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Sri-Lanka A Tale of Two Similar Narratives

By Sanjal Shastri

The Buddhist-Muslim violence that has rocked the regions around Kandy has pushed the Sri Lankan Government to declare a state of emergency. Though accounts of what caused the initial spark to appear to be sketchy, one story going around are that it is a fallout of case of road rage which lead to the death of a Buddhist man.

Sri Lankan police officers stand out side a vandalized Buddhist Temple in Poojapitiya, in central Sri Lanka.

While the death of a Buddhist man may be the spark that ignited the violence, social science scholars will immediately point out that the chain of causes goes far beyond the initial precipitating incident. As someone researching on Hindu-Muslim relations in India, the discourses around Buddhist-Muslim relations appear to be strikingly similar. Dig a little deeper beyond the death of the Buddhist man, the picture inter-religious hostility appears all too familiar for an Indian reader.

Muslims make up around 10% of Sri Lanka's population. They are concentrated along provinces along the East Coast and parts of the West Coast. In Kandy district, the Muslim population is around 14%. The violence that prevailed appears to be a product of two factors. On one hand, the increasing role right-wing Buddhist groups are playing in Sri Lankan politics. On the other hand, the construction of a vilified version of the 'other' that builds up a sense of insecurity amongst the Buddhist population.

Right from Sri Lankan independence, Buddhist groups have had an important say in the political system. While initially, their role was more from the periphery, since 2000, they have begun to take an active part in politics, even contesting elections. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is one such right-wing group that entered active politics since 2004. They were a part of the Rajapaksa lead UPFA coalition that was in power during the last stages of the civil war. Following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the Buddhist right-wing groups have aimed their guns at other minority groups like the Christians and Muslims. Right-wing groups including the JHU are also a part of the current ruling coalition. Their presence in national politics has emboldened right-wing elements in society.

Alongside, the rise in right-wing groups is a vilified version of the 'other' that is formed. In this case, the other is the Muslim community. Buddhist groups have latched on to the idea that the growth rate of the Muslim population exceeds that of the Buddhist population. This concern over a rising Muslim population has added to a sense of insecurity amongst many Buddhists. A rumour was floated that the Muslim restaurants were adding pills in the food they served that would make people impotent. In an atmosphere of distrust that has been constructed, locals believe such outlandish ideas. Ultimately, an unfortunate fight that led to a person's death is given a communal colour, which then sparks a riot.

A similar narrative emerges when looking at the Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Right-wing groups like the Bajrang Dal and VHP have been emboldened by the presence of a BJP government at the centre. Going on from this, us versus them atmosphere has emerged in India. If one looks more closely at the 'love jihad' theory, it draws in from the same concerns of a rising minority population. Right-wing groups claim that this is a part of a larger conspiracy by the minority community to increase their population. When talking to locals in Mangalore, a town that has now become infamous for its communal tensions, the same question of population growth is put forth. In this heightened state of paranoia, a normal fight or incident is given a communal colour which then sparks a larger communal incident. The chain of stabbing incidents in Mangalore are good examples. What started off as a fight between two individuals, which led to one individual being stabbed is given a communal angle.

In a sense, India and Sri Lanka are in the same boat. To a rational observer, the narratives put forth by right-wing groups are completely absurd. The challenge is over the last decade, these groups have constructed an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism that make such absurd ideas popular amongst the masses. The only way one can tackle this is by building a counter-narrative, based on solid facts and ideas of inclusiveness. Unless this counter-narrative is developed, unfortunate incidents like the ones in Kandy will continue to take place.

(The author is a student of conflict and terrorism studies at the University of Auckland. He holds a master's degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of OneIndia and OneIndia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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