Sri Lanka: A politics of conscience

In Sri Lanka, racist and religious fears were and are used to hack away at broad democratic rights and freedoms.

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Sri Lankan youth during the in-famous 'Aragalaya' [Photo: Special Arrangement]

Hey, c’mon, come out, wherever you are

We need to have this meeting, at this tree

Ain’t even been planted yet.”

June Jordan (Calling on all minorities)

On August 14th 2006, Sri Lankan air force bombed an orphanage in Vallipunam killing 61 schoolgirls. The Rajapaksa administration insisted that the location was a LTTE training camp and the victims were child soldiers. Independent reports, including by the UTHR-J, confirmed that the victims were students taking part in a non-military first aid programme organised by the LTTE.

Once the civilian nature of the victims became incontestable, Colombo could have acknowledged a mistake and apologised. Instead the regime doubled down on its child soldiers claim. The incident caused an uproar in India, but no ripples in the Sinhala South. For most Sinhalese, this killing of 61 schoolgirls didn’t matter because they were Tamil. It was possible to be anti-LTTE while condemning the crimes by the Lankan military; anti-separatism could have gone hand in hand with pity for all victims of the war. But that path of justice and compassion was one most Sinhalese – and Tamils – opted not to take.

Marione Ingram survived the Holocaust as a German Jewish child. When the US Congress censured Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib for her opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza, Marione Ingram called Ms. Tlaib a hero. Ms. Tlaib’s opposition to the war in Gaza is not anti-semitic, Ms. Ingram pointed out. “It is pro-human being.”

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” So begins the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated 75 years ago. The Declaration was inspired in part by the horrors of Holocaust. The basis of the Holocaust was the tribalist, anti-universalist belief that not all humans were equal and that some humans were less human than other humans, that they were sub-human (Untermenschen), more like animals. This belief of superior and inferior humans was a Nazi and a Fascist staple but not a Nazi or Fascist construct. For centuries, it had informed and shaped the imperialist project, from Europe to Japan. Just five years before the UN declaration, as the Bengali famine of 1943 was killing one to two million Indians, British officials in India pleaded with the Churchill administration to release food stocks. Winston Churchill’s only response was to send a telegram asking why Gandhi hasn’t died yet. Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery called PM Churchill’s indifference to Indian deaths ‘a Hitler like attitude’.

Fascism didn’t die with Benito Mussolini or Nazism with Adolf Hitler. The foundational principles of their politics exist in other places and other movements including ones claiming to be anti-fascist/Nazi. In June 1948, a group of prominent Jewish Americans (including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt) wrote a letter to the New York Times pointing out that Menachem Begin’s newly formed Freedom Party preaches an “admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority” and is “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy, and social appeal to Nazi and Fascist parties…” Sounding eerily prescient, the letter states, that from the Freedom Party’s past actions (especially the Deir Yassin massacre, in which civilian inhabitants of this Arab village were massacred by Zionist paramilitaries, including Begin’s Igrun group) “We can judge what it may be expected to do in the future” (https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/einstein/1948/12/02.htm). Freedom Party was the forerunner of Likud, which is currently headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the genocider-in-chief in the war on Gaza.

Most of the writers of this letter belonged to the Jewish left. For them principles of justice and equality mattered more than tribal loyalty. As philosopher Susan Neiman points out, “…the idea of universalism…once defined the left; international solidarity was its watchword… What united was not blood but conviction – first and foremost the conviction that behind all the differences of time and space that separate us, human beings are deeply connected in a wealth of ways” (Left in not Woke). Last month, members of Jewish Voices for Peace briefly occupied the Statue of Liberty under the banner, Never again, for anyone. That universalist worldview, which places front and central the irreducible humanity of all people, is the only solution that can save us from ourselves, be it within national boundaries or globally, from incessant wars to climate change-driven mass extinctions.

Can they suffer?

