Sunday, 31 May 2015

The darker side of Buddhism

The darker side of Buddhism

  • 30 May 2015
  • From the sectionMagazine
Buddhist monks at the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or Buddhist Force convention in Colombo on September 28, 2014.
Photo: AFP
The principle of non-violence is central to Buddhist teachings, but in Sri Lanka some Buddhist monks are being accused of stirring up hostility towards other faiths and ethnic minorities. Their hard line is causing increasing concern.
The small temple in the suburbs of Colombo is quiet. An image of the Buddha is surrounded with purple and white lotus flowers. Smaller Buddhas line the walls.
But upstairs, a burly monk in a bright orange robe holds forth - for this is one of the main offices of a hard-line Buddhist organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS).
The peaceful precepts for which Buddhism is widely known barely figure in his words. Instead, the monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, talks of his Buddhism in terms of race. Most Buddhists here are ethnically Sinhalese, and Sinhalese make up three-quarters of the island's population.
"This country belongs to the Sinhalese, and it is the Sinhalese who built up its civilisation, culture and settlements. The white people created all the problems," says Gnanasara Thero angrily.
He says the country was destroyed by the British colonialists, and its current problems are also the work of what he calls "outsiders". By that he means Tamils and Muslims.
In fact, while a minority of the Tamils did indeed come from India as tea plantation workers, most of them, and most of the Muslims, are as Sri Lankan as the Sinhalese, with centuries-old roots here.
"We are trying to... go back to the country of the Sinhalese," says Gnanasara Thero. "Until we correct this, we are going to fight."
Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero
Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero. Photo: AFP
This firebrand strain of Buddhism is not new to Sri Lanka. A key Buddhist revivalist figure of the early 20th Century, Anagarika Dharmapala, was less than complimentary about non-Sinhalese people. He held that the "Aryan Sinhalese" had made the island into Paradise which was then destroyed by Christianity and polytheism. He targeted Muslims saying they had "by Shylockian methods" thrived at the expense of the "sons of the soil".
And later, in 1959 Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk - the circumstances were murky but one contentious issue was the government's failure to do enough to ensure the rights of the Sinhala people.
The long war against the Tamil Tigers - a violent rebel group purporting to speak for the Tamil minority - brought the hard-line Buddhists into their own once more. Portraying the war as a mission to protect the Sinhalese and Buddhism, in 2004 nine monks were elected to parliament on a nationalist platform. And it was from the monks' main party that Gnanasara Thero later broke away, in time forming the BBS. It is now the most prominent of several organisations sharing a similar ideology.
Since 2012, the BBS has embraced direct action, following the example of other like-minded groups. It raided Muslim-owned slaughter-houses claiming, incorrectly, that they were breaking the law. Members demonstrated outside a law college alleging, again incorrectly, that exam results were being distorted in favour of Muslims.
Now that a Tamil adversary has been defeated, Muslims seem to be these nationalists' main target, along with evangelical Christians whom they accuse of deceitfully and cunningly converting people away from Buddhism.
But can the BBS be called violent? "Whenever there is something wrong done by a Buddhist monk everything [is blamed on] us because of our popularity," says BBS spokesman Dilantha Withanage.
