By 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.”