By Harini Amarasuriya
(The writer is a former senior lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka [OUSL] and is currently an MP representing the National People’s Power)
One of the most prominent slogans the current Government, and particularly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, used during election campaigns was “one country, one law”. At first glance, the sentiments behind this slogan are perfectly acceptable. After all, what not to like about a promise to implement the law equally for all in the country?
As we all know, the law does not apply equally in most instances – privilege triumphs justice each time, and any effort to make the law equitable in its implementation is certainly most laudatory. Except, when this regime touts “one country, one law”, it is not talking about equality before the law for all; rather, the entire campaign for “one country, one law” emerged from a very pointed, anti-Muslim position.
The work that went into propagating this slogan has a long history. Ever since the end of the war in 2009, there was a steady and systematic spread of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. It started with the anti-Halal campaign. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups protested what they claimed was the imposition of the practice of Halal on non-Muslims. Sinhalese were being force-fed Halal products, claimed these groups, as if Halal was some sort of poisonous substance. This campaign took off to such an extent that rather than advertising or labelling Halal food products (as was the norm), some started advertising the fact that products were not Halal. Consumers would check if the shops sold non-Halal products before purchasing any food. There were calls for boycotting shops and restaurants that sold Halal products.
Then came another “revelation”. Apparently, Muslims did not use helmets when using motorcycles – and while the rest of the country were fined for not using helmets, Muslims were getting away with violating this law scot-free, it was claimed. To top it all off, Muslim women insisted on wearing “offensive clothing”, going against “accepted” cultural norms and traditions. This clothing was a “security threat” no less, as they “prevented” the Police from carrying out their law enforcement duties effectively. It did not matter that there had never been any incident involving burka or hijab-clad women, or men pretending to be women, for that matter, as it was claimed, causing havoc in the country, yet this too became another “example” of Muslims doing their own thing in contravention of the accepted practices and laws of the rest of the country. It is worth remembering that one of the first directives after the Easter Sunday bombings was to ban the burka. The fact that the bombers were all male, looked completely ordinary, and wore clothes that did not set them apart in any way was totally immaterial to the directive that banned the burka.
Muslim personal laws were then taken up as the most pernicious example of Muslim otherness. It was claimed that Muslims were all engaged in bigamy, marrying underage women, and, worse of all, having their own courts. Self-proclaimed law experts warned that Sharia law was being practised in this country, enabling Muslims to escape laws that affected others. It was pointed out that even a university was contemplating teaching Sharia law – a supposed sure indication of the long-term plan of the Muslim community to impose Sharia law on everybody. Suddenly, groups and individuals that had considered women’s rights as a prime example of western imperialism were clamouring for Muslim women’s rights.
Ironically, women’s groups in Sri Lanka, led by Muslim women’s groups in particular, had been campaigning for reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) for decades. Careful research had gone into building a case for reform, yet, at each point, reform attempts were blocked. Male political leaders from every ethnicity were united in dismissing the claims made by women’s groups. As always, the concerns of women were brushed aside in the interests of patriarchal power games. In fact, the resistance to MMDA reforms from lawmakers provide us with a copy-book case study of the pervasiveness of patriarchal values in Sri Lankan politics.
This was the context within which the “one country, one law” campaign emerged. In other words, it was primarily informed by carefully produced and maintained anti-Muslim sentiments that created an image of a community that ignored common law, lived by its own rules, and was stealthily trying to impose its own rituals and practices on the rest of the country as part of a global Islamic project. Lack of respect for the general law was seen as the most obvious example of Muslim otherness and therefore had to be dealt with summarily. If there is any doubt as to the intent behind this campaign and slogan, the appointment of Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thera as the Chair of the Presidential Task Force appointed to report on the “one country, one law” initiative should settle the matter. Gnanasara Thera was a prime mover behind propagating anti-Muslim sentiments. His views, rhetoric, and actions have been divisive and inflammatory. He has been named in numerous reports and accounts for inciting violence. Let us also not forget that it was a presidential pardon that freed him from a prison sentence for contempt of court on four different counts. Even for a government whose actions are becoming increasingly inexplicable, the appointment of such a person to lead a task force on legal reform is mind-boggling, to say the least.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss these actions as simply ridiculous. There is a level of arrogance and lack of concern for even an appearance of doing what is right that is highly dangerous. What is most diabolical about this regime is the way in which it is subverting much-needed reform agendas for its own ends. For instance, no one argues about the importance of promoting organic farming and reducing the use of harmful pesticides from entering our food and ecosystems; yet, what the Government is doing today has consequences beyond placing the livelihoods of farmers and food security of a nation at risk. It has also damaged the organic farming movement, which was gradually developing in the country, by making a mockery of the entire exercise. Legitimate concerns have been raised that the organic agriculture policy is a ploy to drive people away from farming lands.
