The recurring phenomenon of orchestrated demonstrations against “Halal”labelled foods, Muslim owned businesses and Muslim places of worship by organized groups of Buddhist Clergy and Laity took a different turn in Sri Lankas Northwestern Province of Wayamba on Thursday January 24th.
A protest demonstration was staged by a group of around 150 persons at Kuliyapitiya, a multi-ethnic,multi-religious town situated 82 Km away from Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo in broad daylight.It is home to the Wayamba University.
While Sinhalese Buddhists are the majority in the town there is also a significant Muslim presence in the town. A number of commercial establishments in Kuliyapitiya are owned by Muslims.
The demonstration was ostensibly organized to protest Halal labelled foods being sold at commercial outlets in Kuliyapitiya.It was however a blatant show of anti-Muslim sentiment as in the case of similiar demonstrations in other parts of the country.
While the protest campaign against Muslims,Mosques and the selling of Halal foods has generally been organized by the Sinhala Buddhist extremist organization known as the “Bodu Bala Sena”, the Kuliyapitiya demonstration was held by another outfit calling itself the “Hela Sihila Hiru”. The Helasihilahiru is suspected of being affiliated to the Bodu Bala Sena.
An important Ayurveda physician cum Buddhist Priest residing in Kuliyapitiya known as the “Vedahamuduruwo” (physician priest)was the visible livewire behind the protest demonstration in the town.
The protesters started out in a procession from the vicinity of a Buddhist Vihara and marched along the Streets and roads of Kuliyapitiya shouting slogans and carrying placards.
A number of persons with cameras and camcorders were seen recording the procession with the support of the organizers.They were described as “media personnel” but it was unclear as to whether they belonged to any major media organization.
In a provocative deviation from anti-Muslim demonstrations elsewhere the Kuliyapitiya protesters carried an effigy with the nameboard saying “Allah” in Arabic letters.
In an equally abrasive gesture a few of placards carried by the demonstrators had drawings of pigs with Arabic letters saying “Allah”.
Adherents of the Islamic faith call God Almighty as “Allah”. They are also debarred from eating pork,ham or bacon and regard Pigs as repulsive.
The demonstrators who went in procession with these offensive placards and effigy attempted to taunt and provoke the Muslims of the town who witnessed the scene with anger and sadness.
Though some young Muslims wanted to retaliate the Muslim elders restrained them saying that the intention of the demonstrators was to infuriate the Muslims and create an ugly fracas and not to fall into the trap.
Policemen were seen observing the procession but refused to take any action when Muslim citizens appealed to them saying they had no orders to do so.
hen prominent Muslims from the town tried to lodge a complaint at the Police station they were told that nothing could be done as orders had come from the top to let the demonstration happen. Some Policemen said their duty was to afford protection to the demonstrators and not to take action against it.
The demonstrators wound up their procession in the vicinity of the Kuliyapitiya Omnibus station. The Bus station is a key point in the town as bus services to a number of important places operate to,from and through Kuliyapitiya.
The Helasihilahiru demonstrators then burnt the effigy with the Arabic nameboard”Allah” on the road near the bus stand.Thereafter they dispersed after chanting anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic slogans.
The bulk of those in the demonstration were youths and young Buddhist priests.Except for a handful all demonstrators were outsiders who were not from Kuliyapitiya.
Most of the Sinhala Buddhist residents of Kuliyapitiya clearly disapproved of the demonstration and did not in anyway participate or encourage it. They were however unable to do anything constructive to curb it because of the “inactive”Police and the belief that it was being sanctioned at high levels.
The involvement of several saffron and yellow robed Buddhist priests including the “Vedahamuduruwo” was also instrumental in making many Buddhists reluctant to try and stop the demonstration.
There was palpable tension in the town after the incident and several Sinhala residents consoled their Muslim neighbours and friends saying that this was the work of a small group and that the people of Kuliyapitiya were against it.
Upon hearing of the demonstration ,Kurunegala District Jamiyathul Ulama president Al Sheikh Siddeek,Kurunagala MMC and district organizer of the Sri Lanka Freedom PartySLFP) Abdul Sathar and North -western Provincial Councillor MZ Nasaar rushed to Kuliyapitiya.
They met Kuliyapitiya Urban Council chairman Lakshman Adhikari and Police SP Karunanayake and urged them to control the situation and prevent anti-Muslim violence occurring.They were assured by both that no breach of peace would be allowed.
An emergency meeting of prominent Sinhala and Muslim residents of Kuliyapitiya was also held in the town. A number of Sinhalese members of the Buddhist clergy and Laity attended the meeting and expressed their sorrow for the demonstration.
It was emphasised again and again that the people of Kuliyapitiya were against the demonstration and that sinister elements with outside forces cannot disrupt the harmonious co-existence of Sinhalese and Muslims in the town.
Many Muslim residents stated that the carrying of placards depicting Allah as a pig and burning of an effigy marked as Allah was a serious offence amounting to Blasphemy in Islam.They strongly expressed their resntment over the acts and pointed out that such type of despicable conduct had not been prevalent in anti-Muslim protests in other parts of the country.
The Urban council chairman and Police Superintendent reiterated their assurance publicly that no violence would be permitted and that Muslims could go about their daily life without any fear.
The “Vedahamuduruwo” was a conspicuous absentee at the meeting.
Mr. Abdul Sathar informed the meeting that he had conveyed news of the incident to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and cabinet ministers AHM fowzie and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa.
Normalcy is currently prevailing in Kuliyapitiya but a Muslim resident said that Muslims are still nervous about the future.He said there had been a record attendance for worship at the Mosque after the incident.
Meanwhile Hate posters against Muslims in the guise of anti-Halal have been widely pasted on the walls of Anuradhapura city
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org