Giving Sanity a Chance


Jaffna University clash

by Tisaranee Gunasekara


"Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi desires that all religions should reside everywhere…."

Ashokan Rock Edict 7

Racism is not the birthright of any one race. It is a mental virus which can affect every ethnic community.

The clash over a dance item in the Jaffna University was not a Tiger conspiracy or even a sign of Tiger resurgence, let alone the first salvo of another war. But it is equally specious to insist that racism had no hand in the affair. Racism was an ingredient, though not the only one, of the motley cocktail which made that deplorable incident possible.

The Alumni Association of the University of Peradeniya planned to stage Kaushalya Fernando’s drama ‘Dutu Thena Allanu’, an adaptation of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi at the Ediriweera Sarachchandra Open Air Theatre (the legendary Wala) on July 12th. Opera Woyonsi, a humorous social commentary about African dictatorships, couldn’t be staged at Peradeniya because a group of students – who presumably have never heard of Wole Soyinka - objected, excoriating the play as morally and culturally opprobrious. Had this act of moral policing been opposed by another group of students, a clash would have definitely ensued, with several hospitalisations.

What happened in the University of Jaffna was something fairly similar, made more contentious by the added factor of racism. Taken together, the two incidents demonstrate an axiom about Lankan universities; our centres of higher education are – and have been for a long time – far more unfree, undemocratic, uncivilised and intolerant than the society in general. Lankan university students are less willing to accept difference and less capable of settling differences peacefully, through negotiations and compromise than Lankan citizens in general. Violent clashes are far more of a norm in Lankan universities than they are in the country as a whole (to mention just one recent example, on July 7th, two groups in the University of Peradeniya Science Faculty clashed during an anti-dengue campaign, resulting in the hospitalisation of ten students.) Lankan universities are – and have been for decades – the breeding ground of extremism, retrogression, obscurantism and violent intolerance.

Ignorant and Proud – this seems to be the common motto of universities of Sri Lanka.

Nativism and Religio-cultural purism are greater menaces within the Lankan university system than in Lankan society (take for instance the attempts by some seniors in the Kelaniya University to impose a dress code on newcomers; girls were banned from wearing trousers, probably because trousers are considered Western, proudly ignorant of the fact that the oldest known trousers were found in Asia, in an ancient Chinese cemeteryi. Moral policing is alive and well in Lankan universities, with a minority of students deciding, according to their limited knowledge, mean intelligence and narrow vision, what sort of conduct, music, dance, cuisine, dress, art, science, education, health and living is acceptable or not.

There are no pure races/reli-gions/cultures; every race/religion/culture has been shaped and changed by cross-pollination. We are all racial, linguistic, religious and cultural mongrels and fortunately so. It is this reality the ignorant cohorts calling the shots in Lankan universities are trying to deny.


Keeping the Lunatic Fringe

in the Fringe

Pastor John Hagee, an American evangelical preacher decried Rock and Roll as "Satanic Cyanide" and condemned Harry Potter books for "opening the gates of your mind to the Prince of Darkness"ii.

The BJP student union thrashed the Head of the History Department at Delhi University for including a critical essay on Ramayana by AK Ramanujaniii in the BA (Hons) curriculum; they said the essay offended Hindu sensibilities.

A group of Islamist lawyers in Egypt tried to get the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights banned for promoting ‘sin’iv.

Buddhists extremists attacked a workshop for promoting atheism, even though atheism is illegal only in Islamic fundamentalist countries like Saudi Arabia.

The lunatic fringe will always be with us. So long as they are kept in the fringe, the harm they can do it limited. The problem is when the lunatic fringe overrides the mainstream and tries to or does take power.

Like Donald Trump or Mahinda Rajapaksa; the IS or the LTTE.

According to American psychologist Dr. Bryant Welch, "religious fundamentalism plays three psychological roles which reinforce one another to fundamentalist religion very appealing to millions…. First, it fills in important gaps in our reality sense….and eases the perplexity that the mind feels from uncertainty. Second, religion provides support for the mind as it struggles with the three battleground emotional states – envy, sexual perplexity and paranoia. Finally… provides an esoteric experience that is a powerful antidote to the fears and stresses of modernity"v. This analysis is apposite for quasi or non-religious fundamentalisms as well. That is why fundamentalist ideologies of all sorts do well in times of economic crises or socio-political upheavals, because they provide the illusion of a straight-line way out for those who are conflicted and confused by complex realities and incapable of dealing with facts.