Also, the MMDA reforms are long overdue and women’s voices on this issue have been explicit. Similarly, there is no argument of the need to ensure that everybody is equal before the law. We have far too many examples of how unfairly the law works in this country. Whether it is how the Police implement traffic laws or the deeper, structural inequalities in the Judiciary, there is much work to be done to make sure that the law works without discrimination.
Every government in power did its best to bend the rules to further its own interests, to protect its allies, and to harass its opponents. The current regime has taken this practice to another level, if the speed with which cases against the Rajapaksa family and its allies are being dismissed is anything to go by. Today, we have the Attorney General (AG) withdrawing cases filed by his own department, citing technical reasons. In fact, some of the cases that have been withdrawn were filed when the current Chief Justice was heading the AG’s office. How will these actions build confidence in the system of justice and the Judiciary in this country? This whole exercise stinks of perversion of justice and the erosion of the independence of the Judiciary.
For some time now, prisoners at the Welikada Prison have been protesting on this very issue, demanding a review of their cases. Family members of prisoners have been talking to me and presumably to other politicians, asking very pertinent questions: Why is it that only cases that are filed against the rich and powerful seem to be flawed and therefore withdrawn or dismissed? Couldn’t mistakes have been made in other cases as well? If Duminda Silva can be given a presidential pardon because there are questions regarding his trial, why not others? These are valid questions to which there are no valid answers – simply further proof that the law and the system of justice do not function equally in this country.
However, this renewal of interest in “one country, one law”, especially when the Ministry of Justice is apparently in the process of reforming many laws, needs to be understood in the broader context of what this regime is trying to do to revitalise itself.
The President’s recent statements admitting to having disappointed those who brought him to power and pledging to fulfil their aspirations soon, followed by the appointment of the Presidential Task Force chaired by Gnanasara Thera, is a clear indication that the regime is resorting to what worked most effectively in the past for them to regain popularity: Invoking and inciting racism. President Rajapaksa’s entire election campaign and slogans – discipline, one country, one law, national security, saving the nation, a strong leader, etc. – were all premised on a single strategy: Arousing the most fundamental fear among Sinhala-Buddhists of imminent threat and persecution. Sinhala-Buddhists have often been referred to as a “majority with a minority mindset”.
There are historical conditions through which this fear has been produced and maintained. Our colonial experience as well as the post-Independence nation-building project has been one of exclusion and discrimination. Colonial history was one of exploitation and persecution, and independence was supposed to rectify those. What is left out of mainstream renderings of history is how the political elite in this country continually benefitted from divisions based on language, religion, ethnicity, and class, while promising redress for grievances carefully cultivated on those same divisions. Grievances were nurtured and maintained, and redressing those grievances became the basis on which different groups (particularly, Sinhala-Buddhists) were going to be led to promised land. All those who have led this country up to this point have used this method for capturing and holding onto power. President Rajapaksa and his cohort, for all their rhetoric of “being different”, are treading a well-worn path in Sri Lankan politics.
However, we are today at a point where many chickens are coming home to roost. The chaos and crisis that we are facing today on multiple fronts is a result of decades of self-interested and selfish political choices that have essentially been about holding onto power at any cost. People have become and are becoming wise to this – if the chatter on social media as well as on the streets is anything to go by, politicians are being held up to far more scrutiny and treated with far more scepticism than before. This is exactly what is required today – for leaders to be brought down from their lofty heights and images of grandeur, infallibility, and heroism, and seen for what they really are.
Coming out of this crisis requires leaders who have demonstrated their connection to the people they represent – not through relationships of patronage (which the Rajapaksas have developed to a fine art), but through relationships of mutual respect and reciprocity. If this regime thinks that resorting to the tired old tactics of whipping up racism and catering to the worst human instincts within us will work again, they are doomed to fail. In fact, as citizens, it is essential that we ensure that they fail. It is only then that we can begin to rebuild this country based on the recognition of all that brings us together rather than that which divides us.