Any intelligent person will agree that communal politics have been the bane of this country. Instead of looking at issues from a national point of view, the communal perspective encourages a narrower approach, each group claiming as large a piece of the pie as an entitlement, indifferent to the consequences to the whole.
It reduces men to the lowest definition; their particularities are emphasised while ignoring commonalities with the rest. The idea of a nation ought to bind people together in a common identity. Communal politics on the other hand weakens the ties of nationhood, every group harping on their differences while following their own trajectory.
But when we look at an individual as an economic being, it is obvious that he is not primarily this or that racial category, but only a human being wanting to be happy during his short life on earth. His burdens are heavy and sorrows many.
Who has benefitted from the divisiveness of communalism or for that matter even from the tribalism inherent in party politics as practiced by some? Have all these narrow definitions blinded us to the reality of the true division, that of the powerful and the powerless, the only division that matters in our society today?
Recently I came across a young Muslim man whose story is typical of the millions who live and toil in this country. Faith, language or even his particular view of the world had little to do with his daily struggles. By no means were the problems of his life exceptional or dramatic. In fact it is the commonplaceness of his life which touched me. To my mind the courage with which he went on had far more nobility than the puffed-up drama with which our public figures are often portrayed in this country.
I will call him Altaff for ease of reference. What caught my interest first was the devotion with which Altaff was attending to his work. He was a printer by vocation and was working in partnership with a friend of mine who owned the press.
I had given them some work which had deadlines to adhere to. Nothing was too steep an obstacle for Altaff. He worked long and diligent hours breaking only to go to a nearby mosque to pray and in the afternoons for lunch.
When the small printing machine ran out of ink, Altaff was immediately on his motorcycle to Nugegoda looking for cartridges. When the machine blew a fuse, Altaff was on the phone getting guidance from an electrician while fixing it himself. On certain days he worked late into the night, without any encouragement from either of us, only mentioning that he needs to earn some quick money for a family need.
In the course of this work I came to know some aspects of the life story of this 27-year-old young man, already a father of two. Like in any such casual acquaintanceship, I do not have a complete picture but can only speak to pieces of information volunteered by Altaff, willy-nilly.
Altaff is from Nittambuwa and is married to a girl from Beruwala, where he resides now. Apparently he has a brother in India studying theology with the idea of becoming a Muslim cleric one day. Meanwhile, his mother developed a cancer which requires regular treatment at the Maharagama Cancer Hospital. The father was not mentioned and I assume is deceased. To work, Altaff rides daily on his motorcycle from Beruwala.
One day he told us that his mother had come to the Maharagama Cancer Hospital for treatment and that he would be taking her that evening to Nittambuwa on his motorcycle. Later he would ride back to Beruwala. It poured continuously that evening and we could only sympathise with the plight of Altaff and his mother on their way to Nittambuwa.
On another day, Altaff had been stopped on the way to work by the Police for, what I understood from his version of the event, an offence defined as “speeding on a pedestrian crossing”. In the absence of any harm to a person or property, I thought the charge extremely technical. But Altaff had to sort it out in court in order to get his license back, time he could ill-afford to lose.
Without appearing to be prying, I asked Altaff about the urgent family need for which he was diligently collecting money. His brother in India had now qualified in theology, and both his mother and Altaff were planning to attend the convocation ceremony there. Travel required passports, foreign currency and other expenses. For the Indian visa, apparently the applicant must show a minimum of Rs. 50,000 in his bank account. The financial aspects of the trip were Altaff’s responsibility.
Who is the exploiter, who is the enemy?
Altaff is no different to the thousands of Aravindas and Aruls, the young men of other communities, who struggle in like manner to make ends meet. Only God knows how difficult their lives are. A third world wage is hardly adequate to meet daily needs, even if they were basic.
Those like Altaff who are more or less self-employed live from “jobs” like what I gave them. These are infrequent and there is cut-throat competition among the service providers vying for these jobs. And, it is the Altaffs of the world who face the realities of living in an underdeveloped country the most: crowded roads, poor transport, shoddy services, an insensitive public sector, corrupt officials and archaic systems.
So, who is the exploiter, who is the enemy? Is it the Altaffs, Aruls or Aravindas who constitute the threat from the counterparts’ standpoint?
Altaff is only one among the millions of the grey figures we pass on the road; irrelevant and unnoticed. Their private pains and anguish are given little value compared to the lives of public figures blown up and lionised by the popular culture. Dressed in immaculate white, travelling in convoys of vehicles, surrounded by eager supporters, their engagements are the true stuff of high drama.
This is where the “American Dream” of wealth, power and comfort resides. Its characters whiz into places, get on stages, fondle babies, make rousing speeches, then hand over things like certificates, food parcels, books, title deeds, etc., to an ecstatic public and then back to their limousines and on their way to the next drama.
It is not for them to have the small thoughts and ambitions of the Altaffs of the world. Their preoccupations are of the big stage: Statecraft, constitutional amendments, international pressures and the far-reaching conflicts of history.
Ethos of the reigning political culture
Only the other day I noticed a large poster of the President on a CTB bus. It was a message from a union affiliated with the ruling party, meant to be from the elector to the elected. In Sinhala, the wording read, abject and humble “we know gratitude …” On a State-owned asset, run by a by a loss-making, inefficient organisation, a political message was being carried openly.
Looked at through the ethos of the reigning political culture , for them who have reached the dizzy heights of power, divisions of philosophy, ideology or even personal values are of no concern. As the recent Mangala Samaraweera episode showed us, he has the option of being a minister from either political party, the choice is his!
No one can claim that Samaraweera’s political career has been a shining beacon in a gloomy landscape. On the contrary, he is known as a certain kind of political operative and a propagandist. Evidently these are highly-valued capabilities.
Then we had Dayasiri Jayasekera, the Chief Minister of the Wayamba province inviting members of the Opposition to join him, with the words “You can only criticise from the Opposition, come join us in the Government and do some ‘work’.” It is that simple.
The true division of our society is here. It is not communal. It is the division between a simple sad truth and a gaudy big lie.
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)