Taking that extra step towards national reconciliation

| by Shanie

“Who gave the cactus the deadly thorns?
Was the brilliant niyagala its lethal poison? Year after year the chena farmer
pulls them up and burns
yet they bloom after every monsoon shower.”
– Kamala Wijeratne in ‘The Smell of Araliya’ (1983)
( May 05, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The need in Sri Lanka today is for genuine national reconciliation. But it cannot be achieved by mouthing slogans or lecturing to the minorities that there are no minorities in Sri Lanka and that they need to be integrated with the majority. The need is to work together in equal partnership in all areas of our life, each community retaining its own identity and character. Kamala Wijeratne was a teacher of English whose sensitive poetry drew analogies from the real world of nature around her. The thorns and shrubs re-sprout before each cultivation season and the new crop will not yield its harvest unless the thorns and shrubs are destroyed before they inflict their damage. Similarly with terror and violence that choke democracy in the real world. They need to be eradicated not only once but also kept constantly in check to ensure that they do not re-sprout in any form. The LTTE did not have a monopoly of terror and violence in our country. Yes, they terrorised both the majority and the minority communities. But before and after the demise of the LTTE supremo, there are other dark forces of terror and violence that have threatened and continue to threaten national peace, unity and reconciliation.
File Photo
The task of defeating these dark forces lies with the all responsible political parties, religious organisations and civil society. They need to provide the leadership so that the ugly face of communalism and violence does not impede our path to national reconciliation. They need to draw the different elements of our multi-cultural society in common programmes and activities. This is why we need to applaud the UNP in deciding to hold their May Day rally this year in Jaffna in conjunction with the principal Tamil political party and other minor parties, including the militant Nava Sihala Urumaya. It was refreshing to read in last week’s Island a contribution from that veteran Samasamajist and Attorney at Law from Kandy, Lal Wijenayake. He referred to the so-called national politicians trying to make cheap but dangerously communal criticisms about this UNP move. Wijenayake wrote: “This shows that they have not learnt lessons and has failed to grasp the true political moves that are needed at the moment to build a nation with a Sri Lankan identity. After 1956, the decision of the UNP to hold the May Day Rally in Jaffna is the one and only significant step taken to integrate the politics of the South with that of the North. For over five decades we have witnessed two parallel political movements in the North and the South which never met. We should see this decision as the first step towards bringing the northern politics into main stream politics. It is the people of the South as the majority community that can heal the wounds of the thirty year old war. It is we of the South who should take the responsibility to rebuild the confidence in the southern politics which the people of the North had lost during the war. We should congratulate Ranil for this bold step. Let us make use of this window of opportunity after the war to rebuild a nation with a Sri Lankan identity.”
Wijenayake’s wise words were echoed by the Editor of the Island this week. From the time of the Jaffna Youth Congress in the nineteen twenties, the grassroots leadership (not the elite politicians) in the North and South, West and East were working together in a spirit of partnership towards a common goal of independence and democracy. But since the mid-fifties the people of the North and East have remained distant from mainstream politics at the centre, despite brief periods of co-habitation that never materialized into a real partnership. As Wijenayake states for nearly five decades, we have had two parallel political movements that never converged. The defeat of the LTTE in 2009 presented an opportunity for the different political movements to work together. But alas! Our political leadership has failed the country in missing this opportunity to unite our peoples in a true spirit of partnership and reconciliation. On the contrary, it has further divided the people.

North-South Partnership
Divisive politics has not been confined to ethnic polarisation. Sarath Fonseka, the President Rajapaksa’s principal political opponent at the last Presidential Election, has not only been deprived of his elected seat on Parliament but also been forced to serve a term of imprisonment. This mirrors the action of President J R Jayewardene in unjustly depriving his principal political opponent Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights. The editor of The Island quite rightly referred to the stinging criticism of Jayewardene’s action by Amirthalingam, the then leader of the principal Tamil party and Leader of the Opposition. But this was not all. Soon after the parliamentary vote, a reception was organized for Bandaranaike at the Jaffna esplanade. She was visibly moved by the massive crowd that had spontaneously come to express their solidarity with her.
The only other spontaneous gathering of the Tamil people in the last five decades to greet southern leaders was soon after Bandaranaike’s daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was elected President in 1994. She sent eminent civil society and religious leaders to Jaffna to prepare the ground for a political solution to the national questions. Her representatives were mobbed by enthusiastic crowds everywhere they went. This of course alarmed the LTTE who thought they may be marginalized and thwarted CBK’s moves by resuming the war.
Now, it is for us as Wijenayake has stated to utilise the window of opportunity to re-build our nation with a truly Sri Lankan identity. We hope the senior leaders in the government, particularly from the SLFP, the major constituent party in the coalition, realise that a Sri Lankan identity cannot be forged by condoning actions of mobs who seek the destruction of places of worship of minority religious communities or by arbitrarily arresting young people also from minority communities ostensibly for rehabilitation as has happened in the East in recent days.
Heterodoxy and Multi-culturalism
Sri Lanka has a long tradition of toleration of heterodoxy and multi-culturalism. In recent months, it was good to be reminded of the inspiring activism of the Jaffna Youth Congress in the nineteen twenties and thirties in the North. Under the leadership of Handy Perinbanayagam (later to be Principal of one of Jaffna’s leading schools and a member of the National Education Commission), most of the leading activists of the Congress were school teachers and in their twenties and early thirties. But they made a tremendous impact on the political and social life of Jaffna and many of the political leaders in the south attended the sessions of the Congress regularly. One of the activists was K Nesiah, then a twenty-five year old school master and later a Peradeniya academic. Two decades later, Nesiah wrote in his ‘The Mother Tongue in Education’ (Ola Books, 1945): “Ceylon has a recorded history reaching back to at least the sixth century before Christ. But the two main streams of tradition that have irrigated her historical development go further back and derive their source from India, and are in fact drawn from the same great cultural reservoir from which the Eastern half of the world yet draws its inspiration. Of these two streams of tradition the one owes its birth to Siddharta Gautama Buddha, India’s great spiritual genius and one of the world’s greatest sons. The other tradition is older still and represents Hindu Culture……Two other traditions have entered the island in modern times. One is Islam with its emphasis on the oneness of God and the brotherhood of believers…Islam has brought its contribution to the country but it has not disturbed the fundamental unity of the national culture…The other tradition is that of the Christian religion , first arrived rather incongruously as the faith of foreign invaders…
To make anything of the future we must possess the confidence that can only be born of a consciousness of our priceless inheritance……a willingness to enter into harmonious relationship with members of all communities as is shown by the fact that Sinhalese and Tamils, Moors and Burghers, live side by side and show a toleration for one another that is hardly equaled in many other parts of the world.” Sadly, that tolerance Nesiah wrote prior to independence has been rudely shattered after independence. The Dambulla mosque incident is the latest manifestation of that intolerance. It is not only the political leadership but civil society has also to take a large share of the blame. The political leadership has been silent on the affair when they should have had the courage to come out openly and condemn and take action against people, even Buddhist monks, who take the law into their own hands and create communal disharmony. Even the civil society, except for the usual liberals, has been largely silent. Some have written that ‘what happened was wrong, but….’ There is an unwillingness to accept that we are a plural society and that we need to share space, respect one another and that the only way forward, as Nesiah wrote, is by recognizing and taking pride in our priceless multi-cultural inheritance.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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