Kath Noble

Apologising for saffron terror

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 22, 2012

On the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities

Rauff Hakeem is a generous man. A week or so ago, he issued what he referred to as an ‘unreserved apology’ to all Buddhists in Sri Lanka for a remark he made on the campaign trail that some people had interpreted as an insult to the Sangha.

Indeed, he didn’t just say sorry. The SLMC leader also praised the pluralism practised by Sinhalese Buddhists from as long ago as the time of King Senarath, who gave Muslims land in the Eastern Province when they were being persecuted by the Portuguese, and acknowledged the patronage and benevolence Muslims had always enjoyed under Sinhalese rule.

The media didn’t stint on its coverage of his statement, and the frenzied criticism that both preceded and followed it was also given plenty of attention – Faizer Mustapha, his colleague in the UPFA administration, accused Rauff Hakeem of trying to provoke race riots for political gain.

Race riots? He wants a repeat of 1915? Believe that and you’ll believe anything.

The funny thing is that there was no such widespread reporting of what the SLMC leader actually said in the first place.

The whole episode had very little to do with any offence caused and nothing at all to do with any potential danger to the country – very few people would have come to hear of Rauff Hakeem’s comment if not for the ruckus created by his critics. Instead, it had everything to do with the September 8th provincial council elections, in which the SLMC has decided to go it alone in the Eastern Province. Since Muslims are now a majority in the East, the SLMC is expected to do well, and no doubt it didn’t want to risk the fate of MLAM Hizbullah, who brought his faction to contest with the UPFA in 2008 on the understanding that the community with the most votes would be offered the chief ministerial position, only to see it handed to the TMVP – Tamils won only six seats compared to eight for Muslims.

It is actually Faizer Mustapha who should be apologising to Muslims for attempting to take political advantage by raising the awful prospect of race riots.

What made all this possible was the use of the phrase ‘saffron terror’, which Rauff Hakeem urged must be tackled as was the LTTE.

It is not a very helpful phrase, certainly. Muslims don’t like it when people call Al Qaeda Islamic terrorists, on the basis that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism – just because terrorists claim to be acting in the interests of a particular faith doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously. Predominantly Islamic countries never use the word Islamic in connection with Al Qaeda, in the same way as Anders Behring Breivik isn’t called a Christian terrorist in countries where the dominant religion is Christianity (he sometimes isn’t even referred to as a terrorist!) – indeed, this label is rarely applied elsewhere either, so dominant is the West in the formation of the global narrative.

Also, ‘saffron terror’ is the phrase in common use by Indians including the Congress and its now former Home Minister P Chidambaram to describe terrorism by rightwing extremist groups adhering to Hindu nationalist ideology.

This is obviously not comparable with anything that is happening in Sri Lanka.

Rightwing extremist groups in India have been linked to a series of blasts in the last half decade that together have killed hundreds of people. When a bomb explodes, as happened in Pune on August 1st, the first reaction of the Police is now to acknowledge that it is as likely to be the work of Hindu extremists as it is of Muslim extremists.

Even generally speaking, the relationship between communities in the two countries cannot be compared. Race riots are a current reality in India – since July 20th, violence in the Northeastern state of Assam between Muslims and indigenous tribes has claimed more than 75 lives and resulted in 300,000 people fleeing their homes, while there has also been a mass exodus of Northeastern migrants from Southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai due to fears of a backlash.

Sri Lanka is much better off.

However, this is not guaranteed to remain the case. Given the history, which includes several events like those of 1915, and the fact that the country is just emerging from a generation long war fought by a group claiming to represent one particular community in the face of discrimination and oppression by a chauvinist state, it might be wise to err on the side of caution.

More important than how Rauff Hakeem expressed himself is the point he was trying to make. The phrase ‘saffron terror’ as employed by him was meant to refer to the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities.

The Dambulla incident in April this year made the headlines around the world thanks to the availability of rather compelling visuals of monks leading a mob in storming and vandalising a mosque they claimed was built illegally within the declared sacred area of the Golden Temple. Anybody who still hasn’t watched the footage should immediately search for it on the internet (‘Bigoted monks and militant mobs: is this Buddhism in Sri Lanka today?’, Groundviews, April 23rd), since it is bound to change your perspective on the seriousness of the problem. The sight of a monk disrobing and jumping up and down exposing himself outside the mosque while other monks break down the door cannot be forgotten, nor can the explanation given by the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero that the act of destroying the mosque is actually a shramadanaya in which all Buddhists should participate.

Three issues merit repetition. First, the monks used their status to achieve their objectives – the Police were present in numbers, but they did not prevent the monks from breaking the law, although they did restrain lay people.

Secondly, their concerns could have been resolved with very little difficulty if they had chosen a different path. The mosque is not like Ayodhya or the Temple Mount. It grew up to serve the Muslims of the area, but there is no desperate attachment to that particular location – it is not the Prophet’s birth or deathplace. Also, the structure itself is more or less makeshift. Putting up a new one in another place wouldn’t have been an unthinkable task before the mob attack inflamed passions. The Government could have negotiated for suitable land outside the declared sacred area.

Thirdly and most importantly, Muslim leaders responded very sensibly, moving to reduce rather than increase tensions, ensuring that protests were non-violent.

It is a shame that the Government has not apologised to Muslims for its failure to protect their religious freedom on that occasion. In particular, if saying sorry for statements that some people find upsetting is in order, Prime Minister DM Jayaratne should have done so for responding to the mob attack with an announcement that as Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs he was ordering the immediate removal of the mosque – this was hardly the responsible course of action, if there was even the smallest chance of race riots.

Meanwhile, the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero is clearly not going to issue an ‘unreserved apology’, since he apparently believes that violence is a perfectly acceptable way of getting what you want (‘A monk on the rampage’, interview by Niranjala Ariyawansha of the Sunday Leader, May 6th).

The Dambulla incident happened months ago, and it may be argued that the damage done by the Buddhist priests was minimal – the mosque is back in operation and the people of the area have resumed their normal practice of peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Indeed, it is true. Sri Lanka must certainly not be castigated as an intolerant society, since to do so would be to ignore the common behaviour of the vast majority of its people and even the general attitude of its leaders. However, there would have been no damage at all if not for the Buddhist priests – they guided their followers in what was very definitely the wrong direction.

Also, Buddhist priests continue to be involved in such incidents, while nothing is being done about what looks like becoming a trend in the post-war environment.

In the last fortnight alone, reports indicate that a mob led by a Buddhist priest took away a statue of a god from a Hindu kovil in Panama, Eastern Province, while in Deniyaya, Southern Province, another mob including Buddhist priests beat and threatened to kill a Christian pastor and his wife whom they accused of spreading Christianity in the area.

These are much worse insults to the Sangha than anything that was or ever could be said by Rauff Hakeem.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 22nd August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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