Colombo, January 20 (Ceylon Today): “Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka: An Unfinished Story” by veteran Indian journalist Apratim Mukarji (Konark Publishers New Delhi-Seattle 2019) updates Sri Lanka’s “lost opportunities” to pull together, solve its national ethnic question and move on to making itself a genuinely integrated democracy.
Almost everything written in the 214-page book is meticulously sourced and presented in a reader-friendly and stylish way by Mukarji who had served in Sri Lanka as Correspondent of the New Delhi-based daily Hindustan Times for six years in the 1990s.
But what he has written is not on the events of the 1990s but what happened since. He had visited the island several times, breathed its air, and sensed its mood in-situ, although an overwhelming reliance on secondary material is apparent.
Although the contents are gloomy and the forecast for Sri Lanka is none too bright, “Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka” is a very useful chronicle of, and a reference book on, recent events in the island nation. It even has a bit about the follow up on the April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday bombings.
As the title “Unfinished Story” suggests, Mukarji sees Sri Lanka has an evolving phenomenon with new factors coming into play. He has touched upon the entry of China and the impact of that on Indo-Lankan relations. Relations with India had been the pivot of Lanka’s foreign policy till the advent of China in 2010. He has also written on the new phenomenon “Islamophobia”.
The author has critiqued the performance of the “Yahapalanaya” or the “Good Governance” regime led by President Maithripala Sirisena Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe between 2015 and 2019 and predicted the return of the nationalist Rajapaksas to continue the Sinhala-majoritarian trend in Lankan politics.
The book suggests that Sri Lanka’s foreseeable future will be a fascinating interplay of continuity and change and therefore, well worth watching. This reviewer is sure that Mukarji, who has already written two books on Sri Lanka, will return to write more.
A quote from Luxika Nagendiran (Isolation) sums up Mukarji’s dismal assessment of the current situation and the future of Sri Lanka: “I too have my dreams and desires, but my only visitor is disappointment.”
The prologue is titled: “ Sri Lanka: A Suicidal Plunge”. After recounting the events running up to the Presidential election, the author concludes by saying: “ The Tamils, Muslims and Christians have sensed the coming of bad times and they are definitely free of any illusion. Sri Lankan history contains too many tell-tale lessons for them to make any further mistake.”
In the Introduction, where the author describes the failed October 2018 coup, staged by President Sirisena against his own Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, he says that even that failed coup which tarred the image of former President and short-lived Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, actually helped the latter as it brought out the deep cleavage in the ruling coalition between the United National Party (UNP) of Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of Sirisena.
In the chapter entitled “”Counting of Wounds” the author talks about Rajapaksa’s tactics to stage a comeback. Noting that the Rainbow Coalition government depended on support from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) formed by the Rajapaksas, started linking the TNA with the LTTE and spoke about the revival of the LTTE in the Tamil-majority Northern Province with the help of the TNA. This absurd allegation was combined with some solid work at the ground level by the SLPP in the Sinhala-dominated areas in the South.
Under the leadership of Basil Rajapaksa, former Economic Development minister under his brother and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLPP was mapping out the needs of villagers throughout Sri Lanka. Data on each and every village was collected under the supervision of experts. They were computerized and interpreted by experts. With such detailed data, the SLPP hoped to cater to the felt needs of the people if and when it comes to power. Even the government would not have such comprehensive data at the click of a mouse.
In the chapter entitled “Why do wounds fester?” Mukarji talks about the growing tension between Hindu Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims. He perceived some North Indian influence among the Hindus which sharpened the existing Tamil-Muslim divide. Like the Sinhalese Buddhists, the Hindu Tamils were developing a fear psychosis about a “sudden attack” by the Muslims. They were also wary about Muslims setting up their own university which they suspected could be a Wahabi Trojan Horse to prepare students for a Jihad of sorts.
In the multi-ethnic Eastern Province, a coalition of Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese was talked about to resist alleged Muslim expansionism. Commenting on this, Mukarji says: “A veritable communal cauldron, far more complex than what had been experienced so far, could well be on the boil.”
The sharp divide between the Tamil North and the Sinhalese South is described in fascinating detail in the chapter entitled: “Colombo and Jaffna- One Nation, Two Worlds.” The disdain that the Northern Tamils have for Colombo’s path to reconciliation through development of war-destroyed infrastructure is expressed in a quote from Luxika Nagendiran.She writes in “Voice of an old woman on victory day”: “One day we too will celebrate our Victory Day. Not your demolitions and reconstructions, but our freedom to honor without fear.” The reference was to the ban on the Tamils’ mourning their dead including LTTE cadres on “Martyrs’ Day.”
Mukarji says that while Sinhalese and Muslims had also been killed in the war and LTTE terrorist bombings, Tamils had suffered more casualties and “so, the issue of delayed transitional justice carries a much deeper sense of agony for theTamils.”
Mukarji quotes a report of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice to say that despite some “significant improvement” in the human rights situation under the Yahapalanaya government after 2015, “much remains to be done to break the legacy of authoritarianism”. The report warned that the “measures adopted by the Sri Lankan security agencies in the name of preventing violence may in fact be hastening its return.”
There is a whole chapter on Islamophobia. It is the most recent addition to the witches’ brew. It is a fresh challenge to the Sinhalese leadership but Mukarji’s assessment of what might happen is not very encouraging. “The call for peaceful coexistence may never be heeded”, he warns. “Reconciliation: Hopes fading away” is the heading of another chapter.
Mukarji deals with Indo-Lanka relations with special emphasis on the dispute over fishing rights and China’s appearance on the horizon challenging a long standing Indian monopoly over Sri Lanka.
Based as it is mainly on secondary material interspersed with personal interviews with minority and liberal persons, the book, like most others by foreign authors, is somewhat one-sided. The materials garnered for the book are from the English language media which generally reflect the concerns of the minority Tamils ( and lately of the minority Muslims too). Therefore, the book, like most others in the English language, does not take into account the majority Sinhalese’s views and arguments, fears and apprehensions, and hopes and aspirations, though it is the majority Sinhalese’s view of themselves and their place in the island, the region and the world, which have determined State policy in Sri Lanka ever since universal adult franchise was introduced in the island in 1931.
An empathetic appreciation of the majority community’s psyche is necessary to find a realistic, homegrown and durable solution to the communal question in Sri Lanka.
(The picture at the top shows Tamils demonstrating on the issue of the missing. They feel little has been done to trace the war-time missing youth)