Literary Policing raises its head

Exasperation with the current UNP regime and its much hyped ‘good governance’ promise with which it won the votes of the people in 2015 January, is now reaching an abysmal level of despair with its continued spinelessness to curb the murdering of free expression in Sri Lanka.

Almost a year after a teledrama director was hounded by Buddhist monks for a tele series that purportedly ‘insulted Buddhism,’ April 01st saw the remanding of a young Sinhala language writer for a short story he had posted on social media. His remanding was following the insistence of Buddhist monks that he had ‘insulted the Buddha and the Buddhist clergy’ in his artistic work which dealt with sexual abuse in the Buddhist clergy life. Thus an award winning poet and writer, 33 year old Shakthika Sathkumara, a father of two small children, is spending time behind bars, arrested and remanded on charges of ‘inciting religious hatred,’ even as anti Muslim and anti Christian comments continue to plague social media and goes without any action being taken.

The writer Sathkumara who is also a government officer and works as a Development Officer at the Divisional Secretariat in the North Western Province was arrested by the Police on a complaint filed by a group of monks of the Buddhist Information Centre led by the monk Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thero. Despite the many attempts by the police to get the writer let off with a warning of sorts, the monks had insisted that he be remanded. Notably it is the same set of monks who have taken to police the world of arts, who had complained against the drama series by director Malaka Dewapriya last year insisting that contents in the drama had insulted Buddhism.

The irony of the matter is that in a country where anti Muslim riots have been inflamed by hate filled rhetoric on social media and where the infamous monk, Galagoda Athe Gnanasara who is General Secretary of an organization as infamous as himself; the Bodu Bala Sena fueled a riot by publicly expressed racial hatred causing the Aluthgama riots of 2014, a writer of a short story is charged under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act of 2007, and Section 291 of the Penal Code which criminalises the advocacy of “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

Analysts point out the fact that a fringe section of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka hijacking the law of the land and making the so called ‘good governance’ regime an abysmal mockery of anything even remotely resembling good governance, shows that there is little difference between the power held by the Buddhist clergy during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and now.

Sathkumara was initially remanded until April 9, and was further held for another fourteen days until April 23 after the case was taken up a second time, despite an appeal for bail from his lawyers. The lawyer appearing for the Buddhist monks had maintained that the short story posted on the writer’s Facebook wall had included a semi-nude image. This intended to offend the public sentiments of Buddhists in respect to the Buddha’s lay life, he had stated.

The lawyer, S.T. Jayanaga PC, appearing for the writer had quoted from Sri Lanka’s iconic Sinhala author Martin Wickramasinghe’s book ‘Bhava Tharana,’ which is a biography of the Buddha that deviates from the standard biographical narration of the life of Siddhartha who through effort and right conduct became the Buddha, the Enlightened one. The quoting of this book was used to show diverse examples of literature written on different narratives of Siddhartha before he attained Buddhahood. The lawyer of the writer had also pointed out that the police had failed to submit to court all material pertaining to the case, including the short story written by Sathkumara and stressed that the reading of the story would make it clear that it does not insult the Buddhist doctrine.

Freedom of expression which was thwarted during the Rajapaksa regime which saw the assault and killings of several journalists had not really penetrated the literary field and the cult of Buddhist literary police had not been visible although the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) had reared its head around 2012.

Sri Lanka boasts of robust artistic and literary minds and writers and artists function in the English, Sinhala and Tamil medium, taking on aspects ranging from the country’s war time past, poverty centered issues and religious hypocrisy, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, Islam or Hinduism. Muslim liberal scholars have often written scathing critiques on the matter pertaining to the Arabian dress, the Abaya, which is being increasingly donned in Sri Lanka and these writers have criticized conservative Muslim activists in the country but have not been subject to harassment or religious policing. (South Asian Monitor)

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