By Raisa Wickrematunge and Niranjala Ariyawansha | reporting from Dambulla
Muslims in Dambulla are still reeling from last week’s events, which could mean the demolition and relocation of a 65 year old mosque.
We were there until the last minute… people were throwing rocks and stones, so we had to leave at around 1:30 pm,” said Hariff M Yasir, a trustee to the mosque, describing the chaotic scene.
‘We left without our slippers, like beggars. We were afraid they would do something to hurt us,’ he said.
Having missed Friday prayers, many of the worshippers had then returned to the mosque- only to find their way barred. Police assured the Muslims that the mosque was intact, but had been sealed.
They were only allowed in the next day, after visits from the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishard Bathiudeen and Minister A. H. M. Fowzie. Yasir said that the place had been re-arranged with care by the police, such that it was cleaner than normal. Even the stones that had been pelted onto the roof were removed.
The Qurans in the mosque had been arranged with care, but around half of them were missing, as were several other items, probably damaged by the ransacking.But though this sensitivity was appreciated by the Muslims, it did not appease them. ‘Everyone should have the freedom to practice their religion. This is a tragedy,’ Yasir said emotionally.
But the real question is, why did this happen now?
And how did a demonstration lead to an order to relocate a mosque that is 65 years old?
The answer differs, according to who you ask.
‘This is not an unauthorised construction, there was a deed for this land,’ Yasir claims. The land was gifted to his grandfather by a Tamil, (whose son still survives, although he is sickly, according to Yasir).
His grandfather had then donated it to the Muslim religious committee. ‘It has been registered as a religious site for Muslims,’ he insists. In fact, a Sunday school was regularly held at the mosque as well, he said.
However, he added that the Government had taken over the land in 1982. Trustee Hariff. M. Mohommed claimed that the mosque trustees had deeds going back to the 19th century, before the land was taken over by the state.
He also said that the Muslims had joined together in protest once upon a time, to ask the Government to name Dambulla a sacred site.
Now, in a twist of fate, the Buddhist monks have turned against them. ‘This is unjust,’ Mohommed said, ‘we have been here for generations.’
Yasir too said that Muslims had been settled in the area since the days of his grandfather; arriving in Dambulla during the British colonial period to do business. A place of worship was built, and as the town grew, it became a known fact that there was a mosque in the area.
The Sunday Leader received a copy of the deeds to the mosque, which date back to 1967.
However, the head of the Rangiri Dambulu Chapter Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero has a different story to tell. Speaking to a correspondent from our sister paper Iruresa, he said that the temple had owned 12,000 acres of land from colonial times. However, he claimed that according to a legal Act, land deeds were not given to temples, and so they had no legal documentation to show they owned the land.
In 1982, during former Prime Minister R Premadasa’s era, the temple had agreed to provide 300 acres of their land to the Government, so that they could begin to create a sacred area as part of a project which was eventually gazetted in 1992.
The Survey Department had then examined the 300 acres- but for some reason, they had not marked the location of the mosque, which was found in Blocks 51 and 52. Yet a small Buddhist shrine had been marked on the map.
If such a small shrine was marked, it was strange that the mosque had not been mentioned at all, the Sumangala Thero said.
He contended that the mosque had in fact been built after 1982, a fact hotly contested by the Muslim trustees, and even, surprisingly, by Buddhists in the area. A resident who requested anonymity said that the mosque had been there even in 1948, before Independence.
‘Back then, it was small, only three families worshipped there,’ the resident said. After the gradual development of Dambulla, more Muslims began to settle, until there were about 500-600 Muslims regularly attending the mosque.
As to the Survey Department map, the Muslim trustees said that as they had only registered the mosque with the Muslim religious affairs committee, it was possible the Survey Department had not known of the mosque’s existence, as it was a small outfit at the time.
In the meantime, the Sumangala Thero says that the mosque falls within a 1 kilometre sacred area earmarked for the temple. It is for this reason that it must be relocated, he insisted. Further, he said the mosque would have to be moved beyond the 12,000 acre stretch owned by the temple, a distance of several miles.
The chief monk also complained that every Friday, 300 to 400 vehicles belonging to the Muslims blocked the road and caused a disturbance. He even alleged that the mosque had been built secretly, at night, and was therefore probably not a legal building.
There is a small shrine to Kali nearby which is also to be razed, much to the distress of the residents. The people in this area are the poorest of the poor, and consist of both Sinhalese and Tamils, who have peacefully coexisted for generations. Many of them are labourers at the Dambulla market.
Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists and Christians alike visit the statue of Kali, which is located in a simple cement block building with no roof. Minister of Lands and Land Development Janaka Bandara Tennekone has supported this structure, residents in the area told our Iruresa correspondent.
Yet last Friday the monk had given the order that this statue was to be broken too. The distressed residents refused to destroy an object of worship, but in deference to the Chief monk said that he could destroy it if he wanted.
66 year old Rasa Anna said ‘We have no choice. But if we can continue to worship this statue, it would be enough. The residents said they were deeply hurt by the monk’s actions. Several of the Dambulla residents also spoke of how dominant the monk was in the area and of his lack of respect to Muslims.
The Muslims of the area were also resentful of the fact that none of the trustees to the mosque were invited to the meeting on Monday (23) to decide what was to become of it.
Chairman of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, N. M. Ameen said that it had been decided to take 6 months before coming to a final decision on whether to relocate the mosque. In the meantime, at a meeting on April (25), Muslim MPs had expressed their confidence that the President would find a solution to the issue. Ameen said relocating the mosque would mean a commute of at least 15 kilometres for people in the area.
It is clear that tensions are high, and the Muslims feel slighted. A police guard remained stationed outside the mosque, a mosque-goer said, even several days after the incident.
‘We have never felt like a minority. But now we do,’ one resident said. All eyes are now on the authorities, to see what steps will be taken to alleviate the situation. The President has called for an amicable solution to be reached, but has remained silent on what, exactly, that solution should be. And so, the waiting continues. courtesy: The Sunday Leader