Violence against Muslims and the Character of the BBS

| by Laksiri Fernando

( June 24, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) After the organized violent attacks on the Muslim community in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga town in mid-June, the political character of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has come to the sharp focus. Some have condemned it as ‘terrorist’ and some others as ‘fascist’. All are fine as political rhetoric or words of strong condemnation of the heinous crimes that they have committed against the Muslim community. The acts in fact are both ‘terrorist’ and ‘fascist’ in soft meanings of the terms.

However, one central question posed is whether there is a need ‘to unite with the Devil’s grandmother,’ whoever she is, in the struggle against the BBS. I am particularly referring to Dayan Jayatilleka’s first article, "Is the BBS the Boss?” This united front proposition has been brought to the public discussion by portraying the BBS as a ‘clerical fascist organization’ going against the government for state power of its own, and posing a threat to the present ‘democratic’ regime. The danger of such an analysis, in haste perhaps or with different political motives, is not only that the formation of a viable opposition to the present anti-democratic regime is seriously undermined but also the actual power bases of the BBS or root causes are confused and camouflaged.

The Beast

Aluthgama violence is not the beginning or the end of recent acts of violence against the Muslim community by the BBS. It is undoubtedly the major single incident so far. The previous events and incidents are well recorded. Within barely a week of Aluthgama, a Muslim owned shop at Panadura has been set on fire. Parallel to the previous attacks on the Muslim community, their places of worship and business premises, there had also been a spate violence and incidents attacking the religious places and personnel of some Christian communities. Similar has been the atrocities committed against the Hindu Temples particularly in the North and the East.

The formation of the BBS in 2012 has been the culmination of an ideology and a sentiment evolving particularly after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. That is the ideology of ‘triumphalism’ and Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalism in a new form and at a new height. The intended defeat of ‘terrorism’ has been conveniently turned into a defeat of an ethnic and a religious minority. What the army did in Nandikadal is being reenacted in small measures by the BBS in different forms. It is important to note that Gnanasara thera in his Aluthgama speech equated the situation there to Nandikadal.

There had been debates about whether the Tamils and the Muslims could be considered equal in status and dignity to the Sinhalese as groups in a plural and a multi-cultural society in Sri Lanka and in what form. It’s a question of group rights in human rights parlance which I am familiar with. There has been strong views expressed claiming that their place is only as ‘minorities’ or ‘minority ethnicities.’ The President has never explained what he actually meant by ‘there are no minorities in this country’ in one of his speeches after the end of the war. He did say though that ‘all are equal.’ ‘No minorities’ could mean the eradication of their identities as Gnanasara thera wanted to change the name of Dharga town in his provocative speech before the violent attacks.

It is fairly clear that the main ideology of the BBS is emerging from or consonant with Mahinda Chinthana (MC) 2010 and its practice. The longer roots even could be traced back to Anagarika Dharmapala, rejuvenated on and off through various forms of Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalism time and again. Perhaps many people did not notice what President said in respect of the State and Religion in MC 2010. He said, “While protecting and safeguarding all religions, I will accord Buddhism pride of place as the State Religion” (p.24; my emphasis). In the Constitution, Buddhism is still not the state religion.

The BBS undoubtedly wants to take Rajapaksa ‘triumphalism,’ more faithfully, to its logical conclusion. That is how it got their patronage when the BBS Training Center (misnamed Meth Madura) was inaugurated in Galle in March 2013. They have been in dialogue with each other on many matters since then. Even this dialogue was extended to the UNP and the military. In promoting Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalism, Rajapaksa machinations are however more sophisticated, subtle and nuanced. The BBS behavior is crude and pathetically unsophisticated. In that sense there can be on and off frictions or even conflicts between the two. But most definitely the BBS is a ‘flanker’ of the present regime. They play in front against the minorities.

There is no doubt that the BBS has its own political ambitions. After all, both Ven. Kirame Wimalajothi and Gnanasara thera were in the JHU before and broke away for seeking a more radical and a militant path for their cause. The cause is nothing but to cut the minorities into size. Gnanasara thera has always been more vocal than Ven. Wimalajothi expressing grievances even on ‘caste and class’ lines. While the BBS might be mainly funded by the Sinhala businessmen and competing clothing networks to ‘No Limit’ and such Muslim enterprises, the violent mob base appears to come from the most neglected and lumpen sections of society due to the ongoing lopsided economic development. In that sense there is a semblance of a neo-fascist base.

Theocratic Fascism?

There is a theory of ‘theocratic fascism’ in Dayan’s exaggerated analysis. The key explanation of the BBS is the following paragraph.

“The claim of ownership of the state is made in ethno religious terms, that of Sinhala Buddhism. That however, is a disguise. The real claim is that a definite social stratum is the legitimate owner of the state and should therefore be able to prescribe the state’s policy and practice. The aim and claim is to direct the state. The stratum on behalf of which the BBS stakes this claim is the Sinhala Buddhist clergy.”

According to the above explanation, the claimed ethno religious ‘ism’ or ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ is a disguise. Disguise for what? It’s a disguise for a ‘definite social stratum,’ according to Dayan, and that is the (Sinhala) Buddhist clergy. As far as I am aware, the Buddhist clergy has never claimed the ownership of the state and the BBS might not be able to do so either. The survival of the BBS and their cause depend on the exaggerated or mistaken grievances of the Sinhala Buddhists and their claim for the hegemonic position not only within the state but also within the socio-economic system. That is why they attack Muslim business enterprises.

There is no question that they do claim a right to ‘prescribe state’s policy and practice’ which the two major political parties, both the SLFP and the UNP, invariably accept and that has been a major obstacle for unravelling the ethnic question in Sri Lanka. Whatever the positive role that the clergy must have played in the ancient past, their claimed role or influence in state policy today is detrimental and utterly reactionary. I however don’t see any possibility, at least in the foreseeable future, the Buddhist clergy as a ‘social stratum’ taking over the state power. As far as I am aware, the Buddhist clergy is heterogeneous, disunited and even amorphous. What Dayan described a year ago as ‘ethno-religious fascism,’ to explain the ideology and activities of the BBS might be more appropriate than his current hasty theory of ‘theocratic fascism.’

‘Theocratic fascism’ does appear to be the direct transportation of what was termed as ‘clerical fascism’ in the Interwar Europe. But they were mainly the movements which were appendages to the main Fascist or Nazi movements. Only rarely they ascended as independent movements in some Eastern European countries. Yet, those were mainly identified by the ideology and not the stratum. The following was what John Pollard (In Matthew Feldman (ed.), “Clerical Fascism in Interwar Europe”) said about these movements in respect of Italy.

“The term ‘clerical fascist’ may be attached as a label to individuals, members of the clergy or laity, who were ‘fellow travelers,’ or in Italy, ‘flankers,’ of fascism. Some became fully paid up members of fascist movements. Others remained outside, or belonged to separate movements that gave support to fascism.”

In Sri Lanka, at present, there is no fully fledged fascist movement and the conditions are different to interwar Europe. However, there is a strong ethno-nationalist movement of the Sinhala Buddhist strand, patronized by the state itself. This is of course apart from similar sentiments or movements of ethno-religious nature among the minorities, both the Tamils and the Muslims. The rhetoric, ideology and violence perpetrated by the BBS should be understood in that context, and not apart. The ethno-nationalist project perpetuated by the present regime, particularly after May 2009, is the main element in this context. It is apparent that some are ‘fellow travelers,’ some are ‘flankers’ and some are even ‘on the payroll.’

How to Beat It?
There is no question that there has been a considerable apathy and hesitation on the part of the opposition to come up with a strong denunciation, let alone resistance, to the BBS activities and violence, in Aluthgama or even before. In that sense, there could have been justification of denouncing the BBS as Fascist. Even in Ven. Wimalajothi’s words, the ‘horse has bolted.’ This must be the same feeling on the part of the government or more precisely the Rajapaksas. They have opened the gate or even the floodgates. The bolted horse might play havoc detrimental to the economic project of the Rajapaksas, and that they might contain or control.

However to say that “After Gnanasara’s speech and the violence in Aluthgama, there is a clear conflict of interest between the ruler(s) and the BBS, which presents itself as a contender for the role of who should direct the state and whom the State apparatus should obey” is an utter exaggeration on Dayan’s part.

At the UPFA party leaders meeting after Aluthgama, the President has very clearly ruled out the banning of the BBS as suggested by some Muslim Ministers. During his visit to the scene of the carnage on that Wednesday, even he has pointed his finger at ‘defeated opposition politicians,’ for creating trouble. There is a possibility of mini-reenactment of what JR did to the opposition after July 1983. The government as a whole, including the left and minority leaders within the UPFA, have not taken the incidents very seriously. This is what the opposition should utilize in mobilizing the democratic forces and not forging a united front with the government or any faction of it. Their culpability is more obvious than their lapses. But unfortunately, or at least so far, even the SI candidate, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera, has not come up in denouncing the violence against the Muslims.

The inciting speech of Gnanasara thera at Aluthgama was good enough to arrest him under the prevailing laws of the country. The BASL has very clearly pointed this out. An analysis of his speech might be necessary for the ‘long term predictions’ but most importantly, call for his arrest or apprehension was more pertinent. That is how a struggle against a fascist threat should begin to my knowledge according ‘Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin or even Gramsci.’ The fact of the matter is that the BBS is not against the government but against the Muslims and the minorities.

It is so obvious that the Police allowed that provocative meeting to take place on that tragic Sunday, 15 June. According to The Nation newspaper, the STF was instructed to protect the procession which marched towards Dharga town, after the meeting, but nothing else. Then the IGP came and stated that a monk has been assaulted. That is why the call for the IGP’s resignation or removal was in order. Then the President went on the same lines and blamed both sides for the incidents at the Cabinet meeting.

As far as the present regime is in power, including MR, incidents like Aluthgama might be difficult to prevent or curtail. All the possibilities of replacing the regime (however meagre at present) should be utilized through democratic means. Any attempt at extra-parliamentary measures would be both suicidal and playing directly into their ploy. Dayna’s analysis at least at the beginning in the second article, “No Limits,” might be more plausible than the first one when he says the following.

“To me what seems to be happening is that someone or something is stepping up the pace or is out of control. This is eerily reminiscent of violent neo-fascist movement in Italy in the 1970s [1930s], which committed acts of terrorism as part of what it termed ‘a strategy of tension’. What is most troubling is the possible existence of Sinhala-Buddhist terrorist cells and their possible embedding within, interface with and resonance in the State apparatus itself.”

The situation undoubtedly is partly ‘out of control.’ But that is also the style of a ‘Bonaparte’ like Mahinda Rajapaksa. Someone also might be ‘stepping up the pace.’ That is also almost sure. The regime, including or at the hegemon of MR, may need a more authoritarian apparatus than the present, to remain in power and to achieve its economic and (family) power objectives. I do however disagree with the close comparison to the Fascist ascendancy in Italy of the 1930s while there can be certain resemblances.

The ‘strategic tensions’ created through BBS are used in my opinion to bring the Military into the picture and not Fascism as such. As Gnanasara thera said, it is Ape Sinhala Hamudawa (Our Sinhala Army). To come back to the question of ‘how to beat it,’ my answer is there is no point in ‘uniting with Devil’s grandmother’ as she is sleeping happily with the BBS! If stern measures are taken against the BBS, but not to prop up the Military, those can be supported conditionally.