By Mohamed Harees –
“Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people,their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.” ~ William E Gladstone
Epidemics bring out the best and worst of the media. On the flipside, we have witnessed the development of numerous campaigns fighting back against a parallel epidemic of ‘coronaracism’. Sri Lanka’s COVID response is proof that demonization of particularly the Muslims has been normalised. The health crisis has been used to reinforce the narrative that the ‘careless and undisciplined’ Muslim community has 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 is in place in Sri Lanka, insisting on cremation of all those who die of COVID-19 is an extension of this same line of thinking.
It is clear that stirring up anti-Muslim sentiments (or any kind of anti-minority sentiments) is a tried and tested political strategy in Sri Lanka—which has been used very effectively in the recent past.
Sri Lanka was credited to have contained the Coronavirus more successfully than its peers. However, while fighting the pandemic, Sri Lanka has given a new lease of life to an equally dangerous virus: Islamophobia. In Sri Lanka, some sections of the news media and the government are entwined in a vicious circle of mutual manipulation, mythmaking, and self-interest. It is patently clear that the official government position is being echoed and promoted by some rogue racist sections of the Media such as Derana, Hiru TV or Irida Divaina Sinhala Newspaper, with much fabrication and distortion, to show the masses that those demanding burials are both unpatriotic and selfish. ‘Divaina’ Editorial recently put Ali Sabry, Mujeeb, Hakeem et el in the same league as the terrorist Zahran, for speaking in favour of a right which is legally theirs – the option to bury their (Covid) dead when it is scientifically plausible. These types of gutter journalism has made the right to free speech in the Constitution, a joke.
Take another example: ‘Truth with Chamuditha’ program which has bene going viral in the social media these days. Like ‘Talk With Chatura’ program in Derana, any fair minded person watching this, would note that how racist and biased it is! They frame their questions to Muslim interviewees in a twisted manner, starting off from the point of view that Muslims are a set of unreasonable people. These TV shows naturally find a wide receptive audience in the social media, distorting public perception about the Muslims as a whole. In the latest one, Chamuditha was asking Dr Mareena Refai, why Muslims were asking special rights and treatment in the context of the demand to allow burial of covid dead bodies, by the Muslims.
Yes! the Islamic faith requires the deceased to be buried in accordance with religious guidelines and it is forbidden to cremate the deceased, but as long as there is no proven threat to the living. It must be stated that the Muslim community would have no qualms about the decision if the decision was taken based on scientific and medical concerns as laid down in WHO guidelines, However, this does not appear to be the case in this instance. In fact, contrary to the canards spread, Muslims and their religious institutions did not bat an eye lid in closing their mosques and by and large the whole community (bar few rogue elements as in any other community) has been adhering to Corona prevention and quarantine guidelines. The question framed then should not be: why Muslims are asking for special privileges, but why is the Government denying and violating the religious rights of the minorities without any plausible scientific basis and not affording both cremation and burial options, when it is possible to do so? Why is fighting Corona pandemic being coupled with Corona racism?
However, the community has also been peacefully protesting against the forced cremation policy of the government and appealing to them to consider burials as in other countries. However, both mass and social media are agog with posts criticizing even the right to ask for their rights for the burial option for Covid victims as unpatriotic. Even, the silver lining – the recent laudable decision of the cabinet to review the position also seems illusionary, judging by what Ministers Rambukwella and Weerawansa said later. Political calculations of not being seen as appeasing to Muslim concerns are preventing the government from doing the sensible thing. Prima facie, this so-called ‘tough’ approach however earned for the rulers, a macho-style image among its largely ultra nationalist audience and some praise for their control of the disease spread. But in the overall process, they lost the confidence of particularly both Muslim and Christian communities who bury their dead. Further, they also cut a sorry figure as an unjust and unfair government caring nought about the feelings of the vulnerable sections of its people-in this case its minorities without any credible basis. A classic case of ‘Operation successful; patient died’!
One premise to refuse the burial option is bringing fake local scientific evidence to support the case is a prime one, when there as many as 200+ countries are following the WHO Guidelines which offers both burial and cremation options. These sources promote the thinking that the burial of covid infested bodies are harmful to the living as they would pollute the waterways and water tables. They bring pseudo scientists like Prof Withanage to support this view although she later stated that her views were not based on research. They also fail to convince those who challenge this view about how excrement from thousands of covid infected patients discharged into the water ways will not pollute them while a covid dead body wrapped appropriately and buried deep down will. Even Justice Minister Ali Sabry in an insightful interview to Neth FM recently challenged the fallacy of this argument and asked people to view this matter with an open mind, in order to find an acceptable solution to all. But the SLPP voter-base is gunning for him, branding him an extremist too. Nay! anyone who uses his/her right to free expression to ask for this right is dubbed as such; Muslim and other social and political activists who speak up asking for the burial option are extremists and unpatriotic while the name sake ‘Mohamed Muzammil’s, and some Muslim women with Dan Prasad speaking against that demand are given much prominence in the media.
