Sri Lanka; Insensitivity or worse?

Credit : Sri Lanka Guardian

N Sathiya Moorthy  25 June 2018

The dust may have quietly settled down as fast as it had appeared on the horizon. Yet, the insensitivity of the Sri Lankan State system to the decades-old ethnic issue stood out like a sore-thumb when President Maithiripala Sirisena swore in his SLFP-UPFA parliamentarian Kader Masthan as a Deputy Minister, also in charge of ‘Hindu Religious Affairs’.

Truth be acknowledged, Minister Mastan, coming as he did from the war-torn Vanni area, did fit in the other portfolios as eminently as any other. Being a Muslim from the North, he did so even more, as Deputy Minister for Rehabilitation and Resettlement, where the Muslim community lost as much as the Tamils, and early on, too, but without any real R&R of the kind coming their way for decades, even post-war.

The last time the government’s insensitivity to the ethnic issue blew up, it was not as far away as the 1950s, when ‘Sinhala Only’ Act did considerable damage and set off all that have since occurred over the past decades and more. Before Masthan, another Muslim parliamentarian, M L A M Hisbullah had been offered the Hindu Religious Affairs portfolio.

It is not impossible that President Sirisena was under considerable pressure from within his SLFP-UPFA to provide a ministerial berth to Kader Masthan, representing the Muslim community from the Tamil-majority Northern Province. Masthan comes from the war-weary Vanni, where the ‘Eelam War’ had had its gruesome end. Already, the UPFA combine has made him a ‘National List’ MP, possibly acknowledging the need for greater representation for the Muslim victims of the LTTE from the North, whose war-time losses remain all but on paper.

It was thus only appropriate that the ruling duo thought it proper to have Masthan as a Deputy Minister for Rehabilitation and Resettlement, wherein precious little has been done for the Muslim community. The ‘Puttalam refugees/IDPs’, whom the LTTE threw out of the North overnight in 1990 are all but forgotten. It is not that other Muslim ministerial representatives in the Cabinet, the incumbent and earlier ones, could not have done anything for the community – but they have not done enough.

For the international community, otherwise concerned about the ‘war victims’, refugees and IDPs, the ‘Puttalam Muslim refugees’ just do not exist to this day. That Masthan will also be in Deputy Minister in charge of Northern Development means that he would at least have an opportunity to serve his people, too.

Non-application of mind

What is inappropriate to Masthan’s posting was tagging along ‘Hindu Religious Affairs’ to his portfolio. It was not impossible that whoever finalised the posting or drafted the warrant of appointment of Minister-designate Masthan, for President Sirisena to affix his stamp and signature, did not apply his mind. A ‘clerical error’, one can argue. It was not without reason but it was still unjustifiable, after all.

The ‘non-application of mind’ may have flowed from the fact that Masthan’s Cabinet Minister, D M Swaminathan, to whom alone he would be reporting to, was/is in charge of Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Hindu Affairs. Swaminathan was made the R&R Minister after the parliamentary elections in August 2015. The ‘Hindu Religious Affairs’ portfolio fell on his lap a month later.

The list of all those in the government who had missed the incongruity of a Muslim Minister for Hindu Affairs can go on and on. Under stamp and authority, it should start with President Sirisena and his office. With his reputation of having a sharper eye for details, PM Wickremesinghe should have spotted it in the copy of Masthan’s warrant of appointment came before him, either for information or for initiation.

Sacred animal

Then, of course, there is Masthan’s Cabinet Minister Swaminathan, who is a Hindu himself. So, he should have looked out for possible incongruities in Masthan’s appointment under his care, if he had actually been informed of the same in time. Then, it is the turn of the nominee himself. If none of the above had noticed it, Masthan, who at least was supposed to have read the warrant of appointment before affixing his signature should have noticed it, and have it rectified too.

It is nobody’s case that Minister Masthan wanted to be in additional charge of Hindu Affairs. But what the avoidable embarrassment might have done to his personality, however short-lived, is what matters just now. With it, the episode has also become yet another talking-point for the Tamil ‘nationalist hard-liners’, who have been keeping their eyes and ears open for decades now, to blow up even clerical slip-ups of the kind(?)

If Upcountry Tamil leader Vadivel Suresh, MP and General Secretary, Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union, was among the first ‘Tamil-Hindu’ leaders to flag the incongruity of it all. As he pointed out, his taking it to the public goes beyond his personal friendship with Minister Masthan. Yet, it was Cabinet Minister Swaminathan, who obtained an assurance from President Sirisena that he would be taking corrective measures in this regard.

Fair enough, the TNA, too, did not lose much time in flagging the issue. Thankfully, their reaction seemed to be even more muted than their flagging the ‘abhaya issue’ in a multi-ethnic school in Eastern Trincomalee town. However, ‘TNA rebels’ (?) in the Northern Province were not the ones to give up an opportunity to hit out at the Centre when one presented itself – on a platter.

Speaking in the Northern Provincial Council, the irresistible Alliance member, M K Sivajilingam, reportedly sought to highlight how “a person involved in the ‘anti-Hindu practice’ of slaughtering cows, which is sacred to Hindus” had been made the Deputy Minister for Hindu Affairs. Though the complaint was in order but the comments should have been avoided – if not by the speaker but at least by the Chair and ministerial representatives present in the House, who should have got it expunged or re-phrased.

Southern reaction

None of it would still justify or make up even what could have well ended up being dismissed as a ‘slip-up’. The government parties and leaders, including the ruling duo, should only have to imagine as to the ‘southern reaction’, that, too, possibly on the streets if only a Muslim or a Hindu parliamentarian had been made a Deputy Minister for ‘Buddha Sasana’.

The same could be applied to a situation in which a Sinhala or a Hindu is made a minister for Islamic or Christian Affairs. The fact that all four religions in the country have Cabinet Ministers supposedly looking after their internal affairs should not be overlooked. How each of these ministries fair depends entirely on the man heading it, and his personal clout and his party’s need for the community’s vote in the elections that are ahead.

Going beyond the possibility of riots on the streets of Colombo and across the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist South’ if a non-Sinhala Buddhist had been made ‘Buddha Sasana Minister’ or whatever, Sivajilingam kind of avoidable and unpalatable reaction only seeks to divide the Tamil-speaking communities more than his late kin Prabhakaran had done through the LTTE.

Sivajilingam is a Tamil and Hindu, yes. But so do most Muslims speak only Tamil language. Even going by the government’s unscientific gradation of ethnicities in the country, Muslims and Tamils stand apart. Even leaving out the ‘Muslim ethnicity’ out of it, in the existing ‘Tamil ethnic identification’, there are both Hindus and Christians, but who have always worked together on the ‘ethnic front’ without losing their religious identity or seeking to usurp or erase that religious identity, which is otherwise as community-driven as it is personal.

The much-touted ‘Jaffna Tamil culture’, which to the residents of the northern town continues to be the purest form of all Tamil cultures inside the country and outside, is ‘Hindu-centric’, going back to the era before Europeans arrived in the country. If anything, Islam came to Sri Lanka centuries before Christianity, but until the LTTE divided, on the ground, the Tamil-speaking people as ‘Tamils’ and ‘Muslims’, which anyway the law had long since ordained, they were all together at it.

Yet, all three religious identifies continue to thrive, thrive together and/or alongside one another, linked as they are through a common language. To draw an avoidable division among them can prove to be as catastrophic as the ‘ethnic divide’ of all these decades, and not just for the Tamil-speaking people. It is here accidents and slip-ups, if they are, of the Masthan ministerial nomination kind, and acidic tongue of the Sivajilingam type, can cause more harm to everyone and no good to anyone!

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