Posted on May 16th, 2014

By Sugath Samarasinghe

We read in the newspapers that a special Police Unit has been established to deal with religious strife matters.This maybe a good political move to meet the recent phenomenon of the rise of religious conflicts in the short term. But the interesting question is under what law will this unit operate?

There may be a few provisions in the Penal Code and some sections in the Code of Criminal Procedure and of course the general provisions of the Penal Code on offences such as, criminal force, trespass, mischief, assault and causing hurt etc. The obvious inadequacy of these provisions to address the peculiar situations seem to be apparent in the empty faces of many police officers who figure in the video clips covering these incidents. They seem to be bemused in those situations. What does it mean? That the police officers are unable to legally recognize/identify some cogently serious offences to act upon straight away, other than perhaps superficially seeing some broad instances of breach of the peace such as those mentioned earlier.

Let me elaborate. Now there are some sections on bribery offences in the Penal Code. But when bribery and corruption came to be recognized as a serious problem of governance and as a social and economic menace, a separate Bribery Act with special powers and offences that re-identified the offences so that the enforcers could act with a clear understanding of what they are expected to do and what they cannot. In order facilitate action on these offences further a new unit was created under a Bribery and Corruption Commission. Similarly, when the society was confronted with terrorism, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was brought in and to facilitate the implementation of these provisions, the Terrorist Investigations and such other branches were put in place. And now terrorism is effectively under control, though may be for the present. Again, of late when women and young persons became specially vulnerable, Womens’ and Young Persons’ ordinances were strengthened and thereafter Women and Childrens’ bureax were set up in every police station (subject to correction) under Women Police Officers and they seem to function quite well; so is the Narcotics Bureau and the strengthened Dangerous Drugs law in place. Thus, many situations that developed in the society from time to time brought in new legal and procedural provisions as legal backup for effective enforcement, successfully.  

Now my question is what are the special offences, powers and provisions under which the new police unit is expected to act if they are to effectively stamp out this new menace? Even before the unit could go into action the UNP has alleged that, this new unit will not be effective.

This is understandable because if this problem is effectively handled, they will have one more allegation less to throw at the government and the UNHCR will be short of one more brickbat to hurl at Sri Lanka, the next year’s sessions.

So what will be the new laws and provisions needed for this police unit to function effectively, to produce the desired results? I think a little back ground study is needed here to grasp the issues involved, at some depth.

What are circumstances under which this new phenomena of religious strife suddenly begun show its ugly head? Has it emerged for no reason after the end of the LTTE issue by some mischief makers bent on bringing discredit to Sri Lanka government as alleged by some parties, at the instance of some foreign collaborators or by some local mischief makers, with intent to bring down the current government? There is also speculation in some quarters that this maybe the underhand work of the government itself for whatever reason. However, the fact remains that the issues seems to be basically of a religio-cultural nature.

Another question is, could such unrest manifest in a total vacuum? A fear of a recurrence of even a possibility of an’83 riots too is cited by some parties. Here again, did the ’83 riots occur in a total vacuum? What is the breeding ground that germinates aberrations like Bodubala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sihala Ravaya etc. and now a counter Balakaya led by Rev. Watareka Wijitha? Obviously not in a vacuum. There seems to be a simmering low intensity religious tension underneath all this. What is made out is that everything was quiet on the inter-religious relations front and that Buddhist extremism had come into being after the LTTE was finally vanquished in mid-2009. Allegedly, ‘after the Tamils were ‘done with’, it is now directed against the innocent Christians and the Muslims’. Apparently this is the latest stage of a grand plan to wipe out the minorities from this country. This alleged trend is described in attractive terminology as “hate speech”. All this sounds good reading from the Western Human Rights watch point of view. But is this the realistic position on the ground?      

Now let us look at the Buddhist side of the story. There are two Buddhist Commission Reports produced during the last decade or so which claim to set out their grievances, particularly in relations to the other two major religions in this country. One commission was appointed by the government in the time of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. One big grievance of the Buddhists appears to be that the government had totally ignored its recommendations. The other commission named Unethical Conversion of Buddhists into other Religions was appointed by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress somewhere in 2007. This Commission released their report 2 years later. Nobody including government had taken any notice of it. It is made out that if the government took no notice of the recommendations of its own appointed commission, whether they would care to look at the Commission report of the ACBC?