The 2023 movie The Zone of Interest provides an account of the normal and happy life of the family of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, a bucolic idyll lived just outside history’s most notorious death camp, in close proximity to gas chambers and crematoria. The victims next door didn’t matter, because they were not seen as human. Animalization of Jews by Nazis facilitated the holocaust, Jay Geller points out in Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews. Today, Israel is copying that Nazi playbook, dubbing all Gazans ‘human animals’ unworthy of protection, consideration, or pity.

One of the earliest evidence of this de-humanisation of the enemy could be found in the 5th Century CE Lankan chronicle Mahawamsa (The Great Chronicle). After defeating the army of Tamil king Elara, Sinhala king Dutugemunu is troubled by the enemy deaths he had caused. The monk-author of Mahawamsa has a group of monks assuring the king that his conscience need not be troubled: “From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been killed by thee…The one had come unto the (three) refuges and the other had taken on himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts…” A dynastic conflict is recast as a religious one, unbelievers are de-humanised, and their mass murder made religiously correct.

The Buddha taught otherwise, preaching against the taking of not just human life, but any life. As the Dhammapada points out, “All fear punishment; all fear death. Comparing oneself with others, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.” The dehumanising of non-Buddhists by Mahawamsa is the tribal counterpoint to the Buddha’s universalist teaching. Though Sinhala-Buddhist children memorise that Dhammapada stanza, it is the Mahawamsa attitude that guides their lives.

The resultant dichotomy was evocatively portrayed by Lankan Muslim poet and linguist Prof MA Nahuman, in response to the 1982 burning of the Jaffna Library by government sanctioned thugs. The poet dreams seeing the Buddha’s blood-drenched body on the steps of the Jaffna library. When agitated ministers ask the policemen why they shot and killed the Buddha, they reply, “Without killing him/It was impossible to harm a fly…” (http://groundviews.org/2012/06/01/the-burning-of-the-jaffna-library-31-years-on/).

When Israeli defence minister (and the supposedly moderate) Yoav Gallant declared a total blockade of Gaza, claiming that the deprivation of food, water, and fuel was the way to fight ‘human animals’, Prof. Nahuman responded with another poem Oru Palestina Kural (A Palestinian Voice) telling the Israeli government, “People with a sense of justice world over are rising against you…” (https://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/?p=83257).

To feel a sense of justice, there must be a sense of solidarity, birthed by a sense of commonality. What could be the connecting thread? Soul? Reason? Consciousness? But all these are nebulous, debatable. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham offered a better yardstick in deciding moral acceptability of actions: the question, he wrote, was not whether the victims could reason or think, but Can they suffer? He was speaking of non-human animals but it would work fine with human animals as well, we, the descendants of apes.

Victims of the Hamas attack of October 7th suffered; victims of Israel’s Gaza onslaught suffer. The suffering of one group cannot be used to erase the suffering of the other group. Black July cannot be used to justify the subsequent Tiger atrocities any more than those atrocities can be used to justify attacks on civilian Tamils by Lankan forces. But it was precisely what happened, both sides using other’s crimes to justify, efface one’s own crimes. It made the war more brutal than it need have been, and claimed lives that could have been saved.

Similarly, not only is the Holocaust being used to justify Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza but also to silence and punish dissenters in Western societies. Nobel laureate and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei is a prime example. The Lisson gallery in London has put on hold an exhibition of his work indefinitely for tweeting “The sense of guilt around the persecution of the Jewish people has been, at times, transferred to offset the Arab world.”

The biggest victims of this tribalism of suffering happen to be dissenting Jews, who are being demonised by Israel and its allies as self-haters, and even denied their Jewishness. The ceremony to award the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought to Masha Gessen has been suspended because the Jewish author compared Gaza to a Jewish Ghetto under Nazi rule. Post-October 7th Masha Gessen visits Berlin’s Jewish Museum, watches a video of Kibbutz Be’eri and thinks of “the thousands of residents of Gaza killed in retaliation of the lives of Jews killed by Hamas” (In the Shadow of the Holocaust – New Yorker – 9.12.2023). But Israel, the US, and Germany demand that one thinks only of the Jewish victims and not Palestinian victims.

