Whipped up by hard-line groups, the anti-Muslim frenzy sweeping the country reached a pivotal moment last Thursday. Under the cover of darkness, an angry mob, led by men in saffron robes, stormed a clothing chain consistently and repeatedly vilified by the Bodu Bala Sena and affiliate groups. Video footage emerging soon after the brutal assault that left several injured showed law enforcement once more powerless in the face of a rampaging crowd. Less than a week later, all 17 suspected vandals were released, the charges dropped for the sake of ‘national unity’. The signal to the other groups chomping at the bit to take the anti-Muslim rhetoric to the next level is clear – they have nothingto fear
“The attack on religious freedoms radicalises the polity and unleashes dangers that cannot be controlled even by those who foster them…” – Retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran
Crazed mobs attacked the Fashion Bug warehouse in Pepiliyana after night had fallen on Thursday, 28 March. They vandalised property and vehicles, destroyed merchandise and injured personnel, including the manager of the warehouse and a TV journalist. Seventeen suspects were arrested in an investigation overseen by Senior DIG Western Province Anura Senanayake.
By Tuesday (2) morning, the suspects included three Buddhist monks who had surrendered to the Police the previous day and were subsequently arrested. In a clear sign that the regime did not want to be associated with any attempted arrest of members of the Sangha, despite the ample video evidence of their role in the attack, the three offending priests surrendered a day before the matter was taken up and “settled” in court.
Police are claiming the true target of the crowd’s wrath was a construction equipment rental yard situated close by that had also suffered damages the same night.
On Tuesday, before the Gangodawila Magistrate, Fashion Bug informed Court that they would not be pressing charges against the suspects, especially since there were Buddhist monks among them. The suspects were “severely warned” by Police and the magistrate to refrain from such behaviour again.
Issuing a statement, for the first time since the incident occurred, the company said although it had suffered great physical and emotional damage from the attack it was withdrawing the case because it was the right course of action as a “responsible corporate citizen to mitigate any issue in the future and promote unity as one nation”.
“Fashion Bug informed Court that it was not necessary to detain the suspects particularly the clergy, in remand for the purpose of holding an identification parade, as such a situation could further erode national harmony and cause serious damage and prejudice locally as well as internationally. Therefore with the intention to maintain peace, it was informed to Court that Fashion Bug will not continue with the action any further,” the company said in its statement.
Fashion Bug praised President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Police and armed forces for enforcing law and order. DIG Senanayake, who has consistently maintained that the attack by the 500 strong mob had nothing to do with Fashion Bug, praised the concession as being a magnanimous gesture by the company that had suffered immensely in the Thursday night onslaught.
Questions continue to be asked, however, as to why the State should necessarily fail to prosecute, despite the dropping of suit by the aggrieved party, when crimes were committed that Thursday night not only against private property but employees at the premises. Getting tough on the violent mob in Pepiliyana could have proved an effective deterrent to any other groups eager to take arms against the Muslim owned establishments that hard-line groups have convinced them are pursuing an anti-Sinhala Buddhist agenda.
Instead, the matter is done and dusted with the purported ring leaders of a violent mob set free to vandalise another day. Incongruously, it is the belief of the country’s law enforcement and courts of law that a stern reprimand and a rap on the knuckles will deter violent gang members who paid no heed to the presence of Police at the warehouse on Thursday night when they lobbed rocks at CCTV cameras and personnel on the premises.
With video footage ‘going viral’ in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the necessity to mitigate the damage internationally was paramount. It was also clear that the ruling administration was adamant to play down the link between the Bodu Bala Sena hate speech and the violent attack on the Muslim-owned clothing store. This is doubly important, given the credence that the regime recently proffered the hard-line group after Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa inaugurated the Bodu Bala Sena Buddhist leadership academy in Galle a few weeks ago.
With that monumental step in the wrong direction, the ruling regime cemented its association with the organisation, making the simple rules of logic apply if the Bodu Bala Sena was to be implicated in any way in violence against the Muslim community. If established, the link could also prove deeply damaging because the Government and its controlled media has shown vehemence in downplaying the impact of the Bodu Bala Sena and the role the hard-line group has come to play by the sheer volume and penetration of its rhetoric in the framing of national policy, as evidenced by the Halal controversy and eventual capitulation on the part of the Muslim clerics, the All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulama (ACJU).
