by Prof Michael Roberts
Many Sri Lankan fans expected the cricket team to win the World Cup and even stocked up with firecrackers to mark the celebratory moment. The disappointment has been commensurate with this high expectation. It has generated immense disappointment in many minds.
Sanga and DS de Silva– Pic by AFP
Though some foreign reports and some Lankans have congratulated the people and officials in the island for the manner in which they formally feted the returning cricket squad, there has been a dark side to the story: muckraking fabrications and rumours of the most vicious character – by mouth, email and newsline.
Namal Rajapaksa speaking
The foundation for this awful phenomenon, of course, is emotional turmoil. One can place a twist on a well-known aphorism by saying that “before they render persons mad, the gods generate emotional turmoil.” Since 2nd April night the disturbed sentiments in some Lankan hearts has stimulated a range of vicious tales. Before taking up these details I venture on a measured juxtaposition that illustrates the power of rumour in another context so as to bring out the implications of retailing rumour to those who have indulged in this pastime in such a cavalier fashion over the last week.
Rumour and incitement in ethnic riot and pogrom
The study of riots and pogroms is one of my research areas. Though the pogrom directed against Muslim Moors (as distinct from the Ja, or Malays) in mid-1915 is the topic I know best, I have anecdotal material on the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958, 1977 and 1983 as well as considerable (albeit unused) material about “communal riots” in late twentieth century India. On this subject, moreover, I direct readers to an excellent article by AP Kannangara which elaborates upon the role of rumour in stimulating assemblages of Sinhalese people who then went in search of Moor persons and property to beat up …. and sometimes to kill/burn. This essay is called “The Riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: A Study in the Roots of Communal Violence,” and appeared in Past and Present, no.102:130-65.
Assaults on Tamils, 1958,, from Ivan, Paradise in Tears
From my own findings let me indicate that in May 1915 the context for Anti-Moor animosity had been set by a Supreme Court decision that overturned the original decision of Paul Peiris in the District Court that had decidec in favour of the Buddhist temple authorities who were the plaintiffs against the Crown (and, indirectly, the Moor personnel of a new mosque in Gampola town). As Vesak celebrations commenced in the island, trouble was anticipated and, indeed, a clash occurred outside a mosque inCastle Street,Kandy.
There is a suggestion that some temperance associations in parts of the country had been primed to prepare themselves for action. Be that as it may, after this incident one pattern of reaction was for rumours to spread among the Sinhalese in a locality – no email of course those days, but word-of-mouth sufficed – to the effect that the Muslims were preparing to attack a specific temple. Crowds would assemble at the temple. Speeches were made and, then, at twilight mobs would sail forth to attack mosques and Moor properties in the region. Yes, at twilight in some instances. There was instrumentalist strategizing amidst all the emotional turmoil that rendered these Sinhala Buddhists feverish.Not many people are aware that mass action was a significant aspect of the attacks on the Moors in mid-1915. Mobs of over a thousand were reported at Matale, Wattegama, Kadugannawa, Gampola, Rambukkana, Panadura, Godapitiya, and Akuressa; while the crowd at Gewilipitiya-Aranayake was variously estimated at 800 to 4,000.[i] At Gampola and Panadura the police and British officials were forced to retreat. On at least five occasions, by sheer weight of intimidation or by storming (at Pasyala) a police station, the crowds engineered a release of individuals who had been arrested.[ii]
Such facets of the pogrom have been neglected because scholars have seen this incident as a “communal riot.” While that description is certainly valid, it is significant that many perpetrators felt that “the Tambies are insulting our nationality and our religion.”[iii] Furthermore, some assailants in some localities shouted slogans in Sinhala claiming that “there is no English Government — This is the day of the Buddhists –This is our flag” and stating unequivocally that
The Western Province belongs to the Sinhalese.
There is no more British Government.
There is no more British flag.
Thus, one can suggest that the line between that which is “communal” and that which is “national” has always been blurred inSri Lanka, especially when the thinking is in the Sinhala vernacular. Sinhala prejudices against those considered alien and Sinhala Buddhist ire at the symbolic victory accorded to the Muslim Moor claims during the court case created a climate which gave currency and weigh to rumour. In their anger and ferment people were ready to believe many a tale.
Tales describing alleged Tamil atrocities were also a factor in the processes that inspired the attacks on Tamils in Sinhala-majority areas in 1958, 1977 and 1983, doubtless in various degrees. Stories about the murder of one Seneviratne in the Eastern Province featured in 1958; while other tales claimed that Sinhala babies had been dropped into boiling tar barrels. Tudor Silva was engaged in research in the Kandy locality in 1977 and picked up stories of Sinhalese corpses being packed among the fish in lorries coming from Trincomalee.
