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Messages from Rajapaksa’s New Delhi visit

N. Sathiya Moorthy 

By visiting neighbouring India’s capital of New Delhi with politician-son Namal Rajapaksa and his SLPP party chief and ex-ministerial colleague G. L. Peiris, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa may have sought to send out a message of sorts, back home. The message was clear: India is no more an adversary. Nor possibly was India adversarial to his return to power, as Mahinda R. in particular had averred after his historic electoral defeat in January 2015.

In a way, the timing of the visit was as much crucial as it was not. ‘Crucial’ because, Sri Lanka for months now has been on election-mode.

The reference is to the presidential polls that are not due before January 2020 but about which speculation is rife in Colombo – motivated or otherwise.

‘Not-so-crucial’ because there is no knowing that a Rajapaksa, leave alone Mahinda R, can contest the presidential polls, for legal reasons of their own.

Yet, there is no denying the fact, and possible Indian perception, that the Rajapaksas may still hold the electoral key in their country, at least for the foreseeable future. It may not require a Rajapaksa to win the presidential polls. Instead, it may be enough for a candidate of their choosing to make their political adversaries to lose one.

Hidden horseIn Delhi, Mahinda met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and also the Opposition Congress leadership of Sonia-Gandhi and son Rahul Gandhi. It may have also been an experience in early and direct diplomacy for Namal R, who has political ambitions for the future. If Namal’s ambitions cannot fructify early on, as Mahinda told media interviewers in the Indian capital, it also owes to the incumbent Government’s 19-A, whose main aim was to deny the Rajapaksas an early chance to return to power.

As is known, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution not only reversed the Mahinda era 18-A, which alone facilitated his contesting the presidential polls for a third term after having occupied the seat already twice. By upping the minimum qualifying age from 30 to 35, 19-A also denied Namal R an early entry into the presidential poll race.

With Gota R’s unwillingness to risk losing his American citizenship unless named SLPP-JO presidential candidate, the Rajapaksas may not have a personal run in the polls race just now. The other two qualified Rajapaksas in former Speaker Chamal and ex-Minister Basil, reportedly disinclined to take the plunge, the question remains if the ‘family’ has a ‘hidden horse’ that might offer its services in the cause of the nation.

Already, there is vague media speculation about the nation wanting a woman leader, after Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga and her mother, Sirimavo, who was the world’s  first woman Head of Government. If not from within the SLPP-JO, the UNP, according to some party leaders, should experiment, fielding a woman for the presidency. Maybe, more than the UNP, the SLPP-JO may take the message – and take it forward, too.

Extending courtesiesGiven that the SLPP-JO presidential candidacy is still in a flux, the Indian reception for the Rajapaksas may not have been as much as expected. If nothing else, the Indian media did not give Mahinda as much coverage as may have been wished for. But there was still a message in it, alright!

On the face of it, India has extended all courtesies to recognized Opposition Leaders and also former Heads of State and/or Government in the neighbourhood whenever they had expressed an interest to visit India – or, had an opportunity to do so. If they were to touch down at Capital Delhi, and if the dates did not clash, the Indian Prime Minister of the day had always found time to meet up with them. So have the main Opposition party leaders of the day – possibly in consultation with the authorities concerned.

From within Sri Lanka, present-day UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wicremesinghe used to be the subject of such Indian courtesies whenever he chose to visit Delhi. It was not a hidden fact that whenever pushed to the wall in the now-forgotten internal crisis within the UNP, when he was the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil W was believed to be taking the immediate escape route, by visiting Delhi, claiming that the ‘Government of India has called me for consultations’.

This time round, Mahinda R did not require such justification or excuses. Nor are there any problems within the party for him to face-off. His internal problems within the country come from outside of his own party, from the Government leadership of the day, to be precise.
Whether Court cases and the ‘surrender of passports’, say in the case of Gota R, for instance, could deny the Rajapaksas their popularity is a question that the Government leadership, both political and otherwise, should be asking itself. You do not call of marriages or weddings for want of a missing comb, or whatever!

Not the official hostTrue, the Government of India was not the official host of the Rajapaksas in Delhi this time. Nor was any State-run agencies/think-tanks come into the picture. Mahinda R was in Delhi to address a public Interaction organised by ruling BJP Parliamentarian and former Union Minister, Dr Subramanian Swamy.

As is known, Swamy continues to hate the LTTE and Prabakaran than he loves anyone in particular in Sri Lanka. As the only Sri Lankan political leader to stand up to the LTTE and Prabakaran, ram-rod straight and stood his ground under great international pressure, Mahinda has admirers in India. Swamy is the most vocal and visible of them!

Yet, by receiving Mahinda R, PM Modi has sent out a message to the present-day rulers, and possibly the divided Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka, it is for them to decipher the meanings. Definitely, India would want a strong and unwavering leadership in Colombo, which could stand at the vanguard of regional stability and security, where both nations have a lot to share. It should stop there.

If Mahinda claimed that Indian agencies had worked with their western counterparts to have him defeated, he did change his views without much delay. At the same time, if the present-day leadership of the Sri Lankan Government think that they have browbeaten India into helping to defeat Mahinda R in Elections-2015 playing up the ‘China card’, that again was a mirage of the past – even if true, for the sake of argument.

There are no permanent friends or enemies in international diplomacy, but only permanent (national) interests. India is no different in holding on to such perceptions. If nothing else, it would now seem, the present-day rulers have given away to China more than what even Mahinda as President did not imagine.

Mahinda seemed to believe that ‘development’ may be a substitute to ‘devolution’ for post-war Tamils and to ‘democracy’ otherwise. Against this, incumbent UNP Prime Minister Ranil, who actually seems to be in the driving-seat, portrays himself and the party as ‘liberal democrats’.
For PM Ranil in particular to manipulate the Hambantota equity-swap, as necessitated by an inherited ‘debt-trap’ and yet go in for more of Chinese loans of the kind, is just not on. One cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound, and make the rest of the world believe that it is otherwise.

Less said about the Tamils and the TNA viz India, the better. By deliberately letting the ‘war crimes’ probe to be taken to the UNHRC, they helped ensure that it was out of India’s reach.

Now they too cannot complain that India was ‘not doing enough’. Worse still, their new-found, or re-discovered western friends, too are realising that they did not know Sri Lanka enough, to have meddled in there, out of growing apprehensions for China – or, so it would seem!

This commentary originally appeared in Ceylon Today.  A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.

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SRI LANKA: Crime - Something no one wants to touch

SRI LANKA: Crime - Something no one wants to touch

By Basil Fernando

One of the things that the Sri Lankan State as well as the Civil Society itself has given up on- is the control of crime. Crime has spread into everything and continues to spread further and further. However, we see that the more crime spreads, the less amenable it is for us to look into the issues and correct them.

One of the greatest crimes spreading like a cancer in Sri Lankan society today is Extortion. Extortion has spread into everything, in practice crippling every sort of economic activity, especially at the grass roots level. Running a small shop or starting a small business will be confronted with demands from extortionists. The small profits that could be made out of these businesses are not enough to meet the demands. Even a big business like the transporting of people is rife with demands from all sides. They threaten dire consequences if their requests are denied. These demands come from highly organized groups with no way of escaping their tentacles. As extortion became widespread, every group that exercised any power, became deeply involved. They focused on getting hold of their own personal share of money from such businesses. Local Police Officers, local Politicians and Bureaucrats, ALL got their share. With that kind of ambience, pro-active, preventative efforts against such crimes became less frequent.

Of course, EXTORTION is not the only crime taking place in Sri Lanka. The drug business has also spread seriously among the population. Even the people who exercise moral authority in society no longer take much interest in fighting these evils. The nature of these crimes is usually seen in a country where there is massive unemployment and poverty. It is easy to find people to become agents of such crimes. Once a section of the poor gets a taste for this crime, as a way of sometimes making money, bad things ensue. The whole situation gets so embedded in Society that it is almost impossible to find ways to fight against it. When the poor are devoid of opportunities to make a living, it does not take long for some to decide that taking risks with crime is perhaps the most convenient way open to them. Changes come in the social consciousness of the poorest sections of society. And when that happens, there are few means to deal with such a situation. As people experience being in and out of the Courts or in prison themselves, the type of change that take place within them is beyond anyone’s expression and imagination. This is HOW crime has found its way into Sri Lankan Society.

When a problem becomes too complex, attitudes tend to adjust. Officers who are supposed to deal with difficulties go through various changes in their own approaches. They take the view that if something cannot be resolved easily, just allow it to drag on. In that way, they can avoid more confrontational approaches being taken against the evildoers. They can avoid the consequences of such confrontations. They can also try to escape the blame that comes from society by attributing the delays to external factors beyond their control. The more problems like this drag on, a climate is created which encourages criminals. They know that they do not have many formidable obstacles to face when engaging in crime. Thus, we see in the Courts, in the Prosecutor’s Office as well as in the Police Stations, the development of numerous solutions to let things go dragging on as usual.

