By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Myth is a value. Truth has no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi” – Roland Barthes (Myth Today)
Generals are always preparing to fight the last war, goes an enduring proverb. The Ranil Wickremesinghe Government and its many opponents are forever preparing for the last uprising. Aragalaya’s eternal recurrence is their common hallucination. Blinded by this irrational preoccupation, they are ignorant of – or ignore – the daily deepening of ethno-religious fault-lines in this violence-prone land.
On 28 August a protest was held against the Government’s taxation and domestic debt restructuring policies. Organisers expected affected citizens to turn up in their tens of thousands. The Government was ready, with court orders, riot police, water cannons… The crowd was a fraction of what the organisers desired and the Government feared. The demonstration ended without incidents.
Almost 150 miles away, in Trincomalee, another sort of protest was hatched, with no fanfare or pre-warning. On 28 August, a group of monks and lay devotees marched to the Trincomalee District Secretariat where a district development council meeting was being held under the aegis of the provincial governor.
When denied admittance, they occupied the road. After a brief standoff, four monks were allowed in. The leading monk strode in declaring, “The Governor will not be allowed to leave. I will go to the DDC and throttle him.”
He and other monks sat on the floor refusing to leave until the governor rescinded his order to pause new construction near the ancient Boralukanda temple.
Eventually the governor gave in.
In a land where the rule of law prevails, these unruly monks would have been detained and charged for their act of lawlessness. In Sri Lanka, a child is arrested and punished for stealing a few coconuts; but occupying a State institution and threatening State officials are permissible, if the perpetrators are shielded by a saffron robe. So the law-breaking monks remain free – to wreak more havoc.
Appeasement encourages extremism. Emboldened by the State’s supine response, the monks have begun a protest demanding the removal of the governor and the appointment of a more amenable replacement.
The East is a patchwork of ethnicities and religions, a cauldron from which a new Lankan nation or a new Lankan conflict could emerge.
If we find a way to coexist with each other in the East, we might be able to open up a pathway to Lankan nationhood. If we fail, East could well be the theatre of a new racial/religious conflict, bloodshed in the name of a faith, violence for the sake of a shrine.
A way to prevent such a conflagration has been put forward by Siyambalagaswewa Wimalasara thero. He proposes an end to the practice of granting the custodianship of archaeological sites of Buddhist provenance to monks; he suggests that such sites be placed under the control of the Archaeology Department.
The proposal to place these ancient ruins in the hands not of monks but of archaeologists is timely, sensible, and accords with best international practices. Its fast implementation can go a long way in preventing the East from catching fire, taking the rest of the country along with it.
During the early, secular phase of the Aragalaya, prominent political monk Battarmulle Seelarathana thero arrived to take part in a protest near the parliament. Protestors told him to leave, politely but firmly.
Now Seelaratane thero has found a far more suitable cause: saving Sinhala-Buddhist heritage in the East from encroachers who, this time around, happen to be Hindu Tamils. Like other political monks, he has attached himself to the Save Kurundi struggle. In that cause, he tried on 26 August to invade the Colombo residence of parliamentarian Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, a prominent warrior on the other side of the Kurundi battle. The monk accused Ponnambalam of being a terrorist and challenged him to come out of the house.
Like a stereotypical thug in a standard Sinhala/Tamil movie, the monk then tried to muscle his way into the premises through the police guard. Failing, he hurled the ultimate threat: “We’ll go; but we will return; we will bring Sinhala-Buddhists.”
Buddhism was born in a land with no Sinhalese. Long before Buddhism became a Sinhala property, it was a Tamil religion as well. But this history does not fit in with the narratives tenaciously held by extremists of both sides of the ethno-religious divide. Every time an ancient ruin of possible Buddhist provenance is found in the North or the East, Sinhala-Buddhist extremists use it as evidence to claim sole-ownership of the land. And Hindu-Tamil extremists react by denying the Buddhist provenance of the ruin, claiming it for Tamil-Hinduism.
The lines are drawn of a new battle, sacrificing the future on the past’s alter.
Popular myths weave an imaginary past where Sinhalese were Buddhists and Tamils Hindus. But Buddhism thrived amongst Tamils too, here and in South India for many centuries. Starting with the unearthing of the early Buddhist monastic complex of Phanigiri in the southern Indian state of Telengana a series of ancient Buddhist structures have been discovered across the Indian South.
Two of the five great ancient Tamil epics, Manimekhali and Kundalakesi, were authored by Tamil Buddhist poets (a third was authored by a Jain monk, pointing to the rich diversity and glorious tolerance that existed in the subcontinent, at a time when the West was mired in intolerance born of identitarian politics).
Lanka too seemed to have been similarly diverse, comfortable in and tolerant of this diversity. Buddhist shrines thrived in the North and the East. Of the five Pancha Ishwarams (the great abodes of god Shiva), two are located outside the North and the East, Munneswaram in Puttalam and Tenavaram in Matara.
Territorial wars were waged by monarchs; but there is no evidence of neighbours massacring each other over imaginary ethno-religious boundaries. When a Sinhala royal line ran out, courtiers would import a suitable scion of a South Indian dynasty who would become a Buddhist if he wasn’t one already. Importing queen-consorts from South India seemed to have been a fairly standard practice.
Once Buddhism became synonymous with Sinhala, the situation changed.
