By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
May 4, 2019
India has been warned. Boasting of the world’s largest election doesn’t by itself usher in or establish democracy. No multi-religious, multi-ethnic society can ignore the obligations of pluralism and hide its head ostrich-like in the sands of majoritarianism. Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday carnage was first said to be revenge for the Christchurch mosque shootings which killed 50 people and injured 50 others.
Then, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, described the horrendous massacre of 253 people as a “targeted attack on Christians”. Now, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, says it was retaliation for the defeat of the “caliphate” his terrorist group claimed to have established across Syria and Iraq.
There may be some basis in each contention. But the politicking that is going on between Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, doesn’t promise any respite from strife. Even Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, has been forced to urge the authorities to attend to their primary duty, reminding the highest officers of state that a government that is not at peace with itself can’t impose peace on others.
What the finance minister, Mangala Samaraweera, called “a well-coordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy” reflected the fall-out of Colombo’s signal failure to live up to the demands of diversity. More than 70 per cent of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese speaking Buddhists. Nearly 13 per cent are Tamil Hindus. Muslims account for nearly 10 per cent of the population, and Christians of all denominations for another 7 to 8 per cent.
They dwell in a land of which Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta from 1823 to 1826, wrote in a famous hymn that “every prospect pleases, /And only man is vile.” That could be said of India too. Human vileness can distort a system that was designed to give every man and woman, irrespective of race or religion, an equal voice in governance. Some will argue that even if the Election Commission tries to enforce the letter of the law, its spirit is not always honoured by the contesting parties.
To take just one instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nomination of Pragya Singh Thakur as its candidate from Bhopal is seen as a disturbing signal by many voters who believe the conventions that uphold the law deserve as much respect as the law itself. True, every individual must be held to be innocent until proven guilty.
The National Investigation Agency has exonerated her, citing the want of evidence of involvement in either the Ajmer Sharif explosion of October 2007 killing three persons and injuring 17 or the September 2008 bombings when three bombs exploded in Gujarat and Maharashtra killing 10 persons and injuring 80.
But the trial court overruled the NIA in the second case, holding there was “prima facie evidence” against her. Although out on bail on health grounds, Miss Thakur remains an accused in a terrorist case. Charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act have been dropped, but not under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Maharashtra’s anti-terrorism squad says the motorcycle used in the blast was registered in Miss Thakur’s name.
Even the bail that the Bombay High Court granted her on health grounds in April 2017 has prompted people to ask how someone who is supposed to be ill can face the hurly burly of electioneering. By fielding her, the BJP has revealed its own priorities and brought the democratic process into disrepute. Her reported comment, “Hemant Karkare falsely implicated me. He died of his karma.
I told him, he will be destroyed. I told him his entire dynasty will be erased” would have been crude, offensive and revealing even if Karkare had not been a valiant police officer whose heroism earned him the Ashok Chakra. What makes the remark really obnoxious is what it reveals of an ignorant person’s faith in the power of cursing.
That is a gross negation of everything Jawaharlal Nehru believed in and preached when he demanded that science and spiritualism should replace superstition. Miss Thakur’s comment must rank with claims by politicians regarding genetics in the Mahabharata and the transplant of Ganesha’s elephant head on a human body to expose the abysmally low intelligence quotient of those who rule us.
Bigotry also grips Sri Lanka, the bigotry of Buddhists who display none of the compassion that is associated with the Buddha but are impelled instead by an arrogant conviction of their right to monopolise authority. The blistering feud between the President and Prime Minister is being played out against a backdrop of ethnic tension and horrendous unburied memories of the 26-year civil war that killed between 70,000 and 80,000 people. Fortunately, however, Sirisena-Wickremensinghe enmity doesn’t seem to have impeded the effort to restore normalcy.
Sri Lanka’s government lost no time in clamping down an indefinite curfew, imposing emergency rule, freezing social media networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp to prevent the spread of rumours that might spark inter-communal violence (as happened in March 2018 when Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim mosques, businesses, and homes and a state of emergency had to be declared), and banning face-covering burqas.
The Tamil minority was far from blameless. The armed insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam emerged in 1976 to fight for a Tamil homeland, attacking the police and army, deploying child soldiers, and murdering moderate Tamil leaders like Appapillai Amirthalingam and Neelan Tiruchelvam whose now forgotten Tamil United Liberation Front sought a compromise solution.
The LTTE were among the first militants to pioneer the suicide bombings that the Easter Sunday rebels emulated with such devastating effect. In 1997, the US branded it a terrorist group. But the Sinhalese majority, instigated by fanatical monks in saffron, must bear the main blame for continuing tension. Guided by Bishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought peace to a ravaged land.
But the recommendation of Sri Lanka’s official Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that “the process of reconciliation requires a full acknowledgement of the tragedy of the conflict and a collective act of contrition by the political leaders and civil society, of both Sinhala and Tamil communities” is ignored.
Not a single wrongdoer has been punished for crimes committed during those 26 war-torn years. Colombo fears that any concession will strengthen hardliners, especially in the diaspora, who still yearn for an independent Tamil Eelam. In Sri Lanka, too, these hardliners flaunt saffron which far from being the colour of piety and sacrifice, denotes hard dogma, self-defeating stubbornness and populist exhibitionism. A party whose public face is the saffron-draped Miss Thakur cannot inspire greater confidence in multicultural democracy.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.