By Mohamed Harees –
“Independence without responsibility is barbarism.” – Abhijit Naskar, Citizens of Peace: Beyond the Savagery of Sovereignty
Of course, 4th February is a memorable day in Sri Lankan history, as it is the day, when (then) Ceylon won the independence from the stranglehold of British. The suppressed Sri Lankan Flag received its due respect and the sacrifices of many people got the meaning. After all, political leaders of all communities practically chipped in, to make it a reality. Harry Rubenstein, a curator of American politics at the Smithsonian Institution, says that Independence Day celebrates those very ideals of democracy, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and is for anyone who finds faith in the words “all men are created equal”. However, over the years, in the Sri Lankan context, these ideals and the equality of all were conveniently forgotten by a short sighted leadership, making the commemoration of an Independence Day on an annual basis, a mockery and a hypocrisy. Sometime back, when an African friend was asked: “When do you celebrate your Independence Day?”, he, without hesitation or bitterness, said: “We don’t celebrate our Independence Day… it is meaningless”. Although I then found it difficult to digest his answer, I however did so, when I tried to reflect on the Independence fallacy focusing my attention to Sri Lanka.
Yes! Although Independence remains a sacred and an emotive concept, it remains a poorly understood one to numerous people. During every Independence Day celebrations, national and local political leaders in the tongue in the cheek fashion engage in national events and other symbolic functions as the nation get suffocated by its’ own un-doings. They hoist and wave the national flags while the very lofty ideals like equality, justice and fair-play symbolized in them are being blatantly desecrated. Thus, it is apt to ponder on ‘to what extent has this D day in history become a turning point in the lives of its populace? Has it been of any good for them yearning for an inclusive and socially just country where all of them can live and reap its’ fruits of progress as equal citizens after this so-called Independence? Are we then waving the national flag, away from the unity and meaning, its colours and symbols depicted?
Usually, people come to see Independence as an essential marker of our ‘Lankan-ness’. Ceylon Independence Day is depicted as a milestone separating two periods: the colonial era of oppression and impoverishment AND the independence era of freedom and ‘our brand of progress’. Further, through subtle and not so subtle indoctrination, we have been taught over the years, to indivisibly connect Independence day, with the way we think about ourselves so much, so that our own concept of our Lankan –ness can only be understood only in relation to colonialism, the struggle against colonialism and eventual independence. Thus, after more than seven decades of Independence, our identity became inextricably linked to our Independence.
Reality of the matter that for many Sri Lankans, the brand of politics which replaced the colonisers has been far worse, which makes many Sri Lankan to question the very concept of Independence thrust on them. They believe that many Brown Saahibs with Western mentality replaced the colonisers after independence. Today, as the social media exposed, even the national flags which the people proudly wave, are made in China. The reality is that Sri Lanka is not yet independent to stand on its’ own, being compelled to work particularly to Western and now to Chinese / Indian agenda and interests ,which nations have taken undue advantage from the vulnerability of this Island nation. Post war politicians have virtually sold pieces on the Land to foreign masters. Both India and China are locked in a battle to ‘own’ Sri Lanka, while the adventurous West is also watching closely for a stake in the Island.
On the whole, to our utter disappointment, even after seven decades, so-called ‘Independence’ does not appear to have brought socio-political freedom or economic progress; only disaster after disaster in these areas. There is a poignant lament expressed by writers and analysts about the collapse of the vision of equality and prosperity which inspired the Independence struggle. Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim leaders then stood together and look forward to a day , when the “dream of harmony and equality” will come true (Dr.Martin Luther King language) where sister communities will see others, not as “strangers” but as neighbours, in the truth of our common dignity as members of common human family. However, as time progressed, it was crystal clear that the reality was different, and there was a need to question the validity of the Independence Day and expose its’ cultural, political and psychological underpinnings and associations as false. Yet, this falsehood has been maintained year after year over the Post- Independence period in our history.
What happened after Independence in 1948? Immediately, the regime then, proceeded to deprive the citizenship of the Estate Tamils. The 1956 Government of SWRD enacted the ‘Sinhala Only’ Law which deprived the Tamil speaking population of their right to use their mother tongue in day to day activities. Many Pacts with the Tamils were abrogated due to the pressure from extremist groups. The grievances of the Tamils were not duly redressed which led to a section of their youth taking up arms. The disoriented Sinhala youth also rose up in 1971 and 1980s against the apathy of the governments towards their genuine grievances. The draconian laws like PTAs and even ICCPR laws were used to stifle political opposition. Impunity reigned high and rule of law broke down. Muslims after the end of the war become the target of the political opportunists to stay in and gain power. Today, Muslims are being used as political footballs and bogeymen to divert the attention of the people away from the inefficiency of the present government to tackle burning economic and social issues. In this context, Isn’t commemoration of an Independence Day a joke? As the national leaders hypocritically hasten to stress their ‘resolve’ and their commitment to national reconciliation and Lankan-ness, the governments of the day, have been violating them with impunity using racism as a tool to achieve power.
