Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Keep race, religion out in a Sri Lankan revival plan

It sounds remote but newspaper pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla attending a Hindu puja to unveil a massively magnified version of Ashoka’s Lion Capital atop New Delhi’s new Parliament building might explain the bitterness that underlies Sri Lanka’s current crisis. For, as Raghuram Rajan, the former Reserve Bank governor, had warned recently, no nation can hope for peace and growth if it marginalises its minorities.

India has a role in helping Sri Lanka to find a long-term solution to the challenge of ethnic differences — possibly in terms of the infructuous 1987 Rajiv Gandhi-J.R. Jayewardene accord which recommended federalism — and achieve the “samanjasya” (harmony) of which Mr Modi speaks by itself setting an example of cultural tolerance and federal integration and not aggravating the Islamophobia that has raged in Sri Lanka since the 2019 Easter massacre. It must be stressed in this context that beyond being an expression of personal faith, pujas make a public statement, as political as the burqa or hijab.

The Sinhalas had quietly determined at independence to make Sri Lanka in practice a unitary Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist nation where the minorities would remain outsiders. Leaders like the late highly Anglicised Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, born a Christian and initially unable even to speak Sinhalese, who chose to drop his trousers for a sarong, sacrificed national cohesion and the economy to that ruinously emotive aim. Cost is of little concern. If the “new” New Delhi can cost Rs 20,000 crores, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port is billed to cost $1.3 billion. It was ordered by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President from 2005 to 2015, and then Prime Minister under his brother Gotabaya, who borrowed the money from China.

It’s a moot point whether Colombo would have placed itself at Beijing’s mercy to this extent if it had not been for the India factor. Even a bankrupt Sri Lanka cannot relish depending on a militarily powerful neighbour across the narrow Palk Straits for funds, food, fuel and medicines. Like other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka seeks a counter-point to the obvious regional hegemon. Moreover, the Sinhalas cannot rid themselves of the suspicion that the “Ceylon Tamils”, who constitute more than 11 per cent of the population, and “Indian Tamils” (former plantation workers), who add up to another four per cent and more, are in some way Chennai’s, if not New Delhi’s, fifth column. The sorry history of India flirting with and then abandoning Sri Lanka’s Tamils, especially the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has only deepened scepticism on both sides of the island’s race barrier.

Sri Lanka’s economy is hostage to the geopolitical implications of its hysterical ethnic fanaticism. Driven by race and religion, the ambitious and self-seeking Rajapaksa clan seems to have been ready to risk local ire by courting China with programmes that meant infrastructure projects displacing residents without creating jobs, flouting all environmental standards and gravely aggravating India’s security concerns.

That the race animosity is alive and kicking was proclaimed in November 2019 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as President in an ancient Buddhist temple built by King Dutthagamani (161 BC to 137 BC) who “smote the Tamils hip and thy, and did so, partly at least, with religious motives”, according to B.H. Farmer’s standard Ceylon, a Divided Nation. Although now on the run, Gotabaya Rajapaksa did claim at the time that he was “the President of all Sri Lankans, whether they voted for [him] or not and irrespective of their ethnicity or religious beliefs”. But his choice of a sacred temple in Anuradhapura was as poignant as the New Delhi puja to unveil Ashoka’s Lion Capital. It informed Sinhala Buddhists (75 per cent of the population) that the new regime would consolidate their hegemony. Obsessed with that objective, and busy promoting his various relatives, Mr Rajapaksa thoroughly mismanaged the economy so that a country that once boasted Asia’s highest standard of living defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt and desperately needs an International Monetary Fund bailout.

Poor governance has also made Sri Lanka almost a pariah state among democratic nations with India, Canada and Mauritius citing an abysmal human rights record to boycott the 2013 Commonwealth summit. Mr Gotabaya was nicknamed the “Terminator” for his deadly role during the island’s 26-year civil war. The United States and many international organisations expressed concern, drawing especial attention to outrages like the gunning down in 2009 of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the popular and courageous editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader who had exposed the Rajapaksa brothers’ malpractices only a few days earlier, and was due to testify about allegedly corrupt arms deals during the civil war.

Wickrematunga wrote in an editorial shortly before his death, and published posthumously: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”.

Hindu Tamils are not the only perceived adversary. There is a long history of anti-Muslim violence — Moors claiming Arab descent make up 9.3 per cent of the population — although it was overshadowed by the war against the LTTE. In the frenzy after the Easter bloodshed, a prominent Buddhist leader demanded stoning Muslims to death and accused Muslim-owned restaurants of using “sterilisation medicine” to reduce Sinhala Buddhist fertility. A member of Gotabaya’s legal team was reportedly videotaped telling Muslims that they would get “a massive thrashing” if they did not vote for the now self-exiled President.

Those fissures must be healed if Sri Lanka is again to take its rightful place in the comity of nations. As Dr Raghuram Rajan cautioned, an “anti-minority” image can lose a country’s export markets overseas and persuade foreign governments to view it as an unreliable partner. The former RBI governor was addressing Indians, but the warning applies equally to Sri Lanka which has lost the tourism that accounted for some 20 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings.

Nothing can happen until stability has been restored and Colombo again has a functioning government. Once that has been achieved, a blueprint for recovery is available in the 1987 India-Sri Lanka agreement that aimed to ensure peace by devolving power to the provinces. It’s the only way of achieving national reconciliation and uniting Tamils behind the government to heal the wounds of conflict and rebuild a once prosperous but now devastated nation.

Meanwhile, Indians must be wondering how Mr Modi reconciles his puja with the ban on using “the precincts of Parliament House for any demonstration, dharna, strike, fast, or for the purpose of performing any religious ceremony.”

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