By Mohamed Harees –
‘Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it’ ~Mark Twain
It is starting to sound and smell like an oxymoron. Despite President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) appearing to assume an ‘All peoples’ President’ personality, the emerging political culture is negating such an assumption. Sri Lanka is showing tell-tale signs of fast becoming an autocratic democracy as well as a racist, ‘multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual’ nation. The toxic wave of Sinhala Buddhist triumphalism both overt and covert continuing in the Post-election phase, gives credence to the fear that Sri Lanka has already left the station to once again become a classic case of a country, widely polarized and degenerating on the ethnic and political fronts where pluralism is deliberately eschewed.
It is blatantly clear that this mission to create an unprecedented ‘Sinhala’ mandate for GR, was well-orchestrated through a classic Modi-style modus operandi engineered through a network of grassroot Sinhala Buddhist organizations including temples as well. Even the hate rhetoric articulated by the radical monks during the election campaign was uncannily similar to that mouthed by India’s proponents of Hindutva. Moving forward, Sri Lanka cannot travel in this toxic direction and therefore GR need to act as a national leader; a transformational leader, winning the hearts of all communities, without playing to the gallery. Time is running out to build this broken nation and heal its’ wounds.
Many hate groups which were formed with GR as their patron saint then, upon the heels of the war victory over the Tigers are now deciding to dismantle. In fact, what Ven Gnanasara said in the aftermath of GR victory gave in inkling about the purpose of their mission: to install a Sinhala Buddhist theocratic state by subduing the minorities. He said ; ‘We built an ideology that the country needs a Sinhala leader who does not bend down in front of minorities. Now that ideology has won.”. This subtle mission to re-install Buddhist nationalism on the driving seat has been on the rise, and it received a renewed boost, after the Easter Sunday terrorist attack. Rajapaksas, often appearing alongside Buddhist monks, exploited this vulnerable situation to their advantage, by referring to the attacks as another affront on Sinhala Buddhists by the minorities while campaigning and casting themselves as their champions, underlying the need to restore national security. It was then GR declared their candidature as well, which was the ultimate plan of this nationalist lobby.
GR may well want to be a transformed leader (different to his previous public image). But history has proved time and again that such intentions however laudable may be nullified by those around such leaders and the toxic wave of nationalism which brings them to power. Scheming political forces and prominent Buddhist monks saw in Post-Easter Sunday the emerging need for national security and a great opportunity to realize their dreams of promoting their ultra-nationalistic agenda. They saw in GR their candidate for this mission – a future Dutugemunu and the revival of the Sinhala Buddhist heritage in the country as expected by the vision envisaged by Anagarika Dharmapala. The Mahavamsa mind-set which lies at the core of Sinhala-Buddhist hard-line arguments that ‘this island is “theirs” and other religious and ethnic minorities are “guests”. It is thus a nationalism which sees no distinction between the Sinhala-Buddhist identity and the Sri Lankan identity. For them, other groups can exist in the country and expect to be treated with respect as long as they acknowledge the supremacy of Buddhism and the primacy of the Sinhala language and culture. As Tisaranee Gunasekara notes, “with a single story, the unscrupulously brilliant author of Mahavamsa created a nexus between war, race and religion and consecrated the task of protecting the faith as the raison d’être of kingship.” These forces even side-line Sinhala Christians too in their quest for super-ordination. In that respect. Sinhala Christians too form another minority among the majority. How the Sinhala Buddhist adversely nationalists reacted to Sinhala Christian vote base for Sajith in Negombo was a case in point. Even the glorification of violence has been used by Buddhist nationalists as a source of encouragement for conflict with non-Buddhists.
In the Alvin Toffler’s ‘wave’ language, GR’s victory may be cited as the ‘Third wave’ of victory for the ‘Sinhala Buddhist nation’ in Post-Independence history of Sri Lanka. More melody to these divisive forces came from the appointment of a (nearly) monolithic Sinhala cabinet- Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers. The first wave was in 1956, when the majoritarian lobby in the wake of SWRD’s victory was able to make inroads into the highest political seat of power to a certain extent. Although the political elites then knew full well that the monumental act of exclusion as a result of manipulating the language issue for political purposes, was bound to subvert democratic institutions and also likely to lead to “terror, they went ahead anyway. The second wave was the defeat of the (Tamil) Tigers in the hands of the (Sinhala) armed forces. During MR regime, radical right-wing Buddhist groups gained a firmer foothold in Sri Lanka’s political scene, receiving what many view as the tacit support of the Rajapaksa regime. Following the defeat of the ‘Tamil’ enemy, Muslims became “another Other”.
There is no single explanation for why Sri Lanka succumbed to ethnocentrism and majoritarianism and failed to embrace pluralism in its’ seven decades of Post-Independence history. Inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic dynamics in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies are complicated, and Sri Lanka is no different. But, according to a social scientist and a writer on the subject Neil DeVotta, ‘a Buddhist revival in reaction to colonialism that allowed Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists to combine their community’s socio-economic grievances with ethnic and religious identities; the absence of minority guarantees in the Constitution, based on the Soulbury Commission the British set up prior to granting the island independence; political opportunism among especially Sinhalese, but also Tamil elites who manipulated ethno-nationalism when seeking power; and the sectarian violence that congealed and hardened attitudes over time all contributed to majoritarianism’. The bitter lessons learnt during the course of a bloody thirty year war did not sadly enable a more inclusive society that emphasizes common citizenship over divisive ethno-religious identities, in the light of the embedded majoritarian mind-set. The involvement of Buddhist monks in politics following independence in 1948, in effect, too transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion.
