Message from Sialkot

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The dastardly killing of 48-year-old Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara in Pakistan’s eastern Sialkot is despicable, to say the least. In fact, no words can describe the mob-lynching of the general manager of a textile factory, in the name of religion. The incident has a message for Sri Lanka, though back-dated by decades, but a message that could have contributed to the easing of ethnic tensions that has taken a huge toll on the nation’s post-Independence history, social amity and of course economy, too.

All that Piyantha had done was to ask the local factory workers to remove posters stuck to the machines and elsewhere on the factory premises, citing the impending visit of a foreign delegation. He may have removed some posters himself, and the protesting factory employees cried blasphemy, chased him to the roof-top where Priyantha had escaped, mobbed him, clubbed him, lynched him and burnt him.

Pakistan beware! If the incident owes to the spread of violent religiosity and with that the likes of ISIS, defanged in the extended neighbourhood otherwise, then there is trouble for the nation more than anticipated. Prime Minister Imran Khan, knowing the impact it would have on the nation’s security situation and equally so on bilateral ties with Sri Lanka, has taken personal charge of the investigations.

PM Imran Khan spoke to Sri Lankan leaders and has honoured Adnan Malik, the sole colleague who tried to save Priyantha from the claws of death – though failed. Sialkot’s business community lost no time in collecting $ 100,000 for Priyantha’s family, not that monetary compensation could bring back the dear one whose loss could not be justified in any which way. His employers have also promised to continue paying his monthly salary to his family, back in Sri Lanka.

Poetic justice

That the nation mourned Priyantha as a man speaks volumes for the basic humaneness that is still alive in Sri Lanka. The hundreds that gathered to mourn him at his funeral should have come from all ethnicities. In cities and towns, heads of all religions jointly led memorial rallies. That is some hope for the future generations, too.

But as some Tamil leaders have pointed out, there was a time when the community, too, needed, such social rallying in their cause and defence. Post-Independence witnessed major Sinhala-Buddhist targeting of the Tamils, in the fifties and sixties, culminating in the unpardonable Pogrom-83. Thousands, not just one, was lynched, maimed, raped, their homes and businesses pillaged and burnt.

Even at this distance in time, no one can claim it was an unplanned emotive response to whatever episode. That should include the LTTE ambushing 13 soldiers, leading to Pogrom-83. Unlike in Priyantha’s case, which was caused by what could be described as ‘sudden provocation’ (???), if at all, almost every Sri Lankan killing of Tamils was planned and plotted, with policemen and army soldiers told to withdraw or stand-by to guard the rioters.

In a sense, it was not ‘mindless mayhem’. Everyone of those anti-Tamil riots were well plotted and charted out. There were reports that thugs were imported into Jaffna to target the Tamils and to burn down the eternally irreplaceable Jaffna Library, which was Tamil identity and culture, hence of the ethnicity.

In others, senior Government ministers led the arsonists, who carried street-by-street voters’ lists in cosmopolitan Colombo City, to identify ethnicities, before attacking them. In some cases, if the house was owned by a Sinhala but the tenants were Tamils, the building alone was spared. The three ‘Eelam Wars’ flowed from anti-Tamil mayhem, not earlier.

This is not to justify or condone the Tamil youth taking to arms and resorting to bank-looting to fund their arms procurement, leading all the way up to the LTTE brand of terrorism coupled with conventional war, territory-taking and administration-building. This turning of page by itself is not going to help, but it is also the time for the Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness to muse over the past. It is time even more for the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity to stop, listen and proceed…

After all, they were in the wrong from the beginning. Their present-day success, if at all it could be termed thus, owes to their unintended handing over of the responsibility for the war to the Tamils, the LTTE in particular. The world charging them, in turn, with ‘accountability’ issues, is poetic justice.

Closure goal

It cannot be argued even now that the ethnic situation and the international pressure would have been different if and if only the war-victorious government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had ‘apologised’ to the Tamil community over the avoidable death of civilians, who became collateral victims, as was believed. The President’s Parliament declaration on the end of the war provided a great opportunity to record the nation’s remorse at civilian deaths. That did not happen.

It is likely that even if it had happened, the West would still have used the President’s speech as ‘confession’ to the killing of civilians, yes. But at least inside the nation, there would have been traumatised Tamils who would have felt relative ease. Instead, the government proceeded with developmental work in the war-torn areas, and also reformed and restored 12,000 LTTE cadres back into the society, which the Tamil polity is reluctantly acknowledging a decade later, but only to say that many of those ‘returnees’ are penniless and equally clueless about their future.

The change-of-government heart does not have to include permitting pro-LTTE elements seeking to edge the divided Tamil polity out of the centre and try and take their place, in what still may remain a non-violent political cause. But a honest closure alone has helped the Sinhala-Buddhist civilian victims of the brutal army action against the two JVP insurgencies (1971 and 1987-89) to come out of their shells. Today, however, the JVP is a weak and moderate politico-electoral forces, threatening none but its own future.

Leave aside the multiple faces of the Sinhala polity, even the community’s civil society is yet to tender an apology to the Tamils, what those from among them had done in the pre-war past. Nor has the Tamil polity and society thanked the Sinhalas in the South even once for those like the Malik Adnans among them, who saved their Tamil neighbours and friends, especially in the face of Mayhem-83, risking their own lives and more. It would have done a good thing by the community, if and if only the post-war Tamil polity had added a line here or a phrase there in their evocative and often repetitive parliamentary speeches, to thank their Sinhala saviours from 1983 and before!

(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: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)