Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Madras Café sends a message, especially to the BJP….

I watched the Shoojit Sircar film, Madras Café yesterday. I don’t want to comment on the film itself, but the story did make me do some research on the beginnings of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. And the message that came out was loud and clear. The majority community should never ever assert its domination so strongly as to trample the others. The minorities may cow down for a bit, but that’s when deep seated suspicions, and distrust and disrespect for the majority, enters their minds.

Wikipedia makes reading the origins of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict easy. Here’s what it says: After their election to the State Council in 1936, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) members N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena demanded the replacement of English as the official language by Sinhala and Tamil. In November 1936, a motion that 'in the Municipal and Police Courts of the Island the proceedings should be in the vernacular' and that 'entries in police stations should be recorded in the language in which they are originally stated' were passed by the State Council and referred to the Legal Secretary. So far so good. Both languages were to be treated on par. This created the right spirit for both communities to put up a collective fight for independence.

But just see what happened a little later: However, in 1944, J.R. Jayawardene moved in the State Council that Sinhala should replace English as the official language. In 1956 Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike's passage of the "Sinhala Only Act" led to ethnic riots. The civil war is a direct result of the escalation of the confrontational politics that followed. It is this period of partisan politics played by leaders of the dominant Sinhalese population that sowed the seeds of the civil conflict. It is only recently that the country has managed to find peace, by vanquishing the LTTE in 2009 (It’s not a victory for the majority over the minority. Both Sri Lankan and Indian governments thought of the LTTE as a terrorist organization, hardly representing the Tamilians).

The dominant Sinhalese have learnt a bitter lesson. Divisive politics won’t work. It will destroy the country. For a long time, there was a worry that Jaffna would secede and become a separate country (Eelam). Fortunately, the country survived. Fortunately, President Rajapaksa has started making conciliatory sounds now. He has stated that the conflict was never a Tamil-Sinhalese conflict, but one between a terrorist organization and the Sri Lankan state. Here’s what Australian publication, Opinion wrote ( Rajapaksa is confident the different communities can get along fine. He points out to me that in the street that houses his own office, there are Buddhist and Hindu temples, a Christian church and a mosque, all within tens of metres of each other. Sinhalese schools now have classes in Tamil, while Tamil schools have classes in Sinhalese. If this same spirit had existed earlier, the civil conflict would never have happened.

A conciliatory tone is the only thing that works in a country with large diversities. A certain large heartedness is expected of the majority community to make the minorities feel at home. Those who are still not convinced should read about how Yugoslavia imploded. There was so much conflicts between the Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Bosniaks and Slovenes that the country had to be split up into seven different parts.

The similarities between Sri Lankan and Indian diversities are striking. And the message to Indian politicians is the same. Sri Lanka has some 11% Tamilians and 75% Sinhalese. Most Tamilians are Hindus, and most Sinhalese are Buddhists. There is a smattering of Christians in both countries. If anything, India has much more diversity than Sri Lanka. Just like the first signs of discord were sown in Sri Lanka in the 1930s and 40s, so also were they sown in India in the 1940s when the demand for Pakistan first came about. There have been several ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka since its independence. So have there been Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India. Sri Lanka ended up in the civil war.Lets hope and pray that we don’t end up with a civil war between the two communities.

To ensure that a civil war doesn’t happen, our leaders have to learn the language that Rajapaksa learnt to speak. A majority does not make a community superior. It doesn’t give it the right to make rules to suit itself. All religious institutions must be allowed to co-exist. The state cannot take sides; it has to be non-partisan. This was what Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru knew. That’s why they made India secular. That’s why they fought for the minorities. That’s why we are still united as one nation.

Lets not undo their good work. Let’s not demolish another Babri masjid like we did in 1991. That was the turning point for relations between the two communities. The demolition led to riots all over India, and polarization of votes, and the Godhra tragedy, and the post-Godhra Gujarat riots, and the setting up of the Indian Mujahideen, and umpteen terrorist attacks by outfits based in India and outside. This is the standard trajectory that conflicts take before they end up creating a full blown civil war. All politicians have to start zipping their mouths. The BJP in particular needs to take note of this. It unabashedly plays the Hindutva card whenever it feels threatened politically. It anoints the person under whose watch 2002 happened as its campaign chief. It draws inspiration from the RSS, whose leaders have never moved away from Muslim bashing. All this has to change if we have to bring lasting peace to India. That’s the message from Madras café.

The real truth is that there is no role for divisive politics in a diverse country like India. Hindutva – soft or hard – is a wrong concept. It cannot be the basis on which a political party derives its strength. This just has to change….

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