Image: Drawing by nine-year-old child, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, April, 21st, 2019.
Let us review the facts.
1. 253 people are dead.
2. Close to 500 injured.
3. They were all people who went to attend their Church’s service on Easter Sunday or were foreigners or Sri Lankans who went to the elite hotel establishments in Colombo for Easter breakfast.
4. These blasts have happened in a country where the President and the Prime Minister are at odds with each other- the President essentially attempted to dismiss the Prime Minister from his post six months ago. This conflict is far from over and everyone knows it.
5. The blasts have occurred in a country where ethnic division, distrust and violence has coloured its history as an independent nation-state and has resulted in a war of many decades whose effects are being felt everyday by multiple communities.
6. The commitment to peace, transitional justice and reconciliation have been so ineffective that these words themselves are anathema to many citizens of Sri Lanka. Not only are there no broad-based efforts to build trust, there isn’t structures – in language, in policy, in hearts and minds or in governance to do so.
7. This carnage has happened in a country which, not unlike many others in the world (the USA topping the list) has constantly flouted the fundamental values of democracy in the name of national security while not ensuring such a security for anyone. The Sri Lankan constitution’s lack of robustness in upholding democratic principles, read along with the push for Anti-Terror laws is a glowing example of this. Unsurprisingly Emergency has now been declared in Sri Lanka (again!) and a range of provisions from the proposed anti-terror law has been gazetted within the Emergency regulations.
8. These blasts have also occurred in a context where the form of extremist radicalisation that has made its way into the post 9/11 world has taken root deeply. These extremist influences of the Islamic faith are of those that impose strict moral, repressive, patriarchal codes on those of their own faith; and/or those who believe in violence as an answer to the widespread normalised islamophobia in the world, to which Sri Lanka is no stranger even if they will now enter the world of islamophobia at a much larger scale.
9. It has also happened in the context of Hindu fundamentalist organisations that also believe in violence have taken root and are organising, which in the South Asian context pre-dates the barbaric wars in the post 9/11 world fought in the name of countering ‘terrorism’ that have in turn shaped the world we live in today. These Hindu fundamentalist forces have begun to and will increasingly work in tandem with caste-ist Tamil nationalist sentiments. Tamil nationalism that began as a voice of self-determination (even if limited and with its own exclusions of many who spoke Tamil, e.g. Plantation Tamils) has lost its dignity and stands before us as a voice that mainly mobilises the horrors enacted upon Tamils by the Sri Lankan
government as fodder for stoking violence and mistrust as a way of life and a way to understand oneself in relation to ALL – those of one’s own community as well as the ‘other’.
10. Of those ‘others’ in the Sri Lankan Tamil normative identity construction, since the 1990s, Tamil-speaking Muslims have been treated by other Tamil speaking people with the same scorn, disgust and mistrust as they do those of castes lower than themselves in the hierarchy. They use the logic and practices of caste to practice islamophobia.
11. The blasts have occurred in a context where the blatant islamophobia and militancy of the Hindu fundamentalist Indian nation state has shaped the region resolutely especially in the last decade.
None of these factors are generalizable for the world, South Asia, or even different parts of Sri Lanka. But they are truths albeit existing in their own specific local variations that affect, at this point, all of humanity and definitely the small island nation of Sri Lanka.
Last but not the least, let us return to the facts and one crucial one:
12. Information about these blasts was known to the Sri Lankan government on April 11th. Names. Phone numbers. Addresses. Exact times and addresses of where one may find the main leaders of the groups now named as responsible for these blasts. All this information was available to them. We know this because the government has said so. We also know this because as soon as they occurred the securitymechanism of the Sri Lankan state has been able to crack down on the alleged perpetrators in record time.
In a useful piece another author has asked this crucial question. Sri Lanka has many a history of inter-ethnic mistrust and hatred. But those of the Christian faith don’t feature in these narratives. For the most part they get clubbed along with the identity markers of Tamil or Sinhalese.
So then why churches?
We just need to turn to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion for our answer. They, among many other world leaders and cultural icons, have all expressed their horror at this heinous violence in the past few days. The Eiffel tower tweeted that it will turn off its light (mother earth thanks you!). Many countries had their flags on half mast including the UK. This is all for a country that saw decades of war and the last stages of the war, now almost ten years ago, that is widely acknowledged as one of the most brutal in the history of human kind (that says a lot given the wars we have seen as a species in the last century). In none of those instances did Sri Lanka get noticed. Even as they got noticed the past few days the various other horrors ongoing in the world remain unnoticed e.g. Syria.
