Photo by AFP/LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI via Pakistan Today
On the 19th of July 2014, my cook hands me a police form to fill. It is one of those usual forms that we were inundated with during the war. The form asks for almost the same information as the election registration forms, with the one exception of asking for details of everybody in the house, not just those eligible to vote from there. Being inculcated in the behavior of obeying authority, I duly filled in the form. Head of household being me, then my husband, then my parents, then my cook. I didn’t fill in the name and details of the maid; for one reason, she doesn’t have an ID, and secondly, she looked as if she would be leaving us quite soon. But there was something else I did. I am married to a Sinhala man, but I have retained my surname. After I had filled in the form, for some reason I cannot quite explain, I added his surname to my surname, I was now Hussein-Perera. When handing the form back to my cook to give it to the policeman who said he would come in a few days, I jokingly told her: they are asking for details to know which households are Muslim so that they can come and whack us like they did the Tamils in 1983. Imagine my horror, when she told me, the policeman had asked her if this was a Sinhala or a Muslim house? She replied, Sinhala, for what reason I don’t know, and she said she did it instinctively. The policeman gave her the form and told her to fill it out in any case. My blood ran cold.
The next day I met a friend who is a lawyer. It was a Sunday and she didn’t want to hear work related issues, but the form was niggling me enough to force myself on her. She seemed surprised the form was being circulated, because in her memory, a similar form had circulated in 2007 and a Supreme Court order was issued in 2008 to stop such circulation without an IGP or magistrate authorizing it. She asked me to go back and see if the form had a seal from a particular police station and a signature.
I checked the form, there was no such seal or signature; it was a plain form that could be photocopied and distributed by anyone in a uniform irrespective if they were genuine or not. I now didn’t want to hand the form in. I had visions of Nazis asking Jews to register themselves in police stations, ostensibly for their ‘protection’ and the Jews obediently doing so, and we all know what happened then.
Soon after, I met another friend who casually told me that a police officer had visited the site of the house he was building and handed the same form to him to fill. The first question he had asked was if my friend was Muslim. To which the answer was yes. In casual conversation, he had told my friend that after they obtain the forms they divide them in the station according to religion. My friend was uneasy when he heard this and more chills went down my spine.
I phoned a neighbor who lives in a small block of flats and is Sinhala. Yes, they had got the form as well. She had duly filled it and handed it over. In passing, she said something else. There was a Muslim family that had moved into the flat above, but she didn’t tell the policeman about them, didn’t write their names in the form, even though the other flat residents were included in the form. She explained it casually, by saying she didn’t think it was important to write their names, she thought they may be leaving soon. More chills.
Another friend who lives in Colombo 5, said that the Tamil neighbor at the top of her lane didn’t receive a form, but all the other houses, that belonged to Muslims did get forms. The Tamil neighbor jokingly had told her to put her Sinhala maiden name on the name board of the house.
My cousins living in various areas of Colombo all got forms and duly filled them and even handed them over.
I threw my form. The policeman now comes daily to my house to get the form. Luckily for me, both my husband and I have been away from the house each time and he has been fobbed away. He came one day when I was at home, I hid and sent the driver to say that my husband was not at home, which was true. The policeman said he will come the next day. We were due to leave Colombo, so I instructed my driver to tell the policeman we lost the form and could he please give us another form.
Later in the morning I receive the following message on my phone:
“According to Lanka E news a secret meeting has taken place between GOTA, Gnanasara and all chiefs of Police and Armed forces to start island wide violence from 10th August. In those meetings Gnanasara will speak against the government to make it believe the Government is also helpless. Please spread this message as much as possible so that the people will know about it including the Sinhalese people. Let us do something to our community and our country without being mere spectators and critics.”
Upon reading this, I ask my husband if I can store the deeds to our house with my mother in law. He nods. I wonder: have I gone mad? Am I paranoid? How have things come to this?
On the way to our land in Puttalam, there is a tea kaday we stop at to have breakfast. It is run by Muslims but they think I am Sinhalese, possibly because of my inability to speak Tamil and the way I look and dress. While chatting, the tea boy, dressed in trousers and a funky t-shirt, sporting a wispy beard on his chin, tells me: “If we both (him and I) are cut, we will both bleed red. We are the same, we should be able to live in harmony. I nod in agreement, a smile plastered on my face, but my heart was breaking. What tragedy we have come to this”.
Like the Israel-Palestine tragedy that is happening now and has been dragged on for many years, I cannot assign blame to only one people. In that instance both sides have their fair share of grievances, some more than others. But now, Israel has got to a point where she is acting in a criminal manner, and there can be no doubt, no discussion even about it. Similarly, I will not say that the Muslim community living in Sri Lanka has been free from blame. Conversations with the mildest of Sinhalese and Tamil friends, tell me that the visible extreme representation of Islam be it the innocuous black abaya or the long white thobe that some Muslim men wear these days or the long beard, or the niqab, or the mosques filled to such capacity, men pray on the road on Friday Jumma, or the azan at 5 in the morning, or the halal certificate, or the new big mosques being built right bang on the road, or the ritual animal sacrifice that is conducted, or the conspicuous consumption that they view as excessive, irritate them in some way or the other. We cannot ignore the elephant in the room. The Muslims have seemingly stopped integrating, seemingly gone out of their way to be different, seemingly enjoying with pride the fact that they are not like other Sri Lankans. We Muslims have indeed become more visible, but it doesn’t make us any less Sri Lankan, it doesn’t make us not belong to this country. We too work hard, and invest our life and soul in this country, our Mother land. We even chose sides in the war that went on for 26 years and suffered the consequences of expulsion, exclusion and discrimination by the LTTE. What have we done that makes the Sinhala people think we don’t want to belong?
A year ago, I sat next to a Sinhala-Chinese interpreter. She was interpreting at a banquet given for Chinese business women and for some reason, I was invited. They were intrigued that there were Muslims in Sri Lanka, and I heard the interpreter give them some explanation of our origin. I asked her what she said. She told me that she said, the Muslims had been here only for the past 500 years, which dates them to around 1500 or so. I was shocked at her ignorance. My friend seated next to me, told her, “The Arabs have been here for around 1000 years, if not more and after Islam from 7AD, those Arabs who became Muslims kept on coming.“ The interpreter looked surprised. She had never heard of that, she thought the Muslims had come with the Portuguese!
I have written many articles on almost the same theme. The constant beating of the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious drum. I am getting tired of it. No-one in authority wants to listen. No-one seems to care.
So, perhaps this essay is just to say: The Nazis did it to the Jews, the Israeli government is doing it to the Palestinians, the Sinhalese governments did it to the Tamils, and now perhaps it is our turn. And if anyone reading this, thinks this is a call for violence in return, you cannot be more mistaken. It is time for Muslims or any minority, to teach the majority their own great philosophy of Buddhism. For didn’t the Buddha say: Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule..And that is what I think we should be doing. We should be radiating love.