As long as the Government continues to maintain that there is no anti-Muslim frenzy building in the country, and that isolated incidents of attacks against Muslim enterprises and places of worship has no direct co-relation to the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya groups, evidence to the contrary, as presented by the attack on Fashion Bug, desperately needs to be discredited. Popular websites that drew the connections between the Bodu Bala Sena rhetoric and the Thursday night vandalism were shut down for several hours soon after video evidence of the anti-Fashion Bug rhetoric was published. The storyline adopted by the authorities that Fashion Bug was not the mob’s target, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, also appears to be motivated by a desperate desire to keep certain dots from being connected.
Demonising Fashion Bug
The Bodu Bala Sena has been engaged in a campaign of demonisation against the Fashion Bug and No Limit clothing chains as being dens of iniquity for some time now.
At a massive rally in Kandy two weeks ago, the Group’s General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnanasara raged against the clothing chains, calling them harems and urging people to stop sending their daughters to work in the stores. “We have all the proof about the Fashion Bug and No Limit outlets and what they are doing to your girl children! Harems are being created. Are we to sit back and allow this to happen? Hereafter we will only send our boys to work in these shops. They will no longer get our women! We are not asking anyone to go and stone these places and attack them. Come and have discussions with us – let’s solve this through discussion,” Gnanasara charged at the rally.
In Matara, where a new Fashion Bug store was scheduled to open its doors on 18 March, posters had been plastered on public walls. “Sinhala Jathiyata Minee Wala Kapana Fashion Bug (Fashion Bug that is digging the graves of the Sinhala Race)” the posters screamed, urging people not to patronise the establishment. It will also be recalled that the initial target of hard-line groups like Sinhala Ravaya was the No Limit clothing chain which the group claimed was handing out sweets containing chemicals to make Sinhalese women barren. In fact, the first target of the extremist groups in January this year was the No Limit store in Maharagama, a suburb in which the groups have found a groundswell of support.
At a press conference summoned hurriedly on Friday (29), the Bodu Bala Sena group called on the authorities to arrest those connected with the attack, even if they happened to be Buddhist monks. Some sections of the media, including the State-controlled press echoed these sentiments, upholding the Bodu Bala Sena denials and claiming the attack was the result of a ‘girl-boy affair’.
When the Police made arrests, the move was hailed as evidence that the Government was finally cracking down on the anti-Muslim campaigns. After warning signs that the authorities decided to overlook repeatedly were finally laid bare in vicious violence against a Muslim-owned enterprise, there was hope that the evidence would reinforce the need to rein in hate-groups sowing discord between communities. But the release of the suspects, after what is now best described as a sham investigation, only highlighted appalling apathy by the Government and a continued reluctance on the part of the regime to take a tough position against groups targeting minority communities. The ruling administration provided security to Muslim-owned stores overnight and issued a statement warning of a conspiracy by ‘vested interests to create unrest,’ but stopped short of condemning the Pepiliyana attack outright.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was requested by Justice Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem to summon an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the incident and the anti-Muslim wave sweeping the country, did no such thing, choosing to limit his action to a statement calling on patriots to foster harmony between religious groups and shun extremism. Meanwhile, the Cabinet Sub Committee on religious harmony, tasked with looking into the Halal certification problem and incidents against the Muslim community, has descended into chaos with ultra-nationalists like JHU strongman Champika Ranawaka and Muslim Ministers pulling in different directions on the issues.
Hakeem in the dock
Increasingly, Muslim Ministers and MPs within the Government are coming in for serious flak for gross inaction in the face of growing threats to the Muslim community from Sinhala hardliners. But none more so than Minister Rauff Hakeem. Hakeem finds himself constantly compared in these troubled times to SLMC founder M.H.M. Ashraff who once bested the hardliner Soma Thero in a television debate, when an anti-Muslim, anti-Christian extremist wave reared its head several years ago.
The ignominy of being the country’s Justice Minister at time when violence and injustice is being perpetrated on members of his own community aside, Hakeem and his SLMC are fast learning that they have little or no leverage in the Government. His widely-publicised call for an emergency Cabinet meeting was completely ignored. Earlier this week, Hakeem told the BBC’s Tamil Service that he had repeatedly requested President Rajapaksa to prevent the Defence Secretary from attending the Bodu Bala Sena academy opening in Galle last month. The SLMC Leader said he had made the request in the knowledge that the attendance would strengthen the hand of the hard-line group.
