Ethnicity and religion and their Ideological and political influences - III

by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Continued from yesterday

The problem is clearly made worse when there seems to be a privileging on the ethnic majority elsewhere in the Province. Again I do not subscribe to the homelands theory idea, and I believe land grants should be given where possible to any citizen of the country. This is why I have no quarrel with the settlement in the Wanni of several people from the hill country in the seventies and the eighties, when they faced real problems in their areas of origin. This incidentally is a strong argument against the idea that the North is the traditional homeland of the Tamils, and I am surprised - though I should not be, given endemic incapacity to think - that government has not pointed this fact out, and ensured a thorough statistical analysis of the facts.

But, given the current situation, government should first settle the problems of the existing citizenry in the North, before embarking on new schemes. It is only when, first, all those who were displaced are settled in their original places of residence or else in satisfactory alternatives when return is not possible, and second when equitable arrangements have been made for their natural increase as possible (where the Muslims have perhaps the greatest claim for expeditious action given the circumstances in which they were displaced and the time that elapsed before proper attention was paid to their difficulties), that plans should be implemented with regard to others.

My argument then is that, in the current context, if there is any deprivation, it is on the part of the minorities. For government then to engage in measures that seem to shore up the privileges of the majority with regard to employment and other economic and social opportunities is an egregious error that could foment resentment.

I should add that government's failure to engage in positive measures with regard to education is perhaps the most worrying factor at this time. Forty years ago it engaged in what amounted to positive discrimination with regard to education when it introduced standardization for university entrance. This was not a racist measure as the benefits to rural Tamil and Muslim students showed, but unfortunately the hardest hit were the students of Jaffna, apart from those in Colombo. And whereas the students of Colombo had alternative occupations, given both the comparatively flourishing private sector in Colombo and opportunities and the wherewithal to go abroad for education, those in Jaffna had few alternatives.

Sadly government had ignored the fact that, where positive discrimination if introduced, there is also a parallel private network that allows alternatives to at least some of the able who are deprived of government positions. The sense of deprivation then amongst Jaffna youngsters was intense, and insult was added to injury when the UNP government, having abolished standardization, reintroduced it in another form shortly afterwards in response to Cyril Mathew's claim that Tamil examiners were cheating to overcome the standardization scheme, and so excessive numbers of Tamil students were getting into university. This claim was proved to be false but Jayewardene had already reacted, which increased bitterness and I believe contributed to the increase in terrorist numbers in the North after 1979.

In this context, let me note the continuing injustice to students of all communities because of the continuation of positive discrimination with regard to university admissions over the last forty years. If it is felt that schooling in particular areas is inadequate, allowing students from those areas to enter university with fewer marks provides compensation only to the few students who get it, and the vast majority of students in the area continue underprivileged. The solution to inadequate facilities and teachers is to improve them, but because of standardization that problem has been allowed to fester for decades.

In particular, no efforts have been made to ensure an adequate supply of teachers to rural areas. This can best be accomplished by training teachers from such areas, but the Ministry of Education cannot put in place mechanisms to promote this, and Provincial Ministries have also failed to think outside the box to find solutions. As we all know, the problem exists everywhere, but it is particularly acute in the North, and given that policies are made elsewhere, the feeling exists that such continuing neglect is, if not deliberate, the result of culpable callousness.

I fear then that, while I believe many of the problems that ethnic minorities face are not because of adverse policies but because of continuing incapacity and unwillingness to plan coherently, they could soon contribute to political unrest. But currently the discourse in the media is more about the historical deprivations the Sinhalese suffered. The fact that these have been set right is forgotten, and those whose voices are loudest engage in advocacy for the majority.

On the contrary we should rather be promoting equity with regard to educational opportunities and employment in the state sector. In particular we should encourage enlistment in the armed forces, because the impression is widespread that our armed services are the preserve of the Sinhalese. Though police recruitment of Tamils has increased in the last few years, numbers are still inadequate, given the need for better community relations in particular in the North. I should add too that too little is being done, and too slowly, about ensuring that police officials stationed in the North and East know Tamil and can communicate with those they serve.

With regard to the armed forces, whilst obviously there is no reason to increase numbers now, more strenuous efforts should be made to enroll Tamils and Muslims in the officer cadre (which is also something the police should concentrate on more, since for proper integration positions of authority must also be held by the minorities). I should add that the forces should, even on a token basis, enroll more Tamil and Muslims, as happened recently in Kilinochchi with regard to women soldiers. The efforts to criticize and stop that programme on the part of those who still hanker after separatism make it clear that such attempts at integration are a sure method of reducing the reasons separatists can cite.

I think that, before I go on to the question of religion, I will stop here in case you need any clarifications, and also to provide an opportunity to discuss the matters I have raised.


The most worrying phenomenon in Sri Lanka currently seems to be the religious conflicts that have suddenly come into prominence. Last year there was the attack on a mosque in Dambulla, which was accompanied by attacks on mosques elsewhere in the country, though these were not often publicized. This year there has been the phenomenon of the Bodhu Bala Sena, which not only ran a campaign against halal produce, but also attacked some business establishments on grounds that were not entirely clear, though it was claimed that this was because they were engaged in surreptitious tampering with the health of Buddhist customers (though it was not clear whether only Buddhists were being targeted or whether other non-Muslims were as well, and if so how those engaged in this practice identified the religious beliefs of those they were tampering with).

It should be noted however that there had been some attacks on other religions in recent years, most notably Christian churches of sects that it was alleged engaged in anti-Buddhist propaganda and practices. Sadly some Buddhist monks too were involved in violent activities, whereas were there evidence of such propaganda, it should rather have been laid before the police and investigations conducted. I should add that, in the one incident in which, I was asked as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, to get involved, I found that the police and the local administration were conducting themselves fairly, and they were unanimous in declaring that it was a particular monk who was at the root of the trouble, for reasons that were not at all religious.

To be continued tomorrow

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