One nation, one law

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Promising to protect the interests of Buddha Sasana even more, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his maiden address to the Ninth Parliament, has also made a passing reference to ‘One Nation, One Law’, which can be a sensitive subject, especially for the nation’s Muslim community. A lot will depend on what the Government has in mind, and also on what is on offer and how it shapes up, in the months to come.

The Easter blasts saw the then so-called Government of National Unity (GNU) unilaterally ordering a ban on a Muslim woman wearing a purdah in public. The immediate concern was one of security, is miscreants of either gender could use it to get away from the long arms of law. But there is the equally substantiated social reality that purdah was not in use in the country for over 1,000 years when Islam has been in practice. It is a part of the Arabisation of the religion in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in the multi-ethnic, non-Islamic world,

It is sad that community leaders, who were watching the changing moods and methods of the local population by and through externally-motivated sources did not thought it necessary to intervene effectively at the stage where such intervention was possible. The political leadership of the nation’s Muslims were / are too busy with themselves, feeding their personal egos and electoral opportunism all through that they, like the proverbial ostrich, hid their heads in the sands of Arabia, as if nothing much was happening.

You could start with the LTTE’s 1990 attacks on the nation’s Muslim community, both in the North and the East. In the North, the community was asked to march out of the Province with just Rs 200 or 400 in their pockets. They continue to live as refugees in adjoining Western Province’s Muslim town of Puttalam. In the East, the LTTE massacred local Muslims, as suspected stooges and informants of the Government and the armed forces.

Issues and concerns

Yet, when Gnanasara Thero’s BBS launched a frontal attack on the beliefs and practices of the Muslim community in the country, the State did not offer the victims any protection, or soothing words of reassurance in the post-war years. Even the successor GNU rulers only proclaimed Emergency and banned all social media when Sinhala-Muslim clashes occurred first in Batticaloa and later in Kandy. Having eased the tensions, neither the rulers, nor the Muslim constituents in the Government, did simply nothing to address the larger issues and concerns.

With retrospective effect after the Easter Sunday serial-blasts, Muslim community leaders in the East openly declared how they had alerted the Government authorities, from the lower-level on, all the way up to the Prime Minister and President, as to what was in store, but no one bothered. How and why the community elders did not do anything pro-active to end localised radicals beats imagination. However, it is safe to conclude that either they did not expect it all to lead to something as dastardly as the Easter blasts, or continued being that theirs was a no-nonsense community, where even the GenNext youth with one foot in the Gulf were all as pious as their parental generation and as business-minded as them, thus having to remain peace-loving and non-controversial.

The fact was that they were getting radicalised over the previous two or three decades, they in turn having introduced such non-Sri Lankan Islamic practices as purdah and Arab-learning, not as a language skill for taking up jobs in the Gulf but as a religious duty. Yet, none of it could justify the likes of BBS and Gnanasara Thero targeting the local Muslims, verbally first and physically then. Granting that Islamic radicalisation was/is there, how much of Sinhala-Buddhist radicalisation has taken place in the name of the Buddha, the Preceptor of Peace, especially over the past couple of decades!

Accompanying sentiment

It was inevitable that the LTTE kind of terror attacks both on the State and the people, including Buddhist places of worship, would have naturally upset and offended the devout among the Sinhala-Buddhists. There is no need in going off to the past to see and justify the why and wherefores of the origins of the ethnic strife of our times. But even LTTE terrorism that was handled by the Sri Lankan State did not justify radicalisation of the nation’s Buddhist majority, to a greater or smaller number.

Even so, nothing, including the so-called, unproven occupation of Buddhist property by mosques empowered the BBS kind of organisations to attack the Muslim community, and physically so, looting their shops and setting fire to their establishments and destroying shops that sold ‘Halal meat’.

While so much has been written about the State-backed violence against the Tamils in the fifties, sixties and early eighties, and also about LTTE terrorism, deliberately or otherwise, successive Governments have not said or done anything to acknowledge, for instance, that ‘Pogrom-83’ was the trigger-point for three long decades of terrorism and conventional warfare of the LTTE kind.

Today, the LTTE’s exit is being celebrated – and rightly so. But there is also an accompanying sentiment, at least in some quarters, that likewise, Islamic radicalisation too could be put down by force, if not by the recall-value attending on the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’; It is a fallacious sight they are seeing, as if it were to come to that, there would be wheels within wheels within wheels, which the likes of Ganansara Thero too cannot divine.

All of it leads to the question if the ‘One nation, one law’ proposition’ were to be acted upon, if it would be undertaken through mutual consultation and an open discourse or through  The Government can encourage an inter-ethnic discourse among all four ethnicities in the country and include sub-sects among them, before arriving at a national consensus. Whether a new law of the kind would be a part of the new Constitution or will be taken up separately is also an issue for the Government to clarify. Only that any unilateral decision in the matter can have repercussions which a war-weary nation in the midst of a long-lasting economic crisis can do without.

If nothing else, including a majority of the majority community, not many are going to be impressed any more by the idea of their leaderships going back to ’Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’ as the only cause for ‘nation-building’, as could succeed in the time of LTTE. In the post-LTTE era, as coincidence would have it, the social media cuts both ways, what with greater urbanisation and penetrating elitism, even the majority community is getting increasingly stratified, if not divided, into silos, where terms like nationalism and security have different meaning to different sections of the very same society.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: