Speaking for the Dead

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Shanakiyan Ragul Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam is tongue-twister of a Tamil name for the average Sinhala on the streets to pronounce, leave aside their occasional proud statements, how they could not pronounce any of those Tamil names. But cut short to Shanakiyan, the Batticaloa TNA parliamentarian’s name seems to be in the mouth of every Sinhala politician and possibly media-watchers, too, after his powerful speech in the House, the other day.

The trilingual grandson of Federal Party MP, the late S M Rasamanickam, 30-year-old Shanakiyan may have taken his name from the third century BCE Indian strategist-thinker Chanakya, who was Machiavelli and Sun Tzu rolled into one. Thankfully, Chanakya belonged to North India, from where Buddhism, too, came to Sri Lanka – and not ‘South India’, as they still want to know southern State of Tamil Nadu, which Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists still love to despise.

In his powerful parliamentary speech, Shanakiyan did blame the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as any minor ity politician is wont to do. But he went much farther, in his readiness to accept Government failures, if any, in Covid management, which after all was a global pandemic – as he said it. His problem was instead with what he said was the Government’s efforts at covering up its ‘inabilities’ on the Covid front, by targeting the minorities, rather dead minorities.

Talking about the Tamil dead in the decisive Eelam War IV, Shanakiyan did not praise or even condone the LTTE. In a passing reference, he indicated that he was distancing himself from such political positions. What he focused instead was on that faceless Tamil mother, who wanted to remember her dead son, independent of the causes and circumstances of his death. “To her, he is still her son.” Shanakiyan thundered.

Confusing the cause

The problem with the multi-ethnic nation is that not one of the ethnicities knows the cultural moorings and practices of the other three. The Sri Lankan Tamils are supposed to know some of those practices of their Upcountry Tamil brethren (?), but once again, they take pride in not wanting to know them. They all mingle with the Muslim community, but take equal pride in not knowing the religion’s traditions enough. To them, a religious festivity in a Muslim friend’s house means an invitation for a sumptuous non-vegetarian meal.

In this background, it is not surprising that the Sinhala policeman on the streets of Jaffna, to those manning bigger positions up the official ladder to the last step up, none seems to know the distinction between the Tamil-Hindu ‘Festival of Lights’, called ‘Karthigai Deepam’, celebrated in the Tamil month of Karthigai. That’s where the problem lies, or so also it seems.

Going by the astrological calendar – and almost every Sinhala-Buddhist believes in his or her astrologer – the festival of lights, when women pray for the wellbeing of their brothers, falls on the full moon day, in the Tamil month of Karthigai. As coincidence would have it, every other year, the Karthigai Deepam festival falls on or around the LTTE’s ‘Heroes Day’ on 27 November. The post-war Tamil community, or many of them, observe it as ‘Martyrs Day’ in memory of their dead.

In a way, no Tamil, living or dead, can be blamed for the Deepam festival and their observances falling on the same day. But they can be asked, if this was their traditional way of remembering their dead, including those who died in wars. Lighting lamps and candles was the LTTE’s way of doing things. But lighting lamps, and not candles, is the Tamil way of celebrating the Karthigai Deepam festival.

Shorn of their by-now ingrained hatred for the LTTE, not all of them unjustified, the rural Sinhala-Buddhists and their urban kin, should have no problem in understanding religious rites and celebrations, as they are a community driven by rituals. They should also understand that here is one full moon day in the year, when their Tamil-Hindu brethren share some religious rites with their monthly poya observances on the very same day, again going only by the traditional calendar, which often coincides.

But politicians, and on their orders, policemen seem wanting to ensure that the Karrthigai Deepam festival gets to be known by the present-day Sinhala youth, down South, but they have only wrong interpretations of the same, to be carried to their grave – but only after handing it over to their next generation. Live in hate, as a nation, that is?

Burial controversy

It is anybody’s guess who invented – or, is it a discovery? – that all Covid dead should be cremated, not buried. Especially after the WHO cleared it as a safe way at internment of the dead, across the world, religions following burial ceremonies for their dead have continued with it.

This includes Christians, and not just Muslims, as the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists in the Sri Lankan State system (and not just in this Government) would want to hurt, and hurt badly, again passing on the scars to generations down the line. It is not as if all Buddhists in Sri Lanka cremate their dead.

If someone thought that after three-decades of ethnic war, the Sinhala nationalist hard-liner would have found time to sit down and pause, over the causes for the creation of the LTTE, he would have identified his own contributions. It was not over political issues, but the idea of sowing seeds of hatred, born out of a sense of self-pity on the part of the Tamil youth of the time, and insecurity in the majority Sinhala community.

If language was among the causes, and the Sinhala of the fifties thought that with his command over the English language, the average Tamil would beat him in the job market centred on the Government, S W R D Bandaranaike and his generation of Sinhala-Buddhist leaders should have thought better. It can be argued, mischievously, that most of them having mastered the white man’s language, that to in his overseas environment, also wanted to keep their own Sinhala masses, where some of them still think, they belonged and should continue to belong.

After decades, Candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ for the presidential polls of 2005, spoke about making Sri Lanka a ‘Knowledge Society’, where the learning of English language along with computer science, was identified as the ‘sine quo non’. Successive Governments since, including incumbent Gota presidency, have not changed the script of the Chintanaya spirit, though there may be typical State laxity in terms of execution and implementation.

Branding as solution

It is sad to note that branding in the name of ethnic identity, and even without it, has been the Sri Lankan State norm, to identify and/or localise administrative issues involving political philosophy. It may have started with the Tamil issue since Independence, but its brutal face was scene first in the suppression of the JVP, when founded by Rohan Wijeweera, in the sixties.

The JVP happened after traditional left had failed those segments of the population – for whom obviously, ‘Sinhala Only’ of the previous decade was the solution to their problems of living and livelihood. Rather than addressing the core issues of rich-poor divide, for which the Sinhala South continues to be famous, the UNP Government of the day, followed by the SLFP successor under Sirimavo Bandaranaike, first side-stepped the issues and causes, and thus let it fester.

It was then and then alone they came down heavily on the JVP, branding them as militants, which they had become anyway, and crushed them under military boots, the same way they handled Tamil youth militancy, through three decades from the eighties.

There is thus something structurally wrong in the Sri Lankan State’s approach, especially since Independence, considering that the British colonial masters did not have to use force for centuries after ‘unifying’ the three kingdoms forming Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. Where it is not too big for the State to intervene, either through the police or the military, they seem to hand it over to street thugs.

Post war Aluthagama is a standing example of the commencement of anti-Muslim harassment, which has continued since, in Batticaloa and Kandy under the previous regime, which could be put down only with the proclamation of nation-wide Emergency. In Weliweriya under Mahinda Rajapaksa, incidentally, the military was called in – no one knows by whom – to put down innocent protestors, who wanted chemical contamination of local water sources stopped.

In the midst of Covid-19 confusions holding down the Government, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, has been forced to remind the rulers that justice (in the form of punishing the guilty) was yet to be rendered to the Christian dead in the Easter serial-blasts last year. Ture, the investigations may still be slow, the first round of suicide-bombers having killed themselves, but then, Cardinal Ranjith and his laity should also pause and ask themselves, if what the Christian West now dubs ‘transitional justice’ is what the good Lord and his Book have taught them.

That is because, they are not talking anymore about terrorists, but about a whole ethnicity in the country, who are already being targeted by the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists – though only in the name of terrorism. Amen!

(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: [email protected])

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