Saturday, August 16, 2014

Musings on a Post

A blog post, Facebook status, or newspaper op-ed courting controversy on the one hand always courts comment on the other. All too often, these comments shed light on the very controversy the article itself speaks of. Carried away by personal viewpoint, the “commentator” gets carried into debate. That’s inevitable. What’s not, though, is this – turning the debate into a series of harangues and personal gibes. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens. When opinianators try to spread their beliefs to others, dogmatism on their part strips them of any form of deference to another’s viewpoint. Sri Lanka is no stranger to this.

Aluthgama. Dambulla. Bodu Bala Sena. Each word entangles with the other. You cannot separate them. Just as well, because, truth be told, they are not meant to be separated. The media, civil society, NGOs, and of course politicians have ensured that. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

Just the other day, I was surfing the web. Not for anything in particular. Now that the flames of Aluthgama have, for the time being at least, died down, it seemed all done and dusted in the internet, except for the occasional reference made by a Facebook status or blog post. I was looking for such a reference. And not in the usual places. Not on Facebook, Twitter, or newspaper sites.

And then, just like that, I came across a page. It wasn’t a blog. It was titled “Not in Our Name.” I read what was written in it: “Put your name down, resist violence, pass on the message.” Further down, the site called out for web surfers like me to add their names, in any of the three languages spoken and written in this country, to protest against what happened in Dambulla. That was when I realized the site was created two years ago, around the time BBS was as yet a mild, though by no means passive, force. Moving on, I quote further, the site spoke against “the shameful behaviour and expression employed by the Mahanayake of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter.” I was satisfied; indeed, the site seemed to me quite worthy of signature and support. But I was more interested in the comments. So I scrolled further down.

Enter the flurry of comments. The first commentator had written: “A truly dark day in Sri Lankan history.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I have always found, however, that one should never base a movement’s sincerity on the first comment it provokes. In the beginning is the Word. As time goes by, this Word gets cut down, mutilated, corrupted, defiled, and twisted to suit the perverted logic of any one viewpoint. Such is the case with blog post comments. And comments in petition sites. So I moved on.

“Our 2,500 year old Sinhala Buddhist heritage needs to be preserved for our children and grandchildren,” read the second comment. I doubt anyone would beg to differ. I doubt also, however, whether “preservation” presupposes “violence.” And I am not just thinking of Sinhala Buddhism only. The same can be said of other faiths and creeds. The same can be said of other races and religious groups where preservation in fact has, in the opinion of some of their members, presupposed violence. So, at that point, I strongly disagreed with the writer of this comment. I don’t think any rational person would do otherwise.

The third, fourth, and fifth comments were all directed at this comment, by the way. “You might preserve the structures in the name of preserving heritage, but you are going against the teaching of Lord Buddha,” read one. The key here was “structure”, by which the writer probably meant the temple and the monastic sects which make up Buddhism as an institution akin to the Catholic Church. By “going against the teachings of Lord Buddha”, s/he was drawing a line between practice and precept – between the goodness behind religion and the unholy flouting of it by those who preach it. Once again, something that can well and truly be understood by everyone. And something that can be applied to any other creed too.

But here, constructive debate ended. In came loose, thinly veiled gibes aimed at one another. I wasn’t surprised, though. This sort of thing happens in every post, be it on Facebook or in blog. So I looked on at another comment which attacked the person who wrote of our 2,500 year old civilization: “You and your fellow bigots are actually doing more to destroy your precious heritage.” Key word here: precious. A word that connotes both value and affectation. A word that in the context of this comment definitely insinuated the latter. Let me elaborate.

By including “your” right before “precious heritage”, what the writer insinuated was a gibe, and a poorly veiled one at that. S/he could have written “You have a heritage?” and it would have meant the same thing, with the sort of (un)conscious condescension Pablo Neruda experienced when, having arrived at a party in Sri Lanka after listening to drum music along the way, he was asked “Do the natives have music?” But I forgave the writer all the same, because s/he could not possibly have been truly in accord with the message the site was trying to put across: that condescension of another culture, and another way of life, is just as blunt whether done subtly or openly. Clearly, the writer was just as guilty in what he did not say as extremist monks were in what they did. I rest my case.

The rest of the comments, needless to say, spoke for themselves. Poorly. Looking at them, I am reminded of the Christian precept “Love thy neighbour.” You can preach all you want about loving your neighbour, but, as I said before, precept and action are miles apart. I am amused at the irony here. That writer clearly was disguising his/her contempt. I have no issue with his/her calling the wo/man who was concerned about “preserving” our “heritage” a “bigot”. I couldn’t have agreed more. But why include “your precious heritage” in it? Was s/he implying that the Sinhala Buddhist heritage this country is built on sanctions the sort of violence one or two extremists unleash? Was s/he that dim? Mistaking religion with the acts of a few radicals is not, I feel, very uncommon among other creeds as well. But that just makes the mistake all the more deplorable.

