By Dr Laksiri Fernando
The violent mob attack on the Dambulla Muslim Mosque in the presence of the Police on 20 April is a serious event that can ignite communal disharmony in the country, including open violence, if the government fails to apologise to the Muslim community and take appropriate action to thwart the efforts by communal elements among its own ranks to create rift and mischief.
So far it has not happened. By apologising, the government can appease the aggrieved sections of the Muslim community and send a strong signal to the communal elements in its own ranks.
The most disturbing is the alleged involvement of the Prime Minister in the whole episode by issuing a directive to ‘demolish the mosque’ without a court order or proper judicial procedure.
There are credible indications that certain organized elements are ready to create further communal disharmony in the country to thwart the already dampen efforts at ‘ethnic reconciliation’ as a further ‘lesson for the minorities.’ The view that these elements try to establish is that ‘Sri Lanka is only a Sinhala-Buddhist country’ and other groups may live but under their hegemony and intermittent siege.
There are undoubtedly controversial claims and controversial reports. On the ‘Buddhist side,’ it is claimed that both the Muslim mosque and the Hindu shrine are within the declared Buddhist ‘sacred area’ and therefore they are unauthorised buildings. On the ‘Muslim side,’ it is particularly claimed that the mosque had been there at least for nearly fifty years (1963) and it was built with official approval.
The Hindu devotees also claim that their shrine has been there for a very long time. It is a known fact that many Hindu shines are located side by side or even within Buddhist temples. In the area under controversy, there are human dwellings and during the altercations with the people, the chief incumbent of the Rajamaha Vihara very clearly threatened them also with eviction.
The above undoubtedly are matters to be resolved either through courts of law or credible official channels under court authority and instead what were apparent, according to TV footage, were the high priest and his mobs taking law into their own hands and unleashing violence against yet ‘another sacred place’ for the Muslim community.
If the area is sacred, it was desecrated by the protesting monks and hooligans. If the footages are not doctored (!) by several of the Sri Lanka TV stations, then the language they used, the acts they performed and the violent nature of the whole episode were despicable. Some of the utterances were clearly abusive and even racist.
It is claimed that the cause of the attack is a plan for making Buddhism a ‘tourist attraction’ in association with a political stalwart in the area who is in the liquor business.
What was evident in the footage, however, is the high priest saying that Buddhism is gaining respect all over the world and ‘we should utilize this opportunity to revive Buddhism.’ This is undoubtedly the case and the Buddhists should be proud of the opportunity. But the question is whether that respect could be gained by performing violence and indulging in ‘animistic behaviour.’
Buddhism or Animism?
Our history books say Buddhism was brought to the country to civilize the people who were practicing ‘animism.’ In popular usage, animism means the worship of animals, trees and rocks. I tend to believe now that ‘behaving like animals’ perhaps was part of these animistic rituals.
Even after 2,500 years of Buddhism, it appears that some of our people are not yet properly civilized. Instead of practising Buddhism they indulge in animism. This may be true for other religions and their priests as well but I am here referring to the Dambulla incident.
Did I see it correctly that a key monk in the protest removed his robes in front of the Mosque?
Buddhism as far as I understand is one of the most tolerant and peaceful religions. I am also one who is highly attracted to the Buddhist philosophy and thinking. It is therefore unfortunate that some of some Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka are denigrating it. As Venerable Walpola Sri Rahula (PhD) said in What the Buddha taught,
“The Buddha was just as clear on politics, on war and peace. It is too well known to be repeated here that Buddhism advocates and preaches non-violence and peace as its universal message, and does not approve of any kind of violence or destruction of life.”
Upali-sutta is one of the main teachings of religious tolerance. When Upali, a disciple of Nigantha Nataputta, wanted to become a disciple of the Buddha, the Buddha requested him to reconsider and respect his old religious teachers. The message in essence was to respect all religions. It is following this noble example that Emperor Asoka, in the third century BC, declared the following in the Rock Edict XII.
“One should not honour only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honour others’ religions for this or that reason. So doing, one helps one’s own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too. In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one’s own religion and also does harm to other religions.”
According to the above teaching, there is nothing wrong, in principle, having Muslim or Hindu religious places in the vicinity of Buddhist temples. But erecting new places knowingly in other’s claimed ‘scared areas,’ in the given conditions of Sri Lanka, is obviously not helpful for religious or ethnic harmony. This is something claimed to be happening in the North to the utter distress of the Hindu devotees. There are claims that Buddhist shrines are being erected by the soldiers where there are no Buddhists among the local communities. This is considered an aggression.
The Dambulla mosque does not appear a deliberate act against this practical principle. It is not a new construction. However, if the Muslim community decides to shift the controversial mosque voluntarily, it might be a good example for religious harmony and peace in the country on the premise that the Government protects their right to retain the other existing religious places in the future. Otherwise, there can be more and more efforts of evicting other religious places in the country.
There has been a particular ideology created in the country since the 1972 Constitution that promotes the hegemony of the Buddhist institutional religion (Sasana) over the other religions. It was unfortunate that this constitution was drafted by a prominent leftist who was supposed to advocate socialism and equality!
There is a single article in Chapter III on Buddhism which says “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Article 10 and 14(1)(e).
This article appeared quite ‘innocent’ for a long time and the general impression was that foremost place was given to Buddhism and not necessarily to the Buddhist institution. Therefore, there was no strong objection from other religions. But the truth now appears otherwise. It gives the foremost place to Sasana and perhaps it was in the name of Sasana that violent acts were perpetrated at Dambulla.
The other religions also believed that the protection given under Fundamental Rights and particularly in Article 10 and 14(1) (e) might be sufficient to safeguard their rights. But it is apparently not the case particularly given the increasingly supine judiciary in the country. How to unravel this conundrum is a question. While this article is not the place for a long constitutional discussion, suffice it say from a human rights point of view that if Article 9 were to remain in the Constitution, more and strong guarantees should be there for other religions to survive in this ‘resplendent island.’
In respect of the case of Dambulla mosque, it is reported that there was an order dated 20 April from the Prime Minister, as the Minister of Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs, to demolish the mosque. This was the very day that the mobs attacked the mosque with or without the connivance of the PM. It is obvious that the mobs or the high priest who led them knew about the order. If the order had been given, it should have been given to the police and not to the mobs
It is highly questionable whether even the Prime Minister could issue such an order given even the rudimentary protection that all other religions are accorded in the country’s Constitution. It was claimed that the PM had the consent of Muslim leaders which was flatly denied by many. Even to take the consent of relevant parties in such a dispute, the Court is the rightful authority and not an executive.
Apart from the matter being a case of the executive branch stepping into the judicial and justice matters, completely on an arbitrary manner, which is in itself is a dangerous tendency, what is abundantly clear is the ‘political mess-up’ of the whole matter by the government.
The Government as the peace keeper of the country, therefore, must apologise to the Muslim community for the following reasons:
1. For the mob attack on the Dambulla Mosque.
2. For hurting religious feelings of the Muslim community in the country and internationally.
3. For the inaction of the police and the security forces who failed to prevent the event.
4. For the arbitrary decision of the PM which ignited the whole episode.