By Saliya Pieris –
In early May when students led by the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) launched a demonstration in Colombo on the Allied Health Sciences issue, the police with lightning speed obtained an order from the Colombo Chief Magistrate restricting the demonstration on the basis that it would cause public disorder and tarnish the image of the nation.
The police claimed that the demonstration was being held at the same time as the World Youth Conference, and that they had information that another group (which was not identified) was preparing to disrupt the students’ protest. The police claimed that they feared that there would be a clash between the two groups and asked for the assistance of court- to restrict the students ,but not the other group which was seeking to violently disrupt the student protest. The order was given; certain students who allegedly violated the Court order were later hauled up in Court and bailed out.
In stark contrast to the zealous manner in which the police acted against a minor student protest, was the ‘restraint’ demonstrated by the authorities towards the Ven. Galagodatte Gnanansara of the Bodu Bala Sena and his followers on June 15 at Aluthgama.
Even the most junior constable in the Police force would have realised that permitting the agitated demonstrators led by the BBS to go through the predominantly Muslim Dhargha Town would inevitably lead to a clash between the two factions, given the tension which admittedly prevailed that day in these areas.
Surprisingly neither the Inspector General of Police nor his senior officers such as the Senior DIG of the Western Range (who was also involved in the police action on the student protests) seemed to have realised the consequence of permitting the BBS rally to be held and thereafter to march through Dhargha Town. Three explanations are possible to this police inaction- Firstly that the hands of the police were tied; secondly that they lacked the will to take any action; or thirdly (but very unlikely) – that they simply did not realise the possible consequences- which if so means that the IGP downwards the police are guilty of gross incompetence.
When one listens to the rabble rousing speech of the Ven. Gnanasara and the cheers of his followers at Aluthgama on that fateful day it is easy to understand that what transpired immediately afterwards at Aluthgama and Beruwala was inevitable and was indeed not surprising.
In his speech Ven. Gnanasara obviously quite oblivious to the teachings of his faith, threatens that if any Sinhalese is touched by a Muslim (referred to as a “marakkalaya”) that will be the end of everyone. Up to date Ven. Gnanasara has not been made accountable for his words and the consequences which resulted from his words which took place over the next few days- damaging the lives and property of different communities in the areas the untold damage to the fabric of our country.
There are those in the police force and indeed at the helm of security in the country who appear to defend the action or rather inaction of the police in the run-up to the incidents at Aluthgama. Some claim that the police feared that halting the march would lead to further trouble and claim that the existing laws are insufficient to deal with the spread of racial and religious hate.
If one were to accept this version that the rally could not be prevented, why is it then that even now no action has been taken against those who spread the message of hate among the races and communities in this country?
It is apparent that the messages of discord spread by the BBS as well as other organisations are finding traction among at least a section of the majority community. One needs to only see the Social Media which caters to much of the younger generation to realise the extent of hate and animosity that has been built up.
Some pages on Facebook- having thousands of ‘likes’ and hundreds of ‘shares’ insult and denigrate not only the minority communities and religions in this country, but also attack those of the majority community who speak up for racial and religious harmony.
One post in a community called “isxy, fndoqkqjd” even calls for the cricket team to be entirely “Sinhala Buddhist” and to drive out the “Kiththan” (Christians) from the team. Reminiscent of the manner in which the Nazis called for a boycott of Jewish businesses and Shops various posts call upon the Sinhalese and Buddhists to boycott Muslim establishments.
In the face of such hate-mongering, one question which begs an answer is as to why the authorities –are yet to deal with the likes of Ven. Gnanasara in the same enthusiastic manner that they dealt with persons such as the Journalist Tissanayagam and General Fonseka who were charged under the PTA and Emergency Regulations respectively for allegedly spreading the message of disharmony and discord?
Minister Vasudeva Nananayakkara is said to have presented a Cabinet Memorandum suggesting a law making hate speech an offence – which suggests that the present law is insufficient to deal with the problem.
Others justify the inaction claiming that these extremist organisations are only exercising their freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution, even though they are full of hatred and venom.
Nothing can be further to the truth than these assertions about insufficient laws and the freedom of expression.
Firstly the Freedom of Expression is not an unrestricted fundamental right. Article 15 of the Constitution allows the restriction the freedom of expression as well publication, by law – in the interests of racial and religious harmony or incitement to an offence. Similar restrictions exist in relation to freedom of assembly.
Secondly the Penal Code- enacted as far back as the 19th Century and which is still the backbone of our criminal law has an entire Chapter titled “of Offences relating to Religion”. Two clauses were added to this law in 1945. These read thus:
291A. Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
291B. Whoever, with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
It is easy to see that the words and acts of many of those who refer to different religions and their beliefs in a derogatory manner and those who target classes of persons with the aim of outraging their religious feelings – be they the feelings of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Muslims – can be punished under this law.
As a safeguard to prevent abuse of these laws, a case can be instituted under these sections only by the Attorney General being the Complainant or with his sanction.
Apart from the Penal Code, in 2007 President Mahinda Rajapakse’s regime passed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. This law was enacted to demonstrate Sri Lanka’s commitment to Human Rights and was ostensibly to give effect to certain articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which have not been given recognition through legislative measures.
Section 3 (1) of that Act states that “No person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. Section 3(2) makes abetment, attempts and even threats to commit such acts punishable. The trials under this law are in the High Court upon indictment by the Attorney General and those convicted face upto ten years in prison. Persons suspected or charged under this law can obtain bail only in exceptional circumstances and that too only by the High Court.
Thus the Penal Code and the ICPR Act contain adequate provisions to deal with incitement and racial and religious hatred and it is a fallacy to claim that the existing laws are insufficient.
An ancient Greek proverb of how armed men spring up, when one sows the dragon’s teeth on the soil goes thus: “Our fathers and ourselves sowed the dragon’s teeth. Our children know and suffer the armed men”.
The agents of hate who spread racial and religious discord in Sri Lanka are once again sowing the dragon’s teeth- leaving the next generations to face the armed men.
It is only if those wielding power and authority – be it political, executive or legal- have the courage and the moral will, to deal with this hatred can this nation be saved from the disastrous consequences of these bigoted words and actions.