By Mohamed Harees –
Politicians often refer to themselves as not having a “racist bone” in their bodies. And yet in many instances, past and present, it is fact that racism has been a rational choice for them, particularly at election times. Already, the mainstreaming of prejudice and racist particularly anti-Muslim politics has commenced as an election strategy. The dog whistle politics by vested interests with the involvement of the regular hate monks, being played at the grass-root levels is really worrying. As demonization of minorities in general and Muslims in particular is evident on the ground, as part of an election campaign in gaining votes, marginalised communities ask; ‘where will this trajectory lead us, as a country especially after elections?
Whatever our position on the political spectrum, the weaponising of racism as an election strategy is absolutely disgusting. It makes a mockery of anti-racist activism and the very real racial injustices which affect ethnic minorities every day. There should be no place for racism and scapegoating in our political discourse. In this regard, all political leaders, media outlets, candidates and campaigns should refrain from the scapegoating of minorities and Muslims and take responsibility for halting the rise of racism and Islamophobia. It is the role public activism to create the pressure for them to do so.
Whether as Tamils, Muslims and majority Sinhalese who view fair play and justice as hallowed pillars of governance, we knowingly or unknowingly, play into the hands of the these political opportunists when we allow our marginal positions to be played off against each other, and in doing so we fail to imagine those ideals of collective solidarity which have been the foundation of global movements for justice. Opposition to racism and hate must be unconditional. Practices such as playing one against the other, inflame tensions between these groups and in doing so mutual solidarity becomes strained and difficult. And solidarity is a beautiful thing. Recognising the unitary nature of struggles to stand up against social injustice and racism on both a domestic and international scale has so much transformative power. We fail to realize this reality! Governments and politicians fear this solidarity across racial and religious divides.
The public must be more vigilant to the ways media and political establishments attempt to play one against the other, particularly during elections, to keep real, impactful protest at bay. When we disguise or undermine the racism of one party to speak of the racism of the other, we disguise incidents where both parties are guilty. When we attempt to play the establishment’s games of divide and rule, we only play ourselves. And in doing so we fail to allow ourselves to imagine a position where the oppression of all people come to an end – instead, we only selfishly imagine our own liberation, which ends in joining the ruling classes to oppress the other.
Sadly, Sri Lanka which is renowned for its beauty, has become equally defined by its hate. One of the worst legacies of the decades-old civil war in this island country is the culture of hate, violence and impunity that many fear and violence have become ingrained in Sri Lankan society – once known for ‘serendipity’ and respect for Buddhist virtues. With Digana anti-Muslim communal violence two years ago and the tragic Easter Sunday attacks primarily on Christian churches a year ago, while some believe that the country is currently going through yet another periodic cycle of violence and uncertainty, others think that the situation has reached a nadir. Can Sri Lanka be delivered from this ingrained fear and hate culture, which has engulfed this Paradise Isle in violence and terror?
With the Post-Independence governments reluctance to address schisms within a nation cleaved by more divisions: ethnic, religious and class., every violent episode breeds fear that the nation will fracture in new and unexpected ways, leading to yet more bloodshed. The New York Times called the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks as ‘A New Enemy but the Same Hate’. Ironically, there is mutual suspicion everywhere which has led to mainstreaming of hate in a society ‘nourished’ by four world’s religions. Politicians asking for people’s votes talk with their tongues about peace, but their hearts are not in it, because their survival lies in divisions and mutual hatred among people; so the history has taught them. Media hype has made hate normal in society.
Communal violence has been an ever-present part of life in Sri Lanka since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, with sporadic conflicts breaking out between minority groups and the government. 1983 Anti-Tamil Riots, 30 years of war, terror and violence, Post-War anti-Muslim Attacks(2012-2018)and Christian churches and 2019 – Easter Sunday terror attacks followed by anti-Muslim attacks are examples. The cycles of violence experienced in Sri Lanka’s recent history thus may be distinct, but they are connected by a thread of state failures, impunity, lack of justice and disregard for human rights. There must be accountability for all groups who have suffered atrocities in recent decades: Christians for 2019 Easter Sunday’s attacks, and also Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese for the violations they have faced through the years. The basis for hate/ violent culture which appear to have invaded the public psyche goes beyond racial and religious hatred, like what we saw during the 1971 and 1988 JVP insurrection. Violence it appeared was contagious. It was like a horrible epidemic. The insurrection for example, also changed the mind-set of many people, alas negatively, both in the authority and those who almost naturally opposed it, on both sides of the ethnic divide.
