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Hate rhetoric articulated by radical Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka is uncannily similiar to that mouthed by ‘Hindutva’ proponents in India

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pic courtesy of: BBC.co.uk

By Sudha Ramachandran

A mosque in the central town of Dambulla was attacked with petrol bombs and vandalized around 10 days ago by a mob led by radical Buddhist monks. To add insult to injury, the government has bowed to the mob’s demand and ordered the mosque’s demolition and relocation.

Muslims say the mosque is about 60 years old. The monks insist it was built after 1982 when the government declared the area to be a “Buddhist sacred area”. They allege that the mosque is an “illegal structure”.

Hindu fundamentalists shout and wave banners as they stand on the top of a stone wall and celebrate the destruction of the 16th Century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. File photo courtesy of: HindustanTimes

Located about 150 kilometers northeast of the capital Colombo, Dambulla is a Buddhist pilgrim town. Trouble erupted when a mob of around 2,000 Sinhalese, including monks led by the mahanayaka (chief priest) of the Rangiri Dambula chapter, Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero, stormed the mosque and damaged it, disrupting ongoing Friday prayers.

Television footage has captured the mob chanting derogatory and racist slogans. Monks can be seen going on a rampage, with one monk even disrobing and exposing himself.

They have threatened to demolish the mosque if the government doesn’t relocate it.

Within days of the violence and the warning, Prime Minister Disanayaka Mudiyanselage Jayaratne, who also heads the Ministry of Buddhist Sasana and Religious Affairs, announced the mosque’s relocation. Muslims have been “offered the choice of three alternate locations” to relocate the mosque, he said, adding that “steps are being taken to immediately shift the mosque”.

Muslim leaders have rejected the offer. “We will not agree to any compromise of taking land elsewhere,” Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader and Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem told reporters in Colombo. The SLMC is part of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance.

The Muslim community has been protesting the violence and the government decision through demonstrations and shut-downs.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has refrained from reining in the Buddhist extremists in his government and outside hitherto, was outside the country when the attack in Dambulla took place. He has been silent on the matter since his return.

Also in the crosshairs of the Dambulla monks is a Hindu temple in the area.

“There are 72 unauthorized constructions near the Dambulla Buddhist temple, including the mosque and a kovil [a Hindu temple in Tamil], which will be removed within six months,” a monk from Dambulla is reported to have said.

Buddhism is the religion of the majority of Sri Lankans. It is estimated that around 70% of the island’s population are Buddhist. Almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese. The religious minorities include Hindus (15%), who are mainly Tamil speaking, and Muslims (7.5%) and Christians (7.5%).

Although Buddhism advocates peace and tolerance, the way it is practiced by a fringe – albeit one that is growing and extremely powerful – is rather violent, fanatical and far from accommodative.

The Sinhala-Buddhists’ self-perception has three components. The first is that they belong to the “Aryan Sinhala race” (as distinct from the Tamil Dravidians) and that Sri Lanka is their homeland; the second is that they are defenders of the Buddhist faith, the mission of protecting Buddhism having been entrusted to them by Buddha himself; and the third is that Sri Lanka is the home for the Sinhala language. This self-perception has created a virulent form of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism.

Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacists draw on the Mahavamsa, first written in the sixth century AD and revised thereafter in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to justify Buddhism’s dominance in Sri Lanka and to bolster claims that the country is and has to be a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Much in the Mahavamsa consists of myths, but to many Sinhalese it is irrefutable history. It has created what is often described as the Mahavamsa mindset, a belief that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist land because the Mahavamsa says so.

The Mahavamsa mindset lies at the core of Sinhala-Buddhist hardline arguments that the island is “theirs” and religious and ethnic minorities are “guests”, who stay in Sri Lanka on the sufferance of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. Their continued stay here is on the condition of “good behavior”. As former chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, once said in an interview, the minorities must not “demand undue things”.

Over the past 125 years or so, violence has been directed against the asinhala (un-Sinhala) and the abaudha (un-Buddhist). During colonial rule, Buddhist revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala mobilized the masses not so much against the colonial regime but the Christian minority, their privileged position in society and political life, and their alleged misdeeds. In the early 20th century, it was the Muslims, who dominated business and trade, who came under fire from the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

In 1915, Dharmapala wrote: “The Muhammedans, an alien people … by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2,358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free from alien invaders are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds.”

