By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
It is no surprise that ordinary people behave irresponsibly when some members of the noble profession behave idiotically! I do not blame anyone who has come to this inevitable conclusion after the faux-pas in Gampola Hospital. The idiotic behaviour of some doctors have not only brought our profession into disrepute but also inconvenienced the public; perhaps, endangered people’s lives by causing the closure of some services and, thereby, causing patients to travel far for treatment during a raging epidemic.
Whilst the many members of the medical profession fighting to save lives and controlling the epidemic are too busy to communicate with media personnel, others who are partly ‘released’ for trade union activities have ample time and are in the news all the time. At a time when the public expects them to cooperate with the government to tackle a grave public health emergency, they are busy picking holes in everything, never coming up with solutions. Further, spokespersons from different unions give differing opinions. It would be an interesting conjecture how the premier trade union of doctors would have behaved if its President had been appointed the secretary to the ministry of health!
This sort of idiotic behaviour is not the preserve of Sri Lanka. Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister lost public sympathy when he defended his chief of staff who had violated quarantine regulations at the very beginning of the epidemic. Although he did not sack his top aide immediately, he had to do so six months later.
Now comes even greater a tale of idiocy from the UK. Sky News is the only commercial TV channel, other than the public-funded BBC, to have 24-hour coverage of news in the UK and their presenters have been very tough with politicians during news conferences, especially regarding the breaches of quarantine regulations by the PM’s aide. One of Sky News’ star journalists, who presents the breakfast show, decided to celebrate her sixtieth birthday with nine of her senior colleagues breaking not one but many Covid-19 regulations. Their holier-than-thou attitude has turned out to be blatant hypocrisy!
By the way, the only thing UK does better than Sri Lanka during the epidemic is having regular press briefings with appointed representatives whereas in Sri Lanka our politicians who talk at cross-purposes, confusing the public. This was highlighted in the news item “Laboratory scientists ask govt. not to promote untested COVID-19 cures” (The Island, 10 December). President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science, Ravi Kumudesh has said “Twenty-two ‘cures’ for COVID-19 have been introduced by practitioners of alternative medicine in Sri Lanka and they were promoted by both the media and the Ministry of Health. These practitioners of alternative medicine pop up periodically and they have been given unnecessary publicity. The Health Ministry has encouraged these people and this has confused the public.” Well said!
Claims of Covid-19 cures seem to have created mayhem. Just looking at the jostling crowds struggling to receive free doses of the ‘magic potion’ makes one wonder whether what is on the way is a crop than a cure! However, that there is support for purported cures, even from the so-called intelligentsia came as a bit of shock to me but in a way.
One of my close friends, who is a former ambassador, has set up two WhatsApp groups for professionals with an interest in diplomacy and foreign relations. Whilst being very thankful that he included me in both groups, maybe because of our friendship, I have not been an active participant knowing my limitations in these fields. However, by reading the posts I have been able to educate myself by the discussions among some very prominent persons in these fields. Unfortunately, reading the comments of some others has been interesting in a totally different way; at best these have been entertaining but at worst, they have been very depressing; that some educated people show total lack of commonsense.
I am amazed by the attempts of some of these ‘intellectuals’ to propagate anti-vaccine propaganda going to the extent of stating that COVID-19 was engineered and released for the sake of vaccine business. There is no doubt that Big Pharma is out for big profits but that should not take us away from the fact that they are a necessary evil. Maybe, we should find avenues to subdue them. Most of us are waiting for the Oxford vaccine to be approved for use not only because it is a vaccine made out of modified virus than a tiny part of it but also because it is a non-profit venture with Astra Zeneca.
One of the members of the Whatapp group has forwarded a video produced by an extreme religious organisation that opposes abortion questioning the methods of viral modification for this vaccine! I am amazed at the idiocy of these individuals who fail to understand that small pox was eradicated in 1980 thanks to vaccination. Since the WHO started an initiative in 1988 to rid the world of polio, again by vaccination, the number of cases has fallen by 99%. Of the three strains of polio, type 2 was declared eradicated in 1999 and type 3 in 2012. Wild polio type 1 is still in circulation in only two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Until circulation is stopped in them, we cannot consider polio to be completely eradicated but it is within grasp. It is a pity that these pundits fail to realise the continuing damage done to many young lives by parents refusing the MMR jab based on the flawed and dishonest research by a British doctor. Measles has flared up in the West with resultant brain damage in some children.
Talking of smallpox, I am reminded of an interesting episode that occurred in late 1978 or early 1979. At the invitation of the Indian Medical Association, I attended its anniversary session held in Cochin as the representative of the Sri Lanka Medical Association. I was fortunate enough to sit on the podium just behind Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who was the chief Guest for the valedictory session. In one of the most undiplomatic speeches, I have listened to, Morarji attacked modern medicine and claimed that he had his own system of medicine which was greeted with peals of laughter from the audience,
which knew he was referring to his habit of drinking own urine! Not to be outdone, the secretary of the congress who was a Bacteriologist, decided to reciprocate by pointing out that modern medicine had just eradicated smallpox. Irritated, Morarji turned to the President and said “Is this a vote of thanks?” When the President tried to intervene Morarji said, “Let him go on”. Good old Morarji! He was in his centenary year when he died; perhaps, his system of medicine helped him!
