By Lakmal Harischandra –
Covid-19 will make Easter very different for millions this year, with public liturgies suspended and churches closed all over the world. During this Covid-19 pandemic, when many are anxious about how they will come through, to the Christian community in Sri Lanka, Easter this year also brings to their mind, dark and sad memories of a barbaric terror attack which targeted many churches and killed hundreds of worshippers at prayer. The terror targets included some hotels and their guests too.
There is no disagreement at all about the barbarity of the terror crime committed on Easter Sunday last year and the imperative need to punish them –It was a crime against humanity indeed. This deserves ultimate condemnation and punishment. However, despite many probes and inquiries, still there is not much progress in identifying those responsible for the disaster and for allowing this to happen, despite many arrests being made including the politically timed arrests few days ago.
The Muslims in particular were demonised, making the entire community by association. The whole community was asked to plead guilty for the vile acts of a fringe extremist group which took them too, by surprise. In fact, the community felt much grieved and remorseful, when they heard that the same group NTJ which they have already warned the authorities about many times in the past, was responsible for carrying out this monstrous but preventable attack. Even the Indian authorities have warned the government and Intelligence. Sadly the innocent worshippers and the hotel guests were made sacrificial lamb for the apathy of the authorities.
Interestingly, an year on, the Easter Sunday Disaster, the darkest chapter in the recent history of Sri Lanka, is being analysed through different but contrasting perspectives. To quote two examples, His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, one of the heroic characters at the time of the tragedy who saved the country from a sure ethnic war, at his Press conference looked at it from a rational and mature perspective as a Man of Religion. Then, the other one was Shenali Waduge, a renown Islamophobe who took a divisive approach, going at tangents placing blame on Islamic Jihadism and by extension on the appeasement of minorities and multi-culturism for allowing this to happen. Interesting contrasts indeed!
His Eminence the Cardinal adopted a rational approach. Cardinal clearly stated that there were clear attempts by certain forces to create unwanted tensions between various religions by destroying the inter -faith unity and harmony. There is a need to identify those conspirators to avert such recurrences in the future This probes should be transparent and those responsible for allowing this to happen should be found. There need to be a genuine effort to ascertain those who financed and gave logistical support to this terror operation. Although the present government continuing the probes is commendable, it is also important that those who ignored tips and prior intelligence warnings should also be summoned, inquired into and sued. Further, there is also a need to differentiate between the wrong and the wrong doers to avert such acts in the future’. Cardinal also forgave those who committed this crime. However, there is the need to identify those behind this well- planned operation and who benefitted therefrom.
Thus, the Cardinal looked at the bigger picture beyond mere Zahraans and saw the presence of evil forces who wanted to wreak havoc on the religious unity and harmony for petty (political) gains. He thus saw Zahraans as mere ‘balal-ath’( cats paws). Cardinal has many times stressed the need to look for the real culprits without demonising the Muslim community, who had no benefit from waging this savage attack on their religious cousins. This extremist group was used by those schemers to create a conducive situation to achieve their nefarious political ends. As expected, the aftermath of this tragedy created much emotions which led for the people to call for a change of government which stresses on national security and a powerful leader who will not bend down to the whims and fancies of the Minorities (particularly the Muslims) with extremist tendencies. ISIS naturally got the ‘credit’ for an operation which was planned locally, specifically to achieve local political objectives, although there were reported links with and support ISIS operatives in India, who wanted a boost when their global reach were getting affected. This does not mean Wahhabi extremism is not a problem at all; it is a cancer for the Sri Lankan Muslims as well who have had more than 1000 years of amicable living with the Sinhalese. But any sane analyst will note that targeting the Christian community was deliberately planned as the planners wanted a controlled social explosion with global impact ( reason why targeted the Hotels as well). If it was an attack on the Sinhala Buddhists, then those attacks would have led to anti-Muslim attacks of un-controllable proportions. Cardinals’ intervention not to attack Muslims at the early stage frustrated the hate groups’ plans, who were waited for a positive nod from the Cardinal to start attacking the Muslims. However, it was not to be. He saw the attacks from a different but matured light.
It is interesting to note that the line between legitimate criticism and illegitimate bigotry is crossed when criticism of ideas or beliefs becomes transposed into prejudice about people. Shenali Waduge, (SW) never shy away from any opportunity to spread racist venom or demonize the minorities while singing hosannas for Sinhala supremacy. Thus, unsurprisingly, she made use of the Easter Sunday to shout from her rooftop the need to stop appeasing the minorities among many other wild accusations. Days ago, on the first anniversary of the Easter Sunday tragedy, she published an article in her own website titled ‘Easter Sunday Attack by Islamic Jihadists in Sri Lanka – A Crime against Humanity – Lessons to be learnt’ which is being circulated widely in the social media, creating distorted perspectives about the disaster. This article is best considered as a grim clutter of minority hatred (with focus on anti-Muslim hate) and (majority) Sinhala identity politics. She did not condemn the worst type of atrocities and genocide committed by Buddhist Myanmar. Instead she was suggesting some measures adopted by the Myanmar government as well as the Chinese government to deal with the Muslim extremism.
