This year the celebration of Vesak takes place against the backdrop of an incident, the memory of which must surely cloud the tranquility of this sacred day for many Buddhists.
In Dambulla two weeks ago an unruly mob led by Buddhist monks stormed a mosque, yelled abuse and prevented the Muslim devotees gathered there from conducting their prayers. This was their way of demanding that the mosque be removed from its present location, alleging it had no place in the 'Dambulla sacred area.' It may have struck those who watched these developments on television that this display of belligerence seemed contrary to the Buddha's teaching of non-violence and tolerance towards all beings. Viewers were left in shock at the sheer vulgarity of the incident.
Muslims say the Masjidul Khaira mosque has been at this location for more than 60 years, and that those who worship there have co-existed peacefully with other communities throughout. Many are at a loss to understand how a question over the building's legitimacy suddenly -- overnight, it would seem -- became such a violently fractious issue. Apart from the irreligious spirit of the attack, disguised in the garb of religiosity, the episode has given rise to questions at the legal and political levels as well. If, as the chief monk of the Dambulla Raja Maha Vihare alleges, the issue is one relating to the legality of the construction, why did he not adopt legal procedures in prosecuting his case? And why were the attackers who broke the law on several counts not arrested?
On the political front, does the UPFA government risk alienating the Muslim representatives within its coalition? It may be seen that the key Muslim-led political parties are currently partners of the government - the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Hakeem, the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) led by Rishard Bathiudin and the National Congress (NC) led by A.L.M. Athaullah. History has shown Sri Lanka's Muslims to be a peaceable community that has in fact thrown its weight behind the state in times of trouble.
This was clearly demonstrated during the recent vote on a hostile resolution on Sri Lanka adopted at the UNHRC. At a time when pan-Islamic sentiments are running high, would Sri Lanka lose friends in the Muslim world? These would include states that stood by this country during the UNHRC vote and whose support will, in all likelihood, be needed in international fora in the future as well.
The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (Council of Muslim Theologians) and the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) adopted a commendably responsible stance on the mosque issue by urging the Muslim community 'not to be misled by forces out to destroy the cordial relationship between the Muslim and Buddhist communities by engaging in violent protests or demonstrations.' However the deeply offended Muslims, while eschewing violence, did register their protest after Friday prayers at several mosques. In parts of the Eastern Province hartals were observed, with shops putting up shutters and transport coming to a standstill.
The Muslim political leadership has unanimously declared that they are opposed to the relocation of the mosque. They maintain it is a legal entity under the Waqf Act and that they possess the documents to prove it, according to media reports. Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, who is also Minister for Religious Affairs, had initially made a hurried pledge of sorts, indicating that the mosque would be relocated and that alternative locations for it would be provided. But in a clear sign of confusion within the government, his claim that this was being done with the agreement of Muslim leaders was contradicted by the persons named. The matter has now been referred to the President who was out of the country at the time of the incident. He is understood to have held initial talks with Muslim representatives.
The lack of clarity as to what constitutes a 'sacred area,' further confounds the issue. Where Dambulla is concerned, Land Development Minister Janaka Bandara Tennekoon is reported to have said an extent of land was declared a 'sacred area' in 1981 by then president Ranasinghe Premadasa. By all accounts, the plan under which it was proposed never quite got off the ground. Anyway Minister Tennekoon has appeared on TV to categorically state that the mosque is located outside this area. He has said that he does not call for its relocation. The minister's assertions would seem to make the actions of the mosque's attackers not only unlawful but also completely without foundation.
The SLMC's General Secretary Hasan Ali would like to see the matter resolved amicably. He says in the legal system there is no provision for special arrangements for 'sacred areas'. "When you define an area as sacred for one religion, it can be interpreted in many ways. Are others not sacred?" he asks. "The mosque should not be shifted. The mosque is also sacred" he says.
The most unfortunate aspect of this incident is its potential to damage a fragile national reconciliation process that is underway, following the conclusion of a decades-long conflict. The divisive episode has taken place precisely at a time when efforts are being made to foster communal harmony and create better understanding between religious and ethnic communities. "Mind is the forerunner of all states," reads the opening line of the Dhammapada. So isn't 'sacredness' too a state of mind? However one may choose to define the concept, surely it cannot be a weapon used to assault the religious sensibilities of other communities.
It is significant that President Rajapaksa's Vesak Day message stressed the importance of national unity and religious co-existence. The onus would seem to be on the president to demonstrate statesmanship at this moment. Will he pander to a small minority of narrow minded bigots, or act on the pledge he made at the war's end that there would be 'no more minorities,' and that all citizens are equal before the law?