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Two Sri Lankan Buddhist Priests Attacked in Tamil Nadu:What Exactly Happened?

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BY
D.B.S JEYARAJ

The Brahadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavoor in Tamil Nadu state is the biggest Temple in India. The temple dedicated to Lord Siva was built by the Great Chozha emperor Arulmozhivarman known as Rajaraja Chozhan in 1010. The temple was originally known as “Rajarajeswaram”. It’s splendid structure is visible testimony to the magnificent antiquity of Tamil architecture .

The Brahadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavoor ~ pic: thanjavur.tn.nic.in

Later during the periods when Thanjavoor – called Tanjore by the British –was under Telugu Nayakkars and Marathaa Bhonsle dynasty rule, the Temple underwent some modification and became known as the Brahadeeswarar temple. It is commonly referred to in Tamil as the “Periya Kovil” meaning Great or big temple. It is recognized as a Universal heritage site by UNESCO and attracts tourists from all over the world.

The glory and grandeur of the Thanjavoor big temple suffered last week by the atrocious conduct of a few thugs and hooligans masquerading as political activists last week. The actions of a small group of “Thamizhians” from Tamil Nadu in the name of solidarity with their “Eezham”Tamil kinsfolk, marred and scarred the sublime concept of “Virunthombal” (hospitality) given pride of place in the culture of Tamils.

ARCHAEOLOGY

On Saturday March 16th 2013 a group of seventeen persons were walking around the precincts of the Thanjavoor big temple complex. They were not mere tourists but research students and teaching staff at the Institute of Archaeology of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in New Delhi. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under the Ministry of Culture, is the premier organization for the archaeological researches and protection of the cultural heritage of India.

The Brahadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavoor-pic: thanjavur.tn.nic.in

The students hailing from different parts of India also included some foreign students from countries such as Sri Lanka, China and Thailand. They were studying for their Postgraduate Diploma in Archaeology in New Delhi. They were on a study tour of Chozha Architectural sites. The Chozha dynasty is regarded as the most powerful Tamil dynasty in history. The landscape of present day districts like Thanjavoor, Nagapattinam and Thiruvaaroor in Tamil Nadu is dotted with temples constructed during the Chozha era. After Thanjavoor the ASI students intended visiting the Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram temples. That however was not to be.

The ASI team of fifteen students and two professors were roaming around the rear of the huge temple premises when a group of Tamil political activists invades the temple. The group that came into the temple comprised members of the Tamil Desiya Pothuvudamai Katchi(Tamil National Socialist party) Naam Thamizhar Katchi (We Tamil Party)and Viduthalai Thamizh Puli Amaippu(Liberation Tamil Tiger Organization).

CONSPICUOUS

The invaders made a beeline for one member of the ASI group who was strikingly conspicuous due to his appearance. This was none other than the Ven. Pathberiye Gnanaloka Thera , a 46 year old Buddhist priest from Sri Lanka. The monk who stood out from the rest because of his saffron robe and bald head had been a student at ASI since 2011.His area of study was focused on the similiarities and differences between monuments erected during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods of Sri Lankan history and the Chozha period of south Indian history.

The activist group surrounded Gnanaloka Thera and hurled abuse at him. They accused him of being responsible for killing their Tamil brothers in Sri Lanka. When the priest denied the charge one man clutched his robe. When the priest tried to retrieve the robe he was manhandled and assaulted.

Some other devotees and tourists in the temple saw what was happening and cried out. Gnanaloka Thera’s fellow students in the vicinity noticed the fracas and rushed to his aid. Vasuden a maintenance assistant of the temple and a few Hindu priests also rushed to the spot urging the activists to stop.

The ASI students now formed a protective human circle around Gnanaloka Thera to shield him from the blows. The Tamil group then shouted that the Buddhist priest must get out of the temple. The post-graduate Archaeology student team then began moving out of the temple taking care to keep their robe-clad colleague in the middle. Temple priests and worshippers were shocked at the sacrilege being committed in the great temple.

