By Jehan Perera
During the election campaign the ruling party and its allies legitimized their call for a 2/3 majority in parliament on the basis that a change of constitution was needed to empower the future government. But there was limited information about what needed to be changed. The focus was on the 19th Amendment that shared power more equitably between the President and Parliament, protected state institutions from political interference and banned dual citizens from contesting elections. There were also references to the need to do away with the 13th Amendment that devolved power to the provinces, or at least abolish the devolved powers over police and land.
The government is now beginning to provide more information about its plans for a new constitution that would permanently alter the country’s political landscape. Minister of Justice Ali Sabry has said that the terms of Parliament and the President should be limited to five years, the number of terms of President be limited to two and appoint an expert committee to prepare a Constitution suitable to the country. Hopefully, this will be accompanied by the presentation of a process by which public opinion may be sought, as well as input from opposition political parties.
The history of constitutional change in Sri Lanka has been that a single political party obtaining a 2/3 majority has been a recipe for leaving all other parties out without taking their views into account. Thus, the 1972 constitution was drafted without taking into consideration the views put forward by the Tamil political parties. This led them to boycott the ratification process of the new constitution. The 1978 constitution too was drafted without input from the opposition parties and in the face of their opposition to its centerpiece, which was the executive Presidency. The opposition parties described the presidency as the precursor to dictatorship.
Events after the promulgation of the new constitutions in 1972 and 1978 have demonstrated that the absence of consensus in formulating the country’s supreme law can be extremely costly in terms of the conflicts they contribute towards. A similar danger exists on this occasion too. The election campaign that led to the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 was an extremely divisive one. This could be seen in the way that the electorate voted highlighting the ethnic and religious divides in the country. The threat posed by sections of the minority population to the sovereignty of the country and to the ethnic and religious majority in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings led to a campaign that voting for President Rajapaksa was the last chance to save the country.
In his inaugural address after winning the presidency in November 2019, the President addressed this issue by saying that he had been voted in to power by the ethnic and religious majority, but he committed himself to be the President of all. Much weight is being put today on this statesmanlike assertion. The general election campaign eight months later was less divisive due to the emergence of the Covid pandemic that took the primary place and affected all sections of the population in equal measure. The government’s decisive handling of the pandemic permitted the government to make significant inroads into the minority vote base. However, the theme of strong government being necessary to protect national sovereignty and the subordinate place of the ethnic and religious majority has continued to be a central one. President Rajapaksa’s policy statement to the new parliament at its inaugural sitting has reflected this reality.
The President was plainspoken in saying, “In accordance with the supreme Constitution of our country, I have pledged to protect the unitary status of the country and to protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana during my tenure. Accordingly, I have set up an advisory council comprising leading Buddhist monks to seek advice on governance. I have also established a Presidential Task Force to protect places of archeological importance and to preserve our Buddhist heritage. While ensuring priority for Buddhism, it is now clear to the people that freedom of any citizen to practice the religion of his or her choice is better secured.”
A rebuttal to this statement of the president came the following day in parliament by former Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and newly elected MP for Jaffna, C V Wigneswaran, who said, “My sole purpose in participating in this debate is to examine the effect the policy statement might have on the people of the North and East. There is no reference to the decades old problems of the Tamil speaking denizens of the North and East. The North and East whilst being part of Sri Lanka is majority Tamil speaking. It would have been ideal if His Excellency would have adopted a holistic attitude towards the island keeping in mind the necessity to view the problems of the periphery from the standpoint of subsidiarity.”
There is a concept of inclusive nationalism, in which everyone born within the boundaries of the country (regardless of race, religion, skin colour, language or culture) is accorded equal membership in the nation. The problem that the government will encounter is whether an inclusive Sri Lankan nationalism is possible when one ethnicity and religion is given priority. It will tend to alienate those who belong to other ethnicities and religions. The distinction between inclusive and exclusive nationalism is their attitude towards others. Exclusive nationalism centres upon the need to scapegoat others for the country’s social ills. This has happened time and time again in the past, most recently with the Muslims in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings but also before.
In contrast, inclusive nationalism is consistent with the politics of compromise. Therefore, it is important that nationalism should be balanced by an emphasis on equality-based pluralism for citizens. Where people of different identities share a common space, the state needs to ensure there is equal rights, equal treatment and equal protection to all its citizens. This would mean, for instance, that a Tamil speaking citizen should be provided services in the Tamil language in any and all parts of the country. This would also be the case for Sinhala-speaking citizens in Tamil dominant areas of the North, East and hill country. Such a right would not be on account of Sri Lanka being a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual country, but rather by the need to provide equal treatment to all citizens.
In balancing the imperatives of collective nationalism with equality-based pluralism for citizens, the government needs to develop champions from within its ranks to bridge the gap in understanding and trust. There will be a need to promote values of a pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in which equal opportunities and equal protection are ensured through a framework of equal rights and equitable practices. This will need to be accompanied by trust building between communities by setting up platforms for trust building to take place through enhancing and expanding the space for positive interaction and the dispelling of divisive and demonizing narratives of the other.
Whatever reservations that those from the minority communities might have had regarding the President’s policy statement, it was accepted by the parliament, including those representatives from the minority communities, without division. One of the sentences of the policy statement to parliament by President Rajapaksa was that “our ardent desire is to build a prosperous nation with a productive citizen, contented family and a righteous society.” This is a sentiment that will resonate throughout the country and all sections of the people and needs to be actualised.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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