The Sunday Leader

Playing the percentages

By Emil van der Poorten

The Sri Lankan voter has been cast in the not-unfamiliar role of the proverbial bird mesmerized by the swaying head of the snake preparing to swallow it, an analogy which should not be foreign to all of us co-existing with snakes on a daily basis!

And what is “mesmerizing” a seeming majority of our citizenry? The unfailing appeal to fear bred of the irrational, that irrational being the propaganda that the wide world, particularly the “western” capitalist part of it, is intent on destroying the bastion of “2500 years of Sinhala Buddhist civilization.”

The fact that this is driven by a totally unintelligent fiction does not make it in any way less effective.  Quite the contrary.

Take the often-quoted “historical” base for this: the settlement of what is now Sri Lanka by the (fair-skinned, tall) North Indians of Aryan descent, as opposed to those of Dravidian origin, 30 miles away, across Adam’s Bridge, in southern India, short, dark and, in various other ways, unattractive. There is attached to that stereotyping the allegation that the Southern Indians were an uncivilized primitive and barbaric lot, conveniently ignoring a fact frequently acknowledged: that Tamil is the oldest living language in the world! Heaping further condemnation on this is the allegation that the “Dravidians” were the antithesis and the enemies of the “Aryans” from time immemorial. Again, there is the convenient amnesia that arrives when the ethnic origins of Parakrama Bahu the Great who ruled at Polonnaruwa are discussed.

Could this have anything to do with the fact that this king, responsible for a truly remarkable irrigation system which elevated Sri Lanka to the position of the “granary of the east,” was of South Indian origin?

Unfortunately, it is too often that messages of denigration, by virtue of their total lack of foundation in fact, end up achieving the status of “gospel” among a significant segment of the population.

That significant segment is, without exception, a less-formally-educated and, therefore, more-susceptible-to-simplistic-dogma one.  That those fuelling those irrational fires have more formal education and sophistication than those they lead is logical and makes them the really ugly and evil players in this scenario.

Short of trying to fight fire with fire, a totally destructive exercise if ever there was one, what are the available weapons in any effort to establish sanity and rationality in the discourse?

I would submit that precisely because Sri Lanka is probably one of the most over-regulated jurisdictions in the world there are a variety of legal means available to governments that have even a smidgen of decency left in them. Unfortunate as that might be, it lends itself to attempts at remedial measures.

Thanks to (if that is the right terminology in the circumstances!) the many communal riots and killings that have occurred from British colonial times forward, we do have a body of law that can be applied to bring to book those seeking to visit death and destruction on “the other,” a term encompassing every minority in this country at one time or another. Of additional assistance in such an endeavour would be the fact that the dominant majority has “contaminated” itself by inter-marriage with the religious, communal and other minorities with whom they’ve shared this country for centuries. It’s hard to stereotype as intrinsically “evil” someone who is a blood relation, isn’t it? Given that fact it is truly tragic that what has been lacking in recent Sri Lankan history has been a large enough number of our population to stand up and say “Enough!”

It is only a simple lack of will that makes it possible for a totally unacceptable state of affairs to continue.

While the success of any attempt to return this land to the realm of decency and justice is anything but a pipe dream, a sense of urgency must be brought to the exercise because of what is staring us in the face right now: the disintegration of a nation and the construction of a hegemony built on a foundation of hatred of the “other.”

The lack of critical mass in many of the segments of the population already being victimized and discriminated against is certainly a problem.  A good example is the health sector where certain parasitic elements of our population are net beneficiaries of the misery of those in the population needing treatment.  However, as long as this population, admittedly smaller and weaker than the rest of the community around them at any given time, feel powerless that is exactly how they will continue to be treated. They may not have “critical mass,” but if they can convey to the balance 90%+ of the population that every one of them will at some point of time be part of that 10%, the message will be conveyed and will galvanize the currently-indifferent into action.  If that sounds like a simplistic strategy, take a good hard look and the logic of it will be only too apparent.

The foregoing is but one example of a “reality” that we can and must change. Goodness knows that readers will be able to come up with scores more of similar examples.

I don’t remember who said it but the words carry as much weight today as they did then:  “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” We are all workers of this world and it is about time we began shaking off the shackles of totally avoidable helplessness that keep us in thrall to the parasites parading as our saviours from some mythical perdition of their creation!

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