By Mohamed Harees –
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist.
Faced with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, Sri Lanka finally called off an ill-conceived racist experiment recently, which produced only misery. With the opening lines ‘Considering the evolving knowledge of Covid-19 infection….’, the official circular from the Minister of Health dd 2/3/2022 continued , ‘the management protocols of Covid-19 related deaths are revised…hereafter allowing both cremation and burials of Covid-19 related bodies in any cemetery’. Wonder who will have the last laugh? Yes! of course, this final change in Policy certainly brought sheer relief to people particularly in other parts of the country, who were earlier allowed to bury their dead, stricken by Covid-19, in Ottamawadi in the East after a ‘partial reversal of policy’ in 2021.
It also indeed gave a sense of triumph to those who stood up against the State-sanctioned forced cremation policy of this racist government. It is however interesting to find out from the so-called technical committee which consistently banned covid burials, what is the evolving knowledge being referred to in this circular or what is the new found scientific evidence, which prompted them to scientifically allow covid burials finally in any cemetery two years later? Will they and those higher ups in this government be held to account? It will be apt to revisit this sad episode in Sri Lanka’s racist, at times violent ridden history to learn lessons for the future.
The grieved families of the 300+ Covid-19 Muslim deaths in Sri Lanka, forcibly reduced to ashes against their religious dictates, with no funeral rights or family nearby, only to later discover later that it was all a racist hoax played upon them for petty political gains, need some plausible answers. Who will take responsibility for this tragic and wilful negligence? Who can transform their ashes to flesh and bones, so that that bitter past can be rewound and their remains be buried whole in dignity, and not in urns? The fact of the matter and the reality was that there were no feasible medical reasons for the Covid burial ban then and obviously none now. Both the medical fraternity and the scientific community, local and global were pointing this out in plain and simple language, which unfortunately did not strike a chord with the racist agenda of the Gotabaya government. If this was not State sanctioned racist discrimination and raw racism, then what was? Thankfully, the successful resistance to the policy of enforced cremation saw it reversed, which was the product of an unusual and inspiring coalition of activists, religious institutions and citizens from all of Sri Lanka’s communities, working in tandem with international bodies and Sri Lankan diaspora groups.
The meme ‘Dying While Muslim’ may not be as familiar as ‘Flying While Muslim’ – which came into prominence in the post-9/11 years when Muslims began to experience Islamophobia after being singled out at airports and airlines. But this meme gained popularity in the Sri Lankan context, where particularly Muslims were at the butt end of compulsory state-sanctioned cremations – a discriminatory act in violation of their faith.. Thus, in Sri Lanka, even a dead Covid affected Muslim was not afforded a dignified send-off as per the dictates of his faith, for no plausible scientific reason, other than the bigotry of a regime which was seen to be rely on a steady diet of anti-Muslim hatred for their political survival, to divert public attention away from their sheer inefficiency and mismanagement. Recently, I authored a book titled under this meme which documented developments contextualising the raw materials of this anti-Muslim policy, which came about to be a central state policy and showing how state and non-state hatred can be resisted by courageous and imaginative collective action.
Pressure politics, if used wisely, can be a powerful tool. The best example was Sri Lanka’s policy on forced cremations of Covid dead with no scientific explanation for it. A few Buddhist monks apparently claimed burying the victims would contaminate the ground and the government agreed. Then a technical committee was appointed which did not have competent virologists which negates the purpose of such a committee. A classic case of appeasement politics but they probably didn’t anticipate the backlash. However, the whole racist project boomeranged in style on the rulers. Rights groups and community leaders were appalled. The world community turned on Colombo. The Lankan Government was backed itself into a corner. Finally the discriminatory order was revoked an year later in February 2021. However, although there were no more forced cremations and Muslims were free to bury their relatives, burials were only confined to an identified land in Ottamawadi in the East. It was this discriminatory baseless policy which was fully reversed via this afore-stated circular.
In an article in Human Rights Pulse, titled ‘Discrimination against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community during the pandemic: a chilling foreshadow’ (21/12/20), Esther Hoole says, ‘The government’s stance is, at best, careless of the rights and requests of the Muslim community. At worst, it is deliberately discriminatory and cruel. Neither of these attitudes is a new phenomenon. From the outset of the current government’s entry into power in a landslide vote by the Sinhalese majority, the Sri Lankan government has—both subtly and overtly—highlighted its disregard for minority communities, of which the Muslim community is one. Within this majoritarian structure, there has also been growing hatred particularly against the Muslim community, continuing the trajectory of the past few years.
The article continued ‘In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic itself, state bodies have repeatedly cast the Muslim community in a negative light. On a broader scale, the Muslim community has increasingly become the primary target for vitriol and discrimination. There have been several violent anti-Muslim riots in the past decade. Where the state should have adopted a nuanced approach towards peace, successive governments have stirred up and capitalised on these anti-Muslim sentiments for political gain. The Muslim minority faces increasing racial injustice and discrimination from sections of the public as well the state. Their fundamental rights to live and die with dignity are being systematically and overtly violated. Where past violations are not addressed and accounted for, conflict will breed conflict. In itself, the Sri Lankan government’s lack of compassion in enforcing unnecessary cremations is horrific and despicable. When studied in the broader framework of events with a view to the future, it is terrifying.’