In such circumstances, other crimes, which involve greater degrees of direct violence, take place with impunity. Murder, rape, sexual abuse, theft, robbery - all these things are increased manifold. General changes in the social atmosphere where resistance to crime is virtually non-existent, are utilized.

The consequences of the above examples are most dangerous. Cynical attitudes relating to crime develop. This particularly affects crimes relating to sexual abuse. Instead of being scandalized by such acts of violence, Society takes a rather cynical approach. It even begins to place blame on victims of crime. To some, especially the young, crime begins to appear as an adventure while social condemnation of crime becomes less and less.

Basil Fernando is a Sri Lankan jurist, author, poet and human rights activist.

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Buddhist extremism: is monk Gnanasara’s jailing a sign of Sri Lankan enlightenment?

Just before being hauled off to jail, the seemingly untouchable firebrand monk – clad in a brilliant saffron robe – wanted to get in the last word.

“I have done my duty towards the country,” Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara told reporters early this month as he boarded a prison transport vehicle shortly after his sentencing in a Colombo courtroom. “Why should I regret?”

While the controversial monk expressed no remorse, his many critics were cautiously hopeful that his internment showed Buddhist extremists were no longer untouchable in a country where hatred is easily sparked in the tinder dry jungle that is Sri Lanka’s combustible religious make-up.

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Controversial Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero/AFP

The monk Gnanasara, head of the so-called Buddhist Power Force, was sentenced to six-months in jail for threatening the wife of a missing journalist, a surprise decision in a country where Buddhist extremists are not often brought to justice.
“That government prosecutors supported a custodial sentence is also positive and noteworthy, as Sri Lankan governments have been reluctant to prosecute militant monks, even when there has been strong evidence of their involvement in crimes,” said Said Alan Keenan, a Sri Lankan specialist at the Project Crisis Group in London.

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Buddhist monks at a Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force convention in Colombo/AFP

In this case the monk was not convicted of a crime involving inciting religious violence, an accusation that has dogged him and his organisation, known locally as the Bodu Bala Sena, or BBS, for years. The monk was instead brought down by the acrimonious hangover from the civil war that ended in 2009.

Some believe the conviction of the monk reaffirms the independence of the judiciary, which comes just months after Sinhalese mobs, urged on by Buddhist monks, attacked mosques and shops owned by Muslims in the central city of Kandy. An island-wide state of emergency was imposed, and restrictions were slapped on Facebook and other social  media to cap the violence. Monk Gnanasara was accused of whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment when he attended the funeral of a Sinhalese truck driver who died after being attacked by a group of Muslim men in a road rage incident.

Muslims make up only 10 per cent of the country’s population and historically the biggest ethnic fault line has been between the Sinhalese Buddhists, with 70 per cent majority, and Tamils, who are often Hindu, which constitute around 13 per cent of the population.

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Muslims, made homeless after two days of anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka’s tourist region of Alutgama, demonstrate against radical Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena/AFP

The Sri Lankan army, after a brutal war lasting more than a quarter of a century, crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 who were fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government of the day was often accused of stoking a sense of triumphalism after the war, which encouraged the rise of militant Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. But in 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena took power on promises to reinforce the judiciary, fight corruption and investigate war crimes, sparking hopes of reconciliation among the ethnic factions.

A prominent newspaper columnist, Tisaranee Gunasekara, said the case of Monk Gnanasara “reveals the degree of progress made since January 2015 as well as its limitations”.

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Sri Lankan police guard the headquarters of the Bodu Bala Sena after dispersing activists demonstrating against religious extremism and hate speeches/AFP

She noted in a column in the Sri Lankan Guardian that the monk was not being held responsible for the March riots, nor for an incendiary speech in 2014 that critics blamed for inciting Sinhalese Buddhists to attack Muslims and their property in southwestern parts of the country, leaving at least four dead and 80 injured. 

“Though elected to challenge extremism of every variety, the government’s preferred policy is a cross between appeasement and acting the ostrich,” the columnist Gunasekara wrote of the current government.

Keenan at the Project Crisis Group said Gnanasara and other radical monks faced a variety of charges involving hate speech, intimidation and incitement to violence against Muslims.

“But the cases have made little progress and there is no sign the government is willing to prosecute,” said Keenan. “As long as it hesitates to tackle the problem, the risks of more and possibly more serious violence will remain. 

Russell Blinch/SCMP

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New IRD Act will aim to achieve elusive taxation consistency

If the recently passed Inland Revenue Act is allowed to settle down and not changed every year, Sri Lanka will be able to achieve the required consistency in taxation, Duminda Hulangamuwa, Chairman of the Taxation Steering Committee of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce said.If the recently passed Inland Revenue Act is allowed to settle down and not changed every year, Sri Lanka will be able to achieve the required consistency in taxation, Duminda Hulangamuwa, Chairman of the Taxation Steering Committee of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce said.
Duminda Hulangamuwa
Duminda Hulangamuwa, Chairman of the Taxation Steering Committee of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce 
Over the years, successive governments failed to ensure the consistency of taxation due to arbitrary tax amendments. It was seen that major tax amendments were introduced mid 2017, including changes to the Value Added Tax (VAT). The inconsistency in terms of taxation not only adversely affected business planning, but also contributed significantly to the downgrade of Sri Lanka’s performance in the Ease of Doing Business index.

The New Inland Revenue Act which came into effect from April this year has introduced a three-tier system for income taxation (14%, 28% and 40%). Although certain tax experts and economists are hoping for a simplification of the taxation system, Hulangamuwa is of the view that simplifying tax laws is an over emphasized statement made too often.

“In my view any tax law is complicated and would remain so. When industries and economies grow complicated and fragmented, applying a uniform code becomes difficult, and a simple law today can develop into a complicated law later. As with everything else, the tax law will also evolve with the environment,” he said.
 
Commenting on the concerns raised by Chamber regarding the way in which export and agriculture industries were taxed through the new Inland Revenue Act, Hulangamuwa stated that concerns have been addressed to a certain degree.
 
"The answer is yes and no. According to the initial draft, these sectors would have been taxed at 14% only if the company engaged in export/agriculture had a revenue of 100% from export/agriculture. After our submissions and subsequent discussions, the requirement to qualify for the 14% tax rate was brought down to 80%.  As per the law passed, if 80% of the gross earnings of a company is from exports, then the entire profit will be taxable at 14%. The same is true for agriculture, education, tourism and IT related functions,” he added further."

Courtesy Economy.lk

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Some Thoughts On Sri Lanka’s Upcoming Presidential Election

By Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan 

Attending the late Maduluwawe Sobith Thera’s 76th birth anniversary at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, President Sirisena warned the country not to think too much about the upcoming presidential election in 2020. According to the Sunday Times (June 03, 2018) the president has claimed that “there is lots of talk about presidential candidates. That is a crime as the elections are due only at the end of next year. Already presidential candidates are being named. This will lead to instability in the country. By creating an election interest, one and a half years before the elections, the state officials will stop their work.” It is true that when changes are expected after major elections, attitude of the public-sector employees also change. This is an unavoidable side-effect of national elections in Sri Lanka. Did Sirisena unconsciously admit that he has no chance of winning the presidential election in 2020? This is an interesting question, but it is not the focus of this essay.

There has been a degree of hypocrisy in the appeal that it is too early to think about the impending big election. When President Sirisena asked the Supreme Court whether he can serve as president for six years instead of the five-year period stipulated by the 19th Amendment, he was thinking about the election. Unfortunately for Sirisena, the Supreme Court said no. Moreover, almost all major parties have started contemplating and some have already started preparing for the presidential election. Hence, it is not completely inappropriate to think about the election on our part, the ones who will be at the receiving end of any outcome of the election.

A couple of weeks back, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) presented its proposal for the 20th Amendment to the constitution. The proposal seeks to transform the existing executive presidential system into a cabinet form of government. It seems that the JVP is the only party that sincerely believes in abolishing the executive presidential system. All others who support the idea, seem not too serious about the change. They like it. Obviously, as a small party, the JVP can play a major role in governance under a cabinet system. Hence, the persistence of the JVP on this issue has not been a surprise.

Nonetheless, I expected the Joint Opposition or the Sri Lanka Pudujana Peramuna (SLPP) to support the JVP proposal. Under the existing constitutional arrangements, Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot come back to power as president. The 19th Amendment reintroduced the two-term limit. Hence, under a Westminster model of government, Rajapaksa would have no problem winning the general election and come back to power as prime minister. The abolition of the executive presidential system will resolve Rajapaksa’s two term problem. The party however decided not to support the JVP proposal. What does the decision suggest about the SLPP’s strategic calculations?

For me, it indicates that the party has been extremely confident about the likelyhood of winning the upcoming presidential election. The confidence most likely stems from the recent local government election results. The SLPP secured about 45 percent of the votes in this election. Will the same votes be recast for the SLPP candidate in the presidential election? Most likely, yes.

One, bulk of the SLPP votes in the local government election came from the Sinhala heartland, which consistently votes for Rajapaksa. Even in the 2015 presidential election, votes in the Sinhala heartland went to Rajapaksa; not Sirisena. Two, one of the main reasons which stirred a lot of dissatisfaction towards the ruling coalition in this election was the high (or in the words of some people, unmanageable) cost of living. Postelection, the government has hardly done anything to lower cost of living. Instead, as far as I know, cost of living has been increasing steadily. Hence, there is no evidence to suggest that Sinhala votes could be redirected towards the UNP or the SLFP in the near future.If this is the case, the SLPP needs only about six percent more votes to win the presidential election. This six percent could come from two sources: (1) about 14 percent votes the SLFP/UPFA gained in the local elections or the Muslim votes. In order to tap into the SLFP/UPFA votes, the SLPP needs to either appease and start collaborating with Sirisena or undertake a concerted scheme to prevent him from contesting the presidential election.

Given the animosity between the Rajapaksa faction and Sirisena, incorporating the president into the SLPP headed coalition seems unlikely. If the SLPP succeeds in convincing Sirisena not to contest, the party candidate will most probably win the election.

Another promising source is the Muslim votes. Antagonizing the Muslims through the actions of Bodu Bala Sena and other militant Buddhist entities negatively affected the Rajapaksa coalition in the last election. There have already been moves to entice the Muslims. For example, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the presumed SLPP candidate, recently stated that “Muslims are ready to work hand-in-hand with the Rajapaksas to form a government under the leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.” (Daily Mirror, May 29, 2018). He has already been attending Muslim religious ceremonies. Can the Muslims be convinced to vote again for Rajapaksas? Of course. The continuing attacks on the Muslims during the tenure of the unity government may influence at least a segment of the Muslim voters to support one of the Rajapaksas in this election. Hence, the prospect of the SLPP candidate in the presidential election looks very bright.

Only problem I sense in the candidacy of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who has been promoted as the SLPP candidate by interest groups, is the possibility of mobilization by large segment of the minorities and pro-democracy forces against Gotabhaya. His candidacy has the potential to ignite a protest vote against the SLPP in this election. Another Rajapaksa, for example, Basil may not invoke the same degree of resistance. One has to wait and see how the SLPP thinking evolves on this issue.

The split between the Sirisena faction and the UNP seems well-defined now. Parties are exchanging barbs against each other vigorously. The split means the UNP will not repeat the same strategy in the 2020 election and support Sirisena. This on the other hand means that the UNP will field its own candidate and Sirisena will not be able to secure a second term. In the local government election, the UNP gained 32.61 percent of the votes. Reaching the 50 percent mark will be an uphill task. The problems of the UNP will be compounded by the fact that the party does not have any more space to expand its presidential vote, except the Tamil votes.

Going by the recent attitude of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the party will directly or indirectly endorse and support the UNP candidate. It has about three percent solid votes, which could be translated into UNP votes. Would majority of the Tamils vote for the UNP candidate? It is absolutely clear that the Tamils will not have the same level of enthusiasm for the UNP candidate in 2020 largely due to the disappointment, which stems from the government inaction in terms of resolving Tamil issues. Also, Tamil votes will be determined by the candidate of the SLPP. The more hardline the SLPP candidate the more excited the Tamils will be in voting for the UNP candidate. Nevertheless, majority of the Tamil votes may go to the UNP candidate, which may not be adequate to reach the 50 percent mark.

One area the UNP will seriously look into is the votes Sirisena faction gained in the local government election. It needs to prevent those votes from going to the SLPP. This can, at least partially, be done by influencing Sirisena to contest regardless of the chances he has in winning the election. Therefore, both the UNP and the SLPP should be kind to the president, of course with different aims in mind.

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.  


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A 'Dalit Spring' is on the horizon

A 'Dalit Spring' is on the horizon
by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

8 Apr 2018

 On April 2, hundreds of thousands of India's Dalits poured into the streets to take part in the Bharat Bandh, or all-India strike, called by Dalit organisations across the country. The former "untouchables" were protesting against what they say is the dilution of a law meant to protect them. The mass protest, which was the first of its kind, was mostly peaceful - protesters blocked roads, participated in sit-ins and chanted slogans. But government forces and other right-wing groups were there to silence this Dalit resistance cry. They opened fire on the demonstrators. At least 11 people, most of them believed to be from the Dalit community, were killed.

The Bharat Bandh was a turning point in India's caste struggles. But to fully understand the significance of this mass protest - and the reasons why India's Dalits finally decided to take to the streets - it is necessary to analyse the current Indian government's aggressive policies and deep-seated hostile attitudes towards this underprivileged group.

Trying to preserve the caste system

The Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) together constitute more than 20 percent of India's population - approximately 250 million people. As the most underprivileged group in the country, they have long been the target of hate crimes and discrimination in India, but their situation got only worse after the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) came to power.

The BJP is an off-shoot of the Hindu fundamentalist organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS's ultimate aim is to transform India into a conservative Hindu state, in which all traditions of Hinduism, including the caste system and untouchability, are preserved. Although they do not say this openly, they are against any form of social mobility and reform in the country.

They work to protect the rights and privileges of the Brahmins (the priestly caste), the Banias (the business caste) and the Kshatriyas (the warrior caste). They also work aggressively to "protect" cows - the animal that is revered as sacred by Hindus. But they are mostly silent when it comes to the abuses the Shudras (the working class), the Dalits (the scheduled castes) and the Adivasis (the scheduled tribes) face in India.

Diluting reservations

The Dalits are scared that the BJP and the RSS are trying to dilute the system of reservations in India - an affirmative action programme guaranteeing scheduled castes and tribes reserved places in educational institutions, government jobs and even seats in parliament and the state assemblies. These reservations or quotas are justified as a means of making up for millennia of discrimination based on birth.

Over the years, this system helped underprivileged communities in India to get back on their feet and claim their rightful place in the Indian society. Reservations even allowed the emergence of a small Dalit middle class. But today, some members of the "upper" castes are extremely resentful about the reservations system and the success of this Dalit middle class.

The dilution of reservation provisions in every institution has already started. The RSS and the BJP are seemingly working to set back any progress underprivileged communities achieved through this affirmative action programme. The leader of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, who is a Saraswat Brahmin from Maharastra, has been consistently talking against reservations.

No visible Dalit has been appointed to a decision-making role in any big governmental institution in recent years. Also, Dalit students are facing a negative atmosphere in universities. The Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (The student wing of the RSS), mainly headed by casteist upper-caste youth, attacks Dalit students and questions their place in India's universities on a regular basis.

All this is happening because the BJP/RSS is against social transformation in India. They want the caste system, which classifies Dalits as "untouchables", to stay intact. They do not want the Dalit middle class to prosper and challenge their supremacy. Their policies directly oppose the ideals of India's democratic constitution.

But the dilution of the reservations system is not the only tool they use to set the Dalit progress back and maintain the social inequalities in India.

Cow protection laws

Strict implementation of cow protection laws across India has been another priority for the BJP government since it came to power in 2014. This caused alarm among Dalits and Adivasis, as they are the main beneficiaries of the cattle economy in the country.

This policy also triggered violence against Dalits, Adivasis and other communities that participate in the cattle industry across India. Hindu vigilantes started attacking people who they accused of slaughtering cows. According to the Human Rights Watch, there were at least 38 attacks against members of underprivileged communities over the trade or slaughter of cows for beef in 2017. At least 10 people were killed.

In 2016, the state of Gujarat and other parts of India were rocked by protests after four Dalit men in the city of Una were tied to a car, stripped and flogged by Hindu vigilantes, who accused them of skinning a cow.

In many cow-related attacks like the one in Una, the 1989 SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act was used to bring perpetrators to justice. Under the act, passed by the government of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, anyone accused of committing an atrocity against the members of the scheduled castes and tribes is denied bail.

Over the years, this act became a big problem for casteist forces in India who want to maintain the oppression of Dalits and other underprivileged communities. The RSS has been training its cadre for decades to oppose any form of social change and suppress any attempts to create a caste-free India, often through violence and intimidation. To continue with their agenda, they needed a mechanism to weaken the Atrocities Act and ensure the Hindu "vigilantes" who attack Dalits would not face imprisonment.

On March 20, the Supreme Court of India gave these group what they wanted by passing a verdict which barred the immediate arrest of those accused of violence against SCs and STs.

This was the last straw that broke the camel's back for many Dalits. Dalit intellectuals and activists saw this judgement as what it is: a major blow to Dalit rights and progress.

As a result, for the first time since India's independence 70 years ago, Dalits decided to take collective action.

Yet when they took to the streets to fight for their rights on April 2, the dominant forces in India responded with violence. Protesters were beaten and shot at. A local BJP worker named Raja Chaunan was filmed as he fired his gun on protesters.

But even though the protest was violently suppressed, all was not lost. This collective act of resistance showed the governing forces that Dalits are not going to silently take the abuses and discrimination any longer.

The middle class that emerged out of this historically oppressed untouchable community is now capable of understanding every step their oppressors take. And they are ready to take action.

A section of Dalits voted for the BJP in the past, because they believed that Narendra Modi, who has an OBC background himself, could improve their socioeconomic and educational conditions. But Modi has no grip over his party and the RSS and the core RSS and BJP supporters across India view the caste system as an undisputable pillar of a Hindu society. Neither organisation has ever produced literature openly opposing the caste system.

All Dalits now see the BJP government as what it is: An RSS offshoot determined to keep them from achieving real equality. And they are ready to resist its attempts to strip them of their hard-earned rights.

The Dalit forces are no longer willing to take the abuse, oppression and discrimination lying down. The way the Dalit masses came into the streets across India, waving the dark blue flags of Dalit resistance, made it clear for everyone that a "Dalit Spring" is on the horizon.

Source : Al Jazeera

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Sri Lankan bid to stop Muslim 12-year-olds from marrying

Zeenath’s parents believed it was best for girls to marry early in the event of a proposal. The 16-year-old had studied hard and obtained a government job with plans to save for a dowry, a traditional payment to the groom and/or his family. But her hopes were thwarted when her father and mother, themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty, decided not to wait.

Instead, they influenced Zeenath to quickly marry a man of similar age to her own father who was not seeking a dowry. She complied with her parents’ wishes with the aim of pleasing them, but paid a high personal price Zeenath, who uses this name to protect her identity, was assaulted regularly; a victim of spite and distorted Islamic practices, whose rights to healthcare and further educational opportunities were denied. Now she has filed for a divorce against her husband and lives with her own child at her parents’ house.

In another shocking Sri Lankan case last year involving early marriage, pregnant Thameem Fatheema Sharmila, 16, was tied to a chair and then had hot oil poured over her body before she was set on fire by her 22-year-old husband.

Sharmila had been unaware that her husband had already married twice beforehand and she suffered mental and physical abuse on a daily basis. Subsequently, Sharmila died from the burns she received.

Such cases are all too common and women rights’ activists have urged the government to officially make public a report on proposed reforms to Sri Lanka’s Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) amid plans to table legislative amendments in parliament.

However, a copy of the report, compiled by a 17-member committee established in 2009 and chaired by Justice Saleem Marsoof, was leaked and is already available on the internet.

The Marsoof report was officially submitted to Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorale on Jan. 22.

“This committee has been conscious of the urgent need to reform the law to eradicate the menace of child marriages and considered the question of fixing a minimum age of marriage for Muslims,” the report states.

It contains a recommendation for a minimum marriage age of 18 for both males and females to apply to Muslims, however this position was not adopted unanimously by the committee.

The majority committee recommendation is for the introduction of uniform marriage and divorce laws applying to all Sri Lankans, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

At present, the nation’s common law doesn’t allow underage marriages, but the law applying to adherents of the Islamic faith allows for the marriage of girls as young as 12. The United Nations and the European Union have urged the government to end such double standards.

The Sri Lankan government has signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination, which stipulates that women be afforded the right to freely choose a spouse.

Other Marsoof committee recommendations include references to the issue of greater representation of woman in bodies with decision-making powers in relation to marriage, divorce and maintenance payments.

The Marsoof report notes that Muslims have been visiting Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since at least the 8th century and that many had settled. Muslims now comprise about 9.7 percent of the population of 21 million people on the island nation. The report also makes the point that there is a “myth of homogeneity” of Muslim laws that constitutes a stumbling block to Sharia reform.

Some Muslim women’s groups also advocate reform and there have been various committees of inquiry on the issue since the 1970s.

Juwairiya Mohideen, chairperson of Women’s Action Network, said the law covering Muslim marriages and the country’s Islamic Sharia ‘Qauzi’ courts continue to oppress women and girls. Mohideen, who is also the director of Muslim Women’s Development Trust, said reform delays constitute a denial of dignity, justice and equality.

Her organization conducted a survey in 2016 of early Muslim marriages carried out between 2005 and 2015 in three districts.

In a sample group of 350 married Muslim girls, 254 girls married when they were aged 16 or 17 and 189 early marriages occurred as a result of financial factors, notably the payment of dowries.

Seven marriages had taken place only one year after girls reached puberty and there were a total of 51 marriages, in the survey group, of girls aged between 12 and 16, Mohideen said.

Father Noel Dias, a lecturer at the Sri Lanka Law College, said that the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act violates both international law and basic standards of human decency.

He accused the government of dragging its feet on the issue because of lobbying by powerful male Muslim leaders opposed to change.
“This proposal to raise the age of marriage is absolutely essential,” said Father Dias, referring to the Marsoof report.

The Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamaath, a Muslim organization, in 2016 held a protest rally against amending the MMDA to raise the minimum marriage age, but some women’s groups have demonstrated in support of reform.


Niranjani Roland/UCN

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Sri Lanka's Anti-Muslim Violence

Sri Lanka's Anti-Muslim Violence

By Sudha Ramachandran

Over the past fortnight, Sri Lanka has witnessed a surge in violence targeting Muslims, their properties, and places of worship. It prompted President Maithripala Sirisena to declare an island-wide state of emergency on March 6. Curfew was imposed and the army deployed in some of the areas worst-hit by the violence. However, attacks on Muslims continue and appear to be spreading geographically too. A Muslim-owned restaurant in Putallam district was attacked, for instance, in the early hours of March 11.

The current wave of violence was reportedly sparked by an incident of road rage involving a Sinhalese truck driver and a group of Muslim men in Kandy district in the central highlands on February 22. The latter assaulted the Sinhalese driver, which resulted in his death at a hospital a few days later. The day after his death, Sinhalese mobs went on a rampage, attacking Muslims, and burning their homes, shops, and vehicles. The violence has since spread to other districts.

 

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Sri Lanka's security forces stand near a vandalized building in Digana, a suburb of Kandy, Sri Lanka (March 6, 2018). Image Credit: AP Photo/Pradeep Pathiran.

Sri Lanka is a multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious country. Sinhalese constitute the majority (74 percent) and are mainly Buddhist; Tamils are the largest minority and are largely Hindu. The island’s second largest minority is the Muslim community, which comprises 9 percent of the population. Unlike Sinhalese and Tamils, who draw their identity from their ethnicity, religion determines the identity of Sri Lanka’s Muslims.

Violence targeting minorities is closely related to how the Sinhalese view themselves and others. According to the Mahavamsa, a chronicle written by the monk Mahanama in the sixth century CE, the Sinhalese are a “lion race,” descendants of Prince Vijaya, the son of Sinhabahu, who was born of a union between a lion or sinha and a human princess.

Mahanama wrote that Gautama Buddha visited the island three times before Vijaya and his 700 followers arrived. Hence, it was to a land sanctified by the Buddha himself that Vijaya arrived. Indeed, Vijaya is believed to have set foot on the island on the day the Buddha died. Mahanama’s skilful linking of the concepts of Sinhadipa (land of the lion race, i.e. of the Sinhalese) with Dhammadipa (the land chosen by Buddha to protect and propagate his Dhamma or teachings) has had enormous impact on Sinhalese-Buddhist self perception.

Although the Mahavamsa is more myth than fact, Sinhalese-Buddhists draw on it to justify their claim that the island belongs to them and that they are a people chosen to protect Buddha’s teachings.

An important feature of the Sinhalese that has influenced their attitude to minorities is that they are, as noted Sri Lankan anthropologist Stanley Tambiah described in his book Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy, “a majority with a minority complex.” Thus although Sinhalese vastly exceed Tamils and Muslims in terms of numbers, they feel outnumbered by them. They see the island’s Tamils, for instance, as part of the larger Tamil community in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Muslims as part of the Muslim ummah.

This “minority complex” has resulted in Sinhalese viewing themselves as victims, who have to act, even violently, to defend the island and Sinhalese-Buddhist culture from being taken over by the asinhala (un-Sinhala) and abaudha (un-Buddhist). These groups are viewed as essentially “foreigners,” who are staying on the island due to Sinhalese-Buddhist sufferance.

Violence targeting the minorities came to the fore during colonial rule. Christians and Muslims, for instance, were seen to have benefited from colonial policies. In the early 20th century, Muslim domination of the economy evoked deep resentment among Sinhalese-Buddhists. Revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala claimed that the Muslims were “alien invaders” who used “Shylockian methods [to become] prosperous like the Jews.” They had become prosperous at the expense of the “sons of the soil,” i.e. the Sinhalese, he said. Publications like Sinhala Bauddhaya and Sinhala Jathiya carried articles that were inflammatory in content and are said to have culminated in the anti-Muslim violence in 1915.

With independence from colonial rule, Sinhalese political parties vied with each other to project themselves as the guardians of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. It led to the Sinhalization of the state and its institutions, which resulted in Tamil political, economic and cultural marginalization. Importantly, Tamils and their properties were targeted by Sinhalese mobs, often backed by the state. Tamil alienation with the Sri Lankan state led to the emergence of a powerful insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

For almost six decades, the Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacist project thrived by depicting Tamils as “the enemy.” With the LTTE vanquished in 2009, Sinhalese extremists needed a new enemy to keep the project relevant. “Muslims have emerged as that enemy,” writes Nirupama Subramanian in Indian Express.

