Politics of Hate!
“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.”
Maya Angelou (On the Pulse of Morning)
For Lankan Tamils, the cruellest month had to be July. No defeat or tragedy which befell them was as universal as Black July. It was a general conflagration which spared no Tamil. Poor bottle-sellers and wealthy entrepreneurs, uneducated road-sweepers and highly qualified professionals, voters and politicians, Hindus and Christians, young and old, leftists and rightists, men and women, every Tamil was imperilled by it.
Last year, as Aluthgama burnt, it looked as if Black July will be repeated in June, this time with Lankan Muslims as its target. A private quarrel between a Buddhist monk, his Sinhala driver and three Muslim youths was exaggerated and depicted as an act of Muslim on Buddhist violence. Instead of moving swiftly to restore order, the Rajapaksa regime allowed the BBS to hold a public meeting in the middle of the simmering Aluthgama town.
“In this country we still have a Sinhala police; we still have a Sinhala army. After today if a single Marakkalaya or some other paraya (alien) touches a single Sinhalese…..it will be their end,” i BBS live-wire, Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara thundered, as the police and the army watched. That’s all the guardians of law and order could do, watch, because the power-wielders were on the side of the mob.
Though the fires did not spread to other areas, lives were lost, property destroyed and another minority alienated.
Almost as soon as the Eelam War was won, Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups began inciting anti-Muslim hatred. The Rajapaksas responded with a nod and wink. In the resulting enabling environment, the BBS et al could say anything and do anything, with total impunity. Which policeman would lift a finger against the yellow-robed marauders, after Gotabhaya Rajapaksa attended a BBS function and praised BBS monks for engaging in a “nationally important task”ii?
Until Black July erupted, armed Tamil groups, including the LTTE, were starved of funds, arms, recruits, public sympathy and international support. Black July took care of every single one of those problems, spectacularly. The rest is blood-soaked, death-raddled history.
The Aluthgama mini-riot warned that Sri Lanka was rushing headlong towards another cliff-edge, this time of religious conflict.
Deliverance came unexpectedly. Mahinda Rajapaksa held a presidential election two years ahead of time, and lost it. Deprived of state-patronage the BBS et al receded into ineffectuality. Suddenly, and with unbelievable rapidity, the air cleared as racial and religious toxicity decreased drastically. The poison did not vanish completely, but it ebbed to normal, bearable, non-threatening levels.
That change indicated a fundamental truth. Anti-Muslim hatred did not come from below, from Sinhala society; it emanated from above, from power-wielders. Suspicion, aversion, perhaps even contempt and dislike, these feelings are organic on every side of the religo-racial divide; but not murderous hate. That was an artificial construct, a deadly drama staged for political purposes. When the producer-directors were ousted from power on January 9th, the manufactured-hate, deprived of life-support, died a natural death. Sri Lanka took a decisive step away from another disaster and towards a largely peaceful future.
Politics of Hate
All Lankan political parties, from right to left, made tactical and conjunctural use of racial and religious extremism. The Rajapaksas were different. Their use of fanaticism was both strategic and structural. They enthroned Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism as their ruling ideology and depicted themselves as the only protectors of the eternally imperilled Sinhala Nation and the Buddha Sasana.
Protectors presuppose enemies and threats. Once the Tigers were defeated, standard religio-cultural differences were repackaged as threats and yet another minority targeted as the next enemy. The anti-Halal campaign, which erupted with virulent suddenness, sowed fear and hate by the bushel, and vanished with equal suddenness, was an excellent case in point.
After the devastating defeat of the 1848 Rebellion, opposition to British colonial rule assumed religio-cultural forms. Instead of a new anti-Colonial struggle, there was a Buddhist Resurgence, followed, inevitably, by a Hindu Resurgence and a Muslim Resurgence. Perhaps after the memories of 1848, any political opposition to the British was deemed too dangerous. Discontent was diverted into safer channels – cultural opposition to ‘Western influences’ and religious opposition to Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
Lanka’s main ‘anti-Colonial’ movement thus became more like a Buddhist version of India’s Hindutva movement. This new movement had more problems with Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Christians and Westernised Sinhalese than with the British rulers. Ancient Lanka was re-casted as a land of morality and all ‘evil’ habits were blamed on alien influences. This was an illogical, irrational, militant Buddhism, the very antithesis of the peaceful, rational and tolerant teachings of the Buddha. Anagarika Dharmapala, with his fiery anti-minority rhetoric, was the foremost representative and leader of this radical Sinhala-Buddhism.
Under Rajapaksa rule, this creed underwent another transformation. The role of ‘Sole Protector of Sinhala-Buddhists’ was turned into a legacy which could belong only to the Rajapaksas through birth. A new lineage was created which claimed that the Rajapaksas were direct descendents of King Dutugemunu and of the paternal family of the Buddha, and, therefore, the true heirs of both the Hero-King and the Enlightened One. (The nexus between this new Sinhala-Buddhism and the Rajapaksas was comparable to the mutually sustaining relationship between Saudi Arabia’s Al-Sauds and arguably the most fanatical and primitive Islamic sub-sect – Wahabism.)
