By Austin Fernando –
Recently I read two articles (read here and here) by my friend Dr. W.A Wijewardena (Daily FT and Colombo Telegraph), which cautioned to keep fundamentalists in check or suffer impediments to liberty and social progress. Since he touched upon Hindutva experiences, I attempt supplementing him with a few insights on Hindutva experiences in India along with comparable Sri Lankan experiences to endorse these dangers.
Hindutva of India and Majoritarianism in Sri Lanka
In both our countries religions and cultures are integrated- Buddhism, Hindu or Islam. While Hindutva monopolizes in India, according to Wijewardena in Sri Lanka the ‘de facto theocracy’ leads, an indirect reference to the majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist narrative, as currently practiced. However, in Sri Lanka other religious leaders also influence governmental actions selectively. It is ‘shared theocracy!’
Being a majority Hindu community, the focus becomes Hinduism and its appurtenant institutions and moreover ideological interactions that existed and exist. Muslims also have their conceptualism.
Hindu- Buddhist integration
According to Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Hindutva is defined as the ideology of the “culture of the Hindu race,” where Hinduism is but an element and “Hindu dharma is a religion practiced by Hindus as well as Sikhs and Buddhists”. Hindu practices, culture, rituals etc. have also reached Sri Lankan psyche and practices. Buddhists have adjusted their faith in line with Hindu Kovil practices.
In India, over time Hindu nationalism has evolved, which is collectively referred to as the expression of social and political thought, based on the native spiritual and cultural traditions of the subcontinent. The Hindu ideology has inspired the Indian independence movement, armed struggles, coercive politics, and in non-violent protests. Presently it has widened its scope to a much greater cultural renaissance movement and the most powerful motivator of Indian politics.
The Sri Lankan political history also has similar connections to nationalism but have not created ‘Buddhist nationalism.’ Sort of Buddhist nationalism showed-off its strength though, when the SWRD Bandaranaike government assumed power, starting a cultural revival. The outputs like making Sinhalese the official language, establishment of a Ministry of Cultural Affairs, prominence to indigenous contributions like Ayurveda, Buddha Jayanthi celebrations, literary revival, popularizing a national dress etc. can be considered its symbolic evidence.
Components energizing Hindutva
An essay on how Hindutva evolved is in Shashi Tharoor’s book ‘Why I am a Hindu’ in which the Chapter on ‘Hinduism and the Politics of Hindutva’ highlights Hindutva evolution.
According to literature, the Indian Hindutva narrative has evolved on the thinking of several pioneer Hindu leaders like VD Savarkar, MS Golwalkar, Pandit DD Upadhyaya et al. who conceptualized, motivated, wrote and lectured on Hindutva.
Whether Sri Lanka has such caliber personalities after Anagarika Dharmapala, Ven Migettuvewatte Gunananada Thero, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Theros et al is an issue. Comparatively lesser known Sinhala Buddhist nationalist thinking and actions have been pursued in recent times by Ven Gangodawila Soma, Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, Ven Athuraliye Ratana Theros et al.
The latter group is incomparable with the abovementioned ‘religious’ nationalists. Anyway, they wielded influence with governments, but now seen moving away complaining the inaction of the incumbent Rajapaksa government against Muslim extremism (i.e. closing Madrasas, combatting Islamic extremism).
The Hindutva narrative was taken as the cue for religious and even political achievements in India. Before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) endorsed Hindutva as its power base, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded in 1925 by Dr. KB Hedgewar. Sri Lanka lacked such old-timer organizational arrangements.
According to literature Hedgewar believed that the British rule works because Hindus lacked unity, valor and a civic character. Thus, he recruited energetic Hindu youth and taught them paramilitary techniques. He created awareness of India’s glorious Hindu past to attract the members in a religious communion. This continues even to date with Rama-plays staged during Diwali festival or in Kumbh Mela celebrations. The saffron flag of Shivaji, the Bhagwa Dhwaj, was used as the emblem for the new organization.
The Sri Lankan reformers lagged in institution-building for ‘religious’ nationalism, though we had Anagarika Dharmapala’s Mahabodhi Society of India. It led to religious revival but was not a confrontational organization like the RSS. Of course, Anagarika Dharmapala legally confronted Hindu leaders in India (e.g. Mahantha) who were roadblocking him, but was no political leader, though he spoke out to fight colonial behavior. In Sri Lanka the nationalist exercises were multi-ethnic, multi-religious and hence multi-cultural.
