By Kumar David –
Here is a correspondence that is worth a wider readership than the few who have accessed it so far; for obvious reasons I do not give real names. The storyline goes like this. I was involved in a rather quarrelsome exchange with a friend of Engineering Faculty days who was a leftist; let’s call him/her Ratne. The issue of dispute was anti-Rohingya genocide against Muslims in Burma’s Rakine state. I was harshly critical of Burman Buddhists, the army, and I have not spared Aung San Suu Kyi either. Such critiques are standard fare in political circles. Ratne, no longer a leftist, retorted with a bout of ‘whataboutism’; what about the Christians, what about the British etc.
I then raised the matter with a few friends and one of them, Gamma, was alarmed about possible outbreaks against upcountry Tamils and a wider e-mail discussion followed. The next item is how I initiated the wider circulation and includes an extract of Gamma’s concerns. Then I reproduce the two principal responses.
My general e-mail including a quote from Gamma
From: Kumar David
Sent: Friday, 13 October 2017
To: Several leftists and liberals
Subject: Is this a credible scenario?
Dear Friends and Comrades,
I received the e-mail quoted below from a politically alert friend. The context is the Army cum Buddhist assault on Rohingiya Muslims. What Gamma is asking, at rock bottom, I think is: “Will there be a similar perhaps JO led movement directed against Tamils in the plantations?” Presumably in addition to continuing BBS instigated, widely encouraged, anti-Muslim campaigns.
His reference to “another” in the first line in the quote refers to Burma. Shameful support given to Burman anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing by a former the EFac leftist who is now a Buddhist extremist and corresponds with me supporting ethnic cleansing in Rakhine Province. He borrows anti-Muslim and anti-Christian parallels from the BBS. (“What about the Christians?” “What about colonial times?”).
The question I am asking is this: “Is it credible that the JO, BBS or other extremists may resort to anti plantation worker race-baiting rhetoric in SL?” I hope not; but what do you think?
An extract from Gamma follows.
“What are the lessons for us, another “Buddhist country”? Will a similar situation arise in the plantation sector (now pronounced dead) with devolution of power?
“I see this as a strong possibility from what is happening in the tea industry. Small-holders outperform the big plantations which are loss making according to some. I know personally small-holders thrive. Big plantations have a few exceptions, where productivity is high and labourers get paid double. That’s a grouse of the extremists.
“I feel this picture is a prelude to taking back the plantations and redistributing to the villagers. It will be a popular slogan and serve chauvinist political forces nicely
Two of the responses I received are worth sharing. They are analytical and predictive. On the whole the responses were not symphonic; they are what I call creative cacophony, in counterpoint, in varied keys. Here are the two important ones.
Response 1 from Velkhu
“In the plantations, the historic practices cannot continue anymore. Furthermore, they have connected with the external world.
“Now, there is a demand for land, education and housing. Already young people from the plantations are leaving the estates in droves and moving into urban areas searching for different kinds of jobs. They are not content with what the plantations have to offer.
“And, they are not willing to accept the old CWC leadership. The weakening of the CWC has created several political formations. Competition among this new breed of politicians is bound to sharpen and their presence will be felt in the national polity. They will be looking to use their clout through existing institutions to get more resources into their areas in order to improve condition in their base and ameliorate poverty.
“The world is also watching these historic inequities and encouraging the government to address them. More than anything else the government of India will not be a passive bystander. You remember in 1977 after Sinhala mobs attacked the plantations, India without even the courtesy of informing the Sri Lankan government, very publicly sent an envoy from Delhi in the guise of fact finding. Jayewardene could not do anything about it. Nowadays India is fairly active in the plantation sector. Modi made a special visit there underlying India’s special interest.
“Yes, there is some Hindutva activity in the plantations. This is by RSS type organisations against the Christians who are proselytizing the uneducated and poor among plantation workers. I believe, presently, such groups are working closely with organisations like the BBS.
