Hashtag Generation

Rising Hindutva Influence: Social Media Divide in Sri Lanka’s North and East

The cultural, social, and political ties between Sri Lanka’s North and Eastern provinces and neighbouring India have remained strong throughout history. However India’s influence has become increasingly evident and undeniable in recent times, particularly as the use of social media has surged in the regions following the three-decade-long armed conflict. 

The impact of Indian influence is so significant that a notable divide exists in the social media content consumed by users in the North and East compared to the rest of the country, particularly in the Sinhala-speaking South. The social media content heavily influenced by India seldom reaches social media circles in the South, while topics discussed in the South rarely capture the interest of audiences in the North and East, as observed by Hashtag Generation through the social media monitoring activity done as part of the project “Get the Trolls Out! Monitoring and Combating Online Hate Speech and Disinformation Campaigns in Sri Lanka”. 

More often than not, while events or elements from Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, have influenced the North and Eastern provinces due to language and geographic proximity, however over the past year, a notable shift has occurred, where a specific national phenomenon in India has managed to influence the North and Eastern provinces, making its presence felt on various social media platforms as well.

As India witnessed a notable surge in Hindu nationalism, commonly referred to as the Hindutva movement, within the country, with the ascent of Narendra Modi to the position of Prime Minister of India in 2014, along with the electoral success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Hashtag Generation observed a rise in similar sentiments in Sri Lanka’s North and East. 

During the three-decade-long conflict, Tamil nationalism often took centre stage, overshadowing the Hindu revivalist campaigns of the 1800s, which had faded into obscurity. However, the resurgence of the Hindutva movement, occasionally characterised as a variant of right-wing extremism in India, has now predictably extended its influence to Sri Lanka. 

Although Sinhalese nationalism has traditionally been more prominent, with pro-Sinhala organizations making their presence felt, over the past year Hashtag Generation has noted the emergence of Hindutva organizations in the North and East. Simultaneously, social media content, pages, and accounts promoting Hinduism, along with expressions of negative and at times extremist sentiments towards other religions, have become increasingly visible in the region, particularly targeting Christian movements on various platforms since 2021.

A user post on a page named “Sri Lanka Hindus” recently explicitly highlighted the Indian influence on these sentiments, proclaiming, “Hindus have risen, and from now on, we anticipate the flourishing of a Hindu empire; India is destined to become a Hindu country.”

Expanding on this trend, November 2021 witnessed a surge in the rejection of Halal meat and anti-Halal campaigns within these groups. While anti-Halal sentiments in Sri Lanka were traditionally led by Sinhala far-right nationalist elements, it was concerning to observe this trend for the first time among a particular section of the Tamil community in the country. Additionally, there was a notable promotion of the Jhatka slaughtering method, commonly used by Sikhs and Hindus.

In October 2023, amid the Israel-Palestine conflict, Sri Lankans aligned themselves with various perspectives. Notably, anti-Christian sentiments within certain groups intensified as Hindu extremist organizations expressed solidarity with Palestine, asserting that Israel and Christians were the actual perpetrators of the conflict.

A month prior, claims of a miracle at a Catholic Church surfaced in Point Pedro in Jaffna, involving the reported shedding of blood from the eyes of a statue of the Virgin Mary. During this incident, the same Hindu extremist elements questioned the authenticity of the claim, demanding testing of the substance. Alongside their scepticism, there was a notable expression of anti-Christian sentiments.

Accusations were also seen being made against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by Anti-Christian and Hindu Extremist groups for promoting Christianity in the North and East at the detriment of Hinduism during the existence of the armed group along with stiff resistance to the construction of a Church in front of a Hindu Kovil in Jaffna. During that period, content accusing Tamil Christians of committing “Cultural Genocide” became prevalent, even for activities as innocuous as distributing pamphlets. They were also criticised for conversions, with such acts being likened to terrorism committed against Tamil Hindus. Notably, several Tamil language pages advocating for the prevention of conversions were also observed during this time.

Posts condemning secular Hindus by these groups were also seen where they were accused of supporting “missionaries and jihadis” in destroying Hindu temples for gains. “As true Hindus, either refrain from supporting Missionary or Jihadi affiliated parties aiming to harm Hindus, or, if professing fake secularism, kindly refrain from visiting our temples for worship.” it read.  

While numerous Hindu extremist accounts and pages remain highly active, resistance to content and sentiments posted by followers appears to be minimal. As Hindutva sentiments gain traction in Sri Lanka’s North and East, the socio-religious landscape is witnessing a dynamic evolution. As the trajectory of this trend unfolds in the coming year, it becomes increasingly clear that there is a need for nuanced discussions and understanding. Communities must navigate through this transformative phase with awareness and open dialogue to address the evolving dynamics and foster a harmonious coexistence.

Hashtag Generation is a movement led and run by a group of tech-savvy and socially conscious youth in the country which mobilises social and new media tools to raise awareness and catalyse dialogue on important social issues in Sri Lanka. 

_Article by : Maneshka Borham_

Maneshka Borham, is a print media journalist based in Colombo. She currently works as a reporter for the Daily Financial Times and focuses mainly on subjects including human rights, defence, leftist politics, development, police and crime.

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