Opinion: Why an anti-Muslim Sri Lankan Buddhist monk is being let off the hook every time

By P.K.Balachandran

The anti-Muslim Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), has several serious cases against him relating to hate speech, blasphemy against the Quran, instigation of violence, and contempt of court.

And yet, he has been evading arrest for long periods, and when arrested, has always got out on bail quickly.
The reason – Ven. Gnanasara Thero has supporters at the highest political levels and perhaps even in the general population.

He is also operating at a time when governments, both in the South Asian region and elsewhere, tacitly support the majority community against the minorities.

While Hindu majoritarianism is holding sway in India under the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi, the majority Sunni Muslims in Pakistan stage violent attacks against the minority Hindus, Christians and sub-sections of Muslims like the Shias and Ahmadis with impunity. Neither in India nor Pakistan, perpetrators are booked.

In the West, anti-Muslim feelings are allowed to be expressed freely.

On Wednesday, the Colombo Fort Magistrate released Ven. Gnanasara Thera on bail in two cases, one relating to defamation of the Quran, and the other relating to an assault on the organizers of the Jathika Bala Sena media conference in 2014.

Later in the afternoon, the monk was arrested by the Welikade police in another case and produced before the Colombo Additional Magistrate Buddhika Sri Ragala.

The Magistrate granted him bail, albeit with some hesitation given the serious nature of the charges, which were making hate speeches and instigating people to burn mosques.

Earlier, the Court of Appeal had refused to order Ven.Gnanasara Thera’s arrest in a Contempt of Court case filed by the Magistrate of the Homagama Court. Instead, it gave him five weeks extra time to appear before it. The monk had failed to respond to summons three times before.

Meanwhile, the monk had filed a Fundamental Rights petition against arrest in the Supreme Court, which is coming up for hearing on Thursday. The apex court’s decision on his petition is expected to indicate the Sri Lankan judiciary’s overall attitude towards him.

Support From Buddhist hierarchy

Most importantly, Ven. Gnanasara Thera has secured support from the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, the Most Venerable Warakagoda Gnanaratana Thera.

“Although we do not approve the aggressive behavior and speech of Bhikku Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the viewpoint expressed by him cannot be discarded,” the Mahanayake said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

“Insulting Bhikkus by various groups without inquiring into the veracity of the issues raised by him cannot be condoned,” the Mahanayake said.

The Kandy-based High Priest highlighted concerns about the challenges posed by internal and external conspiracies against Sinhala Buddhists and emphasized the need for the Mahanayake Theras of the Three Nikayas and the “patriotic people” of the country, to act in unison to face such injustices.

“All other religious groups in the country should keep it in mind that Buddhists in Sri Lanka had always respected and allowed unhindered the existence of other religions. We condemn acts by other religious groups that insult this tolerant Buddhist ethic,” the Asgiriya Mahanayake said.

Support from Indian Hindutwa Body

The BBS on Wednesday released a letter written to the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, by Dr.Santosh Rai, President of the New Delhi-based Hindu Mahasabha (Loktantrik), asking the Government of India to support the BBS and Ven.Gananasara Thera.

In the letter dated June 20, Dr.Rai described Ven.Gnanasara Thera as a “prestigious monk” and said that he has raised his voice against radical Islamic actions; the habit of defaming Buddhist monks; forced conversions, and marrying non-Muslims to convert them to Islam (called Love Jihad in India).

Political Calculation

The Sri Lankan government appears to be hesitant to take action against Ven.Gnanasara Thera apparently because of a fear that its support base among the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community will be eroded seriously if he is imprisoned.

The fear is that the gainer will be the opposition stalwart and former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

President Maithripala Sirisena told Muslims leaders at an Ramazan Iftar party recently, that a Buddhist-Muslim conflict is being fanned by forces which want to alienate the people from his government.

Sirisena did not identify the forces, but it was clear he was alluding to the Joint Opposition led by Rajapaksa.

Wahabi Factor

At an earlier meeting with the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka and Muslim Ministers in his government, President Sirisena said that government is concerned about the increasing “Arabization” of Sri Lankan Muslims, and the spread of fundamentalist Wahabi Islam, especially in the Eastern Province.

In response, the Muslim Ministers denied any wrong doing on the part of the Muslims but added that if any Muslim is proven to have broken the law, he or she should be dealt with as per the law of the land.

According to Hilmy Ahamad of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, the Muslim Ministers said that the community is not asking for any privileges, but only for the application of the Rule of Law.

(– P.K.Balachandran is a senior Colombo-based journalist currently writing on the countries of South Asia –)