“But as you say, when plantation workers are empowered and they take over Provincial Councils people will take notice. Further, when land is redistributed and houses are built for the plantation workers, Sinhala politicians can whip up the usual racist frenzy. I believe this is unlikely but not impossible. People have to be vigilant about such movements. Right now, the Rajapaksas are trying to mobilise a Sinhala Buddhist coalition using SAITM, land issues involving Hambantota Port and Airport etc. Spearheading anti Tamil and anti Muslim activities is unlikely to help them to power. Namal, without experience, may lead such activities, but they are vote losers; shouldn’t they have learnt their lessons by now?
“My conclusion is that it is possible that people like Namal in desperation, may try this route to power mobilising the disgruntled Sinhala poor. But they are aware of the forces arraigned against them. More than anything else, such moves will get serious responses from India and the international community.
But ultimately, it is a vote loser.
End of first response
Response 2 from: Jayasoma
“My own sense of racially/religiously motivated extremism and violence in Sri Lanka, is that it is rooted in fear. And this fear is usually based on a sense of being marginalised or dispossessed.
“A century ago, the antipathy towards the Coast Moors from India which led to the anti-Muslim riots of 1915, was based on the fear that they were exploiting the rural Sinhalese poor as well as eclipsing the nascent Pettah Sinhala trading class.
“Similarly, the campaign against the in-migration of Tamil plantation workers and urban (Tamil and Malayalee) workers in the first quarter of the twentieth century was the result of a fear. A fear that was fanned both by Goonasingha at one end of the political spectrum, and Bandaranaike and Jayewardene at the other end. The fear that the livelihood of the Kandyan peasantry, the urban Sinhala worker and the Pettah Sinhala trading class would be affected by Tamil plantation workers, Malayalee urban and white-collar workers and Indian Chettiar and Nadar traders. The Citizenship Laws and the expulsion of TRP-holders in the 60s were seen to rectify this.
“The post-1956 SLFP changes in language and university admission policies were aimed at the perceived disadvantage that the Sinhala middle class believed they were at vis-a-vis the English-speaking Burghers, Tamils and Christians. Victory in the Civil War and consolidation of a bipartisan Sinhala-Buddhist-first policy has addressed this perceived disadvantage.
“Therefore, perceptions among the majority have changed over time. For example, between 1960 and 2010 the perception of Ceylon Tamils in the eyes of the south changed from a privileged professional westernised class (a threat) to a marginalised dispossessed community (no longer a threat). With the north and its people needing the assistance of the state and the south to get by.
“As the perception of Ceylon Tamils, plantation Tamils, Burghers and Christians changed, so did the perception of the Moors. During the Civil War it was vital for the state to keep them onside for two reasons. First, they did not want a war on two fronts, second they needed Tamil-speaking Moors to man military intelligence and to win the war. (Lalith Athulathmudali told me in 1988 that he was using Moor teachers to provide Tamil language training to the military.)
‘The south had been made to believe that economic belt tightening was critical in order to win the war and that prosperity would follow on the morrow of victory. When this did not happen, and shows no sign of happening a decade later, it was necessary to create a new bogey, the Moors. The visible prosperity of Moors, who have always been a trading community, has made them a scapegoat for the perceived continuing economic disadvantage suffered by Sinhalese. This is now augmented with propaganda that the Sinhalese will be demographically swamped (this time by the Moors not by the Tamils of India and Ceylon), that they are receiving unfair aid from the Gulf, that Buddhists are being converted etc.
“The plantation Tamils, the westernised Christians, the northern Tamils are spent bogeys. So, to answer your question: Unless there is a complete change in perceptions I cannot see the foregoing communities being a major target of antagonism. So, I do not expect the JO or the BBS to turn against the plantation workers of Indian origin.
“On the other hand, the issue with the Moors, short of a miracle, is where the real problem lies. As you observe, your own Sinhala friends are expressing this. They are pointing to Burma as the parallel for understanding and legitimising what is happening in Sri Lanka.
End of second response.
Issues have been starkly posed and the best thing that I (KD) and do is to leave it that except add that though it is comfort that the upcountry Tamils may be spared, the anti-Islamism peril is alarming. I know many who unabashedly say to me “I don’t mind (sic!) Tamils and Christians, but I hate (exact word) the hambayas”.