Late on Thursday, February 25, the Sri Lankan Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi issued a gazette extraordinary lifting the year-old ban on burying COVID-19 dead. The Gazette amended the earlier ordinance by putting the words “cremation or burial” in place of the single word “cremation”.
“In the case of burial, the corpse of such person shall be buried in accordance with the directions issued by the Director General of Health Services at a cemetery or place approved by the proper authority under the supervision of such authority,” the gazette said.
The government’s decision brought the curtains down on an issue which deeply agitated the minority Muslims for whom burial is mandated by Islam and therefore inviolable.
Over the past year, the Muslims, who are about 10% of the Sri Lankan population, had brought into play an international expert in virology, to challenge the government’s expert committee’s contention that burying the COVID dead would contaminate ground water and be a public health hazard. Prof. Malik Peiris of the University of Hong Kong said in a widely circulated video: “If the body is wrapped in water-resistant material and chemicals are used to expedite the process of decay, the possibility of even a residual amount of the COVID-19 infection seeping through the soil and contaminating water is an entirely non-scientific argument. That is a major reason why the World Health Organization and many countries in the world have no problem with burials.”
In April 2020, Muslim leaders proposed that a Muslim dying of COVID be wrapped in a body bag and put in a concrete grave which will have one and a half feet of soil in it. A chemical could be sprayed on the body bag to let it and the body inside de-compose in a week or so. The Muslims had also submitted a design for the concrete grave. They suggested that the mourners might stand 50 meters away from the grave after spending three minutes beside it to say the customary prayer. The community would help indigent families bear the expenses involved in constructing the concrete grave and in getting a coffin if a coffin is made mandatory, they added.
The government appeared to be open to this suggestion but was hesitating to take a decision. Frustrated, some leading Muslims appealed to foreign leaders like Mohamed Nasheed, Speaker of the Maldivian parliament, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the Malaysian Prime Minister to intercede with the powers-that-be in Colombo. Nasheed sounded Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa about the idea of sending Muslim bodies to the Maldives. The Lankan President made a formal request this his Maldivian counterpart, Ibrahim Solih, who responded favorably. But this idea of airlifting bodies to the Maldives was found to be impractical.
At the Muslims’ insistence Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa set up a second committee of experts in virology, which challenged the contentions of the earlier experts’ committee and recommended burial as well as cremation as sanctioned by the WHO. But the first committee, which apparently had the backing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, stuck to its guns and threw the recommendation of the second committee out.
However, the Muslims did not lose heart. They took the issue to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC issued a statement om December 10, 2020 which said: “The General Secretariat of the OIC expresses concern over reports of Sri Lankan authorities insisting on cremation for COVID-19 Muslim victims. Against this practice, inconsistent with Islamic precepts, the OIC calls for respect to the burial ritual in the Muslim faith.”
The Muslims’ cause began to be taken up by Lankans of other faiths also and their plight became the subject matter of articles in leading Western dailies. Sri Lankans were appalled by the forced cremation of a 20-day old baby Shykh in the absence of his parents, who had stayed away in protest. People tied white cloth on the gates and iron railings of the main crematorium in Colombo even though the police kept removing them.
While the government kept talking about an ‘expert committee’ which had said that COVID-19 bodies would pollute the soil and ground water, a section of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa, had thought it fit to strike a deal with the Muslims. They planned to get the ban lifted in return for votes to pass the controversial 20 th.Constitutional Amendment (20A) with the required two-thirds majority. The 20A was meant to arm the Executive President (Gotabaya Rajapaksa) with enhanced powers which he had been seeking. Six MPs did cross over from the opposition to vote for the 20A as part of the deal but the SLPP did not keep its part of the bargain.
At this stage, an influential factor appeared on the scene: a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session where there was to be a resolution condemning Sri Lanka for alleged human rights violations and war crimes and failing to implement earlier resolutions calling for accountability mechanisms. Government feared that apart from the already hostile Western bloc, Muslim countries would also turn against Sri Lanka in the Council. The Muslim burial issue was sure to be on the top of the litany of complaints against Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who always wanted the ban lifted in order to get the Muslim’s political support, announced in parliament that burials would be allowed after a Minister said that the first expert committee had changed its opinion and said that burial will not pollute ground water. But no action followed because government said that the experts’ committee had not given a ruling.
Meanwhile, international pressure was mounting. Apart from the OIC which called for the lifting of theban, it was feared that Sri Lanka’s time tested friend, Pakistan, would also join the chorus against the ban on burial. The vote of the Muslim countries and Pakistan’s lobbying were crucial to beat the expected hostile resolution against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC in March.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was to come to Sri Lanka and address the Lankan parliament. It was feared that he could touch upon the subject in his speech (apart from touching upon Kashmir to embarrass India).
On the excuse that COVID 19 might prevent full attendance of MPs, the Speaker of the parliament asked government to cancel the speech. Imran agreed to call off the speech.
Unfazed, Lankan Muslim leaders continued to urge Pakistan to take up the matter with the powers-that-be. The Pakistanis told the Lankan Muslim interlocutors that while the issue could not be part of the official talks, it could figure in informal interactions. Perhaps it did. In an oblique reference to the issue, the Joint Communique issued at the end of Imran’s visit said: “Both sides underlined the importance of inter-religious dialogue and harmony as a key to promote cultural diversity, peaceful co-existence and mutual empathy.”
When Muslim MPs met Imran before his departure from Colombo to find out if indeed he took up the issue at the talks, he said he did and added that the “response was positive.” Sure enough, a day after Imran’s departure, the government issued a gazette lifting the ban on burial.