Last week, members of a Hindu outfit, ‘Seva Senai’, based in northern Sri Lanka, staged a protest in Jaffna, calling for a ban on cow slaughter and the sale of beef in the town of Chavakachcheri.
“This is the land of Hindus and Buddhists. We worship the cow. Our tradition must be respected,” they demanded, days before Ramzan began.
In essence, they were a group of Tamil Hindus, who were asking fellow minorities, Tamil-speaking Muslims, to adhere to Hindu “tradition”.
When the organisation was founded less than two years ago to “prevent religious conversion and counter Muslim and Christian domination” in the island’s north and east, many saw it as a “fringe group” that did not merit attention. However, its recent campaign — including a petition to the urban council to ban cow slaughter in the area — showed it has since won some sympathisers.
Further, their message reflected the religious biases within the Tamil society that have grown more apparent after the war ended in 2009. A similar anti-minority sentiment emerged during the February local authority elections when some Tamil political groups and media houses resisted Jaffna Mayor Emmanuel Arnold being chosen for the post, citing “Christian domination” of Tamil politics.
The anti-beef campaigners in the Tamil-majority north have some ready allies in the south, especially among Sinhala-Buddhist forces. In Dehiwala, a suburb of Colombo where many Muslims reside, a cow vigilante organisation has put up a giant hoarding with an image of Shiva sitting on a bull. In bold Sinhala letters it reads, “God bless those of you who don’t eat beef.” More recently, a Sinhala newspaper reported the ban on beef sale in parts of the southern town of Embilipitiya, at the request of a Buddhist monk.
These developments cannot be seen isolated from the surge in anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-majority south since 2012, prompting many to wonder if the minority community, which makes about 10% of the country’ population, had become a new target after the end of the civil war. In the eastern province that is home to a sizeable Muslim community, Muslim women’s attire has become a major talking point for Tamils.
In an island whose cuisine has fans world over — especially its exotic sea food and meat dishes — a call to ban beef sounds shocking to many locals. All the same, resistance to such protests has been limited to social media forums.
Some Tamil civil society activists issued a statement condemning the “communally divisive” protest in Jaffna last week, and even hinted at influence of a “neighbouring country”, but the political leadership is yet to challenge what anti-beef campaigners questionably term “our culture and tradition”.
The Sinhala polity has seldom challenged the influential Buddhist clergy, including hardliners, who are said to be driving these campaigns. In fact, the politicians’ now-familiar silence remains at the heart of the spate of anti-Muslim attacks witnessed in the last few years, most recently in Kandy in February.
On the other hand, the Tamil leadership — within the ambit of their predominantly nationalist politics — is yet to take a stance on religious or caste divisions within society. As Tamil leaders push for a political solution to the national question, progressives worry that the leaders’ silence on growing religious intolerance and discrimination within the community might prove dangerous.