Trickle-down effect of identity politics

Cremation of Muslim COVID corpses in Sri Lanka is causing alarms.

by N Sathiya Moorthy  19 May 2020

Social media advise for SLMC boss Rauff Hakeem to take up the controversial ‘Muslim cremation issue’ with Gulf-Arab nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are fraught with possibilities and dangers that should be avoided at all costs. Coming as it does a decade after the conclusion of the ethnic war, such incitements to challenging the Sri Lankan Statehood can at best be counter-productive.

Instead, Rauff Hakeem’s declaration that they would take up the matter with the nation’s Supreme Court is reassuring. If the GCC or any other institution or nation wanted to take up the issue with Colombo, that is their problem. Muslims in Sri Lanka need not have to get excited about it either way.

Yet, at the bottom of it still is the question of Sri Lankan nationhood that any GCC initiative may challenge. Ditto with individual Islamic nations talking for Muslims in Sri Lanka. The question is if Muslims in the country should be encouraging or discouraging the same, especially in the light of past experiences with and of the nation’s Tamils since Independence.

The easier way out has also been suggested in a couple of social media posts. It calls upon all Muslim parties in the country to unite. Some go as far as to suggest that all ‘minorities’ in the country to come together. Going by past experience since before Independence, it is the tallest order, now as then.

Individual egos do not permit the former. Ideological distinctions between the three different minority ethnicities do not help the latter. If anything, it only encouraged the LTTE to throw out Tamil-speaking Muslims from the whole of North and target mosque worshippers in the East in 1990. Whatever patch-up has occurred since especially the exit of the LTTE has been at the top-level. It is selective in terms of individuals and also issues.

There is no give-and-take between the minority ethnicities to begin with. There is no give-and-take among individual Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil groups. For any or all of them to expect ‘accommodation’ or ‘greater accommodation’ from the majority/majoritarian ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ community is farcical at best.

Natural target

The three-decade long ethnic war, violence and terrorism was centred on ethnicities and ethnic identities. If anyone thought that the nation had at last learnt its lessons from the war and would reverse gears to become a country of multiple ethnic identities within a united Sri Lanka, it was not to be.

The post-war negotiations between the victorious Rajapaksa leadership and the moderate TNA did begin and progress on welcome lines. But someone who thought that the Tamils had been ‘taught a lesson, whatever it cost the Sri Lankan nation and State’, needed to busy themselves.

Rather than the trickle-down effect of ethnic reconciliation, further divisions in the name of ethnicity became the pre-occupation of certain sections of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners’. They needed a survival-kit, and the naiton’s Muslims became the next natural target.

The ‘Aluthgama violence’ of 2014 was waiting to happen, almost from the end of the war, five years earlier – but most definitely after the early and only reports of Census-2012 were out. The Bodu Bala Sena and Gnanasara Thero had begun their anti-Mulsim provocations two or three years before Alutgama.

In each of these places, the BBS divined new and local issues, whether it was the ownership of a plot of land, ‘halal’ meat and the like. It was akin to their violent attacks on Hindu kovils offering animal sacrifice – and in the name of Lord Buddha’s tenet, Ahimsa or non-violence.

The Muslims’ sense of insecurity in the country much more than that of even the Tamils up to a point, and after another point. The early ethnic riots date back to the second decade of the previous century.

It involved the majority Sinhalas and Muslims. Against this, the Tamil youth violence commenced only in the post-Independence seventies. It was after their moderate leaders’ peaceful attempts failed and their peaceful protests faced violent retaliation.

It is not to justify the Zahrans of the world, but when Easter blasts happened just a year ago, it was also a cumulative sense of insecurity, in the face of Aluthgama, followed by Ballicaloa and Kandy, under the then rulers in the past years, that they exploited. There are also living memories of the LTTE targeting the Muslim community in its violent and ‘state-like’ ways in 1990. So, it became easy for a Zahran to brain-wash some youth.

Even here, unlike in the case of the Tamils, for instance, earlier, sections of the Muslim community is on record that they had alerted the authorities at every level about the emergence of Islamic radicalism in their midst and neighbourhood. If the authorities did not take action, from top to bottom, is the community to be blamed, and eternally so?

