Sri Lanka, as a nation has been wasting time debating sensitive racial and religious issues for the past several years, without gaining anything. Only thing the country has been witnessing as a result is communities distancing themselves from each other, while portraying a false unity among them.
The situation seems to have come to a head with people of various communities being emotionally charged over these issues subsequent to the attacks on three Christian churches and three major tourist hotels by the Islamic terrorists on April 21, 2019, which was also the Easter Sunday.
The terrorist attacks which caught the nation off-guard demanded united action by all communities and political parties to handle the immediate situation and to prevent future recurrence of such barbaric acts, but what really occurred thereafter was something totally unacceptable.
The whole issue was politicized with political parties and their supporters vying to get mileage from the carnage. Media outlets used the situation to rouse communalism, according to their respective political affiliations. Communal forces were seen in full swing in sowing hatred among the masses.
Everybody has since been attempting to identify or tie up all his/her adversaries – political or otherwise - with the perpetrators of the disaster. The immediate upshot was that while the real victim community was waiting to be meted out justice by the authorities for the losses they suffered in terms of lives and limbs, two other communities started to fight over various issues.
The then Trade Minister Rishard Bathiudeen and two provincial governors, Azath Salley and M. L. M. A. Hisbullah were accused of being behind the carnage. However, they are still at large with even the former having received the clean sheet from the top most official of the police. Even the Parliamentary Select Committee and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the terrorist attacks had exonerated them. (Sally was arrested on Tuesday for openly challenging the country’s law, despite him being later said to be questioned in connection with the terrorist attacks).
The debate then turned towards Madrasas - the Muslim religious schools, and Quazi courts, the courts that have been established by the Judicial Service Commission under the Muslim Personal Law in Sri Lanka. Then a Sinhala newspaper reported that 4000 Sinhalese women had been sterilized by a Muslim doctor called Shafi Shihabdeen, diverting the attention of the country from the terrorist attack. However, with the two main candidates of the Presidential election vying for the minority votes, all these and the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks were forgotten by October 2019.
Four months after the ascension of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President, the COVID-19 entered the country creating another dispute over the disposal of dead bodies of pandemic victims. It was the subject matter for the media and the politicians for a year, with politicians rekindling it whenever its tempo was subsiding. Twice President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa instructed the officials to find a dry land for burial of cadavers of COVID- 19 victims which provoked protests interestingly by pro-government elements.
Yet, nobody protested when the government had to give up its hardline on the issue, against the backdrop of the UNHRC sessions where some tough measures were proposed against selected authorities in the country over alleged human rights violations. Nevertheless, as if government wanted the debate to be dragged on the authorities first decided to bury the bodies in Iranaithivu, an island 20 km off the mainland in the Kilinochchi District, before they were sent to Ottamavadi.
In the meantime, another controversy was about to be opened with the Prime Minister submitting in September last year, a proposal to ban cattle slaughter to the Cabinet. However, it only provoked few demonstrations and “voice cuts” in favour of the government and the Cabinet decision vanished into thin air. It was later revealed that the decision had been taken while the South Asia’s largest meat processing factory was being built in Katunayake Investment Promotion Zone. The factory was opened on December 12.
As if the tension between the Sinhalese and the Muslims did not suffice, government ministers wanted to abolish the provincial council system that was introduced under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Subsequent to the issue cropping up during the ongoing UNHRC session, now the government is to hold the provincial council elections soon, despite there being legal issues to be sorted out before calling nominations for the elections.
Then came the report compiled by the Presidential Commission that probed the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. It too contributed to the heightening of communal tension rather than to a healthy debate on how to mete out justice to the victims of the carnage and how to prevent recurrence of such terrorist attacks.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 12 issued an extraordinary gazette (2218/68) under the highly controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for “De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology.” The gazette, despite it having not literally aimed at arrest of extremism among Muslims in this country is nothing but a move to control the activities of Muslims that might be harmful to the society. Also it seems to have stemmed from the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the terrorist attacks on the Easter Sunday in 2019.
Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara on last Friday said that he had signed a Cabinet paper to ban unregistered Madrasas, the Islamic religious schools and Burqa a face veil worn by some Muslim women. However, again the government said it will decide on Burqa after consulting relevant stakeholders. The backtracking seems to be a result of two tweets by the Pakistani High Commissioner Saad Khattak and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ahmad Shaheed, expressing their displeasure over the proposed ban.
Despite the possibility of the gazette on “De-radicalization” and the Burqa ban too falling into the category of maintaining the communal heat, a healthy and constructive debate on the purpose of them is essential. Whatever the modalities of implementation proposed by the gazette are, one cannot contest the purpose of it which prescribes rehabilitation of those indoctrinated with violent extremist ideologies.
There is no assurance that all those brainwashed by the extremists who killed 269 people on the Easter Sunday two years ago, have been put behind bars or at least identified. Former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who was also a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee that probed the Easter Sunday carnage, citing CID officials say that hundreds of those who had been indoctrinated by Zahran Hashim’s National Thawheed Jama’ath (NTJ) must be at large. Whatever the number may be, it is acceptable that a killer ideology would not vanish overnight just because the apparent major players have been killed or arrested.
It was revealed during the investigations that the terrorists had first targeted the Kandy Esala Perahera and the police after the attacks on churches and hotels had announced that they were planning to attack what are known as “Hubbu Mosques,” the mosques with the graves of Islamic saints. Therefore no community could be assured of their safety unless the killer ideology is arrested.
However, the gazette gives the responsibility of identifying the radicals to the police. And there wouldn’t be trial by the courts of law either. With regard to the radicalization among Muslims, are the police competent enough to ideologically differentiate the radicals and the ordinary Muslims to weed out the former, without being influenced by the various media hypes and politicians?
In fact, face veil is a controversial issue among Muslims as well. The point expressed by the Pakistan and the UN was that the ban would marginalize a community. But, on the other hand, the people concerned have to accept the fact that the face veils such as Burqa and Niqab are counterproductive in terms of integration of various communities.
However, the country must dedicate its time and energy mainly for a fruitful debate on economic and social development, rather than wasting time on communal issues that are detrimental to the social progress and useful only to power-hungry politicians.