As 2020 wound its way to a close, waves of racism, chauvinism and fear mongering unleashed on the people by the present ultra nationalist Government’s tom-tom beaters, including electronic media moguls fattened by ill-gotten gains, continued unabated. That these ugly forces ultimately went beyond the point of control with catastrophic effects to the country is now seen as a reality and a certainty. The rulers’ dismal failed attempt to stage a tragicomedy by imposing an unwanted burial ban was thus openly exposed as a racist diversion tactic, with no basis in science. The positive trend had been that symbols of inter-religious solidarity took shape against the rulers. The burial issue grew beyond Muslim circles and there was more solidarity and consciousness, and this discontent added to the public activism gaining momentum, to hold the government to account for many other crises befitting Sri Lanka – rule of law and impunity, economic mismanagement, and chronic corruption.
Sri Lanka’s COVID response is proof that demonization of particularly the Muslims has been normalised. The health crisis was used to reinforce the narrative that the ‘careless and undisciplined’ Muslim community flouted social distancing and curfew laws. The idea that Muslims must be brought in line and not allowed to ‘do their own thing’ has been gaining force in society for a long time and simply intensified with this pandemic. The extremely discriminatory policy that was in place in Sri Lanka, insisting on cremation of all those who die of COVID-19 was thus an extension of this same line of thinking. It was unfortunate that the public health professionals became catspaws in this government’s machinations to survive politically, by subscribing to the rulers’ superior and majoritarian mindset and demonising the ‘Other’ attitude. Thankfully, majority of the medical profession did not concur with them. That was this nation’s fortune.
In the backdrop of the country’s pogrom-filled history, and in the context of a difficult transition from war to ‘peace’ in 2009, the resurgence of ethno-nationalism and identity politics produced fresh tensions and fault lines. Anti-Muslim hate has been on the rise, and came to the forefront of Sri Lankan politics after a series of suicide attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019 by a fringe radical Muslim group. This unfortunate incident worked as a game-changer for Muslims in Sri Lanka. The well-orchestrated yet subtle Islamophobia machinery began to work overtime vindicating anti-Muslim bigotry, which continues to date. Amidst the pandemic, we saw the same machinery do its work again, through demonisation and forced cremation policy. Today, ‘One Country One Law’ has become a weapon to further strip the Muslims of their long-achieved rights and freedoms. The Presidential Commission led by a renown hate monk and his public views are itself a proof about the inner racist agenda of this government to initially deny them of their personal laws, putting forward the face of a Muslim Minister in charge of ‘so-called justice’ in this beleaguered nation.
Now, what about the imperative need to hold accountable the top rungs in this government and its public health official stooges including the so-called technical committee led by the likes of Dr Channa Perera and Prof Methikaa Vithanage, who brazenly advocated and implemented the racist, discriminatory forced cremation policy, which wreaked havoc on the social fabric, and harmony of this nation? In February 2021, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) tweeted, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care?” Hitler’s words and legacy remind us of the massive historical and contemporary importance of racism to public health and medical care. Thus, as we engage in the continuous project of identifying and responding to the ways racism impacts health and health care, we must also hold our institutions, our political leaders, and ourselves to account for the harms of interpersonal and structural racism.
We must remember that individuals, especially in powerful positions, contribute to the systems of which they are a part. They shape and implement policy, directly participating in the structures they may publicly decry as structurally racist. Simply put, health care leaders are a key part of the system when we talk about systemic or structural racism in health care. Otherwise, predominantly majoritarian institutions and powerful individuals will be able to temporarily adopt the language of structural racism without responding to the harms they have the most power to directly and immediately mitigate. Worse, they may use the concept of structural racism to fend off demands for transformative change that contributes to the work of dismantling supremacy and majoritarianism. Thus the so-called experts and their political patrons should not be allowed to go scot-free, hiding behind pseudo government policy however racist they may be. Perhaps legal action including FR application should be pursued by human rights groups to hold those responsible to account. Time may be running out. What will be the position of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in this regard?
As said “everyone must treat with respect all things that are sacred to other people whether one comprehends them or not.” In our vision of a racially just world, we must understand accountability as an ongoing and fluid process of building and sustaining authentic relationships across constructed divides of race, class, gender, geography. We must collaborate in the project of decolonizing our hearts and minds, grounded in an understanding and analysis of the intricate weave of power dynamics that shape and socialize us. We must acknowledge our essential interdependence as we collectively live into principles that help us act effectively and with compassion to build the solidarity required for “a different pie,” for justice. We need to see the bigger picture, to see that we need not fight over rungs of a ladder that by its very nature underserves us all. As Winona LaDuke so wisely says, “we don’t want a bigger piece of the pie, we want a different pie.” The bigger picture not only keeps us from fighting among ourselves, but also provides hope, the sense of another possibility.
If the nation is to learn from history, and forge ahead, the government should act as one for everyone, respecting the legitimate concerns of the people, irrespective of racial or religious differences. Failure to do so fails humanity as a whole.