For a country that has just earned peace after decades of violence, it should be second nature to step away from the pitfalls of the past. But Sri Lanka seems to be behaving otherwise. If Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism was one of the prime reasons behind the rise of Tamil separatism, Sri Lanka appears to be unaware of the truth. The sudden enlargement of the space for a uber-Buddhist nationalism after the decimation of the Tamil Tigers has boxed the minorities into a corner. For over a year now, Sri Lanka has been seeing increased attacks against Hindus, Christians and Muslims, a fact noted by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Recently, the country reported the most serious anti-Muslim violence in two decades in the coastal town of Aluthgama, followed quickly by arson in an upmarket Muslim-run clothing store close to Colombo. The Aluthgama violence followed a provocative speech by the leader of Bodu Bala Sena, a hardline Buddhist organization that has steadily increased its appeal by openly campaigning against the minorities, particularly Muslims. It led a highly successful agitation against halal food certification last year. The professed objective is that Buddhists, who form the majority, could not be seen capitulating to the whims of the minority. Muslims have been accused of taking over the culture of the country besides driving up population growth.
The majority Buddhists’ fear of the Muslim Other in Sri Lanka is not very different from the sentiments that have inspired the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In India, too, this deep-rooted fear sometimes comes out in the open. In all these multi-religious and multi-ethnic countries, the only factor that can keep majoritarianism under check and give the minorities a sense of security is impartial and inclusive governance. Sri Lanka’s minorities, Tamils and now Muslims, do not seem to perceive that coming their way. Sri Lanka’s Muslims, once driven out of the north by the Tamil majority there, are greatly disturbed by the developments and in spite of appeals from the government, have protested by shutting down establishments run by them. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government seems to be slowly waking up to the crisis that awaits it. For a long time, lack of action against the trouble-makers, in most cases Buddhist, has been interpreted as a sign of encouragement from the establishment. The government ought to dispel this notion and take a tough stand against anti-minorityism to prevent a slide back into the past.