Riot in Sri Lankan aisles - Deteriorating culture, heightened nationalism or ugly politics?

Sri Lankan police escort Pakistan players to safety as play is brought to a halt for violence in the stands during the recent series

For a nation that has been hit by war, riots and violence, armed men invariably elicit only one feeling. 6 years ago, we had an armed man every 10 meters. Cities were garrisoned with sentry points and check points. In short, Sri Lankans were mere prisoners of war.

In the six years since 2009, Sri Lankans have almost forgotten that there was a war that had clambered onto the shoulders of its people. Life was suddenly peaceful, travels were idyllic, kites instead of war planes were in the sky and streets that once had bombs detonating regularly had middle stumps cartwheeling.

Be that as it may, cricket in Sri Lanka was given a special place, during and after the war. Legend has it that the LTTE insurgents announced a month of ceasefire to allow the cricket fandom to enjoy a terror free World Cup in 2007. The clobbering of the Lankan bowlers in the final had LTTE’s chieftains lose patience as their light crafts hovered over Colombo trying to let go off their frustration of a World Cup final defeat.

Throughout many pogroms, explosions, dismembered body parts and ethnic slurs, the cricket fans of Sri Lanka earned themselves a reputation of being fun-loving, piss-taking, cricket crazy individuals. The island was a place in South Asia where cricketers had a life of normalcy, defeats had no strong repercussions and World Cup final defeats were as casual as corruption within public service commissions.

Come what may, a nation that prided itself on its behavior amidst the inconsistency of its cricket team, had its heritage brought down to its knees and was made to grovel apologetically on the 19th of July, 2015.

The cricket ground which had acted as a buffer throughout the conflict-laden epoch, on that day, had armed special task forces mobilize themselves when mobs launched a wanton ambush on the most premiere sporting venue in Sri Lanka. Watching the armed men, Lankans could not help but have memories of the past coming back to haunt.

The riot as it happened

There were hearsays about a fight between two spectator mobs an hour before the play was suspended due to “abandon of caution”. There was a brawl between two drunk mobs – both Sri Lankan but one that supported Pakistan and the other rooting for the home side, in one of the eastern stands.

The police acted early and cleared the lower tier of the stand. But soon rocks were started to be hurled from outside the stadium aimed at the south eastern stand. The rocky missiles cascaded down the terraces of the stand and through the alleyway between the two eastern stands.

A car with its windscreen damaged, pictured in the aftermath of the violence

Even though the popular conviction was that the crowd had heaved stones at Pakistani players, the secretary of Sri Lanka cricket confirmed that not even a single rock crossed the boundary ropes. Play was abandoned when rocks started falling inside the ground, outside the boundary rope.

The entire eastern stand was cleared and play resumed. Outside the stadium though, the scene was gory. Mobs and goons gathered around the stadium and were seen attacking both the stadium and the spectators. It was a scene of war.

There were reports from witnesses that the mosque that was abreast the south eastern stand also came under attack. The police had no control over the violence outside the stadium as the windscreens of most cars became victims of stones.

Footage of the incident (viewer discretion advised):


What caused the riot is not yet clear. The only credible claim from the many purported, self-processed theories was that it initiated from a drunken altercation between two Sri Lankan fan groups. There is a propensity among Sri Lankan Muslims to support Pakistan and this probably spurred the other Sri Lankans to resort to violence, which paved the way for the eventual mayhem.

Result of deteriorating cricket watching culture?

The culture of cricket fans in Colombo has seen a gradual decline over the past few years, especially in the lower tiers of block C and D. The very cheap ticket prices, roughly around a couple of dollars, makes it easy for anyone to enter the stadium.

Let me reserve from making any malicious associations between crime and financial status, since the mastermind of this incident seems to be belonging to the higher strata, but there is no denying the fact that the grand stadium is located in an area that is notorious for underground thugs and political stooges. Maligawatte, where the stadium is located is replete with junkies, underworld drug dealers and goons.

The fact that Premadasa never found itself in the middle of a controversy hitherto can only be attributed to plain luck. Hence, the lower tiers of both block C and D are generally occupied by these reprobates who smoke and booze at will.

Although, liquor has received heavy flak for being the cause for the incident, anyone who has seen a bar brawl would know that liquor is just a pretext for a fight. Alcohol does not cause trouble. Instead, trouble makers resort to alcohol to get rid of their inhibitions to make their emotions plain.

Boozing is a part of Sri Lankan cricket culture. Beer cups can be seen in plenty within the stadium as many as the placards that read 4 and 6. A stadium that has had people tanking up for a very long time should have seen ugly brawls of this sort before. But it never did until this incident came to pass.

Even though smoking is banned in public in Sri Lanka, it is a regular activity in the C and D stand. Smoking can never result in wars, yet, such activities cause malaise to non-smokers. The fact that authorities must take actions to stop such activities cannot be denied.