Sri Lanka’s long history of democracy has also been marred by electoral violence and periodic misuse of government power to suppress political dissent. Since independence, political power has alternated between two main political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Violence among political parties has become a common occurrence since the mid-1960s, particularly during election periods. In 2018 and 2019, when there was violence in the Parliament, our reactions to such violence—we reacted with surprise and shock, implying that such behaviour was uncivilised and an aberration, not a permanent fixture in our society, thus, allowing us to distance ourselves from any responsibility for it. We overlook how the different types of violence ingrained and normalised in our society are deeply interconnected with the violence we witnessed in Parliament. Parliamentary violence also mirrored the behaviour of university students and authorities during ragging. Ragging is a form of violence as it involves verbal and physical abuse that dehumanises a human being. Recent case of J’pura university student Pasindu Hirushan is a case in point. Even left-wing groups who control the university student population show a passive attitude towards ragging, thus violating the principles of human freedom and dignity, the very essence of socialism.
No society can expect to end violence and bring closure to those suffering from memories of violence when it condones violence based on ethnicity, race, religion, and ideology. The denial of transitional justice to those who demand it is a form of violence, as it entails the exercise of power over the victims of war, families of those murdered and disappeared journalists, civilians, and politicians of all communities.
Many politicians, and social and religious institutions, continue to keep it alive and exploit it in their quest for state power, avoid public accountability for their anti-social actions, evade justice, and obtain popular legitimacy for violence in the Parliament as a ‘patriotic’ act; even if such an act violates the country’s laws. Recent justification of the violation of country’s constitution by the President, Maithripala Sirisena and the spate of violence that followed, is a good example of how ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka has hijacked ‘true patriotism’. Ten years after the war ended in 2009, it is clear that Sri Lanka remains in a state of conflict. This is the time for national reckoning. We need to rise above the narrow nationalistic and extremist positions held by all ethnic and religious groups, and build a peace premised on justice and equality for all. We have to look inwardly and all of us must find release from the cyclical force of racism and hate and tackle this period of chaos, with a sense of maturity without falling prey to the political opportunists in both sides of the divide.
We should all be conscious of the dangerous effects of negative stereotypes, whatever the rank they have in religious institutions or religious chapters, especially when they have the potential to misinform millions. It is horrific to hear such people at such highest places spew racist rhetoric and degrade the ‘other’ and minorities for their own political gain. Regardless of party affiliation, racist rhetoric is unacceptable. Not only are such negative stereotypes harmful, but they are wrong.
Identity politics has also become a phrase of common currency in recent years, yet it is often painfully, and badly, used. Generally, it is wheeled out in a negative context. Now, Sinhala nationalist identity politics has been fully activated specially in the wake of last year’s Presidential elections and sadly it has gone towards subordinating the minorities. US political scientist Ashley Jardina in her book White Identity Politics, drawing on a decade of data from American National Election Studies surveys, claims that white Americans — roughly 30 to 40 percent of them — now identify with their whiteness in a politically meaningful way. Importantly, this racial solidarity doesn’t always overlap with racism, but it does mean that racial identity is becoming a more salient force in American politics. So is identity politics in Sri Lanka as well!
When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. When groups feel mistreated and disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them. In Sri Lanka today, every group feels this way to some extent. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, men and women, liberals and conservatives – all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution – but such is political tribalism. This – combined with record levels of inequality – is why we now see identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum. And it leaves the country in a perilous new situation: almost no one is standing up for a Sri Lanka without identity politics, for a Sri Lankan identity that transcends and unites all the country’s many subgroups.
As Oberlin professor Sonia Kruks writes, “What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier [movements] is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua (That group, qua this group etc) that groups demand recognition … The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal humankind’ … nor is it for respect ‘in spite of’ one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.”. Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition.
Ultimately, identities are the images that we have of ourselves. Having that self-image challenged is incredibly disruptive and it can be very difficult for us to adapt that image in light of the challenge. Most identity changes occur over longer periods of time, and with less tension and conflict.. If anything, therefore, identity politics whether Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims, should call on us to reflect on what it is about what we do that angers others so much, and how we can reconcile the different aspects of our identities in a way that produces mutually beneficial settlements. It should be a means to see a vital aspect of all politics, and how it plays a key role in shaping how people respond to us.
Ultimately, hate tears society along racial, ethnic, gender, and religious lines. Activists from all communities affected by racism should therefore join forces in a drive to put equality and anti-racism at the centre of these elections. We need to move towards a shared future where our safety, opportunities and outcomes are no longer affected by race or other identities. In the face of rising racial prejudice and violence in Post-war Sri Lanka, the parliamentary elections should be a decisive moment to unite our efforts for a nation that is inclusive and eliminates structural inequalities.