The Sri Lankan people are no strangers to terrorist violence. They went through the trauma of a twenty-five year-long brutal civil war which ended only a decade ago. It is, therefore, not a remote memory. Yet, they have been shaken by the scale and devastation of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks and are groping for answers to several difficult questions.
The Sri Lankan authorities have accused the National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ) for targeting churches and hotels leading to, as of now, 359 deaths. They say that there were nine bombers in all who blew themselves along with explosives. The NTJ is an extreme radical group whose leader was posting inflammatory videos online leading some youth in the Sri Lankan Muslim community away from their traditional mazhabs.
At least one Muslim community leader told an international media outlet that he had warned the authorities that the group which had begun attacking Sufi mosques and shrines was ‘brainwashing people’. If these general warnings went unheeded the specific inputs reportedly provided by Indian intelligence agencies about threats on Easter Sunday against hotels and churches were obviously not taken seriously enough for they were not acted upon.
It would not be sufficient for the Sri Lankan political leadership which is at odds with itself to pass all the blame to the professional bureaucracy and dismiss some senior officials. They have to accept blame themselves. They cannot escape responsibility by asserting that they were kept in the dark. In any event they have to ensure that all aspects of these attacks are fully investigated.
It is vital for Sri Lanka as well as the region, especially India, to know if these bombings were the independent handiwork of NTJ or if the group had actual assistance, not merely inspiration, from the Daesh which has claimed responsibility for these dastardly deeds.
It is not unnatural for some to wonder if these terrorist attacks are a retaliation for Brenton Tarrant’s mosque attacks in New Zealand in March. This is especially because while the Sri Lankan Muslim community has faced occasional violence at the hands of Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups as in 2014 and 2018 there has been no history of Muslim-Christian clashes or violence in Sri Lanka. Both are minorities in the country which have faced the heavy hand of the Sinhala majority at times. Why then were churches attacked on one of Christianity’s holiest days?
Hasty conclusions have to be avoided in unravelling the full details of these terrible terrorist attacks. Understanding Tarrant’s shooting spree which was the product of his self-proclaimed vile and twisted racial and religious thinking was not difficult. This case is different for there is general information regarding the NTJ and the venom that its leaders were spreading. However, the transition from thought to action is a complex process which in cases like these bombings requires infrastructure and organisation. Where did all of this come from? It is vitally important for the entire region to learn this.
There is a widespread and general understanding that random or targeted violence which may be accompanied with the objective of frightening people is terrorist in nature and cannot be allowed in any civilised world order. However, these bombings, once again, underline the need for the international community to come together to firmly arrive at a common understanding on what constitutes terrorism. That may enhance international co-operation on this issue. The problem is that individual or groups of countries remain focussed only on those groups that directly impact them. Often, also, political or diplomatic considerations impede their cooperation on terrorism.
International cooperation against terrorism is vital because modern technology has enhanced the reach of the preachers of hate and violence. In our age of instant communications and ever increasing social media platforms it is almost impossible to monitor leave alone police the cyber world. Besides there are valid considerations in many polities relating to the maintenance of freedom of expression. Yet it is essential for intelligence agencies and police organisations to effectively co-operate to combat terrorism.
Scientific and technological advance in the digital age offers the promise of liberating humankind from poverty and want. However, the speed of change is dislocating for human nature remains almost constant.
In the introduction to his legal memoirs ‘The days I remember’ Kailas Nath Katju wrote of the changes that had taken place in the first half of the twentieth century.
He noted “…apart from wars, technological developments and inventions were changing the entire social, economic and political structure of society. The conquest of the air was complete and the atomic age was in sight; yet as I look back, the stupendous developments have not appreciably affected the working of the mind of man.
Human nature probably remains very much as it was, ten thousand years ago. The same elemental emotions and passions rule mankind everywhere and in all ages”.
If the changes in the first half of the last century were “stupendous” those taking place now are mind-boggling. Old personal and social anchors are getting lost while new ones have not been forged.
The vacuum is being filled in some cases by negativism and even despair. Violent interpretations of ancient codes are pushing at values that stressed peace for all creation and life. Narrow segmented thinking is preventing the growth of universal values.
Only fresh thinking will curb “elemental emotions and passions”. That is needed to root out terrorism and adjust humankind to the demands of the digital age. But where is the wisdom to guide its path?