23 October, 2020

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We All Are Tamils, We All Are Sinhalese And We All Are Muslims

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

I am saying it should be the spirit. I am not asking anyone to shed away or denounce their ethnicity or religion. We all love the way we are and what we believe in or not believe in. In this small Island of ours we should live like brothers and sisters with equal rights and also equal responsibilities, without rancour or violence. Although I am not there bodily now, my ‘spirit’ appears to be haunting this Island all the time, day and night. I admit that it may be easy for a so-called Sinhalese like me to say it, but difficult for a Tamil or even a Muslim to reckon with the idea given the past and bitter experiences. Therefore, the ‘Sinhalese’ have a major responsibility to give a helping hand to others.

One may consider my call as a dubious way to divide their ‘national spirit.’ I simply ask them to reconsider their position.

I was just thirteen when I lost a dear friend Perumal during the riots of 1958. He was not killed but left Moratuwa eternally not to see him again. It was just thereafter I saw this article by E. W. Adikaram that “Communalist is a Lunatic.’ He asked the question ‘how do you know you are a Sinhalese or a Tamil?’ Then the usual answer was ‘my father is or was a Sinhalese or Tamil.’ When asked how do you know your father was a Sinhalese or Tamil, he reported that people used to get uncertain. It can go on backwards and then no one is sure. His argument was that, based on Buddhism, ethnic identity is an illusion.

But I may put it mildly to say that ethnic identities are conventional. They are relative truths but not absolutes. There are differences but those differences are not reason to dominate, discriminate or contempt others based on history, numerical strengths or theories. One may ask the question: how could you equate 75 per cent with 11 per cent, 15 per cent or 9 per cent? It is a matter of quality and not quantity. It is a matter of equal opportunity and equal recognition, but both should be in practice and not in theory alone.

When I was at Peradeniya we had this famous Vasantha (Raja) as a close friend but we never thought him as a Tamil. Neither did he treat us differently. ‘Raja’ thing came to be known only later. Yet, no difference. Those were the good old days, fast changing even at that time. I knew a person named George in the science faculty who was considered to be a Tamil and after graduation, came to know another person named Joe quite closely who was by all ‘attributes’ a Sinhalese. I was later amused to know that they were in fact brothers. Werner Sollors gives numerous examples of this genre to show the absurdity of rigid characterizations in his ‘Beyond Ethnicity’ and ‘Neither Black Nor White and Yet Both.’

In early 1983, I was invited to a seminar somewhere in Batticaloa to speak on ‘Marx and trade unions’ and accepted the invitation to know what was going on in that part of the Island. Only thereafter I came to know that the invitation came from the EPRLF. I stayed the night before in a Muslim house at Akkarapattu. The mother of my friend came to serve me at dinner and we could watch TV along with my friend’s sisters after dinner. They were only wearing their hijab. That mother was exactly like my mother.

As a way of an introduction, at the seminar, I said that I am a so-called Sinhalese and in fact spoke in Sinhala which was translated. All of them smiled. I came to know K Padmanabha, leader of the EPRLF thereafter and also Varadaraja Perumal. I believe even Suresh Premachandran was there. It was unfortunate that they had to take up arms and follow a violent path even for a while. The same goes for the JVP activists.

Look at Karuna Amman (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) today. He appears a perfect gentleman. This doesn’t absolve him from anything horrible he has done. It is best that he genuinely confesses. He was a top notch leader for the Eelam struggle and now a Minister in a so-called Sinhala Cabinet. This is a good lesson for those who wanted to reinvent the wheel again or follow those who cry for a separate struggle. I came to know Lawrence Thilakar in Geneva in late 1980s and he was a perfect gentleman under normal circumstances. No one could say he was a terrorist. I believe it is largely the mistaken ideology and mesmerized fanaticism that made him or anyone different. I am not sure, however, whether this could be said about everyone. Some may be disposed to violence and aggression largely by upbringing or ‘nature.’

