A week ago, he was virtually unknown. Today, he is famous but is also dead. That is the tragic fate of Bowatte Indarathana Thera, the Buddhist monk who set himself alight near the Dalada Maligawa on Vesak Poya Day and later succumbed to the extensive burn injuries he sustained.
Self-immolation as a form of protest, though seen in India is a novelty in this country. Hence the incident attracted much attention not only for the cause the monk supposedly espoused-the banning of cattle slaughter-but also raised many other worrying questions.
Some of them relate to the chequered past of the monk who has had brushes with law several times in recent years. Others relate to the incident itself and whether it reflects a changing paradigm in religious expression in Sri Lankan society.
Bowatte Indarathana Thera was born K.M. Indika Bandara to a family of five siblings in Balangoda. Thirty years old at the time of his death, a brother predeceased him-he was a soldier who was killed in action in the Eelam war five years ago.
Bandara took to monkhood at the age of nineteen years and resided in temples in Pelmadulla and Kahawatte. There, he developed an interest in politics and was an activist for the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), often advocating causes related to Sinhala nationalism.
Indarathana Thera contested the 2011 local government elections from the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) as a representative of the JHU. He won over 3000 preferential votes and was elected to the Pelmadulla Pradeshiya Sabha.
A few months ago, Indarathana Thera’s membership in the Pelmadulla Pradeshiya Sabha lapsed as he had not attended meetings of the local body for several months without obtaining leave. A few weeks ago, the JHU also notified the Pradeshiya Sabha that the monk was no longer a member of the party.
The circumstances related to these events remain unclear as many maintain a stoic silence in keeping with the Sri Lankan tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. However, there is evidence that the late monk had been implicated in an attack on a mosque, church and the Weeraketiya police station.
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sihala Ravaya organisations have also been linked to these incidents which were a part of the spate of attacks against Muslim and Christian institutions that have become a recent trend. These two organisations have strenuously denied any involvement in these attacks.
There were charges pending against Indarathana Thera for the attack on the Wee-raketiya police station in the Walasmulla Magistrate’s Court. In fact, the court had issued summons on him only a few days prior to his death.
Indarathana Thera, prior to his death made an announcement to a television reporter claiming that his intention was not to commit suicide but to perform a ‘sacrifice’ towards the cause of ceasing cattle slaughter in the country. It is an aspect of this drama that has captured the attention of all concerned.
What is unclear at this stage is whether Indarathana Thera was so passionate about the cause of cattle slaughter that he took it to a fanatical extent in taking his own life over the issue. Certainly there is no convincing evidence to suggest that he was an avid campaigner against cattle slaughter in the past.
Of greater concern is the possibility that the late monk was set up to his actions by other organisations with the expectation that they could then cash in on the emotional wave of public sympathy that would be generated by the monk’s death. However, there is not much evidence to conclude this either.
Both the JHU and the Sihala Ravaya have held media conferences following the monk’s death. They too have endorsed his stance that it was a ‘sacrifice’ and not a ‘suicide’. The distinction is rather academic, since the monk has lost his life but reflects more on the fallout for these parties.
While the JHU appears to have somewhat moderated its stance on radical religious and nationalist issues since becoming a constituent of the ruling UPFA, organisations such as the BBS and the Sihala Ravaya appear to be actively moving in the opposite direction.
Another factor is the mushrooming of organisations such as the BBS, the Sihala Ravaya and the Ravana Balaya-all of them propagating the cause of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and acting apparently unfettered even when they are clearly in breach of the law.
There have been incidents where police inaction at some of the unruly incidents in which these organisations have been implicated has been captured on film. This has led to unsavoury speculation that these organisations may have the tacit support of the authorities.
Also under scrutiny is the role of the media in this entire incident. It has been alleged that the late monk intimated his intentions to a television reporter who then made elaborate arrangements to capture the entire event on film-regardless of the fatal consequences for the monk.
That reporter is now reportedly in custody and having to explain why he took his professional duties more seriously than being a civic conscious citizen and acting to save a person’s life. Whether there were other elements that contributed to the reporter’s actions would also be probed.
Since the monk’s death, there have been a flood of programmes in the electronic media glorifying his death and the cause he purportedly stood for. They may be timely for Vesak but the consequences of such publicity must also be evaluated for it can lead to ‘copycat’ suicides.
The authorities did move in to prevent the monk’s death from being turned into a media circus by interested parties: they resisted attempts to have the monk’s body displayed in Colombo and a court order was obtained to transport it to his native Ratnapura.
Last rites for the late Bowatte Indarathana Thera were held in Poronuwa in the Ratnapura district on Tuesday without any major incidents although Minister John Seneviratne was booed when he spoke. However, questions regarding the circumstances relating to the monk’s death will linger on.
If the nation utilises this incident to examine whether religious extremism of any kind is worth the toll it extracts from society and individuals, the late Bowaththe Indrarathana Thera may have not died in vain, after all.