This time however it was Easter Sunday. You can pronounce it easily. Mullivaikkal is harder to pronounce or Aluthgama. Easter Sunday is not. It is a day recognised by cultures that hold power in the world. It is a day that many around the world, especially in dominant western countries have childhood memories about, that they feel something about. So, if a ‘terrorist’ action is to ensure international attention, a Church on Easter Sunday is an excellent idea. This was the perfect way for the extremist group with local members and international support to put itself on the world stage. Mirroring this, it was the perfect way for the Sri Lankan government to resolutely enter the large-scale market of the global war on terror that is premised on Islamophobia.
What have the responses been to the carnage?
1. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the architect of the carnage in Gujarat in 2002, the killer of Muslims, and the man whose entire platform rests on eradicating ‘terrorism’ called within minutes to express his condolences and offer support in defeating those responsible. India has a longstanding history of ‘supporting’ the Sri Lankan government in defeating ‘terrorism’.
2. In the past week support to ‘defeat terrorism’ has poured in from every major powerful hegemonic nation-state in the world.
3. The President of Sri Lanka who had the information about these attacks conveniently left the country the week before while the information slipped through the cracks during new year week when all of Sri Lanka immersed itself in the holidays. And Sri Lanka takes its holidays seriously!
4. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and his boys quickly washed their hands off of it all and pointed fingers at the President and his boys. Since he has apologised and yet no clarity on such lapse in communication has occurred between different state bodies and within departments and offices.
5. Mahinda Rajapaksa the architect of the last stages of the brutal war, the saviour of the Sinhala race and the victor over the other kind of ‘terrorists’, of the decades long war quickly used this as a platform to point out that the current government was not a strong enough arm against such violence. They are butterfly men after all!
6. The whole world saw this as Sri Lanka’s entry into the world of ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the ‘war on terror’. The group got named. ISIS claimed responsibility as well with no proof whatsoever. Connections were made to groups in Tamilnadu with the same name and even some with similar ideologies. Connections have been increasingly made to the IS.
We know this movie very well. We have seen it many times. It is the quintessential Muslim ‘terrorist’ that heroes in Hollywood, Bollywood and other woods speak about in hushed and serious tones before they blast them with their guns followed by passionate nationalist soliloquies.
7. There is still some attention on the government’s lack of prompt response to avoid such a carnage. But we don’t know how long this will last. Some key persons responsible for ‘national security’ have since resigned. But is in unclear what purpose this might serve.
8. Meanwhile people of all communities in Sri Lanka, particularly in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa are afraid to leave their homes. All shops, schools and many other spaces have been shut for close to a week now and it isn’t clear when they will reopen as more bombs continue to be discovered and security measures have been scaled up.
9. The everyday islamophobia and branding of terrorists that those of the Islamic faith are habituated to in other nations of South Asia and all over the world (even Shahrukh Khan was detained for being a Khan) has begun in Sri Lanka.
The narrative of ‘Islamic terror’ is as legible and as easy to pronounce in our world today as Easter Sunday. The global war on terror is of a scale that any ‘war on terror’ that the Sri Lankan state has claimed to have fought so far cannot come anywhere close to. The Sri Lankan state has now joined the big boys club that has minted money and national pride since 9/11.
Who is feeling most persecuted in the days after this carnage?
The fear in the hearts of those of the Christian faith whose holy day has been desecrated causing deep anguish is not to be underestimated. The ripping apart of families and communities is not to be ignored. The diverse and dispersed Christian community of Sri Lanka are feeling this persecution in their respective areas and are afraid of going to a church service again. The arbitrary attack on them as a faith-group which was part of instrumentalizing them within the global discourse on terror by extremists and nation states alike is devastatingly perplexing.
As a community, just as with all countries that are today based on islamophobia (e.g. United states, but at this point the whole world) it is those of the Islamic faith who are living in fear. They are living through the curfews, curbs on communication freedoms in the name of controlling rumours and hate speech, and army on their streets (again!) with deep anguish about this brutality which has been done in their name, by few of their faith. It is also they who have been gripped by debilitating fear of backlash (fears that have begun coming true already) and intensifying of the already existing hatred towards them.