Since 2012, anti-Muslim rhetoric has surged in Sri Lanka. It has drawn on global Islamophobia but also on long-standing stereotypes of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Outfits like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have carried out a sustained hate campaign against Muslims and unleashed violence on them.

Among the accusations the BBS has leveled against the Muslims is that they procreate at a faster rate than the Sinhalese, forcibly convert Buddhists to Islam, and follow a culture that is at odds with that of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. This has fueled fears among the masses that Muslims will soon outnumber the Sinhalese and that Sinhala-Buddhist culture will be wiped out of the island.

Like the BBS, there are other extremist outfits, including the Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhale, and Mahason Balaya, that stoke Sinhalese insecurities and encourage violence by spreading baseless rumors. In the run-up to the current wave of violence, rumors were circulated that Muslims were implementing plans to reduce the Sinhalese population, with a video of a Muslim cook in a restaurant confessing to adding “sterility pills” to food served to Sinhalese going viral in social media.

It didn’t take long thereafter for Sinhalese thugs to be mobilized to vandalize Muslim homes, mosques, and business establishments.

Muslims have come under repeated attack by Sinhalese groups since 2011. Such violence is rarely spontaneous and is said to be organized and orchestrated by outfits close to politicians, including parliamentarians. Rarely have the guilty been punished.

This failure of successive governments to bring to justice those orchestrating the attacks on Muslims is fueling more and deadlier cycles of violence against them.

Sri Lankan analysts are warning that the violence being systematically unleashed on Muslims could provoke a strong response from Muslim youth. It could have “the effect of radicalizing Muslim youth and marginalizing Muslim moderates,” writes political commentator Dayan Jayatilleka in The Island. Recalling how Sinhala racists repeatedly attacked the island’s Tamils “to put them in their place” and the role this played in spawning Tamil militancy and a three-decade long civil war, Jayatilleka points out that this “story is being repeated [now] with the Muslims.”

“We have come one step closer to the emergence of Islamist terrorism in Sri Lanka,” he says.

Indeed, with every incident of violence being unleashed on Muslims and the state avoiding reining in the Sinhalese extremist outfits, Sri Lanka is giving Muslims reason to pick up arms, if only to defend themselves.

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has kept itself busy with business and trade so far. That is in danger of changing. And for that, Sinhalese extremists and their patrons among politicians and parliamentarians are to blame.

Sri Lanka is staring at yet another looming danger; its Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists are developing links with radical monks abroad. In 2014, Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk in Myanmar who has incited violence against Rohingya Muslims, offered to support the BBS in its fight against what he says is the “serious threat from jihadist groups” in Sri Lanka.

The overseas links of Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists is a clear and present danger. But Sri Lankan parties will be reluctant to sever the still nascent links or criticize Sinhalese-Buddhist extremism. They will not want to lose the votes of the Sinhalese hardliners.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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Ultra-nationalist Buddhist rhetoric runs rife in Sri Lanka

By Nursheila Muez and Jessica Yeo Jia Lin 

A recent road accident involving a Sinhalese truck driver and four Muslim men in the Kandy district of Sri Lanka quickly spiralled into violent conflict following news that the driver died of his injuries days later. Attacks by mobs on Muslim homes and properties soon after prompted the Sri Lankan government to declare a state of emergency. This recent spate of anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka is neither new nor random. 
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Muslim men pray at a ground after a mosque burned down following a clash between two communities in Digana, Kandy. PIC: Reuters

Just like in Myanmar, anti-Muslim sentiment is rising in the country as ultra-nationalist Buddhist rhetoric spreads. One of the key extremist groups in Sri Lanka responsible for such rhetoric is Bodu Bala Sena  (BBS).

Formed in 2012, the BBS has been actively ‘defending’ Sinhalese Buddhism by stoking fears that other religious communities pose a threat to the Sinhalese majority. Such rhetoric largely targets the Tamil-speaking Muslim community and to a lesser extent Christians.

Rumours that Muslims are economically superior and will soon outnumber the Sinhalese often circulate online, which causes fear and distrust among the Buddhist majority. Some fear that they will soon be displaced through a Muslim ‘take over’. The BBS has also capitalised on the rise of global Islamist terrorism, using this trend to demonise Muslims in general.

Aside from spreading ‘fake news’ and stoking fear, the group also uses religion to justify its violent actions. Buddhism is articulated through its five precepts, the first of which stipulates that a Buddhist should abstain from killing. Many scholars have argued that recent Buddhist–Muslim clashes in Sri Lanka contradict the humanistic aspect of Buddhism. Ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups like BBS have argued the opposite — that Buddhist texts exist to justify their actions.

A popular historical and religious resource often used is the Mahavamsa, an epic poem that recounts the miraculous visit of Buddha to Sri Lanka. It focusses on the actions of Buddha, King Dutugemunu and King Ashoka. Many ultra-nationalist Buddhists have argued that the passages in the Mahavamsa permit dharma yuddhaya (‘the defence of the dharma’ (the eternal law and order of the cosmos), or ‘just war’) and the text has been used since Sri Lanka’s colonial days to this end.

A portion of the infamous canon details King Dutugemunu’s conversation with the arahants (the living representations of the dharma). The arahants tell the King that he should not feel troubled after killing over 60,000 men. To the arahants, war in Buddhism is justified if it is used in support of the religion’s moral foundations. This same passage was also used by one of Myanmar’s monastic leaders in November 2017 to defend the Myanmar armed forces’ violence against the Muslim Rohingya population.

Another popular mention in the Mahavamsa is of King Ashoka. Some believe that his act of war helped to spread Buddhism to the populations of those cities he conquered. Similarly, the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta is used by some ultranationalist Buddhists who believe the text states that violence can be justified in Buddhism if it is used for defence.

This does not at all suggest that Buddhism inherently promotes violence; Sri Lanka’s problems will not be solved by debating whether Buddhists are necessarily violent or benevolent people. Rather, the point is to acknowledge and accept that Buddhists who embrace an ultra-nationalist orientation are — just like extremist adherents of other faiths — people who experience fear, suffering, anger and violence. They may, as a result, turn to their religious texts and traditions to seek justification for their situation.

Religious scholar Scott Appleby posits that there is nothing inherently violent or peaceful about a religious tradition — how a religion manifests itself as violent or peaceful is largely dependent on how its adherents interpret the different resources available to them. This is why terrorists and peacemakers can coexist and adhere to the same religion. Appleby argues that religion’s ability to incite violence is intimately related to its equally impressive power for peace. It is therefore crucial that the focus in Sri Lanka shifts to the positive resources within Buddhism. Such a shift would help provide a compelling counter-narrative to the exclusivist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric spouted by groups like BBS.

In this context, civil society groups have a role to play in adopting moderate and humanistic teachings of Buddhism. A number of Sinhalese Buddhist leaders have already denounced the ongoing riots, but this move needs to be supplemented with a more long-term strategy of promoting religious resources for peace. Beyond Sinhalese Buddhists’ promoting a positive counter-narrative, it is also crucial that ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups re-think their attitude towards moderate Buddhist institutions, minority religious groups and the Sri Lankan state. For the country to move forward and to sustain the peacebuilding process, all of Sri Lanka’s institutions need to work closely together.

Nursheila Muez is a research analyst and Jessica Yeo Jia Lin is a student research assistant in the Studies of Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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'Honour' crimes in India: An assault on women's autonomy

'Honour' crimes in India: An assault on women's autonomy
Kavita Krishnan

14 Mar 2018

 Violence against women's autonomy, in all matters and especially in matters of sexuality and marriage, is one of India's most widespread and tenacious forms of gender violence - and also the least recognised. It is a form of violence that hides in plain sight. Violence (against men and women both) to prevent a woman from exercising her choice in love and marriage is not properly documented since India does not have a specific law against "honour" crimes. To spot such violence and confront it, you need to look beneath the surface and read between the lines of available documentation.

In 2014, an English daily, The Hindu, tracked 583 rape cases decided by New Delhi's district courts in 2013. It found that the single largest category of cases (nearly 40 percent) involved consenting couples who had eloped, after which the parents (usually of the women's) had filed cases of rape. This startling fact meant that rape statistics are actually disguising something else: coercion and domestic violence against women's sexual autonomy. This sleight of hand, that conflates "relationships chosen freely by women" with "rape", allows authorities - police, women's hostels, factory management - to continue to pass off restrictions on women's liberties as necessary for "safety from rape". Strict curfews, bans on using mobile phones, punishments for being found talking to a man, dress codes banning "immodest" or "western" clothes, informing a woman's parents if she is found being friendly with a man - these are just some of the "safety" rules imposed on women in educational institutions and workplaces that help maintain the ecosystem in which "honour" crimes take place.

