BY Kavindya Chris Thomas, reporting from Digana
Two men, separated by several kilometres, two villages and distinguished by their respective religions and ethnicities, faced unnatural similar circumstances during this week of bedlam in the Central Province.
Historians may observe and record the contemporary occurrences that led to the week-long racial tension and violence in the Kandy suburbs this month, thus rendering these two insignificant lives as mere footnotes in the historic records that would one day be used to understand and would be scrutinised, in order to answer why things happened, the way they happened. However, it should be noted that despite all the obstacles that stood in their way, the lives of M.G. Kumarasinghe and Samsudeen Abdul Basith, came together in their untimely deaths, becoming the inopportune scapegoats of politically motivated racial tensions that kept the Kandy under siege and lockdown for almost a week.
M.G. Kumarasinghe, 43, was a resident of Ambala, Medamahanuwara who was transporting goods for the private company he was working for then. On 22 February, close to midnight, the vehicle he was driving at the time got involved in an accident near Teldeniya with a three-wheeler carrying four individuals. According to Kumarasinghe’s cousin, a police officer attached to the Teldeniya Police, it was around 1:30 a.m. on 23 February when he received a call from Kumarasinghe, who said that he had been assaulted by four individuals who were in the three-wheeler. Kumarasinghe’s assistant was also assaulted.
“He came to meet me at the Police station and he told me the story. I saw that he was bleeding from a head injury. I urged him to lodge a complaint and to get medical attention, both of which he refused. He left saying, he had to deliver the goods in his vehicle. Not even an hour had passed when I received another call from him. This time he could only get through, Aiye mata… and then I heard him collapse. I rushed to his depot and found him inside his vehicle, unconscious. The security guard at the depot was an eyewitness to the assault but he didn’t even check on how he was. His assistant had also left. I scolded the security guard and was able to find a three-wheeler to take Kumarasinghe to the hospital. At the hospital, the night doctor decided that the situation was bad and sent us to the Kandy General Hospital in an ambulance.”
Kumarasinghe never regained his consciousness. He passed away on 3 March. The violence started the very next day.
Who did it first?
No one knows yet who threw the proverbial stone first. Different factions would say it was their rivals who started the assaults, burning shops and overall pillaging. Official investigations would reveal names but rumours and accusations will run rampant, facing no obstacles. But in the end, no matter who did what first, people died, homes were ruined and lives were scarred. Those who survived will never be the same again.
Kumarasinghe’s family is one such group of survivors who will never be the same again. The lives of his father, H.D. Gunasena and his ailing mother, depended on the sole income earned by Kumarasinghe. On top of that, Kumarasinghe was the father of two schoolgoing children – now fatherless – and his wife, now a widow. His extended family, as he was the sole breadwinner for the wife’s family as well, is done and gone. Their survival is now in the hands of whoever who will help them.
It would have sufficed if it was only his family that was left in the mournful wake of Kumarasinghe’s death. But during his lifetime, he had touched many of the hearts of his village. Being a devout member of the village temple, he together with the chief monk, had been a great supporter to everyone in the village, including the small Muslim community there. His family, on numerous occasions during the interview with Ceylon Today, reminisced his donations to the temple and mosque which Kumarasinghe held as a priority, above the wellbeing of his own family.
Kumarasinghe’s father: “The fights, the violence is not what we wanted. Those things would not bring my son back. First they wanted to carry my son’s body around the town, parading it during their protest. We did not want that because we knew he would not want that to happen. My son was not associated with any politics. He only helped the people in this village.”
On 6 March morning, the body of 28-year-old Samsudeen Abdul Basith was discovered inside a shop in Kengalla, Pallekele. Basith was inside the shop when the rioting mobs set the shop ablaze.
Samsudeen Mohamed Fazil is the eldest brother of late Basith. Speaking to Ceylon Today, he recounted what happened to his brother.
“On Monday (5 March) I asked my parents and two of my brothers to go to a safe place without staying inside the house. Basith called me and said that they were stuck inside the house. They couldn’t leave, there was no back door to the house and the mobs were out on the street. Later, I came to know that our house and our shop were ablaze. I attempted to so many times to reach my house but I couldn’t. Once the mobs stopped me and the other time the STF did not let me through, despite my constant crying saying that it was my house that was burning. I thrice tried to reach the area.
“Subsequently, I came to know that my parents had managed to escape. One of my brothers sustained burn injuries and we heard that he was in hospital. We had no idea about our younger brother and we thought he was at the hospital too. I accompanied my father to see our burnt house and looked for our belongings. That was when we discovered our younger brother’s remains inside the washroom of our house.
Cause of death
Police said the initial coroner’s report had stated that the death had occurred due to asphyxiation and inhalation of Carbon Monoxide. Nevertheless, the death was the unintentional result of the riots and will be handled as homicide.
Basith, similar to Kumarasinghe, was a people’s man. Before the riots took his life, he led a peaceful life with the residents of his village, helping not only the village mosque (that was also vandalized and partially destroyed) and had donated to the village hospital and temple. The parish priest of the Digana Catholic Church recalled the numerous occasions when Basith had offered assistance to church activities. He was not attached to any political or religious group but in every sense a man of the community in which he was born. He was also the sole income earner of the family, taking care of his ailing mother and father with preacher brothers. In the wake of his death, it is not just his family that is left to suffer but the community as well, which saw him as a kind hearted and loving soul.
Two parallel lives that only interlined and overlapped once, that being their death, might be a note of insignificance in the large scheme of things. But agenda driven politics and racial hatred made martyrs out of the two individuals, as it has before and will do in the future, thus resulting in violence that neither would have liked to see. Therefore, while history would not care for such trivialities, the story of Kumarasinghe and Basith, whose peaceful lives were corrupted by outside forces in their deaths should be a tale of caution. The violence is over for now, but the lesson should be carried on further. Tell your children of our crimes, remind them of the violence of our generation, so that they will not commit the same mistakes of slaughtering innocents.