President, Non Compos Mentis? by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“….the paragon of transgressors, the man who holds nothing sacred and who fearlessly assumes every from of hubris”. – René Girad (Violence and the Sacred)
It was a moment of ultimate self-exposure. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reply to Al Jazeera-interviewer’s question about anti-minority violence revealed a mindset and a worldview which is not quite lucid: “There were incidents. There were attacks; some incidents. What was in the background? Why were they attacked? Now see a girl was raped. Seven years old girl was raped. Then naturally they will go and attack them whether they belong to any community or any religion. The people when they heard about it they were so upset, relations everybody. There were incidents like that. All incidents have some background to that”1.
The President is lying, again. Child rape is rampant in Sri Lanka, but there has been no incident of a Sinhala-Buddhist child being raped by a Tamil/Muslim/Christian, up to now. Even the fecund imagination of the BBS has failed to come up with a lie so deadly. The Sinhala-Buddhist extremists who instigated the attack on Pepiliyana ‘Fashion Bug’ used a false rape story to incite anti-Muslim hatred, but even they did not place the age of the alleged victim at seven, as the President of Sri Lanka unblushingly did.
The Presidential lie is worrying. But his thinly veiled attempt to justify the recent spate of anti-minority violence is terrifying. President Rajapaksa could have condemned the anti-minority violence, at least from a rule-of-law angle. He did not. Instead he tried to render the attacks on minorities valid and understandable by labelling them acts of just-retribution. He indicated that the minority-victims were attacked because they committed some heinous crime, a la child rape. Wasn’t that a tacit endorsement of mob violence and vigilante-retribution? Given this climate of official-approbation, is it surprising that Sinhala-Buddhist thugs (lay and ordained) feel unafraid to take law into their hands? (In the latest such incident, a mob in Athurugiriya accused three women of the non-existent crime of ‘conversion’, tied their hands and handed them to the police).2
So in Presidential eyes, the alleged crime of a Tamil is a Tamil-crime, the alleged crime of a Muslim a Muslim-crime and the alleged crime of a Christian a Christian-crime. When a Tamil/Muslim/Christian allegedly commits a crime, his/her community becomes guilty by extension. And the Sinhala-Buddhist extremist mobs, in their self-appointed role of Nemesis, have the right take to punish these ‘transgressors’, sans a legal-trial let alone a legal-conviction. .
That was how the Black July happened.
Karl Dietrich Barcher in his analysis of the Nazification of German society called it ‘the proliferation of insane notions’3. When such deranged notions as ‘minorities were attacked because they were child-rapists et al’ are articulated and diffused by the President himself, wither heads Sri Lanka?
Demonising the Victims
Demonising the victim is a very old vice. The entry for ‘Negro’ in the 1798 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica reads, “Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race…. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion…”4 How else could the ‘civilised West’ justify the unimaginable horrors it visited on Africa and Africans? The ‘lascivious/murderous/criminal Jew’ who preyed on Germans in general and German women in particular was a staple of Nazi ideology and propaganda.
The fact that President Rajapaksa made the child rape accusation in an interview with an international news channel, for a global audience, is particularly telling. Clearly the President does not think the child rape charge is too outré, but regards it as logical, possible and eminently believable. It is fairly certain that Mahinda Rajapaksa has not heard of either Julius Stericher or his atrocious Der Stürmer. But he seems a perfect-fit for that victim-baiting milieu, going by the élan with which he brandished the ‘child rape’ charge.
According to Theodore Adorno, “One of the most sinister features of the fascist character (is)…the paranoid tendency of projecting upon others one’s own violent aggressiveness and then indicting, on the basis of this projection, those whom one endows with pernicious qualities”5. The habit of demonising the victim seems visceral to Rajapaksa rule. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa used the charge of terrorism to justify the attempt to expel all North-Eastern Tamils from Colombo lodges in 2007. In a recent policy statement, de facto CJ Mohan Peiris reportedly justified the mass-eviction of Colombo’s poor by accusing them of criminal tendencies: “Low income earners in the city of Colombo resort to various vices because they have no proper housing facilities. Illegal acts such as narcotic rackets are evident in this environment…”6 (clearly the urban poor will never get justice from this court). In any normal country, such an obviously classist statement by the apex judge would have caused a tremendous uproar. In Sri Lanka, both the polity (including the Opposition) and the society responded with a deafening silence.
Mohan Peiris’s utterance is a curious echo of a previous statement attributed to another appendage of the Defence Ministry: “Intelligence units have revealed that the crime wave in the country is centred in the Apple Watte area of Maligawatte, Dinamina reports. According to the police the Apple Watte area has been identified as a main drug trafficking centre in Colombo. According to the Police Environmental Unit, the positioning of the houses in the areas provides a secure environment for criminals to evade the law, the newspaper further reports….”7
The people of Weliweriya were accused of being Tamil Diaspora/NGO pawns. The Rajapaksas would not hesitate to demonise even members of their own core-constituency when it is in their political/pecuniary interests to do so.
Just after he tagged the ‘child-rapist’ charge onto the victims of anti-minority violence, President Rajapaksa praised Sri Lanka as a happy haven for its minorities: “Because in Sri Lanka this is the only country that I think Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Christians all are practicing their religion without any any any issue”8. The implication is that Sinhala-Buddhists never attack ‘good’ minorities; therefore any minority-victim of Sinhala-Buddhist violence is ‘bad’ by definition, and deserving of his/her fate.
All civilian Tamil victims of the Fourth Eelam War became ‘Tigers’ under the ‘Zero-civilian casualty’ principle.
All urban poor who will be rendered homeless will become ‘criminals’; any peaceful demonstrator who is attacked by the army/police will become a ‘traitor’.
And all the disappeared have either gone abroad or eloped!
In a pluralist country civic peace cannot be, if differences are liable to be criminalised. This does not mean that people have to like each other’s lifestyles/approve of each other’s beliefs. They just need to develop a sense of tolerance, a live-and-let-live attitude. Such a spirit of benign acceptance becomes especially difficult in times of economic hardships. As living-conditions worsen and their place in the social order is undermined, people tend to seek some certitude in their primordial identities. In such times, people become more superstitious, more wedded to their primordial myths and more intolerant of their fellow citizens who believe in different myths.
When such a perilous land is led by men of unsound mind, who diffuse deranged notions about the ‘ethno-religious Other’ and justify anti-minority violence, can it escape an infelicitous future?
3 The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure and Consequences of National Socialism.
4 Quoted in ‘Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggle for Freedom and Rights that made the Modern Western World’ – AC Grayling
5 Wagner, Nietzsche and Hitler
7 Sri Lanka Mirror – 20.3.2013
8 To justify his own record, the President said that in a country which he does not want to name, ‘109 mosques were destroyed” when a soldier was murdered on the road. He was clearly referring to the beheading of British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby. Subsequently several mosques were attacked, but none was destroyed. http://www.muslimnews.co.uk/newspaper/top-stories/british-soldier-hacked-to-death-mosques-attacked/. President Rajapaksa is either an inveterate liar, habitually misinformed (and never bothers to check the veracity of his information) or incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.
– Sri Lanka Gaurdian