Still grappling with the Weliweriya controversy, the Government was forced to open a battle on another front, this time in Grandpass, Colombo, where agitations and attacks by mobs led by hard-line groups against the Muslim community almost created an opening for outright communal clashes.
The old Molawatte mosque, where countless Muslims from the Grandpass area have answered the call to prayer since childhood, is a tiny structure sheltered by the leafy boughs of an ancient Bo tree on Swarna Chaitya Road. Long time residents in the suburb of Grandpass say the narrow lane has always been scattered with Buddhist temples and Muslim masjids or prayer centres.
Swarna Chaitya Road is named for the golden stupa about halfway down the lane, yet, the old green and silver mosque a few metres away is an equally iconic landmark. The lane also houses a dhamma school and a few yards away from the mosque, the Samadhi Viharaya.
Chief Incumbent of the Samadhi temple, Bopelasse Anuruddha Thero, holds considerable sway over Sinhalese residents in area. It is from his temple that residents claim they heard the bells peal three times, while a masjid in the area was attacked by violent mobs while devotees engaged in sunset prayers last Saturday.
The old mosque, situated on a paltry 1.2 perches of land, had been acquired by the Urban Development Authority. In any event, the Molawatte mosque was too small to hold some 400 Muslim families that are now registered to pray at the premises. The new three-storey building at 158, Swarna Chaitya Road served as a relocation site for the old mosque, especially since hard-line groups like the Ravana Balaya were now agitating for the execution of the UDA order.
The building was constructed in 2010, according to Government Ministers, but it was only about one month ago that prayers commenced at the new premises, after the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs authorised its use as a masjid. The authorisation further incensed the Ravana Balaya which exerted pressure on the Government, causing the Ministry to rescind its original order.
But the strong Muslim lobby within the Government led by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and Deputy Minister Faiszer Musthapha, pushed hard for the prayer centre to be allowed to function, resulting in another Ministry order on 8 August officially recognising the relocation of the Molawatte mosque from number 166, Swarna Chaitya Road to number 158. The two buildings are literally a stone’s throw apart.
Agitated hard-line groups have been demanding the closure of the new prayer centre since July. Frantic negotiations to prevent an escalation of tensions in the area resulted in the Ravana Balaya allowing a ‘grace period’ of 30 days – or until the conclusion of the Ramazan season of fasting for the masjid to be shut down.
The Ministry order however, officially recognising the Molawatte mosque relocation, came on 8 August, two days before the Ravana Balaya deadline elapsed. On 9 August, Muslims all over the country celebrated the festival of Eid to mark the end of the fasting season. On 10 August, for evening prayer, the masjid at 158, Swarna Chaitya Road held few devotees residents claim, because many Muslims had travelled to their villages out of the capital for the holiday festivities. According to residents living beside the masjid, evening prayers had just begun when the attack commenced.
In the end, Ravana Balaya did not need to be directly involved in Saturday’s attack. The surrounding temples managed to rally Buddhist residents, many of whom have lived harmoniously in the multi-ethnic neighbourhood for decades, whipped them up into an emotional frenzy and turned them into a violent mob. The police, having been stationed at the masjid on the express request of Mustapha and Bathiudeen, showed customary apathy during the onslaught on a place of religious worship.
Not a ‘masjid’?
Nobody in the temples at Swarna Chaitya Road deny the attack on the masjid. The mosque, monks in the area say, has remained untouched. The only damage is to a ‘storage facility’ at number 158, they claim. It is a claim echoed by JHU strongman Minister Champika Ranawaka.
But to Buddhist residents in the area, Minister Ranawaka is a hero. He was the only ruling party Minister to have dared to visit the tense Grandpass area, flooded with STF, police and riot police personnel the morning after the masjid attack had led to violent clashes between Sinhala and Muslim mobs, they said. He was the only one to have visited Sinhalese homes that had been damaged and looted during the clashes.
Retaliation by the Muslims in the area for the attack on their prayer centre was swift. Armed with poles and any crude weapon they had picked up as they rushed to Swarna Chaitya Road, the large mob openly confronted the Sinhalese group. The Sinhalese mob was easily outnumbered in the Muslim populated area of Maligawatte and Grandpass. Suddenly, the police began to act to prevent a full scale outbreak of communal tension.
It became clear within an hour or two that the tension in Grandpass was something to be taken very seriously, even at the highest levels of Government where provocation of minority communities and faiths by hard-line movements have gone largely unaddressed. When clashes erupted in Grandpass, the monstrous danger of outright communal violence was finally staring the regime in the face.
Fowzie to the rescue?
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, no less, rushed to Minister A.H.M. Fowzie’s residence on Saturday night, as tensions escalated in Colombo 14. Minister Fowzie was recently made to share his position as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s organiser for Central Colombo with Faiszer Musthapha, a firm favourite with the defence establishment.
There is no love lost between the Rajapaksa administration and Minister Fowzie who has openly clashed with senior regime officials, both over the decision to split the Colombo Central electorate between him and Musthapha and more recently about Government inaction in the face of increasing incidents of violence against Muslims.
Yet, when Grandpass was burning, it was to Fowzie that President Rajapaksa turned. The politician in the President, who has had lately to give into the machinations of other more powerful sections of his regime, knows Fowzie’s support in Central Colombo is unparalleled. Minister Fowzie enjoys support not only among Muslim sections in Central Colombo and other areas, but also within the SLFP’s Sinhalese base all over the city.
Fowzie’s influence with the Islamic elders in the Maligawatte area was crucial to ensuring that the Muslim youth who had rushed to the scene were demobilised. It was necessary for the ruling administration to also demonstrate to its angry Muslim ministers that the most senior levels of Government were genuinely interested in de-escalation of tensions.
From the residence of Minister Fowzie, a seemingly irate President telephoned senior Government officials including the Defence Secretary. He urged officials to convince Anuruddha Thero to disperse the Sinhalese mob. Every official was to tell the President and all other intermediaries who called demanding an end to the mob violence, including members of the opposition UNP, that the Chief Priest of the Samadhi Vihare was no longer listening to anyone.
A police curfew had to be imposed to finally curb the clashes. The Muslim mob only conceded to pleas by elders to disperse after STF personnel on site promised them no harm would come to the masjid under their watch. By the next morning, the STF was still holding the line, even as crowds of residents from the nearby temple stationed themselves near the police barricades in front of the prayer centre.
Tensions rose again in Grandpass as Muslims demanded that the masjid be opened for noon and 3 p.m. prayers. Minister Fowzie skipped his granddaughter’s Nikah ceremony, sources said, to deal with the crisis that was once again threatening to spill over into violence on the streets of Grandpass.
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem who was busy campaigning for provincial polls in Kandy and was scheduled to travel to Puttalam for election rallies, rushed back to Colombo. He went directly to Minister Fowzie’s residence.
Having briefed the SLMC Leader about what had transpired the night before and the situation on the ground on Sunday morning, Minister Fowzie told Hakeem that the time had come for Muslim Ministers within the Government to throw down the gauntlet. They decided to draft a joint statement from the Muslim Ministers of the UPFA that was to be a strong critique of the Government and its inaction against extremist forces.
The statement was essentially an open letter to the President. Other ministers, including Musthapha and Bathiudeen, were summoned to Minister Fowzie’s residence to sign the statement that was drafted by Hakeem. Only two such ministers did not sign the document, A.L.M. Athaullah and Deputy Minister Abdul Cader, both of whom were purportedly out of Colombo.
The statement, released to the press hours later, proved a heavy blow. The statement said that lukewarm reactions to violent incidents against Muslims by law enforcement had emboldened extremist forces and called on the President to instruct law enforcement to apprehend and punish those responsible for the attack on the Grandpass masjid.
Soon after the statement was issued, the Muslim Ministers rushed to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. The masjid trustees, Muslim Ministers, Minister Champika Ranawaka and his colleague Udaya Gammanpila, and Anuruddha Thero participated in heated discussions that lasted over three and a half hours.
During the meeting, Minister Bathiudeen demanded the IGP’s resignation over his inability to stop the attackers the previous night and IGP N.K. Ilangakoon retorted angrily that he did not want “another Weliweriya” on his hands. Even as tensions were rising in Grandpass again, causing the STF to form a human barrier between mobs facing off on the streets, news broke that a compromise had been reached between the mosque trustees and the temple authorities.
The offending premises at number 158 would be shut down. The UDA order reclaiming the Molawatte mosque at number 166 would be revoked and the old mosque returned to the trustees. Since the small mosque could no longer accommodate the large number of devotees in the area, a Bo tree on the premises that was preventing its expansion would be removed.
The compromise looked good on paper. Certainly, it was not the usual direction such negotiations take, as witnessed during the halal fiasco and the Kuragala shrine tussle. It was also unthinkable that the hard-line monk in the area and riled up residents would permit the cutting down of the sacred Bo tree. Speculation was rife that the Government had more control over Anuruddha Thero than it was letting on. The compromise in no way satisfied the Muslim ministers, some of whom remain convinced that the arrangement is a ruse and that once the three-storied masjid at number 158 is shut down, the Muslims of the area will lose both premises in line with what the hard-line groups want. Some observers speculate that the monk and his backers realised that they were outnumbered in Grandpass, and the Muslim show of force had prompted the almost over the top gesture on their part.
