to frontally confront, the deeply emotive ties of loyalty and affinity of 70% of this country? Do they want the Government, any Government, to do so? Do they think that any Government with a sense of basic self-preservation will?
Let us get real. Why do the Yahapalana (or ex-Yahapalana) liberals think that Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has gone out on a limb and taken the stance he has? He is not a member of the SLFP (pro-MR or MS) but precisely a ranking UNPer. He has done so because he senses that it is the Govt. and his party which is out on a limb. He has figured which way the wind is blowing, in society; in the public domain. He is shrewdly positioning himself as R. Premadasa did for decades—including during the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact and the resignation of M Tiruchelvam, as did DB Wijetunga– before he finally clinched the Presidency.
Why did Ven. Gnanasara waltz (or rapidly lumber) through the courts in one day? It was in the aftermath of the Asgiriya statement, but also indicated the power of that caucus on the State itself, under any administration, especially one that does not have the Sinhala nationalist credibility and legitimacy of the Mahinda Rajapaksa dispensation.
What I have sought to do is to square the circle. I have suggested a basis on which the state may identify and isolate the violence prone discourse and political behavior of the extreme and crack down on it legally, while retaining legitimacy within this society as it has historically evolved and is constituted. This cannot be achieved by insisting that the BBS and the Asgiriya Establishment be regarded, still less treated, on an equal footing.
Anyone (especially a political scientist) who advocates that Ven. Gnanasara and Asgiriya be both regarded as “culpable” and neither allowed to “escape” by the State should be sent back to a political science course on Machiavelli who emphasized the need for the ruler/s to be seen to respect the beliefs of the majority of the common people. Antonio Gramsci, who was jailed for decades and released just weeks before he died, by Italian fascism which was heavily backed by the Catholic Church, wrote extensively (even admiringly) about the Church, its cadre formation and its ideological hegemony, but never engaged in a frontal confrontation with it or its doctrine in his writings or recommended such a course to his readers and fellow Communists. This is because the Modern Prince, a collective vanguard, had also to learn from The Prince.
Prof Laksiri Fernando indulges in a dangerous quibble. Usually quibbling isn’t dangerous, but this one is. He faults me for suggesting a focus on “incitement” rather than hatred or extremism. His first move is to suggest that the UN Durban Review text of the Intergovernmental Working group I chaired, talked about incitement to hatred rather than incitement of violence. That’s not a debate worth getting into. What’s basic is the focus on incitement.
As Lenin emphasized, what is most important is “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation”. I used my Durban Review praxis to pin point a way out a dangerous situation we are in today, here, in Sri Lanka. Firstly I identified, as a responsible citizen who lives here, unlike Laksiri Fernando, an émigré, the main danger we face and must avoid. I identified that as the danger of ethnic/ethno-religious violence: of another 1983, 1958 or 1915. On the one hand we do nothing about those who incite violence against this or that collective, and on the other hand we hear proposals such as that of Prof. Fernando that we treat all forms of extremism and hate speech as we would incitement to violence. These are two extremes both of which are wrong and seriously counterproductive.
My recommended formula was based on my international experience. My contribution has been acknowledged as follows in the Report of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action’s Seventh Session, adopted by the UNHRC and presented at the UNGA, dated Feb 10th 2010.
“The Chief of the Rule of Law, Equality and Non-Discrimination Branch, OHCHR, Mona Rishmawi opened the first meeting of the seventh session on 5 October 2009. She noted that the meeting took place six months after the successful conclusion of the Durban Review Conference. A tribute was paid to the former Chairperson-Rapporteur Dayan Jayatilleka, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka, who guided the sixth session of the Working Group. Ms. Rishmawi pointed out that the outcome document of the Durban Review Conference contained important action points that open new horizons for States to act at the national, regional and international levels.”
We were caught in between two equally passionate contentions, of “defamation of religions/ Islamophobia” and “freedom of expression”. Several earlier chairpersons, the last being the Chilean ambassador, a veteran diplomat who dated back to the Allende presidency, had resigned because the deadlock was so heavy, wearisome, frustrating and stressful a personal experience. What the IWG under my chairpersonship and with the input of our expert, Special Rapporteur on Racism, Prof Doudou Dienne of Senegal did, was to shift the approach and its representative keyword to “incitement”.
Prof Fernando exults that I have omitted the terms “hatred” etc. My emphasis was on the main shift we made so as to effect a breakthrough—the adoption of the keyword “incitement”. I am attempting to adapt the lessons of the IWG to our situation in Sri Lanka today; not imitate it. What is crucial is the shift. Prof Fernando does not seem to know that the adoption of “incitement” derives from the legal concept of ‘incitement to national, racial and religious hatred, hostility and violence’ contained in Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (My underscore- DJ)
It is impossible to interpret “hostility” legally and for the State to act on it in today’s Sri Lanka without indicting people as diverse as the Asgiriya hierarchs, Azad Sally and Wigneswaran, which can trigger multiple agitations and riots in many parts of the island. But it is perfectly possible for the courts to engage in an evidence-based identification and indictment of “incitement to…violence”. Thus my suggestion that we shift to “incitement to violence” is not only perfectly in order, it is the only one that can prevent or punish violence without igniting mass violence which would make the original, offending episodes of violence (e.g. Aluthgama) look like a walk through Disneyworld.
As to Laksiri Fernando’s charge that I am proposing a return to “Rajapaksa family rule”, I wonder what he would have called Cuba during the leadership of Fidel and Raul Castro, or Sandinista Nicaragua under Daniel and Humberto Ortega (and now Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo).