September 09, 2012
Last year I travelled to Sri Lanka on work; my previous visit had been a decade earlier.The people were, as before, gentle and polite; the scenery spectacular; the roads andresidences, spotlessly clean. But the political culture had changed in the interim. An airof Sinhala superiority was abroad. A war had been waged and won; what had beenimposed afterwards, however, was a victor's peace. Instead of assuring the Tamils thattheir rights would be protected, the idea that only Sinhala-speakers and followers of the Buddhist faith were authentic citizens was being promoted. The army had notdisbanded its units in the north; there were fears that large numbers of non-Tamils would follow them and settle there.
These chauvinistic policies were accompanied by a promotion of the First Family of SriLankan politics. Photographs of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, were everywhere. His brother, Gotabaya, was making loud and threatening noises at regular intervals. While I was inSri Lanka the President's son was engaged in an electoral campaign, and the notion that hewould one day succeed to his father's office was being broadcast to anyone who cared to listen.As I said earlier, the war against Velupillai Prabhakaran and the Liberation Tigers of TamilEelam (LTTE) was necessary, and just. The Tamil Tigers were a band of bloodthirsty brutes.However, once the war was won, a wise and far-sighted regime would have reached out to theTamils. The acts of discrimination that had irked them, and polarised the country, would have been reconsidered. A key contributory factor in the disenchantment of the Tamils had beenmaking Buddhism the State religion in 1972. After the war, if that privileged status for Buddhism and Buddhists had been withdrawn, the Tamils would have begun to feel at homeagain.Religious majoritarianism combined with political authoritarianism - that, tragically, is the castof Sri Lankan politics today. In my walks and talks in Colombo last year, I was remindedsometimes of Narendra Modi's Gujarat and at other times of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi'sEmergency.The political climate in Sri Lanka today is depressing. That said, the recent incidents in Tamil Nadu, aimed at intimidating Sri Lankan visitors to the state, are deplorable. The chief minister'sstoppage of a football match, and the suspension of the official organising it, was a petty andvindictive act. Sri Lanka and India are not at war. Cultural and sporting exchanges tend toassuage fears and banish feelings of mistrust. Just a few weeks earlier, musicians and dancersfrom Tamil Nadu had performed to much applause in Jaffna. The goodwill generated by thatfestival was undone by the banishment of the Sri Lanka footballers.The chief minister's recent aggressive postures are perhaps linked to the fact that her main