By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Much has been said and written of the recent tragic and unrelated events which took place in Ampara and Kandy. Mobs of Sinhala Buddhists attacked Muslim citizens, their homes, businesses, and mosques. A few retaliatory attacks by Muslim mobs too have been reported. The trigger mechanism for the outburst in Ampara was supposedly ‘wanda pethi,’ sterilization pills mixed with food and served in a Muslim owned restaurant to reduce Sinhalese community in numbers. In Kandy, it involved a Sinhalese Buddhist lorry driver who died of injuries inflicted by four Muslim men under the influence of liquor, possibly a case of road rage.
The following narration is a case of communal violence which took place over 70 years ago in neighboring India and the way, Mahatma Gandhi, a true believer of nonviolence, armed only with compassion and moral courage, was able to subdue violence, rape, arson, murder and enforced conversions.
Because of communal violence, Gandhi decided to spend the period August 13 to September 7 in 1947 at the Haidari Mansion in Beliaghata aka Belighata, a neighborhood in Kolkata. These 25 days are considered some of the most intensely heroic days of his life. Beliaghata was a locality where Hindus and Muslims had lived side by side in harmony for centuries. Rioting, arson, rape, and murder had erupted in Kolkata in the run-up to independence. Gandhi’s arrival stopped the violence, temporarily, and both Muslims and Hindus celebrated Independence Day together. After two weeks of peace, trouble flared up again. On August 31, Gandhi began a fast-unto-death. Appeals made in person by his closest associates, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel besides Governor General Mountbatten (former Viceroy) to give up his fast due to his failing health, was stubbornly refused. His act shocked and shamed the people of the city, who came around, slowly. On September 4, a group of representative Hindus and Muslims met him with a written promise “that peace has been restored in Calcutta once again.” The undertaking added: “We shall never again allow communal strife in the city. And shall strive unto death to prevent it”. Gandhi called off his fast, and two days later left for Delhi.
In the Kandy district, a minority community was subjected to violence by the majority community in the city which is home to Lord Buddha’s tooth relic, considered sacred by Sinhala Buddhists and other Buddhists the world over. Tragically, mayhem was taking place, so to say, in the backyard of Malwathu Maha Viharaya and Asgiri Maha Viharaya, the seats of the Mahanayaka Theros of the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters of the Siam Nikaya.
The Chief Prelates of the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas are not based in Kandy.
Disturbances commenced on Friday night, March 02 in Udispattuwa during the transfer of the body of the deceased Sinhalese driver to Ambala and finally brought under control on March 9, after seven days.
Had all four Chief Prelates, along with as many Bhikkhus they could muster taken to the streets as Gandhi did, and positioned themselves amidst members of the Muslim community in their homes, mosques, and businesses, violence could have been contained. The rioters, so-called Sinhala Buddhists, accompanied by those wrapped in saffron robes, would not have dared to harm such a group of prominent Buddhist clergy and their entourage.
The failure of the Mahanayakas Theros, to try and bring to heel, Buddhists involved in acts of racial injustice, at variance with the teachings of the Buddhist philosophy, is a sign of moral weakness unworthy of their exalted status in the Buddhist order.
March 02 found the government in Colombo in a state of paralysis, following the Local Government elections and the setbacks suffered by the constituent parties of the Yahapalana government. The President was trying to make up his mind whether to continue with Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and his UNP or to go it alone with a working arrangement with the SLPP led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister was fending off a No Confidence motion in Parliament and a leadership challenge within the UNP.
It is pertinent to examine the government’s response time beginning with the initial disturbances on the night of March 02 in Udispattuwa and then spread rapidly to Teldeniya, Digana, Tennekumbura and other areas.
Its paralyzed state prevented the government from doing its duty. The recent disturbances were sufficient for any sensible government to swing into action. A Security Council meeting should have been convened late in the night of March 02 no sooner reports of disturbances began to come in. Inputs could have been called for from civil administrators, Police, intelligence agencies and other relevant state bodies. Most importantly, the first set of instructions should have been issued primarily to Police and STF before lunchtime on March 03, to bring the situation under control.
