The incidents surrounding the Dambulla mosque and its aftermath have left the Muslim community shaken and uneasy. The Muslims have over centuries lived in harmony with their brother communities and enjoyed excellent relationships with both the Sinhala and Tamil communities.
This state of being was rudely shaken on April 20th when the Friday congregation prayers were disrupted by unruly mobs that took umbrage to the presence of the mosque which they described as being unauthorized, despite its existence without objection for over 50 years.
What was even more surprising were the events that unfolded thereafter, which were disturbing both from the perspective of inter-community relations as well as from the perspective of law and order.
As is well known, for Muslims, the value placed in the practice of their religion cannot be overstated. An attack on economic or other aspects of Muslim society will not evoke as strong a reaction as does an attack on the practice of their religion.
Feelings ran so high that even Governor Alavi Moulana, a long standing SLFP loyalist, was constrained to remark that he may have to give up his Governorship if the Dambulla mosque was shifted to a new location, while Muslims in many parts of the country simply ignored the call by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama requesting them not to protest.
The Dambulla mosque episode raises several questions relevant to the country at large.
Those who witnessed most of what happened on Television would have observed at least three offences under the Penal Code, namely, Unlawful Assembly, Criminal Intimidation and Criminal Tresspass being committed as well as the Fundamental Right to practice ones religion being violated.
What is shocking is that all the offences listed above were committed in the presence of law enforcement officials but no action was taken by them to apprehend the culprits.
While the police were faced with a delicate situation in handling the mob, it did not augur well for the Rule of Law that no action was taken to arrest and produce before Courts those who had broken the law before their very own eyes. In situations of this nature it is imperative that the law takes it course so that it will act as a deterrent to potential violators, while reassuring those who were victims of the aggressors.
An immediate investigation needs to be carried out to find out why action was not taken to disperse the mob and prevent the offences that were committed in the presence of law enforcement officials. It is imperative that every effort is taken to make the environment conducive for law enforcement officials to carry out their duties in a just and efficient manner, a failure of which will only result in anarchy and a collapse in structures and systems of governance.
As many commentators have pointed out, if the mosque authorities had indeed contravened any provision of the law, legal procedures could have been invoked to obtain redress for such contravention of the law.
Allowing laymen to take the law into their own hands instead of having recourse to the due process of law is a dangerous precedent which can spiral out of control in a manner detrimental to our efforts to come out of the national trauma of a debilitating armed conflict
Furthermore, any decision to shift the mosque with or without the consent of the trustees and the Muslim community, will project the wrong signal to anti-social elements, namely, that they are free to take the law into their own hands to achieve any objective. It need hardly be stressed that such a trend is a recipe for disaster.
The Dambulla mosque incident also raises another important issue, namely, the definition and scope for the concept of sacred areas. There is very little knowledge about the concept in the public domain and hence, it is advisable that awareness be created about the concept among the public in general, and among those who live within the confines of the sacred area in particular, as to what activity is permissible and not, within such a sacred area. It is also necessary to ensure a transparent process of consultation among the stakeholders before an area is declared a ‘sacred area.’
Sri Lanka is currently faced with many challenges on national and international fronts. The foremost challenge is to transform the end of the armed conflict into a truly national victory by inspiring confidence among the three major communities that unsavory incidents of the past will not recur, and that Sri Lanka is a country where its citizens can live in equality with dignity and self respect. While this is no easy task, it must be stated that it is not an unattainable or impossible one either.
At a period of our history where it is required that we put our best foot forward to face the future, incidents such as these are an unnecessary setback in the ongoing National Reconciliation effort. Admittedly, while the Dambulla incident itself is a significant one, it must be remembered that it is only one incident in the otherwise culturally tolerant environment which Sri Lanka has been known for.
Therefore, what is critical is the response the nation decides to take in dealing with the recent unfortunate incident at Dambulla. It will determine the trajectory of our progress in the years to come. The incident should not be looked at as a purely Muslim issue as it carries implications for all the communities, the Tamils and Sinhalese included, and the country as a whole.
It remains in the National Interest that the large reservoir of goodwill that exists among our people of different communities at the grassroots be harnessed, nurtured and cherished to take the country forward, for allowing misguided individuals or groups to set dangerous precedents and awaken hostile sentiments will not only be a pity but regretful as well.