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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 22 New Delhi May 18, 2019

Sri Lankan Crisis: Return of Religious Violence

Saturday 18 May 2019


by Sudhir Hindwan

Condemnation should ring out loud and clear against the consecutive serial suicide bombings ripping apart churches and hotels, and killing more than 250 people while leaving over 500 injured on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. There is a growing frustration among the people at large over the government’s inability to control the rising tide of religious terror and violence. It has brought opposition in myriad forms, increasing pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to take stringent steps. Although the recent success in the killing of perpetrators of Easter carnage has reaffirmed the confidence of the Sri Lankan security forces, the obnoxious linkages and proximity between the Islamic State and the local terror outfit, the National Thowheeth Jamath (NTJ), has sent out dangerous signals and made the situation extremely vulnerable. The local tinge of religious fervour to the insurgency reminds of the worst years of the LTTE terror in Sri Lanka during the 1980s.

The unabated radicalisation in Islamist term is a matter of serious concern. The purpose of the attack was to gain popularity by the militants as the attacks were carried out on religious institutions and luxury hotels. Various shortcomings have been highlighted for the failure of prompt reaction to the attacks such as failure of the anticipation mechanism, lack of strong execution of response system, keeping pace with strict timings, inadequate counter-terrorism training and equipment for the local police, limitations of strategic thinking, etc.

Religious violence is on the rise. The current state of affairs does not offer any hope for relaxation in the coming days. The present crisis is the outcome of a combination of factors, deeply interwoven in the complicated saga of the conflict between the religious communities in the Sinhalese-dominated state.

Since the 15th century Sri Lanka had been under the domination of foreign rulers. It was a British colony for 150 years and achieved its independence in 1948. The majority of the Sri Lankan population are Sinhalese, constituting 16 million. They account for 73 per cent of the total population and are settled over a large part of the country except in the northern and eastern regions. They largely follow the Buddhist way of life and speak Sinhala. The Sri Lankan Tamils, who profess Hinduism, are the next largest group and constitute roughly about 12.6 per cent of the population. The other main Sri Lankan people are the Muslims who constitute 7.1 per cent of the total population and about 7.5 per cent Christians. Thus, language and religion have been the two dividing factors. The Muslims constitute roughly 10 per cent of the total Sri Lankan population.

Sri Lanka is among the third most religious countries of the world. Religious conflicts have always been a part of Sri Lankan history. The Tamil-Sinhalese conflict led to heavy loss of life in the past. The sudden rise of religious bigotry has created defining moments for President Maithripala Sirisena as it is possible to frame a strategy about terrorist attack but there is still confusion over whether such a mechanism is successful in dealing with terrorists driven by fundamentalism. Gradually, religion is becoming the main motivating force for terrorism across the globe. The series of violent activities by the religious terrorist outfits suggest that terrorism has entered a new phase and security agencies are in a state of shock. Attacks on school buses, public toilets, important government buildings, telephone exchanges, railway stations, countryside areas and police pickets have become quite common. In some areas where there was a lull for long, a recurrence of the reign of terror has disturbed the peaceful ambience. The main purpose behind these activities is to induce fear in the minds of the police and administration. The major question that arises is: how to nip in the bud these evil geniuses who are taking the entire human civilisation into the path of destruction.

The present world order is in the midst of a major transformation, largely on account of a rapidly changing value system across the globe. Transformation is a seemingly ubiquitous concept. Whilst some view it as a source of aggrandisement, others treat it as a disruptive process. 

Despite years of concerted efforts to eliminate major threats, terrorism, caste violence and class violence have managed to taunt us time and again. It will certainly be naive if we blame others for the problems we face. To a great extent we are equally responsible for the mess. It is good to preserve one’s identity for maintaining our diaspora. But at times such efforts of preservation of identity, whether cultural, linguistic , regional or religious, damage the deep layers of our socio-political system. This is apparent from the kind of threat we are encountering so often. The world is also gradually witnessing the over-expansion of a parochial version of faith and the desperate attempts at promoting it as the only pious one; but history bears testimony to the fact that this has happened due to hegemony of the majoritarian identities and resentment of multiculturalism particularly on account of migration, the problem of refugees and search for survival in the competitive world order. 

During the mid-1990s in the nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway, the police suspected the hand of an apocalyptic sect, Aum Shinrikyo. A few years earlier, Moscow intensified its efforts to set up a “Troika” alliance to drive away the spectre of Islamic militants. The problem of refugees, who have fled due to disturbances in Afghanistan, Kyrghyzstan and Uzbekistan, has added a new dimension to the existing problem. Whether terrorism is unleashed at local, regional, national or international level, it cannot survive for long without international support and collaboration. There is a growing nexus between terrorists and internationally organised crime networks. Mr Alison Jamieson, a British analyst on organised crime and political violence, commented that a distinction between terrorism and organised crime has become very blurred recently. Italian organised crime expert Professor Ernesto says: “The goal is different. The terrorist’s goal is an ideological one, while organised crime’s goal is financial, but the instrument is the same. They both need money and arms.” In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers engage in drug trafficking to finance their struggle, in North-Eastern India guerrillas kidnap tea planters and hold them to ransom to help fund their fight for independence. In Chechnya, the secessionists were heavily involved in drug distribution.