The same goes for the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its fire brand leader Rev. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara or anyone in the same organization. His violent disposition does not good for a Buddhist monk. I don’t know anyone in that organization to say whether they are ‘perfect gentlemen’ in their ordinary life or not. They or anyone else, however, has no right whatsoever to denigrate other religions and attack business enterprises of other communities just because they are irritated with other people’s religious practices, Halal or Abaya. There is a big difference between those who struggle to gain their rights, and those who try to suppress other people’s rights. The following is what the Rock Edit XII of Emperor Asoka said.

One should not honour only one’s own religion and condemned the religions of others, but one should honour others’ religions for this or that reason. So doing, one helps one’s own religion to grow and renders service to the religions others too. In acting otherwise one digs the rave of one’s own religion and also does harm to other religions.”

Sri Lanka undoubtedly is a beautiful and a blessed country in which all communities and religions can live in peace and harmony. One of our predicaments might be the space and even at present over 20 million people have to live in 65,610 square kilometres. Sustainable urban living might be the answer, leaving maximum land for cultivation and environmental protection. Sustainable development is necessary in its broadest sense of the term without neglecting the bridging of income gaps vertically and horizontally. Poverty should be eradicated as the number one priority of all ethnic communities.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah (in 1848) equated Nepal to a ‘flower garden of thirty two Jatis and four Varnas.’ Imagine the beauty of that thinking. Sri Lanka also can be a beautiful ‘flower garden of three Jatis and four religions.’ This is not an idiom from the West but from our own region.

With all the prospects for progress and harmony, one might wonder why our people tumble into destructive conflicts and violence again and again without learning proper lessons from the past. A major blame undoubtedly should go to the political leaders of all political parties and all communities. We, voters ourselves should be blamed for electing them again and again without checking their proper credentials. The following was what Martin Wickremasinghe, a renowned literary figure in the country, said about this predicament in his “Impetus for the Growth of a Multiracial Culture (972).”

The exploitation of language, race and religion by politicians is partly due to their inability to identify themselves with the common people or the greater nation. There is a cultural unity among the common people in spite of differences of religion, language and race.”

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Latest comments

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    we’re all Tamils, we’re all Sinhalse, we’re all Muslims

    Does that mean Jacqueline Fernandez is a Black Dravidian?

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    I think,Prof. Laksiri Fernando’s slogan is merely a euphemism to be understood in the present Sri Lankan context. Perhaps, he thought, such a slogan could capture the imagination of Sri Lankans more easily, rather than taking it literally. It probably is meant to share the spirit of the much wider term ‘internationalist’. [At least, that’s how I grasped it.]

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    Two groups (Sinhalese and Tamils) want to identify themselves by ethnicity, but one group wants to identify itself via religion. I’m surprised no one, including Laksiri Fernando, sees the irony.

    For the sake of argument, is there any 21st century religious state that has embraced modern values? Saudi Arabia, with its Chop-Chop Square, hardly counts.

    Identifying oneself by religon is a definitive path to disaster.

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    Yes Lester, it’s religion that plays the main role for the Sinhala-Buddhists’ racist campaigns – not the ‘language’ or any other cultural aspects. But the important point is this: In Sri Lanka and in many other countries, the religious prejudices are being hijacked by the governments to protect the system that benefits the rich elites’ political domination.

    In Sri Lanka, the Buddhist battalions [BBS] appear to be carefully nurtured by the state for fascistic purposes, anticipating future social uprisings. Therefore, I think, Laksiri Fernando’s slogan – though noble as a humanist value – is a bit naive
    . The real problem is political.

    What is needed is a social revolution to transform the socio-political structures that are primarily responsible for this state of affairs.

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      Buddhism is a philosopy, not a religion. The “religious” aspects have more to do with culture than religion. Hence the term “Sinhala-Buddhism.” Have you heard a Muslim mention “Syrian Islam” or “Saudi Islam?” Of course not; for them there is only one Islam.

