By N Sathiya Moorthy
Addressing a meeting of the Coalition for National and Religious Reconciliation, former Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya declared that Buddhism is not racist. He quoted the Buddha in this regard. He also urged the Maha Sangha, present on the occasion, to educate racists among Buddhists and create conditions for a national dialogue – against it, of course.
Not long after came the official notification on the constitution of the Presidential Task Force on ‘One nation, one law’ (ONOL), that too under the most controversial BBS boss, Gnanasara Thero. Suffice is to point out, his eagerness to enter Parliament through the backdoor, as a National List MP, too centred on ejecting the incumbent member, a fellow-monk, out of the year-long occupancy in what is a five-year tenure.
The creation of the task force and the appointment of its members clearly showed that there possibly was no dialogue even within the government. Justice Minister Ali Sabry protested on specifics, indicating that the matter did not go to the Cabinet. Whatever the later-day explanation that he got from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that the panel did not fall within the Cabinet framework or whatever, it may have been enough for Minister Sabry to go back on his idea of quitting the government.
The ONOL panel’s appointment smacked of the very same approach of then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the Darusman committee to look into war-crimes allegations in and against Sri Lanka one way or the other. That the Darusman Report was meant for the personal consumption of the UN chief, otherwise busy to take a closer look himself – and has remained the basic reference document of the UNHRC for all its resolutions on Sri Lanka since is a parallel that needed checking as the ONOL panel submits its report.
It was not an accident that the Darusman Report got leaked to the international media, not once but twice. Both the interim report and the final one were leaked very, very promptly. Not just the contents, even copies of the original with select portions blacked out – and literally so.
The ONOL panel has been set up with a short deadline to complete the report by February-end coincides with the governments repeated commitment to come up with the draft of a new Constitution by this year-end. It should go without saying that the two need to be dovetailed or juxtaposed at some point, some way.
Well, the recommendations of the ONOL panel, in full or parts, can form the basis for a brand new piece of legislation, or one that amends or abrogates a few existing ones, particularly of the minority Tamils and Muslims. The powers of Parliament to pass such a law does derive from the Constitution, old or new. But there could also be specific provisions in the new Constitution that underlines the character of the new society that the ONOL law would seek to evolve.
At the centre of the current controversy is an inherent apprehension, and not without proof, that the Sri Lankan State and the majority Sinhala polity are out to destroy the centuries-old ethnic identities of the minorities and their social and cultural practices. In legal terms, they are all ‘personal laws’, derived from age-old customs, and mostly relate to marriage, and also inheritance and alienation of property.
The Thesavalami laws of the Tamils of the Northern Province, the near-equivalent Kandyan laws of inheritance for Sinhala-Buddhists and the practice of full body-cover for Muslim women and even the latter’s marriage and inheritance laws are in focus. The current discourse flows from the Easter blasts. Perpetrator Zahaan, who died in the blasts of his own making, did not obviously imagine such socio-political fallouts for all time to come, when he wanted to destroy the post-LTTE peace and tranquillity by targeting faceless innocents, incidentally from many continents.
But then there is some truth in the argument that some of the Muslim social practices at present are not as age-old in the country as being projected for them to have the common law acceptance as ‘custom’. The full body cover for Muslim women is a case in point. Yet, it did not make sense for the predecessor Maithripala Sirisena government to ban Muslim women’s ‘abaya’ in public places, using the Easter blasts was at least half as atrocious as the blasts.
There was no proof then or since that any of the perpetrators used the abaya to cover their identities while moving around. Conversely, there is enough proof that perpetrators, including Zahran, were moving around freely, and they did not have any use for abayas to cover their identity form the police – which anyway was not chasing them.
This was so, despite the Islamic community in the country had alerted the government at several stages and at several levels, all the way up to the President, about what was going on and what to anticipate, if not wholly and clearly. They too did not know any of it.