Members of a Tamil outfit surround Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Pathberiye Gnanaloka Thero at the Big temple in Thanjavur on Saturday-Photo: Special Arrangement ~ courtesy: The Hindu

ACTIVISTS

When the ASI group got out they found some more “activists” outside There was also a TV crew. Some in the group had cameras. Some more abuse was shouted at the priest. One man in a blue shirt came up to the priest and said in perfect English that the Buddhist priest would be killed unless he vacated the temple precincts.The man in the blue shirt was later identified as Karikalan a lawyer residing at Burma Colony in Thanjavoor. Karikalan has been an executive committee member of the Tamil Desiya Pothuvudamai Katchi (TDPK) for nearly ten years.

The TDPK, a small party espousing “Tamil National Socialism”, also advocates the setting up of a Tamil state in North and East Sri Lanka. The party is headed by P. Maniyarasan who has often addressed meetings organized by the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in Western capitals. The fringe outfit has in recent times attracted large crowds at meetings by promoting the Tamil Eelam cause. It has a vast array of powerful orators like Maniyarasan, Rajendra Cholan, Yoganathan, Ki. Venkatraman and Aruna Bharathi.

Gnanaloka There and his ASI colleagues left the Temple precincts and started walking to the building near the temple where the Archaeology Survey department maintained an office. The Tamil activists also accompanied them shouting anti- Sri Lanka and anti-Rajapaksa slogans. Some started hitting the priest from behind. The ASI students including the priest quickened their pace finally breaking into a run as the blows increased.

Archaeology and temple officials also converged at the trouble spot and tried to restrain the mob. They managed to take Gnanaloka Thera into the office and lock him up for his own safety in a room. The Police were informed. The Archaeology officials tried to engage the activists in conversation and requested them to leave saying the Buddhist monk was a “viruntaali”(guest) in Tamil Nadu and should not be harmed.

HOSTILE

But the rabble would not accept it and kept on chanting slogans that the “Singalan”(Sinhalese)must be sent out. The hostile crowd began increasing as more and more passers-by joined it. Finally the Police arrived and began dispersing the crowd.

Meanwhile Archaeological dept officials took Gnanaloka Thera and other ASI students out through a rear door and put them aboard two vans. The bhikku got out of his robes on the advice of the Police and changed into ordinary garb. The activist group came to know of what was happening and ran to the vehicles. The Police prevented them from going close to the vehicles. Police also provided security to the two vehicles as the demonstrators started screaming loudly. Two Police vehicles at the front and back escorted the two ASI Vans out of the Temple vicinity.

The ASI students cancelled the rest of their program and proceeded to Tiruchirappalli where an Airport is situated. Tiruchirappalli called Trichinopoly by the British is now referred to generally as Tiruchi or Trichi. The convoy of four vehicles reached the Tanjore-Trichi highway.

It was felt that the problem was now over as the vans proceeded smoothly via the Trichy-Tanjore road to the airport.But the troubles of the ASI team were far from over.Members of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham(MDMK)got to know that some “Sri Lankans” were travelling to the Trichi Airport. The MDMK now joined forces with the “Naam Thamizhar Katchi” (NTK)to launch combined operations. The MDMK is led by V.Gopalaswamy now known as Vaiko.The NTK is led by Sebastian Seemon now known as Senthamilan Seeman.

CONCEALED

The MDMK-NTK activists concealed themselves in strategic positions close to the roundabout near the Ariyamangalam dairy farm. As the vehicles slowed down at the roundabout the Tamil activists emerged suddenly with sticks and stones and blocked the vehicles. They started shouting anti-Rajapaksa slogans and started attacking the vehicles with the ASI students. Glass shattered as the side windows cracked. Rotten eggs were thrown in. The students inside cowered in fear as a few thugs poked sticks and tried to hit them. Fortunately Gnanaloka Thera could not be identified by the mob as he was now in civilian clothing.

