By Lukman Harees –
“You fight for your rights when your rights are being denied. When the building is on fire, you don’t stand by and let the building burn down and say we’ll fight the fire another day.” – Richard Gilbert
It is indeed a healthy sign that at least the intellectual sections and civic leadership of the Muslim community in particular are now slowly but surely awakening to the fact that Muslims can no longer afford to live solely on the sympathy and goodwill of the rulers, and further relying on certain political personalities to safeguard or win their rights is just a futile exercise and not a long term solution. This stark reality and their imperative need to lead the community to come out of the ‘victim-minority’ mentality and think and act as equal citizens may well and truly would have been catalysed by the bitter experiences of the replay of the ‘dark days’ of the Post-war MR era , in an increased tempo in recent times, even after a regime change in January 2015 which promised a ‘Yahapalanaya’ and fair treatment to all communities. Perhaps this regime change is proving to be a case of changing the pillow to cure a headache’( to borrow a Sinhala adage). However, how the ‘Presidential candidate’ Sirisena boldly made assertions then to be a leader for all communities and how two years later as ‘President’ appear to be meekly submitting to the diabolical plans of the racist lobby to ‘govern’ the country as they deemed fit, are nothing surprising if only the trends of governance in Post- Independence Sri Lanka are closely studied!
Muslims/ Moors in their history of more than 1000 years, majority of whom live outside N&E Sri Lanka, have found Sinhala people great and tolerant and have found them much amicable to live with and there have been no major issues in such regard at the grass-root level. However, many scholars have argued that ironically, the competition among the Sinhala ruling classes, for acquiring state resources and political capital, sadly turned nationalism into the ruling ideology and the state ideology of Sri Lanka, while the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in post-independent Sri Lanka bear much responsibility for today’s ethnic conflicts between the majority Sinhalese state and the minorities. Nira Wickramasinghe, an author in history (2006) says that ‘the three Constitutions of post- independence Sri Lanka, helped demarcate and define a majority from within the citizens pitting them against non- Buddhists and non- Sinhala speaking minority communities…(placing) minorities in a somewhat dependent and subaltern situation’.
B.H. Farmer, a distinguished geographer, ‘Ceylon –A Divided Nation’ in 1963 referring to the times which followed after Independence, too wrote : ‘’…Since those saddening days of 1958 Ceylon has had its share of trouble…..The truth, though unpalatable may be to some, is simply that nobody unacceptable to the present Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has any chance of constitutional power in contemporary Ceylon.”. The ‘Mad Monk phenomenon’ (as Journalist C A Chandraprema once put it) being witnessed today is an extension of this strategy. This explains why despite the many historic opportunities, –one at the Independence and one recently after the end of the War – Sri Lankan ruling class appear to be still dishing out the same bag of garbage to the minorities and acting as if they are just ‘Karapincha’ and pawns in their power seeking games. Non implementation of the relevant LLRC recommendations and lack of a coherent strategy to resolve the national ethnic problem even after 8 years of the end to the War under two regimes also prove this point succinctly. Muslims of Sri Lanka in particular, with their traditional commercial mind-set, should therefore cease to be used as pushovers or punch-bags anymore ,relying merely on the magnanimity of the government in power and taking some political leaders as their champions to ensure their survival and progress.
It is therefore imperative for the minorities in general and Muslims in particular to realize even at this late stage that; regime changes with whatever promises or catchphrases will only remain just cosmetic and will not change the status quo , until qualitative changes happen at the root of the very essence and nature of politics and governance in Sri Lanka. When the Muslim community underwent immense suffering in the hands of BBS goons and their likes in the Post-War period, they continued to appeal to the magnanimity of the King ‘Mahinda’ and Prince Gota to stop the hate campaign and ensure justice. But, keen observers knew that these hate machinations were but their own majoritarian chauvinist supremacist strategies to further their ulterior ends. This writer had a recent opportunity to attend a meeting in Colombo, convened by a section of Muslim civic leadership in December 2016 with Minister Rajitha Senaratna, who is known to be a balanced and non-racist politician, to address the security issues faced by the community. This meeting too ended in just glib talk with Rajitha giving a false sense of hope and security asserting that he will fill in the void in the absence of active Muslim political leadership, to act as the ‘champion’ of Muslim rights, which received a round of applause from the audience.
This docile approach of the Muslim community is clearly been proving futile , in the light of the recent developments. When some influential sections of the hierarchy of the government are rumoured to boldly provide refuge to the fugitive hate monk who continues to give leadership to the well-orchestrated hate campaign against the Muslims in an increased tempo and scale, and the country has been witnessing the most farcical judicial and law enforcement drama ever enacted farce in letting this Wirathu-equivalent to play hide and seek with the arm of law, I wonder where this type of champions are. It is a matter of extreme concern that the government appears to have abdicated its’ role as the guardian of constitutional basic rights, judging by this spate of ‘Islamophobic’ hate attacks continuing without fear or sanction despite outcries from the professional bodies like BASL, recent ‘strong representations’ from the Muslim political leaders across the political spectrum and the international community too. Same wine in new bottles, aren’t they? And so much for the ‘empty’ constitutional safeguards to ensure fair-play and the rule of law!
