Distorted flags, deceptive ‘nationalism’

N Sathiya Moorthy  8 July 2019

Going by media reports, participants at Sunday’s Kandy rally of the self-style ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ BBS carried Sri Lankan national flag, without the unifying orange and green strips, representing the minority communities in the country. Speakers, including General Secretary, Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), also called for a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ government. Obviously, they were all alluding to the upcoming presidential polls this year, and the parliamentary elections, due in August next year.

It remains to be seen what action the Attorney-General and/or the police is initiating against the ‘flag violators’. After all, the national flag is a symbol of national unity, sovereignty and integrity. Representing the flag in any other form is a matter of dishonour not only to the flag but also the nation as a whole.

It is more so in the post-Independence Sri Lankan context. It worse still in the immediate context, where the post-war Tamils are unhappy, the Muslims feel threatened post-Easter blasts and the Christian minorities too are unsure of their place. Every effort should have been made to reassure not only the minorities, but also the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, that law and order, including anti-terror initiatives are back on track, post-blasts, yet none of them has anything to fear from one another.

Those directly hit in the blasts are the nation’s Christians, independent of denominational differences. There have been constant reports, thankfully played down by the media, about continual threats to small-town churches, or fear of the same.

The collateral damage from the Easter blasts has impacted on the majority, innocent sections of the nation’s Muslims. They feel threatened for no fault of theirs, as a small number of Christians and a substantial number of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists are targeting them, and physically so.

In their hour of crisis, the majority of Muslims do not get the kind of sympathy and empathy expected from the ‘Tamils’, who also speak the same language.  Instead, there are equal barbs and bites targeting them from all across.

No one in the Government or the polity, including their own Muslim political leadership(s), wants to own up their inaction, when cautioned by the community leaders about the ‘suspicious activities’ of some among them. The list specifically included the Easter blasts’ perpetrators. Instead, all efforts end at, and possibly are aimed at, obfuscating the obvious.

Lot to explain

The latest in the series is the decision to arrest blasts-time Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and then IG of Police, Pujith Jayasundara, for alleged negligence of duty, causing death and destruction. Going by publicised information, it was obvious that both of them needed a lot to explain.

Some of such explanation, they are supposed to have done already before well-publicised hearings of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), another of the available efforts to deflect criticism of the Government.  Jayasundara has also said similar things in his fundamental rights petition, challenging his ‘suspension’ from service, which is yet to come up for hearing before the Supreme Court.

There is also the Presidential Commission, which has also inquired into the very same blasts. The Attorney-General is reported to have based his decision for the police to proceed against the other two, based on the interim report of the Presidential Commission.

The AG and the police have freedom to act against the two – at least commence investigations – without reference to the Presidential Commission Report. What if the final report of the commission, were to give a contradictory view, considering that the entire issue of blasts-investigations have been over-politicised beyond reasonable imagination?

Sickening or what…

It is sad but true that the targeted officials, who have a lot more to answer to themselves and their conscience, as much as to the nation’s laws that they were supposed to enforce in the case of others, should fall ‘sick’ and get admitted to the hospital, either after the blasts or after hearing that they were to be arrested. In a sickening follow-up, the police have been easy on them, and have allowed them to stay on in hospital as ‘remand prisoners’.

According to reports, the AG has also premised his finding for the police to act against two top ex-officials, deriving at least a part of his findings on international conventions or whatever. If so, it is unclear if this could lead to a situation whereby Sri Lanka is acknowledged to have accepted international criminal law practices per se, and could apply to ‘war-crimes’, which still hangs over the nation’s head at UNHRC.

Flowing from this is the possibility of the political and administrative leadership at the war-time could be similarly arraigned on charges of ‘negligence’, if not for actively conspiring and plotting towards ‘war-crimes’, leading to the death of innocents, purportedly in their hundreds and thousands. In an election year, such a construct has a greater purchase, and given the devious minds at work all round, the possibility cannot be ruled out.

There may still be hope for the targeted leadership, as there is not much time left for the presidential poll at least. Thankfully again for them, there may not be enough time left for them to be put on trial, convicted and sentenced, if found guilty, and dispose of all appeals, both interlocutory and final ones, to be able to disqualify them from contesting elections, whatever their own ambitions be.

It may have been a different take if ‘international conventions’ of the kind could have been used to either harass targeted political leaderships, or as election-eve propaganda, if only to garner ‘minority votes’. Post-blasts, it may be their sure-ticket to electoral victory, even without the kind of campaign that the likes of the BBS and Gananasara Thero have launched out, possibly on their own.

The question is if either way, or anyway, such targeting would bring together all minority voters this time, as in Elections-2015. Greater the perception of ‘minority consolidation’ post-blasts, greater is the chance of ‘majority re-grouping’, possibly even more than the post-war Elections-2010.

Disenfranchisement, Statelessness

It is a sad part of contemporary national history that anything and everything does boil down to ethnic-divisions. Going as far back as post-Independence disenfranchisement and Statelessness of Upcountry Tamils en masse, there is the underlying message to all minorities that Sri Lanka is a nation for ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majority’, and all other communities should accept the status of second-class citizens.

Ironically, the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) polity of the times backed such a Sinhala-Buddhist construct. They were already apprehensive about the Upcountry Tamils outnumbering them, little realising that they could well be the next target in the line. ‘Sinhala Only’ law was only the first of many such governmental initiatives, taken at the instance of the so-called ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’.

The irony of the times was even more when the left-leaning SWRD-led SLFP coalition Government, which elsewhere in the world was ideology-driven, became ethnicity-driven in Sri Lanka alone. Thus when the militant JVP was born a decade later, it possibly became the only ‘ethnicity-centric’ left-militant group the world over, where community and caste identities over-shadowed the leftist, ideological identities of the world after the Second World War.

Today, after the Sri Lankan State had squarely neutralised LTTE for them militarily, the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ are onto their next binge, without evaluating the ‘national loss’ caused, first by the two JVP insurgencies and later the war on the LTTE. Their distorted flags and deceptive nationalist campaign can do more harm to the Sri Lankan nation, its sovereignty and territorial integrity than any good whatsoever.

In more immediate political and electoral terms, those that the BBS and Gnanasara Thero are supposedly out to support without naming names, will be the ones to suffer the most. The Rajapaksas lost Elections-2015, not because of the Tamil votes, but because of the Muslim-Christian votes that they lost, post-Aluthgama, post-Weliweriya, both in 2013.

Today, the presidential polls may be set on a broader concept of ‘national security’ and not on ‘nationalism’ of perverted varieties, identified with any and/or every ethnicity in the country. The Sinhala-Buddhist majority voted the Rajapaksas, both in 2005 and 2010, for instance, or whoever they thought would ensure national security in earlier elections, just for that, and not based on perceptions of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’.

The successive election of Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga in 1995 and 2000 are a standing example. The average rural Sinhala-Buddhist, while as religious and as orthodox as their counterparts from other ethnicities in the country, were more concerned about the life and limbs of their blood relatives and friends working/living in urban centres, starting with Capital Colombo. Post-blasts, that sense of apprehension and helplessness have returned. That will be the election issue, not the narrow idea of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’, if that is any.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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