An Ayodhya in the Making in Lanka

 by Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda


PA and the UNF are not taking adequate political action to counter politics of militant Sinhalese nationalism

One of the most disturbing developments occurred during the past few weeks has been the acceleration of attacks on Catholic and Christian churches as well as places of worship. Political groups who use Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist bigotry as a plank of mobilization appear to plan and execute these attacks.

Since December, much of anti-Christian violence is concentrated in the Homagama electorate. Mobs have damaged the Catholic churches in Katuwana, Hokandara, Dik Hetekma and Mattegoda. During the same period, an evangelical prayer house in Dik Hetekma, Meegoda, has been totally destroyed. In Neboda, near Matugama of the Kalutara district, a bomb has been thrown into the old Methodist Church building.
Ayodhya

With no government action forthcoming to prevent such religious violence, Christian and Catholic minorities live in fear. Creating fear among the Christians appears to be one major objective of this well-coordinated campaign of anti-minority terrorism.

Sri Lankans are trying with great anxiety to emerge out of a violent civil war involving ethnicity. The two years of ceasefire and the absence of war have brought down the level of violence, death and destruction to a near normal level. The task for the political leadership is to further institutionalize this process of normalization through negotiation and agreement. This by no means is an easy challenge, yet Sri Lanka appears to be in an irreversible process towards ethnic peace. Paradoxically, it is in this context of relative ethnic peace that groups in the Sinhalese nationalist fringe have now seized religious bigotry for mobilization through violence.

New politics

This politics of religious violence comes from a relatively small group of political activists. As the recent events suggest, they are committed to using violence for political mobilization and future electoral campaigning as well. In their mobilizational methodology, the Christians (including Catholics) and Christianity are presented as the immediate enemy of the Sinhalese nation and Buddhism. For about two years, they have been building up a campaign of hysteria against conversion to Christianity. Some of the electronic and the print media provided generous airtime and space for campaigns that portrayed the Christian minorities - the so-called fundamentalists -- as a source of immediate threat to the Buddhists. The uncertainty and tension that prevailed after the sudden death of Rev. Gangodawila Soma Thera has provided these groups a new context and justification for violent action.
Church of Our Mother Most Pure, Mattagoda, Sri Lanka January 27, 2004 (Courtesy BBC)

This new movement of anti-religious minority violence is indeed a variant of fascism in the making and it should be recognized for what it is. It is wrong to dismiss it as isolated action by religious fanatics or the 'anti-social' elements in the social margins. As many reports indicate, middle-class political activists are in the forefront of organizing this violence.

As I was told by some eye witnesses, among the people who were in the mob that terrorized the small crowd at the St. Michael's Church in Katuwana on November 20 last year were respectable, middle class people including professionals. People have recognized a medical doctor, a bank executive and a party organizer as active participants in that incident where the mob even robbed the files from the church office.

Tactics

It is quite obvious that the organizers of this campaign of violence are following the strategies and tactics of the Hindu Right in India. In some instances, there have been public rallies and processions preceding these attacks, attended by Buddhist monks as well as large numbers of lay people.

For example, the day before the recent Mattegoda church attack was launched, there was a public rally in Homagama to protest against Christian conversion and to protest Buddhism. The attacks on the two churches in Dik Hetekma, Meegoda, were preceded by a similar public meeting called to unite the Buddhists. As people in the neighborhood told me, over 150 people came in procession, shouting slogans against activities of the small Christian church. Obviously, the few activists in the crowd did a professional demolition job in quick time. This is Ayodhya in the making.

I happened to witness a rally and a demonstration held in Homagama last Sunday by a coalition of groups claiming to protect the rights and the interests of Buddhists.

It was a big event which was extensively covered by the media as well. In the processions were Buddhist monks, laymen and women as well as school children. Many of them were carrying placards and chanting slogans, quite critical of the Christians, the 'Christian fundamentalists' and practices of conversion to Christianity. Many of those placards of course demonized the Christians as a source of great threat to the Sinhalese nation and Buddhism. A young Buddhist monk who was making announcements from inside a motor vehicle described the aim of this initiative as one for protecting Buddhism from "barbaric Christian fundamentalist forces" (thirascheena kristiani muladharmavadi balavega).