Comments by some ‘intellectuals’ in the WhatsApp groups on the much-hyped Ayurvedic cure for Covid-19 are laughable and doubts are raised about their intellectual capacity. The one that takes the cake stated:
“Yes, if it came packed in a bottle with a western name the Western doctors who are a part of the support structure of the pharmaceutical conspiracy would have approved it as a medicine.
A medicine that has no after effects and is a pure cure is not worthy of being approved as a medicine in the country which has a tradition of over fifteen thousand years old medicinal system! Disgusting”
As I mentioned, I simply am a passive reader of these groups but had I been an active contributor, my response would have been:
“We are not western doctors; we are Sri Lankan doctors who practise science-based medicine. We are not a part of any pharmaceutical conspiracy but prescribe drugs that have been extensively tested and approved by regulatory authorities.
Without testing how can you claim that it is a pure cure and that it has no after effects?
Have you read my articles in The Island; “Peddling ‘snake oil’” (17 October), “Gone to pot” (17 November) and “Can ‘alternative medicine’ do harm?” (7 December) you would have understood how drugs are tested and approve, and also that decoctions too can do harm.
Where is the proof that we have an ‘over fifteen thousand years old medicinal system’? What we boast of as our system is a borrowed system. Remember, Ayurveda is from India!”
It is interesting that India, the home of Ayurveda, has not developed an Ayurvedic cure but one of ours has done so, inspired by a Hindu goddess! Maybe, Hindu gods and goddesses are more interested in Sri Lanka’s welfare!
Any cure is most welcome for this dreaded epidemic and if by any rare chance this concoction is proved effective, on top of saving lives it would be able to salvage our economy too. However, giving support and publicity before safety and efficacy is proved is the height of idiocy!
India at 75
By Gwynne Dyer
Last Tuesday, on the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to turn India into a developed country, within the next 25 years. If all goes well, that could actually come to pass, but it would have to go very well indeed.The demographic and economic signs are positive. The country’s population has grown fourfold, since independence in 1947, but population growth has now dropped to ‘replacement level’: 2.1 children per completed family.
The current youngest generation is so large that the population will keep growing, until 2060, when it will have reached 1.7 billion. The upside of this is that India will continue to have a rapidly growing young workforce for another generation, while its only rival, China, will have a rapidly ageing and dwindling population (1.2 billion and still falling in 2060)
India’s GDP per capita has been growing at about 5% for years, and if that continues for the next 25 years, it will have grown to $7,500 per person. That’s certainly within the lower ranks of developed countries (like Mexico, South Africa or China today). Given the size of India’s population, the economy would certainly rank in the world’s top five.
So, Modi’s prediction was certainly within the realm of possibility, but there are two big wild cards. One is climate: although only half of India, technically, falls within the tropics, all of it, except the very far north, suffers long, very hot summers.This summer has been the hottest ever, with many of the largest cities experiencing temperatures, above 45°C, for days at a time. Whatever we do about climate in the future, it can only go on getting worse for India, for the next 25 years.
That will bring the country into the zone where it literally becomes unsafe for people to do manual work outside, at the height of summer; death rates will go up, and food production will go down. Nobody knows exactly how bad it will get, but it will certainly get much worse that it is now.
The other wild card is war. Since the Indian and Pakistani tests of nuclear weapons, in 1999, the subcontinent has lived under the threat of a ‘local’ nuclear war that would devastate both countries (and also cause global food shortages lasting for at least four or five years).An Indo-Pak nuclear war is not inevitable, but, unlike the major nuclear powers, these two countries have fought real wars against each other – three in the past 75 years. The likelihood of such a catastrophe actually happening is certainly a lot higher than zero.
Each country now has about 160 nukes, and although both are now working to move beyond the dangerously unstable ‘use them or lose them’ phase where a a surprise attack might disarm the other side, there is no real stability to be found when the adversaries are so close and the hostility is so intense.So there is no harm in considering whether it might have been better to keep the entire Indian subcontinent, first united by the British empire, in one piece, at independence, rather than splitting it into two countries (and eventually three, counting Bangladesh).
The split was by no means inevitable. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two main Hindu leaders of the independence movement, wanted an inclusive, non-sectarian republic, including all of British India, although they failed to offer Muslims sufficient guarantees to ensure their support.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the main Muslim leader in 1947, did want to carve a Muslim-majority Pakistan out of the country, but there was no obligation for the British government to satisfy his demand. He got his way because the United Kingdom was virtually broke after the Second World War and in a great hurry to dump its responsibilities in India.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been east of Paris, had five weeks to draw the dividing line between the two new countries. Around 15 million people, who found themselves on the wrong side of that line, became refugees, mutual massacres followed, and within weeks India and Pakistan had their first war. But it could have been different.
The undivided ‘big India’ would have 1.8 billion people today, about one-third Muslim and two-thirds Hindu. That would virtually guarantee that both groups would be represented in every government and in most political parties.
Lots of countries, elsewhere in the world, manage to be both democratic and prosperous with comparable religious and/or ethnic differences. The ‘big India’ would not have wasted 75 years’ worth of high defence spending, and there would be no risk of nuclear war.All those energies would have been devoted instead to civilian priorities, and that united India might already rank as a developed country. Might-have-beens.
Ukraine War: Mother May I?
By Gwynne Dyer
“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”
The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.
The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”
Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.
But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?
It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.
Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.
Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.
Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.
Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.
The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.
Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity
Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation
Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran
A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication
Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz
This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.
Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.
What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.
The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.
The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’
When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.
At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.
For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.
A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.
‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.
However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.
The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.
Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.
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