December 22, 2019December 22, 2019 3min readBy Iman Saleem
Following his polarizing victory at the Sri Lankan presidential elections on Nov. 16, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has completed his first month in office on the back of an election campaign primarily focused on enhancing national security, following the devastating Easter bombings in April and pulling the Sri Lankan economy out of its crushing international debt. His win over the former ruling party candidate, Sajith Premadasa, followed an election campaign concentrated on exploiting nationalist sentiment and racial divisions.Gota, as Rajapksa is commonly known, heavily relied on the widespread fear, anger and hostility towards the island’s Muslim minority following the bombings to cement his win.
Rajapaksa’s win, with a notable 52.25 percent of the vote, was cause for concern for Sri Lankan minority groups, including Tamils and Muslims, as well as journalists and activists. As the younger brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was defense secretary during the latter stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, for which both the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stand accused by the United Nations of breaches of international law. Allegations against the former Rajapaksa government include those of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of political critics, activists and journalists.
While many remain apprehensive of the course of his presidency, Rajapaksa’s initial actions as President, including a racially-charged inauguration speech and the appointment of two of his siblings to his cabinet,have been unsurprising. Below are more key developments from Rajapaksa’s first month as president.
“Even though I knew I could win the presidential election with the support of the Sinhala people alone, I made a special request to Tamil and Muslim people to be partners in that victory. But their response was not to my expectation.
2. Appointed his brother as Prime Minister
Days after his inauguration, Rajapaksa swore Mahinda in as both prime minister and finance minister, two of the most powerful positions in Sri Lanka’s government. While some hope that the appointment of two brothers in the country’s top political positions may allow for more coherent decision-making in contrast to the marked divisions in the previous government, the absolute power afforded to a single-family threatens to undermine the principles of democracy, especially given their history.
The eldest Rajapaksa brother, Chamal, was sworn in by Rajapaksa as the minister for agriculture, irrigation, internal trade and consumer welfare. Basil, another brother, will also serve Rajapaksa’s government as chief strategist.
3. Appointed an interim Cabinet
Rajapaksa appointed a 16-member interim cabinet to run his government until the next parliamentary elections. While the next election was to take place after August 2020, Rajapaksa could dissolve the current Parliament and call for early elections after February 2020.
In addition to two Rajapaksa brothers, the Cabinet consists of 14 other politicians, 13 of whom are men. The only woman appointed, Pavithra Devi Wanniarachchi, will serve as minister for women and child affairs, social security and healthcare. The only minority members of the cabinet are Tamil politicians Arumugam Thondaman and Douglas Thevaanantha, in charge of community development and estate infrastructure development and fisheries and aquatic resources respectively.
4. Introduced considerable tax cuts to stimulate the economy
According to Al Jazeera, Sri Lanka is facing its deepest economic slump in more than 15 years largely due to the constriction of the tourism sector following April’s Easter bombings. The country currently owes a mammoth $34.4 billion in foreign debt, a quarter of which is owed to China, a close ally of the Rajapaksa’s.
Rajapaksa’s interim Cabinet announced massive tax cuts on Nov. 27, including the reduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) and the removal of a number of other taxes, including the Pay As You Earn Tax (PAYE) and Withholding Tax on interests. The tax cuts are expected to boost GDP growth and encourage trade.
5. Held a media briefing to assure press freedom during his tenure
Rajapaksa held a briefing last week with the Heads of Media Institutions, at which he stated he had “no intention to influence the media. The media has a responsibility to create a virtuous image of this country.”
Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Social Network Media Association noted that, within the first 26 days of Rajapaksa’s presidency, 13 journalists have received threats. According to Al Jazeera, an employee from the Swiss embassy in Sri Lanka has also alleged that she was detained and questioned regarding a police officer who sought Swiss asylum following Rajapaksa’s election. Representatives for Rajapaksa and the SLPP have labeled all allegations against them as false.
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular