Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
There is a powerful thrust to communal politics that is now global in nature, led by unscrupulous demagogues who whip up their supporters with chants of hate. This week, as I watched the President of the United States wave his hands benevolently even as his supporters screamed ‘send them back’ to four congresswomen of colour (despite the fact that the women were all American citizens), who remained defiantly opposed to his policies, one fact became clear.
It is politically correct to be racist
Decades of civilisational trappings are no longer a mask for malignant racism, whether in Sri Lanka or in the streets of the global North. It is now politically correct to be racist, to scream at strangers for wearing headscarves and to look askance at someone walking on the street if that person does not fit into the image of a ‘safe’ citizen. In some corners of the vast ‘These United States’ which once produced leading crusaders of free thought, from judges of great intellect to poets and musicians of marvellous inspiration, the backlash is strong.
Delivering the keynote address at a New York based event on Law and Rights, a noted American academic remarks brusquely that his commander-in-chief is a psychopath. In souvenir shops off Broadway, grinning salesmen chuckle as they sell toilet brushes with the slogan, ‘Let Trump Go and Let America be Clean Again’ and liberal columnists wax outraged in their newspaper spaces. But yet, that does not quite explain away the uncanny silence that prevails in other quarters.
America should be reacting furiously, ferociously and unanimously to such blatant displays of hate speech by a political leader who has no qualms about twisting the truth, let alone outright lying. But yet, it does not. Why not? And in a quiet conversation near the United Nations, a diplomat painfully confides his fear of what may yet come to me. ‘What if we spawn hundreds of such Trump-a-likes in other countries, emboldened by what is happening here?’ he asks; ‘will that be America’s final legacy to the world?’ But that question is easily answerable, for already that process is in motion, in South Asia as in other parts of the globe.
Complicity of the political leadership
In Sri Lanka, echoes of the same madness reflect in much the same way. Muslim journalists are barred from covering press conferences in temples, Buddhist monks storm into shops owned by Muslims to drag out Sinhalese customers and Sinhalese landlords refuse to rent to Muslim tenants. The very basic of the law which demands that an innocent person must not be put into custody without adequate reason is infringed most shamefully.
This week, a Muslim doctor was finally released on bail after a criminal investigation found no evidence of funding by Islamist terrorists or that he had engaged in ‘forced sterilizations’ of Sinhalese Buddhist women. But the tide of hatred rolls on to the extent that seasoned officers of the Criminal Investigation Department who have weathered many a political storm, confess that they cannot engage in their professional tasks as they are being attacked.
The reach of racism is frighteningly wide, overwhelming even decent men and women in its obscene terror, splintering communities and fracturing societies. And in both Sri Lanka and the US, the political leadership is either complicit or silent in the face of this madness.
Take for instance, the sanctimonious humbuggery of members of Parliament sitting on the Select Committee to probe the Easter Sunday attacks by Sri Lanka’s ‘home-grown’ jihadists trying to insinuate themselves into the global Islamist terror network. Their stern questioning of state security officers, intelligence officers and officers of the Attorney General’s Department for lapses in allowing these heinous attacks to take place has become a regular feature of the Select Committee sessions.
Yet this only glosses over the most dreadful failure of the ‘yahapalanaya’ political leadership to take preventive action in time without engaging in unseemly dog quarrels over the political bone. The same goes for its political allies such as the Tamil National Alliance, whose footprint is predominantly in the North and East and who should surely have been more alive to the gathering catastrophe of jihadist undergrowth rather than thundering ferociously after the fact.
That is where the paramount failure lies and no amount of holier-than-thou posing on the part of Government parliamentarians or their comrades-in-hypocritical arms will suffice to detract from that truth.
The most prominent failure of all
This was a Government where the Prime Minister and the State Security Minister of Defence had not been invited to attend national security council meetings for six months precedent to the Easter Sunday attacks but regarding which startling fact, the nation did not know until after the event. Was that silence due to an expectation that when things go wrong, as they eventually did with frightening force, the finger could be easily pointed at the President, which is eventually what happpened.
So let us be quite clear. The fact that President Maithripala Sirisena acted inexcusably, whether in a political, constitutional or legal sense, is not the only obvious point here. Whatever may have been the aggravations precipitating such unwise presidential action, this casual treatment of the security of the nation that should trump every other petty political consideration, remains unforgivable.
Therefore, as the Select Committee members truculently question witnesses appearing before them and metaphorically (sometimes, literally) raise their hands in horror at the failures in protocols and due diligence that are being exposed thereto, what they are seeing is only a reflection of their own miserable culpability.
Are we to assume that the building of a massive university complex in the East with wahabist trappings under the direction of former Eastern Province Governor M.A.L.M. Hizbullah and his son, (now discovered to be from suspect funds chanelled through dubious Middle East based organisations), was unknown to Government worthies who now squeal in horror and demand that it be stopped immediately? Or that the gradual consolidation of communal enclaves in the East by prominent Muslim politicians who thereafter linked themselves to the ‘yahapalanaya’ star and were favoured by all political blocs in the hope of ‘catching the vote’, was done in all innocence? That can be believed only by the foolish or the very naive.
Dangerous games being played
This week, the former Eastern Province Governor had reportedly boasted that Muslim votes are essential to bring in the coveted winner’s electoral trophy. But instead, the fragile fabric of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic society is threatened in new and strange ways as a normally quarrelsome majority Sinhala vote, divided between major competing political parties, promises to coalesce in strength as a result of voters being thoroughly unnerved by ‘yahapalanaya’ blunders.
And along with that, a season of communal madness envelopes this land. Dangerous games are being played. To what terrible end we will have to wait and see, only hoping against hope that voices of sanity will ultimately prevail.