By Izeth Hussain –
My shift of terminology from “submerged minority” to “invisible minority” represented a shift of focus from noting the objective fact of submergence to the process behind that submergence, the subjective process of failing to notice the plight of the submerged, a process of reducing them to invisibility. Orwell noted that all colonial empires are built on that strategy. It seems to me that that strategy applies also in the case of ethnic majorities and some ethnic minorities. It has certainly applied in the case of relations between the Sinhalese and the Muslims.
In a recent article I dealt with the anti-Muslim riots from 1976 to around 2002. The riots took place practically every year, and in every case the Muslims were the victims, but none of our Governments during that period of over a quarter century even acknowledge the ethnic dimension of the riots. The media consistently held that the riots were no more than fracas between thugs which had somehow ignited wider incidents, and were emphatic that there was no ethnic dimension to the riots, none whatever. The political Opposition was silent. So was the civil society, except that an isolated Muslim wrote articles about what was going on. Around 2001 MIRJE (Movement for inter-Racial Justice and Equality) produced an excellent report on the anti-Muslim riots, but I won’t be surprised if the inspiration for that came from abroad. The riots subsided, but there followed the Grease Yaka harassment of Muslim females and the abduction of Muslim businessmen for ransom. None of those developments troubled any of our Governments in the least bit. They were cocooned in the slumber of the just. The Muslims had been reduced to an invisible minority.
The change came after the anti-Muslim campaign of the BBS when the Muslims started acquiring visibility. Before dealing with that I will make some observations on what the Government had failed to do up to that time and the significance of that failure. After each of those riots Muslim political notables would visit the area and together with community leaders would try to patch things up, and the Government would undertake to provide compensation to the victims. But no action, none whatever, of a sort that would deter further riots was taken, or for that matter even envisaged. After the Hulftsdorp riots of December 1993 I wrote an article in which I pointed to what Lee Kuan Yew would have done if there had been comparable riots in Singapore. After the very first riot he would have got the people of the area to identify the thugs responsible for it, he would have brought them to brisk trial which would have been conducted without much scruple for the niceties of the law, and he would have hanged the whole lot of them. In consequence, there would have been no further ethnic riots in Singapore. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, action to deter further rioting was not even envisaged. One reason is that there had never been any attempt in Sri Lanka to build a multi-ethnic nation. Another is that Muslim politicians could be trusted not to be fussy over what was being done to their co-religionists. Therefore the Muslims could be safely treated as an invisible minority.
The change came with the BBS’ anti-Muslim campaign which catalyzed the Muslims into visibility. I believe that the reason, the only reason, behind that change was the threat of anti-Muslim violence on a mass scale. It was apparent that the racist Sinhalese state of the time was complicit with the BBS even to the horrifying extent of placing the BBS leaders above the law. There was every reason to suspect that another 1983 was in the offing – “Your turn next time” as the Tamils kept saying after 1983. It was evident that the strategy of boot-licking the Sinhalese power elite would not save the Muslims from mass massacre. In that situation something totally unexpected happened: Rauf Hakeem and some other Muslim politicians spoke up, and they spoke up courageously, for the Muslims against an anti-Muslim segment of the Sinhalese who evidently had state backing. They, in fact, went further in alerting the wider Islamic world to the danger facing the SL Muslims, showing a splendid contempt for possible contemptible charges of divided allegiances. We must also take into account the fact that the then political Opposition made no more than a few perfunctory noises against the BBS. However, the civil society showed a new dynamism in deploring the racism of the BBS, a sign of changing perceptions among the Sinhalese about Sinhalese racism.
I believe that it is the process of change set off by the threat of mass violence that has led to a new awakening about the plight of Muslim refugees from the North. Nothing is more convincing than their plight to show that the Muslims have been an invisible minority. For as long as a quarter century the plight of around a hundred thousand refugees scarcely figured in public discourse. What is horrifying is that during part of that time the plight of Tamil refugees got an immense amount of exposure both domestically and internationally. What is the explanation? Part of the explanation is that the dominant ethnic majorities don’t want their serene joy in power to be disturbed by the plight of ethnic minorities, who are therefore reduced to invisibility. They use the same strategy as the imperialists of yore towards the natives, as noted by Orwell. But, as I have noted earlier, invisibility has to have behind it the complicity of the representatives of the ethnic minorities. In Sri Lanka the Muslim politicians failed to speak up for the Muslim refugees for twenty five long years. That was consistent with their traditional role of representing the Sinhalese masters to the Muslims, not the Muslims to the Sinhalese masters.
The rise to visibility of the Muslims should be seen as part of a global revolutionary process. In the past we never heard of the indigenous Indios as a factor in the politics of Latin America. Today they produce revolutionary leaders such as Chavez and Evo Morales. All over the world the invisible will be rising to visibility. The basic factor behind the revolutionary process is that the aspirations to upward mobility will keep on growing while the possibility of upward mobility also keep on growing. Muslim relations with both the Sinhalese and the Tamils could worsen while economic rivalry keeps on increasing. What should be done? We need to do much rethinking about how to bring about some sense of unity in this deeply fragmented so-called Sri Lankan nation.