Five years have passed since anti-Muslim violence erupted in Amparai/Ampara town in February 2018. Soon afterwards in the first week of March, there was anti- Muslim violence in Digana.Thereafter it spread to other areas in Kandy district like Teldeniya, Pallekalle, Katugastota, and Akurana.
The damage in Amparai was very much less when compared to the destruction in Kandy. In Amparai, one mosque, three Muslim-owned hotels, one grocery store and eight vehicles were attacked and damaged. All this happened within a few hours on one night.
In Kandy district close upon 300 Muslim owned businesses, shops, houses and vehicles were attacked and torched over a period of four days and nights. 25 Mosques in the district were attacked. The extent of damage differed from Mosque to Mosque.
Although the quantitative nature of the anti-Muslim violence was greater in the Kandy district, the Amparai violence was in a sense more dangerous qualitatively due to the reason cited as cause for the attacks..
It was alleged in Amparai that a Muslim-run eatery was mixing contraceptives and sterilising drugs in food served to Sinhala customers. The implication was that a Muslim conspiracy had been hatched to reduce the birth rate of the Sinhala people and convert them into a minority by diminishing their numbers.
The accusation was absurd and ridiculous as scientifically or medically it was not possible to prevent “babies forming in wombs” through administering contraceptive drugs in food particularly in kothu roti or meat curry.It is not possible to weaken sperm by mixing drugs in food as any drug would lose potency when being heated to a high degree on a stove or cooker. Yet, this is what was alleged and propagated to trigger off and later justify the Amparai violence.
I have written in detail about the anti-Muslim violence in Ampara town and Kandy district when it happened in February and March 2018. I was however requested by a Human Rights Organization last week to compile a report on what had happened five years ago. As such I re-visited those tragic events again and am focusing on the anti-Muslim violence in Amparai/Ampara in this article.
Amparai/Ampara is an Eastern Province town situated 360 km from Colombo. It is spelt in Sinhala as Ampara and in Tamil as Amparai. Both spellings are used interchangeably by people as the pronunciation is almost identical.
Ampara/Amparai is the name of the town as well as that of the administrative district within which it is located. It was created in April 1961 by carving out the southern regions of the sprawling Batticaloa District and by adding on parts of Moneragala District. The Amparai electoral district is now named as Digamadulla which reportedly was the ancient name of the region. Amparai is also the name of an electoral division/electorate.
The Muslims are the single largest ethnicity in the overall Amparai District which comprises the Ampara, Pottuvil, Sammanthurai and Kalmunai electoral divisions. The Muslims are also the largest community in the electoral divisions of Kalmunai, Sammanthurai and Pottuvil while the Sinhalese are the majority in Ampara electoral division.
Earlier Amparai was a very small place inhabited mainly by Muslim and Tamil people. During the colonial period European hunters used Amparai as a base camp from which they launched hunting expeditions.
The place began booming after the Gal-Oya irrigation scheme came into operation shortly after independence. Workers engaged in the construction of the Inginiyagala dam began to settle down here. After the new Ampara administrative district was created in 1961, Amparai town became the administrative capital of the district.
Ampara/Amparai town is predominantly Sinhala with a sprinkling of Muslim and Tamil people. According to figures from the Ampara Mosque, only 104 Muslim families were registered with the mosque in 2018 as permanent residents of the town. The Tamil population was even smaller though a Tamil school was still in existence.
New Cassim Hotel
The New Cassim Hotel is a Muslim-owned and Muslim-run eatery on D.S. Senanayake Street in Ampara town. The building belongs to a Sinhala person who has leased out the premises. The hotel was originally named Cassim Hotel.
After a new management hailing from Kattankudi in Batticaloa District took it over, the hotel was renamed New Cassim Hotel but most people still refer to it as Cassim Hotel. The hotel, reputed for its egg roti, koththu roti and parotta (barotta), is patronised mostly by Sinhala customers who relish the dishes cooked there.
Monday 26 February 2018 was a very busy day for the hotel as there were four funerals taking place in Amparai town. A lot of people from the outstations had come to attend the funerals. Many of them dropped in at New Cassim Hotel for a meal. Most of the food cooked on that day was consumed by the large number of customers.
It was 9:40 p.m. when three Sinhala youths walked in. One of them was a known Ampara resident and regular customer of the hotel. He worked at the National Water Supply and Drainage Board and was generally known as “Water Board Ranga”.
Water Board Ranga
The trio was in a state of intoxication. They wanted koththu roti and beef curry. Since most of the cooked food was over, the hotel employees were gearing up to close early. So the Manager cum Cashier Ahamed Lebbe Bharshith told the youths food supplies were over and that they were about to wind up for the day. Water Board Ranga had then said he was a diabetic and had taken an insulin injection. Therefore he needed to eat soon and wanted beef curry.