Policemen got down from their vehicles and managed to clear the crowd. They told the drivers to proceed and that they would follow. The drivers utilized the “opening” created by the Police and drove on fast despite another mob trying to block them at the other side of the Dairy farm roundabout. Some activists got on their motor cycles and gave chase. But when Police vehicles also started out and reached the ASI vehicles the motor cyclists drew back and began following the convoy.

Meanwhile the Police in Trichi was alerted to what was happening. Reinforcements were sent in vehicles while police patrols were also deployed on the road. Still the activists continued with their antics. When the vans neared the Ponmalai railway bridge some of Seeman’s disciples jumped out and took swipes at the vehicles with poles. Thereafter stones were pelted.

When the vehicles reached the “G corner” at Ponmalai a large number of volunteers from the MDMK tried to obstruct the road shouting slogans against Sri Lanka. They also tried to attack the vehicles However a Police detachment arrived on the spot and dispersed the MDMK.As the Vans neared the TVS tollgate another group comprising the NTK and MDMK tried to attack them.

AIRPORT

Finally the ASI vehicles reached the Airport through a route via Subramaniapuram. Here too a mob of activists from several Tamil outfits had assembled at the entrance chanting slogans. The Police however did not allow them to enter Airport premises.

The ASI students including Gnanaloka Thera were taken into the Airport building under heavy Police guard .As a result of the attacks the front wind shield of one van and the rear of the other was damaged. The side windows of both were shattered. Five of the students including the Bhikku sustained minor injuries. They were given first aid at the Airport.

Trichi City Police Commissioner Shailesh Kumar Yadav was personally present at the Airport to greet the affected students. The Police commissioner personally expressed his apologies for the incidents to the students in general and Gnanaloka Thera in particular. They were kept in a secure place at the Airport with heavy Police security until arrangements to fly them out to Chennai was made. Police also met them in Chennai and provided security.

Meanwhile Police also cracked down on the activists involved in the attacks. Initially twelve persons in Thanjavoor and Eleven persons in Tiruchi were detained for questioning. Thereafter some were released and the others charged in courts. Altogether Eight persons have been charged in both districts.

CUSTODY

In Trichi five persons were produced in courts and then remanded in judicial custody at Trichi jail. They have been indicted under Sections 147, 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapons) and 341 and 506 (ii) of Indian Penal Code. Those charged include C. Cheran, rural district secretary, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and A. Suresh, district deputy secretary, MDMK student wing.

In Thanjavoor, three were charged under Sections 147 (rioting), 341 (wrongful restraint), 294 (B) (uttering obscene words), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 353 (assault) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code.The trio charged are Pazha Rajendran, State executive committee member of Thamizh Desa Poduvudamai Katchi, Rasu. Muniyandi (48), Thanjavur town secretary of Thamizh Desiya Poduvudamai Katchi, and N. Thyagu (27) of Naam Thamizhar Katchi.They were produced before Tanjore Judicial Magistrate-1 who remanded them in custody. They were later lodged at Papanasam sub-jail.The lawyer Karikalan of TDPK and another man Vijay of NMK are absconding.

If Chennai provided a safe haven to Ven.Pathberiye Gnanaloka Thera after harrowing experiences in Thanjavoor and Trichi, the Tamil Nadu state capital did not provide safety or security to the Ven.Udathalawinne Wageesa Thera another Buddhist priest from Sri Lanka. In a shocking incident a second Bhikku was attacked on Monday March 18th 2013 by pseudo-nationalist goondas in Tamil Nadu.

A group of nineteen Buddhists from Geli-Oya in Kandy district had left Sri Lanka on March 3rd to India on a pilgrimage to see the holy sites in the land where Lord Buddha was born. The Geli-oya pilgrims were led by 36 year old ven.Udathalawinna Wageesa Thera. There was one other monk also in the group but he had opted to travel like a “civilian ”in ordinary clothes as a precaution. Wageesa Thera had also been advised to do so for safety reasons due to the volatile nature of anti- Sri Lankan politics in Tamil Nadu but the comparatively young priest had not wanted to discard the saffron robe.

