The recent incident related to the detention, alleged assault and deportation of a British Buddhist practitioner leaves behind many questions and concerns; even as the victim of Police incompetency and equivocal law implementation has by now left the country. Over and over again, the past few years have witnessed a growing fanatic extremism in Lanka, which is overwhelmed by chauvinistic Buddhist fundamentalism and psychoses of sorts thereupon derived.
We are a nation where a fundamentalist Buddhist Organization with alleged backing of strong governmental proxies can walk into any public or private space and create mayhem and hurl abuse at whomever they prefer to their heart’s content – and impart a “freeze” effect on the Police Department who are otherwise quite concerned about the “national security” and the “peace” even when someone sneezes out loud. These Extremist thugs can without any preamble assault priests and laymen of any religion, any social organization and a person of any walk of life. A case that was heard in relation to a Bodhu Bala Sena assault on a Church in Pannipitiya – a headline making assault – recently turned a verdict that acquitted the accused from charges made against them.
The “Halal crisis”, which sent terror waves across the Lankan Muslim community as well as the commuters belonging to all communities between 2011-2013 came to an unceremonious, but ambiguous close, as the government itself was found split (and therefore without a clear design) as to how that disruption should be handled. Within the government ranks, there are those who are alleged to strictly feed on ethno-religious fundamentalism, and others who are more privy to existing pressures and the diplomacies and dissentions of a global political world. But, as to whether there are many who genuinely have in their minds the welfare of the people’s rights (as opposed to the “rights” of the political class and its sweet-toothed proxies) is a riddle; but, one that is not as difficult as the Gordian Knot, one may add.
The recent case of the British national being arrested at Lanka’s only profit-turning international airport, in her being “horribly treated” and of her being allegedly “sexually assaulted” by the Negombo Police for sporting a tattoo of a meditating Buddha is a cause of alarm. Any law enforcing officer who makes charges, or meditates judgment has many ethical, human and legal factors to consider before even arresting a person for sporting a Buddha tattoo.
At the very heart of the matter is a case of cultural relativism. The inability to see a person who arrives in Lanka as a passing visitor to bring with her own cultural practice (in this case, a tattoo of Buddha, who – according to the unfortunate victim of Police impunity – was tattooed into the skin out of piety) and her way of veneration. The fundamentalist clause dictates that if one follows worship, that worship has to be done “our” way: the way sanctioned by the fundamentalism. The law enforcing authority may not be a fundamentalist – but, the (failed) law enforcement happens in a climate triggered by fundamentalist fumes; and in a context where the average cop is not a disciple of such basic (fundamental, I should have said) concepts in human-to-human transaction such as “cultural relativism”. The Lankan Police corps is largely manned out of persons who have not received a tertiary education. Part of the officialdom – who constitute an exclusive tier – are university graduates, while another quarter receive an equivalent education while in service. But, the mass majority of the officers lack a sustained education in Sociology, Cultural Studies, or even in Public Relations (as it should be ingrained to a body with unlimited de facto civil authority).
We all saw photographic reproductions of the “controversial” tattoo spread across international and national media. Which part of that tattoo is to be deemed “disrespectful” to Lord Buddha – a social reformist and thinker (who is recorded as often speaking about not bothering too much of other people’s business) – has to be seriously reflected on. Wearing a Buddha tattoo should not be an alarm for disrespectful behavior, as even Lord Buddha has never considered the idolization of a person through a tattoo to be a crime. In fact, Lord Buddha has never spoken about idolization – leave aside, the idolatry concerning his own person. It is sad and unnerving when a person whose cultural practice is first not heeded for its “difference” is judged on based on the anomalous belief that the cultural perspective of the “superior culture” (in this case, that of the “uncritical” Sinhala/Sri Lankan law enforcer) is the bar to abide by. Ironically, this fundamental insensitivity is what – over time – evolved into a brutal and futile civil war, causing unprecedented destruction to the nation, pulling it back and down in irremediable ways.
We are now in a country where FM channels “make us” listen to commercialized Buddhist sermons and discussions of a “commercialized Buddhism” every seventh day of the week. We are “forced to” listen to Buddhist chants being amplified using loudspeakers from myriad temples; and from a variety of quasi-Buddhist forums and functions they organize. The CD of the Ven. Sumanaratne monk – a cleric who has recorded what is popularized as a “Mau Guna song” (and its second edition, a “Piya Guna song”) – is blasted out morning, noon and night alike from Pettah CD shops. Every other four-way junction there is some Buddhist monument or memento. When the Urban Development Authority removes thousands of people from areas earmarked for “beautification” – such as the lands adjoining the Nawala-Narahenpita Junction – tenements that have been standing for half a century are bulldozed with scant notice; but, the obstructive Buddhist monument and bo tree at the same junction are not touched.
The arrest and deportation of the British national raises further queries that highlight a state of lawlessness. Primarily, the tattoo of the British woman in question is said to have been detected by a trishaw driver and an ally. According to what the victimized party had conveyed to the BBC, these trishaw operators had insisted that her tattoo is “illegal” and had conveyed her to the Police. However, according to a legal expert who was interviewed by Raavaya(27th April) the Police has no grounds to make an arrest on the sporting of a tattoo; and nor does a magistrate have the power to “deport” a person in such a case. The legal expert had opinioned that only the Minister of Foreign Affairs can make such a move. Going by the legal expert’s views, even the arrest – leave alone the controversial deportation in question – is ambiguous; and casts an “extra-legal” shadow.
In an adjacent incident, we have members of the BBS storming the offices of Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, accusing him of “giving sanctuary” to a counter-BBS Buddhist monk cum UPFA politician who has his own “bala senava”, named the Jathika Bala Sena (JBS). The audacity and vigour the BBS bigwigs strive to “mimic” is that of the Dharmapala-type rhetoric and abrasiveness. But, at the most, it comes out as an extremely cheap imitation (for the times and socio-political contexts are not entirely those in which Dharmapala operated) and as a wave of thuggery the local Police is too scared to actively curb. The fear of the Police seems to be of a VIP arm that may approve/give patronage to the xenophobic drive of the Buddhist fanatics.
The devastating reality seems to be the fissures and potholes that have emerged in the law-enforcing system and the non-implementation of protocols that bind the safety of citizens (be it in their domestic or public spaces). The Police is proven to be either tongue-tied or lethargic in cases where “powerful individuals” seem to be even remotely in the peripheral vicinity. While the Ven. Gnanasara stormed the Nippon Hotel or Minister Bathiudeen’s offices it was entirely an assault of the BBS. The political patronage is an “enigma” we have learnt from heresay. If heresay and “behind the curtain deals” can stun the Police Department into mummies, that by itself is a barometer reading as to how democratically-savvy things are. The deplorable stupidity with which the tattoo-incident was handled and the ruthlessness and tribalist vigour with which that hasty process was carried through only enriches one’s feeling that Lanka is gaining valuable yards on the road to absolute Xenophobic Fundamentalism.