How the Easter bombings left SL’s Muslims with no path forward – Part 1 | Sunday Observer

How the Easter bombings left SL’s Muslims with no path forward – Part 1

A Muslim woman talks with a police crime officer near her damaged house after a clash between two communities in Digana, Kandy. File pic: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
A Muslim woman talks with a police crime officer near her damaged house after a clash between two communities in Digana, Kandy. File pic: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Farzana Haniffa’s speech at the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Lecture in Jaffna, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the murder of the eponymous human rights activist.

I am incredibly humbled to have my work recognised as worthy of honouring Rajani’s memory. I am also aware of the context within which this choice is made and this recognition is taking place.

In the aftermath of the bombings six months ago on April 21, 2019, we in Sri Lanka are at yet another crossroads.The death of 253 people at the hands of nine young Muslim male suicide bombers has unleashed immense trauma and suffering across communities. People are struggling to come to terms with loss of life and limb, the disappearance of support structures and destruction of community.

In this context of suffering we are also anticipating the tightening of democratic space in the country ostensible to protect us from the threat of Islamic militancy.

The Rajapaksa dynasty’s attempt to keep its political project alive received what seemed like a deathblow with the failure of the coup in October 2018. However the bombings have created the possibility of their resurgence.

The opening of space for dissent in the aftermath of the presidential elections of 2015, and the possibility of progressive politics that seemed to emerge, now seem to be lost. The ability to speak again in opposition to those in power, some minimal achievements in the strengthening of rule of law, the passing of the Right to Information Act, the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons were achievements of that time.

As activists we have critiqued the minimal progress in the rule of law and accountability processes both for past war crimes, but also for corruption allegations under the current regime now coming apart at the seams.

But the transformation that we are anticipating is such that even the limited successes of the Yahapalanaya regime loom now as achievements soon to be lost. We seem to be anticipating reverting back to an overly securitised regime with a vision of development limited to spectacular material progress for the few and shrinking of democratic space for the many.

This is the shift that occurred after April 21, 2019. I find it especially important and relevant that I have been asked to speak in Jaffna, memorialising the brave and exemplary life of Rajani Thiranagama and her commitment to a struggle for justice under far more trying circumstances than those that we are facing today. Rajan Hoole speaking about Rajani on behalf of the UTHR in October 1989 quoted the following from the Broken Pamyrah,

“Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and the propagation of critical and honest positions, was not only crucial for the community but was a view that could cost many of us our lives. It was only undertaken as a survival task.”

Later on he explains these words of Rajani’s importantly, not as prophetic but as articulating the need to note a shift in the reality that Rajani’s death signaled at that time. I quote again –

“Thus in Rajani’s views, the task of expressing the truth of what is going on around us impartially, and making people feel for the tragedy became a survival task.

This is what the UTHR (Jaffna) tried to do in its first two reports. Rajani used the expression ‘creating a space’ to describe this work. She hoped that it will lead to some discussion, at least within the university, of what was happening around. She believed that sound values and anger against hypocrisy and injustice were major assets to survival.”

The UTHR report on Rajani’s death notes the shift in Tamil politics that Rajani’s work and her death indicated. Appealing to those sympathetic to the Tamil problem the report notes that it is not widely recognised that (the Tamil problem) has moved far from the simple ethnic problem that it was seen to be in 1983.

It is now one, where for the short term at least, the internal dimensions have by far overshadowed the external.

I will not say much more about the specificity of the long standing struggle that was articulated so well in 1989 by the UTHR and which ultimately took Rajani’s life. That it remains an ongoing struggle to articulate the internal critique in the face of terrible state racism and intransigence is understood.

The work that Rajani Thiranagama and the UTHR carried out were done under very different circumstances that are in no way similar to what we are facing now. While the stressors are intense and the future does not look very promising the everyday experience today is hardly the same. The kind of bravery and commitment required of Rajani and others at that time is not required of us today.

There is no equivalence. The deterioration of our situation is imminent and it is not clear what direction it may take. But it is important that we acknowledge the greater tragedy of the war years that the country as a whole is yet to come to terms with. The similarity that I will see is this: we are in need of narratives. We are in need of frameworks through which to understand what happened to us as citizens of a very flawed state but also for Muslims as members of a minoritised group.

Muslims are a group whose leaders made specific choices about how they would engage with the state and a group whose mostly male leadership still insists – despite its size and internal fractures – on calling itself one community. At this time it is crucial that ‘the Muslim community’ has a way of critically understanding what happened in April, how we are being made to seem as one and as culpable.

(To be continued in the Focus section next week)