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This is my Nation


 

Move over Prabha. Take a bow Murali

In the aftermath of Muralitharanís achievement, there were several interesting developments. The politicians, from the highest in the land to the lowliest pradeshiya sabha member, were falling over themselves, trying to congratulate the bowler.
Even the socialist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), hitherto not known to be fans of the gentlemenís game invented by the imperialist Englishmen, was scrambling to do the honours. Their leadership was present when a special postage stamp was released in Muralitharanís honour, and its Parliamentary leader Wimal Weerawansa wanted the bowler brought to Parliament for felicitation.
This only underscores the fact that while cricket unifies this fractured nation, it is also the one fact Sri Lanka has to sell to the world now. Its economy is in a shambles, tourism will plunge further into the abyss with the recent attacks, and the war has cast a general pall of darkness over the reputation of a once smiling and happy people

The incidental fact that champion spinner and new world record holder Muttiah Muralitharan is a Tamil, is not the only thing in common he has with the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). If Prabhakaran evokes emotions of hatred with some intensity, Murali has succeeded in inducing sentiments of unity and national pride with the same passion.

The off-spinnerís road to stardom was littered with trials and tribulations. At first, his bowling action was queried, and thereafter he was called for chucking by umpires during a tour to Australia. It took a lot of courage and determination from Muralitharan, and a lot of legal work and lobbying from the Sri Lankan cricket authorities to overcome these hiccups.

Last week, all these efforts came into fruition with Muralitharan creating cricketing history, eclipsing Australian leg spinner Shane Warneís short lived record for the most number of test wickets. And through it all, while Muralitharan smiled his trademark infectious grin, the whole of Sri Lanka rallied around him. And that is where the reference to Prabhakaran becomes relevant.

Muralitharan had long since become a national icon in the cricketing sense. His world record has now become a symbol of co-operation and co-existence among the different races, for cricket is a team game and the champion off-spinner couldnít have achieved his milestone without his team mates.

Coming at a time when the entire nation appears to be in the grips of a LTTE-induced fear psychosis in the aftermath of the recent bomb attacks, and a sense of general suspicion about the minority Tamil community, Muralitharanís achievement couldnít be more timely.

Indeed, the Sri Lankan cricket team now reflects the ethos of communal harmony. There are not only Sinhalese and Tamils, but Muslims and Burghers too in the national cricket team. And they all gelled together to produce a match winning performance last week.

In the aftermath of Muralitharanís achievement, there were several interesting developments. The politicians, from the highest in the land to the lowliest pradeshiya sabha member, were falling over themselves, trying to congratulate the bowler.

Even the socialist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), hitherto not known to be fans of the gentlemenís game invented by the imperialist Englishmen, was scrambling to do the honours. Their leadership was present when a special postage stamp was released in Muralitharanís honour, and its Parliamentary leader Wimal Weerawansa wanted the bowler brought to Parliament for felicitation.

This only underscores the fact that while cricket unifies this fractured nation, it is also the one fact Sri Lanka has to sell to the world now. Its economy is in a shambles, tourism will plunge further into the abyss with the recent attacks, and the war has cast a general pall of darkness over the reputation of a once smiling and happy people.

In the midst of this doom and gloom, cricket remains arguably the only reason for Sri Lankans to sport a smile. It not only puts the country on the map, but it also provides the only respite for a war weary and despondent country. If Sri Lanka is in the news and it is not related to the war, then it is almost always because of cricket.

But that itself is not enough. As outspoken parliamentarian Dilan Perera pointed out in the melee to congratulate Muralitharan, supporting the champion bowler doesnít by itself redress all the grievances of the Tamil community. Just by felicitating Muralitharan, the country and its leaders cannot absolve themselves from their responsibility of doing justice to the minorities.

The fact that Muralitharan is a valued member of the national team and that he is hailed for his record, does not erase the fact that those who speak his language do not enjoy the same privileges as others in this country. As parliamentarian Perera pointed out, If Muralitharan was not Muralitharan, he may have barely got past a check point!

It is readily conceded that the minority communities will be at the receiving end of suspicion and hostility, at times when terrorist attacks continue to wreck havoc in the south of the country.

The Supreme Court ruled recently that setting up check points on the major roads leading to the city is not the answer to terrorist attacks. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) has gone to courts challenging the arbitrary detention of Tamils in search operations, despite being a constituent of the government.

Clearly, the country is at a critical juncture in majority-minority relationships. The armed forces may be winning the war in the north and east, but it is also palpably clear that it is losing the battle to win the hearts and minds of the minority communities in the south. And that, judging by recent actions, is something the politicians and mandarins in Colombo seem oblivious to.

We are not certain whether Velupillai Prabhakaran is an ardent cricket fan, but we do know that he follows the countryís cricket itinerary closely: how else could he order the first flights of his air force to be airborne on the day that Sri Lanka played Australia in the World Cup finals?

But for Muralitharan to truly replace Prabhakaran as the most talked about Tamil in this country it would take much more than a world record: it would take a sense of genuine and sincere commitment towards the welfare of minorities by those in authority, and that is something we havenít had a chance to witness thus far.

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