A parallel effort was made by the BBS to blame the growing economic pains of Sinhala-Buddhists on Muslims. Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara claimed, “It is Muslim businessmen who import dhal and rice to this country. There are big problems here.”iii Once upon a time, not so long ago, Tamils were blamed for cost-of-living issues and that lie provided an added impetus to the fires of Black July. A similar bogey-making process had preceded the 1915 riots.
Fanatics of all faiths agree that life and society should be reordered in accordance with religion, the only difference being whose religion. They oppose the secular-humanist values of the Enlightenment, pluralist-democracy and cultural-diversity. The manifestation of one type of religious fundamentalism encourages and fosters fanatics of every other religion, creating a vicious cycle which will lead to not just wars between religions but also wars within religions. This threatens the stability and the viability of pluralist societies. That was where Sri Lanka was headed, right up to January 8th.
SWRD Bandaranaike, with his Sinhala-supremacism, bequeathed a racial war to posterity. A multi-frontal religious conflict could have been the most lasting of the Rajapaksa legacies, had Mahinda Rajapaksa won a third presidential term.
War Politics and Peace Politics
The security needs and concerns of a country at peace are diametrically opposite to those of a country at war.
There have been innumerable explanations and interpretations about the scuffle between Mahinda Rajapaksa and an ordinary member of the audience at a meeting in Akuressa. Mr. Rajapaksa said that he felt great pain when his finger was pulled and there is no reason to doubt him. What is of relevance politically is his instinctive reaction. He not only tried to pull his hand away but also raised his other hand and charged into the crowd to attack whoever who caused him pain. This is clearly evident from the video. Had his security guards and supporters not dragged him away, the country would have witnessed the unique spectacle of its ex-president hammering an unknown man, in public.
That instinctive reaction tells much about Mahinda Rajapaksa, man and politician. He is a fighter, which was one reason he could defeat Vellupillai Pirapaharan. He is, perhaps, a good choice for a country at war, a country threatened by external or internal enemies. He is definitely not a wise choice for a country which needs to build a consensual peace after a long and a debilitating war.
Going by electoral statistics and trends, the UPFA will not win the upcoming election; nor will it become the single largest party. Mr. Rajapaksa therefore will not become the prime minister. That is indeed fortunate, because back in power, he will plunge the country into a series of conflicts. He will battle with President Maithripala Sirisena for power and with the UNP and the JVP for Southern dominance. Inciting anti-minority sentiments will be a key weapon in both these conflicts. The country will become embroiled in a chaotic situation, as every institution (including the military) is divided along pro-Rajapaksa and anti-Rajapaksa lines. Even the SLFP will not be spared, if the hostile treatment meted to those SLFP candidates who are not out-and-out supporters of Mr. Rajapaksa is anything to go by.
During a keynote speech at the Kotelawala Defence Academy in 2014, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa characterised Sri Lanka as a country confronted by a variety of threats and enemies. He made particular mention of Tamil extremists (national and international), left-wing extremists, Islamic extremists, criminal extremists, media extremists, Western extremists, anti-democratic extremists and irresponsible extremistsiv. If the UPFA wins on August 17th, that brand of politics, which sees an enemy in anyone who is not a servile supporter of the Rajapaksas, will return, more combative and irrational than ever, determined to ensure that January 8th does not happen, ever again.
There is an intimate connection between anti-democratic politics and religious extremism. Actual and would-be despots see in extreme versions of religion a weapon and a shield for their political projects. In Nigeria it was the encouragement accorded to extreme forms of Christianity by the country’s military rulers which paved the way for the creation of that horror, Boko Haram. In Iraq, Premier al-Maliki’s Shia-supremacism made it possible for the IS to grow from nothingness to the monster it is today. It is an open secret that Myanmar’s military rulers are enabling/supporting Monk Wirathu and his 969 Movement. He had openly come out against Aung Sang Suu Kyi (despite her unprincipled refusal to condemn anti-Muslim violence) warning that chaos will result if she wins the presidency.
This is where Sri Lanka was headed when the presidential election intervened. This is the journey the Rajapaksas will resume if they win on August 17th.
Sri Lanka is a pluralist country. We need to develop peaceful mechanisms to deal with the problems and tensions unavoidable in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. It is the only possible path to a secure and stable future.
Mahinda Rajapaksa did the opposite; he turned ordinary differences into implacable divisions and tried to benefit from the resulting extremisms. He is still trying to do it; the UPFA’s ‘winning strategy’ is to bag a majority of Sinhala-Buddhist votes through thinly veiled ethno-religious racism and minority phobia.
Even the most secular society has its share of religious extremists. They have always been with us and it’s possible that they will always be with us, in one form or another. So long as they vegetate in their own ideological ghettos they cannot do much harm to larger society.
The danger is when a governing class, party or family adopts their ideas and slogans either out of genuine conviction, opportunism or a combination thereof. When that marriage between extreme religion and politics occurs, it brings forth devastation, including self-devastation.
That is the future the Rajapaksas are offering us. It may be resplendent in lion flags and Buddhist emblems, but underneath, it is a future like the past, a space-time where there is always a threat to confront and an enemy to beat, where some war against some foe is the inescapable reality of life.