ECONOMYNEXT – Parliamentarian Harin Fernando’s now-famous speech delivered last week was, in many ways, a reflection of the deep anguish religious and ethnic minorities are dealing with the overtly discriminatory attitudes of the authorities.
In his role as the enfant terrible of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, Fernando spoke primarily of the fallacy of the government’s slogan of “one country one law” and drew the ire of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself.
But Fernando also went on to make a more important point that the religious and ethnic minorities have to accept a subject-hood under the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian rule in this country.
He told Parliament that “when (Cricketer) Fairooz Maharoof hits a six, we all applauded, when Mutthiah Muralidaran took 800 wickets we lit firecrackers, but could either of them be appointed captain of the national Cricket team? The answer, he said is ‘No, because of their ethnicity.”
“We are all Sri Lankans who have different beliefs. I am a Roman Catholic Sri Lankan and (pointing to Justice Minister Ali Sabry) you are a Sri Lankan Muslim.”
This subject-hood is being reinforced by none other than the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who has said that Buddhism is “the greatest gift that Sri Lanka has received” when he spoke at the Payagala Buddhist temple on January 2.
He has on previous occasions too, implied that we the minorities must live under the benign Buddhist tent totally accepting the subject-hood of the Roman Catholics to the Sinhala Buddhist state.
Constitutionalist Dr Asanga Welikala recently commenting on the detention of leading lawyer Hijaz Hizbullah tweeted that he is a victim of “institutionalized discrimination.”
There is no reason for Hejaaz to be in detention. There is no reason for him to be infected with Covid. There is no reason why he’s separated from his infant child. There is no reason for any of this except a broken system that allows institutionalised discrimination. https://t.co/QiBcjuZss1
— Dr Asanga Welikala (@welikalaa) January 7, 2021
Riling up the Tamils
Students of the Jaffna University, Human Rights activists and political leaders have been protesting throughout the weekend, the destruction of a monument for the people who died in the separatist war, erected at the University.
The monument, built by the University Council in 2019, had been bulldozed on the orders of Vice-Chancellor Prof S Srisatkunarajah who says he was “pressured by the University Grants Commission (UGC)” to do so.
Columnist Ananth Palakidnar told EconomyNext that the structure, dubbed the Mullivaikkal monument, had no reference to LTTE fighters nor did it glorify them.
“It only remembered those who died in the final fighting, which included a number of students in the University,” he said.
The UGC Chairman, Senior Prof Sampath Amarathunge in a statement released on Saturday said the monument was removed because it is not “suitable for the Sri Lanka of today and tomorrow.”
He added that the memorial “could be a barrier to peace between North and South,” emphasizing that Sri Lanka’s universities now have a healthy mix of students from all regions and all ethnicities and religious backgrounds.
While the authorities may seek to indicate unity amongst the people, this incident only helped bring disparate Tamil political groups together to protest the destruction of the monument.
Palakidnar observed that “it has given these activists a cause again.”
It also caused the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to call on its supporters across the North and East to stand together with their Tamil brethren and oppose the destruction of the monument.
However, by Monday the University authorities appeared to have second thoughts and the Vice-Chancellor has promised to rebuild the monument. Whether this is a ploy to stave off the wave of protests or not, is a matter left to be seen.
Muslims pushed to the wall
The most egregious example of minority bashing that we are experiencing right now is the issue of the compulsory cremation of the remains of people who die of Covid 19.
Despite assurances by expert committees that the virus cannot spread when the affected individual dies, and the WHO guidelines permitting burial, and close to 200 other countries burying their Covid 19 dead, Sri Lanka will not budge.
Various “Expert Committees” have been appointed to advise the government on the cremation issue and as far as the World Health Organisation, the College of Community Medicine of Sri Lanka (CCPSL) and the Committee led by Prof Jennifer Perera are concerned burial is safe.
Prof Malik Peiris, a world-renowned expert on the virus has pronounced that once dead, a cadaver cannot transmit a virus and Prof Tissa Vitharana, a member of the current administration agrees.
