Sinha Le, Anyone?


by Tisaranee Gunasekara

" anti-civilatory, myth-making nationalism..."
Karl Dietrich Bracher
(The German Dictatorship)

It beats the Grimm’s Tales and the Arabian Nights hollow, that story of a princess who runs away from her home and mates with a lion. Not a lion-like man, not a member of a tribe named after the ‘king of beasts’, but an actual man-eating lion. The Great Chronicle (Mahavamsa) takes considerable pains to make the point. The princess, described by Bhikku Mahanama as ‘fair’ and ‘amorous’, gives birth to twins. Sihabahu is so named because his hands and feet are ‘formed like a lion’s’. He eventually kills the father and marries the sister. Vijaya, the Sinhala Manu according to Mahavamsa, was a product of that incestuous union.

Thus Sinha Le, lion’s blood. A physical impossibility, an obvious fabrication, this is our version of creationism, our geo-centrism, which we continue to believe despite evidence to the contrary, because it is an article of faith. And for decades this story was taught in schools not as myth or even religion (the distinction depends on who is doing the looking) but history. It was also used by everyone, from anti-devolution politicians to hardline monks, from academics to military men, from novelists to lay people, to justify Sinhala Buddhist supremacism and to oppose any political concessions to the minorities.

In the teaching of Gautama Buddha there is no concept of holy war, no place for force/violence in the protection of either the Dhamma or those who practice it. Classical Buddhism does not provide a ruler with a mechanism to use religion to justify war, because the Buddha’s rejection of violence is absolute and non-negotiable. Classical Buddhism accepts that violence is a part of statecraft; but that violence cannot be perpetrated under cover of protecting or promoting Buddhism. A Buddhist ruler may have to pursue policies of violence but that violence must be of the secular and not religious variety.

Sinhala-Buddhism was born out of the Mahavamsa’s project of providing Lankan rulers with a religious justification for their violent power-projects. The Sinha Le brand (sticker and social media movement) is just its latest offshoot.

The Mahavamsa credo is based on the Hosts and Guests concept of Lanka. The island belongs exclusively to the Sinhalese (the descendants of Vijaya, and therefore the lion). It was so consecrated by the Buddha himself. In this holy land of Sinhala-Buddhism, non-Sinhalese are mere guests, aliens who came here as invaders or merchants. The hospitable Sinhala Buddhists permitted these alien races – including the remnants of vanquished invaders – to live here. That was how, the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists believe, Lanka was transformed from the mono-ethno-religious land it was meant to be by divine decree into the pluralist country it is today. According to this worldview, the minorities are not entitled to any inalienable rights because they have no claims over Sri Lanka. They can never belong, but they can live here so long as they accept this second class position and abide by it, which includes not objecting overmuch to discriminatory laws or violent attacks.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2015 presidential election, the pro-Rajapaksa group argued that this was not a true defeat because a majority of Sinhalese voted for Mr. Rajapaksa. The underlying logic was obvious. Sri Lanka is not the equal homeland of all her people, but the chosen land of the chosen race; the minorities are not co-owners of the country; therefore their vote has a lesser value and any electoral outcome in which their vote is decisive is not a legitimate one. Maithripala Sirisena might be the president of the really existing ethno-religiously pluralist Sri Lanka. But Mahinda Rajapaksa remains the president of the ideal Lanka, the land of Sinha Le.

Currently this blood-and-faith nationalism is being used by the twice-defeated Rajapaksa clan to regain their lost power. The vociferous demands for a pure Sinha Le national flag and the appearance of such a flag at several pro-Rajapaksa functions are far from accidental. The opposition to the singing of the national anthem in Tamil and the sudden infestation of Sinha Le stickers too are organised efforts. A Sinha le flag and anthem form an integral part of a conscious political project by the Rajapaksa clan and their hardline allies to create a tidal wave of Sinhala-Buddhist fanaticism and ride it to power.

That Brave New Morning

Mahinda Rajapaksa imposed a de facto ban on singing the national anthem in Tamil not during the war, but several months after the defeat of the LTTE. It was in part a knee-jerk reaction to the Oxford Debacle. The Oxford Union cancelled a lecture by Mr. Rajapaksa due to pressure from hardline sections of the Tamil Diaspora. A fuming Mr. Rajapaksa returned home and imposed a collective punishment on Lankan Tamils by decreeing that national anthem should be Sinhala-only.

The ban on the national anthem in Tamils was also in consonance with previous Rajapaksa measures such as reversion to a unitary-state model, abandonment of the homeland concept, unilateral-judicial de-merger of the North-East and reduction of the ethnic issue into a terrorist/Tiger problem. These policy measures were followed by discriminatory practices including the resumption of internal colonisation in the North and the East, the construction of temples and Buddha statues in areas with no Buddhist-civilians and the inciting of anti-Muslim hysteria via the ‘Halal-issue.

The LLRC (appointed by the Rajapaksa administration) in its report criticised the ban on singing the national anthem in Tamils and warned that it would "create a major irritant which would not be conducive to fostering post-conflict reconciliation." Indeed, a Sinhala-Only National Anthem was tailor-made to further divide rather than unite, to widen the psychological gulf between the majority and the minorities and to drive home the lesson that minorities are not-so-welcome interlopers in a Sinhala-country.

