COLOMBO: There are indications of political maneuvering behind efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore.

The rising number of incidents of hate speech and local level acts of violence that appear to have communal undertones has prompted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to issue a strong statement that received national coverage.

In her statement she noted the rise of hate speech in Sri Lanka in the recent past, which challenges the initiatives being taken by the government to heal the country after decades of bloodshed and destruction. She said that “Hate filled expressions and actions by groups with vested interests, resulting in demeaning, denigrating and inciting violence against fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious backgrounds has no place in Sri Lankan society.”

Video footage of religious clergy engaging in vitriolic attacks on those of other ethnic and religious groups has gone viral on the social media.

Ethno nationalist organizations have been engaging in hate campaigns and intimidating those of other communities at the local level. Most notably in the North and East, there are clashes being reported on inter religious grounds. There are many incidents of religious clergy getting involved in expansionist projects, such as religious conversions, destruction of ancient sites or building places of worship in areas where they are less numerous.

It is important that the government acts without delay to utilize the law to mete out legal sanctions against those who seek to gain political advantage by accentuating the divisions in society.

President Maithripala Sirisena has publicly stated that anyone who violates the law would be dealt with by the law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, there are also tensions that arise between the communities due to a failure of communication. A different approach is required in these cases.

The Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation A H M Fowzie is making arrangements to hold programmes to promote national reconciliation. Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said that all ethnic and religious groups are welcome to participate in the dialogue. He said various groups, including the Bodu Bala Sena and Ravana Balaya, had agreed to participate in the effort to resolve issues through dialogue.

In July this year there was a clash between Tamil and Sinhala students at Jaffna University. The immediate cause of the conflict was whether a Sinhala cultural dance could be added to a welcome ceremony for incoming first year students. The student association decided against it and opted for the traditional Tamil cultural dance only. This led to a violent clash. One of the outcomes was the temporary closure of the university and departure of Sinhala students from Jaffna due to their fear of further incidents. However, the quick intervention of the government, and notably President Maithripala Sirisena who got the student leaders on both sides to meet with him, enabled the restoration of normalcy.

In addition the university administration decided to ensure that the healing of relationships between the Tamil and Sinhala student bodies should be of more sustainable nature. Therefore they organized a relationship building exercise for the approximately 600 students of the science faculty who had been involved in the clash. They sought the services of external facilitators who were from the National Peace Council and Centre for Communication Training.

I was one of the team of facilitators. It seemed to be a daunting task as the student body was a large one, and there could be hardliners amongst them who would scuttle an effort at reconciliation. The prospect of this large number of students, who had already clashed before, turning hostile during an event meant to promote healing of relationships was a possibility. Students with their energy and idealism can both be a constructive force for change or, if they get suspicious or provoked, can be disruptive.

However, this worst case scenario did not materialize. The students did not show any sign of aggression. The 500 or so students who did attend the programme came in good spirits and left the same way. About half of them were Sinhala students, with almost the same number of Tamil students and a lesser number of Muslim students (in the ratio of 4:3:1).

As part of the day’s events the students received a crash course on non-violent communication and thereafter were divided into 45 groups of 12 students each. In order to ensure a maximum of interaction between the different communities, they were assigned to the groups that were mixed by ethnicity (Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim) and by their years (first year, second year and third year).

It was clear that the students appreciated the opportunity to interact with each other in a structured way. If they had been left to themselves, they would probably have interacted only with their own community members. But when they were put into mixed groups and asked to discuss between themselves they did so with interest and zest. They were asked to give answers to three questions: what were the burning issues they faced, what could the university authorities do to address them, and what could they as students do to help resolve those problems.

As most courses in universities are now conducted in the English language, the discussions took place in English. Each group was asked to choose one member of their group to come up onto the stage and present the outcome of the discussions to the rest of the student body and to the members of the university administration who were also present.

The main issues highlighted by the students in their group presentations related to the need for better infrastructure facilities for their studies. None of the ideas put forward by the students were immoderate or unreasonable. They were not confrontational or hostile.

This suggests the value of engaging in dialogue with others and consulting with them before problems become aggravated. It is important that the university authorities are responsive to the needs of the students and to their dreams. Even a swimming pool is not too much for the state to invest in students who will form the backbone of a plural, educated and cultured nation.

(Cover Photograph: File Picture)