Police should make sure that the tranquil fans can watch the action in a state of peace in the two eastern stands. Police, to be honest has performed their duty meticulously during games. Many turn their back on the intriguing games so as to keep a constant watch on the spectators. Many a times I have been awed by their ability to rein in emotions and suppress the cricket fan within them to proceed with their duty.

During this incident too, the police acted promptly to evict the perpetrators. But trouble came from outside the stadium, over which they had no control.

However, police should consider increasing its man force in the eastern stands. Sri Lanka is a rare cricketing venue where you find equal share of female fans as male fans, but they have every right to feel insecure among the renegades who occupy the stands. There was an incident in December 2014 when a foreign female fan was separated from her boyfriend and allegedly molested by a crowd.

It could have very well been a one off incident. The kind of people who usually occupy those stands are very much capable of committing such crimes.

Whether or not women are constantly harassed in the stadium is beyond my knowledge. I have never heard anyone complain, so let me pretend that what happened then was one of its kind. But, the authorities must make sure that everyone in the stadium feels secure and that the boorish thugs don't go amok spoiling the fun of many.

Did frustration result in this?

Contrary to what the international media reported, the crowd didn't react violently towards the players. Even though stones were thrown, they were not aimed at the players nor did any of them cross the boundary ropes.

Had the fans wanted to stone oppositions for a superior performance, the West Indians would have been rocked 3 years ago when they made the home team surrender meekly to force them to face a fourth successive World Cup final defeat. Instead, the crowd rejoiced dancing to the gangnam style of the flamboyant West Indians.

Even during the concerned match, the crowd was seen cheering the late innings onslaught of the Pakistani batsmen. In fact, the crowd themselves came under attack and became unappreciative recipients of stones and rocks.

The confused nationalism of supporting sports teams

Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims are notorious for aligning with India and Pakistan respectively when it comes to cricket. Even though the majority hate such defectors, never have they resorted to violence. Games against Pakistan have seen plenty of Sri Lankan born Pakistan supporters, but stadiums have been peaceful. Why nationalistic sentiments are being aroused at a time when the general election is around the corner leads to eerie, enigmatic answers.

Love for a team stems from emotional attachment. Intellectual decisions can make you admire a team but can never inveigle you to celebrate it. Should we watch a sport for intellectual pleasure, then inside-edged fours will not be cheered and dropped catches won't be celebrated.

A person's love for a team cannot be changed, provided that he/she is not a glory hunter. Identifying yourself with a team is more like friendship. It does not happen with volition. You fall in love incongruously, that after sometime it becomes incorrigible. Hence, loathing someone for his preference for a different team can never be accepted.

At the same time, if these rebellious fans are going to cultivate hatred towards the home team, then it is as bad as resorting to violence for supporting the oppositions. A considerable amount of Tamils in Sri Lanka celebrate Sri Lanka's defeat as much as India's victories.

It is natural for the majority to treat minorities as second class citizens. It remains the same even in two of the largest democratic countries. When these minorities align themselves with another team, it only furthers the distance between them and the majority. When they are not ready to identify themselves with their own country, then they cannot expect acceptance from the majority. Yes, it's just a sport and not a war. But let's be frank, sports has far reaching effects than war at times.

A man belonging to the majority rooting for oppositions would not be frowned upon at least not as much as a man belonging to a minority group. But when a man who does not follow the same religion as the majority, or does not speak the same language as the majority begs to differ, it is not too difficult to be heckled for sedition.

A group of Kashmiri students were suspended from their university and charged with sedition when they cheered for Pakistan in 2014. Had they been from any other part of India and had they supported a team other than Pakistan, it would have led to exasperation but definitely not to a sedition charge. Culture changes, religion differs, ideologies vary, yet we still confuse allegiance in sports with nationalism.

A warning board against racism outside Galle International Cricket Stadium

Democracy insists that people be given the right to express themselves. There should be no place for racism inside a cricket stadium. However, my two cents on this perennially sensitive argument is that people should have the right to hate someone who supports a country other than that of his own, just as how the ‘nonconformists’ have the right to support a team of their choice.

It should be like any other normal hatred that is seen with every sporting contest. Much like the hatred two best friends would have on each other as one supports Roger Federer and the other Rafael Nadal. None of it will have any nationalistic significance but that hatred will be extant. But never should this hatred cross its limit and transgress into racism and political jingoism. Sri Lankans have had this hatred for a very long time, but this was for the time that they resorted to violence.

Sri Lankans generally support Pakistan. During India vs Pakistan matches the island invariably backs the neighbor of its immediate neighbor. But when a Muslim supports Pakistan, it is given significant meanings.

This arises from anti-Muslim sentiments that were instilled in post-war Sri Lanka. The previous regime, to brush the economic woes the country was in under the carpet, incited nationalistic sentiments among the majority population of the Sinhalese people which eventually lead to chauvinistic jingoism that culminated in politically jockeyed ethnic riots in Aluthgama and Beruwala – towns with a Muslim majority – through its political henchman – Bodu Balasena. Mosques were regularly attacked and the nationalistic egos that were sprayed upon Tamils in the past, were now shot at the Moors.

