The Sri Lankan government’s decision to impose an emergency in the country after mosques and property belonging to Muslims were vandalised in two places speaks to the seriousness of the deteriorating communal situation, as well as to the fact that it has taken so long for the country’s ruling establishment to understand this.
In the Sri Lankan Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe blamed an “extremist group” for the violence. Though he took no names, it is an open secret that it was the handiwork of a Sinhala-Buddhist extremist group, one of several that have mushroomed unchecked since 2012. It would be easy to blame former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the patronage and protection he appeared to offer to the Bodhu Bala Sena, the biggest and the most organised of these groups, while he was in power.
The group grew roots in the aggressive post-war display of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism that Rajapaksa encouraged to consolidate his political grip on Sri Lanka. The first incidents of anti-Muslim violence began under his watch. Just as Tamils were once demonised as “kotiya” or Tigers by hardline Sinhalese groups, the BBS began demonising the minority Muslim community as “terrorists”. But it is under the present dispensation that Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups have proliferated.
In 2017, there were more than 20 attacks on Muslims, including one on the Rohingyas and a street riot in Galle. Significantly, these attacks started around the same time as the United National Front for Good Governance began losing the steam and the goodwill that brought it to power in 2015. With both presidential and parliamentary elections just two years away, and Rajapaksa eagerly waiting in the wings to make a comeback, the temptation to majoritarianism will never be too far.
Sri Lanka does not have to look anywhere else to know what happens when bigotry is unleashed for political mobilisation. The country is yet to recover fully from the effects of a civil war that pitted the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community against the minority Tamils. An emergency was in force for 40 years as Sri Lanka battled the LTTE’s armed cadres on battlefields in the north, and its suicide bombers elsewhere. Still, it took Sri Lanka two years after the LTTE’s decisive military defeat in 2009 to withdraw the emergency provisions. Its reimposition should worry every Sri Lankan.
The developments in Sri Lanka hold up a mirror to India’s own communal turbulence — this is the look and feel of majoritarianism. The BBS has claimed it was inspired by Hindutva, BJP and the RSS, and its founder monk once expressed the desire to form alliances across borders. Indeed, there are some in India who believe such an alliance could strengthen the relationship between the two countries. Nothing could be further from reality. India should want a stable neighbourhood in its own interests, and this can only come from democratic and inclusive entities in the region.