Photo by Ama Koralage

In Nedunkeni, a small town outside Vavuniya, there is news of the destruction of an ancient Hindu monument, an athi lingam (distinguishable symbol) consecrated to Lord Siva, that stood proudly on Vedukkunaari hill. The monument is first reported as stolen to the dismay of many Hindu locals and subsequently, its destroyed remnants were found amidst the surrounding shrubbery. Speculation ran rife on Tamil social media with fingers pointed at potential culprits ranging from the Department of Archaeology to ultra nationalist factions. The temple site, which has been under the Department of Archaeology’s control since late 2018, had already been a source of contention with disputes over claims to the land adding to the tensions between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.

In the aftermath of the civil war, Sri Lanka grapples with deeply entrenched ethnoreligious tensions that have shaped the nation’s socio-political issues in the last decade. The historical interplay between ethnicities, predominantly Sinhala and Tamil, along with religious affiliations, mainly Buddhism and Hinduism, has been a source of tension. The scars of the civil war, which ended in 2009, still resonate in the collective memory leaving behind unresolved grievances and fostering mistrust between communities. The Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority have often found themselves at odds over issues of cultural identity, political representation and access to resources. The intertwining of ethnicity and religion further complicates matters with incidents of discrimination and violence reflecting the complex ethnoreligious dynamics.

In recent years, inter-communal tensions between the Sinhala and Tamil communities, mostly concentrated in the North and East, have been manifesting in the form of issues related to religious sites. As the Nedunkeni community grappled with this incident, conversations about other archaeological and religious sites continued to brew, bringing to light another hotspot – the Kurundi archaeological site in Thannimuruppu in Mullaitivu.

Designated as an archaeological reserve in 1933, the site, known as Kurundi Viharaya to the Buddhists and Kurunthoor Malai to Hindus, remained inaccessible to archaeologists and devotees until the conclusion of the war. In November 2020, officials from the Department of Archaeology commenced re-establishing old boundaries after 87 years. The exploration revealed archaeological evidence that the old arama (living quarters for monks) complex extended beyond the original boundaries, an area approximately three times the original demarcation, resulting in surrounding farming villages suffering land losses. This outcome, intertwined with the previously brewing controversy about whether the site is a Buddhist or Hindu religious site, Kurundi has become the newest face of the Sinhala-Tamil issue.

The online discussion on controversy surrounding Kurundi gained momentum in June 2023 with a viral video capturing a tense exchange between President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Director General of Archaeology, Professor Anura Manatunga. The Director expressed his concerns about the president’s suggestion to remove 79 acres from the newly established boundary on the basis that it would hamper archaeological exploration. The video exacerbated existing tensions between Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindu communities resulting in harmful narratives on social media that blended violent extremism, calls for exclusion and disinformation. Calls to rally against the site’s alleged declaration as a Hindu Kovil on August 18, 2023 – a falsehood – spread widely on social media. Amassing significant attention on various platforms such posts could have potentially led to mass social unrest as happened in the 2018 anti-Muslim riots. The heightened attention also led to confrontations at the site during Pongal celebrations with videos depicting heated clashes and anti-Tamil sentiments.

Tissa Raja Maha Viharaya in Kankesanthurai was in a similar predicament. Protests by Tamil locals and members of the National People’s Front during a Buddhist religious ceremony on Esala Poya day caused unrest at the site which received large scale media coverage. Harmful content on the situation emerged in quick succession with posts advocating for violence against protesters. Tamil political figures were targets of such violent posts with some spreading disinformation about them.

In the Eastern Province, grazing land disputes in the farming villages of Mylathamadu and Madhavani in Batticaloa took centre stage in October 2023. Tamil dairy farmers protested against alleged settlers (Sinhala) leading to rising tensions between Tamil and Sinhala communities. The state’s efforts to determine land ownership faced criticism with social media platforms amplifying negative messages from both sides. Prominent pro-nationalist Buddhist monks added fuel to the fire by counter protesting and expressing support for Sinhalese heritage rights.

There are striking parallels between the land disputes in the Eastern Province and the conflicts over archaeological and religious sites in the North and East. These issues may serve as proxies to obstruct reconciliation efforts with social media potentially being used as a catalyst to propagate the majoritarian narrative. These localised conflicts have escalated into national level debates, largely through social media channels, fuelling nationalist narratives and exacerbating communal tensions. The active involvement of prominent political and religious figures was another mirrored pattern, which effectively contributed to the buildup of these issues over the years and also solidified the elements of a formula that resulted in national level social unrest.

As for the reaction of Hindu nationalists to all this, it has not been as direct as the reactions of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups. For instance, the initial reaction on Tamil social media to the incident in Nedunkeni targeted a nearby Catholic church. The church’s denouncement of the attack elicited a reaction on social media by some Hindu extremists who conjectured that Catholics were behind the attack.

It is widely believed that Sri Lanka does not have its distinct form of Hindu nationalism but is heavily influenced by Hindu nationalism in India. Commonly known as Hindutva nationalism, this ideology is often traced to situations akin to the religious site conflict encountered in Sri Lanka.  For instance, in December 1992, thousands of karsewaks[1] demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh to re-construct the Hindu Temple that marked the birthplace of Lord Ram. Hindutva nationalism, an ideology used by India’s major political factions such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, anchors itself on the destabilisation of the Muslim and Islamic history in India as evidenced by the claim on the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Its influence in Sri Lanka spills over to the targeting of Muslims and Christians rather than its direct opponent, the Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic factions.

Paradoxically, Hindutva nationalism finds many parallels with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as it is primarily associated with the upper caste and rooted in North Indian perspectives (the majority). Further, both ideologies express a fear or a threat by the minority. The Hindutva politics does not cover Tamil culture and history. Therefore, Tamil nationalism of the South of India  (which would be the more suitable ideology for Sri Lanka’s North and East), poses challenges to the Hindutva ideology, particularly in terms of language, politics and differing historical narratives. This may explain the knee jerk reaction to the Nedunkeni incident being that of blaming the neighbouring Catholic church, which could very much be an orchestration of Hindutva backed groups.

[1] Karsevaks are people who volunteer their services for free to a religious cause, the term being derived from the Sanskrit words ‘kar’ (hand) and ‘sevak’ (servant).