By Visakha and Venetia – both Buddhists –
This recent unsavoury and unacceptable issue of the attack on the mosque in Dambulla shames the Sri Lankan community, which for generations has lived with tolerance towards each others’ places of worship. The operative phrase being “tolerant towards each others’ place of worship” should be considered mindfully because this has not been the case where ethnic tolerance is concerned. This incident also reinforces the phenomena of a deeply fragmented society where the rifts and wounds are getting deeper and wider. This fragmentation is an epidemic which has all dimensions – religious, cultural, class, caste, wealth, cultural and political. The common good is not considered in the long term and short term petty gains are the order of the day.
Most tragic for Buddhism is that the word of the Buddha and tolerance which is innate in the Buddha Dhamma is totally misrepresented by a minority of Buddhists, especially a few (not all) of the yellow robed representatives, who are but intolerant beings masquerading under a shroud of sanctimony.
Let us look at the incident proper and the laws and policies governing this incident. In the Sunday Times Javid Yusuf gives an excellent summary on the challenges.
What happened to awaken the monks after 50 years since the mosque was built in 1963? Mr Yusuf brings down the violations to three offences under the Penal Code and one under Fundamental Rights. One must add however that the Police standing by complicit to this crime gives vent to another offence against the establishment which is dereliction of duty. Sri Lankans never learn as memories are extremely short. The horrors of “83 too were caused by state dereliction of duty by not stopping such grave atrocities, which is tantamount to state driven violence.
Let us look back at 2010 and the deliberations on the ban of NEW places of worship.
From UCA News “Sri Lanka’s religious community welcomes a construction ban on illegal places of worship. Prime Minister Disanayaka Mudiyanselage Jayaratne, who also heads the Buddha Sasana Ministry and is Religious Affairs Minister, announced the ban on June 23, saying all new places of worship need government approval, or they will be declared illegal and building work suspended. He said the move was to promote and protect religious harmony. He made the decision following a high number of complaints about illegal construction of religious places.
Placing statues on corners close to roads and worshiping them is a threat to religious harmony. There are existing regulations regarding the building of a religious place, he said.
The PM wants Inspector General of Police Mahinda Balasuriya to enforce these rules and stop illegal construction to maintain good relations among religions” “The decision applies to all religions,”
Father Shantha Sagara Hettiarachchi, editor of Catholic weekly Gnanarthapradeepaya (Light of Wisdom) said he welcomes the PM’s decision if it does apply to all religions. “Although we try to respect the law when we build churches, we face too many problems,” he said.
Assaji Thero, Executive Secretary of Inter-religious Peace Foundation was more positive about the decision.“There are enough religious places in the country. There are even 12,000 temples without Buddhist monks,” he said. “It is a good decision,” he told.
Shivashri Dharmaraja Kurukkal, a Hindu priest said illegal constructions are wrong. We have to respect the government and follow its rules, he said
Applications for construction should be referred to a committee appointed by the Religious Affairs Ministry secretary after the relevant local authorities grant approval.”
In the case of the mosque, what prevented the Inamaluwe priest from taking this back to such a Committee as mentioned above? After all removing of a place of worship existing for 50 years is far more serious than erecting a new one. Even if there was no such Committee, this could have been taken through legal channels. Also what is the profound definition of a sacred area? Is only one religion sacred?
Could it be that the mosque incident is part of a bizarre tangled web of events in connection with the attempted amendment to the Town and Country Planning Ordinance which was proposed and then rejected by court? The amendment would have given vast powers to the Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs to declare and do any changes as deemed by him to private land as the subject of the original ordinance is private land.
To quote the Lakbima “The amendment allows for the declaration of ‘Protection Areas,’ ‘Conservation Areas,’ ‘Architectural or Historic Areas’ and ‘Sacred Areas.’ The Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs-who is also the Prime Minister–may gazette any area of land within any municipal, urban development or trunk road development area under one of these categories.
The amendment, therefore, expands the scope of a minister’s powers from declaring just urban development areas to other categories. But while ‘Protection Area,’ ‘Conservation Area’ and ‘Architectural or Historic Area’ are defined in the bill (albeit shoddily), the term ‘Sacred Area’ is not. This effectively means that if the Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs declares an area to be ‘Sacred,’ anybody disputing this in court will not have recourse to a legal definition.
Thus, if a person’s private property (regardless of whether or not there is a building on it) is gazetted as a ‘Sacred Area’ and that person seeks legal redress, even a reasonable judge would be constrained to point out that nothing could be done in the absence of a definition. How would one argue that one’s property is not ‘sacred’ if the law does not explain what ‘sacred’ means?”
The principal law prohibits any person (unless he holds a permit) from erecting, re-erecting, demolishing, altering or repairing any structure in that area; laying out, constructing, widening, extending or closing, attempting to lay out, construct, widen, extend or close any road in that area; or developing any land in that area, subdividing, conveying, assigning or otherwise disposing of or dealing with any such land in such a manner as to constitute any part of the land into a separate holding.
Therefore according to the principal law one cannot build nor demolish a structure without going through the proper process. According to recent articles in the news a Kali temple in this area too has been demolished.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives did extremely well to bring these anomalies to the notice of the Supreme Court and get the amendment withdrawn and in an ever diminishing landscape of good governance a little bit of faith in the court process is restored. The ruling also respected devolution and the need to get the approval of Provincial Councils especially with regard to land matters as a “Listed” activity, before such amendments are passed.
Whatever the reason, violence has no place in society on the part of anyone. Breaking of the Bamien Buddha statues in Afghanistan, nor the attacks on churches, nor Jihad, nor the demolition of the kali temple can and should be tolerated. We should all be mindful that the enemy of peace is not really conflict but the resulting violence. Let us as a nation condemn such attacks and request the Government to resolve this in a manner befitting a country with a history of well over 2500 years.
As Amartya Sen said about natural disasters “the shape of assistance one gives during one disaster shapes the next” in the same vein the process employed to resolve social conflict will shape events in the future. So the state and the community should act responsibly to keep Sri Lanka out of conflict. The Maha Sangha Sabha should also take appropriate action against the errant priest.