The April New Year is when most Sri Lankans take a break from the dreary routines of life. Colombo looks dead on New Year’s day in April as people in large numbers retreat to their rural roots from the hurly-burly of the city. Quite different from Colombo’s hangover demeanor on January 1 following the New Year’s eve revelry.
Although January 1 is now the global New Year, Sri Lanka’s April New Year is much longer in tradition and carries deeper meanings and symbols not only for Buddhists and Hindus but also for others.
The New Year rituals start with the cleaning of the house while the timing of the New Year in April coincides with the harvest season. Their political symbolism is the cue for my article today as political change and economic growth could be seen as house cleaning and harvesting writ large and together.
The New Year is the occasion for platitudinous statements of wishes from the state and government leaders to the people. The people may want to have more than wishes from their leaders, and instead may have a wish list of what the government could do for them. How much they would like the government to make available electricity and quality fuel at affordable prices. How much they would like the government to spend the nation’s money wisely without too much borrowing and with tangible returns. How much they would wish that the government did not get into such a situation building roads, ports and airports and spending on defence even after the war that its annual debt service payment now exceeds its annual income. How much they would wish that the government spends even a portion of the defence budget on education rather than using the lack of money as an excuse for making education a market good.
Politically, national political discourse is becoming boisterously divisive and internet exchanges are degenerating from healthy musings to abusive diarrhea. The New Year is an appropriate occasion to remind us of the common threads that wrap around all Sri Lankans. Religious and literary evidences among both Sinhalese and Tamils show that the April New Year goes much farther back in time than the global January New Year that began only in 1582 with the Gregorian calendar started by Pope Gregory XIII. In the Western tradition, the New Year has been identified after the midpoint of winter which is the shortest day of the year. In the East, the April New Year is around the time when day and night are of equal duration. In Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu it is also associated with the harvest season. The April New Year is observed in a number of states in India, while Buddhist itinerants and Tamil traders would seem to have taken it across Southeast Asia. It is a common holiday in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, and it is hugely celebrated by the Bengalis, both the Hindu and Communist Bengalis of West Bengal and the Muslims of Bangladesh.
Despite their antiquity, traditions and cultural affinities, Sri Lankans have had serious difficulties in adjusting to one another in the modern political arena of the last one hundred years. Two years from now, the island will be marking its first riot between its coexistences. There have been a dozen riots after that but all of them packed in after 1956 and the biggest of them came in 1983. The 30-year war after 1983 sucked the oxygen out of riotous miscreants and spared the country of periodical rioting. The end of the long war raised at least faint hopes of a new a beginning and new directions in politics and economics. Four New Years have come and gone after the war ended but no one has seen any new beginning or new directions. And this New Year, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are at verbal loggerheads while the Muslims in Sri Lanka are facing new threats. They have become the biggest impediment to national housecleaning and bountiful harvesting. In fact, they are adding to the pile of dirt in politics and diverting attention from tending to the needs of the economy.
From Fashion Bug to Sethu Samudram
For almost a year many Sri Lankans have been worrying whether the country was drifting to another July 1983, this time targeting Muslims. The government was taken to task by its usual critics including yours truly for seemingly sitting on its hands and doing nothing about the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments. Now it seems that the Rajapaksa government will not allow a repeat of 1983, simply because it will not be in the government’s interest to allow one. But in a clever and cynical ploy, the government is not at all stopping the spread of anti-Muslim as well as anti-Tamil campaigns and hit-and-runs in the country. Put another way, it will not allow a wholesale disaster like 1983 but it will let retail attacks go on, against the minorities and against anyone who is out of favour with the government.
The ‘mini-mob’ attack on the Muslim-owned Fashion Bug business in Pepiliyana and the reported ‘private settlement’ between the attackers and the victims facilitated by law enforcement agencies has exposed the government’s clever-by-half and consummately crooked modus operandi. Politically, the government wants to hunt with the hound and appear to run with the hare. As for law and order, the due process on a criminal matter has been turned upside down. No more law enforcement, but ‘shape it up’ between the sponsored perpetrators of crimes and their petrified victims.
There is no less cynicism in the government’s dealing with Tamil Nadu, India and the Western sponsors of the UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka. It has often been said that India’s priority in Sri Lanka is the political solution centered on 13A, while the Western countries are more concerned about the investigation of and accountability for excesses during the war. Sri Lanka’s finessing and foot dragging to avoid commitment to and fulfillment of either has drawn India and the US together against Sri Lanka. And Tamil Nadu has jumped into the fray clamouring for political solution and international investigation as a minimum, and ‘resolving’ for Eelam as an ultimatum.
The responses of the Sri Lankan government have been characteristically multi-voiced and contradictory. Minister GL Peiris has said in parliament that the UNHRC resolutions in Geneva are not binding on Sri Lanka, thereby belittling the seriousness and effectiveness of American efforts at the UNHRC and bilaterally with Sri Lanka. At the same time, the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington and the Central Bank are reportedly making efforts to soft-sell Sri Lanka in the US and open a new window of co-operation between the US and Sri Lanka in Asia. On the Indian front, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is the man on a mission to have 13A repealed as soon as possible. He has also criticized those calling for investigating “alleged atrocities committed during the last 100 days of the conflict” for being “silent on the origin of terrorism in Sri Lanka” and challenged them to “consider a comprehensive investigation into the issue beginning with the Indian investigation.” The outspoken Secretary should be cautious about his wishes: someone may take him on his offer to let the “last 100 days” be investigated along with the first five years and everything in between of the last thirty years.
The government appears to have pulled another weapon against India and Tamil Nadu, by deciding to go public with the report on the environmental impacts of the controversial Sethu Samudram project prepared by Sri Lankan experts comprising marine scientists, environmentalists, geologists and marine engineers. It is known that this report was published and was ready for release as far back as 2007. The government allegedly ordered the report to be shelved and not released to avoid making an issue of it with India. A week ago a Sri Lankan government source has told an Indian Newspaper that India “can expect a strongly worded statement by the Sri Lankan government any time now. The Sethu Samudram Project in all likelihood will end up in the United Nations.”
The government of Sri Lanka should have expressed concern about the Sethu Samudram project from the beginning because the project has serious environmental implications for the island. Stopping that project would be a blessing in disguise even for Tamil Nadu. But the Sri Lankan government’s motivations are not at all altruistic or environmental. All this while the government chose not to raise the Sethu matter as quid pro quo for India’s support for the war. Now that India is asking questions and Tamil Nadu is passing resolutions, opposition to the Sethu project has become tit for tat.