Tamils Flag Escalating Attacks on Temples in Northern Sri Lanka

by Meera Srinivasan, The Hindu, Chennai, April 23, 2023

Several Tamil political parties have called for a protest on April 25 against the recent temple attacks, among other issues

A protest held in Vavuniya, Northern Province, last month against vandalism of temple idols in the district. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Tamils in Sri Lanka have witnessed an escalation in the attack on Hindu temples in recent weeks, a trend that they note is part of the State’s “ongoing Sinhalisation project” in the island’s north.

In recent weeks, Tamil media reported multiple incidents of vandalism at temples, where Hindu deities were found missing or damaged. In Jaffna, some Tamils have sought to counter the trend by placing a Hindu deity in a public space, prompting police to petition the court seeking its removal. Several Tamil political parties have called for a protest on April 25 against the recent temple attacks, among other issues.

Simultaneously, Tamils also point to an increase in the number of new Buddhist structures and shrines coming up in the Northern Province, where Hindus form the largest religious group, followed by Christians and Muslims, with Buddhists in the fourth place.

The developments come amid heightening activity of Sri Lanka’s Department of Archaeology in the Tamil-majority north and east. Authorities have restricted public access to some temples, citing ongoing “archaeological research” in the historic sites.  In one instance, media reported the arrest of a youth who attempted to worship at a temple in Vedukkunarimalai, Vavuniya. A large protest was held in the area last month protesting the vandalism of idols at this temple.

Jaffna legislator and Tamil National People’s Front Leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam sees the incidents as part of a larger, persistent assault on Tamils’ rights, including to worship. Ever since the end of the war, consecutive governments have “accelerated the Sinhalization” of the north and east, he said, “as if to catch up with the gap of the 30 years during the war that they missed out on.”

The Aiyanar temple at Kurunthurmalai, Mullaitivu, has remained controversial amid a rapid increase in Buddhist structures on its premises in the last few years. Despite a court order preventing any new religious installations at the spot, a state minister in 2021 led a ceremony to place a Buddhist statue at the site, in the presence of military men and archaeological department officials. Similar contestations on land have also been reported in the east.

Also read: Our lands are under threat, say Tamils in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province

“The Rajapaksas spearheaded this [Sinhalisation] project, but that doesn’t mean the attitude of [President] Ranil Wickremesinghe or [Leader of Opposition] Sajith Premadasa is any different,” he told The Hindu. Recalling the manifesto of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party, ahead of the 2018 local government elections, the MP said: “It stated that their government will rebuild 1,000 Buddhist viharas [temples], a vast majority of them claimed to be in the north and east. Mr. Sajith was the Minister in charge of this project.”

Mr. Ponnambalam said Tamils have been struggling against “this genocidal agenda”, of “erasing the Tamil identity” of the north and east. “It is utter desperation that led [Tamils] to take up arms. Well, now that the Tamil armed struggle was crushed, we are back to business as usual.”

M.A. Sumanthiran, Jaffna legislator for the Tamil National Alliance and a senior lawyer, is appearing for Hindu religious groups in multiple legal battles where temple land, or access, is being contested by authorities. There is “very clearly, a pattern and an agenda” seen in the escalating instances of attacks and vandalism on Hindu temple deities across the north, he noted.

Mr. Sumanthiran, too, accused authorities of pursuing a project of “Sinhalisation”, targeting places of worship of the Tamils, based on claims that these are archeological sites, implying they have a Sinhala heritage. “To start with, even if these sites had archeological evidence of some Buddhist heritage, it may not necessarily be Sinhalese, because we know that Tamil Buddhists have lived in the north,” he told The Hindu.

Observing that the Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to worship, or to not worship, he said: “This Sinhalisation project cannot be countered by simply acting in competition, by placing more statues or deities. We need sober ways of putting an end to this practice. It needs regulation of the erection of new statues, across religions. Meanwhile, a citizen’s right to worship, which is an absolute right, ought not to be interfered with, irrespective of which religion one follows,” he said.

Some temple administrators have reportedly approached the Indian High Commission on the issue. Further, amid reports of Hindu religious groups also appealing to their Indian counterparts, some Tamils have voiced scepticism. “There have been calls by Sri Lankan Tamil groups to BJP/Indian Hindu groups to intervene and stop the destruction of Hindu temples & construction of Buddhist temples in their place in North & East. This is dangerous and ignores many socio-political realities. BJP is no progressive force,” said human rights activist Ambika Satkunanathan, in a recent Twitter thread. “BJP’s politics is akin to that of the Rajapaksas-they demonise and dehumanise Muslims, Christians and Dalits, portray them as the enemy and as obstacle to building a Hindu state,” she said.

In Mr. Ponnambalam’s view, seeking help from State or Government of India, or any other country, for “a reasonable and just” request is “totally acceptable”. But he cautioned Sri Lankan groups against seeking the help of organisations that have “a very clear political agenda”, which goes beyond religion, and “sees sections of the Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka that belong to different religions as enemies”.

“Help does not come free. It comes with conditions, and the conditions that some of these Hindu organisations lay will ultimately divide the Tamil Nation here,” he said, adding that Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka had been a reaction to the Sinhala Buddhist ethnocratic state’s policies. “We have therefore insisted that our liberation has to be on the basis of secularism and equality. That aspect, as far as our organisation is concerned, can never be compromised.”

The Department of Archaeology is yet to respond to The Hindu’s query. When contacted, the Governor of the Northern Province Jeevan Thiagarajah said historical places that are religious in character are interpreted in different ways and that there have been “issues around their history”.

“The Department of Archaeology looks into archaeological matters, but there are other departments tasked with looking into religious concerns and unfortunately, they are not out there on the field doing their job. I will take it up with the Ministry [of Culture],” noted the most powerful central government representative in the Province. The Northern Province, like the island’s eight other provinces, is currently under Governor’s rule, owing to the indefinite postponement of provincial council elections. “Sectarianism is not the way forward…we hope not to go down that path,” he said.

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