Sri Lankan Army soldiers stand guard near a house burnt down after a clash between two communities in Digana, Kandy. Photograph:( Reuters )
Ethnic dissidence is a worldwide phenomenon and Sri Lanka is no exception to it with her multiplicity of ethnic composition. Within the ethnic frame lies the religious societal subdivisions also with its cognitive diversity impacting on internal political dynamics. Sri Lanka, a nation of immigrants alongside minuscule aboriginals, has been fighting within to secure political spaces in regional geographical spreads of their settlements. As a young Major in Indian Army, I do have reflections of Sri Lankan societal milieu, characterised by an extremely low threshold for violence based on ethnic sensitivities. The religion mattered but was not a reason for a conflict situation. What is happening in Kandy was waiting to happen with Sinhala chauvinism and their deep-set antagonist attitude towards minority ethnic groups.
At one level there is an ethnic divide between Sinhala majority and Tamil minority which saw three decades violent mayhem culminating in literally a genocide in North and Eastern region. The second level is the religious ingredient of the larger ethnic frame which has a politically strong Sinhala Buddhist lobby and deprived South Indian migrants comprising Hindu, Christians and Muslim minorities under the Tamil political umbrella. Overbearing conduct of Sinhalas with their unchallenged political power has been the main cause of socio-political turmoil in the island nation. It continues even today despite fair progress in the grant of regional autonomy.
Kandy, the scene of current disturbances, is the gateway to economically vibrant western coastal areas and dominating central high lands famous for its tea plantations. It also happens to be the frontier bastion of Buddhist culture in the face of other religious entities who dominate the north and eastern regions. Accordingly, Kandy is the cultural centre of gravity of Sri Lanka which has been the focus of umpteen number of ethnic, religious and military forays in the known historical accounts including Indian mythological beliefs. Therefore, Kandy is treated as a symbol of Buddhist pride and Sinhala assertiveness in the island nation. Hence, needs to be nurtured and protected from negative cultural afflictions.
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be such a grave situation when looked at from Indian perspective as such religious riots are routine affairs here. The district administration is good enough to take care of such social disturbances in normal circumstances. Imposing emergency and sacking the Prime Minister after reported police inaction speaks of something more serious and sinister than what meets the eye. The Buddhist and Islamists have been reported to be at loggers head for quite some time in the central region where both are reasonably well entrenched. Minor religious confrontations are obvious in such a situation.
The decimation of majority Hindu insurgents fighting for a separate Tamil Elam has created a political space on the cusp of central and eastern regions. What probably is happening in Sri Lanka is an expression of the partial shift from ethnic-centric opposition to religious aggressiveness in a typical pattern of emergence of political Islam as seen in other parts of the world. What, probably, is worrying the political establishment, are the inroads of religiously indoctrinated radical elements as an added point of friction disturbing the socio-political synergies achieved after a military purge of LTTE and its affiliates.
With social media blackout, it is not clear if it is only an innocuous religious outburst, or a deliberate politically surcharged movement likely to impact on the political fabric of the island nation. There are telltale signs of high handedness of Sinhala majority across the island as seen earlier in the mid-80s which led to the emergence of Tamil insurgency. Is the cycle of antagonist political opposition starting once again, albeit in a different format wherein Islamic forces would be in the forefront with other Tamil minorities in back up support? After all the terrain, demographic composition and sense of political deprivation in face of Sinhala chauvinism continue to be the same.
Maybe it is a passing phase which happens in any multi-ethnic, multi-religious society and will get resolved after some time. The government in power needs to resolve the matter through cooperative approach taking all the stakeholders on board. Suppression of politico-religious opposition through imposing emergency and one-sided police actions may further alienate the minorities. The silver lining is that there is no indication of organised armed clashes making it a case of a disturbed public order requiring a mature socio-political treatment, lest it translates into a politico-military problem as it has happened in the past. Sri Lanka has to take a call.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)