It was a shame that rulers exploited the blind triumphalism which set off after the end of the war in 2009, and the rising emotions among the people, to whip up hatred towards the ‘Other’ . Muslims became the bogeyman and fault lines widened based on ethnic and religious lines. Both the Tamil and Muslims communities were made to feel like aliens. Encouraging divisive language and ‘us: them’ narratives like ‘ You are visitors and we are the true sons of the soil’, led to a vicious circle, leading these minority communities being made to feel like second class citizens. Qadri Ismail in a paper (2014) titled on ‘(Not) Knowing One’s Place’ refers ‘Once upon a time, my mother told me this was not my country. Keep in mind a mother, a figure of authority, speaks to a child –iterates (repeats with a difference)-a cardinal assertion of Sinhala nationalism: Sri Lanka belongs not to all its citizens equally, but essentially to the Sinhalese, the majority.. In so doing, she effectively spoke for Sinhala nationalism’. Thus, younger generations of these communities were therefore made to grow up thinking and acting as guests and NOT as ‘sons of the Sri Lankan soil’.
The country, today remains deeply divided along communal lines, chronically corrupt official machinery, economically inefficient, heavily debt laden ( substantially debt laden to the Chinese), with leaders displaying political ‘clownism’, and country being subjected to international ridicule due to its’ swerving foreign policies. The national leaders who ruled Post- Independence Sri Lanka has not acted as national leaders. From SWRD’s lop sided Sinhala only policy, JRJ’s authoritarian rule, MR’s family led corrupt and racist based regime to Sirisena’s utter inept and clownish Presidency followed by Yahapalana fallacy, culminating in Gotabaya’s majoritarian regime, Sri Lanka has been a sad victim of short termism and opportunism. Minority parties too have not have had the benefit of pragmatic and far sighted leaders. Today, it is the case of ‘schadenfreude nationalism’ gone wild (schadenfreude means ‘pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune). The reference to ‘69 Lakhs’ is constantly being used to alienate and hurt the feelings of the minorities. Given this racial dynamic that still exists in this country today , how can the minorities celebrate a holiday that accentuates their perceived inferiority in the eyes of the majority? No one feels inclusive – majority or minority!
Currently, the world looks at Sri Lanka as a pariah state with no regard and respect for the rights of the smaller communities and accountability. UN says that Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations. Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The Report says ‘Government security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists. Minority Muslim and Tamil communities have faced discrimination and threats. The government pushed through passage of a constitutional amendment that undermines judicial independence and weakens oversight institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka’. After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government did little to address false accusations on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus and calls to boycott Muslim businesses. In March, the government began requiring cremation of all Covid-19 victims, disregarding Islamic tradition, though cremation was not required for public health. Four UN human rights experts criticized these requirements as violating religious freedom.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, accused the government of using Covid-19 to stifle freedom of expression after the authorities threatened to arrest anyone who “criticized” its handling of the pandemic. The pandemic has compounded socio-economic tensions rooted in ethnoreligious differences. As economic conditions worsen and the Rajapaksa regime’s popularity tanks, the President and his hyper-nationalist entourage appears to be tempted to whip up ethnoreligious mayhem to mask the political blowback from COVID-19. Tamils are unable to remember their dead, Muslims unable to bury their Covid dead, and Christians unable to receive justice for their dead, despite many ‘phony’ investigations to find the real culprits. The government’s stubborn refusal to accommodate Muslim sentiment has nothing to do with science, given that the World Health Organization endorses the burial of Covid-19 victims.
S.J. Thambiah, in his lucidly written book, “Sri Lanka–Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy”, says: A Small Island of many people, whose political machinery is running down in an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism. The hopes of yesterday…have (thus) become fast evaporating fantasies’. Thus, even as many colonised nations in our neighbourhood showing sure signs of advancement, Sri Lanka sadly has been woefully lagging behind. As a ‘free’ (Oops! wrong word!) nation, 73 years after gaining Independence, we have failed in no uncertain terms to build our nation and progress in qualitative terms – to build a sense of common identity and a sense of unity. Majoritarian attitudes in statecraft, inability to accept the multi-cultural, multi-lingual reality of our nation and lack of political commitment in creating ‘Sri-Lankan-ness’ in our people have thus paved the way to the continuance of an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism since Independence. As author Neil DeVotta says, ‘Sri Lanka thus represents a classic case of how ethnocentrism can undermine democratic institutions and of the long-term negative consequences’.
As DeVotta also says, ‘the communal trajectory that post-independence Sri Lanka adopted has emboldened ..nationalists, whose longstanding zeitgeist is in the attendant belief that majority domination and minority subjugation is fully justified’. In the process, as in several countries around the world, Sri Lanka too is witnessing the phenomenon of the majority community feeling irrationally threatened by minorities. Appadurai in ‘Fear of Small Numbers’ describes how by exacerbating the inequalities produced by globalization, the volatile, slippery relationship between majorities and minorities in nation States, foments the desire to eradicate cultural difference. The reality in Sri Lanka thus is that promoting policies supporting pluralism, will only take place in ways that will assure the majority, and dispelling their fears about the minorities.
Dispassionate and unbiased governance is a hallmark of democracy. Good news though is that history shows that reconciliation is quite possible even in the most challenging situations. However, each society must find its own path, with successful reconciliation processes bringing together alienated communities and re-establish the confidence of citizens, and make them feel as equal citizens enjoying their religious and cultural rights. People of all races in Post-independence Sri Lanka, should feel inclusive and cannot wait any longer to reap the benefits of peace and prosperity. Only then, the Independence will become meaningful. Otherwise, Independence will remain meaningless and its commemoration, a mockery as well as a hypocrisy in the minds of our people.