What of peace then?
There is also a whole other context to this violence. And that is of the ongoing attempts at ‘peace’ by ordinary people of the island. Core to these efforts have always been the focus on connections and relationships across communities that have enabled many to survive decades of war. These efforts have resisted generalisation about communities and identities by working on individual relationships and building trust within them. All this so people can recover from the shambles of war – social, political, economic and emotional. So much of war isn’t about death and injury alone but about how we live through it and how we live with it (its trauma, memory and history) for generations to come. ‘Peace’ for many is about figuring out how to live as much as it is about figuring out how not to die or kill. This too is the context for these serial blasts.
So, what does the blasts, the information that the government is complicit in it and its perfect fit within the global discourse of islamophobia and the war on terror do to this uphill task of figuring out how to live in ‘peace’?
It rips the core of this process and tears it to shreds.
What can we do in such a moment?
We must do what we must have been doing all along. We must remember and scream from the rooftops as well as quietly and calmly state as much as we can, that there is no such thing as a singular Muslim identity. There is no such thing as a singular Christian, Hindu, Tamil, Sinhala or Sri Lankan identity. Before you mistake this for a call for recognising humanity as one (aka la la land that no one has the luxury to inhabit and which does more harm than good), let me clarify that, as we remember the falsity and grave danger of singularity, we must also carefully learn, analyse and never forget the history of how these singularities were made and how they live on in each one of us – in how we see ourselves and the ‘other’.
Let us resist simple explanations. Let us be vigilant about easily legible narratives that fit in with the branding of terror and the war on terror. Let us hold accountable all those and all that is around us which is responsible for such inhuman (or perhaps, at this point, typically human) violence. Let us watch every word and move. Let us think carefully of what we know and do not know about our own communities and those we co-exist with and try to understand the reasons for this and learn what we absolutely must about ourselves and the ‘other’. We can’t escape our identities. So let us live them on our own terms, rigorously, with an open heart and a clear mind.
Let us find our neighbour, our friend, our lover, our child, our colleague, our domestic worker, our barber, our carpenter, our garbage collector, our priest, our shopkeeper, our auto driver, our fish seller, our beef seller, our buriyani maker, our love-cake maker, our vadai maker – and hold them. Hold them not in a fake unity and peace but with full awareness that these relationships are built on the constant effort to be self aware of the divisions that are etched in our very being and that we can choose to constantly asses and reassess them. Let us commit to complicated truths and let us commit to a deeper self-reflexive peace that is not afraid of the complex mess that is our world.
So, I am glad Mariah Carey noticed this time. But being glad for it does not mean being uncritical and unaware of the reasons why. I am afraid of the growth of violent extremism in the name of religion or any other identity. But I am more afraid of governments that are willing to enable killing for their own political gains and simultaneously ram down our throats, that the curbing of democracy is the only way towards ‘safety’- a safety that, I for one have never experienced in my life time.
The only way forward is to build relationships and to insist on the spirit of this process being infused within governance and policy to whatever extent that beast that is the state mechanism can be made conducive to it. Anything less than that will only lead to more loss of life but more importantly a numbing and shredding of souls – souls of whole peoples and lands.
In the meantime, more blood will flow. We have resigned to it, haven’t we? As much as we have to global warming and the imminent end of the earth as we know it?
But an eye for an eye does, indeed, leave the world blind. And any blind person will tell you the world isn’t constructed for them. And all the blindness with which so many amongst us walk soullessly has proved this corny saying to be true over and over again.
So, let us instead look in the mirror and let those mirrors sometimes be each other’s eyes. And let us not shy away from what we see in that mirror- the fear, the hate, the temptation to seek refuge in habitual explanations and convenient singularities. Let us also see the longing for love and peace. Let us see the histories of survival and the commitments to living in good conscience.
Either way, those of us who walk the earth now may still leave it blinded ad soul-numbed and shredded. But if we do this work now, while we are here, each one of us, everyday, in every interaction, perhaps our children can live where they can see in the future? Perhaps their souls will be at lesser risk of being numbed and shredded?
What is life without hope? And hope we must.
Drawing by nine-year-old child, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, April, 21st, 2019