Colombo, July 22 (newsin.asia): Against the worrying background of attempts by extremists to tear Sri Lanka apart on ethnic and religious grounds, the Minister of Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages, Mano Ganeshan, has brought out an excellent book showing Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious island – a vibrantly colorful mosaic which was known in ancient times, quite appropriately, as “Serendib” or the Golden Island.
“People generally think that there are only 3 to five communities in Sri Lanka, but there are 19 of them,” Ganeshan told select journalists here on Friday.
The 367 page tome, entitled People of Sri Lanka, published by the Ministry of Coexistence, delineates the history, culture and contributions of each one of these 19 communities with photographs and illustrations.
It was released at a function attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Leader of the Opposition, R.Sampanthan, and the Speaker of Parliament Karu Jaysuriya. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was represented by the former minister of National Languages Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Artistes from the various communities performed to the delight of the vast gathering at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall.
“It is noteworthy that the country’ top leaders were assembled at the function endorsing the need to build bridges across ethnic divides,” Ganeshan said.
The book was released against the backdrop of the majority Sinhalese claiming that they should have primacy in the island on the grounds that they are indigenous and are the majority community; and the Tamils wanting an exclusive enclave in the North and East on the grounds that they are distinct from the Sinhalese. Extremist Buddhist organizations question the Muslims’ indigenous character on the grounds that they allegedly owe allegiance to the Arab world and its culture rather than to those of Sri Lanka.
Challenging the Sinhalese claim to be the only indigenous people, Ganeshan recalled that the putative progenitor of the Sinhalese, Prince Vijaya, came from Bengal in India. He was first married to a local tribal girl and subsequently to a Tamil princess from Madurai in South India. It is also said that 700 of Vijaya’s fellow émigrés also married Tamil princesses from India.
Over the centuries since the arrival of Vijaya, communities from various parts of India, Arabia, Europe and East Asia, including Indonesia and China, had arrived and struck roots in Sri Lanka. These groups not only coexisted peacefully but contributed to the culture of Sri Lanka through symbiotic process, Ganeshan said.
Founder’s Hopes Belied
The Minister recalled that the founding father of independent Sri Lanka and its first Prime Minister, D.S.Senanayake, had envisioned a future for his country based on the coexistence of these various communities.
“Our country is made of numerous linguistic, ethnic and religious communities. We have to get the best out of all, blend and march forward as a nation and reach the world communities,” Senanayake had said at independence in 1948.
Coming to developments since independence, Ganeshan regretfully said: “Somewhere along the road we missed the direction given by the Father of the Nation and picked the line of isolation from each other’s ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities in Sri Lanka. We permitted our children to grow in an environment that considered diversity as rivalry and as a weakness. We also started looking at the world community with annoyance.”
Change of Course
But a difference is noticeable since the change of regime in January 2015. There is a growing acceptance of diversity now, Ganeshan said.
“Today we have learned from our past mistakes .We consider our diverse colorful nature not as a weakness but our great strength. We have started looking at the world communities as our friends and contributors to our successes.”
Ganeshan is of the view that Sri Lankans of all communities think of themselves as Sri Lankans first and as Sinhalese ,Tamils, Muslims or Burghers next.
“I am an Indian origin Tamil, and am proud of it. But I am a Sri Lankan first. There are extremists in all communities, but they are a minority everywhere,” he said.
Ganeshan recalled an interesting meeting he had with the fiery Sinhala exclusivist Buddhist monk, Ven.Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) at his office recently, in which he convincingly disproved the monk’s contention that the Sinhalese are indigenous to the island and the others are outsiders.
Ganeshan quoted the much respected ancient Buddhist chronicle the Mahawansa to show that the Sinhalese are of mixed Indian and local origin. An embarrassed Gnanasara Thero asserted that that particular part of the Mahawansa is not based on facts. But Ganeshan convincingly argued that the monk could not be selective in the use of the chronicle which is acknowledged as a major source of Sri Lankan and Indian history.
Referring to the book People of Sri Lanka, Ganeshan said that it is meant to kick off a dialogue between the various communities and identities in Sri Lanka in line with his mandate as the cabinet minister of National Coexistence and Dialogue.
“We hope that it will broaden the peoples’ understanding which is needed for ensuring equality and mutual respect,” Ganeshan said.
Friendship With All
A spirit of accommodation pervades not only in the domestic sphere but also in Sri Lanka’s external relations, the Minister said.
“We are accommodating China as well as India. While we are on the verge of reaching an agreement on the Hambantota port with China, we are keen to sign an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India to exploit India’s huge market. The Indian market is very important for Sri Lanka. The proposed FTAs with China and Singapore are basically aimed at manufacturing for the Indian market making use of the FTA with India,” Ganeshan said.
(The featured image at the top is that of Mano Ganeshan, Sri Lankan Minister of National Coexistence Dialogue)