Wednesday, August 3, 2016

RAJAN HOOLE - In Sri Lanka, a Government in Denial About the Ramifications of a Long History of Violence

The crisis arising from the Sinhala-Tamil student conflict at Jaffna University is a part of the Sinhalese establishment’s absence of conviction on the cardinal importance of secularism and the drift of the Tamil elite towards religious obscurantism.

Conflicting nationalist narratives – as adaptations of received history to explain the present and direct the future – have, for each community, its inner logic. This is evident in how the Sri Lankan media has treated the Jaffna University’s first clash between Tamil and Sinhalese students.

In this regard, the university has the opportunity of playing a constructive role in winning over its Sinhalese students through mutual understanding and respect, and thereby creating a base for demanding that other universities do likewise. That calls for courage, foresight and empathy.
Unfortunately, following the mores of its Sinhalese counterparts, today the Tamil cause is being presented by extremists and is mired in meaningless symbols, purposeless rituals and the exclusion of ‘others’ from particular spaces.

To understand the transition, we go back to the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 – the definitive statement of Tamil separatism. The essential grievance in it is that the Sri Lankan constitution of 1972 gave the foremost place to Buddhism and obliged the state to foster it. These provisions were protected in the second republican constitution of 1978 as well.

Whatever may be said in mitigation – for example, that the constitution also guarantees religious freedom to others – in effect, it is inequality and the denial of secularism. This, invariably, leads to the other principal grievance in the resolution: ‘Denying the Tamils equality of opportunity in the spheres of education, land alienation and economic life in general’.

Sri Lanka’s security forces have erected Buddhist monuments in minority-dominated and war-devastated areas as symbols of possession. This, it would seem, is their skewed interpretation of the constitutional call to ‘foster Buddhism’. In 2005, under the cover of darkness and the backing of a hardline Sinhalese-Buddhist political party, the navy planted a massive Buddha statue in the Trincomalee bus stand.

When the attorney general sought court action for its removal, the country’s chief justice arm-twisted him and the case was withdrawn. The events did nothing to ease the climate of the eastern city which was already seething with ethnic tension. Hardly any Sinhalese leader would dare to oppose such unlawful actions by the security forces that assumes the colour of patriotism.

The proposed new constitution is almost certain to uphold the primacy of Buddhism and there is no consensus over the nature of the state – whether unitary or otherwise. As such, the content and language of the Vaddukottai Resolution, would continue to resonate with the Tamils.

The grievances stated in the resolution are essentially about rights and inequality, and separatism follows largely on the premise that the Sri Lankan government is incapable of a just settlement. Devolution under provincial councils, that was offered grudgingly under the Indian pressure in 1988, has proved to be a futile counter to entrenched inequality.

One would, on this reading, conclude that the most rational and painless first step for the government is to zealously enforce secularism and its counterpart, equality. It must be kept in mind that the Tamils long felt strongly about these grievances. Their nonviolent protests were violently quenched.
As a community, they have been through a ruinous armed struggle in the last thirty years, whatever its rights, brutalities and follies. To ask them to accept the primacy of Buddhism in the new constitution, the effects of which are far more than symbolic, would make it rankle as a counterfeit made from base metal.

Imitating oppressive mores: Once culturally rooted, sectarian ideological claims become politically embedded and are extremely hard to reverse. The disease extends divisively. What the Sinhalese did with Buddhism, to their detriment, the Tamils are repeating. The Tamil nationalists who passed the Vaddukoddai Resolution prided themselves as being secular, and in word at least, tried to make common ground with the Muslims, whose language is also Tamil.. read more: