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Sri Lanka Attacks

The Aftermath of the Sri Lanka Attacks Continues for South Asia’s Young Minorities

There's fear and then there's hope for those living on the fringes.

by Pallavi Pundir
03 May 2019, 1:38pm

People light candles for the victims of Sri Lanka's serial bomb blasts, outside a church in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz 

On April 21, Mumbai-based Johncy Ekka, 20, wasn’t in the church celebrating Easter. She, in fact, missed out the breaking news that had shaken South Asia to its core because she was in a church camp in her hometown, Bhopal. Later in the day, when the college student went back to her hostel, she saw the news of the biggest carnage that has taken place in South Asia’s recent history, in Sri Lanka. “I felt devastated. I mean, the Christians were a minority there. Here in India, too, my community is one of the minorities. But when we saw the news, we kind of felt helpless. What could we do?” she told VICE.

But that was not the only sentiment she felt discouraged about. “Just a week before the bombings, people on my [social media] timeline were posting a lot on Notre Dame burning in Paris. But when the news of the bombings broke, there was nothing.”

Why, I ask.

“I think it’s because most people in India are not comfortable expressing views that have anything to do with religion. It’s not that they think they will get into trouble. But I feel like they think that if they support a certain religious community so openly, they may face some backlash. In fact, around me, I haven’t heard a lot of people my age talk about the SL bombings at all.”

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"Religion is not an easy subject."—Johncy Ekka.

The days following the Sunday Easter bombings in Sri Lanka have led to several revelations—including the island nation’s place in the global terrorism discourse, its government’s failures to pay heed to intelligence or previous warnings, and the surprising profiles of the attackers (wealthy, elite, well-educated).

But another impact that may have been overlooked is the impact of the attacks on minorities not just in Sri Lanka, but also across South Asia.

When I spoke with Ekka on a weekday afternoon about the bombings, she was uneasy—a sentiment that is a byproduct of living in one of the most fertile lands for communal tensions in Asia: India. “There is fear, yes,” she tells me. "Religion is not an easy subject. It’s like political leanings you know. You come to my class and ask anyone which party they support. Everyone will list down parties they don’t agree with. But they will never outrightly take the name of one they do support. It’s the same with religion.”

“My identity has changed in the eyes of people, and when that happens, you're constantly made aware of it”

If you live in Asia, it’s hard to miss the way sectarianism and communalism have dug their deep fangs into its people, in what used to be some of the most multicultural and multi-ethnic societies in the world.

If Myanmar’s organised genocide of its Rohingya community led to one of the the biggest examples of human rights violations and disenfranchisement in Asia, China has its own set of intolerance issues with its Uighur (Turkic Muslim) community, with its much-criticised crackdown that also includes the use of AI to track and control them.

In Pakistan, an increased effort to homogenise and Islamicise its society has led to frequent and escalating attacks on its minorities such as the Ahmadi and Christians. At the same time, Indonesia and the Philippines have emerged as troublesome hubs of international terrorism and minorities under threat.

On April 21, the attacks not just sliced open Sri Lanka’s very own recent troubled past (albeit with no major history of radical Islamic militancy in the country), but Asia’s very own intrinsic problem of treatment of minorities and identity politics.

“The French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf has described identity politics as a ‘leopard,’ devouring men, women and children and the values that customarily underpin any sense of common humanity,” Chris Patten, a former EU commissioner for external affairs, wrote in response to the two “worse recent examples” of identity politics: the Sri Lanka bombings and the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand. “In his own study of identity and violence, Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen recalls seeing as a child in India a terrified Muslim being chased through his family’s front yard by a Hindu mob, who hacked the man to death.”

Patten also observed a byproduct of identity politics, nationalism, which, he wrote, “can easily become a mindset that expresses itself most potently by defining people in zero-sum opposition to others.”

In India, the 17th Lok Sabha election is perhaps the best stage to witness this threat, wherein the idea of nationalism runs thicker than blood, and the othering of minorities is a matter of vote game. “I’m 62 years old right now, and it’s only been for the past five-six years that I have been made aware of my identity as a Muslim in this country,” Rana Safvi, a New Delhi-based historian and author, told VICE. “Earlier, I was just a regular Indian who just happened to be a Muslim. Being a Muslim was not a basic identity. I used to write on history and Urdu poetry. It was all taken as something that I knew. But now, whatever I say is seen from the prism of my religion.”

In February, a 104-page Human Rights Watch report chronicled blatant attacks on Muslim (62 percent of the victims) and Christian (14 percent of the victims) minorities by notorious cow vigilantes across India, who have been involved in lynchings of mostly Muslim traders with impunity over the last few years.

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"The fact that my Muslim identity was more visible than my Sri Lankan identity terrified me."—Insaf Bakeer

“My identity has changed in the eyes of people, and when that happens, you're constantly made aware of it. It sometimes, somehow affects my mind also. Earlier we wore our cultural identity on our sleeves but now, we are somehow made to wear our religious identity on our sleeves all the time. I often catch myself writing and reacting more and more as a Muslim,” said Safvi.

