When the saffron robe has the final say

A monk’s cremation on a temple’s premises, in violation of a court order, has triggered protests.

Updated - September 28, 2019 10:59 pm IST

Published - September 28, 2019 09:52 pm IST

Gnanasara Thero, head of the hard-line Bodu Bala Sena at Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy in July.

Gnanasara Thero, head of the hard-line Bodu Bala Sena at Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy in July.

The recent passing away of a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka and his subsequent cremation in the northern district of Mullaitivu has brought to the fore an old concern — the power wielded by the Buddhist clergy and the impunity shielding them. It wasn’t the monk’s cremation that was the problem, it was the site.

On Monday, a group of saffron-robed men, led by controversial monk Gnanasara Thero (in picture) of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), gathered near the Neeravi Pillaiyar Kovil (temple) well in Mullaitivu, even as their supporters swiftly made arrangements for the cremation to be held there. They completed the final rites, defying a court order barring it on the temple’s premises. Around noon the same day, the Mullaitivu magistrate court had ruled that the cremation be held by the sea, near the Army camp facing the temple.

“When I returned from the court to the temple, I was shocked to see the monks going ahead with the cremation there, despite the court ruling against it. There were some 40 bhikkhu s (monks) and maybe around 200 supporters with them,” said Kanagarathinam Sugash, attorney-at-law, who appeared for the temple administration in the case.

As the news spread, several locals — mostly Hindu Tamils — gathered around the temple in protest. “When I tried to draw the monks’ attention to the court order, one of them, speaking in broken Tamil, turned very aggressive towards me and told me — ‘This is a Sinhala Buddhist country and monks come first, they are above all’,” recalled Mr. Sugash, who was assaulted in the ensuing clash. The Jaffna-based lawyer found the monk’s remarks most telling. “He [the monk] was effectively telling me that monks are above the courts, above law and order.”

By then, dozens of policemen had gathered at the spot. “They didn’t allow me or the people to enter the temple,” said Shanthi Sriskandarasa, the Mullaitivu parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), representing Tamils of the north and east. “Some of our youngsters were very angry. Instead of ensuring that a court order is adhered to, the police were busy protecting the monks,” said the MP, who plans to initiate legal action.

“The whole incident showed us how Buddhist monks in this country can get away with just about anything, it is very worrying,” she added. Ms. Sriskandarasa’s concern has to be seen in context.

Presidential pardon for monk

In May this year, President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Buddhist priest Gnanasara Thero, who was serving a prison term after being convicted for contempt of court. The monk is notorious for hate speech targeting minorities, particularly Muslims, and is also accused of inciting anti-Muslim violence in the past.

Monday’s incident has heightened anxiety among Tamils, who see the monk’s assertion of authority as yet another attempt towards “Sinhala colonisation” of the island’s Tamil-majority north and east.

In the post-war decade, locals have often pointed to new Buddha statues emerging in different parts of the north and east, where most residents are Tamil Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. In several cases, the military has erected the statues, residents said.

When contacted, a police officer-in-charge (OIC) in Mullaitivu said, “An inquiry is being conducted to look into what happened on Monday.” The BBS, according to local news reports, has claimed its leader was “not aware” of the court order at the time of the cremation.

Meanwhile, lawyers in the north and east are striking work, protesting against the violation of a court order. They have decided to raise the matter with the Attorney General before returning to courts.

Reacting to the developments, Northern Province Governor Suren Raghavan urged politicians not to create communal and religious tensions ahead of the presidential election. “At the moment, southern politicians are in the north in order to stir up things with regard to the final rites of the chief incumbent of Gurukanda Nayaru Rajamaha Viharaya. These are primitive and tribal political campaigns. We clearly know that the northern votes are a decisive factor in presidential elections,” the state-run Daily News quoted him as saying.

The Tamil vote may be crucial in the polls, but that has not prompted any strong condemnation of the monks’ questionable actions by national leaders. The people of Mullaitivu, along with many others elsewhere, are watching how the judiciary and state will respond to a blatant defiance of a court order.

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent

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