Vitharana too is a well-known Virologist, who has headed institutions in Edinburgh, Melbourne and the Medical Research Institute in Sri Lanka. Despite all that, he claims he has never been consulted on managing the pandemic.
For Muslims to whom burying their dead is of utmost importance as part of the duties toward the dead, this attitude of the government is deeply traumatizing. They now seem to have reached the end of their tether, where an unflinching government continues to ride roughshod over the pleas of the Muslims. Their attempt for relief through the Judiciary never got a hearing.
For a short while, it seemed the government was waffling and groping in the dark, having run out of ideas even as the pandemic shows no signs of abating. The one thing that is clear is the devastating effect it has had on lives and livelihoods, and here too the government seems to ignore the plight of daily wage earners and low-income families who are placed in lockdown and complain they have little or no access to getting their daily needs.
In North America, the term waffling means someone is struggling to make a decision with no clue what to do.
At the beginning of the pandemic, no less a person than Dr Anil Jasinghe said burials would not be an issue. However, soon after a Gazette notification said only cremations will be allowed. This is not an issue that affects only Muslims, as for all communities that follow Abrahamic religions, burial is the accepted method. Cremation was permitted for Catholics only in 1963 and only under special circumstances.
Those of Abrahamic faiths such as Muslims and Christians believe in the resurrection “on the day of judgement” and therefore place much importance in ensuring that bodies are buried intact.
For those of the animist tradition, usually among aborigines, including the Veddas or to use the Hindi term Adivasis of Sri Lanka returning one’s body on death to Mother Earth is an offering where the remains will help a new life flourish.
What seems to be happening is that the administration is unable to stand firm against an onslaught from the majority Buddhist groups, who helped the government to win power, and is now vehemently opposing burials.
That is baffling, as the people believed they were electing a strong and decisive leader, one who led the nation to victory in the war against separatist forces. What’s more, the administration has the backing and advice of those described to be the brightest minds in the country, members of Viyath Maga.
There are two current situations where ethnic and religious minorities are now compelled to accept subject-hood. The Muslims like it or not they must cremate those of their community who succumb to Covid 19, while the Tamils cannot memorialize their dead. It seems that a benign attitude towards remembering the dead is applied only to Sinhalese.
In her most recent pronouncement in Parliament, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said that the Prof Perera-led committee was “not official and the decision has to be made by the main committee headed by Pathologist Dr Channa Perera.” This, despite there being a letter issued by the Secretary of Health, appointing the Perera committee!
“When faced with such a serious pandemic situation we cannot take actions based on the social or political feelings of groups, but have to be guided by science,” she said.
But the science, according to the three main professional bodies, the CCPSL, the Perera committee and top international experts including the WHO runs against the Minister’s decision. What’s more, the Perera –led committee is made up of eminent scientists.
Such deliberate disregard to scientific opinion is yet another example of institutionalized discrimination Welikala talks about.
Such anti-minority policies and actions need an explanation. Why is the government hell-bent on creating more discontent when it is already battling the negative effects of the pandemic, a failing economy and rising unemployment?
Supporters of the administration, university lecturers no less argue that it is far more important to save the living than the dead. They insist the virus will contaminate water while overlooking the many instances, where the living have been placed in danger when attending political gatherings and funerals and most recently the jostling crowds wanting to get their hands on the ‘miracle paniya.’
Of course, it goes without saying that the current government and all those in their ranks are masters in the art of distracting the masses!
Another question is whether ultra-right-wing supremacists are influencing policy.
For most people who are looking for answers are trying to figure out the government’s end-game. Where is it headed with this?
Last week, Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Hilmy Ahamed told EconomyNext that he believes the government wants to “radicalize the Muslim youth and push them to do something rash.”
An unsettling thought indeed!
For his part, Ahamed says he has pleaded with Muslim parents to talk to their children and to pray that such a situation could be averted.
In the case of the University memorial, protesters have been calmed down, for now, with a promise of building a new one. Then why demolish the other in the first place?
All in all, it is clear this administration supports the idea of subject-hood of the other. What it plans to gain, is left to be seen.
(Colombo, January 11, 2021)
By Arjuna Ranawana