As Neil DeVotta further opines, ‘the British and Sri Lankan elites might have been more cognizant of the manner in which the one-person, one-vote democratic principle could lead to majoritarianism, and they could have designed institutional checks and balances to protect against this outcome’. Adding salt to injury, the policies and practices, both UNP and SLFP leaders and governments effectuated were also anything but gradual and judicious. Indeed, they were so divisive and destabilizing that Nigel Harris ((1990), National Liberation) aptly noted, “If the Gods had wished to destroy, the madness of Sri Lanka’s rulers gave them every opportunity; for “if the Tamils had not existed, Colombo would have had to invent them. And, in an important sense, it did. It was [Sinhalese elites in] Colombo that forced the inhabitants of the north to become different, to cease to be Sri Lankan and become exclusively Tamil’.
How relevant this quote from Harris was to the present times too? The tribal mind-set of the (predominantly Sinhalese) rulers specially in the Post war context, enabled not just the Tamils, but Muslims too to think in terms of their ethnicity. While political parties and leaders have alternated in power in post-independence Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has consistently triumphed, and this at the expense of pluralism and democracy. Such is the majoritarianism governing the Sinhalese Buddhist cosmos in Sri Lanka, which is bound to attain a new level under GR’s stewardship if he chooses to don the ‘Rajapakse racist mind-set’. The re-emergence of the ghosts of racism and majoritarianism, which saw the minorities and the political parties associated with them treated as traitors and anti-Sinhala Buddhist being a reality, GR and his majoritarian government are likely to fear the metaphorical bullet which targeted SWRD if they are seen to go soft. A Catch 22 situation indeed!
In respect of Muslims, who were repeatedly being demonised and marginalized in the Post war and Post Easter context, this fear psychosis created among the majority community in Sri Lanka poses a grave danger. In the eyes of many observers, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists consciously promote the (totally unfeasible) view that the relatively smaller Muslim community will impose their ‘rule’ on the Sinhalese if the former group becomes a majority in Sri Lanka. Thus, they say anti-Muslim measures are required today in order to prevent the emergence of a future Muslim-dominated Sri Lanka ,with the perception of inherent Muslim intolerance serving as a justification for anti-Muslim bigotry. These internationally influenced factors thus interact with existing local prejudices to produce a form of Islamophobia that is distinct to its context. In right-wing ethno-nationalist politics as in many other spheres, globalization alters the experience of locality.
Although several moderate Buddhist monks and social activists in Sri Lanka have spoken out against extremist voices within their ranks, the echoes of the likes of Gnanasara ,Ratana and other nationalists prevailed, creating much fear about the rising dominance of the minorities, within the Sinhala Buddhist psyche. Opportunistic minority political leaders – Sambandans, Wigneswarans, Hakeems and Bathiurdeens were part of the problem. However, this line is toxic. A two thirds majority subscribing to this toxic majoritarian and supremacist mind-set in the next Parliament will be suicidal to Sri Lanka; not just the minorities! It is the stooping to these Tamil/Muslim political opportunists which should be avoided. Genuine grievances of both Tamil/ Muslims in the Post-war period should be resolved and they should be made to feel as equal citizens. Even Tamils and Muslims have rejected these foxes in their midst.
On the other hand, the hard-line majoritarianism is related to the Sinhala Buddhist majority’s sense of powerlessness in a globalized context. Globalization exacerbates this fear by connecting relatively powerless internal minorities to powerful transnational forces –the Tamil diaspora, the Muslim ummah. Thus, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists understand themselves as a majority under siege from outside, threatened by collusion between ‘weak local enemies and strong foreign agents’. In the light of this fear psychosis, GR’s election specially after Easter Sunday and Tamils and Muslims support to vote in the Yahapalana government in 2015, was a fait accompli. This fear needs to be effectively tackled.
Religion is always bound up with society and politics –Buddhism in Sri Lanka is no different. For right-wing Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, religion is often more of a marker of majoritarian identity than a set of rules to live by. The growing disenchantment in the Sinhala-Buddhist community on many fronts, their economic and cultural insecurity in particular, at least in part has made it easier for nationalistic political posturing to re-capture its lost appeal. Yahapalana experiment to retain the confidence of the majority has failed miserably. Thus, the success of the quest for pluralism and reconciliation process will only be contingent upon the government’s ability to retain the confidence and support of the Sinhala community as much as all other communities. This is a priority too, in creating a pluralistic nation.
It is imperative on the part of GR’s government to arrest the deteriorating trend of religious intolerance, and instead promote the ideal of multiculturalism in the country by formulating a wider national policy in the pursuit of steering the socio-economic development of the country. It is also of paramount importance that a formal space for inter-faith dialogue and negotiation between ethnic communities at the micro levels, in the best interests of ethno-religious harmony, initiated by civil society organizations with or without the support of the government. It is also imperative on the part of religious leaders to take some initiatives to foster inter-faith dialogues by creating a tolerant public sphere and enabling a religious space for all local communities in the present context.
Yes! As Sri Lankans, we possess the re-salience, courage, fortitude, vision and spirituality to resolve our differences and march into a new era of freedom from the shackles of bigotry and jealousy – and liberate the forces of unity and harmony in diversity. The ennobling spirituality bestowed by our religions should lift us beyond petty, man-made differences such as race, language and traditional practices into realms that seek out the nobility and goodness of man and his innate greatness. This however needs brave leadership and public activism. Therein lies our path to progress as a nation.