When he chose to ban the national anthem in Tamil, Mr. Rajapaksa claimed, in justification, "In no other country was the national anthem used in more than one language."i He reiterated this same counter-factual argument last week.ii But Sri Lanka is not the only country with a bi-lingual national anthem. Canadian and Cameroonian national anthems are sung in English and French (O’ Canada has an Inuktiut version too); Swiss national anthem is in German (the original), Italian, French and Romansh; New Zealand’s national anthem has English and Maori lyrics; post-Apartheid South Africa has a multi-lingual national anthem in Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. As for the Indian national anthem, it is written not in Hindi, the language of the majority community, but in Bengali, the language of a minority community. The equivalent would be if Lanka adopted a national anthem written not in Sinhala but in Malay.

The LLRC recommended that "The practice of the National Anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages in the same time must be maintained and supported." That recommendation was implemented by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government on February 4, 2016. The Independence Day celebrations commenced with the national anthem in Sinhala and concluded with the national anthem in Tamil, an act of great symbolic import. And with it, the new government reiterated its commitment to an inclusive, pluralist project of nation-building.

We don’t love other people’s countries; we can only love our own. Measures which humiliate ethno-religious minorities cannot promote national reconciliation or foster Lankan patriotism. There is a greater chance of inculcating a sense of Lankan patriotism in Tamil/Muslim children and youth when they are allowed to sing the national anthem in their own language rather than parrot it in a language they barely understand.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa once derided the singing of the national anthem in Tamil as "a ridiculous and unpractical idea."iii But for those who accept the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka and look forward to a truly Lankan future, that moment felt not ridiculous or unpractical, but deeply moving. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government did a necessary thing, a brave thing. This government is not living up to expectation in several key areas, starting with the economy. But now and then it does something which vindicates fully the historic outcome of January 8, 2015 and keeps hope of a better future alive.

Kishani Jayasinghe and the

Lynch Mob

Shortly before she was killed by the IS (Islamic State), Ruqia Hassan, a young Syrian woman wrote the following lines on her facebook page. "The only thing the secular man remembers from the Qur’an is that the God is the most merciful, and everything comes from that... The only thing the extreme Islamists memorise is one verse - to be tough with infidels and merciful to believers - but to the extreme Islamists, everyone is an infidel, whether Muslim or not."iv Ms. Hassan knew that difference first hand; she was one of a handful of residents in Raqqa who dared to criticise the monstrosities committed by the IS.

Ms. Hassan’s incisive comment is applicable not only to Islamic extremists, but to religious extremists in general. Anything can be grist to their ever-churning mill of hatred, anything can arouse their fires of suspicion, anything can trigger their violent intolerance – including a soprano.

Kishani Jayasinghe, the internationally renowned Lankan soprano, sang at the official cultural show to celebrate the Independence Day. Her repertoire included both popular Sinhala songs and old jana kavi (folk poems). The next morning, the presenter of the programme, Derana Aruna, played Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition of the iconic Sinhala song Danno Budunge, and followed it with a rant which was ignorant and uncouth in equal measure. "Female cats sometimes make sounds like that in the night. What do we do then? We take a piece of brick and throw it in that direction... A warped version of the Danno Budunge song was sung at a ceremony to celebrate the National Independence Day. Opera or something, we don’t know. Why are such things being done to valuable things? We don’t know whether such things are done in expectation of bricks being thrown."v

Everyone has the right to have an opinion on Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition of Danno Budunge and to express that opinion. If the presenter expressed his dislike of Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition in civilised language, there would have been nothing to object to. Opera is not everyone’s cup of tea, even in the West. But the vile language the presenter used and his thinly-veiled attempt to incite the viewers into paroxysms of violent hatred placed his remarks beyond the pale. He compared the singer to a queen (a non-sterilised female cat) in heat and indicated that stoning is the right and proper response to her. In his opinion Ms. Jayasinghe insulted a holy-object of Sinhala-Buddhism. Therefore she must be responded to not with words but with stones. Between this mindset and the mindset of those who murder women and men for violating this or that religio-cultural taboo, the difference is just one of degrees. For all of them, violence is the first and favoured resort, the ideal solution to every problem, be it an unacceptable political decision or an objectionable song.

When Yoshihta Rajapaksa was arrested his younger brother posted a comment on his facebook page: ‘Dear Yahapalanaya... You just stood on the tail of THE lion, now don’t expect the lion, not to rip u in to parts.’vi This outburst is, at a personal level, an immature boy’s emotional reaction to a familial tragedy. But at the political level the youngest Rajapaksa’s outburst is indicative of the violent intolerance deeply embedded in the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist project.

The Sinha Le insanity is dangerous. It needs to be countered, but not with laws or force, let alone violence, but with arguments. We have a battle to wage, but it must be waged in the terrain of ideas. We must meet their insanity with logic, their ravings with facts, their incitement to violence with appeals to reason.

What is at stake is nothing less than the future of Sri Lanka.


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