M. Jaffer, an Ettankattai resident was despairing. “The main junction is going up in flames. At the same time, the authorities are folding their arms and watching,” he complained.
Jaffer says that about 20 minutes after the shops were set ablaze, a few Muslim boys from the area had flung stones at the attackers in retaliation. “At that time we heard the Army personnel telling their colleagues,‘they are beating our people; bring your weapons and come here,’” the Ettankattai resident related.
“Until then they just watched and waited. Is this our Government? Is this our justice system?” “You know what happened to the Tamils in 1983? That is what is happening to us today,” another frustrated resident of Ettankattai told reporters just yards away from where the fire was raging.
Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism embedded in the structures of the Sri Lanka state and embraced by a significant cross-section of the Sinhala-Buddhist polity in the island has raised its gory head once more. We will never be able to understand the foundations of the violence that the Muslims are facing today in Sri Lanka nor put an end to anti-minority violence in the long run without unpacking the social, psychological, economic and institutional dimensions of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, even if one views the assault on the Sinhala-Buddhist truck driver, who later succumbed to his injuries, by three Muslim men in Kandy as the immediate background to the current ethnic tensions in the Central Province.
Those instigating and supporting the violence try to scare the majority community that the Muslims are trying to make Sinhalese infertile by mixing sterilization pills in the food served at Muslim eateries with a view to causing a decline in the population of the Sinhalese in the country. Some others blame the Muslims for being a thriving economic force in the country. Others just want a country without Muslims. The Sinhala nationalist discourse of anti-Muslim hatred is based on myths, lies and crude homogenizations about the economic strength of the Muslim community and a cultural desire to eliminate and eject the ‘Other’ from the nation-state.
As a country that has witnessed massacres targeting the minority communities for many decades, a thirty-year-long civil war centering on the national question in the North-East and inter-ethnic conflicts over land and other natural resources, employment, educational opportunities and access to state power, the Sri Lankan state should have already taken strong measures to win the confidence of the numerically smaller ethnic and religious groups by re-configuring itself as an inclusive body, in contrast to the current state structure that constitutionally offers foremost place to Buddhism, the faith that has the largest following in the island. The government in power, which claimed to pursue a reconciliation agenda to heal the wounds caused by the war, should have also created at the grassroots in the South and the war-affected North-East, not in Colombo’s plush hotels, spaces that nourish dialogue between communities that fear and mistrust one another at present. The state alone cannot be blamed for the terror that Muslims are facing today because our social organizations, religious institutions and trade unions could not situate their actions and activisms beyond the narrow cultural boundaries they have drawn for themselves and their constituencies. What we have been confronted by the past few days is a socio-institutional paralysis for which the state and non-state forces are collectively responsible.
The minority communities and everybody who yearns for a state that respects religious pluralism and cultural diversity have every reason to reject and rebel against the current Sri Lankan state as it has unambiguously and constitutionally ceased to be a common body that the people can relate to regardless of their identities. But in Sri Lanka, several powerful social and political groups representing the minorities, including the Archbishop of Colombo and mainstream Tamil and Muslim political parties, were willing to leave the constitutional privilege given to Buddhism untouched during debates on the new constitution. Despite the conciliatory positions taken by minority groups, Sinhala chauvinists continue to frame the religious minorities in the country as a threat to their existence as a nation. The institutional support Buddhism enjoys is undoubtedly one of the cardinal factors that boost the chauvinistic mobs to advance their violent political projects without fear, hesitation or shame and discourage the law-enforcing authorities from acting against the perpetrators of the violence without fear of reprisals.
The ineffectiveness of the government in taking stringent action against those who participated in the recent violence and their cheerleaders online and offline and its failure to bring to book those who were involved in the violence that hit the country in the past, the silence of a large segment of Sinhala-Buddhist civil society and its religious and social leaders who have not publicly condemned the mobs including the Buddhist monks who took part in the violence, the reluctance on the part of the mainstream media in the South to foreground in their analyses of the violence the destructive link between the ideology of the state and the actions of the mobs and the slowness on the part of the law enforcing bodies to curb the violence are all manifestations of nothing but overt and latent forms Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism that is both social and institutional.
Majoritarianism does not always require a state to unleash its hatred on numerically smaller populations. Even as the Muslims were falling victim to the violence in the Eastern and Central regions of the country, Valampurii, a Tamil-Hindu nationalist newspaper published from Jaffna, which actively backs the Tamil self-determination project in the North-East of Sri Lanka, penned editorials that were bluntly insulting to the Muslims and attempted to exacerbate anti-Muslim sentiments among the Tamils in the North. The editor, around the same time, was inducted into the Working Committee of the Tamil People’s Council, which parades itself as a crusader for justice for Tamils, by none other than the Chief Minister of the Northern Province who is also the Chairperson of the Council. Numerous supporters of Tamil nationalist parties such as TNPF and TNA and even the EPDP based in the island and western metropolis peppered their social media pages with anti-Muslim comments and some even went to the extent of celebrating the assaults on the Muslims by Sinhalese mobs. The anti-Muslim violence in the South brought to the fore vial social media platforms the deep-seated Islamaphobia among the Tamil communities in the country.
The anti-Muslim violence that is aided, abetted and tolerated by an apathetic state should not prevent us from introspecting into non-statist forms of majoritarianism that those of us who lived in the North-East witnessed during the heyday of the LTTE. The Movement, even as it was engaged in a struggle to create a separate, sovereign Tamil state, evicted the entire Muslim population from the areas under its control in 1990. This heinous act of pre-state ethnic cleansing should have reminded us, Tamils, that our self-determination project in the North-East, conceived through a single ethnic identity even today by some Tamil nationalists, is potentially genocidal like the Sinhala-Buddhist project of the Sri Lankan state that we have been combating since Independence.
Federalism and devolution of political powers including police powers to the Northern and Eastern provinces alone will not ensure the safety of minorities in the island. The political geography of post-colonial ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka tells us that the minorities outside the Northern Province were severely vulnerable during the ethnic pogroms of 1956, 1977, 1983, 2001 and 2014. The ongoing attacks on the Muslims, their shops and places of worship in the Central Province behoove us to give a central place to the safety and security of minorities outside the North-East in the political processes that aim at restructuring the state.
Institutional reforms alone are not sufficient to create a non-racist future. A new political consciousness that strives for justice and equality will bloom among us only if we re-conceive inter-ethnic relations through pluralist notions of territory and state. We need to remind ourselves that we share our territories and our state with people who don’t speak our language and worship our gods, and therefore our collective (national) sovereignty is limited by and contingent on the presence of other communities and the conditions necessary for their socio-political existence. A theory of radical unfreedom underlining our irrevocable commitments towards and connections with one another should inform our conversations about emancipatory political and social transformation. We have to always remember, regardless of whether or not we belong to a majority community under a given state, that any line of thought or action that departs from these foundational premises of coexistence and pluralism is genocidal.
Even as we are discussing the current spate of anti-Muslim violence and its causes, we hear stories about courageous and broad-minded Buddhists who have stepped out of their homes to give protection to the Muslims who live in their villages in the Central Province. A Buddhist temple in Gelioya has requested the Buddhists in the village via loudspeakers to protect the Muslims in the area and their properties from the racist mobs. The country needs more such Buddhist temples that can empathize with the trials and tribulations of the non-Buddhist populations. The solidarity shown towards Muslims by peace-loving Buddhists during this crisis should also translate into support for far-reaching societal and state reforms that can ensure non-recurrence of racist violence in the country. Therein lies the future of non-racist coexistence in Sri Lanka.
*The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation in Sri Lanka and attached to the Department of English, University of Peradeniya