The term "honour" crimes is somewhat misleading not only because it implies that such crimes are "honourable". It also gives the impression that these crimes are a product of the "culture" - customs and traditions - specific to certain communities or faiths. Associating such crimes with rigid traditions and certain communities alone prevents acknowledgement of the fact that these crimes are extremely widespread in India, across regions and communities. For instance, in 2010 when Nirupama, a student of journalism, was killed by her family members in Jharkhand for planning to marry her boyfriend from another caste, the then Chairperson of India's National Commission of Women said that her murder did not count as an "honour" killing because such killings were specific to the Indian state of Haryana where the "khap panchayats" (community councils) exist.

Neelam Katara, the mother of Nitish Katara who was killed by the sons of a prominent politician DP Yadav because he was in love with Yadav's daughter, recounts that during the murder trial the Sessions Court judge asked her, "How is this an 'honour' crime? Daughters are killed in honour crimes, but here your son was killed". She also recounted that during the appeal hearing in India's highest court, a judge asked her how the murder could be an "honour killing" since her son was from a "good caste". The phrase reveals how even Supreme Court judges think of dominant castes as being "good" and oppressed castes as "bad", but it also reveals how "honour crimes" are understood narrowly as a set of practices (killing of daughters, or objection to daughters marrying "beneath" them). Instead, such crimes need to be understood as patriarchal violence against the daughters' sexual agency and autonomy. It needs to be acknowledged that such crimes can take a very wide variety of forms, including violence against the daughter's partner. Moreover, we need to recognise that such violence is not an expression of "culture" alone, or else why would modern educational institutions and even factories supplying to global corporations use the same forms of violence (disguised as "protection" or as "culture") to discipline women in education and in workplaces?

It would be better to use the term "patriarchal crimes against autonomy" to reflect the character of such violence more accurately and strip it of the myths that subtly valorise it. In the Nitish Katara case, the Supreme Court of India tried to redefine the concept of "honour crime" as a crime against women's choice, observing that a woman's "individual choice is her self-respect and creating (a) dent in it is destroying her honour."

In India, the idea that parents have a right to control who their daughter marries has especially wide acceptability because of the caste system: caste boundaries can be maintained only by surveilling and controlling women to make sure they marry in keeping with caste norms. Any autonomy by women is a threat to this order. And some of the worst violence is meted out to men of the most oppressed - Dalit - castes if they marry a woman from a more privileged caste.

In March 2016, a young Dalit man in Tamil Nadu, Shankar, was brutally hacked to death at a public crossroads in the presence of his wife Kausalya - Kausalya's parents had ordered the hit because she was from the dominant Thevar community. Kausalya also was badly injured. But when she came out of the hospital, she refused to return to her parents. Instead, she has become a committed anti-caste campaigner, travelling on her motorbike addressing talks against caste and patriarchy, and offering support to other women in similar situations, whose spirit is in danger of being broken. But the Tamil Nadu state government has just issued a circular making woman like Kausalya extremely vulnerable to violence: it makes parental consent mandatory for marriages to be registered. In a state where right-wing parties are running a campaign instigating violence against inter-caste marriages, especially those where the man is Dalit, such a circular is dangerous.

Women in inter-faith and inter-caste relationships are subjected to immense torture and coercion at the hands of their families, their communities, and increasingly, right-wing and fascist political parties in India. In many cases, they succumb to the pressure and disown the relationship - especially if their partner has been killed. Political organisations close to India's Hindu majoritarian ruling party are unleashing organised violence against inter-faith relationships in which a Hindu woman loves a Muslim man - they term such relationships as "love jihad".

A sting operation caught leaders of India's ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organisation, the fascist RSS, on tape making detailed boasts of violence against women, done in the name of "rescuing" them from inter-faith marriages. One BJP leader explained that such campaigns instigating fear of "love jihad" among Hindu parents was a key strategy to build support for the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These leaders openly boast of surveilling local courts to track impending marriages of Hindu women to Muslim men, mobilising violent crowds to separate the couple, beating the women with wooden planks, and even drugging them to force them to give up the relationship and file a false case of rape against their boyfriend. Several television channels in India participate in creating and sustaining the myth of "love jihad". However, not a single case of alleged "love jihad" has actually stood the test - each has proved to be entirely consensual. In such cases, the young woman is up against not only her own parents and community - but against political forces that command power. Standing up to such pressure calls for immense courage.

In 2014, a Hindu woman, Shalu, fell in love with Kaleem, a Muslim, in Meerut. The fascist outfits portrayed the relationship as a classic case of "love jihad". Shalu was forced to file cases of gang rape against Kaleem and his family members. The media amplified the fascists' sensational claims that Shalu was one among scores of Hindu women lured by Muslim men and then victimised. But Shalu eventually managed to escape her parents' home, go to the police station and tell them the truth - and Shalu and Kaleem are now married.

Another woman victim of a similar patriarchal crime is Hadiya, who converted from Hinduism to Islam and then chose to marry Shafin Jehan. Her father approached court to get Hadiya's marriage annulled - and in a verdict that flouts India's Constitution, the Kerala High Court actually annulled the marriage and handed 24-year-old Hadiya over to the "custody" of her father, claiming that "As per Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with the parents, until she is properly married". Indian citizens who hoped that the Supreme Court would lose no time in overturning such an outrageous order, were in for a shock. The Supreme Court took six months to do what they should have done on the first day: free Hadiya and declare that she was free to chose her faith and her partner in marriage (the order to this effect was finally passed on Women's Day this year).

Instead, they ordered India's anti-terror agency the NIA to go on a fishing expedition to see if terror groups were conspiring to convert Hindu women to Islam and radicalise them! Hadiya meanwhile was subjected to brainwashing attempts by notorious Hindu radical outfits at the behest of her father. These outfits, masquerading as "yoga clinics" specialise in trying to break up inter-faith marriages. It was only because Hadiya stood firm in spite of the prolonged imprisonment in her father's home, that the Supreme Court belatedly (and with seeming reluctance) declared that it had no option but to set her free and uphold her marriage. Shockingly, the Supreme Court passed no strictures against the brazenly unconstitutional Kerala High Court verdict.

When a young New Delhi man Ankit Saxena - a Hindu - was killed on a public street by his Muslim girlfriend's father, there was an organised political campaign by leaders of the ruling BJP to portray the killing as proof of the cruelty, barbarism and backwardness of Muslims. It was his family and close friends who, admirably, resisted the attempt to use his death to further Islamophobia - pointing out that it was a patriarchal crime that people of all communities in India have been known to commit.

It is clear that a wide range of measures are needed to effectively combat patriarchal crimes against love and against women's autonomy in India. Women's movements have for long been campaigning for a law against "honour-based" crimes, on the lines of the one enacted by Pakistan. They point out that the United Nations too has recommended laws against such crimes. In India, another urgently needed reform measure is to get rid of the clause in the Special Marriage Act (the law that applies to inter-faith, secular marriages contracted in courts) requiring couples to publicly announce their marriage plans a month before the wedding. It is this waiting period that gives parents and motivated political outfits time to organise violence to prevent the marriage. India's women are campaigning not only against such patriarchal killings - but against any restrictions, on any pretext, on adult women's autonomy, mobility, and choice. Unfortunately, that struggle is especially hard now - with the ruling political forces today backing a full-fledged ideological and physical assault on women's autonomy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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Press Freedom & Enforced Disappearances: Two Sides of the Same Coin in Sri Lanka

By Kanya D'Almeida

When Sri Lankan journalist Richard de Zoysa was abducted from his home in Colombo on the night of February 18th, 1990, his family knew there would be dark days ahead. The population was still reeling from one of the bloodiest episodes in the island nation’s history – a government counterinsurgency campaign to crush a Marxist rebellion in southern Sri Lanka, which left between 30,000 and 60,000 people dead at the hands of government death squads. 


Richard de ZoysaThe late Richard de Zoysa, former IPS UN Bureau Chief in Sri Lanka.

Even more disturbing than the extrajudicial killings was the wave of enforced disappearances that took place between 1988 and 1990: tens of thousands of Sinhalese men and boys suspected of being members or sympathizers of the People’s Liberation Front, or JVP, went missing, never to return.
 
At the time of his kidnapping, de Zoysa was a stringer for this publication, filing regular reports on the political violence plaguing the country. He was on the verge of accepting the post of Bureau Chief of the agency’s Lisbon-based European desk when the goons came knocking.
 
For hours that bled into days, his mother, Manorani Saravanamuttu had no idea what had become of him. High-ranking officials assured her that he was alive, in police custody, but refused to give her exact coordinates when she asked to be allowed to bring him some clothing – he had been wearing only a sarong when he was kidnapped – or a meal.
 
It later transpired that while she was making frantic phone calls and searching for answers, de Zoysa was already dead, shot in the head at point blank range, and his body dumped in the Indian Ocean, a tactic that had become a common feature of the government’s systematic abductions.
 
A fisherman happened to recognize his face – de Zoysa was also a well-known television personality at the time – when his body washed up on shore in a coastal town just south of the capital. He alerted the authorities who in turn contacted de Zoysa’s mother.

