Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Post-War

Flag hoisting, non-violence and triumphalism in Sri Lanka

Our country is at a historical juncture with many controversies and contradictions. The resultant complex scenario leads to many questions but answers are not that easy to come by Jubliant triumphalism with deep and down to earth egoism on one hand and on the other human sufferings at its worst – worst of its kind that our history has recorded. Amidst a lot of sadness at the loss of human beings, amidst a lot of sadness of knowing that they are many who are injured maimed and had lost their eye sight and limbs, amidst reports of s insufficient food, water, medical facilities and medicine, we are at a time of the worst human suffering. The Sinhalese soldiers who are killed, the LTTE combatants who are killed, the innocent civilian’s men women, little children and grown up children and pregnant mothers, who are killed speak volumes of tragic scenarios. On the other hand there were celebrations of hoisting the national flags, the crackers and kiribath, Bailas and street singing. Happy and jubilant indeed are those who have lost their kith and kin by the LTTE. Happy indeed are those who could rejoice at the elimination of a terrorist out fit of murderers. Justifiably those who were affected may a heap a sign of relief. Citizens who abhor violence may also have sense of relief.

However, what intrigued me was why is it that the majority of the Sinhalese, all Muslims and all Tamils did not participate in the celebrations? Are they not happy that the LTTE is eliminated? No, that is not the answer. The anti LTTE Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims who did not participate in a note of over joyed enthusiasm were a different kettle of fish. This absence presents other things. They are people with maturity who know how to act with dignity and restraint during times of crisis. They are people with a kind, humane heart and mind who can’t rejoice and be happy at such an unprecedental tragedy of human suffering. I think people like them keep the world go despite all the human short comings. They welcomed the “Good News” but were unhappy over the other events.

I am reminded of an incident in history. After the Kalinga war – when thousands of people combatants and non combatants were killed, King Asoka was so deeply troubled and moved by the carnage that he embraced Buddhist Dharma of ahimsa – non-violence. How many of our fellow citizens would be moved like king Asoka? Have those moral values become things of past, put in the dustbin of history? I keep asking without knowing the answer.

I am also puzzled at the reason for the resurgence of the Lion flag – what does the message, signify? Was Sri Lanka liberated from an imperial colonial power? Was any one prevented from hoisting the Lion flag when LTTE was in operation? Did it signify a sudden emergence of nationalism which is now different and which was dwarfed owing the LTTE presence?

While on the subject of the flag, I have a few thoughts on it. For a long time, I had consistently entertained reservations on the Lankan flag and what it conveys: As a person who is deeply anti war, and against all kinds of violence – imperial caste, class ethnic and gender. I hate all weapons of war and ferocious animals that kill human beings. The sword and the roaring lion look so violent for me. It is a subjective feeling from the time that I was a teenager and I shared my feelings and thoughts with my late father. He agreed with me but both of us had no political power for any transformation and the pen never did wield power in my experience. When we are at a time hoping for transformation, I am hoping against hope that the change over the national flag will also take place. We can follow the example of India and have a Buddhist flavour of ahimsa and an inclusive message of loving kindness, a kind of dharmic message. This is merely a wishful thinking of a concerned person. Let us eradicate violence starting from our national flag.

I can also make a connection here. The triumphant celebrations, sometimes stage-managed and with drunken participants, shouted slogans with the intention of hurting the ordinary Tamil Citizens. Some Tamils were forced to hoist the flag and ridiculing statements were hurled at them. Most of them lived in fear for three or four days, agonising with memories of the past, 1958 and 1983 and a Sinhala friend told me that in some instances 1983 was on the verge of being re-enacted. (I do not normally refer to people by ethnic or caste names but here the word “Sinhalese” has some signification, it is not a biased statement by a Tamil as someone would perceive). Did the sword and roaring lion instigate them? Or did it inspire them to be proactive. For a long time I could not be converted into a patriot or a nationalist as I felt that there is nothing to be proud of or happy about of our country, our culture. There are so many miserable human beings and many miserable conditions which marginalise a huge number our citizens on the basis on ethnicity, class, caste and gender. Violence of all kinds verbal, physical and psychological is excessively present with or without the LTTE. I find myself, as someone always sceptical or questioning the glory of nationalism. Besides, our National flag has stripes and borders to represent the Tamils, Muslims and Moors and other cultures living in Sri Lanka. The crimson back ground is supposed to represent minor religions and ethnic groups, Portuguese, Dutch and Burghers. Why this hierarchy with people who have minds and hearts of the human race who are all citizens of the country? What does it symbolically tell them? You are not the same as we. You are the others. Now that the President has in a statesmanship fashion declared in the Parliament that in Sri Lanka that we will have no minorities hereafter. We can get rid of these lines and borders that divide us and offer graciously and magnanimously everyone an equal political status.

We have had enough violence. 1958, 1977, 1983 (Counter-violence to the killing in Tinnaveli) the LTTE violence and State violence, the para military violence, the white van violence, killings of dissenters of various ideological makings. Shouldn’t we now have a flag which depicts non-violence? Ahimsa as our motto. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Catholics, atheists and agnostics – no one will oppose the concept of non-violence.

I find myself re-affirming with what Bertrand Russell said. He was quite right when he said that “patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons. I am also in agreement with Samuel Johnson who wrote, patriotism is “the last refuge of a scoundrel”. Perhaps I will be named a “traitor” because I am criticising patriotism and nationalism which are considered lofty ideas. Or glorious terms.

There were many people who did not hoist the national flag, some in protest, some couldn’t be bothered with symbolic actions and a few others dismissed it philosophically saying and thinking, there are many other priorities in life. These men and women were not forced to do, though a few Tamils were forced by the crowds through a mob-mentality to hoist the national flag. Many Government offices, Private Business concerns and organisations and Institutes were not requested to close office. But Nationalists could order that certain offices should close. The question that begs the answer is can the so called nationalists force and threaten independent free thinking citizens to do something which they don’t considers worth while doing? Can they be ordered to pay large sums of money towards any cause to which they don’t subscribe. Do the nationalists have special rights and privileges to be violent, verbally or physically requesting something in the name of a cause? Nationalism or patriotism or of helping the disabled and maimed is certainly different from being ordered and threatened.

This indeed is a sad state of affairs, of unprincipled minds and misdirected sentiments.