“Cultural purity is an oxymoron.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah (Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers)

The Independence Day celebrations commenced with the national anthem sung in Sinhala and concluded with the national anthem sung in Tamil. It was a first and a good first, a gesture of enormous symbolic significance, an unmistakable indication of the new government’s commitment to an inclusive, pluralist project of nation-building.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa once derided the singing of the national anthem in Tamil as “a ridiculous and unpractical idea.”[i] But for those who accept the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka and look forward to a truly Lankan future, that moment felt not ridiculous or unpractical, but deeply moving. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is not living up to expectation in several key areas, starting with the economy. But now and then it does something which vindicates fully the historic outcome of January 8th 2015 and keeps hope of a better future alive.

We don’t love other people’s countries; we can only love our own. Measures which humiliate ethno-religious minorities cannot promote national reconciliation or foster Lankan patriotism. There is a greater chance of inculcating a sense of Lankan patriotism in Tamil/Muslim children and youth when they are allowed to sing the national anthem in their own language rather than parrot it in a language they barely understand.

Mahinda Rajapaksa imposed the de facto ban on singing the national anthem in Tamil not during the war, but several months after the defeat of the LTTE, as a petulant response to the Oxford Debacle. The LLRC (appointed by the Rajapaksa administration) in its report criticised the ban and warned that it would “create a major irritant which would not be conducive to fostering post-conflict reconciliation.”  It also recommended that “The practice of the National Anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages in the same time must be maintained and supported.” That recommendation was finally implemented by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government on February 4th, 2016.

The pro-Rajapaksa opposition tried to use this necessary measure of reconciliation to inflame Sinhala minds and widen the national divide. They frothed and fumed; some limelight-craving politicians even threatened to impeach the president. Former president Rajapaksa was not slow to leap into the fray. He reiterated the same old counter-factual arguments he used when he imposed the ban five years ago, claiming that in no country in the world is the national anthem sung in more than one language[ii]. Mr. Rajapaksa’s ignorance is understandable; not so the inability/unwillingness of his better-read and more knowledgeable sidekicks to enlighten his ignorance. Sri Lanka is not the only country with a bi-lingual national anthem; Canadian and Cameroonian national anthems are sung in English and French (O’ Canada has an Inuktiut version too); Swiss national anthem is sung in German, Italian, French and Romansh; New Zeeland’s national anthem has English and Maori lyrics; and post-Apartheid South Africa has a multi-lingual national anthem (Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English). India having a mono-lingual national anthem is another argument Mr. Rajapaksa regularly use. He is clearly unaware that the Indian national anthem is written not in Hindi, the language of the majority community, but in Bengali, the language of a minority community. The equivalent would be if Lanka adopted a national anthem written not in Sinhala but in Malay.

Reality has very little significance in the politics of Sinha Le. When Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2015 presidential election, the pro-Rajapaksa group argued that this was not a true defeat because a majority of Sinhalese voted for Mr. Rajapaksa. The underlying logic was obvious. Sri Lanka is not the equal homeland of all her people, but the chosen land of the chosen race. Minorities are not co-owners of the country; therefore their vote has a lesser value and any electoral outcome in which their vote is decisive is not a legitimate one. Maithripala Sirisena might be the president of the really existing ethno-religiously pluralist Sri Lanka. But Mahinda Rajapaksa remains the president of the land of Sinha Le.

‘Teaching of Contempt’ and Deadly Faultlines

In 2010, British courts made a landmark decision rejecting the idea that Christianity deserves special protection from law. Delivering the verdict, Lord Justice Laws dismissed such a contention as ‘irrational’: “We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion — any belief system — cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.”[iii]

We live in pluralist societies. Perhaps not out of choice but because it is the inescapable, unchangeable reality we are faced with. Secularism and tolerance are not thus choices but necessities, if we want to prevent the implosion of our societies through civil hostility and conflict. The bloody developments in parts of Middle East, Africa and Asia prove the costs of anti-secularism and the destructive and self-destructive nature of the drive for purity. The victims of armed Islamic fundamentalists are often not members of other religions but fellow Muslims who are regarded as the wrong kind of Muslims and therefore deserving of death.

Sinha Le is not an exclusively Sinhala, Buddhist or Lankan product. It is a part of global and historical phenomenon which advocates government of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of a primordial identity – either ethnicity or religion. The adherents of ‘politics of salvation’ believe in a land which is pure, a land which is the exclusive preserve of their own ethnic or religious community. Their programme therefore is essentially one of ethnic/religious purification/cleansing.

The relentless search for purity, purity of blood, of faith, of culture gives rise to an inquisitorial state of mind, a pathological fear of anything new or different. This malady is not limited to Sinhala-Buddhists, but is common to extremists of every ethnic and religious community in Sri Lanka. The Tigers were infected by it and the internecine bloodletting it gave rise to made no small contribution to the LTTE’s eventual decline and defeat. It is present among some Lankan Catholics and Christians and those Lankan Muslims who have become adherents of more extreme forms of Islam such as Wahabism.

