There are scarier things, worse things, than Black July ’83. Aluthgama signaled the possibility of such things.
The sequence of events, the lethal violence, the horror of Aluthgama were reminiscent of July ’83 —and to go by Tarzie Vittachchi’s Emergency ’58, the anti-Tamil riots of that year. That is the element of dark continuity, which we must never forget in our haste to define the present as the worst of times. But there is also the element of discontinuity which makes Aluthgama potentially far more dangerous.
If we are to fight this phenomenon successfully, it is necessary to correctly identify the beast. So far it has been misidentified as the scarier mask of the ruling clan, the dark avatar of Sinhala Buddhism or the instrument of neoliberal capitalism. It may be all of these or some of these, but these are not the most important or dangerous aspects of its present-day manifestation, the BBS, and the Aluthgama outbreak.
What is most significant about Aluthgama was the speech by the BBS’ Galagodaatte Gnanasara, the main demagogue but not the main strategist of that formation (the latter role is played by the far senior figure of Ven Kirame Wimalajothi). A careful listening tells me that the BBS project aims at nothing less than state power itself. The discourse signals nothing less than the intention to dictate to the state itself and in that sense, to capture the state. The BBS demagogue claims ownership of the state and the right order how it must behave. The claim of ownership is of course, not personal. Nor is it organizational i.e. limited to the BBS. The claim is not that circumscribed. The claim of ownership of the state is made in ethno religious terms, that of Sinhala Buddhism. That however, is a disguise. The real claim is that of a definite social stratum is the legitimate owner of the state and should therefore be able to prescribe the state’s policy and practice. The aim and claim is to direct the state. The stratum on behalf of which the BBS stakes this claim is the Sinhala Buddhist clergy.
This is new. It may be the case that the Rajapaksas (singular or plural) extended patronage to the BBS. It might even be that certain elements of the state apparatuses thought to do with the BBS what Pakistan’s ISI did in the 1990s with and for the Taliban. In some senses we have been here before, and Galagodaatte Gnanasara is the new Elle Gunawansa while Kirama Wimalajothi is the new Madihe Pannaseeha. Whatever the provenance and patronage though, the phenomenon has metastasized.
In Aluthgama we witnessed a dangerous replay of July ‘83 in the sense that there was a situation of dual power. Who controls the situation: the state apparatuses or the Sinhala Buddhist ‘street’? However, the BBS posed a further question in Aluthgama: who controls the state itself and its direction; its actions? The legitimate state authorities or the monks? Even more serious was the contestation of legitimacy itself: who is more legitimate, the elected civilian power or the monkhood?
What the BBS aims to do is to control the State. This is a qualitative escalation from the decades-long role of the hawkish Buddhist clergy of being a lobby, pressure group and spoiler (Sinhala only in ’55-’56, the BC Pact ‘57, the APC proposals and Annexure ’84). Galagodaatte Gnanasara’s speech signals the new objective of laying claim to control of the State and indeed the new self-image of being such a controlling force or a contender for State power (as distinct from electoral office). Gnanasara directly addresses and appeals to the armed forces and police over the heads of the constitutional political power. He warns the political power by reminding it that the armed forces and police are Sinhala.
The strategy is simple: the sociological (ethno-linguistic, ethno-religious) composition of the state apparatus is sought to be used to leverage the state to act not merely in the interests of a leading role for the Sinhala Buddhists, but a more explicit role which ranges from outright domination up to (or down to) exclusive monopoly of power, economic presence and existential space. The BBS discourse is not merely one of Sinhala Buddhist rulership but of a model of society and politics most charitably described as apartheid but more accurately described as enslavement —with its accompaniment, existential dread and terror.
The agency of control of the state—the aspirant directors of the state—are the Buddhist monks, of which the BBS is the vanguard.
The three dead Muslims, killed it would seem by gunshots in a drive-by indicate that a new phenomenon, an armed militia may be in play. This Ku Klux Klan doesn’t even have to wear sheets and hoods! Of course, the BBS project is to transform the armed forces and police themselves into militias of the Sinhala Buddhist monkhood.
Can the project succeed? It is six decades or more since the rot set in; six decades or more in which this has been incubating. The ideology and consciousness showed heightened levels of toxicity with the rhetoric (beamed live on national TV) at the funeral of Rev Soma. The egg is now beginning to hatch and the monster is showing the top of its scaly head. The monster is not simply that of racism, religious chauvinism, neoliberal capitalism, neo-imperialist conspiracy or Rajapaksaism. It is (as I described it a year ago) ethno-religious fascism and its project is the installation of a social and political order that is theocratic fascism. It is the fascist character that makes it lay claim to the state.
This is way beyond a tactic to gain marginal electoral advantage on the part of the Rajapaksas. The derisive references to President Rajapaksa in Galagodaatte Gnansara’s Aluthgama ‘discourse’ were utterly significant. A social shift has taken place in this country and the BBS hopes to translate it into a power shift. Aluthgama was a testing ground. The BBS’ strategy is a coalition of the Three Ms: Monks, Mobs and Military. Plan A would be rule by these three forces, under the dominance of the monks: theocratic fascism. Plan B would be the installation of military rule backed by the Buddhist clergy: a Sinhala Buddhist coup and junta. Plan C may be a Manchurian Candidate scenario: the installation as the country’s leader of a personality who can be counted on to approximate Plan A. The triggering of anti-Muslim but also anti-minority rioting throughout the country, a military ouster of the Northern PC, a replay of the assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike by a monk in 1959, a situation of chaos and anarchy, may all be part of the plan to seize power or install its preferred ruler.
How to beat back the BBS? It is pointless debating the merits of one or another strategy. It is far more realistic to activate or encourage resistance from as many points as possible. The basis can be a clash of interests with the BBS or a clash of values. A purely values-based or ideas-based resistance to the BBS, though necessary and laudable, would be insufficiently broad and deep. An interest-based strategy is far more likely to succeed though it is not necessary that everyone subscribe to such a platform. After Gnanasara’s speech and the violence in Aluthgama, there is a clear conflict of interest between the ruler(s) and the BBS, which presents itself as a contender for the role of who should direct the state and whom the State apparatus should obey. There is always a contradiction between the Boss and whoever wants to be, thinks he is or should be the boss. The Rajapaksas are a status quoist power; the BBS is a radically revisionist force. The former also have a far greater resonance among the populace at large.
Leon Trotsky famously said that in the struggle against fascism he would be willing to unite with the Devil’s grandmother. While all political parties and rulers (most certainly including the Rajapaksas) have contributed directly or indirectly to the problem and are thereby part of it, they are also potentially part of the solution. Having been enablers of the BBS, the Rajapaksas are objectively the most readily available potential counterweight and counterbalance to the BBS and cannot realistically be ignored. However a Realist strategy of counterbalancing by existing power centers is not the only legitimate one. A broad Left front of which the JVP is the leading and main force (while drawing in the FSP, the IUSF et al) is another track of what must surely be a multi-track strategy against fascism.
The officer corps of the Sri Lankan military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the corporate sector, the trade unions, the student unions, the professionals, the political parties, the media, the intelligentsia, the international system (including Sri Lanka’s friends) should all be made aware of how destructive the BBS project is to their interestsand should be motivated to oppose and defeat it. The most effective weapons to stop the March of the BBS are an intelligent patriotism, a reasoned appeal to Sinhala interests and a more authentic, generously inclusive and pluralist Buddhism.