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Sri Lanka Communal Violence: Major Challenge For Ruling Combine – Analysis

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Anti-Muslim violence in the country is older than anti-Tamil violence of the past decades. It had begun in the second decade of the last century.

By N. Sathiya Moorthy*

Acting with alacrity, the Sri Lankan Government has imposed a fortnight-long emergency, to check the spread of anti-Muslim racial violence involving unidentified majority Sinhala-Buddhist mobs, in two separate incidents in different towns. While the police is investigating the possibility of a grand conspiracy, if any, the government seems to have foreseen the possibility of the violence spreading to other parts of the country, including capital Colombo, with a large Muslim population.

The violence erupted in the eastern Ampara town with a considerable Muslim population after rumours spread that local eatery owners belonging to the community were mixing birth-control pill to food items, targeting the Sinhala population. Even as the government effectively quelled the violence, another episode that led to the death of Sinhala man in the upcountry Kandy town, the holy seat of Buddha’s ‘Tooth Relic’, ended in large-scale violence, even after overnight curfew was imposed on Monday.

Sensing trouble, the Cabinet, meeting with President Maithiripala Sirisena in the chair and in the presence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, lost no time in deciding on a fortnight of emergency, giving powers to the armed forces to step in and also for all security forces to arrest alleged troublemakers without legal hassles. This is the major incident of the kind after PM Wickremesinghe took over Law and Order under his care a week ago, as a part of an administrative shake-up in the wake of the ruling coalition’s poor showing in the much-delayed nation-wide local government (LG) polls of 19 February.

Unaddressed, unresolved

Anti-Muslim violence in the country is older than the better-known anti-Tamil violence of the past decades. It had begun in the second decade of the last century, but then there was some lull around Independence and afterwards, at least when compared to the targeted political, constitutional and physical attacks on the numerically strong and education-wise better-qualified Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) brethren, leading to LTTE terrorism, war and violence.

In comparison, Muslims are not as much geographically concentrated as the SLT or even the Upcountry Tamil community of relatively recent Indian origin, otherwise known as the ‘estate labour’ class. Widely spread out across the country, they have had their politico-electoral voice independent of the Tamils when the late M.H.M. Aashraff founded the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in 1981. Post-Ashraff, who died in a helicopter crash in 2000, the party split as much as the community is widespread, at times on a geographical pattern, otherwise through loyalty-identification and the like.

Yet, on matters of community-good, the Muslim parties have invariably been working separately but collectively as if by instinct, often egged on by community leaders. Like the Upcountry Tamils, they have often been part of most governments, independent of the majority Sinhala party/parties in power. The logic in both cases is that in an uneven demographic pattern where they do not have either the numbers or a geographical area near-exclusively to call their own, cohabitation with the majority community was the best way out to sub-serve their larger livelihood aspirations.

This also came in clash with the larger idea of ‘Tamil Eelam’ that the LTTE professed since the mid-eighties, when they began seeing the Muslims as a self-serving isolationist group that wanted its side of the bread buttered all the time, and at the cost of the large cause of the Tamils, to whom they were linked through language. In 1990, thus, the LTTE forced tens of thousands of northern Muslims, most of them prosperous traders and land-owners, with only a few hundred rupees in their pockets. Most of them took refuge in the adjoining western province coastal town of Puttalam, and continue to stay there even a decade after the end of the ethnic war and the exit of the LTTE. In the east the same year, the LTTE killed Muslims in the famous Kathankudy mosque, when they were offering their all-important weekly Friday afternoon prayers, killing over 150 of them at one go.

So, when successive governments since the nineties began peace negotiations with the LTTE, the Muslims wanted a place of their own. Absence of contiguity even led many of them to consider the ‘Pondicherry model’ of territory for the community in Sri Lanka. A one-time French colony, Pondicherry, now Puducherry, remained a Union Territory when it acquired Independence and merged with the Union of India in 1962 retained its four separate enclaves, embedded across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Because no real progress has since been made on resolving the Tamil ethnic issue, even post-war, the Muslim question remains unaddressed and unresolved.

BBS to the fore…

In more recent times, Muslims in the country began getting targeted in the post-war era, when the Tamils got silenced, at least in the interim. It had begun with rumours of a ‘grease devil’ attacking individuals, mostly Muslim women, in various parts of the country, through the second half of 2011, two years after the war’s ending. Then followed some episodes, where rumour-mongers spread the word that Muslims had imported/smuggled birth-control pill that could be fed through food, to contain the majority Sinhala population, if only over a period.

