Sri Lanka has beamed a grim warning to India. British Prime Minister Theresa May sees Sunday’s carnage in the island nation as part of a “targeted attack on Christians” worldwide. But what Sri Lanka’s finance minister Mangala Samaraweera calls “a well-coordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy” reflects the delayed fallout of Colombo’s signal failure to live up to the obligations of a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society.
Since three of the blasts were in churches readied for Easter Sunday services, the attack may have been partly aimed at the island’s 1.5 million Christians. The other deadly explosions in luxury hotels frequented by tourists and foreigners might indicate a puritanical perspective among the conspirators. Although no group has so far claimed responsibility, most of the people arrested so far seem to be Islamic fundamentalists who are enemies of both Buddhists and Hindus. Their recalcitrance may be part of the global insurgency that the American political scientist Samuel Huntington had labelled the “clash of civilisations”, a well-worn cliché in any discourse on race or religion. But the roots of Sri Lanka’s agony go back much earlier, to the majority’s determination ever since colonial rule ended in 1948 to force all the island’s 22 million inhabitants into the straitjacket of its own language and religion.
Indian Tamils, mainly Hindu descendants of plantation workers, were the first victims of the saffron-draped Buddhist monks who upheld the standard of majoritarian arrogance. India stepped in and the 1964 pact between Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was Prime Minister of what was then still Ceylon, assured them of refuge in India. But Sri Lanka’s own Tamils, nearly one-fifth of the population, were left to the mercy of the Sinhalese Buddhists, accounting for more than 70 per cent of the people. The 10 per cent Muslim and seven per cent Christian minorities did not seem to pose any immediate threat to Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy. But Tamils were the historic adversary, believed to have been favoured by the British.
Ironically, although ethnic drawbridges were pulled up, a “pure” Sinhalese was probably as scarce as hen’s teeth. Kandy, the last of the island’s independent kingdoms, which succumbed to British force in 1818, was ruled by Tamil royals who were both Hindu and Buddhist. Preferring perception to history, however, Sri Lanka’s new rulers discriminated against Tamils in education and jobs and rejected their demand for regional autonomy.
Eventually the armed insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam emerged in 1976 to fight for a Tamil homeland in the northeast. The LTTE attacked the police and the Sri Lankan Army, deployed child soldiers, and murdered moderate Tamil leaders like Appapillai Amirthalingam and Neelan Tiruchelvam, whose now forgotten Tamil United Liberation Front had sought a compromise solution. The LTTE were among the first militants to pioneer the suicide bombings that Sunday’s anonymous rebels emulated with such devastating effect. In 1997, the United States branded it as a terrorist group.
Everyone is agreed that Sunday’s sophisticated planning, organisation and expert use of explosives point to some source beyond Sri Lanka’s shores. According to Ruwan Wijewardene, the country’s defence minister, the culprits were religious extremists belonging to a single group. In his advisory, Sri Lanka’s deputy inspector-general of police Priyalal Dassanayake wrote that the radical Islamist National Thoweeth Jama’ath was planning nationwide attacks. Six Jama’ath members were charged earlier with insulting the Buddha and hurting Buddhist sentiments.
Whoever was responsible and whatever their motive, the carnage might not have been quite so gory if political rivalry at the top had not hampered administrative efficiency and interdepartmental cooperation. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, admits that the security services had been warned 10 days ago that suicide bombers might target “prominent churches”, but that the warning had not prompted preventive action. “We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken,” he said in what was clearly a dig at his arch-rival, President Maithripala Sirisena. Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution places the security forces directly under the President. In October last year, Mr Sirisena had attempted to sack Mr Wickremesinghe as Prime Minster, triggering a constitutional crisis.
The blistering feud between the two men is being played out against a backdrop of ethnic tension and horrendous unburied memories of the 26-year civil war that is thought to have killed between 70,000 and 80,000 people. Fortunately, however, the Sirisena-Wickremensinghe enmity doesn’t seem to have impeded the effort to restore normality. Sri Lanka’s government lost no time in clamping down an indefinite curfew, imposing emergency rule and freezing social media networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp to prevent the spread of rumors that might spark inter-communal violence. This had happened in March 2018 when Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim mosques, businesses, and homes and a state of emergency had to be declared.
While the Tamil minority is far from blameless, the Sinhalese majority, instigated by fanatical monks in saffron, must bear the main blame for the continuing tension. Guided by Bishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought peace to a ravaged land. But the recommendation of Sri Lanka’s official Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that “the process of reconciliation requires a full acknowledgement of the tragedy of the conflict and a collective act of contrition by the political leaders and civil society, of both Sinhala and Tamil communities” was completely ignored. Colombo fears that any concession will strengthen the hardliners, especially in the diaspora, who still demand an independent Tamil Eelam.
Ten years after the civil war ended, Sri Lanka recalls the famous hymn by Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta from 1823 to 1826, who wrote of Ceylon as a land where “every prospect pleases, /And only man is vile”.
It’s the vileness of majoritarianism which we in India must guard against as we note that far from being the colour of piety and sacrifice, saffron in Sri Lanka also denotes hard dogma, self-defeating stubbornness and populist exhibitionism. Majoritarian identity politics is fraught with peril for any multicultural nation.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author...