Inflammatory writing in publications Dharmapala’s Sinhala Bauddhaya and Piyadasa Sirisena’s Sinhala Jathiya fueled anti-Muslim sentiment in the island and is believed to have culminated in the anti-Muslim riots that year.

Dharmapala hailed the anti-Muslim violence. “The peaceful Sinhalese have at last shown that they can no longer bear the insult of the alien,” he wrote. “The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor [Muslims] people.”

The role of Buddhists in Sri Lankan politics grew substantially post-Independence especially in the decade of the 1950s, when the country was swept by a wave of Buddhist resurgence in the wake of the 2500th death anniversary of the Buddha.

It is in the Buddhist revivalism of this period that the beginnings of the conflictual relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils can be traced. The role of political monks in obstructing a federal solution to the ethnic conflict, by unleashing violence if necessary became apparent in the 1950s. It would plunge Sri Lanka into bloody civil war.

The end of the civil war and the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 triggered a tidal wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism. It has manifested itself in a new cockiness vis-a-vis the international community.

In the war-ravaged, Tamil-dominated Northern province this muscular assertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity has manifested itself not only in increasing Sinhalization of signboards and village and street names but in a proliferation of Buddha statues and Buddhist temples.

A recent report by International Crisis Group (ICG) says that Buddhist temples are coming up near military installations but also “without permission on private land”. “New constructions” are coming up over destroyed Hindu temples.

“There are also fears,” the ICG report says, “that the government’s archaeological department, long under the influence of Sinhalese nationalists and heavily lobbied by influential Buddhist groups, would use ‘discovered’ ancient Buddhist sites in the north” to build new Buddhist temples there.

It is in the context of this Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism that the recent aggression against Muslims and other religious minorities and their places of worship must be seen.

In September last year, a mosque in Anuradhapura, an ancient Buddhist city and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage site, was demolished by a mob. The monk who led that attack told BBC that the mosque was built on land given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago; hence the attack.

Attacks on churches and priests have grown in post-war Sri Lanka too, with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party led by monks that is a part of the ruling coalition, justifying the violence by claiming that priests are luring Buddhists to Christianity.

If recent events in neighboring India are anything to go by, the attack on the Dambulla mosque is reason for concern. Twenty years ago, Hindu mobs led by the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu right wing organizations, and egged on by saffron-clad clergy, stormed a 16th century mosque, the Babri masjid, in the north Indian city of Ayodhya.

They alleged that the masjid was built on the site where the Hindu deity Ram was born and where a temple once stood. The mob demolished the mosque even as the administration and police looked on, while the rest of India watched with horror the live telecast of the event.

The demolition of the Babri masjid set off a series of events – communal riots, terrorist attacks and pogroms – whose impact continue to traumatize India 20 years later.

The underlying issues and context of the attacks on the Dambulla mosque and the Babri masjid are not identical. The mobilization in Dambulla was local, unlike the country-wide campaign that preceded the Babri masjid’s demolition.

Still, Sri Lankans should be worried. The hate rhetoric articulated by the radical monks is uncannily similar to that mouthed by India’s proponents of Hindutva. The Dambulla incident could unleash emotions and events with far more serious consequences.

Divisions along caste and linguistic lines have defeated somewhat the Hindutva (literally Hinduness, an exclusivist ideology that aims at making India Hindu) agenda of India’s Hindu nationalists and extremists.

In Sri Lanka, although its society too is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual, Sinhala-Buddhist radicals have been far more successful. The Sinhala-Buddhist identity is far stronger than the Hindu identity in India. Sinhala-Buddhist ideology has been institutionalized and the Buddhist nationalist ideology has wide acceptance among the Sinhalese

Yet to recover from decades of civil war, Sri Lanka is lurching towards more bloodletting, this time along religious lines.

(Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. This article appeared in “Asia Times Online” for which Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd retains the copyright. It is reproduced here with prior permission)

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8 Comments

  1. The law of the jungle prevails. We have yet to hear any responsible statement from the Govt or its leaders.

  2. “The Sinhala-Buddhists’ self-perception has three components. The first is that they belong to the “Aryan Sinhala race” (as distinct from the Tamil Dravidians) and that Sri Lanka is their homeland; the second is that they are defenders of the Buddhist faith, the mission of protecting Buddhism having been entrusted to them by Buddha himself; and the third is that Sri Lanka is the home for the Sinhala language. This self-perception has created a virulent form of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism.”