Since Ranga was a regular customer and pleaded for food on grounds of being a diabetic who had injected insulin, Bharshith took pity on him. He called the elderly cook who was called “Kaaka” (elder brother) by staff and asked him what could be done.
The hotel staff numbering six had stored some parottas and beef curry for their own dinner. “Kaaka” suggested that they could share it with the Sinhala customers. So the parottas and beef curry was brought and the customers including the “diabetic” tucked in. As the beef curry diminished, a few puffy particles were found floating in the gravy. Water Board Ranga blew a fuse and called the cashier and demanded to know what it was.
What happens in eateries of this sort is that they mix flour with the gravy in a meat curry to thicken the liquid if it was too watery. Usually the flour is mixed well and dissolves without trace in the gravy. But sometimes it does not dissolve properly and thick lumps of flour remain. This was what had happened in this instance. So Ranga was told it was “paan piti,” (bread flour or wheat). But he refused to believe it.
Since Bharshith was not very fluent in Sinhala he asked another employee – a waiter who was a Sinhalese – to explain. But Ranga was not convinced. So the cook known as “Kaaka” was brought to explain but still the angry customer was not satisfied.
Water Board Ranga then began making a few calls on his mobile phone. Thereafter events took a dangerous turn. He started accusing the hotel cashier and staff of mixing “Wanda Pethi” (contraceptive drugs or sterilising capsules) with the beef curry to prevent Sinhalese from having children.
“Wanda Pethi dammadha?”
Water Board Ranga began asking, “Wanda Pethi dammadha?” (Did you put contraceptive drugs?) It was denied vehemently by the cashier, cooks and waiters. When they said no, they were slapped hard. Two more Sinhala youths arrived with iron rods. Now the mood turned more belligerent.
A waiter was once again asked whether they put “Wanda Pethi” into the beef curry. When he said “no,” he was assaulted with the rods and sustained head injuries. The Cashier cum Manager Bharshith was approached again and asked, “Wanda Pethi dammadha?” At the same time the scene was being recorded by the camera in the telephone. Intimidated and perturbed, the youthful Muslim cashier got confused. He said, “Yes”.
Bharshith was to explain later that he had not understood what “Wanda Pethi” meant. He had confused “maa” meaning flour in Tamil with the “maa” sound in “Dammadha”. Besides he had also seen the fate of the employee who said “no” and realised that he too would be beaten if he replied in the negative. So he said “yes” to the repeated question whether “Wanda Pethi” had been put in the curry.
This was seized upon by Water Board Ranga and his accomplices. The “cashier confession” about mixing “Wanda Pethi” in food was uploaded and began spreading like wildfire via internet.
By this time a large crowd had gathered. The Police who had been called earlier arrived at 10:15 p.m. The cops were shown the telephone confession. The Policemen also viewed the CCTV cameras and knew what had happened. After a huge commotion the Policemen seized the alleged “Wanda Pethi” as evidence and took away the cashier and cook to be questioned further about allegedly mixing sterilising drugs with food served in the hotel. They were told that they were being locked up in the Police Station for their personal security.
Water Board Ranga went to the Police Station and lodged a formal complaint that the Cassim Hotel was serving “Wanda Pethi” in beef curry to Sinhala customers. After this the two Muslim youths were given a few blows by the cops though they were supposedly locked up for their own protection. However they were released on Tuesday evening due to the efforts of three Muslim lawyers.
The lawyers were affiliated to a voluntary group called “Kuralgal Iyakkam” (Voices Movement) and were acting on its behalf. “Kuralgal” or Voices is a voluntary movement consisting of young Muslim professionals. It focuses mainly on human rights issues and functions as a ‘voice for the voiceless’.
Three young eastern Muslim lawyers, namely Muhaimin Khalid of Kalmunai, Hassan Rushdi of Addalaichchenai and Radheef Ahamed of Akkaraipattu set out to Amparai on Tuesday 27 February upon hearing of the anti-Muslim violence in Amparai. It was due to their efforts that the New Cassim Hotel employees were released from Police custody.
Meanwhile events took a further turn for the worse. While the Police were conducting their inquiry at the eatery, a large number of Sinhala youths had arrived at the hotel in a mini-bus and on motor cycles and scooters. Soon a mob of over 60 persons gathered at the spot. The mob then started attacking New Cassim Hotel and damaged it. They seized the CCTV cameras in the hotel and in the vicinity and took them away. Two Policemen supposedly on duty at the Cassim Hotel premises saw all that was happening but did not do anything to restrain the mob.
The worst was still to come. At about 11 p.m. more than 100 Sinhala youths arrived in Amparai town in jeeps, vans and motorcycles. These youths joined forces with the earlier batch that had targeted the Cassim Hotel. Now there were over 200 men at the spot. Interestingly the youths identified themselves as belonging to the “Diga Kalliya” (Group from Diga).