      As I have noted elsewhere, Sri Lanka has a 2500 year liberal tradition. Much of that tradition is due to Buddhism. Unfortunately, some groups (NGO’s/Islamic forces/Western Nations) are determined to exploit Sri Lanka’s liberal traditions for their own ends. I think the ultimate goal for the Western nations and their NGO lackeys is to create a division between Sri Lanka and China, so that India (the greates friend of the West in the region) can keep Sri Lanka under its yoke.

      As for Islam, it is not inherently progressive – in fact, it is often regressive , so there is bound to be some conflict with the dominant Sinhalese culture, which is inherently progressive. Sri Lanka is not alone in this regard. Every European nation with a large Muslim population has encountered certain socio-economic problems.

      As I have mentioned repeatedly on this website, the demographics are changing rapidly. Sharia Law will easily replace Common Law on many parts of the island within the next 50 years, if the government does not implement certain measures. Ironically, when the LTTE was around, these kinds of issues were virtually non-existent. Now that it is gone, the foxes have come out of their hole, each with a different agenda. We need strong leaders and organizers to protect Sri Lanka’s traditional identity.

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        Lester and Vasantha,

        I am answering only one aspect of the debate, nationalism, ethnicity and religion. If there had been proto ‘nationalisms’ in the past most often they were based on religion than ethnicity. One exception was Sri Lanka. Sinhala Buddhism is not a new phenomenon. George Cedes (French) who uncovered the history of Buddhism in Cambodia named what came to Cambodia as ‘Sinhala Buddhism.’ There was so much of Lanka influence on Cambodia. There is a word in Khmer called ‘Thimil.’ It is a derogatory word for the enemies of Buddhism. During Lon Nol (1970-75) period even communists were called ‘Thimil’ to mean enemies of Buddhism.

        Proto nationalism of course was not mass based. It was among the elite, basically religious elite. We often ask the question whether there was ethnic or communal conflict in ancient Lanka. Answer is no, because various communities intermingled and co-existed. But a conflict was there at the top as revealed by Mahavamsa and other sources.

        Western nationalism in modern times by and large was/is secular with some exceptions like Ireland. But nationalisms in the developing world are overwhelmingly both ethnic and religious. In the Middle East it is basically religious but there are exceptions like Iran. Iranian nationalism is both Persian and Islamic (Shi’a), but it is not called that way. What I am trying to say is that when nationalism is mixed up with both ethnicity and religion it is lethal as in the case of Sri Lanka. I think this is largely the case in Tamil Nadu where Tamil nationalism is mixed up with Shaivism.

        As for my ‘slogan’ it meant to provoke thought while it is based on thinking beyond ethnicity. On the question of Lester’s view that Sri Lanka had a long liberal tradition, I am not sure whether that was the case. Dhamma definitely is ‘liberal.’ But Sangha has been both liberal and conservative, perhaps more conservative than liberal.

        Laksiri

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          @ Dr. Laksiri Fernando,

          I find the label “Sinhala-Buddhist” to be somewhat of a misnomer. Buddhism did not start with the Sinhalese; neither do they exert any sort of monopoly over it. Furthermore, “Sinhala-Buddhism” incorporates aspects of “Buddhism” that are more cultural than anything else. As to why and how this label took on populist overtones; most likely when the European colonialists overthrew the old feudal structure, one’s climb up the socio-economic ladder depended on his group affiliation. Hence, both the quest for ethnic identity and the ensuing ethnic rivalries between Tamils/Sinhalese/Muslims have their roots in colonial times. The West was able to overthrow its feudal past completely, thanks to industrialization. That “transition period” is missing in SL, unfortunately. Hence the pattern of uneven development in the country since the last several hundred years, one consequence of which is the ethno-nationalism that we see today.

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    The very title of this article is utopian, and ridiculous. Singhala, Tamil and Muslim are ethnicities and separate they will be. Let us continue to co-exist with each other as we have done time immemorial. Let us not be disturbed by these ‘gentlemen’ in their attempts to distort and confuse situations.

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