12 March 2013

Sri Lanka is not India

[and let’s pray that it stays this way]

Sri Lanka is not India and India is not Sri Lanka.  That’s easy to say, easy to conclude and indeed one might even say ‘that’s stating the obvious’.  Two different countries of different size, different resource endowment, different post-colonial baggage to deal with, different errors and approaches creating different problems, different numbers of people, different economies, different agendas, different so many things.  Two countries, definitely.  So what’s the story here?

It is a story of pilgrims and pilgrimages, one about hospitality and friendship, claims of brotherly love and expressions of fraternity, reference to commonalities and disavowal of the same, allusion to histories and negation of the past, a moment’s madness and timeless tolerance.  Pilgrims in a bus and pilgrims who came by boat.  Poondi Madha Christian shrine near Thanjavur and the St Anthony’s Church, Kachchativu. The Kachchativu church and the Christian shrine near Nagapattinam.  Differences.  Many differences. 

On September 4, 2012, five buses carrying around 180 Sri Lankan pilgrims to the Trichy airport were attacked on Tuesday.  The convoy of five buses was headed to the Trichy airport to board a special flight home.  They were returning after offering worship at the famous Velankanni Christain shrine near Nagapattinam.  The Sri Lankan nationals were meted out similar treatment during their pilgrimage to the Poondi Madha Christian shrine near Thanjavur yesterday.  The majority were Tamil. 

They were not politicians, they were not political activists or ‘apologists for the Sri Lankan Government’.  They were pilgrims. They came in peace firm in their faith.  They were attacked by Indian citizens, Indian politicians and Indian mobs, Tamils mostly. 

On February 24, 2013, Tamil Nadu police turned back 70 Lankan pilgrims even before they reached the Annai Velankanni shrine fearing violence by Tamil nationalist groups.  It is not that all pilgrims are routinely harassed of course.  Sri Lankans have worshipped at these shrines for decades.  They worshipped long before ethnic tensions burst into armed insurrection, as the battles raged and after the guns were made to fall silent in May 2009.  Sri Lankan Buddhists, Hindus and Christians travelled to or through Chennai to worship at the shrines of their choice.  Not all of them were insulted, not all of them were targeted for stone-throwing.  And yet, it is not the number of insults or attacks or the ratio between attacked and not-attacked but the fact of intolerance that counts.  

It is of course not just pilgrims who are subjected to harassment in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere.  Politicians, state officials, professionals, artists, sportsmen and sportswomen and other tourists have been routinely bad-mouthed, threatened and attacked.  

And it is not as though Tamil Nadu politicians or the mobs they unleash on Sri Lankans (whether they are Sinhalese or Tamils) really care about Sri Lankan Tamils.  If there are CCTV cameras in the Chennai Airport, they would have captured the insults and humiliations that Sri Lankan Tamils are subjected to.  The ‘fraternal love’ is conspicuously absent when Tamil Nadu fishermen poach in Sri Lankan waters, openly robbing their Sri Lankan Tamil ‘brethren’ of livelihoods. 

But forget all that.  Every year, Indians come in their thousands to Kachchathivu Island to pray at the Roman Catholic Shrine dedicated to St Anothony, the patron saint of fisherfolk.  They’ve done so for decades, going back to the early part of the 20th Century. Their passports are never checked.  They come in boats, setting off from Rameswaram, Thangatchimadam and Mandapam. 

Here, every year, the fraternal Tamil Christian communities unite.  Here, they pray together. 

There is no food, water, transportation, electricity or shelter on this island.  These are all provided by the Sri Lanka Navy, reviled in Tamil Nadu and for decades fired on by terrorists who were funded, trained and armed by the Indian Government and who found in Tamil Nadu a safe haven to regroup, recuperate, rearm and return to fight from.  This same Navy deploys lifeguards and medical teams for the convenience of the devotees.

Not a single devotee from Tamil Nadu can complain of ill treatment.  No eye-for-eye here.  No one going blind.  They came, they saw, they prayed, they made their peace with their respective demons, slayed the ghosts that haunted them. 

And it is not just pilgrims to Kachchativu Island.  Apart from the occasional (and eminently legitimate and justifiable) protests at the Indian High Commission against India’s unfriendly acts against Sri Lanka, Indian nationals are not singled out to pay ‘for the sins,’ alleged or real, of Tamil Nadu politicians, the Indian Government or any other Indian.  They are not considered ‘proxies’ from whom ‘redress’ can be extracted by virtue of that very labeling. 

Is it because Sri Lanka is different from India in terms of size, military strength and power to leverage internationally, and therefore there is reluctance to do anything that could be considered provocation?  One could argue along those lines, certainly, but then again the Sri Lankan monster that India nursed into full adulthood, the LTTE, proved to be a creature that India could not handle.  It’s not about size.  It is not about military strength.  It has to be something else.  Some may say ‘degree of civilization’, and that would turn upon its head the frequently thrown around notion that Sri Lanka is ‘little brother’ to the Indian ‘big brother’ or that Sri Lanka somehow owes India its cultural heritage.  We don’t really know. 

What we do know is that India is not Sri Lanka when it comes to letting off steam, objecting to felt injustice, picking fights, choosing targets and other illogical things.  The reason for this difference is not what is important. It is the difference that counts.  And that’s why Kachchativu is not Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu is not the Northern Province, India is not Sri Lanka. 

If one were to look for the well of hope, there’s more chance of finding it in dry Kachchativu than in the watered Annai Velankanni shrine.  It cannot be about ‘god’s will’, it cannot be about the relative merits or strength of patron saints.  And it doesn’t really matter either.  In Kachchativu, two peoples from two countries worship together.  It has to do with a way of being and ways of thinking and reflecting. In Sri Lanka, not India.   



Anonymous said...

True, India is not Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans are not like Indians. Sri Lankans are far more civilised in the way they conduct themselves. They don't "show off" the way the Indians do. Unfortunately, our gentleness is taken for weakness by those who don't understand respect for others.