Sinhala exclusivism

What is equally saddening is the further fragmentation of the nation, what with Sinhala-Christians feeling insecure in their own ways, first after Weliweriya (2013) and now after the ‘Easter blasts’ (2019). Some of the public utterances of their community leaders, including religious heads at different levels, is an expression of their helplessness and anguish. If some of their youth is going to interpret it differently for himself, God alone help!

The irony of Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liner politics is that they find punching bags nearer home, to build up their case of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist exclusivism’ in Sri Lanka. Post-Independence, they began with the already orphaned Upcountry Tamils of Indian origin.

The Sri Lankan Tamils, who happily looked the other way, despite present-day claims to the contrary, had their turn coming alongside, or almost afterward. If the Upcountry Tamils had their ‘statelessness law’ soon after Independence in 1948, the SLT community was faced with the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, not long after, in 1956, to be precise.

The Sinhala hard-liners definitely did not expect the kind of Tamil backlash that youthful militancy demonstrated, followed also by the ruthlessness of LTTE’s targeted killing, along side war and violence. Who knows, but for the LTTE, the Sinhala hard-liners may have begun targeting the Muslims even earlier.

Truth however has to be acknowledged. The current predicament that the Muslim community faces does not flow from Aluthgama, but from Easter blasts. Sadly, no Muslim political leader has condemned the Easter blast perpetrators as stoutly as was/is needed, as they have criticised anti-Muslims attacks of Batticaloa and Kandy.

Not falling in place

One year after the Easter blasts, the nation is waiting to know the motives behind Zaharan-led ‘Easter blasts’. A lot of bits and pieces do not fall in place. If he was the self-designated leader of his suicide-bombers, why did Zahran take away his life? Does it imply, there may be othersnew existed but the nation is yet to know.

After a lull after pretentious speedy investigation under the previous regime, the police investigators seem to have found time in between covid-centric relief work, to follow up on the leads from the ‘Easter blasts’ probe. It has become a community compulsion and political necessity after Christian leaders began talking about lack of progress in the probe, again, in the midst of the nation’s continuing war on covid pandemic.

Sure enough, the CID team that is following up on every lead on Zahran team as they used to do in the LTTE era, seems to have finally stumbled upon someone with an IS-Syrian connection, someone who reportedly trained with/under the IS in Syria, and was supposedly training Muslim youth in the country.

In doing so, the investigators are bound to come up with the answer to the big question: Why did Zahran and company target Christians, when as fellow-minority community in the country, they did not have anything against each other, but only t grouse, if any, against the majority Sinhala-Buddhists and possibly the Sri Lankan State, too?

Sinhala hobby-horse

Even without it all, the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists have for years and generations now concluded that the Upcountry Tamils did not belong here. Whether India, as the proven country of their origin, would take them back, that was India’s problems, not that of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon.  For their part, they would facilitate the speedy exit of the Upcountry Tamils, first through law and then through violence.

This yard-stick they applied to the SLT community, too, claiming, both from within the civil service and polity and society that the ‘Tamils have India to go to. Where can we Buddhists, rather, Sinhala-Buddhists go?” Such a construct as ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ was also aimed at stalling any comparison with any other Buddhist nation like Myanmar and in the rest of South-East Asia.

With the advent of the BBS attacks on Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka, they clearly articulated the Gulf-Arab origins of the community, and without provocation of any kind. If that is so, what would they have said if only Weliweriya, and not Easter blasts years later, had alienated the nation’s Christians – which thankfully even the latter could not do?

In such a case, are the self-styled Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists going to see the Sinhala-Christians, who were the main targets both at Weliweriya and Easter blasts, as Sinhalas or Buddhists? If they are going to take the trickle-down route to ethnic-hate campaigns now or later, the day is not too far for the majority/majoritarian community to dig deeper into the caste-centric fault-lines, which ethnic-targeting of one kind after the other had helped cover up – but not erase….

Such identity-centric politics, based on birth, is no way to make a nation united and strong. In can only weaken the nation from within. Sri Lanka will then need no external forces to weaken it. Worse still, no external force or aid or assistance can make Sri Lanka stronger, even if someone thought economic progress is the greatest of all levellers of all times.

For its part, covid, too, has ensured that it is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. If anything, the future, immediate and faraway, can even without external or internal help, can cause ideological, and not identity-based, divisions, the kind of which that the JVP in its militant avatar preached and propagated. The nation did pay a heavy price then, on that score as well. 

The article appeared in the Ceylon Today

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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