By Ranga Kalansooriya –
The singing of National Anthem in Tamil language not only brought tears into the eyes of many Sri Lankans – irrespective of their ethnicities – but redrafted the history of Sri Lanka and turned a new chapter in its future discourse.
The brave step of President Maithri and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe did not spark anticipated backfires from the ultra-nationalistic movements, as I read it, except for some petty remarks by the Rajapaksa camp entirely driven by the political agendas. There were a significant number of references in the social media but the discourse by and large was healthy and constructive. According to a rough survey conducted by the Presidential Secretariat Media Unit almost half the respondents have liked the move. Thanks should go to JVP and other political forces who had a good vision and explanation on the issue.
However, the traditional media again was not picking it up in a pragmatic manner despite its usual stereotype reporting of political statements while some media houses adopting to its usual rhetoric and ultra-nationalistic angle.
Take for instance the unscheduled visit by the Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran to Naga Vihara in Jaffna and his historic statement “If Sinhalese take one step forward – the Tamils are ready to ten steps.” How far the Colombo centric Sinhala media captured this thought and conveyed it to its readership? On the other hand did we manage to convince the international community through our communication channels that the government took an extra step in the gigantic path of reconciliation? I am not sure. Nonetheless, Rajapakse and his vociferous parrots were on many television screens criticizing the move. Media, too is driven by petty communal politics as it happened for over six decades since independence.
In fact this petty political agenda – whoever it could be – was the root cause behind the entire story of ethnic tension. The story of political maneuvering in fueling the ethnic conflict was a clear feature since independence.
The history tells us the story with a clear message. Sir Ivor Jennings who was the then Vice Chancellor of University of Ceylon was entrusted by his colonial masters with the duty of assisting the process of drafting two constitutions – one is for Pakistan and the other was for Ceylon. Look at the two paradoxes. One is a newly created country by dividing India and the other is a united country with ethno-religious diversity. Fortunately we did not have politicians who demanded a separate state for ethno-religious minorities, in contrast as famous cartoonist Colette illustrated in one of his masterpieces DS Senanayake, TB Jayah and the two Pannambalams embraced each other at the time of independence.
As Jane Russell explains in his book ‘Colonial Politics Under Donoughmore Constitution 1932-1947’ the southern Sinhala leadership offered federal system but the Tamil politicians opted otherwise. Thus, Ceylon gained independence as one country while Pakistan was born as a new nation based on ethno-religious factors.
What has happened since then? Lord Soulbery’s “Foreward” in BH Farmer’s book “Ceylon – A Divided Nation” quoted in the latest publication of Center of Policy Alternatives (CPA) ‘The Road to Temple Tress’ by Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham explains it well. Though bit long, it is worth capturing it here;
“But had Mr. DS Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon lived, I cannot believe that the shocking events of 1958 and the grave tension that now exists between the Tamils and Sinhalese would ever have occurred. Mr Senanayake would have scorned the spurious electoral advantages that a less far-sighted Sinhalese politician might expect to reap from exploiting the religious, linguistic, and cultural differences between the two communities, for it was high policy to make Ceylon a united nation and, as he told the State Council in November 1945 in his great speech recommending the proposal of the British Government, ‘the Tamils are essential to the welfare of this island.’ Unhappily… the death of Mr. DS Senanayake led to the eventual adoption of a different policy which he would never have countenanced. Needless to say the consequences have been a bitter disappointment to myself and my fellow commissioners… I now think it is a pity that the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights ….Nevertheless the reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese 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.”
The last sentence tells million words. That is what exactly happening today. In 1956, it was UNP that went on to street along with nationalistic forces against Banda-Chelva pact. In 1965, SLFP was behind in sabotaging Dudley – Chelva pact. We saw the same dynamics playing its own political games when President Chandrika was attempting to bring devolution proposal through a new constitution drafted by Prof GL Peiris who proposed a union of councils – a de facto federal system. Then came the peace talks between Ranil Wickremesinghe government and LTTE and we know who pulled the carpet under him. Nationalistic and agenda driven media was a key player in this entire story since independence.
Things have changed now we are at crossroads. The two major political forces that were playing against each other for the past sixty years on the national issues have to a common platform. No more petty politics and no more personal political agendas. ‘This is the last opportunity and we are willing to go on that extra mile’ – was the message behind singing national anthem in Tamil language. We know how challenging it was for both President Maithreepala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to take this bold but collective decision at a meeting held at Temple Tress just before the Independence Day. But the message is clear – United we are strong and we are ready march on that tedious but historic path.
But this reconciliation should not limit to Sinhalese and Tamils. Muslims have started worrying about themselves following the military defeat of the LTTE as the then state sponsored junta groups turned their guns against Muslims. The new regime of cohabitation brought new hopes to these minority groups and the state responses have so far been firm on those groups. The judiciary and law enforcement agencies should be further strengthened to avoid unnecessary ethnic tensions at the hands of these junta groups. The bold decision by Badulla and Bandarawela courts last week against a planned Sinha Le protest campaign were commendable steps in this regard.
This is where the words of Lord Soulbery become true. Let me repeat them as they are so true: “The reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese 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.”
Are we already there?