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Mainstream, VOL LX No 30, New Delhi, July 16, 2022

Sri Lankan Crisis Caused by Majoritarianism, Authoritarianism and Minority Bashing Offers Lessons for India | S N Sahu

Friday 15 July 2022, by S N Sahu


The island nation of Sri Lanka is caught in the whirlpool of a deep political and economic crisis. The State has collapsed and people are confronting a dire situation marked by massive shortage of food items, fuel, medicines, electricity and other essential supplies so indispensable to lead a normal life. Soaring inflation and the absence of even the semblance of Governmental authority to deal with the existential threat to the lives of people have made them restless. They have come to the streets in defiance of prohibitory orders and emergency imposed across the country. Their vociferous demand expressed in unison for the resignation of President of Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksha fell on deaf ears and he remained defiant and stuck to his office for quite sometime in face of the uprising of people against him. As the restive people peacefully occupied his official residence he fled the country and reached Maldives. From there he flew to Singapore and sent his resignation by email. The relatively non-violent protest by people displaying unity and solidarity cutting across their religious identities affirm their commitment to bring about regime change in a peaceful manner.

Immediate Causes Behind The Crisis

Experts and commentators have traced the unprecedented turmoil and upheaval gripping Sri Lanka to a series of Gotabaya’s flawed economic policies which, among others, asked farmers to suddenly adopt organic farming by dispensing with chemical fertilisers, the import of which was banned. Such a decision without deliberation and consultation with all stakeholders indicated the kind of authoritarian regime Gotabaya led. It adversely affected agricultural productivity and caused acute shortage of food. Even the yield of tea was adversely affected. Sri Lanka which earned substantial foreign exchange from export of tea suffered hugely because of drastic reduction in tea production. Tourism which remained the major source of foreign exchange for the country suffered badly as the the lock down of the country following the onset of COVID pandemic stopped tourist inflow completely and flattened the economy beyond measure. The reduction of tax for the wealthy and the corporates contributed significantly to the decline of revenue and further paralysing the economy. Some of these reasons certainly constituted immediate and debilitating factors behind the cataclysmic developments confronting the country.

Deeper Reasons behind the Crisis

There are far deeper reasons which are behind the mounting crises completely crippling the Sri Lankan polity, society and economy. These are Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism, authoritarian nature of the Gotabaya regime, violent targeting of minorities, brutal methods adopted to curb press freedom and the willful measures taken to do away with the culture of scrutiny of public policies. In fact these are the determining factors derailing the whole country and devastating the livelihood of the vast majority of people cutting across their religious or linguistic identities. Shweta Singh in her article “Authoritarian Populism, Illiberal Democracy and the Making of an Economic Crisis : The Case of Sri Lanka”, published in the June 25 & July 2, 2022 issue of Economic and Political Weekly insightfully states, “It is important to underline that the making of the current economic crisis is not hinged on short term trigger alone, but also in the pitfalls of authoritarian populism marked by unfettered powers to executive presidency and nepotism and corruption that followed from it.”

Buddhist Ethos and Sri Lanka’s Impressive Human Development Indices

It is well known that Sri Lanka has been internationally acclaimed as a splendid example of a country registering impressive human development indices in the entire South Asia. It is way ahead of India in such matters and even nobel laureate professor Amartya Sen in his numerous publications cited Sri Lanka as a role model in achieving much higher levels of human development in spite of the smaller size of its economy and very modest scale of economic progress. Professor Sen sensitively explained in his book “Identity and Violence” that “...nearly every country in the world with a powerful presence of Buddhist tradition has tended to embrace widespread schooling and literacy with some eagerness.” He traced the exemplary accomplishments of Sri Lanka in spreading education among vast masses of people and achieving excellence in vastly improving human development indices to the Buddhist ethos of that country.