Historically religion has often functioned as a destructive force, tearing apart countries and communities. Therefore if we want to save the ‘nation state’ from disintegration, we need to keep it separate and insulated from this immeasurably powerful force which under certain circumstances can flatten everything in its path and drag societies and peoples to utter ruin.

Shortly before she was killed by the IS (Islamic State), Ruqia Hassan, a young Syrian woman wrote the following lines on her facebook page. “The only thing the secular man remembers from the Qur’an is that the God is the most merciful, and everything comes from that… The only thing the extreme Islamists memorise is one verse – to be tough with infidels and merciful to believers – but to the extreme Islamists, everyone is an infidel, whether Muslim or not.”[iv] Ms. Hassan knew that difference first hand. She was one of a handful of residents in Raqqa who dared to criticise the monstrosities committed by the IS.

Ms. Hassan’s incisive comment is applicable to extremists in general. Anything can be grist to their ever-churning mill of hatred, anything can arouse their fires of suspicion, anything can trigger their violent intolerance, including a soprano.

Kishani Jayasinghe and the Inquisitorial State-of-mind

Kishani Jayasinghe, the internationally renowned Lankan soprano, sang at the official cultural show to celebrate the Independence Day. Her repertoire included both popular Sinhala songs and old jana kavi (folk poems). The next morning, the presenter of the programme, Derana Aruna, played Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition of the iconic Sinhala song Danno Budunge, and followed it with a rant which was ignorant and uncouth in equal measure. “Female cats sometimes make sounds like that in the night. What do we do then? We take a piece of brick and throw it in that direction… A warped version of the Danno Budunge song was sung at a ceremony to celebrate the National Independence Day. Opera or something, we don’t know. Why are such things being done to valuable things? We don’t know whether such things are done in expectation of bricks being thrown.”[v]

Everyone has the right to have an opinion on Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition of Danno Budunge and to express that opinion. If the presenter expressed his dislike of Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition in civilised language, there would have been nothing to object to. Opera is not everyone’s cup of tea, even in the West. But the vile language the presenter used and his thinly-veiled attempt to incite the viewers into paroxysms of violent hatred placed his remarks beyond the pale. He compared the singer to a queen (a non-sterilised female cat) in heat and indicated that stoning is the right and proper response to her. In his opinion Ms. Jayasinghe insulted a holy-object of Sinhala-Buddhism. Therefore she must be responded to not with words but with stones. Between this mindset and the mindset of those who murder women and men for violating this or that religio-cultural taboo, the difference is just one of degrees. For all of them, violence is the first and favoured resort, the ideal solution to every problem, be it an unacceptable political decision or an objectionable song.

Commenting on the situation that prevailed in the early years of Nazi Germany Sebastian Haffner said: “Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks whom he loves what he does in his spare time whose company he seeks whether he smiles or frowns, what he reads, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance”[vi]. In Sri Lanka, like elsewhere in the world, there is a tendency to demonise not only ethno-religious other, but also those members of one’s own community seen as ‘impure’. The enemy is not only those who follow a different faith, but those of one’s own faith who interpret that faith differently and live their lives in a way which violates some taboo created by tribal societies which ceased to be centuries ago. Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara would have his Christian, Hindu and Muslim counterparts, those who believe there is only one correct way of life and would not hesitate to impose it by laws and even sword and fire.

The Sinha Le insanity is dangerous. It needs to be countered, but not with laws or force, let alone violence, but with arguments. We have a battle to wage, but it must be waged in the terrain of ideas. We must meet their insanity with logic, their ravings with facts, their incitement to violence with appeals to reason. This is also a struggle which moderates of other ethnic and religious communities must wage against their own extremists. Not doing so would be a deadly mistake. Many Tamils who were appalled by the LTTE’s crimes and errors opted to remain silent partly out of fear and partly due to an understandable unwillingness to give solace to the Lankan state. Their silence encouraged and emboldened the LTTE into committing ever greater atrocities. Those atrocities turned potential allies into implacable enemies (including North-Eastern Muslims), enraged most of the world community and which eventually helped the Lankan state to impose a crushing victory on the LTTE.

Extremism and fanaticism begin with destruction and end with self-destruction. That is a lesson no Lankan, be he/she of the majority community or minority communities can afford to forget.

[i] Sri Lanka mirror – 6.4.2012

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGDql4GGEhs

[iii] The Times – 30.4.2010

[iv] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/13/ruqia-hassan-killed-for-telling-truth-about-isis-facebook

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnlrLDZwNHU

[vi] Defying Hitler