Buddhist fanatics on the streets


If one asks the present columnist what Sri Lanka’s biggest problem at this moment is, we will have to say  it’s not the Western encirclement of Sri Lanka nor is it the holding of the Northern provincial council election,  but the phenomenon of out of control Buddhist monks on the streets.  Last week, we spoke of professionals like university lecturers and lawyers demonstrating on the streets like harbour workers. That was bad enough but this phenomenon of Buddhist monks on the streets with their robes hitched high is just about the giddy limit. This has been going on for several months but we kept quiet thinking it will peter off after a while. But it didn’t. What we saw instead was a progressive intensification of this insanity.

When that Buddhist monk who set fire to himself called the provincial reporters of certain media  organisations and informed them that he is going to set himself on fire and to come and cover the event, those mediamen can hardly be blamed for  keeping the news to themselves and not reporting it to the police. They would have thought it was going to be a mighty big ‘gon paat’ which will be good entertaining footage for the news bulletin  like the common ‘protestor on top of a tree or water tank’ phenomenon as nobody in this country who has threatened to set himself on fire has ever carried out such a threat. These mediamen would have been as surprised as the other onlookers when the Buddhist monk did actually set himself on fire.

Be that as it may, the phenomenon that we saw after that monk died was even worse – monks outside a funeral parlour demanding the remains of the monk, grappling with the police and threatening to set themselves on fire unless the corpse was handed over to them. That scene was the culmination of several months of activism by Buddhist monks. Clearly, we didn’t come through 30 years of war for this. If we delve into the reasons for this latest fracas involving Buddhist monks, the monk who committed self-immolation, claimed to be sacrificing his life to demand an end to cattle slaughter. (Only cattle and not pigs, goats or chickens.) Cattle are not slaughtered as an end in itself, but as food. Buddhism does not prohibit even monks from consuming any kind of meat.  In fact the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta who wanted to usurp the Buddha’s place at the head of the community of monks, tried to out-manoeuvre the Buddha with a set of five rules for monks enjoining greater austerity.  The attempt was to undermine the Buddha by showing that he (Devadatta) was even holier than the Buddha himself.

Among the five rules propounded by Devadatta was that  monks should dwell all their lives in the forest, that they should not accept invitations to meals but live entirely on alms obtained by begging, they should wear only robes made of discarded rags and accept no robes from the laity, they should dwell at the foot of a tree and not under a roof, and that they should abstain completely from consuming fish and meat. The Buddha rejected all five rules (including the ban on consuming fish and flesh) and refused to make them mandatory for monks, even though individual monks can decide to follow those rules of their own volition. Thus to this day, monks are not prohibited from consuming flesh although monks can voluntarily opt to be vegetarian. Because of this, it is not really possible to ask the Buddhist laity to become vegetarian. If people stopped eating beef, cattle slaughter would stop automatically. Since it is not possible to ask Buddhists to be vegetarian, this Buddhist monk was trying to stop cattle slaughter at the supply end and not the demand end.     

Trying to legislate for the public through the back door in this manner is hardly acceptable. This is an attempt to Taliban-ize Buddhism by imposing bans on all and sundry.  Self immolation by one monk has been accompanied by mobs surrounding selected places of business, particularly butcher’s shops and forcing their closure. The government should come down HARD on such acts. We did not come through 30 years of war to end up with anarchy and mob rule. All this started with a campaign by the Bodu Bala Sena ostensibly to combat extremist elements in other religions. That religious extremists have been active in other religions is beyond dispute. When we were young, the only Christian churches were the mainline churches like the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. But today you have various small Christian groups proliferating all over the countryside.

Among Muslims too there have been extremist elements at work. When we were young one hardly saw any Muslim women covered from head to foot in ‘burquas’. But today, this has become a common sight in Sri Lanka. Groups have split from older mosques in many places and new mosques have come up expounding different doctrines. The Halal certification that became such an issue in the recent past is a good example of Islamic extremism at work. Not just food, but even items like soap were being certified as Halal and the majority of non-Muslims were consuming Halal products.  The Body Bala Sena was right to oppose the forcing of Halal products upon the majority population. This was a clear instance of insensitivity shown by a minority community. As my outspoken friend Azath Salley stated at a meeting he convened to oppose the activities of the Bodu Bala Sena, he said that Muslims were not eating haram before this halal certification was introduced and that Muslims always knew what they were consuming even without halal certification.

If a certain minority community needs a certain special kind of food, these would have to be sold in specialized shops without making that type of food the only type of food available to everybody. Trying to certify everything as Halal, was inviting a reaction from those for whom halal has no meaning.  They would naturally see it as an unacceptable imposition of other people’s religious precepts on them. There is no doubt that unethical religious conversions are taking place in this country. There is no doubt that there are dubious business practices aimed at ensuring the dominance of once section as against another. There is no doubt that such practices should be stopped. But all that the three Buddhist extremist organizations that came up claiming to fight for the Sinhalese, the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balakaya have done up to now is to prove right once again that age old adage "Sinhalaya modaya, kevum kanna yodaya." You cannot defeat anti-Buddhist and anti-Sinhalese  conspiracies that have been operating surreptitiously, below the surface for years or sometimes decades by demonstrating on the streets with your robes hitched up high. 

What they have done by the public scenes they created is to portray the Sinhala Buddhists as extremists while the non-Buddhist extremists they were reacting to have been given an opportunity to pose as victims. You can’t undo conspiracies that have been in operation for decades in two weeks of agitation. To meet such conspiracies, one has to have patience and subtlety. We saw one Buddhist monk threatening to throw rotten eggs at cricketers who go to IPL matches in India. This was a threat to throw rotten eggs at your own people.  These anti-Buddhist conspirators that we talk of certainly didn’t try to get their communities to fall behind them by threatening to throw rotten eggs at those who refuse to fall in line. It takes years of activity and a lot of patience to get something like that going.  Subterranean conspiracies should be met with similar subterranean conspiracies. Subtlety has to be met with subtlety.

If Muslim preachers are denigrating or promoting certain products or businesses on the market at Friday sermons, Buddhist preachers too can do the same in the temples and just as effectively. They should build up a network among Buddhist temples throughout  the island and praise or condemn any products on the list. At one point, the minority parties were the kingmakers in Sri Lanka by voting in unison for or against a government in power. Now the Sinhalese have put an end to that by voting en bloc for one side. Similarly, if the retailing of goods is being manipulated by having ‘hit lists’ of products and establishments circulated to preachers, the Buddhists too should do the same.  We must not be naive and think that the minorities are blameless in this matter. In this post war period one thing that all communities have to stop doing is one-upmanship at a communal level, especially at the expense of the majority community.  If the Ven Gangodawila Soma thera had been alive today, just one sermon from him would have tipped the balance one way or another.

However, to bring mobs on to the streets and surround or attack business establishments should not be tolerated under any circumstances. The government should come down hard on anybody attempting such a thing.  The PTA should be activated to deal with such elements. And the Boossa detention centre should be reopened to accommodate religious fanatics of every hue, especially high-strung Buddhist monks, bearded Islamic extremists and pesky Christian fundamentalist pastors. Another thing that the government should do is to establish a central authority to register all places of worship belonging to all religions and prohibit the opening up of any new places of worship without government approval. Even among the existing places of worship, all unauthorized constructions put up over the past 20 years should be demolished.  This will affect mainly the Buddhist and Muslim communities who have shown a penchant for squatting. The first thing that one does to claim a piece of land is to place a Buddha statue there and to turn it into ‘holy ground’. All places of religious worship constructed in this manner, whether they are Buddhist temples or mosques, should be demolished forthwith.  One however rarely hears of a Hindu kovil constructed in that manner.  The Hindus are at the bottom of the pecking order as far as religious groups go.

As for the Christian splinter groups, they are much more sophisticated than the others and their centres will often have the necessary approvals. This is where it becomes necessary to register places of worship, not just to control unauthorized constructions but to control authorized constructions as well. The mushrooming of places of worship does not conduce to maintaining the peace.  The government in fact should seriously consider limiting religious freedom to just the mainline religions, and the mainline churches with these various splinter groups being banned outright.  The constitution does guarantee the freedom of conscience, but nobody is free to promote euthanasia. So there are always limits to the freedom of conscience imposed for the greater good of society. Disequilibrium is created not by the mainline groups in any religion but by various splinter groups and for the sake of social harmony, some should be prevented from operating. The government should also establish a vetting system in granting visas to religious personnel coming into Sri Lanka. Above all else, there should be no more Buddhist mobs led by monks on the roads and nobody should be allowed to surround any place of business under any circumstances.

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