A Buddhist monk flashes a mosque in Dambulla. Screen grab from News 1st TV footage.
The events in Dambulla over the past week, when Buddhist monks led the storming of a mosque, bear chilling resemblance to events in Ayodhya, India, on and around the 6th December 1992, when mobs lead by Hindu fundamentalist clergy demolished the Babri Masjid. The consequences of the events in the run-up to the demolition and its aftermath are still being felt across India today.
The similarities between Ayodhya 1992 and Dambulla 2012 go well beyond frenzied crowds trying to storm a mosque egged on by saffron clad clergy. The reference to this act as shramadaanya sounds disturbingly akin to kar seva, a euphemism coined by Hindu fundamentalists for an otherwise unholy act. Images of a monk apparently exposing himself to the mosque in a vulgar frenzy underlines the same deeply macho, misogynist militancy that Hindu fundamentalism has embodied in India, paving the way for the brutal sexual violence against hundreds of Muslim women in Gujarat in 2002.
The arguments that the mosque in question was illegal, that it stood on sacred grounds, that it was not new or not used regularly etc., are all well rehearsed and nor will this be the last time they will be heard, with respect to a mosque, a kovil, or a church for that matter, as past and present are rewritten. The call to Sinhala race and blood, the brazen defiance of rule of law and the eventual capitulation of the government also bear ominous similarities.
Needless to say, one can point to many differences between Ayodhya and Dambulla. The former was central to a massive nation-wide mobilisation while the latter was far more localized, though arguably reflective of a larger nation-wide trend. No doubt the Sri Lankan government will claim that the mosque is being ‘relocated’ not ‘demolished’. And there are many others too but all that apart, there is no mistaking the basic message and nor should anyone be under the illusion as to which side the Sri Lankan state stands with. The events in Dambulla, especially the alacrity with which the state consented to a chauvinist clergy, will no doubt further embolden militant Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalists, already well fed by the Rajapakse regime on a heady cultural-nationalist diet.
The rising tide of Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism in a society already brutalised by war and ethnic cleavages, coupled with a resurgent militarisation that is undermining democratic institutions and restricting political freedoms, poses huge challenges to Sri Lanka. In a post-war context, this will leave nascent social movements, progressive political forces and a section of politically engaged NGOs, all already hounded by the state, struggling more than ever to build precariat and proletariat solidarities across ethnic and religious divides. A fractured Tamil and Muslim political society, long hostage to identity politics from the inside, will possibly dig deeper still and render no favours. Precious little can be expected from the middle and upper classes anyway, already well on their way to being wooed by the cleaner streets and well-trimmed parks of Colombo, all thanks to the military of course, and lop-sided economic development.
If the recent history in India is anything to go by, events in Dambulla are a cause for alarm. Ayodhya 1992 came to pass, despite Indian civil society continuing to harbour hope (alongside deep fears) that the Babri Masjid would survive, that India’s institutions were strong enough to withstand that test. However, civil society could do little of significance to even stop what followed the demolition. Worse, ten years later Gujarat happened. The events in Dambulla may not have cost lives, like the many still unaccounted for tragedies in the final stages of the war. Yet, the consequences of what it portends are likely to be as far-reaching and as damaging to the wider polity and social fabric.