By Lakmal Harischandra –
Robert Knox has said that the “Sinhala New Year is the greatest feast of the Sinhala race”. Sinhala/Tamil New year is the annual traditional cultural event of the Sinhala and Tamil communities in our country. The purpose of this event is to build bridges among people and break the dividing walls if any. The whole island takes on a festive mood as people gear up for the upcoming celebrations by cleaning homes, shopping and making New Year sweetmeats, to begin the New Year on a joyous and positive note. The best part is the preparation of sweetmeats and purchasing new clothes. In Sri Lanka it is the cuckoo that heralds the dawn of the New Year. The mood of the occasion is such that none can stay aloof, isolated or dissociate themselves with the hubbub that is annually made. Today the Sinhala Ayurudda has become a national fiesta engaging all in celebration of family and togetherness and harmony between all communities. As such Hela Avurudda is symbol of togetherness and “harmony.
The sound of firecrackers and the rhythm of ‘rabana’ (drum) signal that it’s the dawn of a new beginning. The hearth is lit by the lady of the house facing the designated direction (which varies every year) and either the traditional new year dish, Kiribath, is cooked or a pot of milk is boiled, both signifying prosperity. Families sit around the table and share the kiribath, as the head of the family offers it to all members. After this the oil lamp is lit and the feast commences. After meals, children show respect to their elders by offering sheaves of betel and elders bless them. The elders in return would give them money and commence the first financial transaction (ganu denu) of the New Year. Plates of sweets and other goodies are exchanged between neighbours ( of all nationalities) and it is a tradition that the plates should not be returned empty. Families visit their relatives and friends forgetting resentments and to strengthen their relationships during this joyous season.
When this is the brotherly spirit with which our ancestors celebrated the new year, there has been an unsavoury trend in recent times to create divisions and bitterness among communities through various hate ruses. One of the worst developments has been the advocacy of a boycott of goods from Muslim shops, promoted among Sinhala people, in the period before the New year by disgruntled elements and vested interests. This hate campaign starts off in the social media followed by both colourful posters on city walls and dog whistles in the run up to the New year. This campaign carried out by hate peddlers possibly supported by some sections of the Sinhala business competitors, naturally make the gullible Sinhala peasantry to take the boycott as an act of displaying ‘Jathiya-aalaya’ (nationalistic fury) with much emotion and misplaced enthusiasm.
It is recalled that during the Post-war period , the Bodu Bala Sena along with other sister bodies called for the boycott of Halal goods and also Muslim owned companies including clothing stores such as No-Limit and Fashion Bug. Many stores were set on fire as well. This resulted not only in a loss of business to the individual companies but also placed the stores and their staff at risk, growing to a larger economic boycott of Muslim businesses. Then, it was brought to light that anti-Muslim leaflets were being distributed in many Buddhist Temples during Poya days. The leaflets asked the Buddhists to boycott halal products, not to sell properties to Muslims and boycott Muslim businesses. Posters and banners also appeared threatening the Sinhalese to boycott Muslim businesses and not to sell properties to Muslims. Eggs were also thrown at the shoppers who purchased from Muslim shops. It was also comical that propaganda in websites asked people to boycott the “Mohideen beg” songs in Buddhist Temples. Even though he was not a Buddhist, Mohidin Beg sang the most popular Buddhist theme songs in the Sinhala language.
BBS Secretary Gnasara thero also appealed to the Sinhalese people to boycott Muslim businesses and reject Muslim doctors as they appear to administer contraceptive pills to reduce the expansion of the Sinhala population. This latter propaganda about contraceptive pills in foods served to the Sinhalese also came up as a pretext to wage the Ampara attack in 2018 which was subsequently proved to be a canard. Thus, the ultra-nationalist BBS led by the firebrand hate monk Gnanasara Thero had been then on a nationwide rampage spreading anti-Muslim venom to cause material and psychological harm to the Muslim community. Other hate outfits like Ravana Balaya and Sihala Urumaya lent their support too. When the government changed, the people expected that status quo will change and Yahapalana regime will reign in these elements spreading hate and bigotry . They seemed to do at first, but then another repeat hate campaign was observed more as undercurrents which culminated in the Digana incident. Today, the same hate peddlers will similar agendas have sprung up and continue to inflict irreparable damage on community relations between the Sinhala and Muslim people by way of boycott calls and social media hate.
An old story which comes to my mind related by Mr. Imtiaz Bakir Marcar in one of the recent interviews he had on TV in 2013, should still raise an alarm among those who look forward to live in a future peaceful, united Sri Lanka, affording place to all, irrespective of which race they originate from. Similar incidents happen today as well. Reportedly, his Sinhala friend faced a shocking experience when he offered to buy some sweats for his neighbour’s 3 year old daughter from a nearby shop. The kid refused to go along, as it happened to be a ‘Muslim’ shop. His further inquiries revealed that the advice came from her 6 year old sister, whose tender mind has been poisoned by her school elocution teacher. In this instance, can anyone who has a semblance of love for our motherland , pat these kids on their backs, saying ‘well done. You kids are our future saviours of our race and religion’ . No! we cannot, as this incident symbolically reflects the degeneration of our Sinhala Buddhist values and shows to what extent this rot has infiltrated into our social body fabric. Can the BBS and other extremist outfits merely disown responsibility for this chain of causation?
It is a fact that most Muslims live outside the N & E among the Sinhalese people. Most of them know their Sinhala well and attend Sinhala medium schools as well. Muslim and Sinhala relationships have always been cordial for centuries in the South. From my school day experiences, I remember that we visit each other’s houses during the special festivals- Sinhala Avurudha and Ramazan and were treated well, like part of the household. This type of brotherhood and friendship is most common among Sinhala and Muslim youth even today, who are not swayed by these types of hate filled boycott calls referred to earlier. Overall, these boycotts are simply placebos and not medicine at all. However, when fake and misplaced sentiments and emotions are aroused in people that Muslims are attempting to destroy Sinhala Buddhist heritage, then it is natural that misguided youth are provoked to take the boycott calls seriously , leading to further bitterness being created among them.
Sinhala People have always been acknowledged all-round as a tolerant race during the course of history, accommodating the ‘other’. It is this enviable record of our proud nation that is being vilified and attacked at the roots by these extremist goons, unfortunately in the name of Buddhism. Hate mongering in the name of Buddhism is certainly a misnomer. Which ever way we may want to argue to prove that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist land, they will ultimately be an exercise in futility, if we fail to show in spirit that tenets of Buddhism pervades our way of life – compassion, love, and concern for the ;other’. What is the use of a rose if it does not look beautiful or smell nice?. When our Constitution states that foremost place is given to Buddhism( not to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism ), the drafters surely may have clearly intended that the supreme teachings of the Enlightened One should determine the basis of our actions and not just rituals. We must lay claim to our common humanity and fraternity and admire the common-ness among us rather than laying claim to a superior nationality status in Sri Lanka, which is in effect a virus- a majoritarian virus, which eats into the fabric of our society. The government and the law enforcement authorities should therefore look into this boycott calls and their originators and bring them to book, as they are clearly hate based strategies aimed at spreading hate and bigotry and further divide our nation. The religious leaders of the Sinhala Buddhists- Maha Sangha should also play a pivotal role in dispelling and speak up against these type of boycott calls aimed at creating further divisions in our motherland. Enough is enough!