Anti-beef campaign heats up in the North and South | Sunday Observer

Anti-beef campaign heats up in the North and South

Rights activists and minority communities wonder if the campaigns agitating for an end to cattle slaughter have a more sinister communal undetone with Hindu groups like Siva Senai leading the charge in the North and Buddhist clergy driving the campaign in the South:

K. Arunthawapalan, a resident of Chavakachcheri in the Jaffna peninsula took part in the first protest on May 19 against what he called the illegal slaughter and trafficking of cattle and beef. The retired school principal and social activist says he was driven to the protest by news he had heard about a slaughter house in the North where “20 cows had been killed and the meat illegally transported” to other areas of the country.

“We are not against cattle slaughtering on the whole. Many in our community here consume beef. But we believe only unproductive cattle should be slaughtered and that should be done legally,” he told the Sunday Observer.

But even for Arunthawapalan, the second token fast on May 2​6​, just before the start of Ramadan, the holy season of fasting and prayer for Muslims, was a step too far.

The protest organised by the ‘Siva Senai’ [Siva’s Army] a hardline Hindu outfit based in the Northern Province, took a strange turn. Protestors claimed Sri Lanka belonged to nobody but Hindus and Buddhists. “If you conform to our traditions you can live. Otherwise, leave. Who are the owners of beef stalls? Are they sons of the soil? Do they belong here? No, they are people who came here yesterday or the day before,” bellowed Siva Senai Leader Maravanpulavu Sachithananthan during the demonstration. The protestors found support from the Buddhist monks at Naga Vihara – the main temple in Jaffna and Nallai Adeenam, a Saivite Monastery and Spiritual Centre in the North. Sachithanandan’s words were believed to have been targeted against the small population of Muslims living in the area, their numbers slashed significantly after the LTTE evicted them from the Northern Province in 1990.

Asked why he did not join the second protest, Arunthawapalan said, he disagreed with the political agenda of the protest. “It’s not right to say that this country belongs only to certain communities. It was unacceptable,” the old school principal explained. Arunthawapalan, who hails from Chavakachcheri, explained that it had been a predominantly Muslim area before the LTTE evicted tens of thousands of Muslim families from the peninsula in 1990. “Less than 15 families have resettled here after being evicted 38 years ago,” he lamented.

Sachithanandan’s Siva Senai was founded two years ago purportedly to prevent religious conversion and counter Muslim and Christian domination in the country’s Tamil dominated North and East.

According to Siva Senai cows are being slaughtered in droves in the region, and religious leaders from nearby Buddhist temples are also supportive of the claims.

Activists warn that the campaigns to ban the slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef in the predominantly Tamil-Hindu area could become a hot-button issue. Hinduism holds the cow to be a sacred animal, the provider of milk – sustenance – and therefore a symbol of fertility and prosperity. In the Northern Province and elsewhere in the country, Muslims are the largest retailers and consumers of beef and beef products – a fact that puts a deeply communal undertone in the anti-beef agitations gaining ground across the island.

ITAK General Secretary and Jaffna District Parliamentarian Mavai Senathirjah concurs that the issue is ‘highly sensitive’ in the North. There was a motion for a resolution tabled at the Chavakachcheri Divisional Council to ban cattle slaughter in Jaffna’s second biggest town, he explained.

“Hindus respect cows. It is a religious symbol. I personally agree that slaughtering cows should not happen,” he stated, adding that however, opinions differed among religious and ethnic communities in the area. “A decision would be taken about slaughtering other cattle such as bulls and water buffalo after discussions with Hindu and other organisations,” said Senathirajah.

Shreen Saroor, a human rights activist who hails from the Northern Province, refuted Seva Senai claims of cattle slaughter enmasse and the hyper consumption of beef. “How can just 12 Muslim families who have resettled in Chavakachcheri since the 1990 eviction consume 300 cattle?” she asks.

Insisting that those who instigate inter-religious violence and shatter the peace should be severely dealt with, she said: “The culture of impunity for all the hate speech and extremist sentiment that is being expressed in the name of religion must end.”

There were provisions under the Penal Code to tackle incitement to hate, Saroor pointed out. Insulting a religion or person or belief is a punishable act under Section 291B and 292 of the Penal Code and Section 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. The Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) – a network of activists based in the North and East – issued a statement earlier this month, condemning what it called the ‘communally divisive’ protest in Jaffna. The TCSF even hinted at the influence of a ‘neighbouring country’ in the demonstrations, apparently alluding to India where similar campaigns have been on the rise.

The anti-beef campaign in Sri Lanka is not confined to the North and East but is gaining ground hundreds of miles away. ​A few months ago, a few Buddhist and Animal Rights Movements (Anagarika Dharamapala Humanitarian Foundation, Bodhi Raja Foundation, ​Dharma Voices for Animals, and Youth Non-vilolent Movement) came together in Colombo to call for a ban on meat consumption in Sri Lanka one day a week and requested Buddhists to refrain from eating meat products during the month of Vesak.

The cow is also revered in the South, where Buddhism has been significantly influenced by Hinduism over the centuries.

Recently, Sabaragamuwa Province Governor Niluka Ekanayake re-imposed a ban on cattle slaughter in the Embilipitiya town, with its predominantly Sinhala Buddhist populace, on the request of Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera, the previous head of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

At the behest of a local Buddhist monk, the Embilipitiya Divisional Council stopped issuing licences for cattle slaughter houses and allowing beef sales outlets in the area in 2011. “There was a motion by the recently elected council president to re-issue the licences and open the sale of beef within the Divisional Council area. However, council members opposed it and honouring Sobhitha Thera’s request, I used my office as governor to stop the move,” said Ekanayake.

She opined that according to Buddhist precepts, a vegetarian diet was more suitable. “While the decision to ban beef is being upheld within the boundaries of the Embilipitiya Divisional Council area, beef is freely available with no ban in effect outside its precincts,” she said.

Pic: Courtesy Civil Security Dept.