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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 19 New Delhi April 27, 2019

Sri Lanka: The Mayhem and After

Monday 29 April 2019, by Apratim Mukarji


On Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) coordinated terror attacks in Sri Lanka, as many as eight in number over a few hours, have managed to leave behind more confusion than such incidents usually cause in their aftermath. Since no terrorist leaves behind his calling card after perpetrating his crime, such occasions always cause much groping around in the dark until tell-tale evidences are collected and analysed and interrogations of suspects held and then, finally, individuals or organisations are identified and their identities disclosed to the world.

In Sri Lanka’s case, with 290 dead and over 500 wounded, the Easter Sunday bombings already rank as the deadliest such attack in the world, and within hours of the incidents a Sri Lankan fundamentalist group, called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), has been named as the alleged perpetrator. While the organisation has denied any involvement in the bombings, the people are also unconvinced about the allegation. Most people look at the Muslim group as more of a nuisance consisting of petty anti-social elements incapable of plotting such a massive and daring conspiracy to destablise the country. Its sole qualification to be a suspect in such a sensational case appears to be its proven involvement in last year’s attacks on Buddhist establishments.

Meanwhile, the sudden critical development has clearly raised questions regarding two state matters: why the authorities failed to act despite having been alerted ten days ago, and why the Prime Minister and his Ministers were kept in the dark about the timely and clearly actionable intelligence input received by President Maithri-pala Sirisena who presides over intelligence as the Defence and Police Minister. As a matter fact, it was Prime Minister Ranil Wickrema-singhe who himself raised these very questions in his statement issued shortly after the bombings. As we go to press, no answers have been forthcoming.

 The official statement has since been modified to a significant extent. Perhaps more to satisfy the cynicism in the country, the government now says that the NTJ has had international backing from more resourceful jihadist groups. The Cabinet spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne, has said that while the NTJ is primarily responsible, “we don’t see that a small organisation in this country can do all that...We are investigating international support for them and their other links—how they produced the suicide bombers and bombs like this.” While this also awaits authentication by competent authorities, the United States has warned of further terror attacks in Sri Lanka. The curfew clamped immediately in the wake of the Sunday bombings has since been succeeded by a state of emergency effected all over the island, but tension continues unabated.

The sum total of the developments since April 21 is a repeat exposé of the deep fissure that led to a constitutional breakdown in 2018 and had since apparently simmered under the cover of a compromise reached between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, forcing the country once more to stare at a malfunctioning administration.

How does this government, wracked by undaunted internal squabbling, propose to deal with the sudden emergence of a mighty and shadowy terror group that can destabilise a modern powerful state within a few hours? Whether or not the NTJ is involved in the outrage, it will now continue to raise fear in the minds of all Sri Lankans.To that extent, the group has succeeded in reaching its immediate goal.

However, a much bigger issue appears to be involved in the developments. If the unknown terror group’s involvement is a surprise, an even more surprise is the obvious attack on Christians and Christianity, a community and a religion which have largely escaped violence in independent Sri Lanka. What has happened in-between that has given birth to this new monster of a religio-political turn in the country’s history?

An answer can perhaps be searched for in the recent history of Sri Lanka. Ever since 2013, scores of attacks including arson, loot and wreckage of property of the minority Muslim community have occurred in parts of the country; and in all such cases fundamentalist Buddhist groups have been identified and acted upon. Among these groups most prominent is the Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Army) which has been held guilty of a series of attacks on Muslims in the central and southern parts of Sri Lanka.

On the other end of the scale is the free inflow of Saudi funds which have visibly enriched and expanded the Salafist foothold in the island. While no known Sri Lankan is learnt to have escaped to the ISIS pockets of influence in the Middle East, there have been reports of clashes between Buddhist and Hindus and Muslims, chiefly in the north-east. The sudden eye-catching emergence of huge mosques in the region is difficult to escape one’s attention, and stray incidents of quarrels, defiances and deliberate changeovers to Islamic dress codes by Muslim women have been reported.

Still, two questions remain unanswered. Can such small and negligible incidents with no apparent inter-linking lead to the enormity of the April 21 developments that have shaken up not just Sri Lanka but the whole world? And secondly, if the Muslims have nurtured a hatred for Buddhists,why the singling out of Christians, comprising both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, easily the most peaceable people in the country?

A plausible theory in this regard that is floating around is that while a jihadist attack on Buddhist-Sinhalese would have definitely disturbed the peace in Sri Lanka, an attack on Christian churches during a major Christian holiday would immediately attract the world’s attention because the island is a also a top-notch tourist destination. And, as if to validate this theory, the churches chosen for attacks in Colombo and Negombo were full of worshippers, both local and foreign, and the five-star hotels in the capital were again full of wealthy foreign tourists as also of rich Sri Lankans. If this theory holds as it seems to, the surprise attacks on Christians could be explained, as, by no means, a jihadist attack on an alien religion but principally on foreigners, Westerners of course, and rich too by implication.

Sri Lanka has never been alien to religious alienation since specific religions were long associated with particular races or communities. Tamils were mainly Hindus though there were also many Christians among them. Sinhalese were always almost exclusively Buddhists though there were Christians too, and of course Muslims were Islamic or Muslims. The animosity between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils was age-old and manifested in its worst form when the three-decade-long civil or ethnic war began.

Both the Muslims and Christians kept themselves out of this two-race rivalry and did not suffer losses until 1990 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began a virtual genocide of Muslims in the north-east on the suspicion that they were acting as spies for the Sri Lanka Army just as they did for the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Overnight, a staggering 90,000 Muslims were forced to leave behind their homes and business to flee to the safe parts of the country. Quite a number of them settled down in Puttalam, where they continue to live. There were reports at one time that Islamic fundamentalism had taken roots among these refugees, particularly among the young ones.

In the absence of any confirmed official identification of the people behind the April 21 terror attacks, all these have to remain inconclusive. But, adding an Indian flavour to the latest Sri Lankan drama is a recent development, which began after the BJP-NDA Government came to rule India. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has established close and intimate ties with the Bodu Bala Sena. They have been attending each other’s conferences and occasional joint meetings. Both the Indian and Sri Lankan fundamentalist groups are also in contact with a Myanmar counterpart which played the principal role in ousting the Muslim Rohingyas from that country. There is little doubt that the rise of anti-Islamic movements in the three South Asian countries has rung alarm bells for the Muslims in the region. Is the suspected rise of the NTJ in Sri Lanka a reaction to this combined campaign of anti-Islamism?

The author reported from Sri Lanka during 1990-96 as the correspondent of a leading Indian newspaper. He frequently writes on developments in the South Asian state.

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