Island of the Pure

How Sinhala extremism turned against Sri Lanka’s Muslims after the civil war

A monk protests at the Dambulla mosque in 2012. Over the last few years, Buddhist nationalists have aggressively attacked Muslim sites and symbols. Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP Photo
A monk protests at the Dambulla mosque in 2012. Over the last few years, Buddhist nationalists have aggressively attacked Muslim sites and symbols. Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP Photo
01 July, 2014

WHEN I MOVED TO SRI LANKA in the summer of 2011, I thought I wanted to write a book about the island’s past troubles. The civil war had ended two years earlier, suddenly presenting a chance to gather the sorts of personal stories that could neither be collected nor told easily over the previous three decades, when the conflict was still ablaze. But during my time there, Sri Lanka’s stock of strife replenished itself, and fear and violence rode forth from unexpected quarters. The furious swell of Sinhalese nationalism that had closed out the war with such brutality was now starting to poison other relationships in Sri Lanka.

One evening in Colombo, my friend Sanjaya dropped by, intending to collect me on our way to someplace else. I offered him a drink—beer, I seem to remember now, but given how the next two hours slipped clean out of our hands, more likely it was arrack. Arrack did that to you: it greased the passage of time. We sat around my dining table, Sanjaya telling stories and I listening. He told yarns tall and magnificent, embellishing on the run and possessing such a fondness for the absurd that he giggled as if he were hearing the tale and not narrating it. When he laughed, his eyes narrowed into letterbox slits, he quivered noiselessly, and his shoulders heaved. His mirth was tectonic.

“You heard they pulled a Muslim shrine down?” Sanjaya asked.

It had happened in the previous week in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, and the most holy of towns for the island’s Buddhists. A group of Buddhist protesters—a busload, or two busloads, according to conflicting media reports—had arrived with crowbars and hammers and taken apart a small, old dargah. In this enterprise, they had not been stopped by the police or local administrators. Anuradhapura now bristled with communal tension.

“We should go there,” I said.

“We should,” Sanjaya said thoughtfully. “I know a guy who caught the whole thing on video.”

During the final years of the civil war, Sri Lankan Buddhism had developed a muscular right wing. First, in 2004, there was the launch of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a political party led by Buddhist monks, some of whom admitted quite freely to being racists and bayed for a destructive, damn-the-consequences annihilation of the guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Nine of its monks entered parliament, and the party became a member—and an ideological heavyweight—in the coalition that ruled Sri Lanka. After some years, even the JHU was deemed by some to be too timid. In 2011 and 2012, two other sets of monks splintered from the JHU and started the Sinhala Ravaya (the Sinhalese Roar) and the Bodu Bala Sena (the Army of Buddhist Power), hijacking for themselves the shrill energy of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. On the flag of the Sinhala Ravaya, a lion bounds forward, holding a sword thrust forward in attack. The Sinhalese roar is practically audible.

President Rajapaksa prays with thousands of Buddhist monks at a special religious ceremony before the 2010 elections. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / REUTERS

During those two years, the Buddhist right developed a taste for straight thuggery. The Tamils, cautious and defeated, living under a crushing military presence in the country’s north and east, posed no present threat to Sinhalese Buddhism. So, instead, the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya—as well as the JHU, their milquetoast cousin—retrained their energies upon Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who form roughly 10 percent of the population. Unlike with the Tamils, no long skein of ancient hatreds between Buddhists and Muslims could be unspooled out of the island’s ancient Buddhist histories; no rankling grouses could be invoked as justifications for this new animus. But this did not matter. The Muslims were demonised, accused of eroding the country’s Buddhist heritage. In the absence of ancient hatreds, chauvinism can easily rustle up modern ones.

Through the months after I came to Sri Lanka, and in the years after I left, the country’s newspapers filled with reports of violence, and with pronouncements from Buddhist leaders on how they expected Muslims to behave. The JHU demanded the closure of Muslim-owned butcheries that sold beef, and forced the government to ban the certification of halal meat across the country. The Bodu Bala Sena attacked a popular Muslim-owned apparel store in Colombo, an incident that rose to prominence because of the size and popularity of this particular emporium. Other anonymous groups painted pigs on the walls of mosques. Some protesters stormed into the Sri Lanka Law College in Colombo, claiming that its examination results were doctored to favour Muslims. Calls went around for particular mosques and Muslim shrines around the island to be razed, ostensibly for being situated too close to Buddhist temples. Even proximity was unacceptable now. In the town of Dambulla, the chief priest of a local Buddhist temple led a protest to “relocate” a mosque. In the process, he warned, “Today we came with the Buddhist flag in hand. But the next time, it would be different.” No one stood up to these threats; Sri Lanka absorbed them passively and sailed on. It was a frightening, sickening time, plump with hatred and hostility.