I believe this particular rumour may also have circulated in 1983, though it was the LTTE ambush of 13 soldiers in late July 1983 and the active stoking of communal sentiment by government functionaries and some service personnel that provided the main impetus for the horrendous assault on Tamils in the south-central regions ofSri Lanka.
Note the simple strategems at play here. Lorries do regularly bring fish from Trincomalee to the markets in Dambulla,Kandy, Kurunegala et cetera. By attaching a fabrication about a Tamil killing to this everyday event, the stirrers secured conviction among those Sinhalese with anti-Tamil prejudices in the immediate context of that moment. The readiness to accept such tales was rooted in a combination of credulity and prejudice.
As with bush fires in dry forest country, rumour thrives in tinder-box conditions. In circumstances of heightened emotion aroused by a status struggle such as the Gampola Perahera Case in 1915, in conditions of ethnic struggle for political space or nationalisms in confrontation, or sporting contests with bragging rights, a few malicious persons can spin their yarns with disastrous impact. Rumour in such conditions is arson. Remember that some Tamils were burnt alive in 1958, 1977 and 1983.
The Sri Lankan cricketers and cricket administration are not being burnt alive after their loss in the final. However, their minds are being burnt. Take some of the rumours that are circulating.
1. It is claimed that the Indian multi -millionaire Mukesh Ambani had paid 3 or 4 Sri Lankan cricketers a million rupees to perform badly.
2. Exploiting the fact that Muralis’ wife is Indian, some rumours contended that Murali planned to settle down in Chennai and therefore favoured India by not exerting himself to the full.
3. The body language of the Sri Lankan XI as they came out to field indicated that they were depressed and this was because someone had entered their dressing room and asked them to lose the game because that would help Sri Lanka politically. The door is thus left open for gullible believers to insert “Namal” for “someone.”
4. In a media briefing prior to a motion in Parliament opposition MP Mangala Samaraweera claimed that “the national selectors were not the ones selecting the national team, but the family members of the country’s rulers” (as reported in the Island, 9 April 2011).
5. The Lankannewsweb reported that “The ICC is faced with a reasonable doubt on whether the World Cup final was politically set up”[and therefore the] ICC Executive Committee [would] meet next week to decide on appointing a special team to re-observe the World Cup final match.” Further that the ICC doubts have been based on two confidential reports handed to the Council by an English and Australian commentator about several instances in the match that did not seem proper.”[v]
6. The same source indicated that Namal Rajapaksa was sponsoring a Sri Lankan cricket philanthropist fromEnglandfor the Chairmanship of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board, with DS de Silva; while Mathivanan was being favoured for the post of Secretary and Pramodya Wickramasinghe, Sanath Jayasuriya and Asoka Pathirana were in line for spots on the Board.
Kumar Sangakkara, at the Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011 in Mumbai, India
It will be noticed that the claims 3, 4 and 6 dovetail towards the same point of focus. Needless to say, such tales got further oxygen by the coincidental resignation of Kumar Sangakkara and the Selection Committee. Though I do not agree with Sangakkara’s explicit reasoning or timing, I can state categorically on the authority provided by Charlie Austin (personal chat) that Sangakkara had decided on resigning several months back. The Aravinda Selection Committee’s term was to end on 31 April so it was quite rational for them to disband earlier so that selections for the tour of England would be made by personnel who remained in place over the coming year.
The Lankannewsweb stories landed in my email box via several sources from the 7th April onwards. It remains to be seen whether there is any veracity in these purported facts, though prima facie evidence and internal contradictions raise serious doubts about their validity. The authority and motivation of this web site are both subject to serious doubt because it also carried a tale about Jayantha Dharmadasa’s intentions of competing for the post of Chairman when elections are held with Ranjan Paranavithana earmarked as his point man. I now have an email from Paranavithana (night, 9 April 2011) which rubbished the tale categorically and laughed at the idea of Dharmadasa distributing 500,000Rs each to 75 clubs. So, one can conclude that this web newspaper is out and out muckraker, a vicious muckraker at that.
Likewise, from conversations with Ranjit Fernando I can assure readers that President Rajapaksa explicitly told the Selection committee way back in January to choose the best XVI. Indeed, anyone with a nose to the ground would know that if Namal Rajapaksa chose the XV, Jayasuriya would have been there. If Samaraweera’s claim refers to the XI chosen for the World Cup Final, I can assure readers that young Rajapaksa had no influence whatever. This I say in the light of several argumentative conversations with Ranjit Fernando regarding Lanka’s needs after the semi-final and after a brief chat with Anura Tennkoon when he returned from Mumbai. After I drafted this text, Mahela Jayawardena has categorically stated that “there was no political interference” and that “there was excellent rapport” between team and selectors “in the past four months” (see his regular review column in the Sunday Times, 10 April 2009). In brief, Mangala Samaraweera’s hypothesis is pure malice in wonderland guided by political opportunism!
