As Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels through Sri Lanka for the UN Vesak Day celebrations, he will speak and hear much about the teachings of the world’s greatest pacifist, Gautama Buddha. He is also certain to be mindful of Sri Lanka’s experience with war, victory, militarism, the challenges of conflict resolution, and getting to peace and reconciliation.
Eight years ago, almost exactly to the week, Sri Lanka was engaged in a brutal endgame against the LTTE. After a bloody victory that gave no space even for a civilian body count, the search for a resolution continues, egged on by the international community, including India.
Only two weeks ago, New Delhi expressed the “earnest hope” to the visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, that the United Nations Human Rights Council’s “recommendations on reconciliation in Sri Lanka would be completed with the stipulated timeframe of two years.”
That New Delhi should be advising reconciliation to a neighbour in a tough post-conflict situation is interesting. In Kashmir, India has ruled out any movement towards reconciliation “until the violence and terrorism end”. Right now, it has been made clear, there will be no change in the “muscular
Sri Lanka’s Tamil question and the Kashmir issue are not similar, many will say. Yet, the same voices will admiringly point towards how the Sri Lankan military crushed the LTTE with sheer force to “end the terror, once and for all”, and ask why India is not following the same path in Kashmir.
But if there are lessons to be drawn, it is not from the take-no-prisoners battles of May 2009 in Mullaitivu, but in the six decades of independent Sri Lanka’s history that led up to the bloody climax of the conflict. The lessons are about how a country can sleepwalk into a full-blown war with its own citizens because of a half-century of missed opportunities and many historical mistakes; how a neighbouring power can, with the help of many devices at its disposal, including domestic politics, exploit a population across the border that feels alienated, bitter and angry; how it will even provide arms and military training to sections of this population, building a monster that eventually bites the hand that fed it; and how despite the temptations, the use of muscle by a country against its own citizens may bring “victory”, because the state is always stronger, but it cannot bring peace.
One particular verse from Buddha’s teachings comes to mind: Victory breeds hatred; the defeated sleep in sorrow; the peaceful sleep happily, abandoning victory and defeat (Dhammapada Verse 201).
For more than half a century, national leaders from the Sinhalese majority reneged on their promises of federal autonomy to the Tamil minority; the repeated betrayals pushed moderate Tamil politicians towards separatism. Tamil politicians who continued to believe in national democratic institutions faced humiliation on the national stage. Young Tamils decided that their politicians could not deliver, and opted for the gun.
Most Tamil parents wanted their children to study and become civil servants, and even in the worst of times, underwent many difficulties to ensure that their sons and daughters attended school. Wailing Tamil parents sat on dharna outside militant camps where their children had been conscripted. On the other hand, the army, and sections of the majority, treated the entire Tamil people, especially if they were below 35 years old, as terrorists. There were repeated demands from Sinhalese nationalists for altering the demography of Northeast Sri Lanka where the “terrorists” lived, and some areas were “colonised”. On both sides, thousands of combatants were killed. Soldiers’ widows demanded revenge. Families of disappeared Tamils struggled to cope. Mass graves surfaced. Say what anyone will about the differences, Sri Lanka, from the 1950s through to the first decade of the 21st century, sounds eerily like Kashmir.
Conservative estimates place the number of civilian deaths in Sri Lanka in the war’s end stages at 40,000. According to other estimates, it could have been as high as 70,000. There is nothing to admire or emulate here. Big or small, no nation pays that kind of price and comes out unscathed.
In a public lecture in Colombo in 2010, the Sri Lankan civil servant, diplomat and Buddhist scholar, Ananda W.P. Guruge, spoke eloquently on the Budhha’s teachings on reconcilation. He was speaking in the context of Sri Lanka’s own post-war struggles at reconciliation, 18 months after the military “victory”, at a time when Sinhalese majoritarianism and militarism was at an all-time high.
He spoke in detail about the inscriptions on Ashoka’s 12th Rock Edict. This message from the king, who had turned into a devoted Buddhist after presiding over a carnage on the Kalinga battlefield, had four main points.
“Treating and supporting all factions alike without discrimination in the development of ‘their inner essence’ (for example, their cultural specificity); restraint in speech (vaci-guti) by not criticising the opponent inappropriately and, even where criticism is justified, by using civil language; Coming to know the point of view of the opponent or, more precisely, putting oneself in the other’s shoes; getting together (samavayo sadhu) with the opponent for consultation, compromise and consensus.”Ashoka may well have written that message for our times.
Guruge also highlighted that in the aparihaniya-dhamma, the seven principles laid down by the Buddha for preventing social, political or religious decline and degeneration of any community, the first principle was getting together regularly for deliberations. Pragmatic as the Buddha was, he understood that conflict is inevitable, but there are ways to deal with it.
As Modi seeks to strengthen India’s civilisational bonds with Sri Lanka through the common legacy of a wise man who lived more than 2,500 years ago, it is hard not to think in this Vesak week that the land of his birth has turned its back on his wisdom even as it preaches reconciliation in Sri Lanka. It is hard not to think that what Kashmir needs urgently today is a modern day Buddha.