(III) Complementing approaches
The RSS’s public tasks involved protecting Hindu pilgrims at festivals and observances in major Hindu temples. Even today, volunteers serve selected temples. It arranged for training of “pracharaks” (Incidentally Prime Minister Modi started as a pracharak.) and asked volunteers to become Sadhus first, dedicating themselves to the cause of the RSS, giving it the character of a ‘Hindu Sect.’ The RSS thus gained recognition to propagate the ideology of Hindutva and provide “new physical strength” to Hindus.
In India RSS was supplemented by other parallel political approaches. Political programs were in place with Gandhiji leading the way. Hedgewar opposed some Gandhian programs like Gandhiji’s stance on the Indian Muslims. He believed that “it was imperative that they stood up valiantly in defense of Hindu life and honor.” When Hindus were organizing RSS, naturally Muslims also mobilized themselves, probably in defense of Muslim lives and honor, which can happen in another scenario too. Muslims also turned their anger towards Hindus and violence broke out that killed many Muslims.
Millions became members of RSS and Sri Lankan organizations did not have such clientele, but nameboards such as Mahason Balakaya, Ravana Balaya, Sinhale etc. They did not have leaders like LK Advani or Narendra Modi, though proxy political support is claimed and not ruled out. We saw violent activities (e.g. Digana) organized by fly by night organizations with no national image. Since they were not openly attached to political parties a political connotation cannot be made clearly as between the RSS and BJP.
The violence in India was different. There were clashes in Nagpur (in 1927), Godhra train burning (2002) killing 59 Hindus, followed by Gujarat riots (killing 790 Muslims, 254 Hindus, and 223 missing: official figures). In the 2019-2020 violence in Indian cities and universities, names of student RSS members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad and leaders like Adhitya Yogi, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh were tagged. In certain instances (e.g. Jamilia and Jawaharlal Nehru Universities, and Delhi where 53 were killed in four days), Police complicity was also alleged. The threat is repetition of such in Sri Lanka, with similar fundamentalist incidents happening.
Sri Lanka did not proceed on RSS footsteps. We had clergy who led the “revolution” in 1956 but sans an organization like the RSS that continued to influence political decisions. However, when issues arose (e.g. Sinhala being made official language), inclusive of July 1983, spontaneous heavy violence happened despite the absence of an RSS type organization.
(IV) Name dropping
The RSS leaders did not even spare Gandhiji when it suited, as seen in the quote in ‘R.S.S. A Vision in Action.’
“My own experiences but confirm the opinion that the Mussalman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu is a coward; where there are cowards there will always be bullies.” In that pithy statement Gandhiji had indirectly given a warning to the Hindus that they should give up their cowardice, if they had to end Muslim aggressiveness.”
In Sri Lanka such aggressive labeling of national leaders to promote confrontations is less. Nor do we find organizations like RSS publicly provoking confrontations. It has become the forte of some priests and youth bloggers who even plan to contest parliamentary elections. If elected they may establish a platform for confrontations, as happened in 1956 with persons like KMP Rajaratna orchestrating anti-Tamil sentiments. Among the minority groups too we find similar individuals.
Here, names of Muslim political leaders are freely dropped as supporters of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Muslim international terror bandwagon. It must be noted that some Muslim activists’ and religious leaders’ behavior also had been questionable and would have provoked confrontation; of course, undeserved by the victims.
(V) Timely events supporting polarization
Two crucial events in India before 2019 elections were the Pulwama terror attack supposedly with Pakistani military support, killing 40 security personnel and the Indian response by Balakot air attack. It is no secret that these attacks were openly used by the BJP to attract voters at the election. The Easter Sunday attack was similarly used by Sri Lanka Podujana Party at the presidential election. This is politics! Both incidents had connectivity to security of the countries as well to fundamentalists. These showed how reactions become common functions.
In India prior to these incidents RSS was convinced of the need to organize the Hindus. Similar demand is finding its way in Sri Lanka too, albeit such large-scale violent aggression from non-Muslims against Muslims.