According to a 1991 Washington Post interview with Saravanamuttu, the discovery of her son’s body was a turning point, for her personally, and for the nation as a whole. When she walked out of the inquest a few days after de Zoysa’s abduction, she found herself surrounded by reporters, to whom she made a statement that resonated with countless families across the island: “I am the luckiest mother in Sri Lanka. I got my son’s body back. There are thousands of mothers who never get their children’s bodies back.”

Mothers of the Disappeared

Saravanamuttu’s statement quickly catalyzed a movement known as the Mother’s Front, which had been a long time coming. Perhaps due to her privileged status as a member of the country’s English-speaking elite, she became a kind of totem pole around which women from the poorer, politically marginalized and largely Sinhala-speaking rural belt could gather, and from which they could draw strength. By 1991, according to the Post, the Mother’s Front counted 25,000 registered members.

The movement did not succeed in bringing justice to many of its victims. To this day, not a single person has been convicted for de Zoysa’s murder. Ministers who opposed Saravanamuttu and others’ attempts to seek answers in the murders or disappearances of their loved ones continue to hold positions of power within the government – Ranil Wickremesinghe, who the Post quoted as brushing de Zoysa’s murder off as “suicide or something else”, now serves as the Prime Minister, the second-highest political office in the country.

Amnesty International estimates that since the 1980s, there have been as many as 100,000 enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka.

The Mother’s Front movement did, however, make a crucial contribution to the country’s political landscape, one which continues to have ramifications today: it tied together forever the plight of Sri Lanka’s disappeared with the fate of its journalists and press freedom – or the lack thereof.
Exactly 20 years after de Zoysa was assassinated, another journalist’s disappearance prompted a woman to step into the global spotlight, much as Saravanamuttu did back in the 90s. This journalist’s name is Prageeth Eknaligoda, and he was last seen on January 24th, 2010. He telephoned his wife, Sandhya around 10 p.m. to inform her that he was on his way home from the offices of Lanka eNews (LEN), where he was a renowned columnist and cartoonist. He never arrived.

From local police stations all the way to the United Nations in Geneva, Sandhya has searched for answers as to his whereabouts. It is only in the last two years that some information regarding his abduction and detention by army intelligence personnel has been revealed.

Both Saravanamuttu and Sandhya Eknaligoda have received international recognition for their tireless campaigning. In 1990 de Zoysa’s mother accepted IPS’ press freedom award at the United Nations on her son’s behalf, and last year Sandhya was honored with a 2017 International Woman of Courage Award. But back in Sri Lanka, she faces a government and a public that is at best indifferent, and at worst openly hostile to her continued efforts to find her husband.

A New Front: Tamil Women in the North

Sandhya has also been one of the few women, and one of the lone voices, connecting the issue of press freedom with the movement of families of the disappeared led by Tamil women in Sri Lanka’s northern province, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) waged a 28-year-long guerilla war against the Government of Sri Lanka for an independent homeland for the country’s Tamil minority.

Since January 2017, hundreds of Tamil civilians have observed continuous, 24-hour roadside protests in five key locations throughout the former warzone – Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Maruthankerny (Jaffna district) – demanding answers about their disappeared loved ones.

Like the Mother’s Front in the 1990s, this movement too has been several years in the making. When the civil war ended in 2009, some 300,000 Tamil civilians were rounded up and detained in open-air camps, while hundreds of others – particularly men who surrendered to the armed forces – were taken into government custody under suspicion of being members or supporters of the LTTE.

But while the camps have closed and a large number of people reunited with their families, an estimated 20,000 people are still unaccounted for, including those who disappeared in the early years of the conflict, as well as others who have been abducted as recently as 2016 and 2017.
In 2016, Parliament passed a bill to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) tasked with investigating what Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera called “one of the largest caseloads of missing persons in the world.”

However, rights groups like Amnesty International raised concerns about the bill, including the government’s failure to consult affected families throughout the process. This past March, the government passed a bill that would, for the first time in the country’s history, criminalize enforced disappearances.

But these cosmetic measures have failed to yield concrete results.

In an interview with IPS, Ruki Fernando, a Colombo-based activist who has been visiting the protests in the northern province, noted that Tamil families’ decision to spend day after day in the burning sun by the side of polluted, dusty highways and roads is indicative of their lack of faith in government mechanisms like the OMP and the judiciary to bring them relief. He also called attention to the dismal levels of support or solidarity they have received from Sri Lanka’s broader civil society, including from English and Sinhala-language media or women’s groups in the capital.
“It’s not fair that these families – particularly elderly Tamil women who are leading the protests – should have to carry this burden alone. They have already suffered heavily during the war – they starved in bunkers, they didn’t have medication for their injuries, they have lost family members. All these factors have made them physically weak and emotionally vulnerable, yet now they are also shouldering the burden of keeping these protests going.”

He recalls meeting women as old as 70, adding that protestors sometimes don’t have food, and must endure the vagaries of the weather in the arid northern province. Some of the younger women are forced to bring their children with them. And most, if not all of these families, face the additional financial hardship of having lost their primary breadwinner, or losing out on livelihoods in order to participate in the protests for long periods.

“In my memory, such a strong movement led by women, occurring simultaneously in five locations across the North and East, or any region, is unprecedented,” Fernando said. “And yet it has not become a priority for the rest of the country.”

He called Sandhya Eknaligoda’s participation in the protests as a Sinhala Buddhist ally an “exception” to the rule of general indifference, which he chalked up to a combination of political and ideological issues.

“Some people believe these protests are too radical, too politicized, that there should be more cooperation with, and less criticism of, the government,” he explained. But as Fernando himself noted in an article for Groundviews, one of Sri Lanka’s leading citizen journalism websites,  Tamil families have met repeatedly with elected officials, including President Maithripala Sirisena, to no avail.

No Closure

Fernando is not the only one to draw attention to Tamil families’ disadvantaged position with regard to both deaths and disappearances.

Another person to make this connection was Lal Wickrematunge, the brother of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, former editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader who was murdered in broad daylight in 2010, and whose killers still haven’t been brought to justice.

Lal pointed to the ongoing investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department into military intelligence officers’ involvement in the kidnapping and torture of former deputy editor of The Nation newspaper, Keith Noyahr – and the arrest earlier this month of Major General Amal Karunasekera in connection with multiple attacks on journalists, including Noyahr, and Lasantha Wickrematunge – as a possible avenue of closure for the families.

According to a recent report in the Sunday Observer, “The assault on former Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon and the abduction of journalist and activist Poddala Jayantha are also linked to the same shadowy military intelligence networks, run at the time by the country’s powerful former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”

But Lal Wickrematunge told IPS in a phone interview that while his family, along with international rights groups, are “keenly watching the progress of the investigation, which will determine if the government is serious about law and order”, he is concerned about those who may never receive answers – such as the families of two Tamil journalists who were assassinated in 2006.

Suresh Kumar and Ranjith Kumar were both employees of the Jaffna-based Tamil-language daily Uthayan, whose employees and offices have been attacked multiple times, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Other disappeared Tamil journalists whose cases receive scant attention include Subramanium Ramachandran, who was last seen at an army checkpoint in Jaffna in 2007.

For Fernando, the task of keeping the torch lit for Sri Lanka’s dead and disappeared cannot be laid at the feet of their family members alone – it is a responsibility that the entire country must share.
“What we need first and foremost are independent institutions capable of meting out truth and justice and winning the confidence of the families. And secondly, there is a need for stronger support for victims’ families from civil society – activists and professionals like lawyers, journalists and women’s groups.”

“Pushing for answers about what happened, and demanding prosecutions and convictions requires an exceptional degree of commitment,” he added. “Not everyone has the strength to wage such a battle, on a daily basis, against extremely heavy odds.”

*Kanya D’Almeida was formerly the Race and Justice Reporter for Rewire.News, and has also reported for IPS from the UN, Washington DC, and her native Sri Lanka. She is currently completing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University, New York. This article is part of a series of stories and op-eds launched by IPS on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

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Young “Saffron Buddhists” and their “anti-Muslim patriotism”

Young “Saffron Buddhists” and their “anti-Muslim patriotism”

kusal P 1000pxKusal Perera

March 11, 2018

 Most now talk about anti-Muslim violence being transported from Ampara to Digana. It wasn’t really from Ampara to Digana, but from Aluthgama-Beruwala to Mahiyangane, to Gintota and then to Ampara and for now to Digana. Five very open anti-Muslim conflicts within less than 05 years that begin with MR rule, extending into this unique ‘Yahapalana’ (good governance) rule. Next can be anywhere a new “excuse” could be found and used for another round of violence. And in all instances, there is a Temple and a few Buddhist monks involved and taking the lead.

A young “Tweep” who wanted to understand this phenomenon, engaged me through direct messaging. She referred to a video clip that went viral during the Kandy mayhem stressing on the claim made by a young Buddhist monk the “Muslim men came, married our (Sinhala) women and grabbed our land”. This same young monk had another video clip going viral that claimed the Muslim traders encroached on the livelihood of Sinhala villagers and created problems for Sinhala people, who are otherwise capable of leading a prosperous life. This young “saffron patriot” goes to say, the Arab traders who landed in ‘Hamban’ Thota (meaning Hamban port) were called “Hambaya” because they landed in Hambanthota and was allowed to engage in trading. Many similar stories are rattled off without any effort to prove them.

