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Multiculturalism: going beyond lip service

If ethnic harmony is to be made to flourish in Sri Lanka some day, the principle of multiculturalism needs not only to be endorsed by all sections of the State and made the basis of policy formulation by it, but should also be cogently enunciated and practised by it unitedly.

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, this doesn't seem to be the case at present. Lip service is, of course, paid to concepts such as multiethnicity, pluralism, and ethnic equality at the higher reaches of government, but there doesn't seem to be unanimity on these issues in these spheres, nor are these principles being proclaimed in unison and practised by all arms of the political Executive, consistently and unitedly.

We are led to these thoughts by the seemingly dual policy followed by different sections of the political Executive in regard to the Hindu festival of Deepavali.

While requests from prominent sections of the local Hindu community for a cancellation of the PA stage-managed "Ivasuva Ethi" protest demonstration in Colombo went unheeded by President Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in striking contrast, demonstrated his commitment to multiculturalism by attending a Hindu ceremony held at Kathiresan Hall, Bambalapitiya. This story was told with colourful eloquence by our front page picture yesterday.

What is the message being sent out to the Hindu community by these discordant acts by the principal decision-making centres of the State? What the average onlooker would be led to understand is that while the President is insensitive to minority religious needs, the Prime Minister is not so. The overall impression, however, is that there is no clear-cut State policy on these matters at this crucial juncture in the peace process.

However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe earns our commendation for consistently demonstrating his commitment to the principle of multiculturalism - that is, the highly relevant and inherently valid political theory that all ethnic groups and cultures in a country should be accorded equal recognition and be integrated into a body politic on equal terms.

Cynics are likely to scoff that all that happens is that the Premier makes it a point to attend prominent religious functions of the country's minority communities. He has only gone through the symbolic motions of having a shawl draped on his shoulders by a religious dignitary - the remark is likely to be dismissively made.

What's in a symbolic gesture after all? Much, we are forced to make the rejoinder. Sacred symbols, rites and religious motifs go to the very heart of a people's culture. By attending functions where these symbols occur, we show unhesitating acceptance of these cultures. We also indicate that democratic space is being opened for the flourishing of these cultures.

All this augurs well for the furtherance of the peace process.

It must be remembered that we cannot have ethnic peace without ethnic equality in all its respects. If the country is to remain undivided, its ethnic groups would need to be fully integrated into the State, on terms of perfect equality.

While we concede that the President has done much for the cause of ethnic peace, an inability on her part to practise the principles central to this process consistently, is likely to undo all that has been achieved by her in this regard.

Call all Sri Lanka

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