Probably the bitterest experience faced by the Muslims in the history of the country has come to an end with the Government’s decision to restore the right of burial to those who died or were suspected to have died as a result of being afflicted by the COVID-19 virus. But the irrational decision of the [...]


Learning lessons from the COVID-19 burial fiasco


Probably the bitterest experience faced by the Muslims in the history of the country has come to an end with the Government’s decision to restore the right of burial to those who died or were suspected to have died as a result of being afflicted by the COVID-19 virus.

But the irrational decision of the Government to forcibly cremate the unfortunate ones who succumbed  to COVID-19 has caused harm on many fronts and will take a long time to repair.

Firstly the anguish and pain of mind caused to the Muslim community over a period  of nearly a year by compelling them  to cremate their loved ones in violation of their constitutionally  protected fundamental right to be buried in accordance with their religious teachings will remain a bad memory.

Secondly it created conditions for members of the majority community  to view Muslims with disfavour in the belief that the community only wanted its pound of flesh and did not care for the wellbeing of its fellow citizens.

Sections of the media provided a platform for racist elements to promote this idea despite the Muslim community having given up three of the four elements of their last rites and were only requesting the fourth element, namely, that of burial.  The media did not adequately inform the people of the fact that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence was in support of burial, thus further perpetuating the myth that Muslims did not care for the welfare of others.

In fact Muslim religious and civil society leaders had repeatedly indicated that they would forego their right to burial in the interest of the common good, if it was proved that such a process would result in harm to the rest of the populace.

The third fallout of the Government’s obstinacy was the damage caused to Sri Lanka’s image internationally. As a result there was concern expressed from many quarters internationally appealing to the Government to end the unjust decision to forcibly cremate. The Government continued to turn a deaf ear to these appeals and succeeded in adding  a new item to the list of human rights concerns listed by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner in her report on Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

Hiding behind a so called technical committee the Government chose to turn a deaf ear to the agonised pleas of its own citizens but never officially announced the reasons for its decision and has to date not released the report of the technical committee that recommended cremation in contravention of WHO guidelines.

Following  persistent appeals from various quarters the Health Services Director General appointed a committee of experts having the necessary competencies headed by Professor Jennifer Perera to give an opinion on the matter. This committee was appointed on December 24 and gave its report within four days with reasons recommending that the option of burial be allowed. The report of this committee is in the public domain unlike that of the so called technical committee.

Even efforts by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to restore the burial right were thwarted by forces in the Government that were more powerful than him, despite State Minister Sudarshani Fernandopulle accepting in Parliament that the COVID-19 virus could not be spread through water.

While the Muslim community heaves a sigh of relief that burial rights have been restored, the statement on Friday by State Minister Shehan Semasinghe that the Government could always change its decision once again if the technical committee advises is a bit of a dampener.

The rumpus over the remarks made by Justice Minister Ali Sabri  with regard to the amendment of personal laws is a further indication of the anti-Muslim sentiment within the ranks of Government.

The Justice Minister made these remarks in Parliament when he pointed out that any attempt to change the personal laws by amending  Article 16 of the Constitution  would impact all the personal laws. While listing the personal laws, the Minister went on to refer to the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance which immediately created an outcry from a number of members of the Buddhist Clergy.

Several members of the Buddhist clergy, in a letter addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, protested Justice Minister Ali Sabry’s remarks in Parliament that the Buddhist Temporalities (Amendment) Act was a personalised law of the country. They urged the President to take appropriate action against the minister for such erroneous utterances as soon as possible.

Among the signatories to this letter is Professor Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera who officiated  at the Minister’s assumption of duties at the Ministry undoubtedly at the Minister’s invitation.

In a clear overreaction the pro-Government members of the clergy took umbrage at a minor technicality and criticised the Minister for describing the Buddhist Temporalities Act as a personal law.

The members of the Clergy supported their criticisms by citing the book entitled  “An Introduction to the Legal System of Sri Lanka,” according to which they claimed that  only the Kandyan law, Thesavalamai law and the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act were personal laws of this country.

With the members of the clergy unlikely to have had any prior knowledge of the country’s legal systems, it is apparent that  some of  the members of the legal fraternity supporting the Government too would have had a hand in the barrage against the Minister.

The Justice Minister finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He has been soft on the hardliners in his camp even when they attack him or the Muslim community. His stock reply in such situations is to say that there are extremists on all sides without pointedly naming  names.

So far his policy of falling over backwards to appease the Sinhala hardliners  and his attempt to placate them by talking about the virtues of Buddhism have not succeeded in saving him from being criticised by his colleagues in the Government. His latest attempt to ban the burqa could be seen in this light.

The burqa is a dress in respect of which opinion within the Muslim community is divided, some view it as obligatory while others believe it is not a religious requirement. Whatever one’s belief with regard to this, no one has the right to impose his or her views on those who wish to wear the same unless of course a situation arises where national security is affected.

When there was no call to ban the burqa during the 30 year old civil war on security grounds, a ban would be justified only if national security is jeopardised and only for a limited period  of time, when such a situation arises as was the case soon after the Easter Sunday attack.

How the Justice Minister has come to the conclusion that national security is endangered  by wearing the burqa is as mystifying as the decision of the Government to enforce cremations. Or is it another attempt to appease the hardliners?



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