The arrest of the General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera on contempt of court charges should send a firm, loud and clear message to all those who wish to use religion as a tool to whip up hatred among communities and that now, no one is above the law.
Hats off to the Homagama Magistrate who has acted without fear or favour in deciding that the monk should be charged with contempt of court after he attemped to disrupt proceedings related to the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda , slandering government officials and the judiciary.
Ever since former minister Mervyn Silva relinquished his role as the maverick of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in the post-war era, Gnanasara Thera took it upon himself to play that cameo. He became the epitome of lawlessness, doing as he pleased, when he pleased, without suffering any consequences.
The BBS was formed in 2012. It used the concept of so-called Sinhala Buddhist supremacy as a vehicle to gain recognition and popularity among the majority community. Coming after a thirty year war, it attracted a reasonable following although its ideology was a thinly veiled version of racism.
Although it launched a series of protests, most of them directed against the Muslim community throughout 2013, it gained notoriety in June 2014, when it was implicated in the anti-Muslim riots at Aluthgama that left four persons dead. The BBS has however denied any direct involvement.
Gnanasara Thera has long been the public face of the BBS. A loud and forceful personality, he has cleverly used the respect that the public has for the monk’s robe to further his cause. This is at the expense of the dignity and decorum that is usually associated with the conduct of a Buddhist monk.
His conduct in public has been unbecoming of a person in the public eye, let alone a Buddhist monk. His verbal outbursts are full of hate speech and vitriolic invective, inviting antipathy and hostility towards other communities. He often urges action against them and at times, he has had a response.
The bigger question is not why Gnanasara Thera was acting in this manner but why he was allowed to. Even as he was spewing out ethnic and religious hatred, challenging both the Buddhist high priests as well as law enforcement authorities, the Rajapaksa regime continued to turn a blind eye to his antics.
There was speculation that Gnanasara Thera and the BBS enjoyed the patronage of the powerful ex- Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It was implied that the monk derived his brazen impunity based on the strength of this relationship but Rajapaksa has denied any direct link with the BBS.
After the events at Aluthgama, there were many calls for Gnanasara Thera to be dealt with according to the law but that did not happen. With one eye on elections, Rajapaksa did not want to be cast in the role of persecutor of this self-proclaimed hero of the majority community. That was a mistake.
Rajapaksa lost the election because the actions of Gnanasara Thera and other like-minded fringe groups drove the minorities away from him. Moreover, moderates in the majority community also baulked at the prospect of racial hatred raising its ugly head again and voted against him en masse.
Now, Gnanasara Thera is in the dock. He does deserve the presumption of innocence until he is proven guilty but in the days to come, there will undoubtedly be a lot of pressure to deal with him softly. It is also likely that politicians will get on the ‘Release Gnanasara’ bandwagon to achieve their own ends.
We hope sanity and the rule of law will prevail ultimately. One of the key issues promised by this government was that all citizens will be treated equally and that is what Gnanasara Thera deserves; no more, no less.