Safvi’s sentiment captures the core of sectarian politics, which is strongly based on fear. After the attacks in Sri Lanka, this same fear is more widespread. “Especially among the minorities,” said 24-year-old Insaf Bakeer from Colombo, a Sri Lankan Youth Representative to the United Nations. “During the civil war, there was this mixed feeling of my life being at stake but there was also a sense of normalcy on some levels.” Bakeer, who’s also a youth activist in the country, added, "I happen to come from a minority group but I never felt like a minority back then. But in 2014, the organised hate groups and the first round of religious tensions erupted in Sri Lanka. After that, the fact that my Muslim identity was more visible than my Sri Lankan identity terrified me.”

“People on social media are like, ‘I went to a supermarket and people were looking at me because I'm wearing the hijab’”

Many Sri Lankans VICE got in touch with spoke about the palpable fear among the Muslim community, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It was further reinforced when the government put a ban on any piece of garment that restricts identification of face. To Muslims, that’s the burkha, an essential part of their culture and religion.

“Even if you talk to your friends, they're like, don't go out too late, or don't go to work if you don't need to,” said Amalini De Sayrah, a Colombo-based journalist and co-editor of citizen journalism website Groundviews. “People on social media are like, ‘I went to a supermarket and people were looking at me because I'm wearing the hijab.’ What's happened in terms of security is that the fact that [the attacks] have been allegedly carried out by Muslims will be used to weaponise against everyday Muslim persons. There are signs popping up on shops saying, ‘Don't come wearing the hijab or niqab’. Others say, ‘Please wear something that allows them to identify or verify with pictures.’”

Sayrah has noticed how in the aftermath of the bombings, people around her are more tense on a daily basis. That while the tension existed earlier, it’s only become more acute and evident now. “On social media, the moment they're identified as Muslims, the Islamophobia is used against them. There's already been a lot of discrimination against them. Now this is only going to make it harder and make the tensions worse.”

The reports across Asia over the last few years have pointed to the fact that although illiberal politics is rife across the world, our neck of the woods is especially volatile and susceptible to larger cases of violence. Some experts blame “majoritarian populism” that feeds off “wealth inequalities and ethnic divisions” in this region.

Safvi believes that ultimately, you have to be a member of the minority to understand what's really happening. She said, “We have to bear the burden of whatever's happening all over the world.”

“We need spaces where we can think of all religions critically and learn about pluralism”

Saranee Gunathilaka, an attorney-at-law at the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, firmly believes that the problem at hand is not that of minority and majority, but that of extremism and terrorism. “On April 21, you can’t really say that it was one of the most important days just for the Christians. In fact, one of the targeted churches in Kochchikade was a holy place for all Sri Lankans,” said the 28-year-old who is also a human rights and international law lecturer at a private university in Colombo.

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"All religions are coming together in support for each other."—Saranee Gunathilaka

“If you come to Colombo, Muslims, Tamils, Christians, Sinhalese, all live together in harmony. In fact, in my university, all students from all religions are coming together in support for each other. This is very visible in general public: Churches are pledging support for Muslims for jumma prayers, while Buddhists are cancelling their religious activities around the birth, enlightenment and passing of Lord Buddha, this month. There’s clearly an impact on all religions,” she said.

Bakeer, who often travels across the country to mobilise youth activists, agreed that the attacks have united everyone further—palpable in the different ways Sri Lankans have exhibited resilience. This unity is especially significant in the recent surge of youth movements in Sri Lanka, irrespective of one’s religious or political affiliation.

“This change actually happened during the alleged coup last year,” said Bakeer. “The way that young people mobilised during that period is something noteworthy. There were silent protests and there was a strong wave in social media regardless of political affiliations. People were afraid that if we don’t interfere in something that is unconstitutional or unjudiciary, it will set a precedent for more bad behaviour. Because of this resistance, the executive was forced to reverse his actions.”

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“You can’t talk about any issue in isolation."—Rafiul Alom Rahman

Rafiul Alom Rahman, an activist who founded the Queer Muslim Project in New Delhi, India, talked about the importance of creating spaces to share stories of different faiths. “You can’t talk about any issue in isolation, be it queer issues, religion, minority rights or women’s issues. And then there are very few spaces that allow the free exchange of thoughts. This is what we’re seeing in India today; unfortunately, our democratic spaces have been shrinking over the last few years, for all kinds of minorities, not just Muslims,” said the 28-year-old.

“Within the Muslim community, I see my friends who question Islam, but they don’t question enough. There is fear that their views will be co-opted or misused by the Hindu right wing. I believe there is a need for spaces where we can think of all religions critically and learn about religious pluralism. Outright dismissal of faith is not possible because a lot of people are inclined towards faith. This is reflected in my work with The Queer Muslim Project, where we use feminist and LGBTQ-inclusive interpretations of Islam to engage young people on gender and sexuality rights.”

While this sense of purpose, especially among the youth, is justifiably more important now than ever, Bakeer noticed a general sense of apathy and frustration towards the parliamentarians. “It's the general vibe of the young people, from my experience,” he said. “As of now, there are lesser platforms for the youth but we’re working towards it. Despite the hatred and vile, I feel we've shown exemplary resilience and solidarity that we have to move on as a nation.”

“Activism on our level exists as such a powerful tool, especially the one that is in the digital space,” Ekka said. “Even though we are miles away from Sri Lanka, by utilising these activism tools, we’re not just supporting them, we’re supporting humanity.”

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