Over the years a great deal of literature has appeared on terrorism and strategic planning. Many foreign scholars have also made contributions to the research on terrorism. Although these studies have been carried out from various perspectives and aren’t devoid of specific ideologies, including prejudices and distortions, one rarely comes across a balanced and dispassionate assessment of the issue. However, certain studies carried out by Professor Paul Wilkinson, Prof Yonah Alexander, Brian Jenkin, Walter Laquer provide in-depth analysis and systematic examination of the problem and make a sincere effort to fill the gap in the existing realms of knowledge.

Their concern over the need to change the existing—and also evolve a new—strategic approach is valuable. The historical backdrop provided by their work helps in tracing the roots of the problem. Wilkinson brings to light an important fact: we need to diversify strategies to counter the challenges of terrorism. Some arguments provided by eminent experts on terrorism, such as the works of eminent authors like Seymour Maxwell, Williams Cutteridges, louis Rene Beres, R.S. Eliot, W.H. Dundas, T.A. Jackson, W.D. Hussey, John Magee, David Watt, Ronald Jacquard, are interesting. They provide a leeway to generate academic argumentation which goes beyond the dictates of powerful syndicates within the system.

However, an accurate inquiry of the existing anti-terror, combating strategies and literature available reveals certain inadequacies. Very few comprehensive and up-to-date strategies are available since the phenomenon itself is so ambiguous. Few important policies are developed by many nations on the problem of international terrorism and combating strategies in the last few years for handling local terrorism. Our strategic policies should be able to adapt to the challenging environment as well as efficiently implement various recommendations. Since today the threats are more severe and the enemies more organised than ever before, new concepts of safety and security should be followed. A modern, vigilant and assertive military, intelligence, police and paramilitary network should replace the old one. Many important suggestions and recommendations of various committees are out of tune with existing circumstances. Most of the work and strategies on terrorism hold the lack of both political foresight and deep commitment as reasons for the growth of terrorism. Most of the strategies and work on counter-terrorism developed over the years are free from blemishes. But, at times, one has to admit that while there has been a constant change in our political and administrative arenas, the old mindset and predilections of powerful syndicates within the system haven’t changed as desired.

In the changing security environment across the globe on account of the rise of transnational terrorism countries need to develop a new consensus in strategic planning. The weak strategic planning is basically responsible for the failure. Sri Lanka will have to work carefully to protect its national interests. We should be able to cash in on any opportunity and anti-terrorist strategy that has to be a combination of tactful strength and resilience.

Recently many new changes have taken place in the strategy of terrorism. The most notable of this is the increasing role played by the sophisticated arms and weaponry system. The emerging new challenges of modern terrorism have put a lot of pressure on the security forces. Thus, a proper understanding of the role of the police and paramilitary forces would be of immense value. Security is an ever-changing landscape. The intelligence and security apparatus need to diversify their activities to stay ahead in the race. For this, they need to bring together technical and professional expertise based on many decades of experience in maintaining internal security.

In this regard, the most crucial thing is to develop capability to anticipate the security needs. This can be done by: • Carefully examining important incidents and preparing detailed action-oriented reports on insurgency affected areas. • Building a sophisticated communication network as part of a wider modernisation drive which gives access to the latest technology. • Better management of local contacts and sources of assistance. • Developing new techniques of security and maintenance of secrecy. • Transferring talent: the need for specialists in affected areas. • Training even during the security operations with a particular emphasis on sensitising personnel to issues relating to human rights, civil liberties, prisoners rights, etc. • Improving the quality of security development programmes for police personnel. • Training police officers so that they can provide active but neutral leadership to their units.

However, all efforts will come to a naught unless prompt and effective amendments are introduced in the criminal judiciary system and there is political will to implement suggestions given by different panels on our security apparatus. It will be beneficial to remember that the law and order problem is different from the problem of terrorism. We often make the mistake of treating both as the same. In a situation where terrorist violence has become endemic, there is a dilemma of human rights violation—should anti-terrorist operations be a work of simple police and para-military network or a work of special force trained for counter-terrorist activities? The deployment of special forces in countering terrorists activities has become a reality in many countries. In this respect the experience of the Western countries could be of immense use. For example, the way the British security forces handled the Irish Republican Army, the manner in which the West German Police defeated the Red Army faction. Similarly, French Army took up some measures to improve anti-terrorist capabilities and in this way way the Italian Police had to combat large-scale terrorist violence from neo-fascist groups and the Left-wing challenges by the Red Brigades.

Experience has taught that complacency and lack of immediate reaction to terrorist threat has paralysed the security systems of the various affected countries in the face of trouble. Therefore, there is a need for a truly effective preparedness programme at the government level and tremendous international coordination. The growing web of globalisation has brought about a paradigm shift at the global level wherein there has been a struggle for locating religious identities at the national, and local parameters in modern democratic societies. Certain groups are always ready to manipulate these social fault-lines to their advantage by creating an artificial image of genuine plea.

We hope the present trends do not prove Huntington’s Clashes of Civilisation right. If at all these are any indicator, all of us would be in for highly vulnerable times. Time is of essence, and hence it is high time the nations of the world realised the need for immediate reaction and coordination at the global level to control the new tentacles of unabated transnational terrorism soaked in religious fervour.

The author is a Chandigarh-based Professor of Political Science and an expert of strategic affairs.

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