by Rienzie Wijetilleke and
Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s recent comments regarding racial and religious politics were most timely. In a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders, to hear the Archbishop state so unequivocally that religion and language should not be the basis for a political party is at least mildly reassuring. It seems that the Archbishop was irked by recent comments made in Parliament by MP C. V. Wigneswaran regarding the primary language of Sri Lanka’s indigenous peoples. Cardinal Malcom is certainly not alone, although when he states that this division began in the 1950s, he is only half right. Certainly, the introduction of the singular language policy of 1956 created a significant fissure in the country, yet the beginnings of the debate around language and ethnicity and its political divisions had taken root long before this.
In Sri Lanka’s post-independence self-reckoning, many colourful characters played their roles in further igniting the already volatile situation and using their positions to foment distrust for personal gain. Many famous (or infamous) political luminaries were involved throughout the decades in the see-saw struggle to build a unitary nation state with guaranteed rights for all ethnicities. Specifically, the following passages will pay attention to two important figures during this period; former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the Politician and Lawyer G.G. Ponnambalam, both selected mainly for their colourful use of language and rhetorical flourishes.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (SWRD) is widely considered to be one of the foremost characters in the era of post-independence Sri Lanka, marked by communal divisions, creating the conditions for a separatist struggle with a terrorist organization. SWRD and other nationalist agitators were all armed with ideological justifications for their dogmatic ethno-political positions. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (SJV), the aforementioned G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP) along with SWRD were all guilty during certain periods in their careers of utilizing divisive supremacist and absolutist rhetoric, stoking communal tension.
In the mid-1950s, speeches such as the below, made by SWRD, were common place:
“… the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines?… I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside”
Against a historical backdrop of inflamed rhetoric and divisive political machinations, today’s politics appear to be exhibiting many of these traits. Recent elections saw various politicians using their platforms to propagate their own community’s sense of historical grievance and connect it to the present day.
In his recent comments, Mr. Wigneswaran alluded to “false historical perspectives of the past”. Taking these comments in unison with his opening lines regarding Tamil being the language of the “first indigenous inhabitants of this country” one can easily detect a hint of the racial supremacy that was the hallmark of GGP’s rhetoric. Notwithstanding the historical accuracy of his speech, there seems little reason to make such a remark other than to embellish his otherwise banal statement with a trace of controversy so that it may reach the collective conscious of the mainstream. Thereafter followed the plea to “recognize the intrinsic rights of people of the North and the East.”
In the mid-1930s, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (SWRD) formed the Sinhala Mahasabha, a party whose sole purpose was to promote Sinhalese culture and community interests. This was a direct response to the Tamil Nationalist anti-Sinhala movement led by G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP) in that same decade. The result was one of the earliest Sinhala – Tamil riots in modern history, at Nawalapitiya in 1939. The riots were reportedly the result of disparaging comments made by GGP regarding the Mahavamsa which were perfectly in tune with much of his rhetoric during this time.
Prior to the incident, at the launching of the Sinhala Mahasabha branch in Nawalapitiya, SWRD commented that the party should erect a statue of GGP to thank him for provoking its very existence. Being a shrewd politician, SWRD understood the influence of a well-motivated reactionary movement, fueled by the rhetoric of its nemeses. This seems to be a point lost on Mr. Wigneswaran judging by his recent comments in Parliament, reminiscent of the sort of grand-standing and ferocious rhetoric the famous GGP traded in.
The Contradictions of Ponnambalam
A talented lawyer by trade, GGP was blessed with foresight and tactical acumen which made him a considerable political force. He realised early on that the Tamil elites of the time had more in common with the Sinhalese elites than their ‘own people’. SWRD and the Sinhala Mahasabha joined ranks with the UNP of D.S. Senanayake and began constitutional reforms with the aim of establishing an independent ‘Ceylonese’ nation. Ponnambalam Arunachalam (PA) and Ponnambalam Ramanathan (PR), both stalwarts of Ceylonese politics, were supportive of constitutional reforms and of the concept of an independent Ceylon under the auspices of the Donoughmore Commission. PA and PR had earlier rejected the concept of communal representation, encouraged by the British Governor of the time, William Manning, in favour of the universal franchise. It is suspected that both PA and PR were suspicious of communal representation since it may have dissolved their positions as elites belonging to a higher caste and thereby entitled to be the torch-bearers for the Tamil people in an independent Ceylon.
GGP realised that the introduction of the universal franchise would dilute Tamil representation in the legislature. Whilst GGP appeared to disagree with the elitist PA and PR he seemed to betray his own elitist tendencies when he proposed the “50/50” Balanced Representation scheme. Yet, it was his rhetoric that spurned the potential for a truly inclusive ‘Ceylonese’ state. To this extent GGP supported PR in his regular visits to London in the 1930s to lobby the British Government to discard the universal franchise in favour of communal representation and in effect, uphold the caste system.
Against the context of the introduction of the universal franchise, GGP articulated his belief that the Sinhalese did not warrant a majority in the legislature or a primary role in governing the country and structuring any future nation state. His campaign often included racist epithets and spoke of historical racial power balances not too dissimilar to the content of Mr. Wigneswaran’s recent comments. GGP would regularly repeat his ideology, which promoted the supremacy of the Tamils over the Sinhala race in ancient Ceylon. One of his main weapons was to disparage the Mahawamsa knowing well the emotional attachment of the Sinhalese to it. He consistently labelled the Sinhalese as a “race of hybrids” and inculcated a sense of social and hierarchical grievance amongst the Tamils.