All this notwithstanding, the very next day, following religious ceremonies, the CMC commenced cutting down the Bo tree. The felling has since been suspended some residents claim, because there is some concern that removing its roots could compromise surrounding structures. The Samadhi Vihare monk has also been complaining of threats being issued against him. The Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs continues to maintain that no order has been issued to suspend the felling.
The Government appears to be engaging in some effort to prove that investigations into the mosque attack are ongoing. Minister Hakeem and his SLMC remain convinced that police are studying CCTV footage into the incident because of the tough and unified position of Muslim ministers within the Government on the one hand.
On the other, Hakeem is claiming that a swift condemnation of the attack was issued by the US Embassy in Colombo expressing concern about increasing violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and decrying the attack on a place of religious worship. The US mission has come into some serious flak for the move by sections of the Government including Minister Ranawaka who believe the Embassy overstepped its limits by acting so fast. Yet, Hakeem and the Muslim ministers remain convinced that international pressure is the only effective way to force the Government to act against hard-line groups and the anti-Muslim sentiment they are intent on whipping up. They welcome the US steps to condemn the violence, Hakeem told party activists on Monday night before he was scheduled to leave for Mecca to perform an Umrah pilgrimage the next day.
If the Government was hoping that the Grandpass violence would divert attention from Weliweriya, that was not to be. Yesterday, the Opposition managed to muster some numbers to demonstrate against the killing of three young men in the Gampaha District town where residents clashed with army personnel deployed to crush a demonstration against contaminated ground water in the region.
Only two days earlier, President Rajapaksa engaged on the thorny issue for the first time, nearly two weeks after the violence, pledging to relocate the factory residents were claiming had polluted the ground water in 14 villages in the area.
It was clear that this was one issue the President did not necessarily believe could be handled entirely with a charm offensive on his part.
He has determinedly remained aloof on the issue, keen perhaps to put as much distance between himself and the raging controversy in a staunchly SLFP village. Still focused on electoral politics, eight years into his reign, for President Rajapaksa, popularity is everything.
The impending visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, whose late August visit will now be shadowed by the Weliweriya water protest killings and the attack on a mosque earlier in the month, has made the Government uncharacteristically jittery.
With CHOGM 2013 less than three months away and Pillay expected in under two weeks, the Rajapaksa administration realises that Weliweriya has proved a major tactical blunder that pokes major holes in its credibility about the military’s conduct during the final phase of the war, over which it is facing serious international challenges.
Realising it needs to repair this damage, the military and the Defence Secretary are promising to bring to book any errant members of the forces who may have exceeded their limits while dispersing crowds in Weliweriya in 1 August. In a recent interview, the Defence Secretary insisted there was no similarity between the Weliweriya incident and the final battle against in Nandikadal in 2009 and charged that the Opposition was working overtime to make the comparison. In private however, the entreaties to the Opposition have been more conciliatory urging them to refrain from drawing parallels.
Grandpass meanwhile proved to be the tipping point analysts have been warning about since January this year, when hard-line groups began gathering serious momentum and stirring up anti-minority fervour that was critically detrimental to harmony between communities. On the contrary, the Government has chosen to adopt an ‘ignore it and it will go away’ position, refused to bring attackers of Muslim places of worship and business establishment to book and wined and dined the most rabidly racist elements of these groups.
The Ravana Balaya has officially denied responsibility in the storming of the masjid in Grandpass last Saturday. But the damage done by their agitation campaigns had effectively ensured that with or without the group’s overt support, the temples and residents in the area were sufficiently riled up to wreak havoc independently. Hard-line movements and their antics might be causing outrage and disgust among the more moderate sections of society including the senior clergy. Their overt actions and agendas might be finding tacit support in the ruling regime that views them as vehicles for popular support among the majority community.
All the while, something far more dangerous is taking place. The profoundly anti-Muslim message spread by the hardliners has penetrated deep into suburban and village level temples, monasteries and dhamma schools far away from the public eye.
From Dehiwala to Mahiyanganaya, the village monk no longer requires to be formally aligned with the Bodu Bala Sena or like-minded groups. Their more subtle grassroots campaign orchestrated behind the scenes has been potently successful.
The result is that even sections of the incumbent regime who may have assumed they had these groups on a tight rein, to be unleashed and recalled at will, are learning a swift and bitter lesson that the situation is steadily spiralling out of their control. (Courtesy Daily FT)