When the BJP officially adopted Hindutva (1989), to achieve RSS’s Hindutva objectives as the political arm of the RSS, BJP had to prepare the background. For this, reasons such as national security, threats from Pakistan, lagging development, crushing the political hold by a few families in Kashmir, land issues etc. were highlighted. The BJP thus prepared to work towards control of Muslim majority Kashmir from the center. It awaited gaining control of Ayodhya for religious reasons, through Courts; passed the Triple Talaq law; dangled with refugee citizenship and citizenship registration allegedly sidelining Muslims and planned to formulate a common Uniform Civil Code to replace personal laws etc. The most affected from these were Muslims.
This I say to prove that what happened during my tenure as High Commissioner and continued violently afterwards is not exclusive spontaneous actions related to 2019 events, but had inclusive historical linkages influenced by Savarkar and others. We do not have such heavy baggage fortunately. But there are parties who will demand such actions.
In Sri Lanka majoritarian nationalistic approaches were observed during the British rule with the involvement of leaders like Anagarika Dharmapala and other Buddhist priests who were demanding change. By 1956 there were political parties accommodating nationalistic demands, clamoring for supremacy for Buddhism and Sinhala, led by priests achieving some ends.
Indian nationalism was not spontaneous. It connoted Indian ethnicity and Hindu religion. Alien religions lacked qualifications to be nationalistic. To prove I quote Shashi Tharoor:
“India is the land of Hindus since their ethnicity is Indian and since the Hindu faith originated in India. (Other faiths that were born in India, like Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism also qualified, in Savarkar’s terms, as variants of Hinduism since they fulfilled the same three criteria, but Islam and Christianity born outside India, did not). Thus, a Hindu is someone born of Hindu parents, who regards India- ‘this land of Bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the sea’ as his motherland as well as his holy land, ‘that is the cradle-land of his religion’.
It is interesting therefore to note that the exception of Muslims and Christians for Indian citizenship under new legislation [Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)] is not a branded innovation of the BJP Government of 2019, but it derives from Indian Hindutva roots. PM Modi quoting past actions of Congress leaders explained that the CAA was the logical culmination of a policy giving shelter to persecuted minorities from India’s neighborhood that has long been part of India’s political discourse. PM Modi unquestionably stood with Hindutva obsession.
Even recent writing in ‘R.S.S. A Vision in Action’ (Chapter- ‘Meeting the threat of conversion’) shows that RSS was very concerned of Muslim and Christian conversions. Recently even in Sri Lanka there had been slightly checked, cautious intrusions to conversion issues in public domain and in social media, not as a serious concern though. We may keep in mind that even the UNHRC has drawn attention to reactions to problems with minority religious groups, which sometimes has conversion at its base.
Muslims the Common factor
The evolution of Hindutva as cultural nationalism was exhibiting the values that are supported by BJP. I quote Tharoor to show how hard was it to be together with Muslims. It may also reason out the BJP government’s current behavior.
“The alternative to territorial nationalism, to Golwalkar, was a nationalism based on race. In ‘We, or Our Nationhood Defined,’ at the height of Hitler’s rise, Golwalkar wrote: ‘To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Race- the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.’
Hindustan learning and profiting from Nazi ideology do not speak so well and will be reason to pulverize fundamentalism.
A non- Buddhist, non-Sinhala Sri Lankan may be stunned when he reads a quote from VS Naipaul from Tharoor (VS Naipaul, Among the believers: An Islamic Journey, London: Penguin Books, 1982).
“According to the proponents of Hindutva, despite that common descent, Muslims had cut themselves off from Hindu culture: they prayed in Arabic, rather than in Sanskrit born on Indian soil, turned to a foreign city (Mecca) as their holiest of holies, and owed allegiance to a holy book, and beliefs spawned by it, that had no roots in the sacred land of India. Naipaul echoes this thought in his Among the Believers: “It turns out now that the Arabs were the most successful imperialists of all times; since to be conquered by them (and then to be like them) is still, in the minds of the faithful, to be saved”.
His contention on Hindutva if applied by the extremists in Sri Lanka, directing to Muslims could give jitters, because Muslims in Sri Lanka are distinctly different from Hindus or Buddhists, pray in Arabic, read Koran, go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and have come to Ceylon as foreign traders! Such chilled fundamentalist thinking will be damning. However, the strict criticism is that the Muslims have gone a step forward too far, like some demanding application of Sharia in Sri Lanka. Therefore, instead of ‘successful imperialists’ in the quote, in Sri Lanka the yardstick could be ‘being successful, maneuvering politicians and prosperous businessmen’. Hence the creation of anti-Muslim attitudes could be fueled easily. A bad lesson to learn.