A monk protests at the Dambulla mosque in 2012. Over the last few years, Buddhist nationalists have aggressively attacked Muslim sites and symbols. Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP Photo

THE ANURADHAPURA DEMOLITION happened early in September 2011. We went there in the very last days of the month, Sanjaya and I and another friend named Dinidu. From Colombo, we caught a night train to Anuradhapura, practically sticking our heads out of the open window for all five or six hours because our compartment was so stifling and airless. The train arrived at 3.30 am, and we were the only people to alight at Anuradhapura’s small, low station.

“During the war, whenever they wanted to make a film in which the Jaffna station appeared, they would use the Anuradhapura station instead,” Sanjaya said. He stood for a few minutes and looked up at the building’s facade, pearl white by moonlight.

In the morning, we visited Sanjaya’s contact Rizvi, himself a local journalist. He was a middle-aged man with brawny forearms and white stubble. Either he had known that we would be videotaping him or he was a punctilious dresser even at home, because he wore a white shirt with knife-sharp creases and a neat blue-and-white checked sarong. His first language was Tamil, but he spoke to Sanjaya and Dinidu in fluent Sinhalese. Whenever Rizvi said something significant, one of them would aim a translation in my direction. I sat off to the side, on a divan next to a window, scribbling.

It appeared that Rizvi was immensely fond of recounting the turns of bureaucratic wheels: petitions filed, orders issued and appeals counter-filed, deeds issued, public meetings held and reports written. From any mess of administrative detail, he was certain, a clear and potent truth would emerge. For Rizvi, everything had a procedural history, and for this reason he started the story of the dargah demolition by describing how he moved house in 1974.

Rizvi and his family used to live in a jumble of Muslim residences in the Sacred City, a zone wrapped around a giant Bodhi that was grown, according to legend, from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Some families had been living in the area for more than a century. “We moved out because the drainage in that place was so awful. But, technically, we still owned our house there.”

In May 2009, a minister in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government ordered all the houses to be knocked down, without compensation. Two weeks later the civil war ended, but Rizvi’s family felt no joy because they were so distressed about the demolition of their home.

The dargah had been in the very heart of this neighbourhood, and once the houses were stripped away, it shone through prominently. It had been built to honour Sikkandar Waliullah, a Muslim saint and healer who had been buried in Anuradhapura. No one had precisely established the antiquity of Waliullah’s life, although Rizvi claimed that the dargah had found mention in literature for at least 400 years. “Every year, there was a festival here, an urs, when holy men used to come to the dargah and hit themselves with hammers or stab themselves with knives, to prove the power of the shrine,” Rizvi said. “This at least, I know, had been happening for more than 50 or 60 years, because my uncle remembered seeing it when he was a boy.”

The very existence of the dargah now rankled the Buddhist right, as a plainly Islamic commemoration on Buddhist turf. The night before the Poya—or full-moon—holiday in June 2011, seven men on motorcycles drove up to the shrine. A Sinhalese man living in the vicinity realised they were armed with tools and crowbars, and he alerted the dargah’s caretaker. On that occasion, some tiles on the dargah were damaged, but the job couldn’t be completed. A band of Muslims confronted the seven men, the police turned up, and the wrecking crew was hustled out of the site. In response to the incident, a new, permanent police post was installed near the dargah, for additional security. “You can see it in the video of the dargah’s final destruction,” Rizvi said. “You can also see that the policemen are doing nothing.”

ANURADHAPURA WAS HUSHED and wary after this episode, bracing itself for more trouble. Around this time, hysterical pamphlets started to circulate within the town. Rizvi had saved three of them for us. Two were anonymous, but the third was signed by Amithadamma Thero, a Buddhist monk who was something of a firebrand among the local clergy. “I was surprised to see that monks were involved,” Rizvi said. “I would never have thought it possible.” The leaflets—all in Sinhalese—sealed the dargah’s fate.

The first pamphlet called the Sinhalese “the fastest vanishing race on the face of this earth,” and it worried that the country’s biggest threats came from its Muslims, who were “breeding like pigs.” There were further descriptions of Muslims, consisting of astonishing filth, and then:

We need a pureblood king who can proudly say to the world that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist nation. He should be brave enough to say: “The other races that live here have to live by those rules, or they can leave.” We don’t need multicultural, multi-religious ideas. There has to be one Sinhala Buddhist country in the world. This is that country ...

