By Kumar David –
In last week’s column I argued that another-1983 (race riots, carnage and mayhem) is unlikely. But there is another peril we need to reflect upon and controversially I will again be complacent about its prospects. Not to imply that opposing it in every possible way is unimportant; analysis is armchair, practice is what matters. Anyway this is not the first time a Sinhala-Buddhist or authoritarian (JR, MR) project has raised its ugly head, nor will it be the last. True, a Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) state need not be fascist; there are relatively benign semi-theocratic states – except that the rights of religious minorities are strangled (in Israel it’s the Palestinian majority). For example Islamic states vary from mild Indonesia, through Bangladesh and Pakistan, to monstrous Saudi Arabia. A Sinhala-Buddhist State (SBS), were it to materialise, will be located at the disagreeable end of the spectrum.
An enthusiastic minority of the SB public is ever happy to be incited by dangerous monks, the governing UNP-JHU alliance is stuffed with opportunists too craven to take a stand (except Mangala), the Prime Minister is toothless, the President untrustworthy and the opposition (SLPP, MEP, LSSP, DLF and CP) ingrained in race politics and stirring up instability in a quest for power. This alignment portends regression from whatever democracy we still retain to a de-facto or de-jure bad-land. It will be accompanied by repression not only of minorities but also Sinhalese who dare dissent and are branded traitors. A majority of Sinhalese, though not joined at the hip to extremism, at the same time fear to boldly confront it; such is the clout of the inbred Buddhist ethos in its Lankan manifestation. This is my justification for positing that regression to an SB Statist ideology in the prevailing mood of Muslim hate, ever present hostility to Tamils, majoritarian acquiescence and visceral abhorrence of democracy, has degenerated into a neo-fascist tendency.
Consider one example which will be much multiplied if an SB State materialises. The witch-hunt of gynaecologist Dr Seigu Shihabdeen is mind-boggling but his supervisors, hospital bosses, health minister and politicians are petrified to confront those who are fanning Moor-hate. Is this Sri Lanka’s Kristallnacht? I will not provide a summary; enough information is available – e.g. Piyumi Fonseka’s interview in the Daily Mirror of 4 June with Dr Imara, Shihabdeen’s wife. Imara says everything that happened before and after the arrest convinces her that the charade was concocted. I believe her. I have no comment on medical competence as opposed to the palpable witch-hunt.
Prof. Hemantha Senanayake, Head of Obs. & Gynae. Colombo Uni. demands an impartial inquiry by medical experts: “If people are intimidated by declarations not supported by medical science it is a worst-case scenario” (Daily Mirror, 8 Jun 2019). The Madras Hindu, 6 June: “A concerted campaign demonises the community; an extreme example is the allegation that Muslim doctors surreptitiously render Sinhala women infertile”. The Economist (8-14 June) in ‘Fighting Hatred with Hatred’ talks of Lanka as though it were a Neanderthal habitat. A Reuters’ summary pokes fun at Lanka’s racist sham.
To move from the horrific to the ludicrous, let’s have just one of many farcical examples. A Muslim woman was arrested and harassed at the instigation of locals and persons in saffron robes for wearing a dress with an image of a nautical-wheel, which some donkeys fancy resembles the dharma chakra – an Indian motif reaching back to Indus Valley times, later adopted as a Hindu, Jain and Buddhist emblem depicting the wheel of dharma. The police chumps and the charlatans prompting the arrest are oblivious of the rudiments of history!
The concerted campaign to demonise Muslims is not simply racial venom spewing from zealots. It is consciously used by some to thrust forward an SBS agenda, though in the minds of most it has no larger motive than Moor-hate per se. Is the SLPP – obviously with knowledge and consent of LSSP, CP and DLF – a hidden-hand fomenting unrest? There are accusations and speculations to this effect in the web and in the rumour mill, but at this time of writing I have no hard evidence. If one were to go on past form of course it is likely; but it’s prudent to wait and see. What is more relevant to this column is whether a successful SBS project, as opposed to racist agitation to discomfit the government, is in the interests of the Paksas and the parties of the Joint Opposition.
My answer is NO. The ambition of the Joint Opposition is to install a Paksa regime, but a near-fascist SB State will in the long-run have no use for the ‘family’ and its rotten cabal. They will be pushed aside by religious extremists, racists and Rasputin-like mad monks (Buddhist Imams and Ayatollahs). The Paksas are eating, drinking, mating people, who will grate on prudes and zealots. An alliance will not last. Guardians of a putative SB State will crush the fraudulent (MR, GR, Bacillus, GLP, Tissa, Vasu and other rogues) and clean out sinners to retain starchy credibility. More likely however, a Rajapaksa regime, if and when in power, will need to pulverise mad monks and fanatics. The lesson of September 1959 is not easily forgotten.
Extremists and mad monks cannot alone install a Sinhala-Buddhist semi-theocratic state; they need durable allies. In previous paragraphs I ruled out a lasting alliance with the Rajapaksa movement. Sure, Paksa-strategists will use monks as a lever, but plans to nip the loonies in the bud are likely on the ‘high-commands’ mental drawing board already. For one, a Paksa-regime will be desperate for international acceptability; sitting atop a medieval state is no help. What other partner can the neo-fascists look for? The one that comes readily to mind is the military, if it is at all willing to play along with half-wits. Recent examples of the religious-right playing ball-squeezing games with the army have seen the former come to grief. Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan are cases in point, though the fallout was different in each instance. In Egypt a puerile Muslim Brotherhood government was pulverised by the army it was flirting with. Prime Minister Morsi and the Egyptian people are now prisoners of the military. The fight is now bloody in Sudan; Imran Kahn has managed a draw in Pakistani after the military curbed Islamic extremism at American insistence.
The one place where an Islamic mass movement won hands down was Iran in 1979. Tens of millions surged out, the Sha’s detested military was obliterated and the state was transformed root and branch. The lesson is clear, seizure of power by revolutionaries, ethnic rivals, foreign intruders or faith-based radicals, can survive if and only if the incumbent armed state-power is eliminated. The Lankan military is very unlikely to ally itself with a nutty Sinhala-Buddhist putsch-cum-state project, but if it does it will soon snuff out its erstwhile partner and monopolise power. You might intervene with the objection “What if it’s not a putsch but a legitimate electoral victory of a Sinhala-Buddhist-Statist clutch. But that’s the option I commented on previously; except in alliance with the Rajapaksa opposition, there is no way an SB extremist faction can reach power electorally.
The logical conclusion my arguments lead to is that foisting a Sinhala-Buddhist State (semi-theocratic as in Somalia, Israel or Sudan) is not possible. Unenlightened enactments like the Chapter on Buddhism in the Sirima-Colvin Constitution will of course surface from time to time. Gamini Kulatunga is alarmed by Ratanasara’s fast: “The outcome due to the emotional upheaval of the common man could be the harbinger of a theocratic order”; the Inter-Religious Reconciliation Council proposed by Ranil may pave the way for extremist monks to veto aid agreements, treaties, budgets and investments; a halfway house to theocratic bedlam. Still, I remain confident that Lanka’s semi-democratic state form will survive for the foreseeable future. Ranil’s capitulation is pathetic, but he will be checked by secular and business interests.
What is likely to get worse is demonization, mob attacks and police harassment of Muslims. True it’s only a minority of Sinhalese who engage in active race-politics, but unfortunately it’s not a small minority. What’s more worrying is that the non-chauvinist Sinhala majority is unwilling to take on and see off these sons of bachelors. How different from the USA or a European democracy where racism is met by mobilisation, a majority white as in Charlottesville. Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches drew huge white contingents. Swathes of the majority community rally out to beat back racists and fanatics in democratic societies. But in Lanka the non-racist Sinhala majority only tut-tuts behind closed doors. Not good enough my friends; you can stop extremism in your community, outsiders like me cannot. If fifteen million Buddhists cannot rout the extremists in their midst what can anyone else or a government do? Don’t pass an impossible buck to state authorities.
India fast tracked prosecution and a few days ago convicted six men including policemen and government officials, all Hindus, for rape and murder of a Muslim girl in a Hindu temple. Three of the monsters were sentenced to life imprisonment. Hindutva activists in the meantime marched all over trying to shield the fiends; reminiscent of home? Public outrage, forceful action against goons and fast track prosecutions are what Lanka needs to learn – perhaps one day! Even if in analysis the triumph of a theocratic sate is improbable we cannot relax until all its recognisable indicators are demolished.