A Fork in the Road: What lies ahead for religious minorities in Sri Lanka, India and South Asia?

Sri Lanka and India are facing pivotal moments, both for their future, and the future of South Asia as a whole. Both countries’ drives towards religious hegemony have left little place for Christians and Muslims, a factor which will certainly lead to more instability and intolerance in the region.

Sri Lanka: Buddhist nationalists vindicated

Sri Lanka was the site of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in which over 250 people were killed when terrorists targeted a number of churches and hotels across the country. In the aftermath of the bombings, there were reports of violent attacks against Muslims and an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice. Some reprisals against the Muslim population have been carried out by Christians, in contrast to the previous relative harmony between the two communities as they both battled intolerance from sections of the Sinhalese Buddhist population.

Furthermore, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who have been portraying Islam as a threat to both Buddhism and Sri Lanka for years, consider their stance vindicated by the bombings.

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have long feared losing their position of supremacy; Sri Lankan anthropologist Stanley Tambiah describes the group as ‘a majority with a minority complex.’ Now, in their eyes, the Muslim threat has now been made real.

Intolerant and hateful rhetoric towards religious minorities has already represented a serious threat to peace and stability in Sri Lanka. 2018 saw major anti-Muslim riots in Ampara and Kandy, in the Eastern and Central provinces of Sri Lanka, echoing similar riots which rocked Aluthgama, in the south-west of the island, in 2014.

In the aftermath of both the 2018 riots and 2019 retaliatory attacks following the Easter Sunday bombings, social media was blocked to prevent the spread of hate speech. In May 2019 a nationwide curfew was placed over the island for two days, extended to four days in the North-Western province, where a wave of violence had spread from village to village. Hettipola in the North Western province, for example, saw more than 80 Muslim-owned shops, houses and buildings damaged, as well as the village’s central Mosque, Masjid Al Huda.

India: Increasing Hindu supremacy

In India, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have embraced the concept of Hindutva which seeks to preserve and defend the cultural hegemony of Hinduism at the expense of minority religions.  In his first election campaign Modi focused on promises to fix the economy; this time round, with the economy still struggling he embarked on a divisive campaign in which he capitalised on religious nationalism and sought to portray himself as a strongman and protector of the nation.

Modi’s rhetoric has emboldened right wing groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS), and there has been a sharp rise in incidents of cow vigilantism since the BJP entered power in 2014. The BJP’s rule has also seen more states such as Jharkhand and Uttarakhand introduce anti-conversion laws.

In April this year a Christian from the Adivasi tribe was killed after he and three other Christians were severely beaten, after helping to skin an ox that had died of natural causes. On 22 June various news agencies reported on a viral video which showed a Muslim man, bound and bleeding, being lynched. In both cases the mobs shouted ‘Jai Sri Ram, Jai Hanuman’ (long live/glory to Sri Ram and long live/glory to Hanuman) in honour of the Hindu deities.

A ripple effect

Regionally, rising levels of violence against religious minorities will cause problems beyond humanitarian concerns. India and Sri Lanka are neighboured by three Muslim majority countries: Bangladesh, the Maldives and Pakistan. Bangladesh’s economic ties with India make it unlikely that the government will speak out in public, and the Maldives’ relationship with the country also appears to be improving.

Pakistan, a country with its own chronic FoRB violations, already has a chequered history with its Hindu majority neighbour. With growing communal tensions based on religious rhetoric, the upending of the special status of Kashmir in August risks further bilateral breakdown between the two nuclear-armed powers. Since midnight on 4 August, India has placed severe restrictions on press freedom and freedom of movement, with widespread detentions. The people of the Kashmir Valley are feeling frustrated with majoritarian politics from the ruling BJP, and with no clear signs of international mediation or intervention, their fate remains uncertain. Hostility towards Indian Muslims is likely to be further inflamed, while in Pakistan increasing discrimination towards the Hindu community including more instances of forced conversion of Hindu girls could worsen as infuriated Islamists step up their campaign of conversion.

Many lower caste Hindus converted to Christianity during British colonial rule, to escape caste discrimination. The legacy of the caste system means that Christians and Hindus in Pakistan are treated as second-class citizens. They have faced severe discrimination including violent attacks from the Muslim majority, which at various times in history has led to an exodus of Hindus to India and Christians to countries like Thailand and Malaysia.

The treatment of, and rhetoric used against Muslims in India is likely to exacerbate the relationship with Pakistan, further polarising the two countries.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has already tweeted about his vision of ‘Naya Pakistan’where minority citizens would be treated equally “unlike what is happening in India.” This came a week after he stated that he would show “how we treat the minorities in Pakistan in stark comparison to the minorities’ status in India.” While pledges to uphold the rights of religious minorities are welcome in principle, this sort of verbal baiting only serves to fan the flames of ethno-religious tensions between the two nations.

A further deterioration of the relationship between Pakistan and India, two countries with strong military powers, is a concern for the region. If Sri Lanka continues down its current path, it will only be a matter of time before there are serious deteriorations in its own relations with Pakistan.

The factor which could cause the most instability is the emergence of emboldened Islamic paramilitary groups. If attacks like the Easter Sunday Bombings become more frequent, attitudes towards Muslims will continue to harden, not only in India and Sri Lanka, but also in Nepal and Bhutan, which are Hindu and Buddhist majority nations respectively. This is turn could create a cycle of tit for tat reprisals, causing the region to descend into instability and violence for all religious minorities.

There is a risk that South Asia could descend into a region of violence and instability for all religious minorities.

By CSW’s Advocacy and Projects Officer

Featured image: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters