Losing the ideas battle
The heavy Police guard at the Cinnamon Grand Colombo early Monday morning created the impression that there would be VIP movement at the hotel premises that day.
But instead of politicians, it was a large contingent of senior Buddhist monks that alighted at the entrance and made their way towards the hotel’s Ivy Room. There, the monks took their seats alongside Ceylon Chamber of Commerce Chief Susantha Ratnayake and senior Muslim clerics to address a massive joint media conference, where they proudly announced a win-win compromise on the Halal controversy that has been sweeping across the country.
The All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulama announced that the Halal logo – deemed abhorrent to the Buddhist community by hard-line groups like the Bodu Bala Sena – would no longer need to be compulsorily displayed on the packaging of consumer products. The Ceylon Chamber Chairman announced that the Chambers had advised its membership to get products without the offending logo to retail shelves as soon as possible, so that the matter could finally be put to rest and the tensions created by the Halal issue effectively defused.
Senior monks, like Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thero, hailed the consensus as proof that problems between religious communities could be resolved through discussion instead of fisticuffs. “The ACJU is our friend,” he told journalists that morning. The monks and Muslim clerics displayed much bonhomie and goodwill during the trilingual media briefing.
It was transparent attempt to spread the message that there was no need to fear the ACJU or sections of the Muslim community, following an onslaught of hard-line Sinhalese propaganda against Islamic custom and rituals. One of the major demands of the hardliners had been for Sinhala Buddhists and Sri Lankans from non-Muslim communities to be able to purchase food items that did not bear the Halal logo.
The strange rationale notwithstanding, it was a call many Sinhalese echoed, with grocery stores being forced to stock non-Halal items and some people choosing to boycott Muslim enterprises altogether. The anti-Halal, anti-Muslim enterprise campaign carried out by Sinhala hard-line groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, have struck at the very heart of a community that has traditionally engaged in trade.
As reports grew more widespread about intolerance and attacks against Muslims, their businesses and their way of life, the ACJU appeared to become more convinced that it would have to capitulate on the Halal issue in order to prevent an outbreak of more serious anti-Muslim sentiment. The Muslim clerics owned that the decision had been a hard one, but that they would seek other ways to educate Muslims about which brands of food were permissible for Muslim people to consume.
One system the ACJU is mulling is putting up notices in mosques around the country, listing products that were adhering to the Halal tradition. With immediate effect, the Halal logo was no longer mandatory, and the clerics went one step further offering the certification free of charge to any companies that sought it voluntarily. For a little over 24 hours therefore, it appeared as if with the ACJU’s major compromise on the Halal logo would see an end to the hate and demonisation campaigns.
But the next afternoon, at their multi-storeyed building at the Thummulla junction, the Bodu Bala Sena condemned the ‘compromise’ saying it was an evil plot hatched by foreign conspirators and unreservedly attacked all those they perceived as being architects of the resolution, including some members of the Sangha that were present at the joint press briefing the previous day. The group has flatly refused to accept the withdrawal of the logo as an end to the issue and pledged to continue to have the Halal certification completely banned in Sri Lanka by the April New Year.
Assuming credit for what they said was a 50% drop in sales at Muslim owned businesses, the hard-line group said the Halal debate must continue relentlessly until the certification was no longer available in the country, and even called for the dissolution of the ACJU that was set up by an act of Parliament in the year 2000. To this end, a series of massive rallies have been organised in different parts of the island, and the monks claim they are unable to cope with invitations from their task forces throughout the country to hold public meetings in their towns.
BBS, the Torah and the Quran
At the media briefing, Bodu Bala Sena front-liners spread open translations of the Torah and the Quran and explained why Halal food is food that is dedicated to Allah and is therefore unfit to be offered to the Lord Buddha in pooja. Ironically, the Bodu Bala Sena monks, who often quote Quranic suras, are yet to read from the Tripitaka or quote a sutta as preached by Lord Buddha at their media briefings and public rallies, even if the group’s media briefings and public rallies often begin by reciting pan-sil. They revere and uphold the teachings of Soma Thero, cite quotations from Anagarika Dharmapala and other Sinhala Buddhist renaissance figures, the monks are yet to provide a rationale for their movement that is drawn directly from the teachings or words of the Gautama Buddha.
The enmity and social segregation propagated by Bodu Bala Sena monks find no resonance or comparison in the teachings of the Buddha, whose most fundamental legacies were tolerance and the rejection of birth as marker of superiority. At Tuesday’s briefing the group’s ire was directed largely at ex-Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda, for his role in brokering the Halal compromise.
Moragoda, who now functions as a Presidential Advisor has been significantly involved in attempting to defuse simmering tension between the Bodu Bala Sena and the organisation of Muslim clerics that the hard-line Sinhala group has made its arch enemy. The former Minister has been instrumental in arranging discussions between the ACJU and high offices of the Government, including Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and even the Bodu Bala Sena and senior Defence officials, including the Defence Secretary and officers from law enforcement, intelligence and even the military.
The former UPFA Colombo Mayoral candidate has consistently lobbied senior Muslim clerics, higher echelons of the Rajapaksa administration and members of the Maha Sangha to arrive at a peaceful, consensual resolution to the Halal crisis and the anti-Muslim sentiment it was creating in the country. Moragoda’s ultimate plan was to bring discussions on the issue to a point at which the ACJU and the Bodu Bala Sena could sit together with senior Government officials at one meeting to iron out their issues. But with the crisis building and the Bodu Bala Sena rhetoric getting more divisive, the need to resolve the issue superseded the desire for gestures of goodwill.
Making enemies of moderates
As the days wear on, it will become clearer that the Bodu Bala Sena does not want the issues to simply go away. To continue to provide fodder for the anti-Muslim movement that is taking shape in certain urban areas and virulently so on social networking sites, the group has to keep creating monsters that feed the frenzied mob. For this reason, moderates like Moragoda and even Government officials and members of the business community that seek to defuse rather than build tensions, will continue to earn the Bodu Bala Sena’s ire.
Like any fascist group, the Bodu Bala Sena will recognise Sinhala Buddhist moderates as being their greatest enemy, whether they are politicians, laymen or monks. And if the Halal controversy looks like it cannot be sustained, the group has other tricks up its sleeve – the most recent of these being the Abaya or full body garment worn by some Muslim women.
Columnist D.B.S. Jeyaraj writes of disturbing incidents that show a growing intolerance to this garment worn by Muslim women in certain parts of the country already. Jeyaraj reports that women attired in these conservative outfits are becoming targets of derisive remarks and even attempts to yank the garments off. One such target was the grand niece of a veteran Muslim political leader, who was spat upon, while three schoolgirls in Abaya were attacked in Dickwella. The Bodu Bala Sena has been waging war against these outfits for some weeks now, referring to women who wear them as Goni-Billas and making derogatory and blatantly sexist remarks about the clothing at their rallies.
At their Tuesday briefing, the monk-led group affirmed that they were against the Abaya and the Burqa, because it was firstly, a security threat and a problem for law enforcement whose job depended on being able to identify persons, and secondly an indication that Sharia Law was in force in the island. Attempting to create fear and suspicion about the garment will form an integral part of the Bodu Bala Sena’s post-Halal campaign.
When it came to the Halal issue, it has long been the realisation that as with all consumer products, the market finally decides the outcome of such debates. If the removal of the Halal logo results in a drastic drop in sales, companies will opt for the logo, despite the political ripples it may create. Ultimately, purchasing power will provide the final resolution to the Halal crisis.
But the Bodu Bala Sena’s blatantly patriarchal encroachment into women’s clothing choices marks a dangerous trend that could culminate the creation of a cultural police that determines the length of women’s skirts and what constitutes indecent exposure. While the monk-led group is incongruously offended by the most conservative female garment worn in Sri Lanka today, and that is essentially driven by its anti-Muslim ideology, the question is who their next target will be after the Muslim community is effectively subjugated.
Interestingly, the Halal saga and the Bodu Bala Sena antics are playing out alongside largely non-descript UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. In a strangely unanticipated twist, Geneva 2013, as it relates to Sri Lanka has become much more New Delhi’s problem than it is Colombo’s. For several days now, the Indian Parliament has been rocked by protests by Tamil Nadu politicians demanding that the Centre take a tougher stance on Colombo. In fact, last Thursday (7), BJP strongman and former Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha told the Indian Parliament that voting in support of the US resolution in Geneva was not sufficient, India should in fact submit a resolution against Sri Lanka itself.
The Rajapaksa administration is deliberately shifting attention away from the UNHRC’s 22nd Session, where a second US led resolution against Sri Lanka was tabled last Friday (8), with at least one change that should cause some disturbance for the Rajapaksa regime in Colombo. The inclusion in the second leaked draft of the resolution that ultimately became the version tabled by the US, “noted” UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s call for an independent war crimes inquiry. Perhaps even more interestingly, during an Indian parliamentary debate on 7 March, the day before the US resolution was tabled in Geneva, Indian Minister of External Affairs, Salman Khursheed was to tell the House that an external international inquiry into what has happened in Sri Lanka was “inevitable”.
“Similarly, the LLRC in toto must be implemented and then we can think at something beyond and something ahead. I only say this I know that many honourable Members feel that there should be an external international inquiry into what has happened in Sri Lanka. I know that the adjudication is necessary. It is inevitable,” the Indian Minister said.
He said that for a durable and sustainable political solution in Sri Lanka, “the facts will have to be established, they will have to be accepted and the consequences that come from acceptance of those facts and establishment of those facts, must also follow.”
India is inclined to vote in support of the resolution in Geneva, but remains gravely concerned about what it has termed the ‘intrusive’ language of the draft resolution. As such, the dilution or negotiation on the language has become, largely, New Delhi’s problem. Colombo has maintained stoically that it categorically rejects the US resolution and will not negotiate on its language. However, authoritative diplomatic sources have confirmed that the Sri Lankan delegation is not only in discussion with the US Delegation in Geneva about the language of the resolution, but is also hoping to move amendments to the draft.
Four years after the conclusion of the war – the war that New Delhi led by the Congress Government backed to the hilt in its final stages – Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour has received less and less to work with from the Rajapaksa administration. The continued suppression and denial of political rights to the Tamils fuels ferocious fires in India’s South, and the incumbent Sri Lankan regime’s anti-democratic tendencies in the recent past, continue to worry New Delhi, which as the major power in South Asia, seeks to create a common democratic standard in the region.
As India grows in power and influence in the region and around the world, it seeks more than mere economic prowess and its foreign policy decisions cease to be based solely on its own national interest. US President Barack Obama in his speech to the Indian Parliament in 2010, highlighted this notion, when he said that as the world’s two largest democracies, India and the US must never forget that the price of their own freedom was standing up for the freedom of others. “Along with the United States, you’ve been a leader in supporting democratic development and civil society groups around the world. This, too, is part of India’s greatness,” the US President said, during his visit to New Delhi in his first term.
Minister Khursheed echoed these lofty sentiments in Parliament last Thursday when he said that it was not easy to support a resolution against Sri Lanka. “If you support a resolution against any country, do you think that it is easy? But if you vote with a principled position and the confidence that what you are doing is not something that you are doing for your own advantage but you are doing it for their benefit, you are doing it for the benefit of all humanity, then you have the confidence to look them in the eyes and say that it was important that we voted against you because this will help you resolve your problem.”
Under its grander worldview then, India’s reaction to the events unfolding in Sri Lanka, with regard to the attempted suppression of a different minority in the island, while the Tamils continue to struggle for their basic political rights would be interesting. As recently as 11 years ago, India had its tryst with ethno-religious fascism, when the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya was demolished in a communal riot that followed a major rally by the extremist Hindu Shiv Sena group. Radical forces espousing the cause of Hindutva or political Hinduism appeared to be taking root and threatening the fabric of India’s democracy. India stared that monster squarely in its face and secularism and commonality eventually triumphed. Yet the ignominy of such atrocities and the threats they pose to a country’s future security, remain for all time.
The Government of Sri Lanka consistently argues against international interference in its domestic affairs. It cries foul and stands upon sovereignty claims, as the call rings from East and West for reconciliation between communities of people and accountability and repentance for crimes of the past. For a world that has lived through Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur, it is tantamount to a crime for the international community to look the other way when states act against their citizens. Deriving its sole legitimacy from the defeat of terrorism, the Rajapaksa regime flouts democratic values, the rule of law and looks the other way when ethno-religious plurality is threatened in the country, and still expects to retain its standing as a member of the international community.
Yet as long as the regime fails to devolve power to the North and East, erodes democratic values and affords State patronage and security to hard-line groups like the Bodu Bala Sena that openly propose minority suppression, it is losing the battle for ideas internationally.
Last weekend, the Defence Secretary inaugurated a Bodu Bala Sena run Buddhist Leadership Academy in Galle, rubber stamping the group’s vicious rhetoric and divisive campaigns against the Muslim community. In fact, it is learnt that the Defence Secretary was repeatedly advised to refrain from attending the event, from no less than his own intelligence services. Even if it was intended to be perceived as an innocuous attendance, it was a poor signal from the Government at a time when it is facing such serious international scrutiny about its commitment to minority rights.
The refusal to grant minority rights is resulting in serious traction for powerful, pro-separatist lobbies like the Global Tamil Forum whose agendas are inimical to the Sri Lankan State and whose cause is being legitimised by senior UK politicians, former UN officials and internationally renowned rights activists and civil society leaders who see the Sri Lankan Government’s actions as proof that it is not interested in winning the peace and ensuring and protecting minority rights.
Given the openly racist positions taken by the Bodu Bala Sena and the deep divisions their propaganda is creating in Sri Lankan society, a debate also ensues as to whether their rhetoric should be subjected to a media blackout. If Bodu Bala Sena is a distraction tactic, from Geneva, from the spiralling cost of living and from the Government’s own increasingly autocratic tendencies, affording them publicity could be a way of playing into their hands. But to keep public attention focused on the group’s activities and rhetoric also keeps moderates seeking to prevent the outbreak of ethno-religious violence wide awake and alert to the dangers such groups pose. To ignore them in the hope they will simply fade into obscurity is too great a risk given what the Bodu Bala Sena has already achieved in terms of spreading fear and suspicion. They must be consciously, deliberately made obscure, not through suppression or arrest, but by defeating them, with the numbers and with the truth, in the only fight that truly matters – the ideas battle.