Colombo, December 6 (Counterpoint): The horrible lynching of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, a Sri Lankan manager of a factory in Sialkot Pakistan last week, has been dubbed as “barbaric” by the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, reflecting the general view of the incident in the island. Rajapaksa asked the government of Pakistan to ensure the safety of all Sri Lankans in Pakistan, reflecting a key concern of Sri Lankans at large.
On his part, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan candidly said that the incident has put the entire country to “shame” and has expressed determination to bring the culprits to book with all the might of the State. Pakistan has not only offered compensation to the bereaved family but has said that Malik Adnan, a colleague of the slain Sri Lankan, will be awarded Tamgha-i-Shujaat, or the medal of bravery for endangering his own life by physically trying to shield the victim.
“On behalf of the nation, I want to salute moral courage & bravery of Malik Adnan who tried his utmost to shelter & save Priyantha Diyawadana from the vigilante mob in Sialkot incl endangering his own life by physically trying to shield victim. We will award him Tamgha i Shujaat,” Imran Khan tweeted.
Sadness Not Anger
In Sri Lanka, in general, there is a quiet sadness across communities. There is no outburst of anger. The media has not come out with any editorials, though some in the social media have blamed Islam and Muslims in general for such incidents. Nobody here has taken the people or the government of Pakistan to task. Not a single anti-Pakistan or anti-Muslim incident has been reported from any part of Sri Lanka. Only one peaceful demonstration seeking justice for Priyantha Kumara has been held so far.
There are several reasons for this: The more widely held view in social circles here is that Sri Lankans are now too engrossed in facing a dire economic situation with prices of essentials hitting the roof; the fall in employment opportunities; and defective gas cylinders blowing up in kitchens across the island troubling millions of housewives.
The second reason for the lack of any adverse reaction is that the government, Sinhalese intelligentsia and the Sinhala and English media are habitually well-disposed towards Pakistan. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself told Imran Khan that he is an “ardent friend” of Pakistan.
Sri Lankan opinion-makers see Pakistan as a counterpoise to Big Brother India and remember that Pakistan had helped Sri Lanka with arms and ammunition during the war with the Tamil Tiger militants when other nations, including India, had refused to help (except covertly to an extent) for political reasons.
Thirdly, unlike India and the Western world, Pakistan has not made any political demands from Sri Lanka abridging its “sovereign right” to conduct its domestic affairs independently of outside interference. India has been wanting Colombo to devolve power to the Tamil-majority provinces on the basis of the 13 th., Constitutional Amendment which it inspired in 1987. And the West is pressing Colombo to address “war crimes” or accountability issues.
Fourthly, unlike other countries (except some like Russia and China) Pakistan has consistently supported Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The next session of the UNHRC is to be held in March 2022 and Pakistan’s support there is crucial for Colombo.
Meanwhile, the Punjab police identified and arrested six more of the main alleged culprits involved in the lynching of the 49-year-old, Priyantha Kumara, bringing the total number of arrests to 124. Over 900 persons who were watching the gory spectacle have been booked under terrorism charges, with officials promising punishment for all those responsible.
A highly sensitive issue in the Muslim-majority Pakistan, blasphemy charges carry the death penalty. But many people have been killed by mobs without their cases making it to court. Vigilante groups lynch alleged blasphemers on the spur of the moment and go scot-free because the judiciary, officialdom, political parties and religious organizations either support these groups or dare not intervene on behalf of the victims for fear of being murdered. Those who kill even suspected blasphemers see it as a passport to heaven and society puts up with this notion.
In Priyantha Kumara’s case, he is said to have ordered the removal of posters/stickers stuck in the factory as he was a bit of a disciplinarian. One of the posters was an announcement of an Islamic meeting. Some of the workers accosted him on this issue and Priyantha apologized. But the workers refused to take his apology, and along with hundreds of outsiders, lynched him and burnt his body.
Back in Colombo, Priyanthas wife Nilushi Dasanayake refused to accept that her husband had committed blasphemy as he had been in Pakistan for 11 years and was very familiar with the religious concerns of people there. She wanted Pakistan to investigate the lynching thoroughly and pay compensation as she had lost the sole breadwinner. She met Defense Secretary Gen.Kamal Gunaratne and sought his assistance. Pakistani rights groups themselves have said that the blasphemy law is often used to settle personal (secular) scores against religious minorities.
Case for Caution
While Pakistan and Sri Lanka may be able to tide over the present crisis, the overall future trajectory of Pakistan-Lanka ties will depend on whether or not the Pakistan government takes concrete and credible action against the ring leaders of the mob.
Informed sources doubt if the Pakistani Establishment will go the whole hog in this case, as so far, successive governments have only bowed to the radicals on religious issues. This is the reason why the number of lynching is said to be over 75 to date.
Given the blasphemous actions of some in countries in Europe such as France even Prime Minister Imran Khan had sought Muslim countries’ support to press Western governments to enact blasphemy laws. Even after the Priyantha Kumra’s lynching, Pakistan’s Defense Minister Pervez Khattak suggested that the ghastly lynching of a Sri Lankan man at the hands of a mob in Sialkot should not be linked to the government’s decision to lift the ban on the Islamic radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), saying even “murders take place” when young people get emotional. “Boys entering adulthood are ready to do anything.”
Further, the chief of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, while condemning the “shameful” incident, said such attacks would happen if the state did not act against those suspected of committing blasphemy.
“In the past, such reactions have come when those accused of blasphemy have been sent abroad under government supervision,” he said in an indirect reference to the release of the Christian girl Asia Bibi.
If Pakistan government fails to do what is says it will, prospects of Pakistani investments and trading ties in Sri Lanka and people-to-people contact may be adversely affected. The willingness to travel to Pakistan for business or tourism (which Pakistan is assiduously trying to promote by advertising the Gandhara Buddhist civilization) will erode because the blasphemy charge could be slapped on anybody for any reason and then immediately subjected to vigilante action. The police, the courts, officialdom, media and civil society will only be mute spectators, themselves being under the threat of murder.