After the ‘abhaya’ row, Tamils can forget re-merger

YouTube; Abaya Distribution in Srilanka


N Sathiya Moorthy     18 June 2018

It is anybody’s guess if the ‘abhaya row’ involving Muslim women teachers in the eastern Trincomallee’s Shanmuga College was motivated, or was only an expression of increasing Islamic traditions across the world. However, in the immediate Sri Lankan context, it has the potential to delay, if not deny, re-merger of the North and the East, which the nation’s ethnic Tamils (alone) had desired all along.

Even without inter-communal issues of the ‘abhaya row’ kind, for the Muslims of the island, starting with the East, re-merger was not among the favoured parts of a political solution to the ethnic issue. Independent of Tamils’ claims, which focuses only on new Sinhalese settlements in the East when none possibly existed until decades ago, they have nothing to say against the presence and dominance of the Muslim community in the present-day Eastern Province.

The Tamils form only a third of the Eastern Province population, where Muslims and Sinhalas together add up to two-thirds the numbers. If the Sinhalas too do not take kindly to the Muslims, after the 1990 LTTE killing of the Eastern Muslims and their equally crude attempts at ‘de-Islamization’ of the North, the Muslims of Sri Lanka have been pushed to fend for themselves, socially and politically – though thankfully not in any other Tamil or Sinhala way.

Trade, not sword

Islam came to Sri Lanka, not through the sword, as in many regions and nations across the world. Here, as in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, across the Palk Strait, Islam came through trade. If anything, Arab traders were sailing these parts long before Prophet Mohammed founded Islam. When the traders back home took to Islam, they brought it to these parts, too.

The ‘abhaya’ culture is thus a product of the new community-centric realisation of ‘Islamic isolation’ in the post-9/11 ‘New Global Order’. Such symbolism through attire and personal practices are visible to be point of making a political statement – whether intended or otherwise – in nations and regions where such practices were not prevalent through the past centuries. Blame it even on ‘Islamic consolidation’ or whatever, it is a reality that nations and regions have to learn to work with, not work around – and not certainly work against.

In the immediate Sri Lankan/Eastern context(s), the arrival of ‘abhaya’ had been noticed for a couple of decades now though no one wanted to acknowledge it. The last time it made news in a big way was in 2013. At the height of the BBS’ anti-Muslim riots centred on Aluthgama town in Kaluthara district, even elite multi-ethnic, multi-culture girls’ school in cosmopolitan Colombo, the national capital, were reported to have advised parents of their Muslim pupils for the latter to give up the ‘abhaya’ until things settled down – if only to ensure that their children were not targeted on the streets though not on the campus.

From saris to split-skirts

Time used to be when Tamils, especially Tamil women in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods as in capital Colombo, were forced to change over from their traditional saris to ‘split skirts’ and the like that the average Sinhala woman was seen attired in, on the streets. The Hindu woman among them also had to give up the ‘pottu’ or ‘sindhoor’ on their foreheads and also the bunch of fragrant flowers that they used to wear on their pleated hair.

All of it was to ensure that they are not isolated and targeted by Sinhala ‘nationalist’ goons on the streets and at work-place, more so after the diabolical ‘Pogrom-‘83’. Today, rather than sympathising and empathising with their Muslim counterparts, the ‘Hindu-Tamils’ or ‘Tamil-Hindus’ especially seem to be having a different take on the subject.

Today, Hindu hard-liners, among others, from the multi-community ‘minorities’ of ‘Tamil-speakers’, are believed to have opposed the use of ‘abhaya’ by some Muslim teachers in the Government-funded Shanmuga College (read: high/higher secondary school) in multi-ethnic Trincomallee, leading to avoidable tensions. While the Government is reported to have ordered an enquiry into the same, reports also have it that those Muslim teachers have sought transfer to other schools in the neighbourhood.


Segregation or what

Coming as it does in the midst of the Batti-Kandy anti-Muslim riots of recent weeks, such selective targeting of what should remain a revived religion-centric community practice has greater potential to harming the nation’s strained ethnic fabric even more in the post-war reconciliation period, which has already stretched itself too far. The fact, however, remains that what the Muslim community may call ‘defensive’ cultural practice is seen as ‘offensive’ political statement by others – as has been the case in the post-9/11 global village.

Efforts at self-segregation of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, starting possibly with the East, commenced some time ago, but neither community leaders, nor the divided polity had time and inclination to address the real concerns and advise their people to avoid what all could be ‘provocative’ political statements, of which there are already enough and more in the country.

The irony is that any detailed report on the ‘abhaya’ episode was made available not by or in any mainline Sri Lankan ‘national’ newspaper but by The Hindu, based in neighbouring India. In a way, it may sound good but in other ways, no efforts also seem to have been initiated by the Government to address larger issues and flowing concerns of the kind. If the Muslim teachers’ request for posting in other schools (read: possibly ‘Muslim’ schools’) are to be granted, it could well mean official sanction for ‘ethnic segregation’.

Such ‘segregation’ may be different from the ‘ethnic purification’ of the kind the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ attempted against the Tamils, and the LTTE inflicted on the island’s Muslims. But shorn of violence, the socio-political effects of such segregation would be the same – and more so, over the medium and long terms. Grant it to hot-heads in individual camps to flag new concerns and issues with unfailing periodicity, you will have a Sri Lanka that would be fighting itself all over again, and unendingly so.

There is also a message in all this, for the Tamils too. Even as the TNA is supposedly talking to Muslim parties, especially the SLMC, to facilitate re-merger and other aspects of ethnic reconciliation between the two communities, a hardened Tamil/TNA position on the ‘abhaya issue’ could point to something worse from within. The next it could well attempt to divide the tri-community ‘Tamil ethnicity’, by driving a religious wedge between the Hindus and Christians among them.

Unlike media predictions, the Tamils would not require any external help to divide themselves, in the name of religion, regions (North vs East), districts (Jaffna vs Rest) and castes and sub-castes. To date, the Tamil political leadership is not ready to address the issue of castes and sub-castes that had lost the most at Mullivaikkal. Yet, when it comes to quenching Jaffna’s thirst from water sources in neighbouring Killinochchi in the post-war political era, the Tamils are divided, the TNA is divided.

All these and more are there already in the Sinhala community, enshrined and entrenched. It was there too among the Tamils, the LTTE attempted to brush it all over, but they all have outlived the LTTE, instead. The late M H M Ashraff in the Muslim community and Soumiyamurthy Thondaman for the Upcountry Tamils, tried to do what the LTTE attempted but through the gun, but their successor-generation has not taken it forward, but only backward.

Worse still, the limited discourse over the new Constitution too have not addressed issues of ‘Sri Lanka nationalism’, but only those of ‘Sinhala nationalism’ and ‘Tamil nationalism’. Even there, the Muslims have stayed away, only to complain among themselves, in village-level meetings that they were not consulted that the community’s concerns were not addressed. All this, when the new Constitution was supposed to address issues of national integration, alongside issues of power-mongering and power-sharing!

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University