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Priyantha Kumara killing: When ignorance and misinformation rule

Updated: May 26

Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana lost his life in the most gruesome manner. The father of two, an Engineer by profession, was the General Manager of Rajco Industries in Sialkot, Pakistan.

He was killed not because he was a Sri Lankan or a Sinhala Buddhist, but because he was falsely accused of blasphemy.

An all too familiar story, be it in Pakistan or Sri Lanka, where rumours, whether they involve religious or ethnic sentiments are fodder for the ill-informed, like kindling that can be easily set on fire by those with perverse agendas.

Priyantha was set upon by a lynch mob of his own factory workers and outsiders who accused him of tearing down a poster featuring a verse of the Koran. Leading the attack were members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious extremist group that, until mere weeks ago was banned by the government.

The December 3 lynching and subsequent burning saw Pakistan swing into action, with Prime Minister Imran Khan stating he was personally overseeing investigations. Within days more than a hundred of those involved in the killing were arrested including the leader of the mob, a member of the TLP. The Chamber of Commerce of Sialkot announced compensation to the tune of a USD 100,000 to the victim’s family, and his wife will receive his salary along with any increments over the years, throughout her lifetime.

PM Imran Khan called the dastardly act a ‘shame on Pakistan’ and days after the killing, awarded Malik Adnan the “Tamgha-i-Shujaat” for his attempt to save his colleague Priyantha Kumara from the angry mob. Civil society groups in Pakistan protested against the killing, and in Sri Lanka too, there were vigils and appeals to the Pakistani government to ensure justice is served to the family of the victim, while others called for a better compensation package. Silakot lawyers it is reported have refused to appear on behalf of any of the accused. But, Khan’s Defence Minister Pervaiz Khattak trivialised the gruesome murder, when claimed the senseless lynching by the mob to “angry, charged youngsters who were swept away by religious emotions.’

History records that a decree was introduced by the British in 1860 to keep Hindus and Muslims from fighting each other. Then, a constitutional change by Zulfikar Bhutto placed the Ahamadiyas, till then accepted as a Muslim sect as non-Muslim, almost overnight. Zia-ul Haq simply completed the process of Islamisation of Pakistan. Since then, not a single government has attempted to repeal or reform their laws on blasphemy, which carry a death sentence for insulting Islam. And time and time again, those accused of blasphemy have been subjected to extra-judicial killings. Governments have turned a blind eye, and Khattak’s dismissal of Priyantha Kumara’s killing as one committed by emotional young men, aptly describe that apathy.

Pakistani-American Imam Shaykh Dr. Yasir Qadhi speaking on the issue recently explained that the laws on blasphemy are clear; to be charged, the offence must be ‘explicit, unambiguous and intentional.” Fundamentalism and ignorance is a disease he said, pointing out that the December 3 tragedy is the outcome of decades of preaching hatred of the other.

The same is applicable to Sri Lanka where politicians, their supporters and even religious leaders promote division and dislike of the other, for purely selfish reasons.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric, just like the anti-Tamil propaganda before that, has taken firm hold in the country, especially since the end of the ethnic war in 2009. It reached a crescendo in recent years, with rumours of a grand plan to Islamise Sri Lanka, and render the Sinhala race infertile. The Easter bombings of 2019 simply topped the charts as it were, for those bent on furthering divisions amongst the population, for non-other than narrow political gain.

The list in Sri Lanka is long; from the pogroms of 1957, 1977, and 1983, to killings of public servants and media personnel during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna uprisings, abductions and disappearances of civilians throughout the 30 year long war, plunder and killings of Muslims, murder of journalists and sportsman; successive governments have failed to bring the real culprits to book. What’s more, the few who have been jailed have received Presidential pardons. Others have been appointed to positions of power.

Outraged Sri Lankans called for justice for Priyantha Kumara. Some held vigils; others chose to use a tragic situation to promote their own religious and political agendas, certainly not for any love of the victim or his family.

Politicians and members of the clergy, including those of the Catholic church lost no time in visiting Priyantha Kumara’s home and the media stood on guard to get ‘voice cuts’ from anyone willing to talk to them. Was it genuine concern for his wife and children, or was it something else?

JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake called on the government to bring all Sri Lankans in Pakistan back home. Does he think Pakistani’s are bent on killing all Sri Lankans? Or is he too playing to the gallery? Does he have employment for them?

Even as Sri Lankans demand justice for Priyantha Kumara we must exert the same pressure on the government to charge the real culprits behind the many atrocities committed on our soil. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government that rode to power on a promise of bringing those behind the Easter tragedy to justice. Nearly three years on, dithering, and obfuscating, giving credence to those who believe there was a grand conspiracy.

Pakistan’s swift action to apprehend the killers is commendable, even if it is to regain her place on the world stage and assure sports teams and investors the country is safe for foreigners.

The question remains whether they would act similarly when their own are lynched and burnt for alleged actions of blasphemy or when. Will they repeal or reform the blasphemy law? Will they ensure equal space for all religious minorities including better treatment of the various sects that profess Islam? Are they ready to run the risk of displeasing right wing political parties and other groups that subscribe to religious extremism?

It is easy to manipulate the ignorant, the mal-informed. We’ve seen that, both in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and the disastrous outcomes. Clearly, it’s time to change the pattern of education and society’s biases. Will clerics and politicians pay heed?

An examination of Pakistan's blasphemy law and its application is indicative of how often it has been abused. Will Priyantha Kumara's killing be the catalyst for definitive action by the Imran Khan government to end mob justice?

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