Religious extremism restricts free thought, divides families - Shakthika Sathkumara | Sunday Observer

Religious extremism restricts free thought, divides families - Shakthika Sathkumara

“That is what religious extremism does, miss. It takes away fathers from children, and children from their fathers,” Shakthika Sathkumara told the Sunday Observer as he broke down in tears.

About six months ago, Sathkumara was jailed over a short story he published on Facebook that aggravated a group of Buddhist monks. ‘Ardha’ is a frame story inspired by the Postmodern Literary Tradition. Among the different societal aspects Ardha bids to examine, it speaks about the relationship Siddhartha (who goes on to become the Buddha) had with Yaśodharā and hints of sexual abuse in Buddhist temples.

The short story, one among several Sathkumara was hoping to publish, did not sit well with monks representing the Polgahawela saha Pothuhera Shasanarakshaka Bala Mandala who lodged a complaint with the Polgahawela police. Polgahawela police then produced Sathkumara before the Polgahawela Magistrate. Sathkumara was charged and remanded under the ICCPR Act.

His four-year-old son was with his mother. Closest to the father, as they played together and slept on the same bed, he asked his mother several times where Sathkumara was. Yanusha Lakmali (Sathkumara’s wife) first told her son that the father was in Colombo and then that he had left the country.

After 130 days, finally when Sathkumara was given bail on August 8, he got to go back home to his family. He then understood the psychological impact the incident had on his son.

Looking down at his hands and with tears rolling down his eyes, the award winning novelist and poet fell silent as he thought about his son. Sathkumara graduated from the University of Kelaniya. He also has a diploma in Buddhism from the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka. To Sathkumara, Buddhism is based on intellectual freedom that encourages tolerance and questioning of even Buddha’s teachings. In Kalama Sutta the Buddha encourages people not to take his own teachings unquestioningly. On the other hand, Buddhism was also birthed in an environment that encouraged different ideologies and thinking.

However, when Sathkumara, who is a follower of the philosophy, created a fictional story, monks were offended. They fought till he was behind bars. One day when Sathkumara’s son and one-and-half-year-old daughter were playing, he asked the sister not to be mischievous because from behind a tree their father was watching. Yanusha knew the son was going through psychological stress.

Sathkumara said religious extremism divides families. During the over hundred days in Kegalle Prison, Sathkumara met many fathers. Most were Muslims who were suspected of terrorism and Islamic extremism and one was Dr. Shafi of Kurunegala Teaching Hospital.

“They were all forcefully separated from their children. We were all fathers wanting to be with our children,” Sathkumara said.

Meanwhile, because of the controversy surrounding Ardha, many started to read it. It was also translated into English and posted on social media platforms. Today, Sathkumara’s case has transpired into a much bigger fight.

The struggle to ensure the right to freedom of expression is one that also seeks to guarantee the freedom of artistic expression. The verdict of Sathkumara’s case will be a historical one.

“The verdict will signify what the future of new creations, ideologies and how we think is going to be,” he said, adding that religious extremism puts people in a box and does not let them think freely. “This is not a good environment for a developing nation. This only takes us back to the tribal times.”

His case will be taken up at the Polgahawela Magistrate’s court on December 10. The Fundamental Rights petition filed at the Supreme Court against Chief Inspector of Police, Officer-in-Charge of the Polgahawela police R. D. M. Cyril, former Inspector General of Police Pujitha Jayasundara, and the Attorney General is due to be taken up on September 30. Sathkumara is busy with his work. He also has the support of many writers and poets. Twenty lawyers have stepped forward to aid him for free.

With several others he has formed the Prakashana Nidahasa Sadaha Ekamuthuwa to ensure freedom of expression. Some writers who Sathkumara grew up respecting stayed mum during his ordeal. Sathkumara now knows who had his best interest at heart.

He will also launch two books at the Colombo International Book Fair that is scheduled to be held at the BMICH from September 20 to 29.

On September 20, a poem collection Asammatha Heenayak, and short story collection Siragathakala Kathawak both written while Sathkumara was incarcerated will be launched at the Samudra Publication’s stall at 10.30am. Sathkumara is also working on a novel inspired by his experience inside the Kegalle Prison as he waited, along with other fathers, to be reunited with their families.

“I have fear and uncertainty on my mind. I don’t know what will happen to me. But I want my son to grow up with values I have - love to humanity and nature,” Sathkumara said.