The Jaffna students who opposed the inclusion of a Kandyan dance item form the Tamil mirror images of those Sinhala extremists who advocated Sinhala Only in 1956 and screamed from rooftops against singing the National Anthem in Tamil in 2016. They are ideologically related to the LTTE, the Bodu Bala Sena types and those Wahabit extremists who attack religious places of non-Wahabi Muslims, such as the destruction of a 150 year old Sufi shrine in Ukuwela in 2009vi. Sinhala or Tamil, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Islamic, these extremists are united in their abhorrence of moderation and compromise and their fidelity to the belief that "….anyone who dresses or speaks differently is not simply a different person, but a different animal from a different sty with whom there can be no accommodation, and who must be hated and hounded out"vii.

Every society has extremists who live in their own created realities. Democracies must not outlaw them. They should be allowed to have their say but never to have their way, so that the havoc they can wreak is severely constrained. The multi-pronged and many-layered battle against extremism of every type is not a digression from the struggle for democracy, peace and humane development but an essential component of it.

The triumph of extremism over moderation, especially of racial and religious variety, is rarely a spontaneous phenomenon. More often than not, it is a top-down process, driven by megalomanic politicians who see in racial/religious extremism an ideal tool to achieve/safeguard power by controlling the masses. Where political leaders play an enabling role, the harm that extremism does increases exponentially; where political leaders abjure pyromania, the spark of extremism remains a spark without turning into an all consuming inferno.


The Value of Moderate Leadership

‘The Conference of Birds’ is a peerless jewel in the crown of Islamic literature. Written in the 12th Century by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar, this epic poem tells of an Odyssey by birds in search of a king. The birds want the Simorghviii to be their king; but when they reach the distant home of that legendary bird, after an epic-journey, all they find is a lake in which they see their own reflections.

‘The Conference of Birds’ is generally interpreted as an allegorical poem about the quest for God. But this enchanting tale can be seen from a political angle as well, as a depiction of humankind’s eternal search for utopian systems and ideal rulers. The lesson the birds learned is a lesson relevant to humans as well: leaders are often a reflection of the people who choose them and sustain them, for good or ill.

When the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked about the anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, his reply revealed a mindset and a worldview which was dangerously non-lucid: "There were incidents. There were attacks; some incidents. What was in the background? Why were they attacked? Now see a girl was raped. Seven years old girl was raped. Then naturally they will go and attack them whether they belong to any community or any religion. The people when they heard about it they were so upset, relations everybody. There were incidents like that. All incidents have some background to that"ix (Mr. Rajapaksa lied. There was no incident of a Sinhala-Buddhist child being raped by a Tamil/Muslim/Christian, then or now.)

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is only marginally better than its Rajapaksa predecessor when it comes to corruption, nepotism and venality. But in one important respect, the new leaders are a decided and a very substantial improvement on the Rajapaksas – they are not racist.

Had the Rajapaksas been in power today, the army would have been sent to the University of Jaffna and a hysterical campaign against ‘LTTE resurgence’ launched islandwide with imprisonments and abductions galore. In stark and welcoming contrast, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s response to the clash was characterised by moderation and sense. In this the government has been aided by the TNA’s own praiseworthy moderation. The issue was treated as a law and order problem, the head of the students association which allegedly launched the attack was arrested and released on bail and attempts by the Joint Opposition and the JHU to benefit from the clash nipped smartly in the bud.

Under Rajapaksa rule, religio-cultural differences were turned into political problems and every little incident of racial/religious disharmony turned into an existential crisis. Issues were manufactured, when none existed. The best case in point is the anti-Halal campaign conducted by the BBS with toxic ferocity. The anti-Halal appeared from nowhere, occupied the centre stage and vanished, all in just three months.

The campaign to terrify the minorities into submission and forcibly weld them into a Sinhala-led nation ended on January 9. That political transformation saved Sri Lanka’s mad rush into new conflicts, including with her Muslims (we would have become a target of the IS by now, had the Rajapaksas been in power).

July 2016 did not become a small-scale repetition of July 1983 because sanity and moderation dominate the political mainstream and the lunatic finger has been driven back to the fringe. The memories of that other July, when racism took control and turned the pearl of the Indian Ocean into a charnel house, is a sharp reminder of risks we cannot afford.

In his Nobel Lecture, Irish poet Seamus Heaney referred to ‘wounded spots on the face of earth’. Sri Lanka is such a place. With the LTTE defeated and the Rajapaksas gone, Sri Lanka has a chance to heal old wounds and not create new ones. This doesn’t mean we should seek comfort in lies, such as racism played no role in the Jaffna University clashes. Racism did play a role. Racism is alive and well, both in the South and the North. But it is not in control, it is no longer commanding the fate of the Lankan nation and it is not above criticism. These are achievements to be proud of, victories worth preserving.






iii Three Hundred Ramayans: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.

iv Fortunately Egyptian intellectuals successfully fought against this inanely bigoted demand

v State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind.


vii Victor Klemperer - The Language of the Third Reich

viii Persian version of the phoenix


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