by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“National Socialism, in its unscrupulous technique of deceit, was vary about disclosing the full extent of its aims before the world has become inured… Only a small dose to begin with, then a brief pause. Only a single pill at a time and then a moment of waiting to observe the effect of its strength, to see whether the world conscience would still digest this dose….” Stefan Zweig (The World of Yesterday)
The ‘Sinhala Only’ National Anthem is a reality. Its inaugural manifestation took place at a tsunami commemoration ceremony in Jaffna, at the tail-end of 2010. The students of Jaffna Hindu College and Vambadi Girls School were compelled to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala, a language they are unfamiliar with; provincial authorities, under orders from Colombo, ignored the complaints of the students about the impossibility of learning the pronunciation of unaccustomed words in a very short time.
When The Sunday Times broke the story about the regime’s decision to scrap the Tamil version of the National Anthem, there was a chorus of dismay, in the North and in the South. In Tamilnadu, Chief Minister Karunanidhi too expressed concern, stating that “if the news is true, it should be strongly condemned”. Challenged by this barrage of criticism, the regime backtracked. The Minister of Home Affairs told the media that the cabinet merely discussed the matter; no final decision was taken, he insisted. His denial was confirmed by several colleagues. Reassured, the chorus of indignation died down. A fortnight later, the Sinhala Only National Anthem became a fait accompli, in stealth. Obeying orders from the centre, provincial authorities scrapped the scheduled singing of the National Anthem in Tamil.
The manner in which the Tamil version of the National Anthem was scrapped is symbolic of the Rajapaksa modus operandi. When controversial decisions are made or indefensible deeds are done and a public outcry ensues, the government backtracks. This turns the issue into a non-issue. Once the outcry dies down and public attention moves on, the decision is implemented or the misdeed is repeated, in stealth, and with some plausible deniability. The unthinkable thus becomes the reality and the abnormal the norm. The next time Tamil students are forced to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala, nary an eyebrow will be raised; the third time around it will not even make the news.
The scrapping of the Tamil version of the National Anthem demonstrates that the Rajapaksas are not interested in winning over the Tamils. Their plan is not to achieve a stable peace via Tamil/Muslim cooperation but to impose a Pax Sinhala by force and to maintain it by fear. The new terror-wave sweeping across the North may well be a part of this plan, a macabre signal to Tamils/Muslims about the dangers of non-acquiescence. As Murders and abductions of civilians become a staple in the North, denial, indignant or frivolous, but hardly credible, is the Rajapaksa reaction. Amongst the more prominent victims of the new terror-wave are Deputy Director of Education Manikkam Sivalingam and the Hindu priest of the Chankani Muruthamarudhu Kovil, Nithyanadan Sharma.
The question cannot but obtrude: is a wave of terror possible in a province dense with army camps and gun-toting soldiers, without official knowledge/sanction? The following story about white van-abductions in Mannar has a ring of authenticity; even more disturbingly it indicates a high level of official complicity in the ongoing terror-wave: “Sinhala-speaking armed men in white-van rushed through Mannaar abducting four males, one of them a Muslim youth, Jaharil Jazeel…. Sri Lanka Navy, Sri Lanka Army and Police guarding the Mannaar Bridge withdrew their security, allowing the abductors to proceed southwards after seeing a piece of paper produced by the men right in front of the victim’s relatives, who were chasing the white van in four three-wheelers. The armed men, confronted by Jazeel’s relatives opted to take away the mother of Jazeel in their vehicle only to force her off their vehicle at gunpoint at Vangkaalai Junction after crossing the Mannaar bridge on their way to South along Mannaar – Medawachiya Road” (Tamilnet – 6.1.2011).
The Rajapaksa reaction to this new wave of terror has been woefully, appallingly inadequate. The regime has denied the very existence of some of the deeds while attributing others to private disputes. For instance, officials maintain that the cold blooded murder of Deputy Educational Director Sivalingam happened as a result of a private dispute! The official response reeks of lies; since the North is under direct military control, either the military is superlatively inefficient or the government is criminally complicit.
Sri Lanka’s peace-time defence budget is higher than its wartime budget. Is there any purpose in spending billions of (mostly borrowed) rupees on defence if the state is incapable of ensuring the security of its own citizens? The Rajapaksas are refusing to demilitarise the North, claiming that a huge military presence is necessary to ensure peace and stability in the province. Why station tens of thousands of troops in the North if they are incapable of quelling murder and abduction?
In the heavily militarised North, assassins and abductors cannot roam free, attending to their grisly duties, without official sanction. The only debatable point is the reason for this sudden onset of terror. Is the terror-wave a pre-emptive attempt to deal with potential dissidents or an excuse to expand the presence and the role of the military?
Or is it but the natural outcome, when a disempowered populace lives under the de facto occupation of an ethnically, linguistically and religiously alien state which subscribes to a historical narrative casting the subject-people in the role of alien invaders and perennial enemies?
