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Sri Lanka: Anti-Muslim riots and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism

Sri Lankans were finally breathing easy after the civil war involving the LTTE when, this February, anti-Muslim riots in Kandy rocked the nation. Why did these riots take place in a nation mostly made up of the followers of the Buddha? Irfan Engineer explains

The recent anti-Muslim riots in Kandy, Sri Lanka, was yet another indication of religion becoming more conspicuous in public domain, including politics, in South Asia. My conversations with a cross-section of people from different religions, including some people in the government, confirmed this trend. Anti-Muslim riots were witnessed in Ampara town in Eastern Province on 26 February and in Teddeniya and Udispattuwa in Kandy district from 2 March onwards. Riots in Ampara were triggered off when Sinhalese customers in a restaurant found lumps of wheat flour in the meals served to them by a Muslim chef, which they suspected to be contraceptive pills. A video of the Muslim chef nodding (whether out of fear or misunderstanding) on being asked whether they were really contraceptives was uploaded. Instead of seeking out the truth or reporting the matter to the authorities, mobs mobilized by extremist Sinhalese organizations attacked mosques and properties belonging to Muslims. Investigations later established that the suspicions were unfounded, and indeed there aren’t any pills that can cause permanent sterility.

Bodu Bala Sena activists demonstrate in Colombo against Muslims (Photo courtesy: Photo News 24)

Riots in Kandy were sparked when a Sinhalese truck driver was assaulted on 22 February by four reportedly drunk Muslim youth after an accident. On 2 March, the truck driver succumbed to the injuries inflicted on him. The accused youth were arrested on the day of the incident itself and remanded till 7 March. Sinhalese mobs began attacking Muslim properties in the region, causing widespread damage. According to the Sri Lankan government, 465 houses, businesses and vehicles were damaged. The government declared an emergency, which some felt was an overreaction, clamped down on social media and imposed a curfew. Emergency was last declared in 2011, during the civil war.

Both the incidents show the widespread fear, suspicion and prejudices with respect to the Muslim community. The Muslim community here is diverse and includes the Moors, Malays, Bohras, Khojas and Memons, together constituting 9.66 per cent of the total population (2012 Census). Moors speaking Tamil are the largest ethnic group within the Muslim community. They make up 9.30 per cent of the population of Sri Lanka. Sinhala is the first language for some of them. Islam arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka in the 7th century CE with the Arab traders who later married and settled on the Island. They adopted the local Tamil language and culture. Sri Lankan Moors are the descendants of Marakkars, Mappilas, Memons and Pathans of South India.

A mother and child in front of their house that was burnt down during the Kandy riots

The LTTE targeted the Moors when they dismissed the claim that were originally Tamils who later converted to Islam. Moors claim a separate identity and trace their lineage to the Arabs. A few hundred Moors were killed while hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. The LTTE destroyed their properties as they laid claim to the northern and eastern territories for Tamil Elam. The Moors and the Sinhalese then joined hands during the 26-year civil war. Under attack from LTTE on one hand, and the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism on the other hand, the Muslim community turned inwards to Islam for stronger bonds among themselves. Prior to May 2009, the principal adversary of extremist Sinhalese Buddhist movements was the ethnic Tamil community. The Moors were not on their radar. However, after the threat from Tamil Elam was subdued, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists turned their attention to the Moors. New adversaries are necessary to project them as saviours, nay custodians of Sinhalese Buddhist community and to achieve hegemonic power over not only “others” but also within the Sinhalese Buddhist community. A Buddhist monk asked this writer, “Why have the Muslims who had assimilated into the Sinhalese culture been asserting their Islamic identity since the 1980s?” They have “vanquished” Tamil Elam for resisting assimilation and now the Muslims, who were part of the Sinhalese culture not very long ago, are now posited as those “asserting” a separate identity.

Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – Buddhist Force Army – was founded by monks Kirama Wimalajothi and Galagoda Aththe Gnansara after they parted ways with Jathika Hela Urumaya. Their first national convention held in 2012 problematized Islamic identity. They demanded one legal system for all, and opposed halal food and Muslim women wearing abaya or burqa. They wanted Buddhist monks to teach history and other subjects and also preferential treatment in university admissions. They demanded a ban on birth control measures for the Buddhist community. They were thus demanding privileges for Buddhists on the one hand, and cultural assimilation of Muslims, or rather their de-Islamization, on the other hand as the island nation looked to move on after the end of the civil war. BBS supports a strong, centralized, authoritarian state that would ensure protection of Sinhalese Buddhist cultural and religious traditions, and that would against be against the idea of a multiracial, multireligious and multicultural Sri Lanka.

The extremist Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism seeks to mobilize the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community by instilling fear of the minority Muslim community, which forms less than 10 per cent of the population. They argue that the Sinhalese Buddhists have only one country where they belong, unlike Muslims, Hindus and Christians who have other countries. Moors too have only one homeland, so do the Sinhalese Christians! They problematize “mosques springing up everywhere”, “fast growth of Muslim population” and “conversions by Christians”.

