“Us” v “them” in SA

sri lanka

Many politicians find it convenient to divide voters by religion or caste

The economist

“They,” like its cousin “them,”
sounds an innocent word. Given the wrong context, though, even a simple pronoun
can turn insidious. Since a pack of suicide-bombers, claiming to act in the
name of Islam, killed 261 people on Easter morning, Sri Lanka’s 2m Muslims have
collectively felt that turn. After a thousand peaceful years as a minority in
the island country “they” have quite suddenly become aliens, perhaps to be
tolerated, but not to be trusted. The signs of rejection can be stark, such as
when rioters have torched Muslim property. But mostly they appear by whisper
and insinuation. Lists ripple across Facebook, detailing shops and businesses
to avoid because they are Muslim-owned; rumours circulate that the free meals
served by a Muslim-run charity at public hospitals are doctored to make
non-Muslims infertile.

On June 24th officials in the
small town of Wennappuwa barred Muslims from trading at its weekly market
because citizens objected to their presence. Lending sanction to the mood, a
Buddhist monk noted on YouTube how some devotees had suggested that a Muslim
obstetrician accused of secretly sterilising patients should be stoned to
death. “Now I am not saying that that is what we should do,” the Most Venerable
Sri Gnanarathana Thero Mahanayake cautioned, “but I say that is the punishment
they deserve.”

Sri Lanka’s current, acute
intolerance is a reaction to a terrorist death cult. But it has older, deeper
causes, too. Since independence in 1951 the country has struggled to replace
the divide-and-rule of the colonial era with a more all-embracing notion of
shared citizenship. One “unifying” political trend sought to impose the
language of the dominant group, Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, on everyone else.

The second-biggest group,
Tamil-speaking Hindus, violently resisted, provoking 26 years of civil war.
Partly as a result of this failure, what has prevailed is a tacit
ghettoisation, where each of the main religious and ethnic groups lives largely
in its own space. This is compounded by a school system that perpetuates
division. Most Christians and Muslims go to “their” schools, while Tamils and
Sinhalese are naturally separated by the language of instruction. Sinhalese
students learn that the great warrior-king Dutugemunu defeated a foreign ruler,
Elara, protecting Buddhism and uniting the country.

Tamil students read instead that
Ellalanas he is known in Tamilwas a wise and just king who ruled Sri Lanka from
205bc to 161bc. As a result, the inhabitants of a rather small island grow up
knowing surprisingly little about their own neighbours. It is not just Muslims;
there are many versions of “them”. The same may be said of Sri Lanka’s
immensely bigger, kaleidoscopically more diverse northern neighbour, India.
Decades after establishing a secular constitution and abolishing caste and with
it such categories as the “criminal tribes” and “martial races” beloved of the
British Raj, India remains addicted to its habit of othering others. A simple
glance at recent headlines is revealing.

A hit-and-run driver ploughs into
a family at high speed when they stop him from dragging their daughter into his
car. Surprise! They are Dalits, formerly known as untouchables. Five men are
freed after spending 13 years on death row for murders they did not commit.
Surprise! They belong to a nomadic group once categorised as a “criminal
tribe”. Villagers tie a suspected motorbike thief to a pole and beat him to a
pulp as they force him to shout “Jai Sri Ram”, a Hindu chant. The villagers
film it all. He later dies. Surprise! The man is a Muslim, one of several score
of “them” that similar mobs have lynched in recent years.

And as in Sri Lanka it is not
just ignorant people who partition “us” from “them.” When India’s freshly
elected parliament convened in mid-June, and one of its handful of Muslim MP’S
stood to take his oath, taunting cries of “Jai Sri Ram” rose from the ruling
party’s benches. Eroding the secular basis of citizenship, the government plans
to speed the naturalization of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Christian
refugees, but not Muslims.

It also proposes prison terms for
Muslim men who practise “triple talaq”, a kind of instant divorce that the
courts have banned. Lawyers argue that such cases represent a tiny fraction of
the more than 2m Indian women mostly Hindus who have been abandoned by husbands
without support. So why not a law to protect all Indian women, rather than to
punish a few Muslim men? The answer, never stated, is that it is not a law for
us, it is for them.

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