Do these people, I thought, really believe that they’re writing this sort of thing while being supportive of the message the site was putting across? The comments I saw underneath didn’t testify to that. There was one writer who wrote of “arrogant Buddhist monks.” Mind you, s/he wasn’t referring to extremist monks. The full comment read “Another example of the arrogance of Buddhist priests.” Indeed. Since when did the work of a few radicals clad in saffron robes illustrate that entire sect’s view of other creeds? Is one to decry Catholicism just because certain priests engaged (and engage) in molesting children? Is one to condemn Islam just because the Taliban bombed, raped, maimed, plundered, and goodness knows what else against other religions and their followers?

There is something fundamentally wrong with these people, I thought, and not without reason. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not for the sort of thing that unfolded at Dambulla two years back and Aluthgama two months back. I deplore the government’s response to both incidents. And I don’t think calling Gnanasara Thero a “terrorist” is going too far, if by “terrorist” one includes any person inciting violence without actually using guns or bombs. After all, even the most primitive savage can be a terrorist, even if all the “weapons” s/he has are a rock and stick (and mouth). The quicker the BBS is got rid of, the better it will be for everyone. But it’s high time we drew the line somewhere.

A Catholic friend of mine recently pointed out an interesting thing to me. I berate myself for not having seen it earlier. At the height of the Aluthgama furor, everyone started changing their Facebook profile pictures. The new picture was the “Stand Against Racism” logo that you see in some Facebook accounts even today. It included a picture of a handprint, in the middle of which was the Sri Lankan map. Well, I thought it looked quite worthy of the message.

This Catholic friend of mine didn’t think so, though. She thought it provoked the very violence it was aiming against. “Those logos are all yellow,” she told me. She was right. Nothing wrong there. But everyone knows that yellow is the colour of Buddhism. I won’t comment much on this, but I will say this much – consciously or otherwise, those protesting against racism were getting themselves involved in the very same brand of racism they were hullabooing against. Malinda Seneviratne wrote an excellent piece on this, titled “What is the colour of racism?

It was Seneviratne who said that some people actively championing multiculturalism and the separation of temple and state here would call secularism a “God-given right.” He was right. Hypocrisy among charlatans is not uncommon, be it the BBS or fundamentalists of other faiths. I concur that the vast majority of those championing diversity and multiethnic identity are doing a wonderful job. They are directly carrying out the sort of work our Kings did too, once upon a time. King Senarath, to give one example, sheltered Muslims when they were being attacked by Portuguese soldiers hell-bent on converting the “heathen” to their religion. Of course, I can’t really compare what such Kings did with what the Government at present is doing. So I can only say this: individual civil society groups (by which I exclude NGOs, for reasons which are obviously apparent to all) are championing worthy causes. Some of my friends are members of these groups too. I can only watch from behind, support, and join.

But then there are others, thankfully a minority, who use what they are championing as a trump-card to hide their venomous prejudices. I know this sort of prejudice. I met it on Facebook and in real life. The likes of Seneviratne have openly written of “Buddha bashing”, perhaps the most popular way you can become a “liberal” hero in the eyes of multiculturalists today. I need not add to that. I will, nonetheless, say this much – there are quite a number of self-proclaimed secularists who would turn the other cheek if what was being attacked was Buddhism. I know however that, thanks to the genuine ones who are leading youth civil society today, they are a minority.

The ones who remain silent when Buddhism is attacked, however, are the exact ones who, in private or public, were part of the pro-LTTE lobby. I don’t mean they were conspirators. Nothing like that. But I know for a fact that nearly every one of these self-proclaimed “multiculturalists” believed that 1. The LTTE was justified in what they did and were doing; 2. Buddhism had become so entrenched in our culture that it could be even severely compromised with; and 3. Unethical conversion was a human right (never mind that plenty of “religion bashing” was and is involved in converting Buddhists and Hindus). They would turn around and look only when a “minority” community would be attacked. Not for the love of that community, but because it provided the perfect opportunity for them to lace protest with anti-Sinhala Buddhist ranting. From among them, I’m pretty sure you’ll meet the same crowd that shrugged off LTTE attacks on the Dalada Maligawa, the Kattankudy mosque, and the Sri Maha Bodhi as “necessary evils” to be tolerated in the name of peace.

This is not the time to go into all this. I’ll do that some other time. But I’ll say this much: those actively protesting bigotry and inequity would do well to look back to the past to see whether their own party were guilty of the very same thing. Those who actively opposed Free Education, to give an example from elsewhere, have no right to criticize its shortcomings today. Likewise, those guilty of the same mono-ethno, mono-religious bigotry, those still prone to spitting out venomous diatribes against other creeds and beliefs, have no right whatsoever to “Stand Against Racism”.

I’m saying all this as one who got battered by an “enlightened” friend for having “liked” Bodu Bala Sena’s Facebook page. There were Muslims and Tamils who had “liked” that page. I had done so for same reason they had: to get notifications. One does not “like” a page, after all, merely because one likes its content. Was that friend of mine thinking that, merely because I was a Sinhala Buddhist, I was submitting to the racist slurs and epithets the B.B.S. was hurtling day in and out? That I “liked” BBS because I liked its activities? Why not “batter” the Muslims who had “liked” the page too, for the same reason?

Like Malinda Seneviratne once said, these are champions of “God-given secularism.” I can’t add to or embellish that. I end my case.