By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we are just putty in the hands of those in power” Carl Sagan (The Demon-Haunted World).
In 2011, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a verbal directive banning its employees from using the phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’[i]. The state’s new governor Rick Scott was then a Tea Party darling; denying anthropogenic climate change was a key axiom of their common political creed. Governor Scott obviously did not want one of his own departments to speak about the connection between Florida’s climatic woes and environmental degradation. The bizarre order may have helped Mr. Scott politically and electorally but it has not saved Florida voters from being battered by killer storms and rising sea levels and may doom Miami to eventual inundation[ii].
When ignorance, religious superstition and power (political/societal/familial) intertwine, basic commonsense, basic compassion and basic decency are banished and outlawed. It is a condition we in Sri Lanka too are afflicted with.
This month in Mawanella a young man was starved to death by his own parents, acting on the advice of an exorcist. When Prasanna Priyalal fainted as he entered his home where an exorcism was in progress, the exorcist claimed that the young man had incurred divine wrath for consuming beef. Mr. Priyalal was a heart patient who had undergone surgery and was on medication. Anyone with an iota of sense would have rushed him to the nearest doctor. But his family opted to listen to the exorcist, who happened to be a minor just sixteen years of age. Mr. Priyalal, locked up in a room unfed and untreated, died twenty one days later. Though his plight was public knowledge, no one informed the police or any other person of authority/influence (Grama Niladhari/village monk). Perhaps the villagers too feared incurring divine wrath[vii].
Archaic ideas, often justified by some religious superstition, continue to be alive and well in the 21st Century. In 2009 in Nigeria, a father tried to force acid down the throat of his nine year old son, after the family pastor accused the boy of being a witch. In 2012, in Dehiattakandiya, Sri Lanka, a little girl was killed when an exorcist forced her to swallow a sharp knife as a ‘cure’ for a malady; two other ‘sick’ girls suffered severe burn-injuries when the same exorcist and his wife pushed them into the ritual fire. This bizarre triple-crime took place amidst a large gathering.
Witch hunts pulverise parts of present day Africa. Several Evangelical churches have been accused of inflicting ‘violent cures’ on very young children deemed to be witches. These exorcisms often involve horrific torture and sometimes result in death[viii]. Sri Lanka with its high rate of literacy should do infinitely better, but does not. The two deaths by exorcism indicate that some Lankans, rendered mindless by divine/paranormal phobia, willingly embrace/endorse extreme cures even of suicidal/homicidal variety. If this affliction is allowed to spread any further, Sri Lanka will retrograde to a dark age of violent superstitions and superstitious violence.
‘Spells to Befuddle the Crowd’[ix]
Superstitions have always played a role in Lankan politics, but never so nakedly as under the Rajapaksas. During the tenure of President Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka gained a royal astrologer who publicly boasted about his involvement in statecraft. The president openly carried a golden-hued talisman. State media used astrologers as political analysts (private media followed suit).
Though the teachings of the Buddha are non-theistic, Sinhala-Buddhism believes in a pantheon of 3.3 billion gods. It is to these gods that ordinary Sinhala-Buddhists turn, in troubled times, for protection and consolation. Any ruler who seems to enjoy the blessings of these interventionist gods would be automatically acceptable to many Sinhala-Buddhists.
The Rajapaksas both subscribed to these popular beliefs and honed them as weapons of political power. An excellent example is the reported birth of an elephant calf on the day the LTTE was defeated. According to Mahawamsa, the appearance of an elephant-calf was one of the many auspicious omens which attended the birth of the future king Dutugemunu. The birth of an elephant calf on the day Eelam War ended was hailed as a similar miracle. The new baby was named Dinuda: ‘Victory Day’. Years later it was revealed that Dinuda was not born on Dinu-da, ‘Victory Day’ or even ‘Victory Year’. He was born eight months earlier (some reports even claimed that Dinuda is not a he but a she). Someone, at some point, decided to fudge the truth and create a politico-ideological myth about a divinely-blessed victory.
Joseph Campbell argues that myths are useful in “supporting and validating a certain social order”[x]. During the Rajapaksa era myths (and related superstitions) were used to create/maintain a sense of identification between the Ruling Family and the majority community. Mahinda Rajapaksa was depicted as a divinely blessed and infallible hero-king; a wholly apocryphal pedigree was manufactured, connecting him to King Dutugemunu and to the Buddha. The acceptance of such arrant nonsense, the success of such incredible bamboozle depended on banishing critical thinking to the nether regions as undesirable and dangerous.