These “anti-Muslim” sentiments are baseless as his claim that Buddhist monks led warriors from the frontline when Dutu Gemunu waged war. Perhaps the monks followed the warring Sinhala soldiers to attend to religious rituals at death. Soldiers who died in the battlefront in those ancient times, had to be buried in that same area. They had to be given their last rites according to Buddhist rituals. That needed Buddhist monks to follow foot soldiers going to war. In those ancient days, there was no airlifting of dead bodies to villages of birth as done during the now concluded militarised ethnic conflict. This young monk is also wrong in how the port came to be known as “Hamban Thota”. “Hamban” is an ancient seafaring rafter. That was why the landing site they used came to be called “Hamban thota” and those who came in these rafters came to be identified accordingly.

It is true, the Muslim people cannot claim ancestral rights to our ancient history as Tamils do. In fact they don’t. But their arrival in this island was also a historical process that colonised most countries along the “sea trade route” from Muscat to Merauke in Irian Jaya. These long and time consuming sea journeys were daring and risky in those ancient rafters and primitive boats. They were undertaken by only men. There is no record of any women seafarers even during the period of Columbus. There were those men who never went back. They settled in those lands their boats and rafters anchored for long. Obviously that meant raising their own families with women in those lands they settled. Perhaps they grew as closed communities and developed an identity of their own with male Muslim dominance in an ancient world where patriarchy was the hallmark of all human activity; craftmanship, trade, travelling, seafaring or war.

This was quite natural and human in those feudal ancient society and has not changed very much even to date. The Southern fishermen who go out for long durations in ‘multi day’ boats move to the Eastern coast, during Southern monsoon. Until the militarised ethnic conflict that severely restricted fishing in those Eastern waters, fishermen from especially Matara and Hambanthota districts settled in Eastern coast raising their own families with Tamil women. Thus to say, “they (Arab Muslims) came, took our women and grabbed our land” is wholly inhuman and out of context.

When these ‘saffron patriots’ talk of land grab by Muslim men, giving it a spin to mean they forcefully grabbed land from innocent Sinhala villagers, it sounds like the military that grabbed land of innocent Tamil people in North and East. To grab land as it is spun today against Muslim people, it needs power and force; either feudal power or religious power, the Muslim people were not having.

Ownership of land has a historical relationship from ancient time. One, they are caste based in rural society. The landed proprietors are always and mostly the ‘Govigama’ (equivalent to Vellala in Tamil society) nobility of rural society. As one goes down the caste hierarchy, the extent of land ownership gradually recedes. Two, most land in those rural areas were handed over to temples and for religious purposes by Kings who owned the land. These lands are called “Viharagam” and “Devalagam”. From Kandy, right down to Mahiyangana, vast tracts of cultivable land still belong to Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters or to temples that come under their authority like the Badulla Muthiyangana temple. It is same in Anuradhapura where the 08 temples and shrines (Atamasthana) within the “Sacred City” hold rights to cultivable land bestowed upon them by ancient kings. Most Buddhist temples known as “Purana Raja Maha Vihara” (ancient royal temples) have cultivable land as “Viharagam” and “Devalagam”. Thus dominance over rural land even today is held by Buddhist temples, the ‘Govigama’ nobility in up-country and majority ‘Govigama’ peasants and mostly small time Sinhala trader community now into their second and third generations.

It is also a fact, after the Waste Lands Ordinance of 1899 under British colonial rule when for the first time, land owned by the King and used by people, was turned into a ‘commodity’, bought over by the new landed proprietary created through the Colonial trade and commerce economy. Plumbago mining industry and liquor “Renting” turned noble Sinhala collaborators in Western Province and adjoining areas also into a rich land owning gentry. Muslim and Tamil traders also bought land where they had trading interests. Yet none could encroach or buy over “Viharagam” and “Devalagam” land, except in very rare instances.

These “temple owned” land and also wealth and income created upon them is jealously guarded by Chief monks of temples who make certain they are passed on to the next generation within the family. In a market economy, more within a ‘free market economy’ this has created much frustration among young Buddhist monks who had no clue why they were ordained as little kids and what they were expected to be when they grew up.

In such free market context, except in exceptionally rare occasions, none has robed himself on his own volition. It would be safe to say over 99 per cent of the monks were ordained as little children, decided by their parents. They are all handed to the Temple by poor parents for many reasons, poverty being the most common denominator. There are reasons openly told and openly accepted without any social dialogue, while there are some that are not even whispered. One is that the Chief monk of the temple ordains the ‘closest kin’, often a child of his brother or sister to be the next in line for the post of Chief monk. That ensures, the wealth and income of the temple remains within the family. The other is the exploitation of poverty in luring parents to hand over children for ordination for purely personal interests, though not discussed. This leaves out the fact that there is heavy abuse of child monks in many forms, in most temples.

These child monks thus grow into youth in deformed and often in very taut and stressful environments. They do enrol in “pirivenas” for education where they are taught subjects in our national education and are allowed to sit for G.C.E Ordinary and Advance Level exams. A small percentage enter State universities and graduate. Most graduate monks take to teaching.

But where they feel alienated and left out of temple life is, where they don't get access to temple wealth and income not being heir to the post of high priest of the temple. Most who enter universities, often complain they are not provided enough money to sustain themselves through university education, despite having the “Mahapola” scholarship. This being a fact of robing little children who wish to have a comfortable life despite the “saffron robe” when they grow up as youth in a free market society with an unlimited consumer choice.

Such young monks have tried out many exits to settle comfortably in life, while being in saffron robes. Some have moved out from their parental temple to establish their own temples. That was one reason temples mushroomed especially in urban areas where they managed trader and rich urban middle class patronage. In rural society they were supported by traders and the lower social segments that had to struggle for their life and thus wanted a “sacred life support”. There were those who moved into expensive and fashionable “Ashrams” that sprouted in WP catering to the middle aged middle class. The urban middle class that feels exhausted in this neo liberal economy. There are others who exploit the education market. Temples turned into tuition centres with some graduate teacher monks, where the head priest benefits from rent. Very appealing and attractive oratorical “bana preaching” for high end middle class urban market is yet another. There is also those traditional mystic rituals often looked for by the majority innocent and poor Sinhala Buddhist laymen and women.

With that is tied the role of the caste affiliated Sinhala Buddhist trader. During Colonial rule, Sinhala traders emerged from among the low country Sinhalese and very much from the 03 castes, Karawa, Durawa and Salagama that were not directly linked to the ancient feudal society. An exception was the Vahumpura caste that too grew into a formidable merchant clan. With no low country ‘Royalty’ to facilitate regaining full ordination as it happened before in ancient times, the Sinhala traders stepped in to fund and facilitate ‘full ordination’(Upasampadawa). It was Sinhala Buddhist traders who funded the establishment of the two Sangha nikyas “Amarapura” and “Ramanna”, in 1803 and 1834 respectively, when Shyamopali Siyam nikaya of Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters refused “full ordination” to “low country monks from low castes” as they termed. Since then, the Sinhala Buddhist trader community organised with their own caste interests became the major financier in Sangha society. To quote from a previous blog post of mine, “There was apparently no other independent existence for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Yet for Heenayana Buddhism that “preached” suppression of secular comfort including giving up lay bondages and wealth, to have a trader funded base, left it with a living contradiction. This contradiction was often eased out with “giving away” (Dhana) that always accrued with temples and monks. Thus the new society that evolved with this new Sangha divisions had an inherent dynamic to lead it to degeneration and decline.” (http://kusalperera.blogspot.com/2010/08/development-buddhism-and-sri-lankas.html)

In a free market economy where the urban cashflow is very much dependent on dress and costume, food and retail pharmaceutical trades, the competition for market dominance is being fuelled on ethnic lines. There is a visual presence of new Muslim businesses in these market areas coming out airy and colourful. It is thus challenged by the Sinhala Buddhist trader community by an elimination method and not by competing for better and efficient service and quality products. Politics for such elimination brings out the frustrated young monks as “saffron patriots” who till then had no social presence and an importance. They are made “saviours” of a “Sinhala Buddhist society that is being submerged in a fast growing Muslim population”. They are thus given a dual role. One to play “saviour” of Sinhala Buddhists and the “Land of Gauthama Buddha” and then to challenge the old hierarchical “temple ownership” by high priests. Hence the cry, “You owe it to the people who feed you to come out of the temple and stand with them”.

The main focus has not changed since the first Sinhala-Muslim riots in 1915. It is the “market and its cashflow”. It was the “market” that was important till the 1983 Black July ‘Tamil pogrom’ that completely changed the conflict into a “separatist” war. Since the end of the militarised ethnic war, it is once again the 1915 “market war”. Buddhist monks cannot stay out of it when it is the Sinhala Buddhist traders who decide options.

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