Again, Tharoor says:
“…. To remain in India, Muslims would have to submit themselves to Hindus. Recalling the parable of Muhammad going to the mountain, Golwalkar wrote “In the Indian situation, the Hindu is the mountain and the Muslim population, Mohammed. I need not elaborate.’
Is not this the way how even restricted thinking against Muslims flow among extremists in Sri Lanka now, especially after the Easter Sunday bomb blast? Do not we hear rumblings of Muslims being asked to submit to the Sinhala Buddhists, though it has not fortunately spread to national scale and do not we hear at least a few demanding that Muslims should return to Arab countries? Fundamentalism at its heights!
According to Golwalker Jews and Parsis were “guests” of India and Muslims and Christians were “invaders”. Golwalker was reportedly opposed to secularism and had considered that these foreign elements either-
“…. merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. This is the only sound view on the problem…. [The] foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment- not even citizen’s rights.”
Let me go to Golwalkar to prove that even so early as in December 1947 after Partition while referring to Muslims, he has said that “no power on earth could keep Muslims in Hindustan” and “they should quit” India. All set to oust Muslims.
Fortunately, in Sri Lanka this type of extremist thinking has not developed to this level. But due to economic weaknesses, political and social pressures, to cover up other deficiencies, this thinking can be fanned out, because Sinhala Buddhist majority has “beaten” the minority strength at the last Presidential Election, proving where the decisive power lies. It will be easy to deep root fanning since anti-minority feelings could sometimes win the majority in Parliament. This fundamentalist thinking is already in circulation with Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnasara Thero publicly demanding a pure Sinhala majority Parliament at the parliamentary election, like at the Presidential Election.
Recent Indian Citizenship legislation
From among several conspicuous issues, I may refer to CAA due to current importance which repeat this differentiation between Indian Hindus from Muslims and Christians. It applies if they are persecuted on religious grounds in neighboring countries. Standing with Jains, Buddhist and Sikhs to be accommodated as Indian citizens, this accommodates preaching by Savarkar and Golwalkar for decades. Therefore, this is to ensure legalizing Hindutva concepts.
This change of the law created vast amount of trouble in India, ending up with non-stop protests organized by many quarters considering it as discriminatory to Muslims, withdrawing from ‘secular state’ in the Indian Constitution etc. This led to negative responses from friendly countries and even by the UNHRC High Commissioner who will intervene in a case in the Indian Supreme Court.
However, the abrogation of Article 370 affecting the Kashmiris and the citizenship laws are considered by Indian authorities as “internal affairs/ matters” and was told even to President Donald Trump. It appears reasonable since it is the rightful function of a sovereign country. However, irrespective of Minister Amit Shah being unprepared to budge an inch on the CAA, many countries have protested on the grounds of rights, equal treatment and some like Bangladesh on grounds of potential large scale refugee movement to Bangladesh when CAA and the National Register of Citizens are implemented. A Bengali may argue that an internal matter of India is causing internal problems for Bangladesh!
No wonder Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina brusquely said, “It is an internal affair” but “unnecessary.” Commentator Ramesh Thakur‘s quip (The Strategist ‘India’s friends can’t ignore its slide from democracy’) “The end goal is to marginalize them (Muslims), denude India of Muslims and transform it into a Hindu Rashtra or nation” explains why Sheik Hasina might have been so curt.
I take Bangladesh as a special case here because the change of laws has at least soured relationships with India, the new Secretary Ministry of External Affairs Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Dacca, probably to mitigate the situation before PM Modi’s scheduled visit to Dacca. The cancellation of scheduled visits by dignitaries like the Speaker Madam Sharmin Chaudry, Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdul Momen and his deputy Shahriar Alam and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan probably were symptomatic of Bangladesh’s frustration.
Right now, there is political thinking in Sri Lanka related to abrogation of the 13th and 19th Amendments of the Constitution. There is only a tinge of fundamentalism in these demands, but more of political power enhancement, supported by some fundamentalists. Anyway, these are also internal matters. Now it may be the incumbent Sri Lankan government’s point of view too. ‘If India could get away with internal matters, why not Sri Lanka?’ may be the stance taken by promoters of these legal changes.
However, Indian PM Modi (when he met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa) and External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar (after meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa immediately after elections) were adamantly demanding the implementation of the 13th Amendment, which is our ‘internal matter.’ Whether they would withdraw such demands is a matter that has to be pondered. Similarly, whether the West that backed the 19th Amendment heavily as a tool of good governance would turn a blind eye to its abrogation is yet to be seen.
