Photo by AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena via The Star
SC [FR] 97/2014 is a Fundamental Rights application currently pending before the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. FH the Petitioner is an 11 year old Muslim girl who has named amongst others her school Principal as a Respondent for violating her Fundamental Rights by preventing her from attending school attired in a ‘punjabi’ kit. Long before the war, in 1980 Mr M D D Peiris the then Secretary to the Ministry of Education issued a circular permitting Muslim girls to attend school attired in this way. As a school uniform the punjabi dress comprises of a white frock, a white trouser and a cloth shawl pinned on either side onto the lapels. It is considered traditional attire for Muslim girls.
FH is my client and I act as her Counsel.
Five years after the war – this is the second case before the Supreme Court on the right to go to school in this attire. As a non-Muslim Bishopian commented, her Muslim friends came to school attired in the punjabi even in the 1960’s.
My first case on the Punjabi attire – which ended with the acceptance by the Respondents and the court of the Muslim child’s right to attend school attired in this way received moderate publicity mainly in the Tamil – Muslim oriented media.
But now things have changed. FH’s case has received wide media attention. By May 4th, 2014 there have been five feature/opinion pieces published. Four in the Sinhala press and one in The Sunday Leader. There have also been 17 news reports, with 3 reports in the Tamil press, 9 in English and the Sinhala papers carrying the remaining 5. Why? What caused this?
With four opinion pieces – the Sinhala press has certainly been interested in the story. However there are some interesting aspects of the Sinhala media coverage of an issue affecting Sinhalese and Muslims.
- The incidents relating to FH’s case took place on March 3rd, 2014. By March 12th, 2014 the issue had received coverage in only two news reports in The Sunday Leader and The Ceylon Today. However on March 12th, 2014 the Bodu Bala Sena had a press conference on this issue which as usual made front page news.
- The BBS really inspired the Sinhala media to cover the story. The reporters spoke to a lot of people. They gave voice and created a platform for the BBS to tell its views, for the School Principal to put her side of the story, then the non-Muslim parents of the School also had their say. However to-date not a single reporter from the Sinhala media or even those who wrote the opinion pieces contacted FH or her parents to get their views or comments.
- Despite failing to talk to the other side they still make the allegation that behind this issue are ‘Islamic extremists’.
- Being one sided these articles are replete with inaccuracies and incorrect information and fail to mention the Ministry of Education circular issued in 1980 which allows for this attire.
Five years after the war the media coverage on FH’s case is reflective of how we have crumbled as a society.
On April 20th, 2012 the Masjidual Hairiya Jumma Mosque in Dambulla was attacked – on a Friday minutes before the congregational jummah service was to begin. It was an act of serious provocation by Buddhist priests. It occurred whilst the Police watched and the entry into the mosque was with Police permission. To avoid a confrontation the Muslims were asked to leave. When the Muslims returned, the mosque had been damaged, copies of the Holy Quran torn apart and signs of someone having urinated inside. Two years from the incident – not a single arrest despite enough video footage of the offence and the culprits.
However it has not been just one mosque. The hate has spread like wild fire. On Facebook, a person proudly claiming to be a Royalist called for the ‘killing machine’ to commence just like ’83, a Muslim owned driving school near the Sabaragamuwa University was forced to close down – for being Muslim owned, countless Muslim owned businesses attacked and harassed with the attack on Fashion Bug in Pepiliyana making the headlines, pregnant Muslim mothers refused treatment because they were in hijab and abaya in Deltota, Muslim visitors who went to see patients at several hospitals refused entry because they covered their head and a Muslim doctor had her hijab ripped off by a patient at the Colombo South Teaching Hospital. This is leaving out the big ones like the attack in Grandpass. All of these are cases of ordinary people doing things to ordinary people.
There is so much hate that there is a prediction that the 1915 anti-Muslim riots will receive a bloody commemoration in 2015.
But how did we disintegrate?
Institutionally we have collapsed. Institutions that would act to keep out viruses from spreading and arrest the bacteria have failed in their tasks or rather have abdicated their responsibilities. Despite the Religious Police – the main culprit roams and spews hate freely, openly and shamelessly. But it is not just the Police, the Civil Service, the Parliament or the Opposition that have failed. The Media, Civil Society and the ‘Moderates’ have also failed.
The media reports on FH’s case is full of comments and opinions of the hate mongers such as the BBS and the Sihala Ravaya. Not a single comment from a moderate. Did any moderate make a comment? I don’t know I did not hear of it.
This article is part of a larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.