The singing of the National Anthem in Tamil not only brought tears into the eyes of many Sri Lankans, it also redrafted the history of Sri Lanka and turned a new chapter in its future discourse.
The brave step of President Maithree and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe did not spark anticipated backfires from the ultra-nationalistic movements, except for some petty remarks by the Rajapaksa camp entirely driven by political agendas. There were a significant number of references in the social media but the discourse by-and-large was healthy and constructive. According to a rough survey conducted by the Presidential Secretariat Media Unit almost half the respondents have liked the move.
However, the traditional media again was not picking it up in a pragmatic manner despite its usual stereotype reporting of political statements. Take for instance the unscheduled visit by the Northern Chief Minister Vigneswaran to Naga Vihara in Jaffna and his historic statement; “If Sinhalese take one step forward, Tamils are ready to take ten.” How far have the Colombo centric media captured this thought and conveyed it to its readership? On the other hand did we manage to convince the international community through our communication channels that the government took an extra step in the path of reconciliation? I am not sure. Nonetheless, Rajapaksa and his vociferous parrots were on many television screens criticising the move.
History tells us the story with a clear message. Sir Ivor Jennings who was the then Vice Chancellor of University of Ceylon entrusted by his colonial masters with the duty of assisting the process of drafting two constitutions-one was for Pakistan and the other was for Ceylon. Look at the two paradoxes. One was a newly-created country by dividing India and the other was a united country with ethno-religious diversity. Fortunately we did not have politicians who demanded a separate state for ethno-religious minorities, in contrast as famous cartoonist Colette illustrated in one of his masterpieces, D S Senanayake, T B Jayah and the two Ponnambalams embraced each other at the time of independence.
As J. M. Russel explained in his book ‘Colonial Politics Under the Donoughmore Constitution 1932-1947’ the Sinhala leadership offered a system but the Tamil politicians opted otherwise. Thus, Ceylon gained independence as one country while Pakistan was born as a new nation based on ethno-religious factors.
What has happened since then? Lord Soulbury’s Foreward in B. H. Farmer’s book ‘Ceylon - a Divided Nation’ quoted in the latest publication of Centre of Policy Alternatives (CPA) ‘The Road to Temple Tress’ by Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham explained it well. Though a bit long, it is worth capturing it here.
“...had Mr. D. S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon lived, I cannot believe that the shocking events of 1958 and the grave tension that now exists between the Tamils and Sinhalese would ever have occurred. Mr Senanayake would have scorned the spurious electoral advantages that a less far-sighted Sinhalese politician might expect to reap from exploiting religious, linguistic, and cultural differences between the two communities, for it was high policy to make Ceylon a united nation and, as he told the State Council in November 1945 in his great speech recommending the proposal of the British Government, ‘Tamils are essential to the welfare of this island.’ Unhappily, the death of Mr. D S Senanayake led to the eventual adoption of a different policy which he would never have countenanced. Needless to say the consequences have been a bitter disappointment to me and my fellow commissioners… I now think it is a pity that the commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights …nevertheless, the reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.”
The last sentence tells a million words. That is what is happening today. In 1956, the UNP got on to the streets along with nationalistic forces against the Banda-Chelva pact. In 1965, the SLFP was behind the sabotaging of the Dudley-Chelva pact. We saw the same dynamics playing its own political games when President Chandrika was attempting to bring devolution proposal through a new constitution drafted by Prof. G L Peiris who proposed a union of councils-a de facto federal system. Then came the peace talks between the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and LTTE and we know who pulled the carpet under him. Nationalistic and agenda-driven media was a key player in this entire story since independence.
Things have changed now and we are at crossroads. The two major political forces that were playing against each other for the past sixty years on the national issues are on a common platform. ‘This is the last opportunity and we are willing to go that extra mile’- was the message behind singing the national anthem in Tamil. We know how challenging it was for both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to take this bold but collective decision at a meeting held at Temple Tress just before Independence Day.
But this reconciliation should not limit to Sinhalese and Tamils. Muslims have started worrying about themselves following the military defeat of the LTTE as the then state sponsored junta groups turned their guns against Muslims. The new regime of cohabitation brought new hopes to these minority groups and the state responses have so far been firm. The judiciary and law enforcement agencies should be further strengthened to avoid unnecessary ethnic tensions at the hands of these junta groups. The bold decisions made by Badulla and Bandarawela courts last week against a planned ‘Sinha Ley’ protest campaign were commendable steps in this regard.
This is where the words of Lord Soulbury become true. “The reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elected it.”
Are we already there?