Internationally Borrowed Localized Intellectualism
This sense of racial supremacy was also prevalent during the 1920s and 30s in different parts of the world as well as amongst some of the Sinhalese politicians. The rise of Nazism in Europe and Stalinism in the Soviet Union influenced many Ceylonese intellectuals of the time as well. The ‘Catholic Guardian of Jaffna’ for example, expressed admiration for Hitler during this period. GGP referred to SWRD as a Nazi during comments in the Legislative Chamber, while remarking that he would not allow the Tamils to be treated like the Jews in Germany.
However, GGP himself was said to have visited Nazi Germany on more than one occasion along with some members of the British Union of Fascists. He, like others, seemed to be influenced by the staunchly racialized politics of the time. As an example, Dr. N.M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. De Silva were influenced by Marxist ideology that was so popular during this time. During the debates on the Sinhala Only Act, a special mention must be made on the efforts of Dr. Colvin R. De Silva to rebuke what was a popular decision amongst the majority;
“… Do we want an independent Ceylon or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian Ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of the language issue… One language, two nations; two languages, one Nation…”
These intuitive comments would prove to be prophetic some years later. It must be said that many of these men were all products of their time, of their environments and of their intellectual pursuits.
Returning to the recent comments of the Archbishop, he certainly seemed bemused when he laments the current debates surrounding the “original” language of this country and its “original” people. Mr. Wigneswaran’s intent is clear: to carve out a fresh political pedestal for himself, perhaps eager to carry the heavy burden of separatist politics that has ravaged this country for so long.
If we are to humour Mr. Wigneswaran and read between the lines of his statement, if only to uncover an ulterior motive, it seems that he may be setting up his stall as an agitator for not just the people of the North but also the people of the East. It seems necessary to state that while Tamil is a common language between the majorities of both Northern and Eastern provinces, they seem to have little else in common. Thus, it is ironic that Mr. Wigneswaran visited the LTTE memorial in Jaffna before deciding that he had earned the right to speak for the people of the eastern province as well. Note that the Eastern province has over 1.5 mn people, some 400,000 of them Sinhalese and over half a million of them Muslim. Unlike Mr. Wigneswaran, the people of the Eastern Province will still remember the LTTE’s campaigns of terror on Muslim populations; 150 deaths in the Kattankudy Mosque Massacre (1990) and up to 285 deaths in the Palliyagodella Massacre (1992). This is to say nothing of the total eviction of some 72,000 Muslims from the north.
Economic Policies Required Not Communal Politics
It certainly seems that Mr. Wigneswaran has not grasped the lessons of history and continues to trade in the same communal politics of the pre-independence era. He might have been excused for this due to the recent renaissance of mainstream communal politics in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks. Yet, we should not excuse a politician of Mr. Wigneswaran’s proven intellect. The separatist tendencies that exist in the political mainstream should be alienated, not given centre stage at a time when the economic strife of people in the North as well as the South should be the focus of parliamentary business. History has taught us that the politics of racial superiority will only lead to further destruction. Would GGP himself have ever endorsed such rhetoric had he known the real future costs of his separatist ideology?
This seems to indicate that Mr Wigneswaran himself suffers from false historical perspectives. One example is equating the LTTE to the Tamil population in general, a notion that many Tamils would find offensive. Indeed he remains a strong surrogate for the ‘Balasingam ideology’ that still persists through the remnants of the Federal Party. What would he say if a Sinhalese politician were to make similar comments in Parliament? Instead of accepting the overwhelming mandate gained by the President and the PM and focusing on the obvious economic hardship that so many in the country are going through, Mr. Wigneswaran seeks to re-energise the nativists in his corner. It seems tactically naïve to constantly create more support amongst the Sinhala supremacists, who need so little invitation. Why fan the flames when it may be at his political peril? Perhaps, it is designed to sow hatred and instigate fresh violence, which will then improve his negotiating position and prove his point in the process.
The current economic situation is dire for many, people have no disposable income, very little sense of financial security due to rising personal debt and stagnant wages, should we not, at least now, seek to cast away communal politics? If mainstream political discourse begins to degenerate into the racialized rhetoric of pre-independence Sri Lanka, we should hope that the modern day versions of the Tamil elites show more restraint than GGP did. We should hope that the mainstream rhetoric of the majority embraces pluralism as part of its patriotic nationalistic posturing.
If the economy is mishandled further while the electorate is still waging its communal war against each other, the long and ardent project to build a successful ‘post-Ceylonese’ Sri Lanka will stumble further and eventually crash. Any state that remains, be it Sinhalese or Tamil, will be a pale imitation of what was promised by the aforementioned forefathers of their own nationalist movements. What then will become of those intrinsic rights?
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.
The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.
To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.
Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.
It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.
All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.
Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.
If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.
In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.
However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.
It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.
The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.
It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.
A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.
Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.
The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.
We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.
This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.
Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!
At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.
One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.
It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!
ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!
The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.
When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!
I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.
I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.
I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.
Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!
I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.
Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.
We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!
To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.
Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.
The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..
How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!
If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.
And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!
Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.
Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.
With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.
I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.
He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.
Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.
He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!
I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:
“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.
“There is no science to beat common sense.”
But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!