By Kumar David –
When Lanka’s civil war ended in May 2009 with the extermination of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) it was thought that thirty years of strife was over and military victory would usher in stability and economic progress. Events have dashed these hopes; despite victory the government has shown no inclination for reconciliation or to reach a political settlement with the Tamils; barefaced attempts to consolidate an authoritarian regime and have run into determined opposition; the economy which showed a three year post-war spurt, has followed it with a severe downturn – a short boom followed by a bust. Another perilous development that has burst out in recent months is widespread attacks, in many parts of the island, on mosques, halal (kosher) foods, Muslim attire and the burning down of business premises owned by Muslims.
Indian and Pakistani readers are all too familiar with “communalism”. It evokes memories not just of Babri Masjid, Gujarat-Modi, and the horrors of partition, but reaches further back. Communal history is richly textured with brutality. (Though in the sacking of Delhi by Timur (1398), Nadir Shah (1739), and many other ravages, by far the great majority of those slaughtered were Muslims). The Sinhala-Tamil collision that Lanka has just emerged from too, has its historical roots; well marinated with contemporary social, economic and political discord. Memory reaches back to the Duttugemunu-Ellalan war of 161 BC, and Raja Raja Cholan’s conquest followed by a century long occupation (993-1077). The seminal text of Sinhala-Buddhist lore, the Fifth Century AD Mahavamsa, written in Pali, nurtures the notion of Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist exclusivity and portrays the Tamil as the “other”.
The ‘then’ roots of communalism
In colonial times, the British favoured Tamils with juicy placements in the public service, missionaries built schools in Jaffna, Tamil shops and businesses cornered the best locations, and so on. This is all true, and underpins the outbursts of anti-Tamil pogroms in the 1950s and 1960s. These mutated into widespread and co-ordinated attacks on Tamils from 1977 onwards (especially in 1983 when the UNP government, the military and the police instigated carnage), though the original causes had long evaporated. The Sinhala-Tamil civil war had roots charged with a nexus of social and economic discord; the roots were organic, if I may use the expression. Political and constitutional dissonances of the last 60 years were a continuation of the past; bigotry found fertile soil to prosper.
The hostility in Maktila and Rahine Province in Burma, in which hundreds of Muslims have been killed and tens of thousands made homeless, too, reach back a long way. The relaxation of military rule has allowed old angers to surface and pent up animosity to take to the streets. Therefore the outbreak of anti-Muslim bloodshed in Burma is another example of these classic socio-economic roots of religious intolerance.
The point I am driving at is that the anti-Muslim outburst we are now witnessing in Lanka, IS NOT LIKE THIS! This is different! I daresay there are business rivalries and Sinhalese merchants would love to drive out Muslim competitors, usually sharper and abler; but this eruption is not rooted there. The Muslims, unlike the Tamils of the past, put up no competition to the Sinhalese in public service employment and promotion, nor in education and university placement. Actually they are terribly underprivileged in these spheres. There is insufficient socio-economic causality to explain this sudden outburst of anti-Muslim mob violence. Rather, the motivation for the flare-up is firmly located in the political and ideological domains, as I will explain anon.
The Sinhala-Muslim concord was even better than that. Sinhalese up to yesterday extolled the anti-LTTE stance of the Muslim community in the war and congratulated it for distancing itself from the “Tamil speaking people” concept much loved of the Tigers. Indeed Muslims suffered more than the Sinhalese at the hands of the LTTE, which in ruthless style, uprooted and drove the entire community – about a hundred thousand souls – out of the Jaffna Peninsula, in 1991, with 24 hours notice. This base act of ethnic cleansing was followed by the grabbing of Muslim homes, lands and shops by gentle Tamils of non-violent renown! Throughout the civil-war, Sinhala state and people had a reliable and consistent ally in the Muslims. Then bang, in an act of incredible madness, Sinhala-Buddhist mobs and sections of the government, started to run riot!
The ‘now’ of communal rioting in Sri Lanka
Or perhaps is there a method in this madness? Is there method, craft, irrationality (more correctly called bigotry), and subliminal fear (Freud’s Madness of Crowds) underpinning it all. To come down to earth and put it in straightforward language: Are the real causes, the political agenda of sections of the government, plus, what is called Mahavamsa consciousness, a revanchist interpretation of Sinhala-Buddhism? I think the evidence is in favour of this hypothesis. It accounts for the lunatic fringe antics of sections of the SLFP, its coalition partners the Jathika Hela Urumaya and chauvinist Weerawansa, and the extremist Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Army.