However, the fact remains that the latter commission was convinced that there was in fact aggressive and organized conversion of Buddhists by unethical means, taking place mainly by Christian Evangelists. At that time the ‘Muslim Aggression’ had not surfaced in the open, though they took notice of that fact. The Commission listed out the divergent strategies effectively adopted by the evangelists. Indiscriminate Church/mosque planting is one of the biggest problems identified by the Commission. This new trend of aggressive evangelism by both these religions over the last two decades rendered in the loss of innocence of all four religious communities and gradually generated some degree of hostility which seems to have come into the open since the conclusion of the armed conflict in mid 2009. Buddhists feel that here survival is threatened. All this tended to generate a certain degree of religio-communal tension. There were several court cases on some specific issues. As a possible remedy to some of these problems some of the Buddhist activists started agitating for an anti unethical conversions law to be passed in Parliament, from about the early 2000 years. This went on by default as the successive governments tried their best to avoid it owing to opposition by the Christian Church and the Muslims saying that interfered with ‘religious freedom’. Buddhists asked the question, ‘religious freedom’ to do what? They also ask the question whether ‘religious freedom’ did not include a right to resist evangelical aggression? It may be recalled that one of the issues on what the JHU was elected to Parliament was to have an anti-unethical conversions bill passed in Parliament. However, as the armed conflict with the LTTE was coming to a head the JHU appeared to have given more priority to support the government’s military campaign. But as time passed, due to intensive pressure on them by the different Buddhist groups behind the JHU they presented an anti- unethical conversions bill as a private member’s motion in Parliament, as they found the government was hedging the issue. Being a private member’s motion that was not to their to their liking government tried delaying tactics by appointing committees to’ study’ the bill etc. and eventually it was dragged on the till it lapsed when the Parliament was dissolved.

Thus, the Buddhist sense of grievances continued hurt and frustrating until the Muslim aggression too came into the open in the shape of the Halal issue. It is at this stage that we first heard of this unconventional form of Buddhist protest emerging in the form of Bodu Bala Sena. They first started as an aggressive form of agitation to secure an anti-unethical conversion legislation when the Halal issue provided them a new opportunity to take their grievances head on. The method they adopted was so obnoxious that they could succeed in arresting the attention of both the people and the government. In the West this kind of action is described as ‘brinkmanship’ where one party by some unconventional and obnoxious step would give the other party no option but to respond positively from the perpetrator’s point of view. The Buddhists felt as if they were again reduced to the same disadvantaged state as they were in British colonial times. And the ensuing environment is ideal for exploitation. However the matter is getting complicated in that the agitation in the BBS style of aggression is now described as ‘religious hate speech’ and unruly and unbecoming etc. This twist turns on the conduct of the Bodu Bala Sena taking the focus away from the issues that they are agitating against, namely the perceived indifference and hiding away by the government from the Buddhist grievances. It is precisely in this vacuum that Bodu Bala Sena is ‘performing’. It has succeeded to the extent their work has rudely shaken the government to the need to pay immediate attention to the problems of the of the Buddhists vis- -vis the other religions. My understanding is that what they are asking for is an even playing field for all religions, where Buddhism could exist in harmony with the other religions. Currently they seem to feel that Buddhism is threatened by the activities of Evangelist both overtly and covertly. In that sense, many Buddhists, both laymen and the Sangha seem to think there is no conducive environment for them to engage in their religious activities with a peace of mind. That is probably why there is no serious protest in the country at large against the aggressive activities of the BBS strongly objected to in the English Press.

The question thus arises whether the aim of the government is to provide an even playing field or to restrain the Bodu Balasena so that the covert and overt evangelist activity of both Christians and Muslims could be give a free hand to continue what they are doing. As in many other cases, successive governments, particularly the present, have allowed the grass to grow and now seem to have taken some evasive action by establishing a religious police unit without any teeth. Eventually, the police will be blamed for being inactive or partial toward one party. That will enable the government to pass on the responsibility for failure.

If the government is really serious in eliminating this potential powder keg, they will have to aim at providing an even playing field for all religions. To do this, they must equip the police with legal backup with the necessary legislation to meet the situation at hand. Then the need for movements such as Bodu Bala Sena will disappear. It is in the absence of such laws that such vigilante activities come into being out of necessity, compelling some people to take the law into their hands.

Hence, as a preliminary step it is suggested that an effective anti-unethical conversions bill be passed as a matter of priority. Once particularly the offences and the other relevant powers and procedures are identified and clearly defined, the police and other relevant enforcement agencies will be to act decisively.       

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