Sri Lanka suffers currently from growing ethnic tension fed by the denial of minority rights and the absence of power sharing. But, a mere constitution itself, however great it may be ,will not be of any viable use, if those in power chose to ignore its’ nuances and spirit. Lord Soulbury too, in 1963 admitted this fact with regard to Constitution he spearheaded , thus: ‘As Sir Charles Jeffries has put it… ‘the Soulbury Constitution… had entrenched in it all the protective provisions for minorities that the wit of man could devise’.. Nevertheless, in the light of later happenings, I now think it is a pity the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the Constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights… (However)… the reconciliation … will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.”
In fact, hate mongers used to portray the defeat of the Tigers as the military victory over the Tamils, and triumphant Buddhist-Sinhalese hate groups on the extreme right found a fresh target for xenophobia in the Muslim community. ‘The end of the war in 2009 offered an opportunity for the strongly centralised state to recognise the multi-ethnic and poly-religious character of the country and to overcome the confinement of nation building projects to the Sinhala nation. The ethno-nationalist war turned the Muslims into a community ‘in between’, sandwiched between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese military with both Tamil and Sinhala political elites displaying a strong tendency to exclude Muslims’ (McGilvray & Raheem 2007: ix).
The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict then was often regarded as a two-way contest between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, ignoring the interests and concerns of the island’s 10 percent Muslim minority. A narrow Sinhala vs. Tamil mindset, and a complex set of sociological and political factors within the Muslim community, limited the direct participation of the Muslims even in the peace process at that time. My friend, senior journalist Latheef Farook clearly shows in his many well-written publications that Muslims indeed are a forgotten community caught in the crossfire and taken for granted with impunity by subsequent regimes.
It is therefore time opportune that Muslims shed their victim ‘minority’ mentality and begin to think, act and claim their due place as equal citizens whose rights to practice their religion and culture are enshrined in the Constitution, while adopting a reconciliatory ‘common interest’ approach along with the progressive sections of the Sinhala community who form the majority to take this country forward. The Muslim intellectuals should join forces with their equals in other communities to combat the common thinking being sown by these hate groups not just among the majority population but also among the Muslim community too, that they are subservient crows, parasites or subsidiary crops; in fact, collective conscience of the community has already been programmed to such effect not just by these hate lobbies, but sadly by the docile approach of their leaders too. Muslims particularly living in South should convince their Sinhala neighbours in word and deed that that they are ready to be equal partners in progress and live as Muslims of Sri Lanka rather than Muslims in Sri Lanka, for both communities share a common destiny.
If the future generation of Muslims and minorities are to live in a Sri Lanka as equal, dignified citizens, then the mind-set of the present generation of leaders should change. The rights of minorities to be considered as equals can only be achieved if the leaders infuse a sense of self-respect, specially in the young ones without making them cow down to the machinations of these nationalist majoritarian forces. They should be taken out of the minority inferiority mind-set and taught to be proud of their history and their worthy contributions to this country , so that the minorities will start to demand what is due to us as a matter of right and not bow down before the government in power as if they are favours in return for their votes. It is just wishful thinking that Muslim community interests will be seriously looked at , by the governments appeasing the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, if they do not stand up and be counted. Social observers in fact opine that one of the gravest follies the Muslims did was to take a back seat expecting their right under the sunny Sri Lanka to be a given and not speak effectively on behalf of the just aspirations of their Tamil brethren. This reminds me of the poem written by German theologian Martin Neimoller who wrote about the dangers of the silence of bystanders in the face of Hitler’s oppression.
It is true that Muslims have shown and should continue to show, an amazing sense of restraint and patience in the midst of these well- orchestrated campaign to provoke them into rash action and to tarnish their image. However, that alone is not sufficient. The present Muslim political and religious leadership should either reform or leave to pave way for budding youth with new thinking , in order to avoid putting the community back to sleep saying sheepishly that action has now been taken to stop the hate campaigns. What is the guarantee that there will not be a repeat July 1983 or June 2014 with a government using these mad monks as pawns to instigate the peaceful Sinhala people against them? Obviously, non-violence forms of struggle should be the way forward . Quran clearly warns them that God will not change the condition of a people unless they take measures to initiate those changes.
These dogs of hate roaming about in the name of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, should be leashed and confronted without allowing them to eat into the dignity and self-respect of the minorities. Towards this goal, the approach of the present Muslim political leadership to appease the government and to compromise the community interests for petty or for short term gains and develop cowardly attitudes should stop and build self confidence in the community and ability to create an environment where they can live as equal ,dignified citizens. Otherwise the many constitutional guarantees will only remain in paper, if the government is not kept on their toes, is not held to account on this count and if the Muslim community do not assert themselves in the political, social, and public domain to show that minorities are not pushovers and it is the obligation of the government to protect their rights to practice their religion and culture, which are also human rights under UDHR.