    Absolutely here is the reason how theravada buddhist bhikkhus make more complex of Srilankas ethinic confilict and
    religious harmony.They have confused whole Sinhala nation and kept them in illusion as above. The scale of this
    ‘Sinhala-Buddist’ supremacism infected top of government as an example president of srilanka should have to be Sinhala
    Buddhist(blessed by mahanayakes)and also bottom of the ordinary sinhalese think almost Buddha as “Srilankan born Sinhalese”.

    Despite of India’s ‘Hindutva’ , In Srilanka even Army giving protection to ‘Sinhala-Buddist’ supremacism and indirectly
    threaten other entities. 99% of the recent ‘statue of buddha’ illegally established in North-East by only military or with government help.

    Srilanka need statesman to un-learn this illusion of politicize religion that root cause for the emergency 1958 to Dambulla attack 2012.Mass awakening campaign should have to carried out among “Sinhalese Buddhist”

    1. Sinhalese are Genaticaly Dravidian Race.
    2. Buddha neither accept ‘royal state’to protect himself nor his religion rather ‘Nirvana state’
    3. Srilanka not exclusively home for Sinhala but equialy for Native Tamil(Hindus,Christians,Muslims)

  3. I am confused about meaning of the term “Sacred Area /Zone” that is being bandied around both by SOME of the Buddhist Clergies and some ultranationalist politicians and organization. Is there a definition of the so called “Sacred Zone”? If so could someone enlighten me on this? Is removing the places of worship of other faith alone would make it a Sacred Zone? Does it mean that places of worship of other faiths are pollutants of the Buddhism and thus make the so called zone un-scared? What about the other explicitly prohibited issues like Wine Stores, Taverns, Brothels, Gambling joints, Drug dealings? Can they operate freely and with the patronage of the Buddhists without hindrance? I hope some proponents of these Zones would enlighten us!

    One begins to wonder whether there is a new definition evolving out of these apparently meaningless acts of vandalism. Declaring an area as the Scared Zone and removing other places of worship is justified on a piecemeal basis, it would give way in the long run to a precedent and open license one day to declare whole Sri Lanka as the sacred country and get rid of all the other religions?

  4. The fault for lawlessness and anarchy is due to the mentality of the “rulers” who adopt a policy of “rocking the cradle and pinching the baby” They have their “private army” which is under their payroll to lead the mob!! Their silence speaks the truth!!

  5. Native Tamil says:

    “Sinhalese are Genaticaly Dravidian Race.”

    What constitute a Dravidian race? If a particular DNA structure is attributable to Dravidians what do you call that unique marker? I am most grateful if you can give us similar marker for Aryan.

    You say:

    ” Srilanka not exclusively home for Sinhala but equialy for Native Tamil(Hindus,Christians,Muslims)”

    When did Sri Lanka become home for Sinhalese and Native Tamil(Hindus,Christians,Muslims)? I don’t think it is wise to call these Kallathonies as natives and I vehemently object to it.

    I rather prefer you call them Kallathony Tamil speaking people or Kallathony Sinhala speaking people.

    I knew that the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils have identity crisis. However this is not the time or place to discuss the origin of both stupid people.

  6. Sudha Ramachandran’s comparison of Sinhalese Buddhism with Hindutva is shoddy. Perhaps the title of the article is not hers but it sure is deceptive.

    The rest of the article is spot on. Indians should stop comparing Sri Lanka with events in India and see the situation in Sri Lanka in its own right and history. Buddhism in Sri Lanka has been radical for a lot longer period of time, targeting Christians and Muslims since the 1800s as Tambiah well documents in his ‘Buddhism Betrayed’. Churches have been petrol bombed. Buddha statues arbitrarily placed within the premises of old Hindu places of worship – like Tirukethisvaram and Tirukonesvaram that are pivotal landmarks of Sri Lankan Tamil history.

  7. IS IT UNBIAS ARTICLE.

    If any one is thinkding this is an unbias and balance article which written by a schelor, he/she should get a physeological check up.

    samarasekara

  8. Come on Mr President, this is your chance to show us and the world that your are truly the leader of all sri Lankans,as you have stated repeatedly, and not just of one community.

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