This is one overseas fan base that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party BJP would not wish to flaunt.
“We wish we had a leader like Narendra Modi,” says Dilantha Withanage, chief executive of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the hardline Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation that was accused of attacking Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka last year, which led to Mahinda Rajapaksa losing the votes of the minorities and the presidential elections this month.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Withanage said that his group, which is registered as a company in the island nation, is also inspired by the BJP and RSS and that it would soon launch “a party modelled on these Indian ventures to protect Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka”.
“We have a very positive understanding with Modi,” Withanage said. “We admire him as a leader. Unofficially, there have been personal relations and talks with RSS and BJP leaders…We will soon launch active political talks with our Indian counterparts.”
Claiming that the portrayal of BBS as a religious terrorist organisation was similar to the situation faced by Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots, Withanage said, “We are not against any religion. We don’t spread hatred against anyone. But it’s true that we do deliver hard speeches on certain truths that we believe in, to protect Buddhist values in Sri Lanka.”
He added that what his organisation does in Sri Lanka for the majority Buddhist religion “is inspired by what the RSS and BJP do in India”.
“There are lots of similarities between India and Sri Lanka,” Withanage said. “Both of us face threats from Muslims and minorities who are actively engaged in conversions. When Sinhalese families have a child or two, minorities have half a dozen or more. When foreign money plays behind such activities, we need to resist. So Modi and his party is a great inspiration for us,” he added.
BBS was formed by a group of hardliners who broke away in 2012 from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or the National Heritage Party, with the avowed aim of “protecting Buddhism”. The Sena has its headquarters in Colombo, at the Buddhist Cultural Centre that was opened by Rajapaksa in 2011.
Within Sri Lanka, the BBS is largely viewed as a fringe element —- and even a sort of religious police —- that raises questions about the influence of minority vote banks, alleges illegal foreign funding in businesses run by minorities, levels allegations of religious conversions by minorities, and reportedly organises attacks on churches and mosques, particularly in neighbourhoods with a significant minority population.
Within a year of its formation, the group gained notoriety for its drive against Christians in the country. The Sena went on to target Muslims with a major clash in June 2014 in two Muslim-majority towns, on the Sinhalese-dominated southern coast, killing four people.
According to local media reports, BBS members also hurled petrol bombs, and looted homes and businesses in several towns, targeting Muslims who constitute around 10% of the country’s 21 million population.
The violence led to the US and the EU expressing concerns about the BBS. In fact, Sena officials claim that Withanage and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, their general secretary, were denied visas to enter the US early this year.
While the BBS and its alleged links to the former president’s family have been identified as key factors responsible for the ruling party losing the minority votes this time, Withanage claimed that his group has had disagreements with Rajapaksa too, especially after his election victory in 2010.
“That was the time he tried to woo the Muslims and minorities,” he said.
Withanage, however, admitted that Rajapaksa did attend one of the Sena’s meetings initially, but added it was the former president’s brother Gotabhaya who “understood our intentions better”.
When public opinion turned against BBS after the anti-Muslim riots last year, with some of its leaders reportedly even facing death threats, Withanage claimed that Gotabhaya, then the defence secretary, helped the group. “We know him very well. He collected the right information from the army intelligence that favoured us. That helped him defend us from conspiracies against BBS,” he said.
Asked about the role the Sena played in this elections, Withanage said the BBS was “not a political party to campaign” but added that the group had asked “thousands of followers” to spread the word against opposition candidate and eventual winner Maithripala Sirisena through social media and several publications.
Withanage said Maithripala had largely kept silent about BBS during the elections. “But we had to campaign against him as Sirisena’s manifesto directly attacked BBS and its alleged religious terrorism,” he said.