Colombo, Apr 14 (IANS) The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is now spreading its
tentacles in Sri Lanka, including in areas under the influence of Tamil
Tiger guerrillas who significantly seem to have no objection.

The VHP, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), India's most
influential Hindu group, has already opened about a dozen units across Sri
Lanka in a bid to build up unity among the country's Tamil-speaking Hindu
minority.

The VHP, which also has close links with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says Hindus face the danger of
being assimilated by the increasingly assertive and aggressive church in Sri
Lanka.

"Hindus in Sri Lanka are disintegrated. We are trying to bring them
together," a VHP representative from New Delhi, Swami Vigyananand, told IANS
here at the end of a month-long tour that took him for the first time to
areas in the north controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE).

Vigyananand, 38, dressed in giveaway saffron robes like a wandering monk,
attended the April 10 press conference of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran
as an accredited representative of a VHP publication. Although he has been
to Sri Lanka 10 times since 1999, this was the first time he went to
LTTE-held areas.

But he has been many times to Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Amparai in the
country's east and managed to interact with what he believed were LTTE
members. The LTTE controls part of the eastern province and wields great
influence even in places in the region controlled by Colombo. In
Trincomalee, he said, the VHP had started a Sunday school that teaches
religion and the Hindu way of life.

"I made it clear to them (LTTE) that we have nothing for or against their
struggle," the graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur,
said in an interview. "I said we have a problem with Islam and Christianity
and are trying to build up Hindu unity."

The LTTE, which brooks no independent activity by anyone in the areas it
controls or considers its zone of influence, has allowed the VHP to
propagate its views although the rebel group has many Christians in its
ranks and sections of the Tamil Christian clergy strongly back the rebel
cause.

The LTTE's relations with Muslims have been strained over the past decade,
since the guerrillas ordered an estimated 100,000 Muslims out of northern
Jaffna peninsula in 1990 with nothing more than the clothes they wore. Since
then, thousands of Muslims have been living in refugee camps with no hopes
of returning to Jaffna where they have lived for generations.

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist majority country of nearly 20 million. About 18
percent of Sri Lankans are Hindus and eight percent Muslims. All Buddhists
are Sinhalese and all Hindus Tamils. There are significant numbers of
Christians among both the Sinhalese and Tamils.

Vigyananand said he tried to discuss the Hindu religion with middle-ranking
LTTE officials at Killinochchi where Prabhakaran addressed the press. But
one of them ended the discussion saying the Tamil Tigers believed in
"secularism."

The VHP, he said, was also active among Indian plantation Tamils who are
mostly employed in the tea estates of central Sri Lanka. The group was also
interested in helping Hindus to retain control of an ancient Hindu shrine at
Kataragama in southern Sri Lanka, which he said had come "90 percent" under
Sinhalese-Buddhist influence.

But otherwise Vigyananand, who knows only Hindi and English, seemed to have
no objection to Buddhism and sought to emphasise that Buddhism was also
facing threats from the clergy.

"I advised Buddhist monks to go to villages to spread their religion and to
counter Christianity like we have done in India," he said. "As a religion
nobody is suppressing Hinduism in Sri Lanka. But with the exodus of Tamils
and Christian influence growing, Hindus here face problems."

He also accused the clergy of playing a major role in fuelling the Tamil
separatist conflict that has claimed around 60,000 lives in Sri Lanka since
1983 and blamed it for causing a military showdown between the Tigers and
India in 1987-90.

"The more the conflict rages, the more will be the hardship and poverty
among Tamils. And the clergy will try to convert Hindu Tamils."

Vigyananand was greatly impressed by the de facto Tamil state the LTTE runs
in the north.

"They have put up a parallel administration with their own penal code,
judiciary, banks, police and orphanages," he said. "It is a full-fledged
state. We have a lot to learn from them."