Original image by Azzam Ameen, on Twitter
There are tensions and schisms erupting, there is a crisis in the making. One dimension of this crisis is the unfolding diplomatic debacle: the Geneva-crisis. The group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) represents, and gives expression to, another dimension. The emergence of both was to be expected; both, however, were avoidable.
After Sri Lanka’s sui generis performance in 2009, the Geneva-story has been a depressing one to a lot of people. Sri Lanka’s support-base has dwindled drastically. India which, in 2009, opposed a Western-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka, stood up to remind the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillai, where to get off. Today, India is endorsing Western or US-sponsored resolutions, and acknowledging in the process reports produced by Ms. Pillai. The contrast couldn’t have been more damaging than this.
In the face of such developments, Sri Lanka’s message (articulated especially by her political envoys), both at the UNHRC as well as in Sri Lanka, has been one of fire and fury, but without much substance. Unfortunately, responses to criticism in the absence of much needed action on the ground do tend to take such a form. The Sinhala phrase ‘puss-wedilla’ comes to mind, so too does the phrase ‘popgun oratory’ (as the late Lakshman Kadirgamar once put it in response to some of Anura Banadaranaike’s statements). While such responses do come in handy at times, it is better that that approach, that demeanour, became the exception rather than the norm. But this will not be so given Sri Lanka’s continuing confusion over the situation it is in after the UNHRC’s adoption of the second resolution this month.
The situation is a serious one; not only because of the adoption of another resolution, but because of the fact that what Sri Lanka is failing to do is what Sri Lanka has promised to do. Stated differently, what Sri Lanka is being asked to do is what she has promised to do. And what she has promised to do amounts to what she is capable of doing.
Firstly, much of this trouble could have been avoided had considerable progress been made in terms of implementing the recommendations of the LLRC; especially those recommendations on humanitarian and human rights law. Satisfactory progress on issues such as the resettlement of IDPs, for example, does not continue to hold much value when the demand is for something else. So there needs to be a realistic assessment of why no one seems to be listening when Sri Lanka speaks.
Secondly, the question is largely about implementing the 13th Amendment. Here too, Sri Lanka could have established the Northern Provincial Council much earlier than the promised date (of September 2013). The current Sri Lankan Constitution has adequate safeguards in place to protect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And as long as powers are devolved to a de-merged North and East (and for practical purposes, this can be sans the devolution of police powers), Sri Lanka could go a long way in addressing some of the critical concerns raised by the so-called ‘international community’.
To be sure, this need not be done because the West is asking us to do it; nor should it be done because Tamil Nadu is up in arms against the people of Sri Lanka, or because Mr. Karunanidhi dreams of Eelam in his slumber. But it can, and needs to be done, to promote greater political and democratic participation within the country. As a foremost historian and critic of the ‘traditional homeland’ argument, Prof. KM de Silva, has recently reiterated:
“The democratization process will also require the establishment of a provincial council for the northern province. Elections to that provincial council will enable political parties and individuals to vie for positions in the council. Such a council will give the Tamils opportunities in influencing, if not fashioning, the development policy of the northern province. The Tamils could play a big role in the democratization process of the province” [in Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE (Penguin/Vijitha Yapa, 2012), p. 266].
If such measures are not adopted, further intrusion into Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs becomes inevitable. Since things have hit rock bottom, it is perhaps the best time to wake up.
Bodu Bala Sena and anti-Muslim rhetoric
Another dimension of the Sri Lankan crisis comes in the form of anti-Muslim rhetoric that is spreading fast throughout the country. Space for considerable foreign intrusion and interference could be created if inter-religious disharmony leads to violence.
I am not totally opposed to the broader dialogue or discourse groups such as BBS give rise to. In a world of symbols, identities and identity-promotion, reducing a praiseworthy concept such as the ‘Halal’ concept to a mere symbol (and that too, for commercial purposes) is problematic. And given that the symbol in question promotes, or reminds one of a particular religion, any person belonging to a different religion should have the freedom to raise concerns. Therefore, the Halal-logo is an issue, especially in a world of contested identities; and Muslim-leaders would do well to remember that, especially when a vast majority of the people of a country belong to a different religion. And perhaps the somewhat swift manner in which the Muslim-leaders (together with the cooperation of a few Buddhist monks) were able to address this issue further proves that the Muslim-community could have been more sensitive to the concerns of others, before groups such as BBS emerged.
But there is also a very dangerous and grotesque dimension to the BBS and its project. The manner in which its representatives raise issues can very easily incite anti-Muslim hatred and violence. This is especially the case when the BBS decides to hold public rallies. There’s something very grotesque in a Buddhist monk coming on stage and demanding incessantly that Sinhala boys and girls should now get ready to produce more babies as the Sinhala population is being threatened by the Muslims in the country. There is something sickening when certain monks demand that Buddhists should not visit Muslim-restaurants since the Muslims deliberately spit in their food before serving it to their customers [statements to this effect were made by monks during the recent BBS-rally held in Kandy]. These monks who claim to be the protectors of Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha seem to have forgotten the Buddha’s teachings on ‘right speech’. Even if the time is considered to be ripe for airing such views, the manner in which they are raised is wholly unwarranted, deplorable.
