A careful perusal of history indicates that racism begins with the economic as opposed to the religious or communal.
A careful perusal of history indicates that racism begins with the economic as opposed to the religious or communal. When food prices are rising, when it’s difficult to earn a proper income, especially under a barrage of taxes, and when living through today is the credo you wake up to every day, it’s difficult and painfully so to affirm unity and harmony with other communities, particularly if the chauvinists draw a rather negative picture of those other communities. That’s why the Jewish population of Russia inspired so much derision from the elite and the masses before AND after the Revolution: because the economy, in both cases, was so stifling, so unbearably down, that a scapegoat had to be found. One can make the case that wars begin in the minds of human beings, and they do, but before they do, they are fermented by the shifts of economic imperatives. Simply put, if you can’t live properly, you turn to hatred.
The riots in Digana, and elsewhere in Kandy, a little over two months ago were, I feel, the inevitable consequence of the communal riots which erupted during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency in Aluthgama. I was privy to various comments interjected by members of both communities, with respect how they saw the riots and how they rationalised them. The main issue for the Sinhalese Buddhists, that is, minus the Islamophobic rhetoric about Muslims outstripping Buddhists in terms of population growth, was the inclusion of the Halal certificate in food packaging everywhere. It was just that; a harmless certification. But it was rooted in the economic, as opposed to the religious and the communal, and as with all other racial conflicts, it found its way to riots that it compelled. Unfortunate though they were, those riots were a direct consequence of the Government’s ability to address an issue that had been growing rampantly over the years. The Sinhalese Buddhists, rather the extremists among them, wanted a scapegoat. They found one, conveniently, with that certification. It could have been anything. That anything was a piece of paper. Four years later, here we are.
What’s news and what’s not
The riots in Kandy District weren’t rooted in anything abstract. It was rooted in an actuality: a man who happened to be brutally killed by a gang (having accidentally damaged a vehicle belonging to one of its members). That man happened to be Sinhalese and Buddhist, and the gang members (who were jailed) happened to be Muslims. A friend of mine told me that around the same time, a Sinhalese teenager was hacked to death just as brutally by a Sinhalese elder. Obviously, some things make it to the news, others are not deemed newsworthy enough to make it there. The first incident was bad enough; the fact that the man succumbed made things worse. Aluthgama came back. It wanted something substantive, rooted in the communal as opposed to the economic. A certification wasn’t going to cause riots. A murder was. So Aluthgama begot Digana. In this sense, it’s interesting to compare the timelines at these two sites with the timeline that transpired in 1915 during the much written about Sinhala-Muslim riots.
Obviously, contexts matter. 1915 was not 2014 and neither was it 1815. But the centenary of the capitulation to the British in 1915, and the tercentenary thereof, along with the centenary of the riots, in 2014 and 2015, helped accentuate the rifts and the violence rather considerably. Unlike what transpired in Digana and Aluthgama, though, the 1915 kolahalaya (commotion) was instigated, not by an economic issue, but by a communal malaise; specifically, the issue of allowing a Buddhist procession to pass through the vicinity of a mosque in Gampola. The Kandy District Court had given a judgment in favour of the Buddhists; the Supreme Courts, where the judgment was challenged, reversed the decision in favour of the Muslims. Thus came about the first onslaught of racial attacks. For the time being, while the British didn’t do much to contain the violence, they were aware that it could take on a nationalistic character. Ironically, that nationalistic character emerged, not from the bhikkus (monks) and the clergymen from both communities, but from a secular source: trade unions.
The divide between Sinhalese and Muslims
More than 115 deaths later, the divide between the Sinhalese and the Muslims had been buttressed by a more powerful divide between the Sinhalese and the British. With the conservative Sinhalese elite decidedly on the side of the latter, by their denunciations of the rioters as deviants who were a miniscule minority among those loyal to the Crown and Empire, the moderates, the Senanayakes and the Jayatilakes, were imprisoned. They were the nobodies of Kumari Jayawardana’s narrative, the upstarts who found the first anti-imperialist movement sustained by the bourgeoisie, the Temperance Council. But here too, the economic took precedence over the racial:
What explains the precedence of the economic over the racial in Aluthgama, and the precedence of the racial over the economic in Digana? In 1915, the trade unions took to the streets and instigated an entire collective against another after, and not before, the issue over the procession near the Mosque in Gampola. At the same time, let’s not forget that while the halal issue proved to be the crux of the riots, it was preceded by a communal clash revolving around a similar assault on the Sinhalese: this time, by Muslims from Dharga Town, and on a Buddhist monk and his driver. (However, this remains a rumour, so it can’t be compared with protests against Muslims stopping Buddhists from conducting their pageant.) Even when we discount this incident, which remains unverified, it must be said that even the leading representative, from the clergy, of the Sinhala Buddhists at the forefront of the riots, the infamous Ven. Gnanasara Thera himself, turned the ruckus over the halal certification into the ultimate symbol of discord between the two communities.
Perhaps what transformed the economic to the communal, more than anything or anyone else, was Gnanasara Thera himself. No other monk before him, from recent memory, has been capable of inciting so much revulsion. The leader of a breakaway faction from the already ethnicised and reviled Hela Urumaya (reviled particularly owing to the comments of its leader, Champika Ranawaka, to the effect that Muslims were “outsiders”), Gnanasara was the spark that turned Aluthgama from a rumoured assault and paper certificate to attacks on businesses owned by Muslims in even the multicultural metropolis, Colombo.The 1915 riots were informed by the centenary of the biggest humiliation those Sinhalese Buddhists had faced in their troubled history, the surrender of Kandy. As such, for a riot to run riot (proverbially speaking), what was needed was an actual communal rift springing from the actions or the omissions of the Other, in this case, Muslims. 100 years later, with the centenary of the riots themselves, what was needed for history to repeat itself was the smallest rumour, the most mundane issue. Be it the economic or the communal, that carnage thus continues on. History is rather cruel.