Let me put it this way through experience. I had to visit a police station recently, as I had lost my driving license. When the police officer started writing my report, the first thing he asked me (after asking my name and address) was what was my race. Without thinking, I replied "Sinhalese Buddhist" but later I asked him, "Would it make a difference what race I was? If I was a Tamil-Hindu, would you write my report differently?" He shrugged and continued writing.
That got me thinking. What does race have to do with anything? By creating divisions such as these, are we doomed to continue our mistakes of our past? It was not that long ago when a certain infamous politician came into power declaring "Singhalese in 24 hours", creating issues in school syllabuses, inferiority complexes and also creating an actual barrier between people. I have been told by many family friends, before this announcement, no one knew the difference between their neighbors except by name. We had exoduses of people migrating to foreign shores to finish their education (as they had not studied in English here); we also lost who we were.
Our language itself screams diversity. Did you know the Sinhalese language is linguistically related to Hindi, Bengali and other Indo-Aryan languages, even as far back as 1500 BC? The base language here is Vedic Sanskrit, which in turn is connected to the language family of Indo European. If we examine our past, we are an aacharu (pickle) of Indian, Chinese, Persian, European and other blood.
What does this have to do with anything I am rambling about? Recently in the news, there has been much controversy by religious groups about sacred laws that should be maintained. Ambitious wannabe-politicians and present legislators have picked up that baton and decided to run with it, for votes and popularity. What purpose does that serve us?
Although Buddhist monks have enjoyed a prominent position with the society for a long time and that the state policies were being eschewed towards Buddhism from the early days of independent Sri Lanka, political parties solely based on religious identity is a relative new phenomenon. Since the ethnic conflict, politicians on both sides of the ethnic scale have used religious symbols to cling to power and the symbols they employ creates a sense of solidarity among religious adherents and influence their followers.
Now, post conflict, we have a new power player on the scene – the Muslim front. Along with the higher population, the religion seems to have become more fundamental as certain sects become more popular. This again is attributed to creating a sense of identity within the community.
One of the major concerns regarding the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of 1951 is its failure to stipulate a minimum age of marriage for women of the Muslim community. However, for all other citizens in the country, with the exception of Muslims of course, the marriageable age is 18. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, sex with a girl under 16 years is considered to be statutory rape (i.e. considered rape even if it was consensual sex); Muslim girls don't fall under either equation, and can be married off as young as 12, with the permission of the Quazi (magistrate/ judge of the Sharia court); this is even more problematic when considering that Sri Lankan law does not recognize marital rape as a crime.
This story has been dominating our Facebook feeds for good reason - the EU has been creating pressure to improve our progress in reconciliation and women's empowerment issues. Certain members of the Muslim community have insisted this is part of Sharia law hence nothing can be done about the issue.
My question is, why is there even a discussion about this? We take pride with the fact that Buddhist temples are side by side with Hindu temples, Catholic churches and mosques. We have neighborhoods where it is commonplace to exchange wattalapan and kokis in April. Even my office gets a chicken biryani during Ramadan. Why is this only on the surface? We have taken pride in our country's diversity therefore we should be one law that is applicable for everyone. By separating the issues in terms of religion, we are leaving room for others to find issues within their cultures and create another controversy. The minute we start dividing people by ethnic and religious groups, it becomes endless and we create an unnecessary divide.
Now, don't think I am being racist. I do understand there is a fine line between speaking out loud and being controversial and I respect people's right to choice. But when it comes to creating division, I am not for this at all. At the end of the day, people have been created equal and some should not be ahead of others. By agreeing with these fundamental leaders (whether it be in politics or religion), we are allowing them to deepen our divisions. Instead of allowing these people to separate us, we should embrace our diversity. Like different rivers that converge to the same ocean, we should respect our fellow citizens' beliefs and work together as Sri Lankans and move forward.