Tamil Buddhism and oldness of Sinhala lingo are beside the point
by Kumar David
Justice Wigneswaran is not laying traps to snare GR-MR or the TNA; that’s not the import of my title. I am suggesting is that wily old Wiggy is calculating that these worthies will snare themselves in traps of their own making, and then his line will pay off. His expectation is that the regime will turn explicitly anti-Tamil and his second calculation is that the TNA is too deeply mired in compromises to extricate itself. Of course, I am attributing motives to him; but in politics it’s okay for analysts to make assumptions about why leaders do this or that and I am within limits of fairness in imputing not unreasonable motives to Wiggy.
This of course is in addition to the fun he must be having watching Field Marshals and Rear Admirals frothing at the mouth. The more they froth the better it plays into his gambit. The old fox’s trick is to say incendiary stuff like: ‘Tamil was the original language of the island, the Sinhala tongue emerged only in the Sixth or Seventh Century AD’; ‘Tamils were the first Buddhists in Lanka and switched to Saivism in early BC’; ‘Dushata Kaamini was a Tamil Buddhist fighting Ellalan a Tamil Saivite’. Stuff like that, even if true, the mere utterance will make ‘hela, jathika, abimane’ blood boil.
Leaving to one side whether Wiggy is stirring things up for larks or for political gain, what’s the historical and anthropological evidence. The Wiggy-Fonny adipudi seemed at first a brawl between two ageing crack-pots and I thought experts would weigh in and sort out fact from fiction sans ethnic and ideological bias. But all experts have chickened out, which tells us how explosive the topic is. I have over the years done some amateur reading so fools need to drift in where angels are cowardly to tread. I don’t care whether Tamil, Sinhalese or Double-Dutch is older or whether the Tamils or the Sinhalese first sniffed religious opium. What I have learnt is from writings of Lanka’s best historian, Leslie (RALH) Gunawardena and anthropologist Sudarshan Seneviratne. I am also very familiar with Indrapala’s excellent Evolution of Ethnic Identity, portions of K.M. de Silva’s tome, what was readily available of Gananath, and Wikipedia level stuff. Let me blurt out this little learning till an expert picks up the courage to speak.
Yes, Tamil is one of the oldest living languages; living means it is still spoken. Chinese, Greek and Tamil may be the oldest. Second, many (most?) Tamils in South India and Lanka were Buddhists in ‘BC times’ before the onward march of Saivism inundated them in ‘AD times’, especially during the apogee of Chola power. There is evidence of widespread practice of Buddhism and Jainism in Southern India and the northern and eastern parts of this island before it was pushed out between the first century BC and the third century AD. The third point is what has got the experts into a funk; they don’t want to be lynched. Sinhala became the lingua franca of southern Lanka during the fifth to sixth centuries AD; that is quite recently. The language of the elite and the clergy prior to Mahavamsa times was Prakrit while a classical version called Pali was used by the learned. In olden times the mass of the people, a few thousand, lived in small tribes and communities and a collective name for their speech is Hela or Elu or Helu; hence the case made by certain pundits for going back to the original Hela stuff has a point.
Vijaya and his horde were a raiding band who spoke an Indian dialect and were assimilated by the tribes and communities who proliferated across the island. Only a few hundred strong they could not have made large sperm donations. The originals in the north were tribal groups but linguistically Tamilised by South Indian migration from BC times. Genetically, Tamil and Sinhalese folk are to a large extent, descendants of these tribal pools though these days all they want to do is gouge each other’s eyes out. Then the interesting bit follows. The difference between our warring idiots is not race – they are much the same gene pool – it is ethnic, that is language, religion and culture. After the high period of Chola conquest two separate cultures ossified in different portions of the island among racially similar peoples. These are the two mentally retarded communities we confront today; this comes across clearly in Leslie and Indrapala’s writings but they put it politely. However, propensity for conflict does not disappear; ethnicities can hate each other as much as races because friction is about material and social benefits. But hopefully, if the mass mind knows that the two are of racially the same stock in conflict over benefits and politics, visceral hatred of the ‘other’ may diminish.
Wiggy suspects that the GR-MR government will screw the Muslims first and then turn on the Tamils. He like the rest of us is anticipating tough times ahead for economy and at that time what is more profitable for the regime than the race-card? Many Venerables and State and Cabinet Ministers are merchants of death that GR-MR dare not leash, and that indicates where power lies. The TNA is too compromised. Its efforts were not unprincipled; it correctly judged that without a deal with the Sinhalese the Tamils will get nowhere. It picked on yahapalana because the UNP is liberal as opposed to the SLPP and SLFP which are of Sinhala-Buddhist ethos. The poor sods ended up as empty handed as Chelva and the FP but not quite as stone dead as Prabakaran. It seems unlikely that the TNA can rise again, but true, stranger things have happened.
Moody’s Investor Service last week dropped Lanka’s sovereign rating from B2 to Caa1, a two-tier drop bypassing B3. The agency defines Caa as “speculative, of poor standing and subject to very high credit risk”; that is junk! The corresponding grade in Standard & Poor and Fitch is CCC, CC or C. While rating agencies have responsibility to both lender and debtor the double whammy is harsh; a one tier downgrade was unavoidable since medium-term prospects for the economy are poor. Recent improvements (remittances rising to pre-COVID levels, sharp reduction in imports, fall in 2020 balance of payments deficit from a feared $8 billion to an expected $6 billion deficit, and enhanced activity in the domestic economy) though loudly touted by the Finance Ministry seem to have been dismissed by the agency as short-term gains. Sadly, the outlook is a looming fiscal (budget) deficit, deterioration of asset quality and a depressing employment picture. Not all of Cabraal’s rantings could have deflected a one-tier downgrade. Wiggy reckons that the regime will go after the minorities when troubles multiply. Maybe he reckons ‘Why would a post-20A regime not do just what autocrats do when cornered by a flailing economy?’
Wiggy is palpably mischievous and enjoys baiting the ‘hela, jathika, abimane’ fraternity. For proof peruse the hundreds of naïve, goofy and brain-dead comments following any Wiggy piece in the Colombo Telegraph. On the serious side I think he calculates that Tamil leadership will go next to the one who walks the talk; he who is most boldly Tamil! Though Tamil militancy was the outcome of Sinhala politics even a militant Wiggy will eventually have to cut a deal; there is no other option. The Tamil stand-off has no realisable solution other than cutting a deal with the Sinhalese state. Muslims have always been of this view. Wiggy is upper middle-class; a liberal intellectual who speaks and writes the Queen’s English like, well like a judge. He is a Royalist who must have just missed entry to S. Thomas’ by a few marks. But strangely he is also an obscurantist. I don’t know what to make of a man who is a devotee of the late Swami Premananda convicted on multiple counts of murder and rape in India in 1997. See-
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._V._Vigneswaran and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swami_Premananda_(guru)]
Though the infection rate is now declining the 1000+ that tested positive for COVID in the Gampaha District signal a ‘community outbreak’ described as spread by mechanisms that cannot be traced to contact with a ‘recently-returned person’ or foreign visitor. This is alarming; community outbreaks are very difficult to control; no one knows where this sneaky bug is hiding. If GR and team impose production and industry disrupting curfews again, damage to the economy will be devastating and follow hard on Moody’s downgrade of our credit rating to junk. In the wake of previous mutilation this will act as a geometric multiplier. The possible closure of BIA will further deflate business confidence. If the economy goes into a tailspin the regime will need some drama to distract attention: Dump 20A? Blame minorities for something? Discover ever more welcome crimes of the “previous regime”? The second possibility relates to today’s column.
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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!