BBS General Secretary Gnansara had welcomed the victory of Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 Indian General Elections. He claimed they were in discussion with the Hindu supremacist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (to which the BJP is affiliated) in India to form what he called “Hindu-Buddhist peace zone” in South Asia and link up with Myanmar’s extremist Buddhist nationalist Wirathu Group 969. Though Ram Madhav, general secretary of the BJP, denied that they were in talks with BBS, he posted comments appreciative of the BBS. He wrote, “The Bodu Bala Sena essentially talks about protecting the Buddhist culture of the country from foreign religions”. RSS also claims to do that too – for Hinduism. Wirathu Group 969, BBS and RSS have common imagined enemies in followers of Islam and Christianity, and profess a duty to save their respective “only homelands” from being gobbled up by Islam and Christianity. The three Buddhist and Hindu supremacist organizations posit imagined threat from imagined enemies and fan fear within the majority community in order to project themselves as protectors of their respective cultural heritage. They have little respect for truth, established procedures and democratic institutions. In Kandy, the Muslim youth had been arrested on the charge of beating up the truck driver on 22 February 2018, the day of the incident itself; and in Ampara, prejudices against Muslims drove the Sinhala customers of hotel owned by Muslims to imagine contraceptive pills in meals served to them. They did not wait for their suspicions to be confirmed. Even if their suspicion were eventually confirmed, we would then be faced with the question: who should inflict punishment on whom and in what measure?

An armed security guard stands next to a mosque in Kandy

The right-wing extremists use insignificant everyday incidents like a scuffle over a road accident or something strange in the meal served to them as an excuse to inflict collective punishment on members of the community. In order to purge the “other” from their midst, they blow up the conflict to the level of continuous and ongoing war with the “other”. In this war, however insufficient the protection afforded to the “other” by law may be, it is immediately stigmatized as appeasement. The extremist supremacists are more at war with democracy and the rule of law and the war with the “other” is merely the means. At a rally in 2013 attended by 16,000 people, including 1,300 Buddhist monks, BBS General Secretary Gnanasara unveiled the “Maharagama Declaration”. He stated, “[t]his is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.” He said that the Sinhalese Buddhists attending the rally that they “must become an unofficial civilian police force against Muslim extremism. These so-called democrats are destroying the Sinhala race.” The Wirathu Group 969 has always supported the military junta in Myanmar and the RSS has always been unhappy with the Indian Constitution, which they say is based on Western traditions – a veiled attack on equal citizenship rights that it grants.

The BBS has also learnt a tactic or two from the RSS. In a rally held in Kandy on 17 March 2013, BBS announced that the 10th-century mosque at the Kuragala Buddhist monastery complex in Ratnapura district had been constructed at the Buddhist heritage by Muslim fundamentalists. India was ruled by Muslim kings, because of which the Sangh Parivar claims that Babri Masjid was built after destroying Ramjanmabhoomi Temple, but Sri Lanka was not. It was a Portuguese colony and later a British colony. BBS General Secretary Gnanasara also accused the Muslim-owned Fashion Bug and No Limit retail chains of converting their Sinhalese Buddhist employees to Islam. The Muslim-owned Fashion Bug clothes outlet in Pepiliyana, in the district of Colombo, was attacked on 28 March 2013 by a mob led by Buddhist monks. While these right-wing supremacists problematize foreign cultural influences, they themselves freely borrow from foreign political ideologies, including more than a leaf from Nazis and Fascists.

Moreover, there are inherent contradictions and inconsistencies in their ideologies. While they compliment each other’s electoral victories as good for the stability of the region and share common “enemies” in Islam and Christianity, and have “held high-level talks”, their political goals would actually pit them against each other in the long run. While the BBS talks of protecting the Sinhalese Buddhist homeland, RSS’s goal is Akhand Bharat with common culture and religion, which not only includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, but also Myanmar and parts of China! Sri Lanka is the land, they say, where Ram waged war and rescued his wife Sita from Ravana’s custody.

Through their hyperboles and myths, the right-wing supremacists fan the insecurity among the already marginalized minority, practically abandoned by state. This in turn pushes the “othered” minorities to huddle around their exclusive symbols. The halal food, which the extremists have been making an issue of after 2012, is not a new cultural practice and does not concern non-Muslims how they chose to consume their food. Halal meat only means that the blood of the slaughtered animal has been drained completely before it is consumed. The extremists push the “other” towards more exclusivism rather than creating an environment of cultural exchanges and dialogue.

Musthafa Nihmath, a member of the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), told this writer there were about 3,000 mosques in Sri Lanka and until recently all services were being conducted in Tamil. Five mosques in Colombo have now begun Sinhala-language Friday sermons in rotation. The Moors are hard-working and most of them are business entrepreneurs. A cab driver told this writer that every other shop or business belongs either to Moors or Tamils. That may have been exaggeration but that is the perception and that is why their businesses and mosques and targeted by extremists.

The extremist right-wing nationalists worldwide are able to exploit the feeling of relative deprivation that the poor among the “majority” community and convert it into hatred against others belonging to more or less the same class but following different cultural traditions. The hatred then turns into violence. This souring of relations could be checked through education and by holding dialogues between and within communities.

The Constitution of Sri Lanka, as indeed that of India, mandates the state to treat all citizens equally regardless of their religions and afford all citizens adequate environment and space to freely practise their religion. However, the executives of these countries fail to administer the law in letter and spirit. As a Sri Lankan minister told a group among whom this writer was present, few people involved in violence are put to trial and even fewer are convicted. The impending violence can be prevented if hate crimes are checked in time, intelligence is strengthened and acted upon and bureaucrats are made accountable. Though the Sri Lankan government took stern steps by declaring an emergency to control the riots and clamped down on social media, the administration misused emergency provisions against the minorities. As the inequalities in Sri Lanka are increasing, the economic elite fund right-wing nationalism to problematize perceived or factual growth of the poor from the “other” marginalized communities. This takes the gaze off themselves and the structures that enrich them. Corruption thus only occasionally becomes a political issue.

This article originally appeared in the journal Secular Perspective, 16-31 March 2018.

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About The Author

Irfan engineer

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