11 March 2018

Towards liberating ourselves from the complicities of stereotyping

No, Kandy is not 'normal' and neither is 'Sri Lanka'

When the House Leader indulges in racial stereotyping it is a serious matter. The man has a poor track record on most counts, but this takes the cake given the context in which he has shot his mouth. 

Lakshman Kiriella has said “a resolution should be brought in parliament and Buddhists should apologize to the Muslims in connection with the violence in Digana and Teldeniya”. A lot can be said about this, but let’s leave that for later. 

Kiriella first needs to be praised to the heavens for his confession about intelligence services. He said ‘the state intelligence services had collapsed resulting in the violence in Digana and Teldeniya.’  

Now when did the state intelligence apparatus collapse? Overnight? Just because something happened somewhere? That’s hardly possible. No, what Kiriella is acknowledging is that the intelligence services were and are out of order. 

He has not expressed surprise and this should not surprise anyone. This Government from Day One vilified and harassed the entire intelligence service. Whereas in a post-war de-militarizing effort intelligence should be enhanced, this Government spared no pains to demoralize and cripple it.  

That’s the service. How about the Government and its intelligence? Do we even need to talk about it? No. It probably explains Kiriella’s statement, but let’s not go there. 

Let’s move on to this business of ‘Buddhists apologizing to Muslims.’  What is being implied here? That all Buddhists did some wrong to all Muslims? What kind of rubbish is that? 

Interestingly Kiriella, in this, is like a fellow traveler of the Bodu Bala Sena and the Ravana Balakaya, both being organizations that make totalizing claims and which have made stereotyping an article of faith.  They target in their rhetoric an entire collectivity. It’s the hambayo or thambiyo
that they rant and rave against.  

We’ve seen all this before. At a Galle Literary Festival the late Sunila Abeysekera claimed that there were people conflating the LTTE and the Tamil community. It was duly pointed out during the Q&A that followed that when some people say ‘The LTTE is the sole representative of the Tamil people’ then we need to ask ‘who is doing the conflating here?’  

Sunila, like many of her ilk, had forgotten that there’s a flip side to things.  However, if one is lachrymose enough, makes some ‘all-of-humanity’ noises and mix a few measures of feigned objectivity, one can hoodwink a lot of people. Thisaranee Gunaseka does it often but rarely as cleverly as she has in a recent piece titled ‘The beast rides again’.  

The word ‘beast’ comes up only in the title. It is appropriate. Anyone who attacks an unarmed person is a beast. What happened was beastly.  Thisaranee offers an interesting argument which expands that definition.

She has used Black July and of course what followed as convenient and even reasonable historical and political points of reference  to dissect what happened Teldeniya, Digana and elsewhere. This is what she says.

“The majority of Sinhalese did not take part in Black July. They didn’t have to. All they had to do was to shrug a shoulder, turn a blind eye. Indifference is neither neutral nor benign. Indifference kills and destroys.”

It pins responsibility on an entire community.  She says, quite rightly, ‘if the government is too timorous to do so, the demand and the pressure should from come from those Sinhala-Buddhists who retain enough sanity to see the deadliness of the future that is being made.’ She’s done her part as a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ since she says ‘Kandy was set in fire in our name’ and later uses the phrase  ‘ff we, the Sinhalese, fail Muslims as we failed Tamils…’

And yet, she stumbled into the classic dialectical trap, ‘if you are not with us, then you are with them.’ So, in this case, if you don’t speak up against something then it means that you condone it. 

She is right when she says that ‘the extremism of the majority community’ is the most dangerous kind of extremism. At least, here, she has acknowledged that there are other kinds of extremism, not just the Sinhala-Buddhist variety.  But this if-you-don’t-condone-you-support thesis can be applied to other situations and communities.  Leads to conflation doesn’t it?

Then she descends into an ancient half-truth: ‘Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics strengthen fanatics in minority communities’.  True. The ontology is tendentious. It’s like blaming Sinhala-Tamil tensions on Bandaranaike’s ‘Sinhala Only’. Never mind that it was switched to ‘Swabhasha’ not too long after, but if you talk about ‘Sinhala Only’ (as you should) and not talk about G.G. Ponnambalam’s ’50-50’ or Chelvanayakam’s ‘a little now, more later,’ or the ‘Tamil State Party’ or Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s Tamil chauvinism that detracted from his struggle with the Sinhalese and others against the British, if you talk about Anagarika Dharmapala and are silent about Arumugam Navalar, all of which preceded ‘Sinhala Only,’ then you are being mischievous at best. 

If you talk of multi-ethnic and multi-religious (as you should) but don’t talk numbers and percentages, you are being mischievous, at best. Thisaranee, in this article at least, trots out the numbers but quickly slips to tired totalizing claims. We’ll get to that.

If you talk about all the failed agreements between Sinhala and Tamil politicians (as you should) but don’t talk about the implementation of important articles despite these ‘failures’ then you are being mischievous, at best.

If you talk about ‘Sinhala Only’ (as you should) and ignore the ‘English Only’ that preceded it for more than a century, if you talk about alleged ‘Buddhist hegemony’ and ignore the ‘Christian hegemony’ that had existed for 450 years and which included the destroying of temples and Kovils, murdering of bikkhus and the burning of manuscripts, you are being mischievous, at best. 

If you talk about secularism (as you should) and leave out the fact that there are more holidays for Muslims than for Buddhists and that the number of Christian holidays are four times more than that for the latter and that the Hindus have just 3, then you are being mischievous, at best.

If you talk about a Sri Lankan identity (as you should) but balk at the idea ‘one country, one law’ you are being mischievous, at best.

If you talk about the contribution of all communities to the achieving of independence (as you should) and forget that in terms of percentages (since percentage-free numbers can be misleading) it was the Sinhala-Buddhists who sacrificed most by way of lives lost and properties destroyed, you are being mischievous, at best.

If you talk about the heroism of Muslim members of the security forces (as you should) in the defeat of the LTTE and ignore the fact that the freedoms enjoyed in a terrorism-free land were obtained at the cost of much higher percentages of the majority community giving their lives and limbs, you are being mischievous, at best.

In short there has been a lot of shoulder-shrugging, blind-eyes turned and indifference. It's certainly very different to looking the other way when a beast is on the rampage, but if you are looking to go beyond moment and incident and try to figure out 'root causes' [another term frequently used in explaining (-off) the LTTE by the way] then these things need to be factored in. 

And so you get claims such as the following: “The triumph of violent Sinhala extremism in the South led to the triumph of violent Sinhala extremism in the North.” This is picking up the narrative at convenient points so that you can pin the blame on your preferred enemy. 

We’ve seen that a lot. We have seen terms such as the following: Sinhala State, Sinhala-Buddhist State, Majoritarianism etc.  All Sinhalese (or Sinhala Buddhists) are lumped together. A monolithic proposition, then, and a language trick that is used selectively. 

We’ve seen how people started talking about ‘Colombo’ and ‘Kilinochchi’ in the way that capitals are used as proxies for nations (e.g. London for the UK, Washington DC for the USA, Delhi for India). We’ve noticed how it became ‘North’ and ‘South’ and thereby giving an implicit horizontal split of communities leaving a neat 50-50 to be imagined by the mis-educated who have also been fed the numberless multi-ethnic and multi-religious story.  And of course they also talked of ‘Border Villages’ which implied there WAS a border.

Not innocent. Not by a long shot.  Put it all together and we are left with one beast, namely ‘Sinhala Buddhist’.  That history is several centuries old.  When a community thus vilified for so long in this mischievous (at best) manner is pushed against the wall, something can give, somewhere. Then if you act surprised, it’s simply because you’ve been slothful in reading event and nuance in the long history (as opposed to chosen slices of it). 

No, this is not to say that the BBS or the Ravana Balakaya are products of that pinning against the wall; that would be giving respectability to the beasts.  What is strange however is that those who said Prabhakaran was a product of a particular social, cultural, political and economic history, are refusing to talk about such ‘factors’ in understanding ‘products’ such as the BBS. It is easy, I know, to say ‘Wijeweera was a megalomaniac’ than to investigate how the JVP became what it did. The same with the LTTE and Prabhakaran. Delve into all that and you come up with stories that are resistant to one-line capture.

Thisaranee is obviously more sophisticated than Kiriella. Both, however, express the same conceptual error, that of treating communities as monoliths.  Kiriella is crude, Thisaranee is clever.  At least Thisaranee indulges in tokenism when talking about extremism other than the Sinhala-Buddhist variety; Kiriella does not. 

In the end, however, anyone who identifies with a community (as she has and as I do) must recognize that he or she can do something. We can stand up and say ‘no’. We can help our friends who feel threatened or anxious, in word and deed.  We can refuse to participate. We can refuse to stereotype. 

Thisaranee ends her piece this way: ‘If we, the Sinhalese, fail Muslims as we failed Tamils, history will not forgive us, and will punish us with a new and a worse war.’

The verdict of history (such things don’t really figure in the thinking of extremists; even a murderer in most cases has absolved him/herself of guilt before the act) and convictions of outcome are poor incentives when contending with the ‘demands’ of the moment. 

The choice is for the individual and in a sense the collective or at least segments of the collective. We can call upon our humanity. Regardless of all that, perceptions count. We are not arahats or saints; we are human and therefore frail. We can rise about all that and we should try to; but we can fail. If we fail, I believe, it is in part because we are stopped by the vicious, politically and ideologically malicious and deliberately misleading stereotyping that has marked the discourse on identity in this country.  

Conflate Tamil with LTTE and it is an insult. Among the insulted, after a while, there could be some who will say ‘alright, then I will be what you think I am!’ Conflate ‘Muslim’ with ISIS and you’ll get similar results.  Not all of them of course, but why lose those who can make a difference? It’s the same with all communities, the Sinhala-Buddhists included. 

So while we do the best we can to counter the extremisms of the communities we identify with, we can also resolve not to stereotype. It could mean something as simple as the insertion of a few simple caveats to the claims we make.  

Kiriella wants me to apologize, I will not. Thisaranee I believe wants me to not to fail Muslims; I will do my best not to, because she’s right about this even though she’s tendentious and Kiriela-like in her general position regarding Sinhala Buddhists.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com