Peace for the World

Peace for the World
First democratic leader of Justice the Godfather of the Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Honourable Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A reappraisal of evidence and claims

Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka?

by G. H. Peiris- 

(Continued from yesterday)

An understanding of this setting, instead of being led by a fixation on the image of Buddhist bigotry and Sinhalese triumphalism which, of course, is what rings a bell in the 'liberal' West, is necessary to grasp the realities pertaining to the mosque dispute. That a large and stately mosque stands pristine in the main commercial locality of Dambulla, a couple of hundred meters away from the entrance to the rock temple, never under threat of attack or desecration, has hardly ever been mentioned. What was demolished on 27 April 2012 by a mob guided by Ven. Sumangala and several other monks in defiance of a small contingent of 'law enforcers' was a low single-storeyed structure of corrugated iron sheets for walls and roofing (and thus in appearance quite unlike any other mosque we usually see) occupying a small roadside site which, according to spokesmen for the Muslim community, had nevertheless been a place of Islamic worship for over 65-years. This claim, though emphatically refuted by Sri Sumangala thero and his flock, was publicly substantiated for TV and radio broadcast by a well-known Sinhalese political leader of ministerial rank in the area. Meanwhile, what a spokesperson for local government administration insisted was that the so-called demolition was, in fact, a hasty and unlawful act that ignored a thoroughly negotiated decision to relocate at a more suitable site outside the 'sacred area' of an ongoing conversion of a makeshift structure owned by a Muslim to a mosque. The Muslim leaders denied this charge, but one of the more vociferous among them said (this is a transcript of the filmed original): "we build more and more mosques with our own money, you should be building more and more of your temples with your money".

The chief incumbent's insistence that "we should never permit mosques to be constructed in this sacred area" has also been repeatedly documented in film and broadcast. Thus, what one could see in retrospect more prominently than all else is an abundance of jingoism. The Dambulla episode marks the inception of a strategy pursued by unseen forces the destabilising impact of which over the next two years depended much on the nature of the 'manpower' it could mobilise at the grassroots in the different flashpoints. Dambulla was certainly a avenue in which the strategy did achieve considerable success especially because it also represented the initiation of a drift of some of the most prominent Muslim leaders away from the Rajapaksa regime in which they held powerful posts.

(c) Desecration of a Mosque in Mahiyangana

The geographical setting here has some similarities to Dambulla – the venerated 'Rajamahavihāraya' (literally, 'great monarchic temple') with which the name Mahiyangana has been associated from time immemorial; the enormous extent of land over which the temple could claim custodianship (but seldom does) as vihāragam, and the sharp upsurge of the township since about the late 1980s as a centre of trade, being located as it does at the gateway to 'System C', one of the largest Mahaveli Settlement complexes where, it so happened in its early stages, the 'farm-gate' (kamatha) bulk purchase of paddy was almost totally under the cartelised control of Muslim traders.

The story of the Mahiyangana clash which I construct here is based on several sources that contain heaps of mutually contradictory information – a sketch in an SLMC document; a retrospect published about a fortnight after the turbulences in a Sunday newspaper known for its intense antipathy towards the Rajapaksa regime; a media statement by Ven. Watarka Vijitha, the chief incumbent of a temple located at the market town of Girandurukotte within the Mahaveli System C' and named 'Mahaveli Viharaya' (Vijitha thero was also an elected member of the local government institution of the area who had contested from the ruling party of that time, and one of the key personalities – a maverick – associated with the stormy events of July 2013); a report dated 21 May 2017 authored by Ifham Nizam titled 'Government Silent as the BBS Holy War Continues'; a brief observation made by the Urulǽwatte Dhammakeetti, the chief incumbent of the Rajamahaviharaya and, of course, an expression of deep concern issued by the US Embassy in Colombo that prompted bunkum Moon to shed another tear, this time on the ravaged Muslims of Sri Lanka

The Ven. Vijitha had been repeatedly harassed and, on one occasion, assaulted, by nondescript mobs opposed to him mainly on grounds of his close association with the Muslim traders of the area, his party affiliation, and allegedly, his encouragement of the construction of a Muslim prayer venue in proximity to the Rajamahaviharaya.

The sketch furnished in the SLMC report states that on the night of 11 July 2013, in a mob attack that lasted for about twenty minutes, the mosque was stoned and defiled with swine offal, and that at a meeting of the 'Up-Country Muslim Council' held the following day, Vijitha disclosed that Gnānasāra thero of the BBS and several others had discussions in the Rajamahavihāraya premises on the day before the attack. Ven. Gnānasāra denied involvement in the alleged desecration but, having done so (according to several later press reports), assaulted Ven. Vijitha when the two met somewhere in Colombo a few days later. The sequel to this latter attack is that, its victim, according to the Judicial Medical Officer's report, had injuries he himself had inflicted, presumably in order to enhance the gravity of the assault. Meanwhile the chief incumbent of the Rajamahavihāraya has said that there never was a mosque in Mahiyangana, but that a structure used as a prayer room of the Muslims could have been an embryonic mosque. The removal of the mosque, Ifham Nizam has speculated, averted a disastrous conflict.