Responding to the BBS-crisis
The question is: how can we respond?
Such developments generate two popular forms of responses, which I tend to think are of limited relevance today. Firstly, there emerges a critical counter-response which attempts to remind, or reiterate, the ‘original’ teachings of the Buddha. Secondly, there is a call for the creation of an overarching ‘Sri Lankan’ identity.
The first response (the ‘Buddhism-betrayed’ kind of response which has failed) is to be appreciated, but if over-stretched beyond a point, becomes problematic for a number of reasons. This is because advocates of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism have already accepted that what they are promoting is ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’, and that it can be different from what is perceived to be the ‘original’ teachings of the Buddha. They would even claim that Sinhala-Buddhism is not the only kind of Buddhism, that it is even not the ‘correct’ form of Buddhism, but is one of many kinds of Buddhism prevalent in the world. In the face of such an admission, to argue that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists are not promoting the ‘correct’ form of Buddhism takes one nowhere.
The second response is problematic since it is predicated on the assumption that there is something intrinsically good about the ‘Sri Lankan’ identity. Advocates of the ‘Sri Lankan’ identity don’t often realize that they too are engaged in the promotion of another kind of identity which, when developed as a counter-response to a different identity (and very often with hatred towards that other identity), can be as problematic as the identity that they like to critique. And even with such a broad identity, one needs to adopt certain positions in the realm of politics; and these decisions can always be construed as tilting towards a decision promoted by this or that ‘extremist’ identity. In other words, a middle-of-the-road ‘Sri Lankan’ identity is only good as long as no one questions the positions its proponents adopt; the moment they are questioned (‘Where do you stand on the issue of devolution, Mr Sri Lankan identity? for example), and their positions are revealed, they tend to fall into a camp they so vehemently critique.
I think the challenge ought to be a more difficult one than this.
One: while reverting to the teachings of the Buddha, it is necessary not to delude oneself into imagining that there is an absolutely and pure form of Buddhism – and that once this ‘pure’ or ‘correct’ form of Buddhism is pointed out, everything will fall into place. No, it does not happen that way, and therefore one cannot rest assured. Also, to put it bluntly, it is necessary to ensure that one does not, in trying to preach Buddhism, begin to sound more Buddhist than the Buddha himself.
Two: while an overarching Sri Lankan identity is a good idea, abstract theorizing takes one nowhere. In order to build such an overarching identity, one has to begin from somewhere. And if building an identity is what matters, it is perhaps necessary to begin with the narrower identity in question. So for example, if Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is the problem, the first challenge would be to engage in re-imagining or re-constructing a different form of Sinhala-Buddhist identity (all identities, like everything else, are our constructions). Similarly, if Tamil (or Tamil-Hindu) nationalism is the problem, the task would be to develop a different kind of Tamil-Hindu identity. And one need not be shy to admit openly that one is inspired by certain teachings of Buddhism and/or by certain strands of thought contained in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, for example. The task is to be discriminatory (or selective) in what one wants to learn from such teachings and writings.
Without such an attempt being made to re-construct an identity one is closer to, I don’t think the task of building what, at the moment, appears to be an abstract ‘Sri Lankan’ identity will ever be practical or useful. Once these separate identities are rethought of in a more pluralistic way (and this needs to be done by all, not simply the Sinhala-Buddhists), there will be space created to build a more formidable, overarching, identity applicable to all the people. In fact, too much effort to do the latter may not even be required by then.
And in the present context, a task confronting a Sinhala-Buddhist would be to show that s/he is not some kind of bigoted monster; that a Sinhala-Buddhist, while promoting and preserving his or her religion and culture, is equally committed to promoting equality and harmony in society (and this applies to others as well). This is the most challenging task confronting critical elements within the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. In broader terms, a constant and vigorous re-examination of one’s identity becomes essential.
Thirdly, it is necessary to be clear that those who are seen to be protecting groups which have the potential to arouse ethnic and religious hatred need to be held accountable and responsible for any violence caused: politicians and public officials alike. Here again, the responsibility falls on people belonging to all religions and ethnic groups to remind their leaders that any form of violence would not be acceptable.
The crisis confronting Sri Lanka is not something which can be addressed by writing about it in a postcard and posting it to a judge. The situation calls for more intelligent and careful thinking on the part of Sri Lanka’s politicians as well as the citizenry in general. But very little thinking seems to be taking place these days. Surely, this cannot be our national trait.