The BBS is monk-led, and burst into prominence in recent months; it is like Shiv Sena not the RSS, in that its role is strong-arm thuggery, not any commitment to social service, a reform agenda or a religious world view. It is Lanka’s incipient version of Hitler’s Brown-Shirts (storm-troopers or Sturmabeteilung, SA). It forced halal products off the shelves, burnt down mosques and shops, forced the closure of Muslim shops, and it intimidates women in traditional Islamic attire. No killings have been reported so far, and unlike Maktila, armed monks have not yet been spotted.
We need to understand how the BBS unexpectedly rose to prominence. The obliteration of the LTTE was an epochal event; it is the acme of Rajapakse’s triumph. Nevertheless, how swiftly things change in modern times! Rajapakse’s moment passes quickly. Modern society is networked and complex – economy, class, ethnicity and polity; but the regime has failed on all counts. And the Rajapakses (the plural form is used to denote the sibling led regime) are still struggling, by defeating Lanka’s democratic heritage, to turn war victory into autocracy. Autocracy progressed in the three years after May 2009, but ran into economic and political roadblocks thereafter. Internationally too, the globe is tightly coupled, and Rajapakse has been brought to his knees, maybe one knee only so far, by internal and external happenings.
In this squalid scenario, Muslims pay the price of the regime needing a new enemy; a dragon to slay before its core constituency, a replacement for the vanquished tiger. This is the reason for the exertions of the chauvinists in the ruling alliance. This is the method in the madness of politically rigged communal mobilisation. Incredibly, Defence Secretary and military supremo, Gothabhaya, the President’s brother, has mounted the BBS rostrum and bestowed virtual impunity on these Rasputins. Imagine, if Indian Defence Minister Anthony, or Defence Secretary Sharma, were to visit an RSS or Shiv Sena ceremony and commend it for its good work in protecting Hinduism and Aryanism!
However this is not a one way street; it is not the regime alone that needs the mobs, the mobs too need impunity to sally forth and attain psychological catharsis. There is symbiosis between the regime’s political needs and the mob’s urge for orgasmic relief. After defeating the Tamils, Sinhala-Buddhist Mahavamsa ideology required new space. Religious extremism is as phoney and addictive an opiate as racism; of one hemlock we have partaken to the full, we now raise a second poisoned chalice to our lips. It is a mélange of the political ploy of a state sliding to economic and political disorder, and the cravings of addicts for an ethno-religious opiate. The sibling’s political agenda explains why the police force stands paralysed when this mob, the regime’s Sinhala-Buddhist core constituency, runs amok before its eyes. The extremists, for their part, have cathartic urges to fulfil. This confluence, this merging, constitutes the foundation of anti-Muslim mobilisation; this alone explains the unexpectedness of the eruption of communal violence in recent months.
However, there is a rational element in the panic that bearers of “Mahavamsa consciousness” endure. En passant, this consciousness envisions Sri Lanka as the pristine land of Sinhala-Buddhism, much as the Resurrection is the cardinal article of the Christian faith. Panic about alleged Muslim concupiscence is a Sinhala-Buddhist demographic nightmare. Muslims now number 9% but they multiply faster; their women are presumed more fertile, their men of superior virility – presumably the latter engenders a potency-inferiority complex in the competition! Psychology apart, I am no expert, demographic calculations suggest that within a generation the proportion of Muslims could rise to between 15 and 20%. Now this would be a completely different ballgame. The mocking lilt of that charming old ballad, “The sons of the Prophet are Mighty and Bold, and quite unaccustomed to fear”, may come to life, all the way to jihadism.
There is still a little time for the Lankan government to come to its senses and bring the full force of the law to bear. Despite scores of mosque and shop burning under the noses of an idle police, not one rowdy monk or BBS thug has been brought to trial and convicted. Fearful organisations and middle-aged Muslims have sought compromises (they have surrendered on the halal issue) and shop owners have reached “amicable” settlements with arsonists. The mood, however, is different among the young; patience will snap when Muslim women are violated by monks and mobs.
Appeals to justice and commonsense will have no effect on this government, only a threat to its own survival will be effective. This is where international action can help. Middle East countries must draw a line in the sand and say, if it is crossed, if violence against Muslims continues, Lankan domestic workers (earners of 60% of the countries current account foreign currency) will be sent home. If this happens the government will collapse within months as the economy crumbles and the streets erupt. India and the rest of the world must make it clear that if these pogroms, or any other artifice, is used to annul constitutional democracy in Lanka, the culprits will be dispatched in short order. The world does not need another Bashar al-Assad.