Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Whom to unite and how?

I often wonder why people can't unite. Is it because they are so consumed with hate? That they are blinded by it? I refuse to believe that. No man would hate so much that he cannot love. We are frail, after all, and inasmuch as none of us is perfect it is also true that no one is an absolute devil. Hate can't be the (only) reason. There has to be something else.

Is it the way we look at unity? Perhaps. But how do we see and define it? We do so by defining ourselves. And how do we define ourselves? We first define the Other. We do not know our Church, nor do we know what it stands for. Desperate and in need of finding our identity, we vilify other Churches and communities. As if this wasn't bad enough, we have no clue about those we vilify.

The late Lakshman Kadirgamar is reported to have told the Tamil people thus: "If you cannot live with the Sinhalese, you cannot live with anyone else." I would like to believe that. I would like to think that they are for unity, that they do not demand it based on self-centered ends, that they can live with other races. I was told that this was a Utopia I was dreaming about. I replied that believing in what's real and possible isn't the same as thinking about Utopias. Racial amity, I added, is real. And possible. Nothing fairy-tale-like about that.

The Sinhalese people think they are being preyed on. They believe, rightly I should think, that they have been harmed, cast aside, and in other ways made to feel as though they are a minority. They are and they are not. Clearly they make up 75% of this country, but elsewhere they are marginalised. A national majority and a global minority. It is this strange dichotomy, more than anything else, that is at the heart of our conflict.

Unity isn't an option anymore. You must live with your neighbour. But what if you cannot? What if you feel that you are the preyed on race? These are questions I grappled with a long time back. I'm not sure whether I've found the correct answers, but here goes.

When S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike founded the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1934, he aimed at two things. The Sinhalese, he said, must be united. He did not differentiate between Sinhala Buddhists and Sinhala Christians. He included both. Having unified themselves, they must then reach out to the rest of the country, to other communities. In other words, only by uniting your own kind could you unify yourself with other races.

It's a pity that Bandaranaike did not keep to his own vision. When he broke away from the United National Party (UNP) and created the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he still had ideals. But they had changed. Where he spoke for unity, he now spoke for division. Given that he had a way with words and could distill action from ideology, he emphasised the need for a cultural resurgence. Driven by the urge to appear more popular, he let go of his idealism. He promised Sinhala. In 24 hours. Technically that is what we got. More than 50 years on, we are still paying for that mistake.

I have read Susantha Goonatilake's 16th Century Clash of Civilizations and have come to wonder why it is that the Sinhalese as a race can't reach out. Is it because they were once the victim, that they were forced by word and sword to give up what they believed? Maybe. Goonetilake aptly records the various crimes of ommission and commission committed by misguided fanatics. The reader is left with one question: if the Sinhala people were the victims, isn't it fair that they should stand up for themselves?

Yes, they were the victims. They were killed, raped, mutilated, and drowned. They were (and still are) marked as heathens. When they did not convert, they were stigmatised. When they did, privilege was showered. And when privilege was threatened, vested interests stood up and fought.

But I don't think this is a reason to become chauvinists. The South African government after all acted against the blacks. Nelson Mandela became President. He did not hate. He did not sanction hate. He went ahead and reconciled everyone, white, black, or otherwise. Today we have a South Africa that is unified. Unified by the same people who were segregated and divided for so long.

I have also read Malinga H. Gunaratne's Tortured Island. The book is an eye-opener. Literally. It made me realise just how naive we are about harmony. The Sinhalese have for so long been told that they are attacked and prone to attack. Understandably, they are on the defensive. Perhaps that's why they do not listen to reason, why even the slightest whimper is enough to fire them up. Not that they don't understand the meaning of reconciliation, but that those who profit from mongering fear set them against it.

Gunaratne's book also raises another point: that the Sinhalese have divided themselves. He raises some questions. Hard questions. They are a divided race, not (only) because some wish it that way, but because they refuse to see that which unites us. They believe those petty things which divide man from man. Like caste. And religion. If they can't go past these as a race, how can they hope to unite themselves? Or reach out to others?

They were, I think, forced to believe in myths. They defined themselves according to them. They resorted to irrationality where reason would have done. But the Sinhala people are fiercely individualistic. They are also submissive. They believe in karma, the moral law of causation. Submitting themselves to everything that comes their way, they recoil the moment that which they give way to tries to enslave them. They welcomed those who captured and colonialised them. Given this, is there any reason to denounce them? I think not.

The Sinhala race did not fight wars on their own. The civil war was not against the Tamils, nor was it for the Sinhalese. It was a Muslim man, for instance, who headed the intelligence operations of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP). When the LRRP's operations were discovered after the fiasco at Millennium City, Captain S. H. Mohamed Nilam became a hunted man. Who betrayed him? The Sinhalese, of course!

Why this hate, then? Why this anger? Why can't we be friends? The answer is simple. Politics.

I can think of only two people who reached out to other communities. Lakshman Kadirgamar was one. He was killed by fanatical members of his own race. There were Tamil politicians who celebrated his murder. Scoundrels, all of them. The other is Imthiaz Bakeer Markar. The sad fact is that while both gentlemen (from both major parties) won the admiration of the Sinhalese, not a single Sinhalese politician was intelligent enough to win over the Muslim and Tamil man. Is it any wonder, then, that Muslims and Tamils are inflamed by racist politicians, who want our country to be divided?

Bottom line, hence: the Sinhalese have only themselves to blame. For this mess and for the mess they continue. To date, the Sinhala race has not produced a single politician who is for reconciliation. I do not for one moment believe that those who negotiated with the LTTE, who talked about pragmatism and realpolitik while selling half the country to those scoundrels, were lovers of Tamil and Muslim people. They were opportunists. Where there was money and fame, they betrayed to their heart's content. I will also not comment on the Hela Urumaya, because that party is currently going through a metamorphosis I can't really understand. Not yet.

Dr E. W. Adikaram, in his brilliant essay "Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?", raised some valid points. I quote:

"Species of birds differ by birth from one another. Between the eagle and the dove, between the quail and the peacock there is a natural difference. Is there such a difference between the Sinhalese and the Tamil, between the Englishman and the German?"

I am not suggesting that we all are eagles or peacocks. There are characteristics that define us and differentiate one from the other. But to suggest that one race is superior to the other is madness. I do not believe it. That we must preserve identities is true. The Sinhalese, let's not forget, have been discriminated against (they still are) by those who find them gullible and easy to prey on.

Consumed by anger and revenge, the Sinhalese man wants to protect himself. Politicians, seeking privilege and perk, make use of this and talk about shielding him from the Other. They are elected. They go back on what they promised. Let down and deeply angered, he seeks another representative who is more racist and irrationally chauvinistic. So the vicious cycle goes.

Does it ever end?

If we can't stop this, if we can't stop those divisions that exist even among our race (like caste), we can't linger. In the meantime, the country will only suffer. Always.