What interests me is the readiness with which so many cricket enthusiasts have considered such tales newsworthy and a cause for concern. It is the activity of circulating these tales by email or word-of-mouth gossip that I wish to focus on. Implicit in such acts is the acceptance of the tales.
What, then, encourages such retailing networks of gossip and defamation? I surmise here in a multi-factor hypothesis. One explanation would be to mark a widespread cultural trait among Sri Lankans to spin gossip, canard and even anonymous letters, sometimes instrumentally in search of a job or as denigration of a person one dislikes. Another explanation is that which I outlined earlier: disappointment and turmoil after the World Cup final among some cricket enthusiasts who then searched for reasons for the defeat (sometimes without any cricketing sense).
This thread of mental confusion has been bolstered by another pool of ferment and another body of personnel, namely, those hostile to the widespread tentacles, the patronage networks and the circuits of nepotism and alleged corruption that are such a pronounced feature of the Rajapaksa Regime. While Mahinda Rajapaksa has wide popularity, there are strong bands of hostility not only in UNP circles, but also among sections of the middle class.
Patronage networks and top-down flows of largesse have been an integral aspect of Sri Lankan politics for decades.[vi] But these processes have taken more ramifying proportions under the Rajapaksa and become high profile because there are so many Rajapaksas here, there and everywhere. In any event, patronage towards the favoured few invariably creates dissatisfaction from those aspirants left out, so the political system in Sri Lanka has always contained inbuilt disaffection within its pores.
Under the Rajapaksas the pools and rivers of hostility to their domination have also been fostered by (a) the intimidation of journalists that has occurred over the years and the phenomenon of white vans that have abducted critics of the ruling powers, especially during the war years; and (b) state campaigns of vilification and defamation directed against NGOs devoted to human rights and popular welfare.
Visiting from abroad I am struck by the visceral character of the hate evoked by the Rajapakas. In liberal moderate circles this profound hostility has been generated by their reasoned opposition to the intimidation of the press as well as the nepotism and corruption that is said to be rife. It is nevertheless visceral and conducive to wholesale negativity.
In some individual instances, I also conjecture that this animosity towards the Rajapaksas promotes the practices that one associates with “the feud.” Those in feud often cannot see beyond their immediate enemy. Worse still, a resort to vengeance dominates their thinking. Morality is discarded. Defaming or destroying the OTHER becomes an overwhelming goal.
For observers of the muckraking rumours around the Sri Lanka cricket board and the team, therefore, the issue is whether journalists who have been hurt in some way by the present government have promoted some of the tales that are being circulated. To my mind the news items posted by Lankannewsweb reeked of defamatory concoction as soon as I saw them as a cluster. Ranjan Paranavithana’s response reveals one to be a laughable canard. The question one has to ask now is whether the anonymous journalists behind this site are linked to those who sponsored the attempted boycott of the Galle Literary Festival.
The political order surrounding the Rajapaksa government is marked by ferment. It has set up a stream of animosity that has in its turn encouraged individuals to wreak revenge by taking up the defeat at the World Cup final and utilizing that moment to disparage Namal Rajapaksa.
However, as we saw, some rumours embrace the players and selectors as well and defame their character. An ethical stand against the regime does not justify mischievous fabrications that plant anguish in the minds of cricketing men and spawn chaos in their future preparations. Rumours and muckraking can burn minds.
[i] PVJ Jayasekera, Social and political change inCeylon, 1900-1919,University ofLondon: unpub. Ph.D dissertation in History. 1970, p. 275; Diary entries byCumberland (G.A., NWP) 11 August and 10 Sept. 1915, at Dept of National Archives, 38/21; and Diary entries by Browning (A.G.A., Matara), 4 and 5 June 1915, DNA 26/173.
[ii] Roberts, “Mentalities,” in Exploring Confrontation,Reading, Harwood, 1994, pp. 185-89, 205-08.
[iii] Administration Reports 1915, Police, by H Dowbiggin, 20 May 1916, Part III, B6. For the full quotation and supporting evidence, see Roberts, “Mentalities,” Exploring Confrontation, 1994, p. 204.
[iv] Evidence from MLM. Sameem, ML Saldeen and KM Ali at the court-martial of Girigoris et al., encl. in Chalmers to Sec. of State, 7 Oct. 1915, CO 54/785; Also see Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994: 205-07 and K. M. de Silva, A history of Sri Lanka, London, Hurst $ Co.,1981, pp. 381-85.
[vi] See my chapters on the “Asokan Persona” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation,Reading, Harwood, 1994.
(This article published earlier in The Nation, 17 April 2011, with different title)