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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont


In his thought-provoking book Revenge & Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History, Rajmohan Gandhi examines the way those two themes—revenge and reconciliationa—recur throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent. While the text is focused on the subcontinent, there are lessons for, and parallels to, the rest of the world. But for a native of this part of the globe in particular, Gandhi offers much to muse over, even to mourn.

Among many other things, Gandhi explores the roots of Sri Lanka’s seemingly endless bloodletting. He quotes the Sri Lankan scholar, Gananath Obeyesekere, who believes that his country’s tragedy is the result of a deliberate campaign carried out over many decades. The campaign sought to give political prominence to Sinhalas and their religion over other people in that country. In particular, he mentions the early 20th century Buddhist monk and thinker, Anagarika Dharmapala, as one who spurred on this cynical, destructive campaign. Obeyesekere writes that in turning Buddhism into a political weapon, Dharmapala “reaffirmed the Buddhist identity, treating Christians and non-Sinhalas as alien outsiders … [He] identified non-Sinhala[s] … for attack: the Muslims, Borah merchants and especially the Tamils, whom he referred to as ‘hadi demalu,’ filthy Tamils … [All this laid bare] the dark underside of Buddhism without the mitigating humanism of the Buddhist conscience … [M]onks are equally vulnerable. Many condone violence against Tamils and some would openly say that the solution to the ethnic problem is to kill Tamils.”

This same Dharmapala once made a speech, quoted in a volume of his collected speeches and letters, in which he spoke darkly of “barbaric vandals,” under whose influence the Sinhalese were “declining slowly away.” He wasn’t exactly reticent about who these “barbaric vandals” were, either: “Christianity and polytheism [i.e. Hinduism] are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness.” Buddhists, Dharmapala seemed to want us to believe, never do any of those things.

That apart. Just a generation ago, Sri Lanka was a country that visitors might describe as “peaceful,” a “paradise,” or “harmonious.” But decades of Dharmapala’s brand of Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism, repeated by so many others, has turned paradise into a bloody mess. Today, that country is wracked by an unending civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. It has already killed tens of thousands. As you read this, the killing continues. Life is so unpredictable, even in Colombo, that visiting cricket teams have to be guaranteed security of the kind that heads-of-state warrant, or they won’t show up.

And of course, it isn’t just killing. In early June, Sri Lankan authorities suddenly evicted hundreds of Tamils from Colombo. According to the police in a news report, this was a “security precaution … only those who had no valid reason to stay in the capital were evicted.”

As outrage grew, the evicted Tamils began “trickling back.” But even so, the mind boggles. “No valid reason to stay?” Since when do citizens of an openly democratic country—and Lankans pride themselves on their democracy—need to show a “valid reason to stay” anywhere in their country? Should the police, of all agencies, be in the business of determining who has what kind of reason to stay in Colombo, and throwing out those arbitrarily determined to have none? On June 14, I found a Lankan newspaper online whose editorial observed that the people evicted were only, “Tamils of no fixed abode, vagrants and ne’er do wells.”

Which might remind you, as it does me, of those words Anagarika Dharmapala used: “hadi demalu.” Call them dirty, dismiss them as “vagrants and ne’er do wells” … pretty soon you’re talking, then justifying, serious ethnic cleansing. You’re talking about killing. Civil war. You’re talking about the LTTE, arguably the world’s most committed, efficient, and brutal terrorists.

There are lessons to be learned from the case of Sri Lanka for at least two large neighbors to the north. In India, we must consider the implications of religious or caste hatreds, left to fester. How often have we heard of assaults on our culture from “foreign” religions? How reminiscent are phrases like “decaying away” and “hadi demalu” of sentiments expressed in India more and more openly? How many Indians have died horribly in what we dismiss too easily as “just” rioting instead of the terrorism it is? What will we do about regular eruptions of caste violence? In Pakistan, there is the treatment of so-called mohajirs, or immigrants from India to Pakistan, who arrived after 1947. So strong are prejudices against mohajirs that they formed their own political party, the MQM (originally the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, since 1997 the Muttahida Qaumi Movement) to fight for their interests. And as seems so often to happen, the MQM has itself turned to violence. Last May, it was implicated in riots in Karachi and has threatened journalists by name. It is openly referred to as a terrorist organization.

Legacies of hatreds. Indeed, the lessons from Sri Lanka are about what happens when you stoke and encourage hatred, especially along religious and ethnic lines. The result? Country after country has sunk into chaos and senseless bloodshed. Sri Lanka is hardly the first—see Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia. But circa 2007, Sri Lanka’s particular chaos just may be the world’s most intractable conflict. Nothing seems able to keep the LTTE and Sri Lanka’s armed forces from fighting fiercely. Nothing seems able to end that beautiful country’s civil war.

There are lessons. But preoccupied as they are with committing their own mistakes, I don’t know if Sri Lanka’s neighbours will ever take those lessons. So on they lurch, to their next tragedies.

And I am reminded of what the Roman philosopher Lucretius said in the first century B.C.E.: “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.” Such is the evil that religion causes.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

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