When a country’s ruler exhibits his thraldom to astrology with such unashamed starkness, it is but natural for people to become even more blindly superstitious. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fall from power can be attributed in some measure to his habit of blindly following astrological advice. A rough analogy can be made between that act of politico-electoral suicide and the deaths in Dehiattakandiya and Mawanella.
Post-election, the Rajapaksa camp continues to use superstition as a political tool. Two astrological predictions are being accorded considerable currency in the pro-Rajapaksa propaganda, especially on the internet. One claims that Mahinda Rajapaksa will rise again politically, in the second half of this year; the other claims that President Sirisena will be assassinated in January 2017.
Franz Mesmer (the charlatan who ‘invented’ a magnetic cure and gave birth to the term mesmerisation) and his adherents advocated the cultivation of a mindless mindset: ‘Be very credulous…. do not listen to reason’[xi]. That was and is what the Rajapaksas want us to be, credulous and irrational. Critical intelligence is the enemy of any kind autocratic rule, be it religious or secular. A citizenry capable of doubt and reason is unlikely to be carried away by phobias or manias into the wastelands of rightless anti-democracy. If Lankan democracy is to be safeguarded and strengthened, a return to sanity is an urgent need.
In Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell writes about the ‘Two Minutes Hate’, a key political ritual in his dystopian state. Every day, at eleven hundred hours, the populace gathers around telescreens to renew their hate of arch-enemy Emmanuel Goldstein. Orwell draws a chilling picture of how this outburst of hate can be transferred to a visible and more accessible object. “It was possible, at moments, to switch one’s hatred this way or that by a voluntary act… Vincent succeeded in transferring his hate from Goldstein to the dark-haired girl behind him. Vivid beautiful hallucinations flashed through his mind. He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax.”
Orwell’s Vincent Smith overcame his temporary madness. But in real life, especially in lands exposed to long periods of actual violence, many would be incapable of resisting the lure of blood-lust. And who can be more accessible targets than children?
In 2011, the Family Health Bureau warned that 10% to 14% of underage girls in Sri Lanka are sexually abused annually and around 7% get pregnant at a very young age. The youngest reported victim of child rape was just four months old. In 2012, the GA of Jaffna warned that there are about “600 child abuse cases annually….” and claimed “this immoral culture was not there before the conflict or during the conflict period, but has emerged after the conflict”[xii]. Both warnings went unheeded, except for an attempt by the Rajapaksa government to introduce a rape-marriage law! Had those warnings being heeded by government, politicians and society, the horrendous gang rape and murder of Vithya Sivaloganathan may have been prevented.
When Ms. Vithya failed to come home from school, her family sought police assistance. The police was dismissive, alleging that the young girl would have eloped. Eventually the police took down the complaint but did not search for the missing student. Ms. Vithya’s tortured body was discovered by her brother. Her killers, in the guise of saddened neighbours, attended her funeral.
The execrable indifference of the police to Ms. Vithya’s fate, the inexplicable escape from police custody by one of the suspects (a Lankan Tamil domiciled in Switzerland) and the resultant fear that the alleged criminals would evade justice caused a mini-riot in Jaffna. Mob violence should not be excused or tolerated; but the best way to prevent such outbreaks is to fix the justice system and prove to ordinary people everywhere that crimes will not go unpunished.
Though former president Rajapaksa and his cohorts rushed to use the mini-riot in Jaffna to their political advantage, their howls about resurgent-Tigers did not resonate with the Southern public. Perhaps an absolute majority of Sinhalese, reading about Ms. Vithya’s final horror-filled hours, forgot ethnicity/religion and reacted like parents, siblings and human beings. By going to Jaffna to meet with Ms. Vithya’s mother, President Sirisena gave expression to this sense of human empathy and solidarity. It was a praiseworthy gesture (one his predecessor would never have made) but much more will have to be done if Sri Lanka is to become a safe place for her children and for her restored democracy.
We, Lankans of every ethnicity, creed and none, are survivors of a three-decade war and two armed insurgencies. Death and destruction, hate and fear have been an integral part of our existence for so long. The Rajapkasas did nothing to alleviate this condition because it was to their advantage. President Sirisena and his government have much to do, starting with the psychological demilitarisation of society. But that work can succeed only if we, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, realise the insalubrious state of our collective psyche. Without critical intelligence and rationality, without an acceptance of our common humanity, we are more likely to embrace violent and superstitious solutions and fall prey to politicians whose path to power lies through inflaming the worst phobias and manias skulking in society and within each one of us.
[ix] Auden – We too had known Golden Hours
[x] The Power of Myth
[xi] quoted in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds – Charles Mackay
[xii] The Sunday Times – 25.3.2012
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