Since 2013, Sri Lanka has been witnessing a spike in targeted attacks on the Muslim and Christian minorities by hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist groups. It began with a fringe organisation’s campaign against halal certification, forcing shops to stop selling meat labelled for Islamic guidelines. A series of attacks on mosques and shops owned by Muslims followed. Within a year, violent communal clashes erupted in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama, killing four people and injuring nearly 100.
At that time the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa regime remained silent, leading many to believe that it was passively backing the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS or Buddhist Power Force), a hard-line Sinhala nationalist organisation linked to the attacks. After Mr. Rajapaksa was ousted in the January 2015 elections, many Sri Lankans hoped that the newly-elected government would end such impunity.
Apparently it has not. Since April this year, over 25 attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned establishments have been recorded. Unlike Mr. Rajapaksa, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have publicly stated that there is no place for religious intolerance in Sri Lanka. Mr. Sirisena ordered a police crackdown on violence against minorities while Mr. Wickremesinghe vowed tougher laws against religious hate crimes.
However, the BBS’s firebrand monk-leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, notorious for his inciting speeches, including the one believed to have instigated the Aluthgama riots, remains virtually untouched. In late June, the monk, who had been “in hiding” for a month, finally surrendered to a court only to be granted bail the same day. The BBS continues airing its very provocative views on Muslims.
There is no denying that it was the long-drawn-out silence of Sri Lanka’s national leaders that made the politics of the BBS less of the fringe and more mainstream in the first place.
It is also important to consider that whether in India or Sri Lanka, the intolerance that manifests in hate attacks is not unrelated to the religious-nationalist agendas of political parties currently in power. Elements within both governments can get away with expressing extremist ideologies, shared by some of the hard-line groups directly engaging in brutal violence. Also, it is well-known that the national parties bank heavily on extreme right-wing forces for electoral support.
Less obvious is the spontaneous alignment of many of the right-wing religious fundamentalists in both countries. Apart from agreeing ideologically, these groups appear to be vigorously networking among themselves.
At the height of anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka in 2013, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National General Secretary Ram Madhav, who was then the national spokesman of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wrote in its publication Samvada that “the issues raked up by the BBS are worthy of active and sympathetic consideration”. In 2014, Gnanasara Thero said discussions were at the “highest level” with the RSS on a Buddhist-Hindu ‘peace zone’ in the region to combat a “growing threat of radical Islam”. Confirming that informal discussions were held with “a couple of people” in the RSS, BBS Chief Executive Officer Dilanthe Withanage told The Hindu last week that it is “high time we worked closely with the BJP and RSS.” The BBS has also formed an alliance with Myanmar’s 969 movement, a militant Buddhist group linked to anti-Muslim riots there.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) invited Sri Lanka’s Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran for the World Hindu Congress in New Delhi in November 2014. Addressing the conclave, the Chief Minister said that the difficulties faced by the Hindu community in the island had not ended after the war. That the Chief Minister decided to foreground challenges of the Hindus alone raised eyebrows, given that the Northern Province is also home to war-affected Tamils following other faiths.
In a separate development, a group of Hindus in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority north launched ‘Siva Senai’ in October 2016, describing it as an organisation that sought to “protect Hindus from threats of other religious groups”. The RSS, the VHP and the BJP were “very supportive” of the move, its Chief Organiser told The Hindu at the time.
Last month, when the Sri Lankan police were searching for Gnanasara Thero, an organisation called the Hindu Mahasabha Loktantrik wrote to the Indian Home Ministry asking the Government of India to provide security to the wanted monk. Reportedly a new Hindu nationalist party, the organisation might be on the margins of mainstream Hindutva politics. But it is hard to miss how these so-called fringe elements embolden each other and are ever-ready to join forces.
While the religious right wing in the region appears to be networking well, resistance to these regressive elements has been, at best, isolated.
Among activists and the intelligentsia, the idea of ‘South Asia’ appears confined to the conference circuits or infrequent, one-off protests. Barring a fading and questionable sympathy in Tamil Nadu for Eelam Tamils there have been few expressions of solidarity between the neighbouring countries in the last decade. The left, liberal civil society and public intellectuals seem to have been preoccupied with domestic challenges to the extent that they are seldom heard condemning violence or repression right next door.
The region is fraught with divisive hate politics, as is the world at large. The need for progressive voices to consolidate their disparate struggles is clear and urgent. Such a broad movement must not only transcend borders but also factor in the key material concerns of the vast majority of people, on which reactionary forces feed. Just as it takes hate politics head on, such a movement must speak to the economic insecurities of millions, or hawkish right-wing forces are waiting in the wings to politically hijack the cause.
In the era of charged activism on social media, dissent is often accompanied by individual self-righteousness. It is not the shrillness of opposition that matters, but its breadth, depth and consistency that makes a difference.
Originally published in The Hindu
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