"BBS is not a terror organisation, BBS is not promoting violence against anyone... but we are against certain things." He cites threats by Islamic State to declare the whole of Asia a Muslim realm.
Time and again he and his colleague bracket the word "Muslim" together with the word "extremist".
Dilantha Withanage
"BBS is not promoting violence against anyone" - Dilantha Withanage
They are not the only Sinhalese who express discomfort at a visible rise in Muslim social conservatism in Sri Lanka. More women are covering up than before and in parts of the country Saudi-influenced Wahabi Muslims are jostling with more liberal ones.
Yet there is no evidence of violent extremism among Sri Lankan Muslims. Rather, they have been at the receiving end of attacks from other parts of society.
In the small town of Aluthgama last June, three people died in clashes that started when the BBS and other Buddhist monks led an anti-Muslim rally in a Muslim area. At the time, I met Muslim families whose homes and shops had been burnt and utterly destroyed, and who were cowering in schools as temporary refugees.
Moderate Buddhists have also been targeted by hard-line ones.
Last year Rev Wathareka Vijitha Thero was abducted, rendered unconscious, tied up and forcibly circumcised - he says this was meant as a gesture of ridicule because he had worked for closer cooperation between Buddhists and Muslims.
He believes Buddhist monks - he doesn't know who or whether they were aligned with any particular group - were responsible.
In a separate case, a few weeks earlier, Vijitha Thero had held a news conference to highlight the grievances of the Muslim community - the gathering was broken up by the BBS. Gnanasara had hurled insults and threatened him: "If you are involved in this type of stupid treachery again, you will be taken and put in the Mahaweli River," he said.
The reference to the Mahaweli is significant - there was a left wing insurrection against the Sri Lankan government in 1989 - it's estimated 60,000 people disappeared and many dead bodies were dumped in the river.
Another country where fierce Buddhism has recently made headlines is Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. A Buddhist faction there, the 969 movement, is known for strident anti-Muslim campaigns that have triggered widespread violence.
Myanmar monk Shin Wirathu arrives with Gnanasara Thero for the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or Buddhist Force convention in Colombo on September 28, 2014
Shin Wirathu (centre) arrives with Gnanasara Thero (left) for the Buddhist Power Force convention in Colombo in 2014. Photo: AFP
Its leader, Shin Wirathu, was recently invited to Sri Lanka by the BBS. Both organisations say that even if Buddhism predominates in their own countries, overall it is under threat. "We want to protect it, therefore we signed a memorandum of understanding on forming alliances in the Asian region," says Withanage.
In January, Sri Lanka unexpectedly elected a new president, Maithripala Sirisena. He told me that "everybody knows" who gave rise to the BBS - implying that it was the administration of his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The previous government was, at least, strongly supportive of the organisation.
And the group thrived because the rule of law had broken down, according to the new minister for Buddhist affairs, Karu Jayasuriya. He has told me that the BBS will be reined in. On Tuesday, Gnanasara Thero was arrested for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration but later freed on bail. Thus far, the new government - which, like the old one, includes a strongly Buddhist nationalist party - seems timid about taking on the men in orange.

More from the Magazine

Buddhist monks take part in a demonstration against the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Rangoon, in October 2012
Of all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks the promise not to kill comes first, and the principle of non-violence is arguably more central to Buddhism than any other major religion. So why have monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs that have left dozens dead?

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

'We will free India of Muslims and Christians by 2021': DJS leader vows to continue 'ghar wapsi' plans and restore 'Hindu glory

Even as Opposition parties up the ante over alleged incidents of religious reconversion, the Dharm Jagran Samiti has declared that it will ensure India becomes a Hindu Rashtra by 2021.
Licence to stay
Speaking in Agra on Thursday, a Dharm Jagran Samiti (DJS) functionary said Muslims and Christians will have to convert to Hinduism if they want to stay in this country.
The DJS has been at the forefront of the reconversion - or ‘ghar wapsi’ - programmes in recent times in which some Muslims have been reportedly ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism.
Conversion has become a major political hot potato with a few Hindu organisations holding ‘ghar wapsi’ ceremonies—the photo shows one such exercise in Agra—to ‘reconvert’ Muslims
Conversion has become a major political hot potato with a few Hindu organisations holding ‘ghar wapsi’ ceremonies—the photo shows one such exercise in Agra—to ‘reconvert’ Muslims

However, their action drew widespread condemnation, leading to the arrest of one activist.
“Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra by 2021.
 The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here.
“So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here,” Uttar Pradesh DJS head Rajeshwar Singh said.
He was reacting to the arrest of Nand Kishore Valmiki, a DJS activist.
Valmiki was arrested on Tuesday for his alleged involvement in forcefully converting over 100 Muslims to Hinduism in Agra.
Singh said although he has temporarily suspended his ‘ghar wapsi’ programme in Aligarh and some other districts of the state that were supposed to be held on December 25, it would be restarted soon.
The DJS leader claimed that those who have been opposing ‘ghar wapsi’ were fearful of Muslims.
But, he would set India free from this fear, he added.
“I belong to the Solanki sub-caste within the Rajput caste. The Thakurs (Rajputs) respect me. I am their leader and they follow my orders.
“The Muslims had converted Rajputs to Islam by force. But the Rajputs are rising again.
“I will ensure that India is freed of Muslims and Christians by December 31, 2021,” Singh said.
In Etah, Singh reiterated his stand, saying he wouldn’t let Muslims and Christians convert the Hindus.
“We will not let them hunt the Hindus,” he said.
“The enemies have tried many a time in the past to finish Hinduism. But every time, Ram, Krishna and Chanakya came forward to finish them and restore the glory of Hinduism.
“I am also doing the same.”
Explaining the DJS’ plans, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) secretary general Champat Rai told Mail Today: “We are of the view that there are a handful of Muslims in India.
“Others within the Muslim community are actually Hindus. Their ancestors were converted to Islam forcefully.
“Even writer Taslima Nasrin has said that her ancestors were Hindus. The Batts, who are Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, are actually Bhatts, the Hindus.”
Rai claimed ‘ghar wapsi’ has been an ongoing VHP campaign for the last 60 years.
A resolution in this regard was passed during the 1966 Maha Kumbh in Allahabad, he said.
“We have re-inducted over six lakh people into Hinduism since 1966.
“Mahatma Gandhi, Savarkar and Swami Dayanand Saraswati had expressed their concern over religious conversion.
Uttar Pradesh DJS head Rajeshwar Singh claimed that those who have been opposing ‘ghar wapsi’ were fearful of Muslims 
Uttar Pradesh DJS head Rajeshwar Singh claimed that those who have been opposing ‘ghar wapsi’ were fearful of Muslims 
“They believed it was poisoning the society. Bringing them back to their original religion means correcting the wrong. 
"It is the appropriate time now to take it up on a bigger scale,” he added.
A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader told Mail Today that they have formed committees in every district of the state for this purpose.
“We have included some Arya Samaj priests in the team because they issue a certificate to a converted person. 
"This is a major document to prove that the converted person agrees to it,” he said.
When asked about the posture of the Modi Government on this issue, he said: “We never ask Modi or any other BJP leader before chalking out our strategy.
“We only expect them to speak for or against us to clarify their stand. But Modi is the Prime Minister.
“So his silence means his approval. It is the right time for us to fulfil our agenda.”
UP minister Azam Khan said: “RSS is behaving like the Taliban. They don’t want the Constitution of India.
“They have their own agenda of finishing humanism.”
Meanwhile, reacting sharply to the DJS statement, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh said: “DJS is a wing of RSS, which had supported Modi and the BJP during the Lok Sabha elections.
“They are now drifting away from the agenda of the NDA.”
He dared the Modi Government to either accept the activities of DJS or “show some guts” and disband it.