But no amount of apathy on the part of the ruling administration appears to be motivation enough for the SLMC, which provides the regime eight key seats in Parliament and five seats in the crucial Eastern Provincial Council, to throw down the gauntlet. Their inaction is spurring some sections of the Muslim population to cast their lot in with vociferous Opposition politicians like Azath Sally and Mujibur Rahuman, who are adopting a tougher line with the Bodu Bala Sena, digging into the background of the group’s leaders and calling for harthals by Muslim traders against the ongoing harassment of the community.
Compounding matters, each time the Muslim community chooses the path of least resistance, the attacks against them appear to be intensifying. The economic impact of the Halal controversy created by the Bodu Bala Sena continues to linger. Muslim restaurants and eateries have suffered a significant drop in sales since the myth about the gradual Islamification of food was propagated. A popular Muslim hotel on Thurstan Road in Colombo has seen a severe drop in its clientele, with students from the nearby University of Colombo and Thurstan College declining to eat there in the same numbers as before. Muslim-owned clothing stores, including Fashion Bug, have also seen sales dip, especially in the New Year shopping season, with hard-line groups urging Sinhala Buddhists to refrain from patronising the chains.
Ethno-religious fascism, as perpetrated on Sri Lanka’s Muslim community by groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, has a tendency in the first instance, to wage economic war against a community of people. And for a trading community, this type of warfare could prove the most debilitating of all.
80 years since Jewish boycott
This week in April, marks the 80th anniversary of the Judenboykott, or Hitler’s call for the boycott of Jewish business establishments, Jewish doctors and lawyers and other professionals. The boycott was confined to one day due to international outrage, but it is believed to have heralded the displacement of German Jews from public life.
Writing on why authoritarian regimes do not usher in economic prosperity, in these columns former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank and top Economist W.A. Wijewardena succinctly summed up the scope and breadth of Hitler’s strategy to rob the Jews. Citing evidence produced during the Nuremberg trials against Nazi officers, he explained the “forced transfer of resources” belonging to the Jews began with the removal their wealth, movable and immovable, then forced labour, the deprivation of food that Wijewardena says analysts called the transfer of the accumulated calories in their bodies to the German state. And as Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski vividly described, once dead, “Your body is burned, and your ashes are used to fertilise fields, or fill in the ponds.”
In case it was not abundantly clear weeks ago, the Halal controversy manufactured by the Bodu Bala Sena organisation was never really about Islamic dietary guidelines at all. The hype and paranoia that accompanied the Halal messaging, coupled with the isolated but deeply damaging incidents of intolerance and outright violence against the Muslim community, was paving the way for the disaster that was the Pepiliyana mob attack last Thursday. The impunity with which it was conducted, the apathy in its aftermath and the release of the criminals behind the attack sets the stage for violence on a greater scale.
A ticking clock
The hour grows later. As anti-Muslim sentiment permeates into Sri Lankan society, with Buddhist monks asking to be seated away from mullahs at public political events and anti-Halal sermons being preached at village temples and almsgivings, the moment for affirmative and concrete action against racism and hate groups is already here. The campaign against the Muslim community will not end there. It will translate, before long, into campaigns against the Christians and the Catholics, their rituals and their places of worship, until every minority is effectively subjugated to majority will.
For too long the Government has chosen dismissal and covert collusion. Electoral politics have trumped the need to be on the right side of the issue, given the support the ruling regime enjoys with hard-line Sinhala Buddhists. The Bodu Bala Sena regularly calls for the people to keep the current regime in power for at least another 20 years in order to keep the Sinhala race from being wiped out. And with the UNP deeply concerned that a liberal position on the anti-Muslim issue will alienate the party from the Sinhala Buddhist vote base, apart from paying lip service to religious and ethnic harmony, no single politician from the Opposition has taken a stand worthy of mention against this attempted suppression of yet another minority community.
It is at times such as this, when the nation is in grave peril from the dual threats of extremism and Government apathy, that a country most desperately needs leaders who will stand up for that which is right, instead of that which is popular.
So far, there are no takers. (Courtesy Daily FT)