by Sanjana Hattotuwa
“Victor Hugo remercietous les généreux donateurs prêts à sauver Notre-Dame de Paris et leur propose de faire la même chose avec Les Misérables”(Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre-Dame de Paris and proposes they help the poor by doing the same) – Ollivier Pourriol
The quip by French philosopher Pourriol on Twitter, after the Notre Dame suffered catastrophic damage in a fire last week, was aimed at billionaires in France who at the time of writing this, had pledged close to a billion dollars towards the reconstruction of the beloved monument. Referring to the famous novel by Hugo, Pourriol’s tweet was a piercing critique of inequality in French society evident justin response to the disaster. He echoed others from France at a time when President Macron faces sustained and violent protests around festering socio-economic issues, including taxation of the very rich and corporate hubris in France.
Where and how in Sri Lanka the Notre Dame fire was captured on Facebook is worth highlighting. The morning after the fire, in over 1,000 pages I keep track of in Sri Lanka pegged to news, gossip, politicians, civil society, religious and other groups, three posts on it generated by order of magnitude more engagement than anything else. This is no mean feat, especially around an event that wasn’t linked to anything domestic or Sri Lankan. All three of the posts were from gossip pages.
Two of the posts featured photos of the burning Notre Dame and explicitly framed the response through a Buddhist lens, expressing sadness, solidarity and the hope the fire would be brought under control, soon. The other post was more straightforward in its framing, without recourse to Buddhism. All three posts were in Sinhala. During the day, several other posts from two clusters in particular – gossip and Sinhala-Buddhist pages – went up with comparable levels of engagement. This aside, what’s interesting is the domestic context for this outpouring of grief and concern over the Notre Dame, much of which, I am sure, was genuine.
On Palm Sunday, a week ago, a Methodist place of worship was attacked by a violent mob in Anuradhapura. Just a day before the Notre Dame fire, Bishop Asiri Perera posted on Facebook a statement on the attack, which was picked up by UNP MP Harsha de Silva, and tweeted. Attorney-at-Law Viran Corea also tweeted about the incident. This wasn’t an isolated or random incident.
Ethno-religious violence has a long history in Sri Lanka, and Anuradhapura according to a report by Verite Research, recorded one of the highest numbers of cases involving violence, intimidation and discrimination. The significant lack of awareness around these incidents and the socio-political, economic and cultural drivers of violence is largely linked to near complete absence of meaningful reporting or coverage in mainstream media.
Considering the significant engagement around Notre Dame, one would have expected by extension and employing the same logic, a similar outcry around the violence against a Christian place of worship in Sri Lanka. Revealingly though, there was not a single reference to the incident on any media page, website, Facebook or Twitter, beyond the three sources flagged earlier, in Sinhala, English or Tamil.
Dr. de Silva continued to tweet about the incident mentioning the IGP, who is not on Twitter, the President, who doesn’t understand Twitter and the Prime Minister, who evidently gets on Twitter only when unconstitutionally deposed.
The tweets implored these individuals to act against the perpetrators. Though criticised for tweeting instead of acting like a government representative with agency, Dr. de Silva’s motivations are best known to him and in the vacuum of media coverage, one was grudgingly grateful for his tweets. But they raised more questions than sought to answer. Why must President, PM or MPs always direct the IGP and Police, and that too often over social media, to investigate this sort of incident and violence against minorities?
Is public tweeting now the basis of internal communications within government?
What does it say about the rule of law, in what is proclaimed and projected as the best government and governance Sri Lanka’s enjoyed in a long time if the Police – as was later tweeted by senior journalist Arjuna Ranawana – asked the victims of the attack to stop worshippers from attending religious services?
What arrant nonsense do we ask minorities to endure without question, that majority race and religion wouldn’t countenance for a second and Police would not dare propose? We are told an SLPP Local Government member said, in front of the Police no less, that he represented the attackers and threatened that the limbs of the dogs who came to worship would be broken.
I risk being corrected to hazard a guess that the dhamma doesn’t exactly endorse this expression or mindset. And yet, the SLPP – overwhelmingly prissy on social media – is entirely silent about this, unsurprisingly condoning kinetic violence the party’s leaders so wantonly fertilise on social media, along with racism, right-wing ideology and communalism.
Let’s keep it simple. Each tweet provides 280 characters. A Facebook post offers over 60,000 characters. Social media easily embraces video, photos and sound recordings. In all the years, of all the times a Muslim or Christian place of worship has been attacked, it should, in theory, be quite simple to produce, publish and place on record a simple statement, written or recorded, that the violence is not in the name of political leaders.
This goes for the President and PM as much as it does for the SLPP and its telegenic young members, as well as its effortlessly charismatic older generation, all of whom have influential social media accounts reaching millions. Why is this so difficult? Why is this never done? Why is false equivalence, side-stepping, excuses, denial or dismissal the more common menu on offer, for hapless victims to pick from and be satisfied with?
If the dhamma clearly doesn’t reside in heart or mind of those who profess to act on its behalf, what purpose do temples, bo trees and statues of Buddha serve, and moreover, what need for Mahanayakes as custodians of what they preach but don’t encourage the meaningful practice of?
Ironically perhaps, the Notre Dame after the fire is a succinct, symbolic capture of Sri Lanka’s shambolicsoul, where overt grandeur masks a hollowed shell, with glowing embers that risk ready conflagration. The Notre Dame though is so much more, and its near destruction was enough to elicit tweets from our political leadership.
Closer to home though, an incident more concerning and the latest in a history of violence goes without any mention. If Parisian icons and the grief of the French define what our politicians choose to focus on and frame, the Gandhian aphorism about actions expressing priorities springs to mind, and with an abundance of anxiety.