|Sunday, 14 April 2002|
Peace: Shadow or substance
Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake
The dawning of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year finds almost everybody genuflecting before the shrine of communal harmony. Hosannas to peace emanate from the most unlikely mouths ranging from politicians to businessmen, peace marches are undertaken, peace relays are being run and in the vanguard of the cavalcade is the electronic media for which everything is a commodity and to paraphrase Oscar Wilde nothing is of value unless it bolsters the credit side of the balance sheet.
While peace, harmony and all those high-sounding words which make us feel so contented are devoutly to be wished for, the question surely is whether the conditions have been prepared for these esoteric concepts to be given flesh and blood. Are our people ready, both Sinhala and Tamil, to adjust our minds to accommodate the other in our scheme of things? Or do we still remain fortified behind the walls of prejudice and the ramparts of suspicion which decades of communal disharmony have built up in our minds?
If that is so the peace and the harmony which the panjandrums of politics, the captains of commerce and the moghuls and the smart alecs of the mass media are trying to foster can not but be an artificial construct, a fragile hot house plant, which will crumble or wither when faced with the actual conditions of life.
The point is that the decades of alienation which the National Question has bred on the political and social level have been destructive of those human relationships which in the last analysis give a meaningful shape and form to life and the transactions between human beings which constitute life.
No MoU or Roundtable Conference, no exchange of letters or White Paper can be of any use if the individual Sinhalese and the individual Tamil (and we might as well say the individual muslim as well) can not accept the other. As long as mutual suspicion and distrust exist between the communities all the exertions and the posturings on the political level will be so many vain shadows.
Gone are the days when the Tamil man was treated as the character in H. C. N. de Lanerolle's 'He Comes from Jaffna,' a thrifty man, preferably a Government clerk with a bright son to educate and a daughter for whom he has to begin collecting the dowry.
A whole set of cliches grew out of both the man and the terrain from which he came. The man was fond of 'murunga' and he lived in a territory fenced off by cadjan. Thrifty the Jaffna man might have been but he was also hospitable. Hence the memories nursed by so many middle-class Sinhalese in those pre-Tiger days of enjoyable visits to Jaffna, bathing at Keerimalai and festive repasts in which that ultimate delicacy 'kool' figured high on the menu.
Gone also are those days when a different class, the English-educated upper middle-class or the countrys new sahibs were able to recall in a nostalgic miasma those palmy days when Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher used to occupy the same class room and play on the same field the white sahib's games of Cricket and Rugger. But as Regi Siriwardena, surely our most senior and distinguished literary critic, has pointed out repeatedly the only common bond between them was the English language and class interests, both the Sinhalese and the Tamils produced by Royal, St. Thomas' and Trinity belonging to the upper bourgeoisie.
But both middle-class bonhomie and upper middle-class solidarity were destroyed by the manouverings of politicians who had inherited another British legacy, namely parliamentary democracy. However that is not our main theme today. Undoubtedly the Sinhalese and the Tamils are both paying the price of their captivity to the political system but what of human relationships? How can we repair the damage done to human relations by the iron laws of politics or is it even possible?
The question then surely is how the people, Sinhalese and Tamil alike, survive in spite of the politicians. Let the politicians parley but finally it is we who have to live as a people or sink. Is co-existence possible or separation (whatever name you might gave it) inevitable? Again this accommodation among people has necessarily to transcend the hum-drum transactions among the power brokers.
But this is precisely the crunch. Because the new generation which we are faced with is vastly different to those upper class gentlemen who played Rugger or those middle-class Government clerks who bathed at Keerimalai. On a visit to Jaffna in 1995 during the period of the PA Government's cessation of hostilities agreement I discovered that even Tamil Chelvam, the LTTE's admittedly charming political wing leader had never travelled out of Jaffna. Inevitably he thinks all Sinhalese are blood-thirsty monsters (unless later visits from the South have been able to convince him to the contrary) while you can discover any number of Sinhala youth who consider all Tamils to be Tigers.
How then do we bridge the gap? That should be the question to be posed to those who would like to pretend that peace is something which can be obtained by waving a magic wand or communal harmony something which can be easily fixed. A distrust which has been bred over the decades will not be easily dissipated and certainly not by football matches or musical shows. These are at best man-made constructs but how do we give them the flesh and blood which alone will guarantee the survival of all our people?
How do we lend a substance to the shadow, how do we finally tear asunder the now throughly obsolete cadjan curtain and incorporate Jaffna as part of ourselves although I fear that even now the shadows are lengthening around us.
The more potent factor is language. Chelvanayakam was able to speak to Bandaranaike and Amirthalingam to Jayewardene in English. But today if anybody wants to speak to Prabhakaran he has to speak in Tamil and Tamil only. And there are no Sinhala politicians (or for that matter any Sinhala media people) who have an adequate knowledge of Tamil to speak to him. The only exception perhaps was the Late President Premadasa but even he knew only colloquial Tamil.
Produced by Lake House