CHENNAI

After visiting several places in North India and Nepal the group arrived in Chennai by the “Tamil Nadu Express” train which operates between the Tamil Nadu state capital Chennai and the Indian capital New Delhi. The train pulled in at the Chennai Central railway station on platform no 6 at 7.20 am on Monday morning.The passengers including the pilgrims got out but Wageesa Thera remained in the compartment S-6 collecting a few of his belongings.

Chennai Railway Station~pic by: Chris Moss-via flickr

Suddenly three men clambered aboard the compartment. They went straight up to Wageesa Thera who was seated. Two of the men were in trousers and shirt while a third man was wearing a tee shirt and cap. They surrounded the startled Bhikku and began shouting at him. They accused him of killing Tamils in Sri Lanka and coming to Tamil Nadu.

At this point two others who seemed to be media persons got in. One had a TV camera. Now the trio started posing for the camera and shouted slogans. They also heaped abuse calling the priest a dog and a murderer. “Get out of Tamil Nadu” they threatened. The Buddhist priest did not try to talk to them. He got up and attempted to walk away. Immediately he was assaulted. He was hit on the face, chest and arms.

Under attack – ven. Udathalawinna Wageesa Thera, At Chennai Station

Despite the blows Wageesa Thera managed to exit the compartment after running along the corridor but the trio followed suit. The priest was chased along the platform. He stumbled and fell. The trio then surrounded him and attacked him. He was kicked. He was also hit on the left leg with an iron pipe. The attackers interspersed their violence with slogans made to the camera. ”you cant come here after killing there” they said.

POLICE

By this time several of the pilgrims became aware of what was happening and rushed to the spot. They tried to restrain the trio. When one person tried to photograph the incident one man tried to snatch the camera. There was a tug of war and the camera fell on the ground.Many passengers, railway porters and platform vendors also converged on the spot. They started scolding the men in Tamil and urged them to stop. A railway station employee alerted the Railway Police of what was happening.

Three men assaulted the Buddhist monk on board a train as it arrived at Chennai Central. Photo: R. Ragu-The Hindu

Seeing that the situation was transforming against them the trio left the scene hurriedly. The Police arrived and took the Sri Lankan pilgrims away from the platform to the station office. The priest was given first aid. Although his left leg was injured the monk refused medical treatment at a hospital. However he requested Police protection while being in Chennai.

Thereafter more Police arrived and statements were recorded. It was discovered then that in the melee 40,000 rupees had gone missing. The pilgrims were then transported to the Mahabodhi centre at Egmore with Police escort. Additional Police were provided for their security at the Mahabodhi. Subsequently Wageesa Thera left Chennai and arrived in Colombo. He was welcomed by many Buddhist priests at Katunayake.

Meanwhile Chennai Police questioned the TV crew about how they had arrived at the scene. The Police was told that they had got an anonymous telephone call saying that some Sinhalese people were being attacked at the station. The Police also checked the TV footage taken by the media and also the CCTV cameras. One of the men was identified and arrested. Consequently the other two were also arrested.

SEEMAN

The arrested persons all from Chennai are N Saravana Prakash, 29, from ayiram Vilakku, L Prabhakaran , 24, from Kothavalchavadi and M Srinivasan, 33, from Thiruvallikerni. They are all members of the Naam Thamizhar Katchi (We Tamil Party). The party is led by Sebastian Seemon who now calls himself Senthamizhan seeman. He is currently in Geneva, Switzerland to engage in anti-Sri Lanka lobbying.

Seeman a film director cum actor has been obnoxiously racist. He was detained in Tamil Nadu for many months for publicly threatening to kill Sinhalese in India as retaliation for Tamil Nadu fishermen being killed. He was deported from Canada some time ago for making racist remarks threatening the lives of Sinhala persons. Recently Seeman was denied entry to the USA and turned back at the John F Kennedy Airport in New York .Seeman’s movement has a leaping tiger as its symbol. His younger followers wear black tee –shirts with Prabhakaran’s portrait and describe themselves as “Karumpuligal” or black tigers. His party has thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil members from the global Tamil Diaspora. The membership fee is 100 US Dollars per year. In addition Seeman also gets hefty donations from tiger supporters abroad.