This demand would be familiar to Hannah Arendt who wrote that Zionist leaders ‘overlooked’ the native Palestinian population because Jews regarded Arabs as “backward people who did not matter.” A fierce critic of ‘tribal nationalism’, she considered the project of setting up a Jewish state in Palestine without Arab consent stupid; and warned that if the Zionists succeeded, “social experiments would be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would centre around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war.” She also criticised Jewish violence against native Arabs as “plain racist chauvinism” that would cause a new wave of “Jew-hatred” in a population that was never anti-Semitic in the European sense (Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age). Commenting on the Arendt Prize controversy, The Guardian quoted an unnamed academic saying, “Hannah Arendt wouldn’t get the Hannah Ardent award in German today.” Just as the Buddha wouldn’t recognise Sinhala-Buddhism and Nazis would feel a sense of familiarity if they heard of the experience of Mohammed Odeh, the 14-year-old Gaza boy arrested and tortured by the IDF; Israeli soldiers wrote numbers on the arms of the detainees and young Mohammed’s was 56. Unlike the Nazi tattoos they will erase, but the dehumanising, mechanising intent is the same.

The dehumanising of the enemy, and the atrocities committed within that context are often justified in the name of hard-headed realism. But in the end, such realism is self-defeating because it leads to repeated conflicts, militarised states, and populations starved of economic goods in the name of national defence. A poorer world in every sense of the word.

Resistance of Conscience

Last week, at a press conference of labour leaders in front of the White House, the United Auto workers (UAW) demanded an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, pointing out that “From opposing fascism in WWII to mobilising against Apartheid South Africa and the CONTRA war, UAW has consistently stood for justice across the globe…” Indeed, when Walter Reuther was elected UAW president in 1946, he argued that the labour movement must think beyond their immediate gains and involve itself in larger causes, from environmentalism and civil rights to nuclear disarmament. When Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists were arrested in Birmingham in 1963, Reuther sent two union representatives with 160,000 dollars in cash to bail them out. This was Black civil rights was not a popular cause among whites, including the white working class. Ignoring the possibility of white backlash, Reuther became the only white speaker at the March on Washington.

Principles counted; conscience mattered. Politics of resistance must encompass both. Or else, Change could head in a worse direction rather than a better one.

            From Ferguson to Palestine, occupation is a crime, a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Berlin proclaimed. Developing such a sense universality means being able to hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts together. It means condemning the Hamas attack on civilians and Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza; opposing Iran’s incarceration of Nobel laureate Nargis Mohammadi and Israel’s detention of author-activist Ahed Tamimi for forwarding ‘hate speech’ and 12-year-old Kareem Ghawanmeh for throwing a stone at the IDF. Criticising the tribalism of Jewish extremists (starting with PM Netanyahu and his allies) is not anti-Semitism; criticising Hamas’ misogyny is not Islamophobia (similarly one can condemn anti-Muslim racism in Sri Lanka, while also condemning the backwardness of Lankan Muslim leaders who cling to a MMDA which is far more retrogressive than personal laws in many Islamic majority nations; a minority cannot credibly claim equality only for its males.) As Amira Hass said on Democracy Now, it is possible “to be emotional and rational, to be appalled by what happened on October 7th but also to say that history didn’t begin on October 7th.” Freedom from the river to the sea must be freedom for all the residents of that geographic space, Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, men and women, minorities of every kind.

In Sri Lanka, racist and religious fears were and are used to hack away at broad democratic rights and freedoms. In the midst of the war on Gaza, Israel Supreme Court has banned anti-war demonstrations. Oppression is universal in its essence even when it seems tribal in appearance. Resistance cannot be less so. As the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin said “We will win the battle for rights for gays, or blacks, or Hispanics, or women within the context of whether we are fighting for all. You have to all combine and fight a head-on battle – in the name of justice and equality – and even that’s going to be difficult.” Identitarian politics can only weaken. The only obstacle standing between Israel and the obliteration of Gaza is not Hamas or the Islamic world; it is the world.  

Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

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