By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) holds a rally following an ‘incident’. A second, more violent incident follows. That’s an easy line to draw, i.e. from BBS to violence. It holds. The language, the whipping up of emotions, creation and/or exacerbation of apprehensions regarding another community do not add up to prthagjanas reverting to the foundational tenets, especially wisdom and compassion, or the inhabiting of the sathara brahma viharana (compassion, kindness, equanimity and rejoicing in another’s joys) but produce a quick slide to besieged mentality, persecution mania and the adaptation of ‘attack is the best form of defence’ thinking.
What are the ‘facts’ that we have here? There’s the ‘incident’ where it is claimed that a Muslim person had hit a bikkhu. Claiming is easy and this side of arahathood anyone, bikkhus included, can transgress precepts, including the fourth, the commitment not to utter falsehood). Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault. What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.
The fact is that neither party can offer anything to conclusively prove their case. So they go to the Police. What can the police do? If the police are impartial, the police will weigh evidence and let the law take its course, either towards dismissal or indictment. The police, since it is also tasked to maintain peace, will take precautions to ensure that tempers are kept in check.
The Police may have done the best they could but ‘the best’ clearly has been inadequate. Muslims have been attacked in Alutgama. Houses and shops have been torched. The BBS rally could have been stopped (others have been on numerous occasions, after all). Outfits like the BBS thrives on ‘flash-points’ and are not averse to creating ‘flash-points’ which can be exploited. The ‘democratic’ argument; right to assemble, right to express opinion etc; is thin given histories that the Police and higher authorities are clearly not ignorant about.
It’s so easy to slide on the matter of ‘faith’. Someone says ‘I was hit’ and those who hear that will see robe and bikkhu, will see ‘Muslim’ and not another human being, will not stop and ask ‘is that true?’ and will not let the law deal with it. And when the law does deal with it, even in clumsy ways, if the ‘decision’ is perceived as ‘unfair’, there is frustration. The police and the government have not helped at all. There have been countless instances in these types of situations as well as in regular policing matters where the law has been a politician’s plaything and police officers turned into hapless implementers of orders ‘from above’.
In this context Buddhists will say (as they have – check FB posts) that the Government is turning a blind eye on ‘Islamic Extremism’ and Muslims will say (as they have) that this is a ‘Sinhala Buddhist state’ with tacit approval of ‘Extremist Buddhist outfits’ and their attacks on Muslims and Muslim establishments. Both parties can cite innumerable instances of ‘government support’ to the ‘other’. Buddhists will say ‘Kuragala’ and Muslims could point to state-run media outfits that have blown the Aluthgama incident way out of proportion, claiming that political mileage was being sought by stating as established fact what is, as of now, nothing more than an allegation, that of a bikkhu being attacked by a Muslim (whether or not religion was part of it is of course not even footnoted!).
Part of the reason is this whole ‘besieged’ discourse that is gaining ground across all communities based on identity, regardless whether they constitute the majority or are a minority. Identity assertion is not illegal. Sometimes it is not a matter of pride; it is a communal assertion that seeks safety from perceived threat. Sometimes it is defiance. Somewhere in this assertion business there is also a thread of threat.
Be that as it may, the ground that is made uneven and therefore made for tripping in multiple ways, is clearly a product of a break down in the entire institutional arrangement pertaining to law and order. It has made it possible for anyone to stake high moral ground claiming persecution and complicity of the police in the pernicious designs of the ‘other’.
For this, no one is to blame, but all relevant individuals and bodies in the government.
If the Government does nothing, then we are in a serious situation. However, even if the Government does nothing, it does not follow that the people should twiddle their thumbs. If ‘faith’ is at the center of these disturbing developments, then it would not be out or order to seek in ‘faith’ the appropriate response.
No doctrine needs defense. Political positions require defense, political organizations can claim that defense is necessary. Attack will be an easy option in the matter of defending these things. Organizations have their membership made of the like-minded. They rarely listed to advise from outsiders (why should they?). But not all Buddhists are members of the BBS and not all Buddhists support the BBS.
There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. No amount of assurances from the government or the police or the neighbors would succeed in removing these fears completely. It is necessary however for Buddhists to talk to their Muslim neighbors. It is not about saying sorry for crimes committed in their name by people they don’t even know or whose actions they did not and would not support. All that needs to be done is to say ‘I will not do this and I will do my best to stop anyone from doing anything like this to you or your family, my friend’.
It is not easy to argue with a mob, but I have seen individuals standing up to mobs. Reason, compassion, determination and everything else that one obtained or is strengthened by faith, will do it.
Aluthgama is a metaphor for a lot of things. A lot of things we really can do without. For this reason Aluthgama needs to be arrested forthwith, if not by the Government then by the decent, civilized, law-abiding citizens of this country, whatever their faith.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com