The attacks on two Buddhist priests from Sri Lanka within three days in Tamil Nadu has angered many. The deplorable attacks have been condemned – and rightly so – severely by responsible representatives of all communities in Sri Lanka The Govt has protested to the Indian Govt and also sought protection for Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka related Institutions in Tamil Nadu.

The attacks on the Buddhist priests cannot be viewed in isolation. They form part of an ongoing pattern of rowdy attacks by a racist rabble posing as Tamil nationalists. One of the earliest attacks was on Thirukumar Nadesan the well-known Sri Lankan businessman who is married to Nirupama Rajapaksa the MP from Hambantota and niece of Chamal, Mahinda, Gotabhaya and Basil Rajapaksa.

ROWDYISM

Thirukumar Nadesan was attacked in the temple town of Rameswaram by members of Vaiko and Seeman led organizations on January 10th 2012.I then wrote an article about the incident and its ramifications for the “Daily Mirror” titled “Rowdyism at Rameswaram by a Tamil Nadu activist mob”. I will conclude now with relevant excerpts from that article. Here are the extracts-

“The rowdyism at Rameswaram was a vicious symptom of an anti-Sri Lankan malady afflicting sections of the peace-loving Tamil Nadu population. There has been a recurring phenomenon of organized hostile activity against Sri Lanka and some Sri Lankans by political activists belonging to minor political parties and organizations in the state.

Great antipathy has been shown in recent times towards President Rajapaksa and his Government by political elements considered to be sympathizers and fellow travellers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization.

These elements have been demonstrating against Sri Lankan politicians who visit Tamil Nadu. Racist rowdyism has been shown against helpless Sinhala tourists and pilgrims in the state. These innocent people had nothing to do with the Rajapaksa regime”.

RACISM

“Energised by the inflammatory and provocative utterances of so called political leaders such as Seeman ,emotional youths in Tamil Nadu have displayed antipathy bordering on hatred towards Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa regime. Very often these feelings deteriorate into sheer racism against the Sinhala people who are demonized as an oppressive majority destroying Tamils in the Island.

The rise of such racism has paved the way for a new form of vigilantism to emerge in Tamil Nadu. These political activists are determined to keep out Sri Lankans connected to the Rajapaksa Govt. Demonstrations are staged very often against perceived targets. While the objective is political at an ideological level, crass racism is pervasively visible in actual practice. Ordinary Sinhala people have been targets in addition to politicians”.

“The recurring phenomenon of racist rowdyism can have serious repercussions affecting Indo-Lanka relations in the future. It is indeed ironic that the antics of these racist elements in Tamil Nadu are contrary to avowed policy measures of India towards Sri Lanka . India is very keen on fostering people to people relationships and are encouraging travel and tourism to India from Sri Lanka . Commerce and trade is being developed. India is also keen to attract Sri Lankan professionals in key sectors through agreements such as CEPA.

INCIDENTS

While this goes on at one level the Indian state that is closest to Sri Lanka in more ways than one is not creating a conducive climate for amity and friendship. The racist attitudes displayed by these political elements are undermining the overall Indian policy objectives. At present these incidents are mere irritants but gradually the friction could assume grave proportions. It is time then for the powers that be in India both at the Central and state govt level to take appropriate action and prevent such incidents in the future”.

“It is the right of every Sri Lankan with a valid visa to visit India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular safely and securely. It is of Paramount importance that all Sri Lankans visiting India for religious and cultural purposes be allowed safe passage and a secure stay.

The rise of racist vigilantism in Tamil Nadu manifesting itself in disgusting forms needs to be condemned vehemently. Tamils of Sri Lanka must disassociate themselves with despicable acts such as these that are being committed by racist rabbles in the name of Pan-Thamizhian solidarity”.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

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