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Saturday, 23 May 2015

No job for Muslim MBA? This should come as no surprise in Modi's India

There is shock, horror and outrage in liberal circles over a news report that a Mumbai-based company turned down a Muslim youth for a job because of his religion.
The National Commission for Minorities has ordered an investigation, the Maharashtra Government has promised its own inquiry, and the National Human Rights Commission is being urged to look into the issue. The social media meanwhile, is seething with anger.
"Appalling!" fumed someone on Facebook.
"What has India come to? Another Pakistan?" asked another.
The youth who was denied a job. Ibnlive image
The youth who was denied a job. Ibnlive image
"The company must be reported to the human rights commission," suggested a third.
And a fourth lamented: "They have taken away my pride as a citizen of this country".
Ironically, the only people who are not shocked are Muslims. For they say they had seen such a thing coming. According to historian Saleem Kidwai it is “a logical culmination of the anti-minorities tirade launched during the past one year” .
“The environment in the country has become so poisonous that such things are bound to happen,” he said.
I’m not always on the same page with Kidwai. Far too often he reacts too emotionally to Muslim-related issues. But on this one, he is dead right.
There was a certain inevitability about what happened to Zeeshan Ali Khan, the youth from the “wrong’’ religion. As Kidwai points out something like this was simply waiting to happen thanks to the Sangh Parivar's persistent hate campaign in recent months.
But the campaign alone is not to blame. For, it has been going on for years. What has given it a sudden momentum and legitimacy is the Prime Minister’s curious silence and reluctance to rein in the xenophobes behind the "anti-minorities tirade".
That someone would take this as a cue for a free pass, and do what the Hari Krishna Exports Private Limited did was inevitable.
It saw nothing wrong in saying “no’’ to a Muslim candidate because of his religion. No pussy-footing around the issue, no hedging its bets about the reason why it didn’t want Zeeshan. They just didn't hire Muslims. It was as simple as that. Hang constitutional niceties. And boo to NHRC and the National Commission for Minorities. Who cares for those busybodies? Our Parivar, our prime minister is with us. Isn’t that enough?
Just to recap, this is what happened: On Tuesday, 22-year-old Zeeshan a recent MBA graduate applied for a marketing job along with two of his classmates Mukund Mani and Omkar Bansode. But he was in for a rude shock.
While his two friends were called in for an interview the next day, Zeeshan got an email that read: "Thanks for your application. We regret to inform you that we hire only non-Muslim candidates.”
Zeeshan promptly did what people in such situations these days do: he posted the company's reply on Facebook sparking widespread criticism of the company.
"At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting foreign countries and inviting them for investment and pushing ahead the 'Make in India' campaign, the leading export houses are rejecting candidates for their religion," he said.
His father Mohammad Ali told CNN-IBN: "I ensured that my son got a good education. Never thought we'd be discriminated like this, We have approached police to seek justice against this discrimination."
But, come to think of it, is it really so shocking?
After all, covert discrimination against Muslims in jobs and housing is so commonplace that it is now widely accepted as a fact of life. And here I speak from personal experience. I was lucky on the job front. But I lost count of the number of times I was refused a house because of my religion—and often by some very friendly Hindu landlords, who insisted they had nothing against my being a Muslim. But they didn’t want meat-eaters as tenants.
There is a well-known study by a left-wing researcher who sent identical CVs to several companies, but under different assumed names--some Hindu and some Muslim. And he found that most of the applications which were turned down were the ones which had been sent under Muslim names.
So, discrimination is nothing new.
What has changed, and which many find shocking, in the present case is that the company’s action was so in-your-face. The covert has become overt, and people no longer feel any shame in publicly stating that they don’t hire Muslims.
Following the uproar, Hari Krishna Exports blamed the “mess’’ on a trainee in the HR team.
"It was a blunder and personal mess created by one of our trainees who has no decision making power. We have 61 employees in our office here including one Muslim in the HR team," it said.
A 'trainee’ with powers to hire and fire must be a very powerful trainee indeed. And if such a specie really exists, then the company needs a closer look at its HR structure. But what I found really revealing was its claims that, "we have 61 employees in our office here including one Muslim in the HR team".
One Muslim employee out of 61! That says a lot about its recruitment policy. In a more inclusive society, companies are obliged to make sure that their staff composition reflects the cultural mix of the society in which they operate.
But this is India. Modi’s India.
As I write this, a bakery in Northern Ireland has been ordered to pay $135,000 (£89,000) in damages to a lesbian couple for refusing to make them a same-sex wedding cake.
That’s another extreme. But any day, give me this extreme than the Hari Krishna Exports variety.
Meanwhile, according to a link circulating on FB a company called Induslink Services has advertised for several position “only for male (Muslim) candidates’’. This includes an “Urgent opening For Accounts Executive ... We are looking only for male (Muslim) candidates”.