Do not sell your land and businesses to the Muslims. They are able to buy things for higher prices because of the money they get from their mosque and the Middle East for the breeding of their kind. You and I will die soon, but it is our duty to save this sacred land for the future generations ...

The closing sentence was an instruction: to circulate the leaflet among Sinhala Buddhists only.

In the second pamphlet, the authors attacked the district administration for allowing the Sacred City to be defiled by the dargah and other non-Buddhist enterprises. To prevent a religious war, it said, the dargah needed to be removed. “Don’t you cow-killing, beef-eating, Tamil-speaking people already have a mosque in Anuradhapura behind the post office? Don’t make a joke out of our Buddhist heritage.”

The final leaflet, signed by Amithadamma Thero, was dated 2 September 2011. Calling the dargah a “mosque,” Amithadamma raged that its very presence in the Sacred City polluted Anuradhapura.

Who is responsible for this?

Corrupt politicians and certain robe-wearers who bow their heads and tangle a yellow robe about them but don’t even follow the Five Precepts. Shame on the Sinhala Buddhist policemen who protect this mosque ...

Shame on the IGP [Inspector General of Police] who is using the police to protect this mosque. May Mahinda and Gotabhaya who are good followers of Buddhism become aware of this soon!

Pious monks and followers:

To save the Anuradhapura Sacred City from this Muslim invasion, come to the Dakkhunu Dagoba on the 10th of September at 1 p.m.

There was no mistaking that final line. It was a loud, clear call to action.

JUST AFTER NOON, Rizvi interrupted his slaloming narrative to go collect his daughter from school. While Sanjaya and Dinidu sat on in the living room, paging through a trove of documents, I wandered outside. On the verandah, I ran into Mohammad, Rizvi’s son, a teenager studying for his A Levels. Who were we? he inquired, out of curiosity. I told him, and then, just to make conversation, asked who their neighbours were. He pointed out house after house; at the end he indicated a bungalow two doors away, where a Tiger suicide bomber had killed Janaka Perera.

Sri Lankan Muslims protesting Buddhist attacks on Dambulla in 2012. Sinhala extremism, playing on ideas of racial purity and religious homogeneity, turned on the island’s Muslim minority following the end of the civil war. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP / Getty Images

Perera, a distinguished army general, had campaigned for the post of chief minister of the North Central Province in 2008. He had lost, but he was still an opposition leader, and he had opened a party office on this street.A crowd had collected at the formal inauguration of the office, and Rizvi’s brother, as well as his sister and her husband, had all popped over. They were standing outdoors, on a covered verandah very similar to where Mohammad and I now stood and talked. A man staggered into the throng, gibbering and gesticulating, pretending to be mad. Then he blew himself up. “His head had split into two,” Mohammad said, “and they found parts of his limbs on trees outside the house.”

Rizvi’s sister and her husband died on the spot. His brother was taken to the hospital. A shard of homemade shrapnel—the bolts, nails and broken razor blades that had been sewn into the suicide bomber’s vest—had embedded itself in his heart. But even this he might have survived, Mohammad said, had these fragment not been coated painstakingly with cyanide. “He was also a journalist, like my father, and he dropped his video camera right there. A metal piece went into that too.”

I realised I had seen this camera, a Panasonic that Rizvi still used. It had been sitting on a cluttered dining table all morning, charging. When I went back inside the house, I looked more closely at it, and I could see the path ploughed by the shrapnel, a deep furrow running just above the tape deck.

When Rizvi returned, I asked him about the bombing that had killed three members of his family in one fell morning. He gave me a thin smile.

“Not just them,” he said. Then he counted away, on his fingers, the number of people his family had lost to the Tigers. His sister’s father-in-law had died in a Tiger massacre of Sinhalese civilians in 1985, near the great Bodhi tree; 146 people died in three separate attacks in Anuradhapura that day. This man’s son—the brother-in-law of Rizvi’s sister—had been a civil servant in Muttur, in the east, when he was shot dead by the Tigers. Then there were Rizvi’s brother and sister and her husband; Rizvi had run out of fingers on that hand. “Now I am the only one left,” he said. I felt like I had picked at a loose floor tile and found a stash of corpses buried beneath.

IN RESPONSE TO AMITHADAMMA’S LEAFLET, a couple of hundred people, under the bounding lion banner of the Sinhala Ravaya, assembled near the dargah. A large bus turned up as well, bearing men with tools and a few dozen monks. “Some friends had called me, saying that there was some trouble, so I had gone there with my camera,” Rizvi said. A squad of 50 policemen had cordoned off the dargah, but Rizvi discovered that this was to prevent the public from getting closer, rather than to protect the shrine. He tried to get nearer, but one of the policemen prevented him. “He told me: ‘Don’t go. These people aren’t here to speak or to listen to reason. They’re behaving badly.’” Rizvi stood with a tight, fearful knot of Muslims on the shoulder of the road, a hundred metres or so from the dargah.

At 3.45 pm, a local bureaucrat named GA Kithsiri—an assistant government agent, equivalent to a deputy district collector—entered the scene. “He came past us, and he said to me: ‘This is foolish. This is foolish.’ I told him: ‘That’s right. Please go and end this.’” Kithsiri strode away, towards the dargah. Rizvi watched the remainder of the afternoon play out at a distance. The wind snatched away so many of the voices that the events seemed to be part of a tragic silent film.

The monks had been squabbling with the policemen when Kithsiri arrived. He engaged animatedly with them; Rizvi could see hands being flung about, and shreds of shouting blew occasionally towards him. Then Kithsiri pulled out a cell phone and dialled a number. In the video, Kithsiri moves away from the dargah and paces back and forth, plunged into conversation. There is no way to tell who was on the other end of the line. Later, Rizvi heard that Kithsiri had first tried to calm the mob, telling them that he already had orders from the ministry of defence, run by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa—the president’s brother and the country’s most frightening man—to demolish the dargah in the next three days, assuring them that he would attend to it. When the men insisted on finishing the job themselves, and right away at that, Kithsiri called his superiors and asked them what to do.

In any event, in the video, he appears to have received some set of definitive instructions. He hangs up and walks—reluctantly, to my eyes, as if his feet weighed many tons—back to the dargah, to speak to one of the policemen. Some new commands are snapped out. Then the police cordon ebbs, and the destruction commences.

WE CLIMBED INTO RIZVI’S VAN, and he drove us through the Sacred City towards the location of the dargah. The Buddha loomed over us, in the form of the head and shoulders of a gigantic white statue visible above the line of scrub and low trees on the side of the road. Rizvi pointed out where his family’s houses had stood before they were rubbed out in 2009. The access path to the dargah, from the main road, was blocked by an army barricade; we were allowed no closer. Rizvi didn’t stop, for fear that soldiers would come over and question us; instead, he crept on slowly but steadily. From the van, we could make out only the low wall of the dargah’s compound and some Buddhist bunting that had been looped around the trunks of trees. There was, of course, no dargah to see.

In Rizvi’s video, the dismantling of the dargah is clinical and coordinated, and it holds a perverse allure that makes it difficult to look away. The monks are attired in their orange habits, but the other men wear white work gloves and carry just the right tools for the job. They have come fully prepared, and also fully confident that they will not be stopped.

First the men hang Sinhala Ravaya flags from the branches of nearby trees; it is important to advertise the organisation under the auspices of which these activities are being carried out. They peel away the sheets of tin that form part of the shrine’s modest roof, chucking them over the waist-high compound wall with a clatter. Large, Islam-green blankets of cloth covered Waliullah’s tomb; these are yanked off and burned. Somebody found a couple of Qurans within the shrine, Rizvi told us; one of them was thrown down a well, and the other was shredded and added to the bonfire. We can’t see this in the video, but the earth around the fire is littered with white rectangles that might be pages ripped out of books. A monk stands over the fire, superintending it with such care that he resembles an attentive chef stirring and peering into his pot. Another man, with a long metal bar, is trying to take down, or at least damage, the compound wall, and his pounding upon the brick sounds tinny and melancholic.

At some late point during the hour-long demolition, Rizvi managed to creep closer to the site and continue filming it in brief bursts. By this time, the dargah has been pulverised into a mess of masonry. The fires have reduced and expired, and helices of smoke seep out of the embers. Much of the mob vanished after the shrine was pulled down, although on the soundtrack we can still hear the occasional jab at the still-standing compound wall, or the thunder of the tin sheets. The drama of the afternoon has leaked out, but a dazed air hangs over the small set of muttering onlookers; they are like the audience at a mystifying play, still trying to make sense of the plot, hanging around the theatre in the hope that an epilogue will provide some explanation. But, by 5 pm, it is all clearly over. In one of the last frames of the video, Rizvi pans away from the rubble and captures the police post that had been set up for supplemental security, a dark-blue booth with the words “Solex Water Pumps” painted on it. A solitary policeman stands nearby. He dusts his hands off by slapping them against each other, looks towards Rizvi’s camera and then looks away again. He is relaxed and calm. No strife seems to have stained his world at all.

This essay is adapted from Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, published this month by Penguin India.