Common observations applicable to India and Sri Lanka
One of the latest commentaries on the current Indian situation has been done by Ramesh Thakur (The Strategist 13-3-2020). I wish to deal with his views with my inputs regarding the applicability for Sri Lanka.
First, polarization based on ethnicity, race or religion (language too in Sri Lanka) will be of no value for both countries who have large number of problems that must be addressed by the respective governments.
Secondly, the proposition that Muslims can return to Pakistan or any other Middle Eastern Muslim country as considered justifiable by some Hindus is replicated by some Sri Lankans who believe we should have a country for the Sinhalese, like it is suggested for Hindus in India- i.e. Hindu Rashtra. Both may create adverse consequences.
Thirdly, the Hindu Muslim riots in Delhi or any similar event in Sri Lanka will affect investments and thus the economy wherever. Fortunately, presently Sri Lanka has not reached the Indian level of violence, but certainly has undergone the impact. India has some more time to feel the economic pinch, it is predicted. This danger must be well preserved in the minds of the administrations.
Fourthly, the Muslim world has as countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia) and the 57-Member Organization of Islamic Cooperation have denounced the CAA agenda of Indians and this reaction will repeat, if similar action is pursued in Sri Lanka. It will be a problem for both countries.
Fifthly, The UNHRC Commissioner’s exceptional court intervention in India (which may be rejected by the Supreme Court) can be extended easily against Sri Lanka if untoward things happen and she must be on alert. It is not necessarily the developed and powerful countries or multilaterals who could show frustration, but even one’s friendly neighbors, as observed by Bangladesh reactions to India.
Sixthly, if we go by Vijay Joshi’s contention (in ‘India’s Long Road’) i.e. ‘Democratic rule, without protection of individual and minority rights, has the potential to degenerate into majoritarian tyranny,” what is alleged of treatment to Muslims in India may possibly move India towards “majoritarian tyranny”. Even if Sri Lanka treads on the same path she also may end there. It will bring awful results, hence both countries should be cautious.
Seventhly, India was considered the geographical firewall against the spread of Islamist extremism eastwards. According to Ramesh Thakur “With 180 million Muslims, India itself could become the epicenter of Islamist extremists who export terrorism and the refugees who flee it to the Asia Pacific” which I consider if happens will be the real danger to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka should not be a magnet for ISIS. We should remember that terrorist connections existed between South India and Sri Lanka with ISIS connectivity. Hence India and Sri Lanka both must, and I repeat must, be watchful.
Lastly, we have adopted and when required adapted ourselves to many positive and grandeur, excellent contributions from India. With great respect to India and its people, whom we love, when we recapitulate repercussions of fundamentalism right now in India, (None of my Indian friends will agree on this terminology!), Sri Lanka should be cautious in drawing lines between what is fundamentalist or not, before we act.
Fundamentalism has guided Indian political developments and it is a longstanding evolution. Though not to such an extent, in Sri Lanka too we observe such fundamentalism emerging, with some historical attachments, irrespective of the fact that there is no comparable direct connectivity alleged as in case of the happenings in India- viz. BJP with RSS in India.
When India does, compulsorily criticisms come from Pakistan due to obvious political reasons. But powerful nations take calculated steps regarding India. For Sri Lanka it could be different even from India, due to regional or domestic political and economic reasons.
The world is much concerned with terrorism and India and Sri Lanka both have had an unfair share of it. If a community is to be a magnet to terror due to fundamentalism, it will be a shame on any decent society and a democratic government. It is not enough to boast that India is the largest democracy in the world or Sri Lanka is the oldest democracy in Asia, if democratic values are destroyed due to fundamentalist biases.
The major issue as Dr Wijewardena emphasized is the loss of liberty and social progress due to fundamentalism and its consequences. From the above it is observed that in addition foreign relations, neighborliness, economy etc. also will be lost, not only liberty / social progress.
I wonder whether the friendly democracies would take the bold step to engage countries that violate democratic values and liberties through fundamentalism, and whether the perpetrator leaders would cooperate with such engagement, without allowing the fundamentalist election pot simmering until properly boiled at the election time. Until the positive happens, keeping fingers crossed will not be enough at all.
*Austin Fernando – Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India