Last weekend’s clashes between two student factions of the Jaffna University send a stark reminder to the nation that although the war against terrorism is over, there are many in this country who would wish to reignite the sparks of communal hatred.
The clashes erupted between students of the Science faculty and the Arts Faculty of the Jaffna University during a welcoming ceremony for freshers and had definite communal undertones: it was reported that Sinhalese students were selectively targeted and attacked.
The government has acted swiftly to close the university and evacuate affected students to prevent the issue from escalating further. Now, normalcy has reportedly returned and the campus is due to open shortly. That has however not deterred politicians in the South from trying to hijack the issue.
The first hint that disgruntled elements in the South were trying to ‘market’ the incident for their own advantage came from social media. There were claims that had a group of Tamil students been attacked in the South, the attackers would be detained, there would be commissions of inquiry and that it would have resulted in an international outcry but there was nothing of the sort when Sinhala students were attacked in the North.
Politicians were quick to run with this train of thought, especially those aligned with the so-called ‘Joint Opposition’. Wimal Weerawansa, a gentleman who has an opinion on everything accused the government of allowing extremism to raise its head in the North again. Soon, his colleagues, Udaya Gammanpila and Namal Rajapaksa had expressed similar sentiments.
That is hardly surprising, though. The ‘Joint Opposition’ relies on a platform of thinly veiled Sinhala nationalism to enhance its popularity. It believes that by alarming the majority community about the prospect of a resurgence of terrorism, it can usher the man who is the ‘saviour of the nation’, Mahinda Rajapaksa, into office again.
Anything that occurs in the meantime is exploited with this theme in mind: the detection of explosives in the North, the explosions at the armoury in Salawa and the insult by the Eastern Chief Minister to his Governor, to name a few. Now, it is a clash between university students in Jaffna.
The government must take note. In this day and age, it doesn’t take much effort for a message, political or otherwise, to spread. Those walking the corridors of powers will surely know this for they too exploited the power of social media to the maximum in their campaign that led to the ouster of the Rajapaksa regime. But this is a double-edged sword. It can work equally devastatingly against the government as well.
Even if the government did everything right in its attempt to control events in Jaffna, it has failed in one aspect: it failed to communicate to the general public what exactly happened and the measures taken to contain the situation.
This is when rumour and speculation takes over. Imaginations run riot and stories of an insurrection in its infancy are gaining currency. With so many tools for communication at its disposal, the government could have done better in conveying the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the incident to the public. That would lay to rest the many canards that are circulating.
It is also important that those responsible for the incident are dealt with appropriately. One of the many accusations hurled at the government is that it is handling wrong-doers in the North with kid gloves for fear of reprisals. That too is an image the government must assertively shed. After all, everyone is supposed to be equal before the law, regardless of whether you are from the North or the South.
It is a hackneyed cliché, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. There is freedom and liberty in the country but the government will do well not to drop its guard. The threats to that freedom come not merely from extremist elements in the North but also from the South, where disgruntled politicians wouldn’t mind ascending to power once again even at the expense of a few thousand lives.