As far as GR and MR are concerned they cannot afford to antagonise the monkish mavericks and their larrikin supporters who are demonstrably Islamophobic, and have the capacity to make inroads into the Sinhala Buddhist vote bank. At the same time, sections of the Sinhala mainstream and social media are relentless in spreading anti-Muslim hatred
“The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But because of the silence of good people” – Napoleon Bonaparte
The issue of burying or cremating Muslims who died of COVID-19 has created terrible consternation and feeling of bitterness within the Muslim community both inside and outside Sri Lanka. This is understandable, because rules of Islam prohibit cremation except under extreme circumstances such as when dead bodies threaten to spread a deadly infection through the buried. So far there is absolutely no evidence for such occurrence in the case of death through COVID-19.
Yet, in Buddhist Sri Lanka, based on a spurious below-ground water level argument advanced by an establishment epidemiologist, the GR-MR duumvirate is hell bent on cremating Muslim bodies, come what may. Underlying this resolve however, is a Buddhist supremacist agenda to enforce the principle of ‘one-country-one-law’, about which more to be said later.
Meanwhile, a series of complaints, concerns and protests from local Muslim journalists and academics, Muslim parliamentarians, the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema, and more importantly, from peace loving non-Muslim activists and civil right groups have fallen on rulers’ deaf ears.
Internationally, WHO has appealed to all governments to respect the respective religious and cultural rites of those died of coronavirus. Finally, the United Nations Rapporteur has also intervened and written to President GR reminding him of the same. In spite of all this, there is an arrogant grandstanding from the President and his Prime Minister. They will not budge because, from the regime’s point of view, cremating dead Muslims is a vote-worthy exercise, which is vital to win the forthcoming General Elections with two-third majority.
To understand the obstinacy of the two leaders, one has to go back and review the events that shaped the 2019 Presidential Election and GR’s victory. True, the Yahapalana regime was so unpopular and discredited that GR would have easily crossed the bar. However, with too many candidates on the run and the two ethnic minorities were not supporting GR, opinion makers and political pundits were betting on a result that would depend crucially on preference votes, which could have tilted the odds in favour of SP.
It was this fear that made Buddhist supremacists to work overtime, and canvass among the Sinhala voters to convince them of a hidden threat from Muslims. The 2019 April Easter massacre by Jihadists was manna from heaven to the hate campaigners. GR won as a result with a clear majority, and became eternally beholden to the agenda of supremacists.
During that campaign a number of allegations, which are yet to be proved, raised against Muslim politicians and Muslim professionals by a few malevolent Buddhist monks, notably by Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera of JHU and his firebrand colleague Ven. Atthe Gnanasara Thera of BBS, were actually aimed at whipping up hatred against Muslims among Buddhist voters.
Rathana Thera’s highly publicised drama of a fast unto death at the holy precincts of Maligawa was especially designed to provoke that hatred, which resulted in the wholesale resignation of Muslim Governors, ministers and deputies. He also relentlessly campaigned for the takeover by Government of the so-called Sharia University, which is now a quarantine centre for COVID-19 victims.
He finally concluded his 2015-2019 parliamentary term by introducing a Private Member Bill for the abolition of the controversial Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. In addressing the House on that bill Rathana Thera raised the idea of one-country-one-law, although he did not specify which matrimonial and divorce law that he preferred. Needless to say, it is that idea of legal homogenisation proposed by Rathana Thera, which is currently reverberating along the corridors of power regarding Muslim cremation.
Even before GR dissolved Parliament in March, and the Election Commissioner set the date for an election, the two monkish rabble rousers were nagging the duumvirate that their allegations against Muslim leaders and a Muslim gynaecologist had not been investigated, while another supremacist monk warned GR and MR that if the monks could send them to power they could also bring them down.
To make matters worse for the rulers, Rathana and Gnanasara decided to form an independent political party, Ape Jana Balaya Pakshaya (AJBP), with the support of an estimated 800 monks backed by big capital.
It is public knowledge that Gnanasara’s BBS is totally anti-Muslim in its policies and actions, and is even said to be commanding foreign support. Didn’t he say that he wanted to ‘mould’ the Muslim mind to cleanse it of fundamentalism? Although the candidacies of Gnanansara and another from AJBP have been rejected by the Election Commissioner, one is not sure about the future role of AJBP in the election campaign. In the meantime, the Government’s tough stand on the issue of Muslim cremation will certainly be music to AJBP and would appease its members.
As far as GR and MR are concerned they cannot afford to antagonise the monkish mavericks and their larrikin supporters who are demonstrably Islamophobic, and have the capacity to make inroads into the Sinhala Buddhist vote bank. At the same time, sections of the Sinhala mainstream and social media are relentless in spreading anti-Muslim hatred.
This premeditated and generously funded hate campaign unleashed by a combination of media magnates, clergy and politicians against an entire community, and making it the scape goat not only for coronavirus spread but also other social evils is, a dangerous game played under the watchful eyes of GR and MR. Their refusal to intervene and stop it, and rescind the decision on Muslim cremation, amid opposition from several quarters, speaks volumes about their hidden political agenda.
In the middle of all this, it appears that the regime has conveniently forgotten one important episode after the Jihadists’ Easter infamy, when the Muslim community in a rare instance of unity refused to perform its religiously obligated burial rites on the dead bodies of those murderers. It showed that when national interest is in jeopardy Muslims will not be hesitant to shun even religious commands. That situation has not risen in the case of coronavirus deaths. Therefore, the only rationale for GR and MR to remain unyielding to disallow Muslims to bury their COVID-19 victims is political expediency.
It is unfortunate that over the last 72 years Sri Lankan politics has chosen the communal path to make and unmake governments. From Indian Tamils to Sri Lankan Tamils, and from Burghers to Muslims every minority community has borne the brunt of communal hatred from Sinhala Buddhist supremacists. Muslims are the latest victims of this hatred, and their trodden path of survival through supporting the wining party has lost its magical power. They are going to be the sacrificial lambs in the battle for two-third majority for SLNPS at the next election. The cremation issue is sharpening the knife.
(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)