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Reflections on State Racism

Reflections on State Racism

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Published by: Thavam on Oct 22, 2013
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by Izeth Hussain( October 22, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
For some time Ihave been using the term "State racism" and I have even used it for the headings oftwo recent articles. It is an unfamiliar formulation, unlike "State terrorism", and itobviously amounts to a neologism that requires explanation. I will not try to provide adefinition because practically all definitions are open to contestation, and there ishardly ever any finality about them even after a hundred definitions as is the case with"terrorism". Instead of a definition, I will therefore provide an explanation by puttingdown what I have in mind in using the term "State racism". I believe that this is ofcentral importance for getting to grips with Sri Lanka's ethnic problems.First of all there is the racism that is to be found at the level of the people to varyingdegrees. That could exist without there being any racism at the level of theGovernment or the State. But what really do we mean by the terms "Government" and"State"? By "Government" we usually mean the President or Prime Minister and hisCabinet of Ministers, the apex body from which all power flows. We can have asituation in which there is no racism worth speaking about at the level of the people orGovernment, and yet the country could be ravaged by a vicious and virulent racism. Anexample is provided by the tragic case of Sri Lanka.We have now to consider how racism could manifest itself through the State as distinctfrom the people and Government. But what do we mean by the "State" in this context?
I mean by it the President or Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers, the armedforces, the police, the bureaucracy, and the Judiciary. In other words, by "State" I meanthe ensemble of institutions through which coercive power is exercised over thepeople. The important point for the purposes of my argument is that that coercivepower could be deployed not just by the Government but by others as well, by personswho for one reason or another are especially privileged and powerful, and who can gettheir hands on to the levers of State power, or who can prevent the legitimate use ofState power. I have in mind persons such as family members of powerful leaders,politicians who are not necessarily Cabinet Ministers, members of the armed forces, ofthe Police, and others who are within the network of State power.Perhaps we should include also some who are outside that network, such as thugsand crooks of outstanding ability, without whom some nefarious jobs of the Statecannot be carried through. When such persons are racists with a racist program to beput into effect, and are given a free or fairly free hand, we get the phenomenon of whatI call State racism.
Bodu Bala Sena
The anti-Muslim campaign of recent times provides a very convincing example, in myview, of State racism in action. A protracted hate campaign went on for about twoyears, with something like nineteen web-sites going at it full blast. There was noadverse reaction from the Government. It is arguable that the Government did not wantto take any counter-action because it would then be instantly pilloried for trying todestroy media freedom. It could however have made official statements deploring thehate campaign, but it chose not to do so. That was typical because none of ourGovernments have been really serious about forging national unity. There suddenlyerupted the Bodu Bala Sena, which was quickly identified by the public as a racist anti-Muslim group. But it was given space in a Government-owned building for itsheadquarters, and the Defense Secretary made a statement warmly endorsing itsobjectives.There followed a series of anti-Muslim demonstrations, about which I will not go intodetails as they are quite well-known. Instead I will focus on just one point: the policeplayed the role of passive spectators during those demonstrations. Commonsense tellsus that there had to be very powerful persons at the level of the State who couldcommand that police inaction. There was no evidence of mass Sinhalese hatredagainst the Muslims, and certainly there was no Government decision commandingthat police inaction. It was a clear case of State racism in the sense that I haveexplained above.
Sinhalese Buddhists
It has been widely supposed that President Rajapakse and his associates are notnecessarily racist because they side with the extreme racists, and that they are doingso for political expediency and for no other reason. The supposition behind that is thata substantial majority of the Sinhalese, or the Sinhalese Buddhists, are extremeracists.But elections have shown that the JHU, widely regarded as the Party representingthose extremists, has comparatively speaking negligible support in the country. TwoIsland columnists, Jehan Perera and Harim Peiris, have noted that the recent PCelections have spectacularly confirmed that the substantial majority of the SinhaleseBuddhists are nationalist, not racist: even the traditional Marxists, regarded by the hot-hot Left as well as others as first-class jokers, have managed to win seats but the JHU,the MEP, and the NFF, which are regarded as racist parties, could not win even oneseat.
But we can be sure, all the same, that President MR and his associates who have theirhands on the levers of State power will side, not with the Sinhalese majority, but withthe inveterate racist minority among them. This is a gigantic paradox that cries out forexplanation. This paradox applies not just to the present Government but to most ofour Governments since Independence. In earlier articles I have pointed out that whilepractically all countries produce their extremists - felicitously called the lunatic fringe -the peculiarity with Sri Lanka is that here the lunatic fringe is very close to the Centre:indeed, it might be said that Sri Lanka is unique because here the lunatic fringe is theCentre.Let me provide some details in illustration. It will be agreed that both SWRD andDudley Senanayake were true-blue democratic leaders, unlike JRJ and Premadasa,who would never have mooted their pacts with Chelvanayagam unless they believedthat they would be supported by the mass of the Sinhalese people. We must bear inmind that both headed mass-based parties with extensive grass-roots networksthrough which a reliable estimate of what the people thought would have beenpossible. Clearly both believed that the Pacts would have mass Sinhalese support, butas soon as the extremists objected both succumbed to their pressure. The lunaticfringe prevailed at the Centre with the greatest ease.Consider also the period of extremist ethno-lunacy at the Centre from 1977 to 1983.There was mass participation during the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 because at that timemany Sinhalese believed that the Tamils were highly privileged at the expense of themajority. Only an extremist ethno-lunatic could have believed that in 1977. When JRJ

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