Though the issue was raised in the parliament, Southern society, by and large, remains unaware of/indifferent to this latest Tamil plight. Yet, this is an issue which concerns the South intimately, because it has a bearing on whether a Sri Lankan future, characterised by peace and stability, is possible. If these terror attacks are allowed to continue, if the perpetrators are not punished, if justice remains beyond the reach of the victims and their families, can we, the Sinhalese, reasonably expect the Tamils to feel secure in Sri Lanka or to nurse a belief in a just and desireable Sri Lankan future?
The local government bodies have been dissolved and elections are to be held on a staggered basis (another Sri Lankan First). This indicates not a regime confident in its strength but a nervous government. It is no secret that cost of living issues are most acute in urban and suburban areas. Obviously this is the reason behind the regime’s decision to further postpone elections in these areas, since winning would require a degree of violence and malpractices which would tear the Rajapaksa’s already tattered democratic fig-leaf into smithereens.
Using religious or cultural fundamentalism is a favourite ploy of rulers who feel the need to shore up their popularity. As economic woes of the Southern masses intensify, the Ruling Family’s need to stun and stupefy its base with politico-ideological opium will increase. The Rajapaksas would want to convince its Southern base of a proliferation of threats to its very existence and to cast themselves in the role of the sole-saviour. They would want the Sinhala South to feel insecure, suspicious and frightened, so that it would accede to the permanent presence of a costly and an abusive protector.
There has to be a ‘greater evil’ for the Rajapaksas to be seen as the ‘lesser evil’. And in the post-war, post-Tiger Sri Lanka, fulfilling this requirement would entail manufacturing dangers of all sorts – national, linguistic and cultural. This is the context in which the ongoing miniskirts controversy can be comprehended. Last Sunday, a newspaper owned by a UPFA parliamentarian wrote about a preposterous proposal to ban miniskirts, as part of a new public dress-code.
As with the Sinhala Only National Anthem, a chorus of dismay greeted the news item and the regime, predictably, backtracked, castigating the news item as an opposition canard. Which is strange because the announcement of a possible miniskirt ban was made by a none other than the Cabinet Minister overseeing culture: “Cultural and Aesthetic Affairs Minister T.B.Ekanayake has instructed the Arts Council attached to his ministry to prepare guidelines over ‘wearing of miniskirts.’
Minister Ekanayake, when contacted by Lakbima news, said individuals and ‘groups’ had complained to him about the cultural impact of the miniskirt. ‘There are individuals and groups representing religious and cultural interests, who have written to us raising concerns that this kind of dress would corrupt our culture,’ Minister Ekanayake said. ‘They say with the arrival of tourists, this situation would worsen,’ he said. The Minister did not name groups which have raised concerns. ‘I have directed their concerns to the Arts Council headed by Prof Carlo Fonseka,’ he added.
When pressed whether the new move is a part of the government’s ‘moral crusade’, he said that it was not a government initiative and that the issue was not taken up at the cabinet level. When asked how he could decide on a matter which is perfectly within the private rights of people, Minister Ekanayake said he had only responded to concerns raised by individuals representing the ‘moral high ground’. ‘The arts council would formulate recommendations and we will act upon their recommendations,’ he said…. Minister Ekanayake when queried as to how he plans to implement the miniskirt ban said the Arts Council would make recommendations including the procedure for its implementation” (Lakbima News – 2.1.2011; emphasis mine).
Subsequently the story was confirmed by the relevant Permanent Secretary: “Nimal Rubasinghe, Secretary of the Cultural Affairs Ministry said the government has received representations calling for a ban on wearing revealing clothing in public though he declined to name the groups involved. ‘There have been complaints from various quarters about mini-skirts, but we are only considering them and no final decision has been taken’ Rubesinghe told AFP” (AFP – 4.11.2011)
When a newspaper broke the story of the Sinhala Only National Anthem, the regime convincingly denied its veracity. “‘We have decided to use the national anthem as it is now at the moment and no decision was taken to scrap the Tamil version’ Public Administration and Home Affairs Minister WDJ Seneviratne told Reuters.
Two other ministers confirm that” (Reuters – 13.12.2010). And yet, within the month, the Sinhala Only National Anthem became a ground reality. In a similar vein, Government Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella ‘refuted rumours of a ban on miniskirts’; he then went on to argue in favour of a ‘proper and decent dress code’:
“However, there should be a proper and decent dress code when visiting public or religious places. Sri Lanka is not an exception, as almost all countries follow such dress codes when visiting specific places and areas” (Daily News – 7.1.2011). What does the minister mean when he says ‘public places’? In general parlance, public places are those spaces which are not private places. Does the minister mean that there should be a ‘proper and decent dress code’ when taking a bus or walking on the road or going to the market? And what does he mean by ‘proper and decent’? Does he consider miniskirts to be ‘proper and decent’?
If not, will miniskirts be banned from ‘public places’ as part of this ‘proper and decent dress code’? What else would our moralising rulers consider improper and indecent next? Shorts? Tank-tops? Trousers for women? Where and how will this embracing of cultural-fundamentalism end? Because, contrary to the Ministerial assertion, ‘almost all countries’ do not follow intrusive dress-codes; only those states ruled by fundamentalist despots do.