Hate speech is widespread in Sri Lanka mainly due to the ideological influences by the politicians, religious leaders and media. The July 02, 2020 incident at Sampath Bank branch that someone video recorded and shared on social media is an an example. On the video that went viral on social media, the bank security staff would not allow a Muslim woman who was wearing a Hijab. The woman’s husband recorded a video in which he said that the bank security staff had asked his wife to remove the head covering before entering the bank premises.
Hijab is a traditional dress of Muslim women that do not cover face like Burqa or Niqab does. However, the press statement by Sampath Bank mentioned that a woman had come to the bank wearing a burqa which violated the institutional regulations on identification. The statement further said that the woman was not allowed to enter the bank premises because she had not worn a standard face mask. When studying the video, it can be understood that she had been wearing a niqab and using face cover of that dress instead of a regular face mask. Burqa or niqab are not illegal in Sri Lanka. However, the woman posed a health risk because her face mask was not a standard one.
The Sinhala and Muslim ethnic groups on social media highlighted this incident as a Sinhala – Muslim clash. The Muslim groups urged the Muslim community to boycott Sampath Bank. Photos of burning Sampath Bank passbooks and traders displaying notices of not accepting Sampath Bank cheques were shared on social media. Sinhala groups published posts saying Sampath Bank was a Sinhala ethnic bank that must be safeguarded against the wrath of the Muslims. The text on some of the social media posts can be translated into English as follows: The Muslims who quarrelled at Sampath Bank insult Sinhalese. This is Sahran’s disciple who visited Sampath Bank. Pryan Menik enters the game. Madumadawa is ready to fight back.
Many of the social media users did not understand that these hate speech posts had been designed by page admins to increase their outreach. The business persons like Priyan Menik and politicians like Madumadawa Aravinda tried to manipulate this opportunity propagate their causes appearing as ardent Sinhala Buddhists spreading hatred and violent sentiments.
Many people do not try to investigate the truth and engage in hate speech against other communities. This is unlawful and can be penalized. The freedom of observing religion and culture is violated blatantly in a multicultural society like Sri Lanka due to the acts of this kind. The constitution of Sri Lanka has guaranteed these freedoms. Chapter III of the constitution comprises of articles such as 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 that strengthen human rights.
According to article 10 of the constitution, “Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”.
As per article 12 of the constitution, All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law and no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds.
The 14th article of the constitution guarantees every citizen’s right to (a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication; (e) the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching; (f) the freedom by himself or in association with others to enjoy and promote his own culture and to use his own language, among other rights.
The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (a) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
Accordingly, although the burqa is a traditional dress, it may sometimes amount to a violation of the equality principle of law. For example, burqa can prevent the identification of an examination candidate. A criminal may use burqa to camouflage. Burqa was banned temporarily in Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks and the ban was later lifted later. The incident at the Sampath bank is related to verifying the identity. The relevant woman later obliged to the security requirements of the bank. However, many others manipulated the incident to spread hate speech against the rival ethnic communities.
Hate speech has many definitions, and the term hate speech is understood by UN as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.
Hate speech targets an individual or a group and builds up hatred or violence against them attempting to cultivate legality in terms of the vengeance. The major respondents of hate speech are policymakers, religious leaders and journalists. Hate speech constitutes compelling for violence, violence-friendly context, a strong influence, hate speech that goes viral, a ready audience and a marginalized community on which the power can be leased.
Cultural differences among the communities are natural in any multicultural, multi-ethnic society. These differences do not lead to the conflict until the other groups accept them as their identity. However, suspicion can grow when one group attempts to highlight the cultural differences and that can lead to conflict. There are many shameful examples of negligibly minor matters igniting massive clashes as a result of hate speech related to those incidents.
The communities must understand that the reason for many of the ethnic clashes is ambitious attempts fo personal benefits of the politicians, business persons and some irresponsible media persons. Not only the ethnic reconciliation but the social and economic progress also depend on this basic understanding.