The call made by Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara for banning all political parties carrying ethnic or religious labels will be endorsed by all right thinking Sri Lankans, particularly those who shun all forms of racism.
Addressing a media briefing the other day, the Minister said political parties based on ethnic or religious lines should be removed from politics. He said there is an existing agreement between Sri Lanka and Israel with regard to recruitment of workers from Sri Lanka to work in that country.
“We send workers according to that agreement but some people within Parliament talk about sending workers to Israel with a racial overtone. It is an attempt to rekindle racism in this country. When elections are scheduled to be held next year some political groups are trying to use racism again for their own benefit with the intention of increasing their number of votes”.
In fact prior to this, even the former National Elections Commission (NEC) Chairman too wanted to de-list political parties bearing ethnic/religious labels. For some reason, this did not happen.
Like the Minister noted, since 1956 political parties have been using racism to further their political ends. This not only sowed the seeds of ethnic tensions but also was the chief cause for the multiple communal riots witnessed in this country.This not only estranged people on ethnic and religious lines but also dealt a crippling blow on the economy not to mention the brain drain witnessed with every ethnic backlash.
All politicians are guilty of using racism to score politically over their rivals preying on the gullibility of voters belonging to all ethnicities. Politicians who are unable to convince voters on matters of policy or ideology have been taking the easy way out by whipping up ethnic/religious sentiments.
In fact, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga pleaded forgiveness from the public for the folly of her father in introducing the “Sinhala Only” policy. The move shut the door on English education for a majority of youth, the consequences of which were seen in the 1971 insurrection chiefly due to unemployment, with job opportunities shut to a majority due their lack of English knowledge. The policy also isolated us from the world of knowledge for long years with the country paying a heavy price.
The advent into politics of members of the Buddhist clergy too was an equally unwise step. Equally unacceptable was the formation of a political party in the East that carried the label of the Islamic faith, tying the voters to that religion. When that party was formed in the late eighties, its Supreme Leader even went to the extent of declaring that a vote against his party was a vote against Allah.
It is in this manner that most political parties, even in the South, went about their business using the “Jathiya” (community) and “Aagama” (religion) to come to power. To demonstrate their piety and fidelity to their faith, most leading politicians also regularly visited temples, churches, kovils and mosques as a vote gathering gimmick.
Unfortunately, the voters got carried away by such antics and cast their votes accordingly – matters such as education of the politicians concerned or policy programmes furthest from their minds, religion and ethnicity being the chief criteria. No wonder the country has failed to progress even 75 years after Independence.
Hence it is time that political parties with ethnic or religious labels are banned as proposed by Minister Nanayakkara. The people have been hoodwinked enough. For starters, the NEC should stop registering political parties bearing ethnic or religious identities. Steps should also be taken to strike from the Elections Register political parties with similar identities.
If this is not possible, other moves should be contemplated, such as banning such parties from using ethnic or religious rhetoric on election platforms. The country has bled enough due to the unwise and selfish motives of politicians in using communalism and religion to ride to power.
In fact, there was no need for such gimmicks since in most instances Sinhala voters have repeatedly sent politicians with minority backgrounds to Parliament. The best example was senior UNPer A.C.S Hameed who represented Harispattuwa – a Sinhala majority electorate – who beat his Sinhala rivals with massive majorities and was even elected by them in 1970 when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won a landslide to form the United Front (UF) Government. There was also the case of M.A. Bakeer Markar who represented Beruwela, who repeatedly got elected, not to mention another UNP stalwart and former Speaker M.H. Mohamed, who won handsomely in Borella – a 60 percent Sinhala majority electorate – defeating his rival from the majority community. So did Peter Kenuman who even once eclipsed Ranasinghe Premadasa in Colombo Central and also Haleem Ishaak.
All this reflects on the futility of fighting elections on religious or communal lines. Many other countries have such fringe parties which are not allowed on the national stage. A start should be made at least now to totally banish political parties with religious or ethnic labels and cleanse the country of ugly communal politics.