Tamils, too busy…
After supposedly addressing the immediate concerns of Minister Sabry, which were purportedly confined to the ONOL panel having ‘jurisdiction’ over the Justice Ministry under his care, the President has also addressed the early concerns of the Tamils. As they rightly pointed out, though not protested in public as is the wont, about the absence of any Tamil member on the panel, the government has named three from the community. One of them, Yogeswari Palkunarajah, also fills the absence of a woman on the original panel, as critics and women activists have pointed out.
Since the unanticipated presidential announcement on the setting up of the taks force, the Tamil polity and society seem to be totally indifferent to the entire process. They are not going to be so as and when the panel submits its report and the government seeks to marry all or parts of it into the constitutional scheme, and through the right path – not necessarily by subterfuge as often alleged.
Today, the Tamil polity is too busy fighting among them. Those that are vocal, like TNA parliamentarians, M A Sumanthiran and Sanakyan, were busy traversing the West, arguing their case to host governments, who have called them over to the exclusion of other Tamil groups. While still divided, together they may have the voice and support of more than half of what the TNA commands. That excludes the section of the Tamil polity that has always been on the side of the Sinhala-Buddhist government of the day, or any day.
Maybe, the Tamil polity, divided as they are, are keeping their powder cdry to attack the ONOL panel report when presented to the President and is publicised, in whatever form. Maybe, they are now so confident that the US-led West would get them their due that they have ‘out-sourced’ it all to the latter.
Less said about the equally divided Muslim polity the better. If anything the post-blasts backlash alone has brought them together, though not as as much as the community’s demands require at present. None of them even threaten to quit the Maithri-Ranil government when the abaya-ban was enforced overnight. They too cited the post-blasts national mood as the reason.
Thankfully, the Muslim polity did not cite the truthfulness of the government position that the abaya was not in use until petro-dollars since the seventies and eighties brought them in along with other alien Arabic practices and prayers when Sri Lankan Muslim workforce returned home from the Gulf-Arab region. Busy with their anxieties over Tamil militancy and later its concentration in the hands of the monolith LTTE, the Sri Lankan State did not have time for a closer study of the changing face of the Muslim community, especially in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province.
The State saw the Muslim community as partners against the LTTE – and not against the Tamils – after the militant-terror outfit threw out the community lock, stock and barrel from the Northern Province. The LTTE added injury to the insult by killing Friday mosque-goers in Eastern Kaththankudy, both in 1990.
That the Zahrans of Sri Lanka began erupting only after the US-led West’s military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq was not lost on the Sri Lankan authorities, either. There is no knowing thus if any Muslim youth of the time in the country had admired Osama bin-Laden for what he did. But when the Sri Lankan State woke up post-war, and the Muslims began feeling a sense of unease, Gnanasara Thero’s BBS had begun targeting them physically and otherwise.
Today, the very same Thero has been tasked to codify ‘One Nation, One Law’ for adaption / adoption by the legislature. It is going to change the face of the nation’s personal laws scheme as nothing before it – or, that is the expectation of the Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners, and fears of the minorities. What comes of the panel’s proposals may be incorporated and/or derive from the final version fo the new Constitution.
With the Sirisena-led SLFP parent-partner in the Rajapaksas-led SLPP coalition government turning turtle now and again over the government’s efforts to brand their leader as an accused in the Easter blasts case for alleged failure to act on Indian intelligence, any smooth passage for a new Constitution could be in peril. Or, so it seems at least until the government leaders end up splitting the SLFP, as is their wont.
That should address the post-blasts demands of the Catholic Church in the country. But then, they too are not thinking as to what awaits the community under the ONOL scheme. If nothing else, their post-blasts protestations have alienated the community away from the mainstream, which never ever was the case earlier.
Today, there are twin Catholic identities in the country, one of the old anti-Sinhala, anti-Establishment Tamil Church, and now the second, more powerful Sinhala strand, which may soon find itself in the socio-political and politico-electoral cross-roads, having walked this far into politicising the blasts more than the perpetrators, and possibly not knowing how to back out, where, how and when!
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)