Ethno-religious identity groups are formed in a structurally antagonistic pattern through specific historical processes. The Buddhist and Hindu revival movements which emerged in Sri Lanka in the middle of the 19th Century are the bases of present ethno-religious groupings.
Sinhala ethnicity is defined in opposition to, or structured against, Tamil and Muslim ethnicities. Sinhala ethnic sentiment is, therefore, hostile towards Tamils and Muslims. ‘Structured against’ does not mean that as individuals and in the context of day-to-day interactions, we Sinhalese consider Tamils and Muslims our enemies. But there are deep rooted perceptions that Muslim agglomerations will invariably endanger the Sinhala ethnicity. Similarly Tamils are viewed as those perpetually planning to divide the country in collusion with South India and the Tamil diaspora.
This is a tinderbox that could give rise to a conflagration any time: any time when political elites use these tensions to gain political power and the personal benefits that come with that power.
Was Aluthgama a random incident?
The easiest path to the top in Sri Lankan politics lies through one of the two major parties. Those who take alternative paths, such as persons in the smaller political formations, have to find new ways of attracting public attention and gaining political traction. Promoting universally accepted values such as social justice, equality for all, and democracy was one such way. This was the modus operandi of left wing political parties such as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. This strategy does not divide society vertically. Promoting universal values is ineffective in yielding immediate individual or political gains. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the comprehensive defeat of the JVP insurrection in 1989 marked the end of the road for this strategy.
The focus on universal values exacerbated horizontal class divisions. In contrast, the current trend of ethnicity based mobilization creates and aggravates vertical divisions between different identities such as Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim. It is easy to mobilize people on the basis of these ethno-religious identities which allow political actors to address the collective emotions of the people. The rise of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) demonstrates the efficacy of ethno-religious politics. Ironically, even the JVP climbed onto the same bandwagon in the mid-1980s because they found the effectiveness of universal values declining. Alongside the JHU (and its predecessors such as Janatha Mithuro) and the JVP, there was a movement called “Jathika Chinthanaya” which provided a strong philosophical foundation for Sinhala ethno-religious identity politics.
Kindling antagonism toward another ethnic group is necessary to mobilize an ethnic group. This tendency has contributed to the ethnicization of the political process in the past two decades in general, and after the General Election in 2004 and Presidential Election in 2005 in particular. In the early stages of this ethnicization of the political process, the LTTE played the role of the “other.” With the demise of LTTE led by Prabhakaran, the TNA and the Tamil diaspora have been substituted but their presence is not as real as it was with the LTTE. The presence of the TNA is largely limited to the north. The Southern presence of Tamils as a group is limited to Wellawatte and few other localities. On the other hand, Sinhalese interact with Muslims everywhere because they live in large or small clusters amongst the Sinhala throughout the South. Therefore, it is easier to position Muslims as the “other” or as the enemy of the Sinhala-Buddhist. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been cultivated in the Sinhala-Buddhist psyche over a long time. It can easily be invoked for reasons of political expediency.
Here it is important to examine the accusations against the Muslims. For example, it is said that Muslims in Dharga Town do not wear helmets while riding motor bikes. These accusations may not be baseless. It is quite natural among minority groups living amongst a majority to evolve such collective behaviours. They have social dimensions as well as deep socio-psychological rationales. These behaviours are not limited to Muslims in Dharga Town. Sri Lankans who live in France are an example. They live as they did in Sri Lanka in closely-knit communities amongst the French, causing considerable irritation among communal minded Frenchmen. This tendency is, therefore, universal as well as quite natural. However, irritation with this natural tendency can be turned into something malevolent for political gain. This technique was evident in the speeches made by Rev. Galagodaatte Gnanasara prior to the incident in Aluthgama as well as in the speech made by the JHU’s Champika Ranawaka subsequent to the incident.
Through such techniques, it is possible to provoke aggressive behaviours against the “othered” ethnic and religious identity groups. This provocative approach is evident in the speeches of Rev. Gnanasara. Interestingly, at the end of these speeches he advises his audience not to resort to violence. But the damage has already been done. For instance, the Sinhala-Buddhist side justifies the recent violence by claiming Muslims threw stones at their procession, which may be true. But, can we explain the whole series of violent events merely as a response to the throwing of few stones? Additional explanation is needed on why Muslim houses and shops were destroyed and looted and why people belonging to that ethno-religious community were physically harmed.
Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara has argued that Aluthgama was not a conflict between Muslims and Sinhalese, but was a case of looters taking advantage. This is misleading. Some made, and continue to proffer, similar simplistic explanations regarding the Black July of 1983, even when it was quite clear that the shops looted in 1983 belonged to Tamils, and it was Tamils who were deliberately targeted. If Aluthgama was merely about looting we have to ask why only Muslim shops were targeted.
Government playing a double game?
The other crucial issue is the role of the government. The government shrewdly used the post-war political dynamics to weaken political mobilizations that are its biggest threats. They let various religious groups grow. In fact, some allege that the Bodu Bala Sena is a creation of the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, but, I disagree. Certainly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has close connections with the BBS and its agenda may resonate with his political agenda. But when it comes to the all-important issue of containing the activities of the BBS, especially its violent behaviour toward the Muslims, the government has an ‘Asai Bayayi’ or want-but-fear approach.
The government need not actively suppress the religious groups behind the present conflict. It would be sufficient to let the law of the land to take its course, but, the government is not doing that. It is obvious that if a member of the political opposition were to utter anything similar to the inflammatory remarks made by religious extremists, such persons would be speedily arrested. One cannot forget how speedily law enforcement agencies reacted to Azath Salley and Tissanayagam.
Aluthgama is therefore not a random incident. It is a logical outcome of the government’s past inaction. If the government took measures to let the law take its normal course at decisive moments in the past, the Aluthgama disaster could have been averted. Liberals and moderate nationalists in Germany used Hitler’s Nazi movement in somewhat the same manner for their political ends. Though they knew very well that Hitler was dangerous, they thought he could be used against the communists. The present government was similarly using the BBS and other Buddhist extremist groups against its political opponents. It is time that this stops.
*Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, Head, Department of History, University of Colombo. This is article is based on an interview with Bingun Menaka Gamage of the Lankadeepa