I happened to be in Colombo the day figurines of Lord Ganesha guzzled milk across the world, a spectacle that Hindu rationalists likened to a mass hysteria and believers saw as a divine miracle.
I joined a serpentine queue at the Hindu temple in predominantly Buddhist Colombo that was apparently managed by devotees of the Afro-coiffured Sai Baba. There was no statue of Ganesha in the temple, so the job of ingesting gallons of milk was farmed out to the figurines of Nandi, the bull, and Lord Shiva himself.
I looked hard for the capillary effect by which stone idols could drink buckets of milk but failed to follow the science of it. On the sidewall at the back of the temple, a Hindu priest was showing off the magic of ash sprayed mysteriously on Sai Baba’s beaming photo. That was some time in September 1995. There was no Internet, leave alone WhatsApp but the rumours of the milk miracle had spread far and wide like wildfire.
It was also around the time when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was falling prey to age, and her toes were turning inwards, impeding her ability to walk. Her son recommended she visit the Sai Baba in India’s Puttaparthi, the same saffron-clad guru that cricketer Zaheer Abbas went to with Sunil Gavaskar to receive some kind of unexplained boon. The Baba blew prayers into Bandaranaike’s ear and she flew home with the assurance that soon she would walk. No such thing happened, and she died a physically challenged former legend. Her supporters were incensed that a Buddhist leader fell for a tantric’s fib.
Let me explain why this memory has stalked me since the horrific Easter massacre of Sri Lanka’s Christians by a hitherto little known Muslim extremist group. Sri Lanka is a bastion of syncretic multiculturalism and its democracy in some ways has been more durable than India’s or any other neighbour’s. But its path has been layered with the fratricidal blood of its religious and ethnic communities. This was not how it was to be, but how it turned out, not without generous help from its neighbours, who were no better than Job’s comforters, aggravating the agony of a people they claimed to help.
Sri Lanka became a close friend of China with the Bandung Conference and remained close to Beijing despite being a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Ms Bandaranaike spoke with relish about her friendship with Zhou Enlai and Marshal Tito while her living room displayed a lively picture of Nehru hoisting one of her daughters in the air.
When leftist extremists of a Sinhalese chauvinist movement threatened to topple her government in the 1970s, she rang up her friend “Indu”, telling the Indian Prime Minister that she was planning to resign. Indira Gandhi said nothing doing. She sent military help to quell the insurgency, and saved the day for Sri Lanka’s democracy.
That was not the only agreeable link between the two countries. The evocative Sri Lankan national anthem Namo namo mata is rooted in Rabindra Sangeet. The island’s star filmmaker Tissa Abeysekera once told me that the Sinhala lines may have been adapted from a Tagore poem in Bengali.
Tagore’s idea of free-spirited, open-minded human bonding traversing national boundaries — affirmed by his poems becoming the anthems of India and Bangladesh — was to face its major challenge in Sri Lanka during the Cold War and also with its end.
It may be asked how it became possible for the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to bond with Sri Lanka’s Buddhist radical Bodu Bal Sena (Buddhist power force). The answer lies partly in the disputed historiography of an Aryan connection between the Brahmin-led RSS and Buddhist monks of BBS. Both are anti-Christian and anti-Muslim. But that would be too linear an explanation for the alliance.
The bigger crisis hovering over Sri Lanka comes from a pattern of disasters that emerged in the Middle East. It whipped up religious and ethnic tensions, which reduced a secular PLO into a religious Hamas. It destroyed the most multicultural and secular states in the Arab world in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and before that Lebanon and Algeria, and replaced them with religious and ethnic bloodshed. India is not immune to the menace, but the threat need not come to secular democracies from Muslim zealots alone.
The murderous assault on Sri Lanka could be a larger plan to tear apart the land of serendipity into a mockery of its predominantly secular history. Suppose the Muslim bombers were the cat’s paws for a larger menace hovering over South Asia. It can come in the form of Muslim zealotry, of course. But it can come as a Buddhist or Christian backlash just as it stalks India in the form of Hindutva’s fascist creed.
Look at the unlikely allies in a common cause. Christian extremists target Jews in their synagogues in the United States. And they target Muslims too. Jewish Israel and Muslim Saudis have helped destroy the Christian-Muslim bonding of Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Hindu extremists are courting Buddhist extremists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka while befriending the Saudi elite, whose narrow ideas may have inspired the bombers of Sri Lankan churches.
The malaise stalking Sri Lanka is global. An Israeli minister praised Donald Trump’s election strategist Steve Bannon for his anti-Iran stance, but right-wing Jews remembered Bannon as a patron of anti-Semitic white supremacists in Europe and America.
However, Bannon has shown how it is possible to be a white supremacist and an ally of right-wing Jews, and how right-wing Jews and Muslim extremists can bond. Just as obscurantism can forge an alliance between Buddhist monks and Hindu priests. They say one way Bannon can rescue Western capitalism from its mortal crisis is by destroying democracies in Europe and elsewhere. That’s the fallout that Sri Lanka faces as do India and others in the neighbourhood.