Neeraviyadi Incident & Reclaiming Our Plural History

The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence finds the incident that occurred in Neeraviyadi, Mullaitivu last week deeply disturbing. Since the Easter attacks, inter-religious relations have become more fragile in Sri Lanka. In this context, what happened in Neeraviyadi might lead to the further deterioration of religious and ethnic coexistence. We have a duty to prevent incidents of this nature in the future by initiating mutually supportive conversations between the different communities that inhabit this island.

On the 23rd of September, a group led by Buddhist monks including the Ven. Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena cremated the remains of the late Ven. Kolamba Medhalankara Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Gurukanda Rajamaha Viharaya, on a site in Neeraviyadi in violation of a court order. The local Hindus view this site as belonging to the Neeraviyadi Pillayar Temple. Since most Hindus consider the cremation of the remains of deceased persons within the premises of Hindu religious places a sacrilege, the locals protested against the cremation and obtained a court order which required that the cremation be held outside the disputed site in a location assigned by the court. The police did not take any action against those who violated this court order; neither did they prevent them from attacking the locals who wanted the court order implemented. 

When the local Hindus protested against the construction of the present Gurukanda Rajamaha Viharaya after the end of the war in a location which they consider as part of the premises of the Neeraviyadi Pillayar Temple, the Department of Archaeology defended the construction claiming that an ancient Buddhist Dagoba existed in that location two thousand years ago. However, the Maritimepattu D.S. Division, within which the disputed site is located, observed that no Buddhist temple had existed in the land where the Neeraviyadi Pillayar Kovil is situated and that there was no evidence to support that Buddhists had lived in the neighbourhood. These competing ethno-religious claims require that the issue be resolved carefully and amicably, based on appropriate and genuine historical evidence, in a manner where history is not used for legitimizing exclusivist claims about territory and polarizing the communities concerned. 

The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence wants to place on record that for the past several decades the Department of Archaeology has been engaged in politicizing the history of the island, especially its northern and eastern regions, in ways that favor the agendas of chauvinistic politicians and communal-minded Buddhist monks. The Department has often ignored the religious and ethnic realities observed at present in places where the minorities live in large numbers and the political and cultural changes that have taken place in those areas across the passage of time.

The Forum wishes to reiterate that the pluralist demographic history of the island spanning over 2000 years is one of constant movement of different communities which held multifarious political loyalties and regional habitation. That our histories are intertwined and syncretic are well established by historians. To pit one community against another, to emphasize difference and separateness rather than cultural overlaps, ethnic entanglements and religious cross-pollination in interpreting this rich history for modern political purposes will prove to be destructive.  

While registering our strong opposition to the actions of the state that pose a threat to religious, ethnic and linguistic pluralism and the coexistence of cultures and communities, let us ensure that our actions in the future will acknowledge that historically this island and its various regions have been home to different cultures, languages and faiths. Let us also make sure that we give a central place to coexistence in our social and political initiatives. The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence recognises the strength of our diverse and inter-mixed past, and calls for dialogue in resolving ethnic and religious disputes, and to reclaim our plural history. (By Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence)

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