This is really an instant of de-humanizing and animalizing the minority other, as effectively done by Hindu extremist forces in India. No wonder that the Mattegoda Catholic shrine, just three kilometers from the Homagama town, was fire-bombed the following night.

There are some disturbing dimensions in this anti-Christian violence concentrated in Homagama, as I learned from a field visit. I spoke to many -- Catholics and Christian lay people, Catholic clergy, Buddhist monks and lay Buddhist people as well as the policemen to make sense of what has been going on in Homagama.

I visited all the churches that have been attacked in the Homagama area. It became clear that a political party of extreme Sinhalese nationalism has instigated all these attacks. They also expressed their dismay that the perpetrators enjoy immunity.

Police inaction

Police inaction in the face of anti-minority violence is exactly what happened in India's Hinduthva violence too. The local police, even with evidence, seem to be reluctant to take any action. The police, afraid of being accused of supporting the Christians, have instead adopted the tactic of placing the burden on the victims of this ethno-religious majoritarian violence. The Inspector General of Police in an interview to the Daily News two weeks ago said that there was suspicion that the 'fundamentalist' Christian prayer houses had also been used for sexually molesting children. No government leader seems to have reprimanded the police chief for this blatantly provocative comment.

Significantly, the police have not so far made arrests, despite their repeated pronouncements that they were conducting 'full inquiries.'

Of course, there are policemen guarding the churches, but they are unable to prevent violence. In Hokandara, when the St. Anthony's Church was set on fire two policemen were 'guarding' it. They have claimed total ignorance of what happened and subsequently have been interdicted.
National Bikkhu Front demonstration, July 2003 (Courtesy TamilNet)

In Homagama, the police officer who was inquiring into the attack on the St. Michael's church has been transferred out to Mirihana because he happened to be a Catholic. In Dikhetekma of Meegoda, as villagers say a crowd of over one hundred and fifty came in procession in the mid-morning, but no perpetrator seems to have been identified. In a bizarre twist of police action, a police dog had traced a suspect in a house near the Homagama police station. Now, as I learned from the people in Homagama, the latest police version of the detective job of their trained dog is that it had gone in the direction of that particular house because there was a female dog in heat!

Fear

Sri Lanka's anti-Christian political violence has a remarkable resemblance to the anti-minority violence of the Hindu Right in India, particularly in the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Bal Thakarey of Bombay had no hesitation to openly advocate and organize violence against the Muslim minority, because he knew that no police would frame charges against him and no court would convict him.

The strategy of the Hindu right has been to mobilize thousands of people before moving into action. Rallies and processions led by saffron clad-sadhus proved to be having a great mobilizational advantage. The Hindutva activists used such mass mobilization to create a general atmosphere of fear in society so that no individual would come forward as witnesses to violence.

In this type of political mobilization, many people may have seen the action of violence, but sometimes there are no eye-witnesses to give evidence. When eye-witnesses come forward, the police machinery gets inactive. As a result, not even the victims would dare come forward to tell their stories, because they live in fear of retaliatory violence.

New dimension

There seem to be some Bal Thakareys in the making in Sri Lanka, who are introducing an entirely new dimension to political mobilization in urban constituencies. Some of its ideologues, holding respectable Ph. D degrees, write anti-Christian and anti-minority tracts in the English press. Some others come on the TV or give interviews to the Sinhalese press, inciting Buddhists to violence by arousing their fear and insecurity. And the political leadership of both the PA and the UNF are not taking adequate political action to counter this distinctly dark side of the politics of militant Sinhalese nationalism.

Let us hope that Sri Lanka is not moving towards another cycle of violence, like in 1983, unleashed by forces of barbarism who appear to be well-endowed and well-protected.

(The writer is Head of Political Science Department , University of Colombo)

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Posted January 30, 2004