This article originally appeared in the Sunday Observer (10/1/2015).
A long time ago, there was an Indian Prince. His name was Vijaya. Later generations would practically worship the guy, but despite the marketing, said Prince was a deeply disturbed individual. His grandmother had been carried off and knocked up by a lion. History tells us the lion is a metaphor; that’s good, because the alternative is a bit too weird to contemplate.
Vijaya, the descendant of a lion, had problems of his own; he had just been kicked out of India.
In a nutshell: he then proceeded to ship himself to Lanka (no Amazon one-day delivery back then), hooked up with a local girl, killed her family, had two children by her and then cheated on her with an Indian girl. Vijaya’s legacy, in addition to his rather stained resume, is Sri Lanka: a beautiful island nation populated by an ancient race that, despite there being no lions in the country, chooses to call itself ‘Sinhayo’. We take an enormous amount of pride in having Sinha-le – lion blood.
We are, if one may make so bold, the modern Lions (in true Lion fashion, we’ve just pulled off 1,501 statutory rapes in 2015).
Vijaya’s got nothing on this.
The modern Lion is a curious creature.
Invariably two-legged, it is comfortable in a range of classes – lower class, middle class, second class, third class, it matters not. It may take the train, bus, bike or car to work.
It may even be reasonably well-educated. All Lions, however, have a curious chip on their shoulder: despite being the overwhelming majority of Sri Lanka, and despite it being quite a while since the English oppressed them, they have a deep-seated sense of insecurity about their place in the world. Are the Tamils taking over? Are the Muslims? This insecurity often erupts in remarkable ways. In the 80s, it led to Black July. In more recent times, it led to the Bodu Bala Sena and their anti-Muslim hysterics.
What started out as a buzz about tainted toffees led to Aluthgama being burned down. People were beaten up. Lives were lost.
The latest incarnation is Sinha-le. How does one describe Sinha-le? Sinha-le is a word. It is an idea. It is a mark, a divisor – we are Sinhala; you are not. It is racist in a deep, fundamental – so racist that there is almost no thought involved. The identification – and the accompanying disgust – is automatic.
It is also a meticulously crafted campaign, built with the sole intent of going viral. Look at that logo. The red, the black, the curves. The beautiful design. The professionally printed vehicle stickers. The writing on the walls. It is a meme, leapfrogging from mind to mind. Nobody knows where it started. Nobody knows who’s behind it. Even those of us who hate it can’t deny that it’s brilliantly executed.
It’s racism given wings and a Photoshop job.
And because of this, it’s also a hell of a lot more dangerous than anything the BBS could ever come up with. Those rabid monks, try as they might, were a single source of racism and bigotry frothing at the mouth. Sinha-le is quieter. Sinha-le is more insidious. Sinha-le is your friend next door. Your uncle. The neighbour’s car. That guy who just etched the logo onto his hand with a ballpoint pen. Any attempt to call them a racist can be sidestepped swiftly. “Why, machang, it’s just a sticker. It doesn’t even mean anything. ”
Oh, it does. When the logo on your car is the same thing spray-painted across Muslim homes? Yes, it does. It’s not Black July. Not yet. But a second Black July seems like the ultimate end-game – in fact, the only possible end-game. Juden Raus! The Nazis used to shout, marching on the Jewish ghettos. Jews, come out! How long before we shout Sinha-le? Thambis, come out?
What do we do? Fight it. There is no government body, nor a court of justice that will take this up. Ever. This is a hydra, and until it comes to light, it must be fought in the same way. Does your neighbour have a Sinha-le sticker? Argue with him. Get him to take it off. Racists on the road? Name them. Shame them. Do it gently at first, and then, as the lady said, do it harder. After all, if you want to carry your banner in public, you have to be ready for this kind of thing.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so disturbing. Here we are, the metaphorical sons and daughters of a convicted criminal and unfaithful wretch descended from rape, possibly bestiality. On an island where the only variant of lion (Panthera Leo Sinhalayus) is debatable at best and in any case became extinct 37,000 years before the arrival of humans.
We might as well tattoo the Wali Kukula on our buttocks: after all, that’s the real national animal of Sri Lanka – tiny, vain, and ever ready for a fight.
Wali Kukul Le.