The purpose of this article is not to argue that the Muslim community is flawless and that everything that they have got wrong are due to some external factors. That is not the case. There are many areas where the Muslim community should reflect inwards and make amends. If a fair and independent probe points to Muslim sharks (apart from the sprats arrested) behind this barbaric attacks, then certainly they also deserve the utmost punishment. The purpose of this article is to show that the analysis of the Easter Sunday should be fair without demonising the entire community and holding the whole community to account for the acts of a vile few or a group. It is not fair when the Sinhala community was not blamed for the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils by State sponsored (Sinhala) gangs where hundreds were massacred or for the anti-Muslim attacks from Aluthgama to Minuwangoda when (Sinhala) goons provoked by the likes of Ven Gnanasaras were carrying them out or the whole Tamil community wasn’t found fault with, when Tigers were massacring people in many hundreds, to quote another example. SW’s article was clearly missing the forest for the trees, by her misplaced arguments. As a Sinhalese activist, I feel a sense of injustice when a section of our community is being unfairly demonized, If not stopped in its tracks, this would lead to more Zahraans.
SW’s approach and her language of hate was neither new or surprising and has always defined who she is and is. SW said in this article; ‘All over the country people began to question the wisdom of placing trust and faith in foreign born rather than home grown propositions if the final outcome of such misplaced trust was a tragedy of genocidal proportions. .. The unequivocal cry everywhere was that there should not be any further compromise with any minority, ethnic or religious, pursuing an Agenda, aimed at undermining at any level the control and management of this country by the elected representatives of the majority. Enough is enough. Time for experimentation with ideas more applicable in a foreign context no longer mattered’ .Is this what should be a logical inference out of that tragedy?
Then, SW goes on to interestingly draw some lessons from the tragedy. It is intriguing how these lessons arise out of a tragedy which has wider political dimensions than Zahraan’s bombing as remarked by the Cardinal. She draws strange lessons such as No more appeasement of minorities (minorities have enjoyed making unfair and unreasonable demands. The rulers were following an un restricted appeasing line), and the multi-culturism should end (though Sri Lanka is the homeland of all its citizens a special place has to be reserved for the Bhoomiputras -sons of the soil – those who built the nation). Sinhala Buddhists are the undisputed Bhoomiputras of Sri Lanka. Finally, she proposes some steps to establish a Sinhala Buddhist State, including the absurd suggestion to develop Population control mechanisms such that no minority community, religious or ethnic, will surreptitiously indulge in achieving high birth rates and thereby through natural increase of their flock compete with the majority to dominate and rule the country’. This is the type of racist poison being circulated among the grassroot levels of the Sinhala community which consequently leads to ethnic tensions and violence. If this is not hate speech, then what is?
What is this appeasement of minorities and usurpation of rights of the majority she refers to? At most, those who may have been appeased were the Muslim or Tamil political opportunists and not the communities. Although minorities should enjoy the same rights as the majority as equal citizens under the constitution, it is only an illusion. Still both Tamils and Muslims are being marginalized in the Post-war era, by the Sinhala supremacist government where racism is institutionalized and majoritarian policies are deeply entrenched. Muslims are being demonised and the racist sections in the political establishment, Maha Sangha and the Media are enjoying immunity (impunity has gone to crisis proportions in Sri Lanka). The position has become more precarious for the minorities now with Rajapaksas back in action and will get worse after if a 2/3rd majority parliament becomes a reality. The rights referred to by SW regarding some laws only for the Muslims, are the personal laws. Kandyans too enjoy some laws peculiar to them.
However, as a result of the hate speech of this kind, our brotherly Muslim community has been facing a climate of fear and insecurity. Hiru, Derana, Diwaina and Lankaadeepa are well known for fake news and demonization of the minorities which is enjoying immunity from any forms of prosecution. Impunity of the highest order! Often repeated, these types of tirade of hate and venom appear to have a lasting impact on the psyche of youth people, making them unfairly look at the Muslims suspiciously. This does not augur well for the future of a united Sri Lanka. We know what can happen when political leaders, media outlets and writers of this type, single out certain groups of people as less than human and demonise them. Today, the leaders of powerful nations use dehumanizing language in describing certain groups of people. In Rwanda, we know what happened due to dehumanizing language. Years of cultivated hatred led to death on a horrifying scale. The radio station RTLM, allied with leaders of the government, had been inciting Hutus against the Tutsi minority, repeatedly describing the latter as inyenzi, or “cockroaches,” and as inzoka, or “snakes.” The station, unfortunately, had many listeners. The genocide was one of the worst ever.
Be it as it may, the subject under analysis, is the Easter Sunday tragedy and the factors which led to it. As Cardinal stated that there is a need to do a fair probe and punish those responsible. The hate propaganda targeting Muslim communities will only be a diversion. Failure to hold perpetrators to account for all forms of ethnic violence (Easter attacks and those before) has strengthened the hate groups. It is time for Sri Lanka to vigorously adopt measures to protect the rights of all people and to hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of their ethno-religious background.
Besides, Sri Lanka needs religious leaders of the likes of Cardinal, Ven Galkande Dhammadanda Thero and Ven Bhaddiya Thero. Contrastingly, avowed hate peddlers like SWs, Gnanasaras and Iththeekandes who get the moral comfort of having someone else to blame for our nation’s failures should be confronted without observing silence. There is a need for those of us, as non-racists, to kick out those of the likes of SW intellectually , or lock them up in their cocoons. As Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, stated ,’We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented’