Around this time last year, the country was witnessing a bizarre onslaught on the Muslim community by a miniscule but vocal section of the majority community. Just when a long drawn-out insurgency had been put down, racial tension rose to a peak with a new foe. It was a case of the insensitivity of one [...]


Whispering hope


Around this time last year, the country was witnessing a bizarre onslaught on the Muslim community by a miniscule but vocal section of the majority community.
Just when a long drawn-out insurgency had been put down, racial tension rose to a peak with a new foe. It was a case of the insensitivity of one to display its religious identity, and the intolerance of the other.

Fortunately, the authorities managed to clamp down fast. What could have spiralled out of control into yet another ‘ethno-religious conflict’ that this nation can ill-afford did not happen. Yet, while there is some lingering unease, a sense of normalcy and rationality has followed, but it has not been without its consequences.
As the Government would have realised by now, some countries abroad have not viewed the histrionics that occurred lightly. In the most recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) vote in Geneva, countries that stood firmly with Sri Lanka last time, viz., Indonesia, Kuwait and Catholic Philippines opted to abstain sending a signal that was easy to decode.

Domestically, too, the minorities have dealt the Government a message. It is now an accepted fact that they voted against the Government at the recently concluded Provincial Council elections in the Western and Southern provinces. The Government might want to reconsider its strategy as to whether it should bank entirely on the majority vote by whipping up the dangerous communal bogey — a strategy that, most unfortunately, politicians from the North continue to adopt seemingly having learnt nothing from the bitter lessons of contemporary times.

In a recent speech in Colombo, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province said; “The idea of separation was only a reaction to the attempts to destroy the Tamil Speaking Nation”. He distinguished it from a separate State. Really? And all this time we thought the LTTE waged a bloody war for a separate State — with a capital ‘S’. Still, the Chief Minister is emphatic when he says that; “The Tamils have unequivocally committed themselves to the State of Sri Lanka”. Politicians from the North have a history of saying one thing in Colombo and another in Jaffna. But then again, the Chief Minister’s words are reassuring.

National Reconciliation is the need of the hour, and yet, with politicians egging their followers on a communal path there’s little hope that the bitterness of the recently concluded Northern separatist insurgency would easily fade and a new beginning of racial and religious harmony would dawn. It was only last week in this very space that we said that the ghost of the LTTE is raising its ugly head once again in the North.

Sri Lanka is arguably one of the most peaceful multi-religious, multi-ethnic nations in the world. However, even minor aberrations from time to time are made a meal of by the West that seems to have an unusual interest in picking holes in this essentially Buddhist country. The Government must see to it that there is no cause given for them to exploit these aberrations through its age-old ‘Divide and Rule’ policies. It must be recalled that the colonial British even divided the majority community into Up Country and Low Country Sinhalese.

That religious freedom flourishes in the West is a myth. That racism exists in those countries is a fact. These countries are in some turbulence as they face up to the reality of modern-day multicultural and multi-religious diversity. On the contrary, this country has a great heritage and temples, kovils, churches and mosques have stood side by side for centuries. Last year we provided the statistics – there are 724 Buddhist temples in the Colombo district for a population of 70% and 519 places of worship for the remaining 30%. In nine of the 25 districts in Sri Lanka, there are more non-Buddhist places of worship. No doubt, statistics are not the sole indicator of a pluralist society. Yet, the West tries to paint this country as one where religious tolerance is at a low ebb citing a few instances.
India on the other hand, or at least sections of that great, big country are already quivering with apprehension at the thought of the Hindutva agenda of the favourites to win the on-going general election in that country.

As the two major communities celebrate their traditional New Year with vastly common customs and traditions, let us hope that this country does not drift in that direction where a minority is made to feel insecure in the land of their birth. The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is the one festival celebrated by both communities. Despite the inevitable tide of commercialisation, there is strict adherence to the auspicious astrological times and to the customs coming down from the country’s strong agrarian roots. Many thus see it as a truly national festival.

Those Sri Lankans of an older vintage will remember with nostalgia the easy harmony that prevailed between the communities and how the Aluth Avurudu or Puththandu was awaited with much anticipation. Divisive politics and short-sighted politicians more intent on building their own nest eggs rather than the nation’s wealth and values have left deep scars but thankfully some traditions have stood firm and festivals such as these remain embedded in the cultural fabric of society. Today families are spread far and wide, the high cost of living strains family budgets but the New Year is still celebrated with gusto and even in the cities some of those customs of taking trays of sweetmeats to neighbours and friends of different communities persist.

A happy harbinger of unity last Sunday if one cares to see it that way was the reaction to the long awaited triumph of the Sri Lankan cricket team at the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh. The spontaneous outpouring of joy among the people of this country was indeed heartening to witness. True, the victory may not have had quite the epic proportions of the 1996 World Cup win or that encounter’s David vs. Goliath script but it was a World Cup. Ethnic and religious differences mattered not, as the Lion flag fluttered high and people danced together on Galle Face. The Sri Lankan Diaspora joined in the celebrations with social media clearly revealing the bond that Lankans abroad still feel with the motherland.

Cricket euphoria, the pundits may argue, is just the gloss that will soon lose its sheen but it goes to show that the factors that bind this country, whatever the Western critics may say, can prevail. Over the years, there have been many windows, many opportunities for reconciliation, of nation building, all of which were too carelessly frittered away. The aftermath of the devastating tsunami of 2004, the end of the LTTE terror in 2009, are recent enough for the populace to reflect on.

It is human nature to have hope, to believe in new beginnings. As this Aluth Avurudu or Puththandu dawns, heralded not just by the bursts of firecrackers but more importantly the ringing of temple bells from all corners of this land, it offers yet another chance to seize the moment and move towards unity, while respecting the differences and celebrating the diversity that this country has been blessed with.

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