The news (of 24th July) that the Chief Justice has directed the Attorney General to advise public institutes to allow Muslim national women to use their cultural head-dress is both refreshing and encouraging. Indeed, there has been no legal impediment in Muslim women wearing their cultural attire all this time, for there has been no law except the “jungle wild law” of public officers and servants that had had restrictions against the sporting of hijabs. These restrictions have, appallingly, been noted in democratic spaces such as national high schools, as well; while the cultural terrorism and ignominy shown by some authorities of the Moratuwa University against some female students wearing their traditional dress to university was a blatant display of barbarism (and from the supposedly “educated” species of our education structure at that, as well).
However, the CJ’s pronouncement leaves much to ponder on; among which, the fact that such a decree for Muslim women to be given that basic allowance of their choice of dress should come from the highest chair on constitutional matters itself is intriguing. In a constitution that is three decades and a half old there have been no barriers or straitjackets on cultural diversity along one’s traditional attire. However, the state of affairs being by default one far from pluralism, and the Sri Lankan state with its proven Sinhala Buddhist bias, the cultural rights and preserves of numerically minor ethno-national groups have always been in jeopardy. From the form one fills in a Grama Sevaka office, the complain you make at a Police Station, to the choice of school one has in a multi-cultural area, the “lopsided” infrastructural and super-structural barriers that stand in the way of the non-Sinhala groups is a part of long standing discussion.
The fact that the Chief Justice has to direct on something as basic as the right of cultural access shows the imploded state of cultural treatment non-Sinhala nationals receive in public offices and institutes. The Supreme Court directive was issued in response to a petition filed over an incident where the Principal of Janadipathi College, Rajagiriya had ordered a Muslim student to remove her traditional cultural dress. The SC directive comes in a context where there are many schools and educational institutes in the country where such discriminatory treatment of non-Sinhala culture takes place. In fact, it is a well known fact that private and semi-governmental schools with Missionary origins still haven’t evolved out of their putrid colonial mentality: the disallowance of culture being one questionable aspect. In the Kandy district there are at least two girls’ schools in this capacity where the school’s ‘Head Prefectship’ is by unwritten consent preserved for a Roman Catholic / Christian. Similarly, there are at least two other “national schools” in the same district (which, I am sure, is a reflection of a general status) with almost no enrollments for other than Sinhala nationals. Here, too, the high preference is for Sinhala Buddhists. These schools seek their ancestry in the Sinhala Buddhist counterpart of the Missionary tradition and are patronized by the highest state stakeholders in all circles and spheres of influence.
Two other girls’ colleges — one, a national school situated along the Kandy-Peradeniya Road — and the other which comes under the Provincial Education authorities and situated along the Katugastota-Kandy Road have been well known to “un-veil” its substantial Muslim studentship at the college entrance. Incidentally, both schools are trilingual institutes housing Sinhala and Tamil speakers from three or more ethno-national groups. The latter of these institutes draws in a steady corpus of students from areas such as Katugastota, Matale, Uda Thalawinna and Madawala which are populated by a dense Muslim community with their traditional habitats and culture ingrained in these neighbourhoods. What would be interesting, however, is to see how the authorities of these schools and others would adopt the SC directive. While the Muslim students of these schools have been largely submitted to a “silent acknowledgement” of their cultural fate in the past, others have accepted it as the “norm” of having to live in a pro-Sinhala Buddhist, context.
The more sensational facet of the decree is that the current CJ, the issuer of the directive, has been badmouthed and alleged to be an appointee of the Rajapakshe agenda: a strategic player of the current Regime. Then, again, his pronouncement comes at a time where the guns, bullets and kerosene stocks that ravaged Aluthgama and Beruwala two months ago are variously traced back to agents who are allegedly very well known to the government. In a thickening of the plot, several extremist Sinhala Buddhist fanatic organizations were also known to back the Rajagiriya Principal’s course of action. The CJ’s action, therefore, has to be assessed in the complex context of all the above. The country, right now, is at touching distance of a precarious national and inter-national kris-knife. The explosions caused by the Anti-Muslim lobby of hardcore Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism between the “Halal Crisis” in 2011 and now has collected much venom in its gathering snowball. In the same way that July 1983 was the spillover point of the accumulated vent of over two and a half decades (1958-1983), the anti-Muslim project, too, is still young and issuing its various saplings. The Galagodaaththe Gnanasaras, Akmeemana Dayarathnes and the chauvinistic elements of bodies such as the JHU are not the final fruits, but the early buds of a crisis yet to be. While the SC order has a potent political underbelly to crawl on, on practical grounds, it has the vigour and symbolic value of a necessary and timely statement.