The IDPs, the Church and Social reconstruction

“Jesus was a man of the people who had to go into the Temple and throw out the established church fathers, the money bags, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The overthrow of the LTTE is also the opportunity to clean up the Tamil society, over-burdened by its colonial and Shavite elites, untouched by 20th century egalitarianism.”

By Sebastian Rasalingam

(September 03. Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Mr. Lanka Nesiah, writing in the opinion column of the Island (28-august-2009) has attempted to explain some of the politically easily misunderstood remarks of Bishop Duleep de Chickera. I thank him for bringing out the background details. However, the issue is not in the details but in the political fallout ignored by Mr. Nesiah and the Pious Bishop, within the big picture of the so called "national problem". It is this big picture, and the place of the church that I wish to discuss in this reply to Mr. Nesiah.

The big picture, i.e., the long term problems of our country and our communities has got crystallized into the short term problem of the IDPs stranded in the Menik Farm. This is particularly evident from the Island editorial of the 29th of August. It seems that one reason for the consternation of some Tamil politicians like Mr. Ganeshan is that the ruling party is winning favors with the IDPs via the government's approach to the IDP problem! That is, the opposition is worried that a substantial number of IDPs approve the present approach!

There are several classes of IDPS. There are the well to do who have got caught in the tidal wave of the war. They have the means to go to courts and get themselves extricated. Indeed, if people have a place to go, and if they are not suspected of subversive activities, then they should be free to go. Bishop Ranjit Malcolm, the newly crowned Prince of the Church, has called for the immediate release of the IDPs. If each IDP family had on the average five members, then 300,000 people imply 60,000 families. Families having children who may have been LTTE cadre are most suspect. However, if we have 100 senior detectives and their staff reviewing and following up the antecedents of each family, and if each family takes three working days of review, the whole process would take 200 working days. In some cases the three-day review would indicate the need for further review. However, the 180 days that the government has asked for review and re-settlement of the IDPs is, in my opinion, perfectly reasonable.

The possibility that the IDPs could be released in 180 days arose because the Armed Forces freed them from the clutches of the LTTE. If not, they would remain under the LTTE jackboot for many years to come, just as they have been since their ejection from Jaffna in the mid 1990s.So, the church fathers and the Tamils in particular must be thankful to the Armed Forces. They have, be it due to Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism or what ever, demolished the biggest tragedy that befell the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran was a criminal who hijacked the legitimate nationalism of the Tamils and used it to create a fascist organization based on terror for the Tamils and Sinhalese. This is a great moment which should have been celebrated by the Tamils even more than by the Sinhalese.

And yet, such celebration was denounced as "triumphalism". Bishop Ranjith Malcolm uttered no words of praise for the liberation of the Vanni by the Armed forces. Bishop Malcolm used the hallowed celebration of the Madhu effectively to send the political clarion call that the pro-LTTE diaspora has been sending. This is why I was so disappointed and sensed an effective "catu-varkkam" by the political incomprehension of the church. Understandably, the church, just like civil society, will have its pro-LTTE as well as anti-LTTE individuals. However, the church fathers are supposed to be more politically aware and sensitive.

When Bishop Chickera called for the use of Killinochchi wine in church rites, he may have been innocently and simply thinking of using the wine fermented by the girls of Karuna Nilayam. But then, the Bishop has to be utterly insensitive to the political realities of the country, and such prelates should stick to the cassock and not get involved in politics. In effect, when Mr Nesiah asserts that the Bishop "never met Prabhaharan and has therefore never had occasion to refer to the personal qualities or characteristics of that gentleman", he is making a politically very incorrect statement about the "gentleman" who has been found guilty of murder and much more by the Indian High court as well as the Supreme court of Sri Lanka. It is this political blindness which is the tragedy of the contemporary Christian and Catholic churches of Ilankai.

The church came to this country with western colonization, both as a liberator and as an invader. Today, it can continue to play the role of the liberator to the full, if it can align its moral and political sensitivities with the majority of the people, who are the down-trodden and oppressed. The early Christian missions in Jaffna did a singular service in fighting against the hierarchical caste system based on the Hindu Manu Dharma that ensured that a powerful minority maintained the rest of the North and East as serfs. However, when the westerners left the church in the hands of the "-pillai class" of Church fathers, old hierarchical ideas came back to our society even within the Christian church. As a child attending a Christian school, I had to carry around my low-cut stool from class to class as low-caste children could not sit like other children. While Chelvanayagam's Maradana resolution of 1949 and the TULF resolution of 1976 in Vaddukkoddei insisted on the rights of Tamils against the Sinhalese, they ignored the abject discrimination that existed in Tamil society itself where many Tamils could not work in dignity, send children to suitable schools, worship where they liked, bury the dead like everyone else, buy land locked in by Tesavalam, or even draw water from a well.

Those are the true aspirations of ordinary Tamils. This situation existed even in 1980, and the only good thing that came via the destruction brought in by the LTTE was the dismantling of this traditional hierarchic system.

The left movement of the south had a very strong egalitarian influence in Sinhalese society where the churches were less powerful. The trade union movement and the agrarian reforms like the paddy-lands act, estate nationalization etc., changed Sinhala society immensely. The socialists were in the fore-front in proposing Sinhala and Tamil as equal national languages. And yet, Tamil society rejected the socialists. The church, strongly present among the English educated Tamils throttled the left movement and embraced the racism of Samuel J. V. Chelvanaygam, E. M. V. Naganathan (claimed to be "Royal family of Jaffna") and other Christians. Exactly as in South Vietnam and Latin America, our church fathers buttressed the rich, powerful western oriented elite class and forgot about the poor Tamils. Even today, Bishops Malcolm Ranjit and Dulip de Chickera have failed to shake off their shackles and listen to the voice of the poor people.

Jesus was a man of the people who had to go into the Temple and throw out the established church fathers, the money bags, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The overthrow of the LTTE is also the opportunity to clean up the Tamil society, over-burdened by its colonial and Shavite elites, untouched by 20th century egalitarianism. The way forward is via the formation of a multi-ethnic society, by a Tamilazation of the South and a Sinhalization of the North. Here the church can help rather than hinder. But before the church can help, younger grass-roots prelates have to spring up and take control. Commercial development, rapid transport and communication between the North and the South, and land reform where Tesavalam and other caste-discriminatory legislation are removed are a must. The church can be a motive force in social reconstruction and liberation if it goes back to the Christian principles of Jesus himself. Instead of ex cathedra statements about "releasing the IDPs immediately", the church can cooperate with the authorities, celebrate the defeat of the LTTE, and help our people as well as Christianity by developing some basic political acumen, preferably without Killinochchi wine, to avoid fermenting misunderstandings.

-Sri Lanka Guardian