A COVID-19 victim being buried in India: Burial of those who die of COVID-19 is permitted in more than 196 countries
One of the responsibilities of a government towards its citizens is to ensure their physical security from domestic or external threats and protect and promote their human rights, including socio-economic and cultural rights.
The Sri Lankan government is still far from convinced that the burial of the those who die of COVID-19 will not cause any harm to those who are not dead yet and continuing with the policy of forced cremation though there is no scientific basis for its fears.
Citing international practice, the World Health Organisation advisory and scientific proof, Sri Lanka’s Muslims plead that they be allowed to bury those who die of COVID-19, and that they should not be denied their fundamental right to accord a decent burial to their loved ones. But in the government, an influential section is holding on to an unsubstantiated claim that if the burial of COVID-19 victims is allowed the virus could seep through the water table and reemerge in society.
This claim has been given wide publicity in pro-government rags and electronic media which do not seem to give the same space and time to experts who say that no harm is caused to society by the burial of COVID-19 victims. These experts include the world renowned Sri Lankan virologist Malik Peiris and Sri Lanka’s former chief epidemiologist Nihal Abeysinghe.
On Tuesday, Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella was asked about reports that the Sri Lankan President had requested the Maldivian President to explore the possibility of burying in a Maldivian islet Sri Lankan Muslims who die of COVID-19. To this grave issue, his answer was that the Cabinet had not taken such a decision and the government would act only on the advice of an expert committee. But little or nothing is known as to who heads this mystery expert committee, who its members are and what their scientific background is.
Against this backdrop, the government’s Maldivian move may reflect its intention to help the Muslims overcome the burial problem, though it poses logistical hurdles.
"The United Nations Charter recognises the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."
Seeking a foreign nation’s help to solve what could easily be done in Sri Lanka is tantamount to the government shirking its responsibility towards a section of its citizens. It may be an easy way out for a government which is caught in the ultranationalist trap that is preventing it from giving approval for burial, though almost every nation has permitted burial of its COVID-19 victims.
The government appears to be unwilling to yield to a minority community’s demands, fearing that it would have to incur the wrath of the majority Sinhalese who voted overwhelmingly for the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) to come to office. But not all Sinhalese are opposed to the burial of COVID-19 victims. Most of them are rational and will not protest if permission is granted to bury those who die of COVID-19, while adhering to safeguards as recommended by the so-called expert committee.
The Utilitarian political theory calls on a government to work for the greater good of the greater number. The philosophy as propounded by James Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham insists that the government should strive to give happiness and pleasure to as many people under its care as possible. They did not expound crass majoritarianism which only sounds the death knell for democracy. True, a democracy promotes majority rule. In a multiethnic country, the rule by the majority community is in order. But in a democracy, there should still be space for the minorities to express their views and find redress if they have grievances. This is the gist of the saying that the majority can have their way, but the minority must have their say.
A nation state is built on the basis of one overarching national identity. It is the Sri Lankan identity that defines the Sri Lankan multiethnic nation state. But if a government resorts to crass majoritarianism or institutionalise the tyranny of the majority and takes decision as though the country is a mono-ethnic entity, such a government sows the seeds of destruction. This happened in post-independence Sri Lanka with myopic policies aimed at grabbing political power sowing the seeds for the 30-year civil war. The conflict sapped the country’s human and economic resources, thereby denying the nation the progress needed to raise the living standards of all its citizens and emerge as a strong nation.
Is the nation once again moving towards mono-ethnic democracy? Or are the ultranationalists telling the minority Muslims that if they want to bury their dead, it is “over our dead bodies”? If the rights of a section of the citizens are denied, needless to say, it will give excuses to foreign powers to intervene in Sri Lanka’s affairs on the basis or under the guise of the responsibility to protect principle.
Helping this government to come to power was the Viyath Maga group that has brilliant brains. Surely, there has to be among them scholars with sound democratic credentials and those who are committed to promoting human rights. They should be able to help the government to extricate itself from the ultranationalist political trap. Intellectualism and democracy cannot coexist with ultranationalism.
When a government fails to create an environment where the people – or a section of the people -- are assured that their fundamental rights are guaranteed, it will only alienate the affected people. Muslims believe burial is their right to human dignity in accordance with their beliefs.
The United Nations Charter recognises the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
Without a rational basis, denying a section of the people their right to dignity and dignified funerals in accordance with their religious belief could be seen as an act of humiliation and a violation of universally recognised human rights, the UN Charter and several international conventions including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Government is a social contract, which is renewed at every election. The contract vests in the government the responsibility to protect the citizens, guarantee them their fundamental rights and ensure their physical and socio-economic security. In a multiethnic democracy, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase, government is of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.
Lincoln’s statement was underlined when the United States President-elect Joe Biden said in his victory speech last month: “I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify…. I will be a President for all Americans — whether you voted for me or not.”
On page one of Sri Lanka passports, it is stated that “the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.” The request does not add a rider to say, “except Sri Lanka’s minorities”.
Emanant in this statement is the spirit of statesmanship with which the government should find solutions to the burial problem.