In fact, if logic of reasoning, internationally validated medical evidence supporting burials, and human rights violations as well as sensitivity towards people’s feelings and empathy and international outcries, are of any effect, the Government would have listened favourably. However, it was not the case. Since March this year, many have spoken ; many incisive articles were written while so many protested and even wrote to the Government of Sri Lanka to allow burials of Covid dead bodies. The WHO Guidelines are clear followed by the world outside except China. Representations made by the UN, EU, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and international HR Watchdogs too stressed the human rights violations. There were also protests by the relatives of the deceased, community leaders, local political and social activists too asking for justice. Several petitions have been filed in the Supreme Courts, by aggrieved parties including some Christian organizations as well against this discriminatory policy. (Why they are not being heard on an urgent basis, like the 20th Amendment case is confusing to many!) Quite a number of Buddhist monks too spoke out asking the government to respect the wishes of the affected families. WHO and UN reiterated this fact once again; to no effect.
However, the government’s approach to disposing of COVID-19 bodies has been contradictory, to say the least. Until March 30, the Ministry of Health webpage listed burial as a safe option for COVID-19 victims. However, on April 11, an amendment brought forward by the Minister of Health amended this regulation making cremation compulsory for all COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 victims. There has been a lot of politicisation from publicity-seeking politicians, who have been using this platform for gaining votes. When affected families need justice, this change of policy is certainly a collective punishment to the affected communities too. This is however not just a Muslim issue. Many non-Muslims too wonder what the future holds for them because many of them would want to be buried too. Therefore these are questions that need to be asked in a larger context.
No one denies that as the death rate climbs from COVID-19, what happens to the bodies of those who’ve died will become an increasingly pressing issue. Ever since the outbreak, Covid deaths have been exponentially rising in most countries all over the world, which has compelled them to take adequate and required precautions both to reduce the death rates and also to protect their people, in accordance with WHO Guidelines relating to reduction of Covid risks. The law’s treatment of human remains has always been premised on two things: respect for the dead, and of course public health concerns around bodily decay and risk of disease. And there is no question that while all possible steps will be taken to uphold respect for the dead, in pandemics the emphasis inevitably also shifts to public health. Precise the reason why WHO Guidelines and the practices adopted elsewhere should be taken seriously. In most countries, at the same time, a set of Guidance has also been developed to ensure that those who have died during the pandemic and their family are treated with sensitivity, dignity and respect.
The Sri Lankan guidelines are also a departure from much of the world. In the UK, emergency regulations were amended to allow the burial for Muslim and Jewish victims of the virus pandemic. However, the Sri Lankan health authorities have not given any acceptable medical reason to support their cremation only policy. Medical professionals in numbers called out the absurdity of this policy. Dr Paba Palihawadana, former Chief Epidemiologist, Director,Central Epidemiology Unit, Ministry of Health clearly stated that there was no adverse impact on the water table. Thus, at first, the Sri Lankan health authorities officially cited ground water contamination as the reason for denying burial rights. However, in light of clear evidence to the contrary, they retracted that. With no leg to stand on scientifically, the authorities begun to concoct conspiracy theories to justify the ‘cremation only’ policy. Dr Channa Perera, Consultant Forensic Pathologist “attached to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health” told the BBC World Service: “the government has nothing against Muslims but they have a small fear about whether the virus can be used for unauthorised activities. Maybe an unwanted person could get access to a body and it could be used a biological weapon.” This was an unnecessarily anti-Muslim statement that created unwarranted divisiveness when the need to fight this pandemic together is more urgent than ever.
Every society prides itself on how it treats its dead. Death is no hushed whisper in Sri Lanka. It’s a rallying cry to a whole community. The dead person is brought home and laid out in an open coffin in the “good room”. Mourners file past the coffin. They condole with the family. But this pandemic has robbed families of such tradition. The coronavirus crisis is stressful for people worried about their health, job security, families and communities. It becomes even more emotionally taxing when a loved one dies and family or friends when they have also been forced to cremate their dead, in direct violation of their religious rights and traditions without no plausible reason. The very thought of dying from Corona has been driving fear and anxiety into their hearts. I have known many elderly women crying in anguish at the very sight of illness expecting the worst. This will also adversely impact upon the anti-Corona drive when the authorities are failing to win over all communities.
As Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, said: “At this difficult time, the authorities should be bringing communities together – not deepening divisions between them. “Grieving relatives of people who have died because of COVID-19 should be able to bid farewell to their loved ones in the way that they wish, especially where this is permissible under international guidelines.”
Repercussions of the current decision on mandatory cremation overweigh its intended objectives. It could defeat the ‘purpose’ and unleash an unintended horror. The call for a reversal of the cremation only policy is already triggering a fresh wave of Islamophobia within the majority community, upon the heels of an earlier wave of Islamabophia in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks. The government’s discriminatory approach is being aided by the dog-whistling television coverage, and the social media chatter too. The mandatory cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims will sadly polarize the country at a time it should be unified against the invisible enemy. Hope sanity prevails and the government will review its clearly discriminatory ‘Emperor’s clothes like’ position on the mandatory cremation policy, even if not for religious concerns, but for its potentially deadly payback, such as setting off silent chains of community spread and complication of the already fragile ethnic relations in the country. Those who make decisions at the highest levels, should therefore also assess the wider social consequences. These can also be mistakes that the Sri Lankans would regret in the years to come. As for the government, it is still not too late to reverse the course.