Colombo: Since 2013, Sri Lanka has been witnessing a spike in targeted attacks on the Muslim and Christian minorities especially Muslims by hardline Sinhala-Buddhist groups. It began with a fringe organization’s campaign against halal certification, forcing shops to stop selling meat labeled for Islamic guidelines.
A series of attacks on mosques and shops owned by Muslims followed. Within a year, violent communal clashes erupted in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama, killing four people and injuring nearly 100, The Hindu News reported.
At that time the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa regime remained silent, leading many to believe that it was passively backing the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS or Buddhist Power Force), a hardline Sinhala nationalist organization linked to the attacks. After Rajapaksa had been ousted in the January 2015 elections, many Sri Lankans hoped that the newly-elected government would end such impunity.
Apparently, it has not. Since April 2017, over 25 attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned establishments have been recorded. Unlike Rajapaksa, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have publicly stated that there is no place for religious intolerance in Sri Lanka.
Sirisena ordered a police crackdown on violence against minorities while Wickremesinghe vowed tougher laws against religious hate crimes.
However, the BBS’s firebrand monk-leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, notorious for his inciting speeches, including the one believed to have instigated the Aluthgama riots, remains virtually untouched.
In late June, the monk, who had been “in hiding” for a month, finally surrendered to a court only to be granted bail the same day. The BBS continues airing its very provocative views on Muslims.
There is no denying that it was the long-drawn-out silence of Sri Lanka’s national leaders that made the politics of the BBS less of the fringe and more mainstream in the first place.
It is also important to consider that whether in India or Sri Lanka, the intolerance that manifests in hate attacks is not unrelated to the religious-nationalist agendas of political parties currently in power.
Elements within both governments can get away with expressing extremist ideologies, shared by some of the hardline groups directly engaging in brutal violence.
Also, it is well-known that the national parties bank heavily on extreme right-wing forces for electoral support.
Less obvious is the spontaneous alignment of many of the right-wing religious fundamentalists in both countries. Apart from agreeing ideologically, these groups appear to be vigorously networking among themselves.
At the height of anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka in 2013, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National General Secretary Ram Madhav, who was then the national spokesman of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wrote in its publication Samvada that “the issues raked up by the BBS are worthy of active and sympathetic consideration”.
In 2014, Gnanasara Thero said discussions were at the “highest level” with the RSS on a Buddhist-Hindu ‘peace zone’ in the region to combat a “growing threat of radical Islam.”
Confirming that informal discussions were held with “a couple of people” in the RSS, BBS Chief Executive Officer Dilanthe Withanage told The Hindu last week that it is “high time we worked closely with the BJP and RSS.”
The BBS has also formed an alliance with Myanmar’s 969 movements, a militant Buddhist group linked to anti-Muslim riots there.
While the religious right wing in the region appears to be networking well, resistance to these regressive elements has been, at best, isolated.