We are now less than one year away from a presidential election. Election times are when the triple slogans of country-nation-religion, bound to each other in ties manufactured out of imagined histories, assume greatest potency.
In the run up to the 2019 presidential election, the supposed vandalism of Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuwil became a hot-button issue. That time the vandalising enemy was the Muslim, an understandable choice in the fraught aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre.
Today it is the Tamils.
Cas Mudde and Crsitobal Rovira Kaltwasser call populism, “a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ vs. ‘the corrupt elite’ (Populism: A very short introduction). In Sri Lanka, marauding monks are hailed on the internet as heroes in the pure peoples’ rebellion against the corrupt (and mongrel) elite.
Democracies have multiple enemies, including ‘pure people’ who want to impose their one truth and one way of life on diverse societies. An excellent case in point is the fate of Iran. The secular opposition (of all ideological/political varieties) was so invested in the necessary struggle to overthrow of Shah, they failed to seriously analyse what could replace him. They chose to ignore the clear omens of the coming theocratic tyranny.
In October 1977, Islamic students in Tehran University protested against co-education. During the Tabriz uprising of February 1998, movie houses showing adult films and liquor shops were targeted together with police stations and wealthy banks.
Though Ayatollah Khomeni was clever enough to stay silent on controversial issues like agrarian reform, the role of mullahs, democracy, and women, he did make it clear that the new dispensation would be both republican and Islamic. By September 1978, the future was clear with half a million people marching claiming Khomeni to be their leader and demanding an Islamic government.
Yet the secular opposition failed to see the danger. They did not pause to question the compatibility between theocracy and democracy. They correctly saw Shah as the enemy, but incorrectly considered his monarchical tyranny as the only enemy. Hooked on the corrupt elite vs. pure people narrative, they marched blindly into the Islamic Republic and their own doom.
The time-bomb of intolerance
Shakthika Sathkumara, the young writer who spent 130 days in prison under the ICCPR for ‘defaming the Sangha’ in a recent YouTube interview lamented the absence of a broad conversation about the new wave of intolerance sweeping over Lankan society. “I hoped this would change after the Aragalaya, but it was not a cultural struggle, an intellectual struggle,” he said, pointing out that people tend to seek simple solutions to complex problems.
The result is a society that is, on occasion, more intolerant and retrogressive than the State, and more prone to violent solutions.
The trials and travails of Pakistan, for instance, provide a horrific example of how the insistence on a mono-identity and intolerance based on it could lead to not peace and stability but their opposites. Soon after its birth, Pakistan made Urdu its sole national language, thereby alienating the Bengali speaking people of East Pakistan. This linguistic schism would eventually lead to war, partition, and the birth of Bangladesh.
Pakistan stepped further down the path of intolerance when it adopted a new draconian blasphemy law (together with the Sharia law) under the military rule of General Zia. For decades, this blasphemy law was used to terrorise non-Muslim Pakistanis. Now Pakistan is planning to widen the blasphemy dragnet to catch Shia Muslims, via a new law criminalising derogatory remarks about the Prophet’s companions.
Since Shia Muslims do not venerate the Prophet’s companions, regarding them as usurpers rather than rightful heirs, the new legislation is perceived as being anti-Shia. A Shia cleric, Agha Baqir al-Husseini, was reportedly arrested for opposing the planned law, leading to massive protests in Gilgit Baltistan, a Kashmiri region administered by Pakistan, the only non-Sunni majority area in the country. Addressing the protesting faithful after Friday prayers in Skardu town, one speaker declared ominously, “If you arrest our cleric we will not live; neither will you.”
This downhill journey of a neighbour and friend is either unknown to or disregarded by those Sinhala-Buddhist extremist elements demanding the introduction of a blasphemy law in Sri Lanka. Given the cowardice of politicians and indifference of people, the only bulwark against such a step seems to be the judiciary.
Sathkumara faced his trial and was acquitted. He has since filed a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court. In his landmark bail order in the Nathasha Edirisooriya’s case, Justice Aditya Patabendi said, “…it is not possible to act under not only Section 3 of the ICCPR Act but also Section 291(a) of the Penal Code for mere making of a statement that hurt the feelings of a certain race, religion or group. Especially, just because a complaint is made by a Buddhist monk or another religious leader or an influential person in society, it is not the task of an investigator to arrest a person based on that alone” (from an unofficial translation published in Sri Lanka Brief).
Little wonder then that Sinhala-Buddhist extremists are beginning to target the judiciary.
Last month, retired rear-admiral and former minister Sarath Weerasekara, hiding behind his parliamentary privileges, attacked Mullaitivu district magistrate for a second time. His parliamentary colleagues on both sides maintained a deafening silence, as they did the first time.
This week, Lankan lawyers gathered together in a praiseworthy effort to warn against and denounce executive infringements on judicial independence. Unfortunately, no mention seemed to have been made of parliamentarian Weerasekara’s attacks on a magistrate and the broader attempt by Sinhala-Buddhist by extremists to delegitimise the judiciary by creating a false narrative of ethno-religiously motivated justice. The second is as much a danger to judicial independence as the first.
If individual justices are labelled traitors, such derogation cannot but have a chilling effect on the entire judicial system. Our collective silence about the issue only makes the matter worse.
There are times when the greater danger to judicial independence comes not from an autocratic ruler but from an intolerant society. We can continue to ignore that reality only at our own individual and national peril.