(d) Grandpass mob attack on Muslims

Eruptions of violence in this part of Colombo have been somewhat more frequent than elsewhere in the country. But one needs to take into account a gamut of considerations before concluding that it is an exemplification of intensifying religious tensions impelled by Buddhist bigots. Many localities in this area have for long constituted the venue of the multi-ethnic ‘underworld’ of Sri Lanka and the bailiwicks of rival gangland bosses who are known to have at least slender connections with their respective political masters among whom were/are politicians at the highest level, city fathers and business magnates. This same feature has been subject to detailed observation in other South Asian cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Karachi, Delhi and Calcutta. This is why, when gangland clashes occur, there is invariably a polarisation on ethnic/religious lines (I have written about this phenomenon in my recent book, Political Conflict in South Asia, pp. 179-183, illustrating it with Karachi experiences.).

The relevance of this to an understanding of conditions in several localities of the Colombo underworld is the emergence of a phenomenon that could be regarded as being featured by ‘narcopolitical' violence. Even as recently as the late 1970s heroin was hardly known in Sri Lanka. Today, Greater Colombo is not only an important arena of its retail trade and consumption, but also a "conduit" in the highways of bulk transfers of heroin sourced from the 'Golden Crescent’ on a global scale; and a disproportionate participation of the criminal fringe of the Muslim community in the related transactions (see, the annual reports of the ‘Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Bureau of Sri Lanka', in particular, the data on the extraordinarily skewed ethnic distribution of the numbers convicted of drug-related crimes).

In order to make the background to the Grandpass conflagration more comprehensive, and since certain versions of this clash convey a false identity of the attacked shrine, it should be clarified that the 'Grand Mosque' of Colombo, established in the early 16th century, like several other architecturally grand mosques scattered throughout the city, stands in all its glory in a fairly affluent setting on New Moor Street, absolutely free of any external threat. The largest mosque in Grandpass is 'Muhiyaddeen Jumma Masjid' on St. Joseph Street which, like many other Islamic shrines that adorn the cityscape, has also never faced a challenge from Colombo's multi-ethnic denizenry. What was attacked is a far more modest structure located in the 'Grand Pass' ward of the city, located along the 'Swarna Chaitya Road' of a densely populated working-class residential neighbourhood where the Buddhists marginally outnumber the others. This information is intended not to trivialise the outrage but to indicate that these and a few other localised mob attacks on places of worship during these months did not represent a Buddhist onslaught on the Muslims.

The narrative of a "Buddhist mob" attacking Muslims at a newly constructed mosque in Grandpass on 12 August 2013 is true but not the whole truth. What does emerge from the reports available is a rather confusing story of aggressive religiosity among both Buddhists as well as Muslims in a social ethos that facilitates instant formation of mobs invariably fuelled in late evenings by booze and drugs.

Earlier in 2013 a part of the land belonging to a mosque built in the 1960s was earmarked for acquisition by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) for a much needed widening a waste-water canal traversing the area. The related amicable agreement between the UDA and the trustees of the mosque involved the offer of an alternative site made available for re-location of the mosque, and, with the concurrence of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the setting up of a temporary structure along Swarna Chaitya Road for use by the Muslim devotees. It was the gradual refurbishing of that structure into a multi-storeyed building for permanent use as a mosque that conveyed the impression of a surreptitious addition of a permanent new mosque to this excessively overcrowded residential area, while the old mosque stands round the corner uninterrupted in its use, that led, Sinhalese residents of locality led by the monks from the local temple, to make peaceful representations (on 5 July) and a larger collective demand (17 July), the latter resulting in an intervention by the ministry of Religious Affairs in the form of sponsoring a former discussion among representatives of the different interests concerned, reaching an understanding that the mosque trustees will withdraw from the temporary premises soon after the end of the rituals connected with the Ramadan fast on 7 August 2013. It was when there were no signs of the promised vacation that there was a build-up of tensions involving, on the one hand, the intervention of rabble-rousing Buddhist extremists from outside and, on the other, what seemed a preparation on the part of the temple devotees to meet possible violence with violence to defend their right to use the new premises as a mosque.

Several sources indicate that a mob of about 50 to 60 stoned the mosque, broke into its inner sanctums, and damaged the fixtures in the ground floor in a ferocious attack that began at about 6.45 p.m. on 10 August 2013, by which time the devotees had completed their evening prayers. When the attack began, about 50 of his devotees retreated to the upper floor. The Imam of the mosque emphasised in a statement that the devotees did not use any weapons to defend themselves and that, at the time of this offensive, a contingent of about 40 police personnel remained as mere spectators outside the mosque. Several other stories including a Reuter report dated 12 August, news broadcast by the BBC on 12 August a story filed by its Colombo correspondent, "hundreds of Muslims took to the streets during the attack on the mosque, and that the police and the 'Special Task Force' dispersed the crowd, imposing a curfew in the area. There are, also the reports which states that these measures were selective, and that the law enforcement efforts were administered mainly on the Muslims. Aljazeera (an institution that has a record of hostility towards Sri Lanka) reported on 13 August that about 10 injured persons from both communities were admitted to hospital (among them, two police officers).

To be continued