It is an accurate description of this phenomenon that has elevated some communities to the pinnacle of glory; it has destroyed some helpless minorities and reduced them to hapless men and women meandering in the lost streets of civilization. While the concept of ‘race’ has bonded man with man of similar traditions, histories and traits, colour of skin, lineage, language and culture, it has also destroyed fellow humans who did not belong to the same category of traits etc. The double-edged nature of race gave birth to its destructive propensities, its capacity to drive ordinary men and women to a frenzy of past grandeur, honour and pride. Things of the past are dead and only the unwise would indulge in the dead.
Race, ethnicity and racism have all been threads, some beautiful and others ugly and gross, that have been closely woven into the larger canvass of humanity. However much philosophers, thinkers, men and women of faith preach, pontificate about the divisions and disunity that race and racism cause, these divisions would continue until the end of time. An utopia in which all humanity is one single family without any separations and partitions would remain beautiful words in a dreamer’s poetry and fairy tales. What would replace and overpower such sublime notions of total harmony is racism and religious differences in whose name more blood has been shed, human lives have been sacrificed and bonds of friendship and kinships have been burst asunder. It is a brutal fact of life on earth.
Yet, man’s pursuit of a more perfect union with his fellow beings has never ended; nor would it be retarded by those antagonists who prey on helpless majorities who rarely question sugar-coated venomous messages of the devil who appears in religious cloaks and robes. When these religious scoundrels and folk heroes launch their bigoted communications, the core teachings and their transcendent wisdom are invariably desecrated and demolished. When coupled with the nagging needs of daily existence, in the case of the not-so-affluent and exceedingly vulgar wants in that of the wealthy, this corruption and contamination of the supreme message of all religions overwhelms the central pivotal need for a more perfect union among men and women.
It has been so in the West and it has been so in the East. Weapons of man have created such a drastic imbalance in the very thinking process of ordinary men and women, these very possessions of weapons are the defining factor in human relationships that have developed over centuries of existence. That malevolent march towards mutual destruction is as old as civilization and particularly in the context of the less wealthy nations, unmitigated slaughter and destruction of fellow men and women this cruel journey has taken hundreds of thousands of victims to their unmarked graves. And in that malefic malaise of human conflict, Sri Lanka has made her manifestly singular presence felt by the international community. During the horrific ethnic war between the two leading communities, Sinhalese and Tamils, excesses committed by both parties linger on as ghastly evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and their comrades-in-arms on the one hand committed unspeakable crimes and death to the Sinhalese whose only sin was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Venom and vengeance knew no bounds on either side of the ethnic spectrum. Traditions that these specific groupings had built and nurtured over centuries assumed a different character and war cries replaced the sweet melancholy of the lullabies that laid those young and tender to sleep. Once again, weapons of modern warfare took control of the psyche of their leaders. The riches and wealth that both parties accumulated by amassing these weapons of war guns, bullets, tanks, armoured carriers, gunships etc., played a pivotal role in shaping the strategies and tactics of war. An uglier profile of the ugly Sri Lankan emerged. Both profiles, taken separately as Tamil’s and Sinhalese’s, seemed quite benign and sedentary, but taken as a combined one, it certainly looked much more maligned and incurable. The symptoms of an age-old malignancy have surfaced as a rash of imprudence and intolerance. Prabhakaran and his cohorts engaged in an orgy of murder, loot and his own version of ethnic cleansing, while his Sinhalese counterparts did no better. The 1983 riots and its immediate aftermath helped blacken the softer and serene image that Sinhalese Buddhists thought they had. The intimacy and camaraderie between the two communities were crushed and embers of mutual hatred and mistrust that lay deep inside their combined psyche emerged; friends became enemies and decency and civility gave way to mutual hatred and envy.
The primordial character of all humans surfaced burying any shade of cosmetic courtesies. Yet there is a real and genuine opportunity before both peoples, an option that presents itself rarely in history as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said in his inaugural Indian Independence Day oration, but our leaders as well as the general masses must be awakened to the wonder of communal harmony and mutual empathy.
The ugly profile of a nation should not be allowed to raise itself. When the ordinary masses whose only reality is their immediate families and their well-being, when they begin dreaming about more a prosperous tomorrow which heralds the sounds of the giant wheels of bulldozers trampling the earth to turn a dead soil into a fertile ground, when the waters of a diverted river are lapping on the banks of man-made tanks and bring the sweet promises of a bountiful harvest and graduating a peasant generation to one of entrepreneur-farmers, then Valmiki of Ramayana and Ven. Mahanama of the Great Chronicle, Mahawansa would have been justified in their praise and adulation of two peoples’ glorious stories of the past.
History books sometimes are the most damaging paraphernalia in the hands of greedy and warped politicians. Whether they are of the genre of Sinhalese or Tamils, they cannot overcome the reality of human folly and foible. A formidable challenge is confronting both communities.
Against a backdrop of ostensible calm and reconciliation, the mantle of leadership of both communities, political as well as civil and military, need to advance a real and genuine agenda of economic development, political maturity and social cohesion. Devoid of doctrinaire inhibitions and ancient enmities, the two communities need to dig deep and find a more fertile soil to plant mutual empathy and a more harmonious ethnic equilibrium. The notion of the land, the race and the faith needs to be more accommodating and inclusive than mutually exclusive. Both communities and their leaders and broad masses, as in the case of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, have been more sinned against than sinning. Both communities have their reasonable share of bigots, haters, murderers and looters. Such dregs of society should not find any abode in a progressively advancing nation.
The masses at their core may be vulnerable and defenceless, but their sensitivities and sensibilities are intense and lying well beneath an exterior of false manhood and patriotism. Given the wrong context, skilful politicians and deceitful religious leaders could exploit these sensitivities. Mayhem would break loose and rivers of blood would flow once again if such sensitivities are exploited and harnessed by those charlatans who pretend to be saviours and patriots. Patriotism is loyalty to a people and land whose traditions and values, one identifies oneself with. It’s not a licence to kill those of a different skin or speak a different language. Those armchair critics and whisky-drinking pukka sahibs need to be cornered and confronted. Blind servility to a cause is as harmful as poison to a child. We Sri Lankans, children of one family might have many disputes and squabbles that cause us to sway away from the centre of social cohesion. But we simply cannot let things be just because we are too busy making money or too lazy to stand up and be counted. Our worth is not what we wear outside, it is very much in the interior of our being. We should not bequeath to our children and grandchildren an uglier profile and a stockpile of hatred and envy.
The writer can be contacted at email@example.com