Government action is evident only from 3 pm on March 05, with the deployment of the army, followed by imposition of districtwide dusk to dawn Police curfew. The President declared an island-wide state of emergency on March 06.
Though unrelated, incidents in Ampara a few days earlier should have been considered an early warning. Initial disturbances in Udispattuwa and Teldeniya had been on a small scale. Rioting had commenced in earnest and spread to other parts only after the subsequent arrival of outsiders in Kandy. An immediate clamp down in the morning or evening of March 03 would have prevented outsiders from joining and aggravating matters. It would probably have put an end to rioting.
One of the primary responsibilities of any government is to ensure the safety and security of all citizens regardless of caste, creed, race or religion. In this instance, it was the safety and security of the Muslim community, their property, and Mosques in Kandy district.
In its paralyzed state, the government failed to do what it takes to bring rioters under control. The inaction of the then government during the Darga Town violence in 2014 and lessons learned should have been a guiding light.
The government’s failure to declare curfew till March 05 evening amounts to criminal negligence.
The government should take responsibility for its inaction between March 02 evening and 3 pm on March 05 and the resulting tragic deaths and events until March 09.
Violence in the Kandy area resulted in the death of three people besides 22 persons sustaining injuries. Over 200 Muslim-owned houses are in ruins. According to Police spokesperson SP Ruwan Gunasekara, in the Kandy district, 19 religious places have been damaged, and 60 cases of vehicle damage reported. He has also confirmed the arrest of 280 suspects, 178 persons from Kandy and a further 102 persons from elsewhere.
Some Muslims have accused the Police and STF of inaction. Elements in the Police force may have done so due to prejudices. However, the STF is a well-trained highly disciplined paramilitary force even though they are members of the Police force. A more plausible reason for their inactivity, if true, may have been the absence of clear directives from the political leadership in Colombo.
Meanwhile, it has also been reported, on March 5, a mob rioting in Digana had retaliated by hurling projectiles at the Police who had used tear gas and water cannon to control those rioting.
Minister Rauf Hakeem is on record requesting the government to issue a ‘shoot at sight’ order. It is understood, the President had declined to give instructions to fire at rioters. Making difficult yet necessary decisions is a part of governance and duty of an Executive President. If the President is unable to rise to the occasion when required, he should heed the advice given recently by Ven. Dambara Amila Thero in an address which has gone viral receiving many endorsements and call it a day.
A Police curfew on March 03 backed by a directive to ‘shoot at sight’ curfew breakers would have prevented isolated incidents developing into a full-scale riot as well the arrival of outsiders.
Several Buddhist priests in the Kandy district, together with a group of youths have walked through villages from dusk to dawn, dissuading rioters and preventing violence. Some other priests have given refuge to Muslims in distress, inside their temples. Heroic acts indeed, worthy of emulation by all Sinhala Buddhists. If these monks were not harmed, there is no reason to believe the Mahanayaka Theros involved in similar acts would have been harmed.
The Chief of Defense Staff is on record, quite rightly, branding rioters as ‘traitors,’ given the many Muslim men who provided invaluable services in military intelligence during the civil war due to their proficiency in the Tamil language.
It is but also correct to remember the likes of Capt. Shahul Hameed Nilam, Lt. Col. Tuan Nizam Mutallif and many others formerly of the Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP). Nilam and Mutallif had been the commander and deputy commander of the unit. The former with his family has disappeared without a trace while the latter and nearly 80 operatives and informants were systematically murdered by LTTE terrorists, some including Mutaliff in broad daylight in Colombo. The unit’s existence and identities became public knowledge after their safe house in Athurugiriya was raided by the Police. The then government, who believed the group was planning to assassinate high-level government leaders including the Prime Minister (the allegation was later proved to be false) did nothing to prevent the raid, the arrest of LRRP operatives and disclosure of their identities. The PCoI Report concluded the raid “illegal and immoral” besides “total betrayal and absolute treachery to the nation.” Those who did nothing to prevent the debacle in 2002 occupy the office of the first among equals and Ministerial, Ambassadorial and Advisory positions today.
The CDS will no doubt agree, rioters in Kandy, the Athurugiriya raiders, and leaders who did nothing to prevent the raid all belong to the same group of traitors.