“The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout.” —World Health Organization, Infection prevention and control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19, Interim guidance (4 September 2020)
Forced cremation of those who pass of COVID-19 has become the single greatest fear in the minds of Sri Lanka’s Muslims – these days more than the pandemic itself. Whatever one’s religious belief or ethnicity, assuring a dead body (Janazah) receives a dignified burial is our shared culture and heritage. It is also a basic human right that the state cannot wantonly trample. Although mandatory cremation also affects Christians, it is particularly devastating to Muslims, for whom burial of the dead is a non-negotiable religious practice. In Islam fire is connected to hell and punishment. The body is believed to be sacred, and cremation is viewed as desecration. The feeling that Muslims are being purposefully targeted is gaining traction within the minority community, particularly given the complete lack of scientific basis to ban burial. The whole world is burying their COVID-19 dead with no negative health effects. Since the arrival of the novel coronavirus in December 2019, there is not a single reported instance of infection from buried corpses, even in the countries that conducted mass burials.
When the state strips citizens of their fundamental rights without any rational basis, much less a compelling reason, it is up to courts to intervene. Yet on December 1, the Supreme Court refused leave to 11 petitioners who challenged the forcible cremation policy and sought a ruling ensuring that last rights of COVID-19 dead be conducted in accordance with their protected religious and personal beliefs. The Supreme Court’s silence in the face of grave injustice has only increased politicization of the issue. Those of us who sought leave of court are still reeling from the summary denial. Although the Supreme Court is entitled to give no reasons in refusing leave, as the final arbiter of citizens’ rights, especially when one judge thought it fit to grant leave, it would have served the public interest to at least provide reasons for denying leave in this ethnically sensitive matter. The majority’s failure to do so will have grave consequences lasting far beyond these cases, once again demonstrating to Sri Lanka’s minorities that they have limited protection at the national level.
Promoting racism through dead-body politics is nothing new to the minorities of this country. When the government denied memorialisation of Tamils killed, bulldozed LTTE cemeteries, and bullied mothers seeking justice for their disappeared, it denied dignity to those dead and missing as well as closure to their grieving families. Yesterday the target was Tamils; today it is Muslims. The pain and distress of families who are wounded by the state’s cruelty and wracked with guilt at failing their duties to their loved ones and their faith, will gravely impair our collective healing and indefinitely forestall hope of unity.
Some politicians and monks defend the forced cremation policy on the basis of the proposed ‘one country one law’. From the viewpoint of religions minorities, however, this latest policy is merely the continuum of other discriminatory actions and attacks. Extremist Buddhist monks and their allies have attacked Hindu temples and shrines under the ruse of protecting ancient heritage sites in the east. They have similarly attacked Evangelical and Anglican churches and pastors. On a larger scale, the Muslim community has been targeted on multiple fronts. Anti-Muslim violence and hate speech by monks, state-aligned media, and other groups track state policies since the 2019 Easter bombings that subtly and not-so-subtly fuel religious tension and hate under the guise of protecting the country from Islamic extremism. The Extra Ordinary Gazette dated 11th April 2020 mandating cremation for COVID-19 deceased is simply part of that politics.
As the WHO’s Interim guidance explains, “People who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated according to local standards and family preferences.” In the year 2021, all we can do is pray that the government will adopt WHO guidelines, joining more than 190 countries. This would mean adopting a science-based approach to control the spread of the virus so that the citizens can trust the government and feel safe to seek prompt medical attention when they experience symptoms. The fact that Muslims are willing to forego three of four rituals made compulsory in Islam (washing, shrouding, and praying) prove that the community agrees to strictly follow all WHO safe burial guidelines and accept burial procedures issued by the government.
To date the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) alone has ordered the cremation of over 100 COVID-19 causalities. Half of those are Muslims. All bodies that NHSL stored in the freezer container provided by the Justice Minister are being cremated too. The health authority sought clearance from the Magistrate Court to cremate these bodies because their families specifically stated in police complaints that they do not want to give consent to cremation of their loved ones. In filing these police complaints, families are expressing not only their religious objections but also their personal wishes in handling their deceased with dignity. The state has no basis in law, reason, or fundamental fairness in wantonly ignoring families’ objections.
Some media and health officials wrongly imply that these bodies are “unclaimed.” Families have left the bodies of their loved ones in protest against forcible cremation. They do not want to be part of a sin that the government is committing on the pretext of disease prevention. One would understand the families’ pain and agony only when one speaks to them. It is not easy to leave dead bodies of one’s parents, grandparents, spouse, children or siblings. No matter our background, we Sri Lankans have a rich culture and tradition of respecting the dead and performing healing rituals for bereaved families. The way some hospitals treat families of the deceased shows the decline of the medical profession. Some have abdicated their ethical duty to do no harm, too drunk with power and hatred. A brave few in the medical profession have spoken the truth in the last few weeks, risking their jobs and community acceptance to speak the truth, grounded in science. It is their voice that provides some hope that we might rebuild a deeply fractured trust in 2021 and ensure all communities work with health authorities in collectively fighting and eradicating this deadly pandemic.
Shreen Abdul Saroor is a Human Rights Activist, based in Mannar, Sri Lanka.