Buddhist Tradition Weaponzied by Gotabaya

It is tragic that the Buddhist tradition which played a key role in building quality human development of the country was weaponised by Gotabaya regime after 2019 when he aggressively stoked nationalism by appealing to the sentiments of Sinhalese Buddhists who constitute the majority population. He asked them to vote for him to assume the office of the President of Sri Lanka. The Easter bombing of 2019 arried out in Sri Lanka by self radicalised local Muslims owing affiliation to the Islamic State killed more than two hundred fifty people. The rage and fury it created among the Sinhalese Buddhsists was exploited by Gotabaya who after his election as President of Sri Lanka outlined his support for a Buddhist-first Sri Lanka and tragted minorities -Hindu Tamils Muslims and Christians- by saying that they did not vote for him and he was elected entirely by the votes of Sinhalese Buddhists. A parallel was drawn with Modi’s India and Sri Lanka under Gotabaya by Kapil Komireddi who wrote an article in New York Times under the caption “‘We Needed a Modi After the Easter Attacks’. It was published on 25th November 2019 and captured the strong temper of majoritarianism spawned by Gotabaya after he became the President of Sri Lanka and appointed his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.

Goatabaya’s Crushing of LTTE in 2009 and Search for Other Enemies

It is worthwhile to note that Gotabaya as Defence Minister was instrumental in the crushing defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in 2009 and acquiring the status of hero and saviour of the nation from the military attack of Tamil militants out to dismember the country. Having defeated the LTTE comprehensively after several military encounters in which thousands of civilian Tamilains were killed mercilessly, the people were driven by the political regime to believe that security of the nation would be given priority over everything else. A campaign centering around nation first approach had the subtext of according primacy to the Sinhlese Buddhists and conveying the idea that safety and security of the nation would get overriding priority over everything else. The frenzy created around Sinhalese Buddhist dominance led the majority community to believe that they would sacrifice their lot for the sake of the nation and in case the minorities- Hindus, Musllims and Christians- assert for their rights they would be shown their place. In the aforementioned New York Times article it was observed, “After 2010, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa presided over Sri Lanka’s conversion into a rancid ethnocracy, where the most extreme Buddhist clergy were granted a license effectively to gratify themselves by tormenting defenseless minorities.”

It was further noted in the article, “Bodu Bala Sena or the Buddhist Power Force, a group of tonsured monks, proclaimed itself the defender of Buddhism, pledged allegiance to the Rajapaksas and amplified every trope about the treachery of Muslims circulating in India and the West and took to terrorizing them. As public disquiet spiked, Gotabaya Rajapaksa praised the Buddhist Power Force as a protector of “our country, religion and race.”

It spawned nationalism in the garb of Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism and carefully scripted a plan to look for enemies, after the LTTE was vanquished, to defeat and wipe them out. In the Daily Mirror (On Line) of Colombo an article “When Your Electoral Wishes Come True…” was published on 6th July 2022. Therein it was observed, “National security, was of paramount importance as the threats, real or perceived ones, had to be addressed swiftly , decidedly and ruthlessly. The jihadists, the Christian missionaries, the LTTE separatists, the NGO groups, the western imperialists, the Diaspora and all other traitors were to be bundled up in one heap and defeated by the militarized, Sinhala Buddhist, strong armed dictator-like rule of Gotabaya.”

Targeting Muslims

Halal meat, Hijab, and Burqua and religious conversion issues were raised by Buddhist monks adopting a hardline posture to target and otherise the Muslims who constitute 9 per cent of the population. Such ominous developments in Sri Lanka resonated in India when Hijab was banned in schools of Karnataka and there were calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims in some BJP ruled States. It was reported in media that in Sri Lanka Muslims were prohibited to bury the dead bodies of their near and dear ones and forced to cremate them. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) took a stand in favour of the halal system of food classification, which the hardline Buddhist monks were trying to ban. It also strongly dismissed the allegations of those monks that the Muslim community was aiding and abeting extremism and destroying the Buddhist holy sites.Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s statement as Defence Secretary that "It is the monks who protect our country, religion and race," has been quoted in one of the preceding paras. Such statements encouraged the hardliners and they asserted that the country was seen as a Sinhala Buddhist country. The Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena was encouraged to take direct action targeting Muslims and other minorities. It exploited social fault lines to locate new enemies to promote divisiveness, polarise society and conflate nationalism with Sinhalese Buddhist identity following the decisive defeat of LTTE. There have been attacks on Christians, Churches and pastors for their alleged activities to convert people to christianity. As Sinhala pride gained huge traction and sharply polarised society it contributed immensely to create illiberal democracy at the cost of plurality and diversity which earlier created congenial conditions for economic growth and progress.

Attack on Freedom of Press

Gotabaya ruthlessly suppressed freedom of press and took punitive measures against journalists who exposed the wrong doings of the regime. Several journalists were kidnapped and killed. In the global press freedom index Sri Lanka’s position fell from 127th rank to 146th. Subhajit Roy in his piece “The Gota Story : A Champion of Sinhal Pride to Fugitive Leader” published in Indian Express on 16th July 2022 observed, “Since the war ended Gotabaya having earned a demi-God-like status, ruled the country through fear. As Defence Secretary he silenced his critics - some through white-van kidnappings and killings- the most famous case being that of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of The Sunday Leader who was killed in 2009”. Such appalling conditions for the media contributed to the decline of the culture of questioning the regime. It led to the rise and growth of illiberal democracy in Sri Lanka.

Culture of Scrutiny Became a Casualty

Majoritarianism combined with authoritarianism crushed the mechanisms to put under scanner the programmes and policies of the Government. In the absence of such mechanisms to scrutinise the Government measures, the culture of accountability was demolished. Therefore, the regime of Gotabaya without being accountable to people remained insensitive to their needs and aspirations. Sri Lanka in spite of its remarkable track record of developing its human resources failed miserably primarily because of an illiberal regime sustained through authoritarian method of governance and majoritarian hubris. Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economist at World Bank aptly observed, “In terms of standard of living, Sri Lanka used to be South Asia’s big big success story. Authoritarianism, divisive politics, persecution of minorities and a disastrous agricultural intervention to farmers caused the economy to collapse”.

Lessons for India

The self serving majoritarianism spawned by Gotabaya and the hardline Buddhist monks triggered toxic nationalism and divided people on the basis of religion. Tragically the lethal crisis generated by Gotabaya has pushed people of all faiths to unacceptable depths of suffering and hardship. Ironically he who divided people on account of their faiths and embroiled them in one catastrophe after another is now finding people getting united and acting in unison for his overthrow. They have realised that Gotabaya to perpetuate his divide and misrule played one faith against another. So they have come together and their collective strength forced him to resign. It teaches the vital point that political leaders to remain in power cannot keep people divided on the basis their faith far too long. People would eventually see through the game and change the regime.

The crisis enveloping Sri Lanka offers lessons to India which is also embroiled in the majoritarianism peddled by the powers that be and, they, through their authoritarian style of governance, are trampling upon the culture of accountability which remain central to the functioning of our parliamentary democracy. Our leadership controlling the state apparatus are disdainful of the scrutiny, examination and interrogation of the policies they adopt. As a result we witnessed several agitations such as a year long farmers’ movement, countrywide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the recent violent protests against the Agnipath scheme. These cannot be dismissed as acts of Andolonojeevis. We need to derive appropriate lessons from the ongoing turmoil in Sri Lanka and stand by its people. There should be a new regime in that country headed by the leaders who can command support of people and generate confidence among them that they can safeguard theirlivelihood, safety and security by employing democratic methods and taking into account their needs and aspirations regardless of their religious and linguistic identities. All these are central to Buddhism which is anchored in Pragyan(Enlightenment), Karuna(Compassion) and Samata(Equality).

(Author: S N Sahu Served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India K R Narayanan)

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