SRI LANKA: Caste of mind and the 'silly season'
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 14, 2008
A Paper by the Asian Human Rights Commission
SRI LANKA: Caste of mind and the 'silly season'
(The cultural heritage of cruelty and repression)
In a recent statement by the Secretary to the Peace Secretariat, he refers to a series of criticism made against the Sri Lankan government on human rights violations during a period he calls the "silly season." What he has found silly are the reports of Human Rights Watch and the decision of IIGEP to quit their role of monitoring the Presidential Commission's observance of international norms and standards on human rights. Our statement is not prompted by any desire to answer the Secretariat's statement but to go into a more general issue of what is silly or serious with regard to repression. What becomes very clear in considering the issue is that within a cultural context that does not consider the existence of repression any reference to it may be considered silly and indeed even nonsensical.
Sri Lanka has such a legacy of denial of the existence of repression. This legacy of denial comes from three sources, those being: a period at least nine centuries before the British took over the whole of Sri Lanka in 1815 when basic social organization was based on the caste system; repression during colonial times; and the practices of repression in the post-colonial times, particularly from 1971 up to the present day.
Caste of Mind
By the end of the Anuradapura period the caste system was solidly entrenched in Sri Lanka as the mode of social organization within the country. The caste system was imported from India and was adjusted in such a way as to make the landlords the higher caste. This was different to the Brahmins (the priests) who were the higher caste in India. The central characteristic of caste is the prevention of social mobility and thereby the protection of the absolute power of those at the top. In the caste-based society, all power is at the top and below that there is only powerlessness. Such a relationship can only be maintained by extreme forms of repression, which becomes so much a part of the thought process itself. For anyone born outside the upper caste to think of changing his or her social status was a silly thing. And anyone who was so silly was punished with death or other forms of gross abuse so that every one else would learn how not to act in that silly manner again.
Perhaps what is meant by silly can be illustrated by two stories in Mahabaratha. One is the story of Sambuka, and the other is the story of Ekalvya. Sambuka was a Sudra, and therefore was forbidden to engage in any exercise of learning, which was in fact the privilege of the Brahmins. But he was silly enough to dream of being a learned person like the Brahmins and took a lot of trouble to become a learned person. In fact, soon he acquired as much learning and the skills of being a yogi equal to or excelling those of any Brahmin. However, he did all these things in secret so that he was able to avoid being noticed. According to the story, a son of a Brahmin died during this time and the elder Brahmin brought the corpse of his son to Rama's residence and complained that the death of a young Brahmin can happen only when someone has transgressed their law and thus defiled their order, and that it was the duty of Rama to find and the punish the transgressor. Rama immediately left in his mythical vehicle, carrying the most powerful weapon the gods had given him and looked for this person. He could not find the transgressor so he resorted to the normal custom among Brahmins of identifying each other by asking for their genealogy. When he came to Sambuka and asked for his genealogy Sambuka replied, "Sir, I am a poor man who has a thirst for learning and that is how I have acquired this knowledge and skills." At this, Rama used his weapon like lighting and slew Sambuka. The story goes onto say that devas descended from heaven and praised Rama for his defense of the divine order.
Ekalvya was a young boy who was fascinated by archery as after he saw a guru training Arjuna in archery in the fields. He sought the advice of his mother to obtain the services of the same teacher for himself. The mother explained to him that they were not of the same social standing and therefore this was an art that they were not allowed to practice. She further told him that gurus demand dakshina, which they were unable to pay. The boy refused to give up his dream and made a sculpture of the guru which he worshipped before he did the archery exercises himself which he learned secretly by watching the guru as he taught Arjuna. Soon, he became an expert archer and secretly practiced his art. One day he was meditating when he heard a dog barking, which disturbed his meditation. To regain the silence he needed for his meditation he sent a small arrow to where the noise was, which prevented the dog from opening its mouth. As this was happening, the guru and Arjuna were passing by the place. Having examined the dog, they were convinced that only a very great archer could do this and such a one seemed to be near. This meant that there was someone around who excelled Arjuna and even the guru, which aroused their jealousy. They looked around and found the boy and the sculpture in which the guru recognized the image of his own face, about which he questioned the boy. The boy, seeing the guru, worshipped him and begged him to teach him also. The guru, using this situation, promised to teach him if he were to give his dakshina immediately and the dakshina he demanded was the right thumb of the boy. According to the story, the boy immediately obeyed the teacher, and thus lost his thumb and thereby, also his capacity to be an archer.
Both these stories can be further supplemented with tens of thousands of similar stories in actual life from India as well as from Sri Lanka. The suppression of what were called the low caste was the main function of the upper caste, particularly all those who were to exercise any role of leadership in the upper caste. The origins of the modern Sri Lankan elite are those families who played this role within the Sri Lankan society in the past. During the colonial times, some families from outside the traditional families also entered into this group by acquired wealth, due to opportunities that became available in colonial times. However, once within, they also acquired these caste-based habits, which were part of the many centuries of Sri Lankan social life.