The fallen government succeeded in its malicious attempt. People stopped speaking about the economic recession and started to ponder about yet another ethnic crisis. The former President who headed the racist regime is still trying to entice people into his nationalistic ideologies – something that flattered to deceive in the presidential election that ultimately kicked him off incumbency earlier this year.

While the educated, rationalist citizens are more worried about economic development and creating a drug-free island, nationalist elements are still ravenously active in crowning the erstwhile President, whom they consider as the undisputed ‘king’ of Sinhala Buddhists.

The riot in Premadasa also stems from such nationalistic sentiments. Tamils support India, and this has resulted in turmoil outside cricketing quarters. When a group of Sinhalese celebrated Sri Lanka’s victory in the semifinal of the 2011 World Cup in one of the state universities in the Tamil dominant region, they were intercepted and attacked by a mob of Tamils.

Yet, no such thing has happened before inside a cricketing venue. The fact that Tamils have not been attacked inside stadiums for their allegiance to India but Muslims were attacked for rooting for Pakistan states the obvious. Tamils supporting India and Muslims supporting Pakistan can both be considered as acts of sedition. But why should only Muslims be victimized? That’s because anti-Muslim sentiments are being been fuelled and made to rush through the veins of nationalist morons.

The ugly politics that could have been behind the riots

A political advertisement displayed on the giant screen during a cricket match

A possible political ploy cannot be completely shirked either. The former President, who is now in the run for the post of Prime Minister in the general elections, is notorious for using cricket as a tool for his propaganda. During the run-up to the Presidential election on the 8th of January, 2015, he deployed Tilakaratne Dilshan, Thisara Perera and Jeevan Mendis – all of whom were part of the World Cup squad – to campaign for him.

His political slogans and posters found their way even to the giant screens of various cricket stadiums during the ODI series between Sri Lanka and England. Political stooges of him carrying the portrait of the then president encroached cricket stadiums and were seen cheering for him during cricket matches.

So there is a strong possibility that this riot could have been his brainchild. Or, to lay sensational claims aside, there is a strong possibility he would not have been very displeased with it.

The former President, during the interlude between the defeat and his eventual re-entry into politics, kept insisting that the country and its culture were being vandalized by the present government. As to how they were vandalized was something that he failed to address. Furthermore, he proclaimed that the pro-west government was having detrimental effect on the Sinhalese culture and was succumbing to the demands of the minorities, thus jeopardizing the island’s claim as a Sinhala Buddhist nation.

A fan protesting against displaying political ads on the big screen

A protest by people of Jaffna, a city in the north of Sri Lanka, against the brutal rape and murder of a school girl was misinterpreted as the resurgence of the Tamil insurgents and the pro-nationalist claimed that nothing of that sort could have happened during the former President’s reign. Even after the Premadasa incident, there were comments in the social media, that the erstwhile President had the Muslims under his control, and it is his departure that has resulted in Muslims freely expressing themselves.

A Facebook page that is used for his propaganda recently published a video of a discussion among police officers and fans after the incident conversing as to how this would not have happened under him.

TM Dilshan during his campaign for the former president

As is asked in the aftermath of any riot, how did such a gargantuan number of people gather so soon to launch an attack on the stadium? From where did so many rocks and stones make it to the vicinity of the stadium?

If it had been promptly executed, then, let me tell you, those rogues are good enough to take charge of a shotgun marriage. From nowhere the reprobates mobilized themselves and were seen chucking stones as if there was a quarry nearby. Was the former President attempting to orchestrate an election victory for himself by funding the mobs to cause ethnic disharmony, so that he can reinstate his self-professed position as the only ‘king’ capable of uniting Lanka?

A portrait of the former president seized by the police during the ODI match between Sri Lanka and England, 2014.

The riot had nothing to do with cricket or cricket fans. The extremist elements in the country chose cricket as the tool to let loose their barbarism to disrupt peace, so as to find enough whys and wherefores to claim that the current government has failed.

Whatsoever, optimists can argue that the extremists have chosen the wrong gismo. Sri Lankans have zero tolerance towards anything that decimates their cricketing culture, as the apologies to Pakistan after the unfortunate incident suggest. This might very well be their undoing. This will only show the islanders the perils of extravagant nationalism.

The Pakistani fans have been very understanding of the situation and they played their part really well in mitigating the incident. Cricket, time and time again has established itself as the ultimate panacea that heals all social evils. Sri Lanka may not see an incident of that sort ever again. But it has left a black mark over a completely impeccable history.

Going to Premadasa won’t be the same at least for some time. It will take time but this culmination point of nationalism may make the Lankans realize the futility of it and cajole them to look into the need for ethnic harmony. Cricket, as is the case with most things in the island, may very well be the inceptor of this mission.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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