Even as those incidents/rumours, in which the army ended up taking the blame, large-scale and systematic attacks on the Muslim community, their businesses and places of worship commenced, with the little-known ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalist’ outfit, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its ever-abrasive head, Gnanasara Thero, standing on rooftops and claiming credit.

In some episodes, not very unfamiliar to Indians under similarly-placed circumstances, the BBS claimed that the property on which some of the mosques stood had belonged to Buddhists. Though no such claims are known to have been made this time round, according to some media reports, some mosques and Muslim homes have been torched in Kandy, leading to night curfew for two successive days — interspersed with the proclamation of emergency during the intervening day.

It is noticeable that the name of the BBS, or that of the Thero, has not found any mention in the current anti-Muslim violence. While it is becoming increasingly clear that the administration, especially the police and military intelligence, were caught napping, there is still no knowing the real motive, if any, behind the current series of episodes, of if it flowed from a common conspiracy of any sort — whether hatched nearer home or afar, or whatever.

It may be recalled that throughout the BBS induced violence during the closing years of the camp of war-victor President Mahinda Rajapaksa went around claiming that their fair name was being sought to be tarnished by linking his brother and then Defence Secretary, Gota Rajapaksa, only to woo the Muslim voters away from his leadership. As the 2015 presidential polls showed, the minute the results from the Tamil and Muslim majority provinces of the north and the east were published at the crack of dawn on 9 January, the day after polling, Rajapaksa conceded defeat — as the results would show full 12 hours later.

There is now no knowing if there is any political conspiracy of any kind, behind the current series of anti-Muslim violence. Though the Joint Opposition (JO) identified with Rajapaksa, whose renewed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has swept the LG polls in February, promptly declared its decision not to move the no-trust motion against PM Wicremesighe and his government on Tuesday after the Kandy episodes broke out, some in the camp have charged the government with failure on the law and order front. There are also murmurs of protest from Wickremesinghe-led United National Party (UNP) for handing over the L&O portfolio to war-time army chief, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, whose later-day antipathy towards the Rajapaksas are very well known.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is no knowing Wickremesinghe’s mind on the matter. However, President Sirisena, whose Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is a junior partner in the ‘national unity government’, is opposed to the idea. Local media reports have also spoken about top-rung police officers being opposed to such plans. According to these reports, Sirisena has endorsed such views, whatever be his political position or personal views in the matter.

Demographic discrepancy

Post-war troubles for the nation’s Muslims started when Census 2012 reportedly showed a higher population growth-rate for the community. Officially however, the SLT community came a distant second to the Sinhala majority, despite war-deaths, disappearances and known migrations, both legal and illegal, the latter alone running to tens of thousands.

Ironically, the number of Upcountry Tamil population, who were not known to have migrated elsewhere in such large numbers, saw their numbers fall drastically during the Census. This was a possible first, after those in the fifties and the sixties. That was also when the Upcountry Tamils were declared ‘stateless’ by the post-Independence Government of 1948, with parliamentary support from a majority section of the SLT polity of the time.

Questions were raised when the Rajapaksa regime released only bare details of the final population figures and held back the details. Though the current government was expected to come out with those figures, nothing of the kind has happened over the past three-plus years. Nor has the Muslim polity, ever sensitive to the sentiments of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, and more so to the majoritarian elements within it, raised the issue, either in public or otherwise.

Overall, Sri Lanka’s Muslims are generally a peace-loving people, engaged mainly in trade nearer home, and like many of their brethren in rest of South Asia, their men are also gainfully employed in the petro-rich Gulf-Arab region since the seventies and eighties. In the aftermath of the post-9/11 West’s war on Afghanistan and Iraq, some sections of Sri Lanka’s Muslims, especially in the rural east, have taken to religious orthodoxy, with their women wearing face or full-body veils in public.

Under the Rajapaksa regime, when the post-war administration clamped down on illegal radio stations, surprisingly many of them belonged to local Muslim individuals or groups, spreading religious messages, within a limited area, including parts of the capital city of Colombo. Though it was assumed that many of the local dons, to put down who Secretary Rajapaksa brought in the army, were Muslims, nothing was really proved or disproved. Yet, there are unfounded apprehensions, often aired without substantiation, that sections of the Muslim youth were getting radicalised, what with sections of their traditional polity taking Saudi funding, in the purported cause of spreading Wahhabism.

Should the government now want to extend the emergency beyond a fortnight, it has to go to Parliament, which is already in session even otherwise. It has however clarified that the short spell is aimed only at putting the house in order and to stop from racial violence from spreading. For now, the security forces have begun arresting suspects and shut down much of the social media, if only to check the spread of rumours and possible call for violence.


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ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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