In these circumstances, the suppression of those outside the privileged group was not recognized as repression at all. In fact, it was recognized as ethically the right thing to do and the way to keep harmony in society. The idea of harmony and order was to protect the privileged from facing any challenges. Those who dared to challenge were silly fools who had to be put in their place. Such was the idea of silliness within that social and cultural context. No amount of modern education has helped to alter this deeply held cultural attitude from among the descendants of these families, who even up to this date maintain, for the most part, the more powerful positions in Sri Lankan society. Therefore, it is not surprising that anyone pointing fingers to repress someones habits in Sri Lankan society is being considered silly, and if the critic is a Sri Lankan, then this silliness is reacted to with violence which goes a long way to explain the violence that is used on journalists, political dissidents, human rights activists and anyone who dares to be a critic. When it comes to foreigners, like Human Rights Watch and the IIGEP, it is simply not possible to extend the same treatment that would have been extended to a Sri Lankan; therefore their criticisms are dismissed as merely being silly.
This mindset explains also why no real dialogue takes place about any matter of importance within Sri Lankan society. When there is a mental incapacity to distinguish what is serious and what is silly, it is no longer possible to have an intelligent discussion on anything. Your opponent is silly and therefore he should be dismissed as such. And if he insists on his position, he should be punished. Therefore what is the need of any discussion? This mindset has gone a long way to make Sri Lanka a divided society. Every community is divided within itself and each community is set against the others. Divisiveness has become the most prominent cultural characteristic of Sri Lankan society and the foundation for such divisiveness, created during the post-colonial times, still remains the major foundation of Sri Lankan culture among both the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
Under the Portuguese, Dutch as well as the British, every form of resentment against the colonial occupation and every form of protest was crushed with complete ruthlessness. The atrocities during these times demonstrate that there was no idea of punishment based on any norms or standards observed in dealing with dissent. Among the many rebellions crushed, the 1918 rebellion and 1948 rebellion against the British stand out prominently. Thousands of people were killed, villages were burnt down and paddy fields were destroyed, in order to instill fear in anyone who would think of any form of rebellion in the future. The killing of monks and the destruction of Buddhist temples was also part of these attempts to get across the message that to think of rebellion is downright silly and would be dealt with absolute ruthlessness.
The elite of the colonial times acted as collaborators of the British in crushing all these rebellions and generally acting as informers about any form of protest against the British rule in the country. Like in India, in Sri Lanka too the British learned to rely on these elites for the purpose of social control of their colony. Thus, though the caste-based traditions were somewhat undermined during the colonial times, they continued to remain a powerful force in controlling people's minds as well as controlling the society.
Though the British introduced rule of law and a judicial system, their operation was restricted by the imperatives of the colonial system. Naturally during a colonial regime it was not allowed to have the supremacy of the law in a way to undermine the colonial power. This same applies to the independence of the judiciary. As a result, though professional classes grew during this time, receiving liberal education in schools here and abroad, their liberalism was limited to matters which did not challenge the interest of the empire. There caste of mind also remained. Whatever liberalism they learned was like drops of water falling on a banana leaf.
With the achievement of independence the colonial imperative disappeared. However, the new elites that came to power were victims of the same heritage of pre-colonial times and colonial times. After a few years of independence, when protests grew in the country, the local elite began to resort to the same patterns of repression as in the past. The crushing of the minor rebellion of 1971, killing over 10,000 persons, suppressing the second JVP uprising, causing around 30, 000 disappearances and perpetuating widespread torture, creating torture chambers and mass graves, and since 1978 up to now, large-scale killings of the Tamil rebels, as well as the most ruthless killings by the rebels themselves was an expression of the long-established habits of resorting to the most ruthless forms of violence in the face of conflicts. The idea here is not to go into details of such violence, but only to mention the continuity of long established habits and routine of violence in dealing with protest.
In modern Sri Lanka too, the spokesmen for various regimes have denied the existence of any form of repression. The large scale killings in the south as well as in the north are treated in the same way as in the past and such treatment is considered quite the thing to do. In fact, the spokesmen for various regimes and also the spokesmen for the police and the army have talked of such acts even as acts of heroism and patriotism.
Within such a state of mind there is no place for remorse or regret. In fact, there are many among the educated classes who praise the particular military and police personnel involved in such killings in the south as well as in the north and east as being protectors of their society.
Since there is nothing for remorse or regret, there is nothing also to investigate or to prosecute with regard to such actions. The denial of investigations into all the events since 1971 is no matter for surprise. The practice of investigation can develop only when a society develops the acceptance that some kinds of actions are wrong and therefore they have to be prevented. Investigations as a part of the process of punishment are useful only if there is such recognition of wrongs and also there is such an attempt to eliminate such wrongs. If all these acts which are considered crimes elsewhere are merely good deeds of the security forces then they need to be praised for doing these. There is no basis to blame them. Thus, it is a silly thing to be worried about all these so-called violations. If some foreign fools refer to them as violations and Sri Lankan may be blamed internationally for such acts, then some way must be found to satisfy these fools. The approach to all sorts of investigations through commissions as well as the speeches made in international forums are merely pandering to something from outside and there is no serious interest in any of the allegations that anyone might make on these matters. These commissions and the associated international diplomacy is a theatre of the absurd.
As long as a society cannot distinguish between what is serious and silly due to being imprisoned in the habits of mind inherited from the past no real ethics can develop within that society. As long as there is no moral and ethical foundation there is no special condemnation attached to murder, torture and any form of abuse. That is what becomes starkly manifest through the writings of the spokesmen for the Sri Lankan governments who try to deny or in fact, poo poo the allegations of human rights abuse. Caste of mind remains the curse of the country.