Diga is derived from Digamadulla the historical name of Ampara and official name of the electoral district. It is suspected that the “Diga Kalliya” was an Ampara-based affiliate of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and consisted of youths from different political parties.
Jumma Masjid Mosque
The mob then went on the rampage. The mob attacked another Muslim hotel Rahmaniya and a Muslim-owned grocery store named New Mahajana Stores. The people inside both premises took refuge in the homes of their Sinhala neighbours. The mob stoned a few Muslim houses where the inmates had fled and also attacked another small eating house owned by Muslims. The “Diga Kalliya” then marched towards the Jumma Masjid Ampara Mosque. A Defender jeep was driven fast to smash the gate and break it open. The mob then moved in after assaulting the watcher.
Initially the wall in front of the mosque was demolished. It was rather a bizarre act. Apparently there was a suspected motive in this act of perceived madness. The 2018 February Local authority elections had seen the Pohottuwa party (SLPP) romping home as the winners in the Ampara Urban Council poll. When the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party pasted “Victory and Thank you” posters all over Ampara town, some were affixed to the mosque wall too. It is widely presumed that most Muslims in Amparai town voted for the UNP and not the SLPP at the local poll. The mosque authorities had torn down all the lotus bud posters saying they were defacing the wall. A heated argument had ensued between the SLPP supporters and mosque authorities.
It was suspected therefore that the demolition of the mosque premises wall was motivated by the poster incident. The mob however did not stop after destroying the wall. They damaged eight vehicles parked inside the mosque precincts. Recently-planted mango tree saplings were uprooted and destroyed. The mosque itself was attacked. Doors were broken down and windows smashed, copies of the Holy Quran were defiled and burnt. The mosque office adjoining the main mosque was also attacked and damaged.
There were also small structures with rooms within the mosque precincts where people connected to the mosque were staying. Those structures were also damaged and people assaulted. The Muadhin who conducts or leads prayers was also beaten.
According to the victims of the attack, people in the mob had kept shouting in Sinhala, “You Muslims are trying to destroy the Sinhala race through contraceptive drugs. This is in retaliation for that. Let your Allah (God) save you all if he can.”
It is clear that the attackers did not intend killing anyone. Had they wanted to they could have easily done so. Their aim was to destroy Muslim property and attack the mosque.
Police Passive Onlookers
The Police station in Amparai was less than a kilometre away from the mosque. The cops had been informed of the attack as soon the mob arrived on the scene. It would have taken the Police only three minutes to reach the mosque from the station if they wanted to stop the attack on the mosque. Yet they went to the mosque premises leisurely only 55 minutes after they had been informed by people at the mosque.
Besides the Police already knew of violence in the town and some cops were even passive onlookers while the attacks continued. The mob lingered in town until for several hours but the Police made no effort to tackle the violent elements. Some cops were seen conversing with the mobsters in a jovial manner. It was as if a heroic war had been waged and a deadly enemy had been vanquished.
When the Amparai incidents occurred the Kandy District violence had not begun. Hence Ampara/Ampara became the focus of attention. It was wrongly reported that Sinhalese and Muslims were clashing whereas the reality was a mob attack without any resistance. Moreover it was being propagated that the violence was due to allegations of contraceptive drugs being served to Sinhala customers in Muslim restaurants. This again was utterly false.
Particles of Flour
The Government Analyst A. Weliyange subsequently nailed that canard conclusively. After examining the “stuff” suspected of being “Wanda Pethi,” the Government Analyst ruled that the alleged contraceptive drugs were merely particles of flour scientifically described as ‘carbohydrates’.
Later the resident representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) and a group of eminent Sri Lankan medical professionals also went public on the issue. They stated unequivocally that drugs or pills rendering people temporarily infertile did not exist.
Superficially it appeared that all the violence and mayhem was caused by ill-founded suspicion over mere lumps of flour. But the truth seems to be different. The “Wanda Pethi” accusation was only a pretext to justify the violence against Muslims in Amparai. Violence had been pre-planned and well-organised. Hundreds of youths could not have assembled in Ampara town at such short notice unless preparations had been made beforehand.
Moreover there is a qualitative difference between suddenly provoked spontaneous violence and deliberately executed premeditated violence. What happened in Amparai was pre-meditated violence. The “Wanda Pethi” false alarm was only the flashpoint which triggered off the violence that was waiting to happen. The flour lumps in beef curry at New Cassim Hotel provided the raison d’etre for unleashing pre-planned anti-Muslim violence in the town of Ampara/Amparai.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an enhanced version of the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror”dated 22 April 2023.It can be accessed here –