Growing up, 25 year old Ganga*, found in Deivendran* both a father and grandfather. Having lost both her parents when she was only 5 years of age, her maternal grandparents took on the responsibility of caring for Ganga and her four brothers, the youngest of whom was merely 2 years old at that time.
Tragedy and loss have been part of Ganga’s young life, as she also lost one of her older brothers, who succumbed to illness a few years back.
Therefore, when Deivendran died on 17 January, 2018, it was a heavy blow for Ganga, who now mourns the loss of the man who had cared for and loved his grandchildren for many long years. With tears in her eyes, and her voice trembling, Ganga fondly remembers her grandfather and the long hours and hard work he put in working in his shop, to provide for his little grandchildren and pay for their education.
Her other two older brothers have now married and moved away to their own homes. Now it is just Ganga, her youngest brother Naresh* and their grandmother Rameshwary* who live in the little hut, in a small village, in Sri Lanka’s Eastern coast.
“It is just the three of us now” says Ganga, a small sigh escaping her as she looks over at her grandmother and brother.
In addition to the grief of losing her grandfather, Ganga and her family also had to face fierce opposition from their own neighbours and villagers, who came out in large numbers, to prevent the burial of Deivendran within their village, because he was a Christian.
“Even now, they all talk amongst themselves that Christians should not be allowed to bury their dead in this village” says Ganga.
On 17 January, 2018, Deivendran who had been admitted to the hospital due to illness, succumbed to his illness and departed this world. His remains were brought to his humble home and on the next day, following a funeral service in the house, preparations were made to take Deivendran to his final resting place – a plot of land allocated for the burial of Christians in their village.
However, crowds soon gathered and surrounded the house, protesting that a Christian cannot be buried in their village. The mob soon turned violent as the family and other church members who had gathered for the funeral were beaten with rods and footwear. The family was given an ultimatum – if you want to bury your dead, you will have to forsake your faith.
“I refused to give up my faith. I stood firm” says Rameshwary, her voice full of tears as she recalls how she could not give her husband of many years a decent burial. Despite her small stature and soft voice, Rameshwary was a force to be reckoned with, refusing to give up her faith despite the violent opposition she was faced with.
The police then arrived on the scene and contrived to remove the remains to the burial site. However, once more, the mob surrounded the plot and resorting to violence, prevented the burial from taking place.
In utter desperation, the family attempted to bring the remains back to the house and conduct the burial in their own garden, unaware that this was prohibited by law.
“However, the mob kept following us, and obstructed the burial in our garden as well” sighs Ganga, for whom 18 January had turned into one of her worst nightmares.
Amidst great difficulty and with the help of the police, the remains of Deivendran were taken 15km away to another village and finally laid to rest. Given the unrest and the long distance, Ganga had to stay back at home with her grandmother and could not attend the burial of the grandfather she loved so much.
The family continues to be ostracised by a large part of the village. They often hear whispers of how Christians should not be allowed to bury their dead in the village.
Not only has the death of Deivendran left a gaping hole in their lives, it has also plunged them deeper into poverty.
Now, 21 year old Naresh is the family’s sole breadwinner. Due to a particular allergy which has affected his hands, Naresh has to be very careful about what he eats and hence his grandmother and sister are reluctant to send him far from home for employment. Therefore, Naresh earns a meagre income to support the three of them by fishing in the river.
“His income is not regular as he cannot fish during certain seasons” says Ganga, who is now attending sewing classes in the hopes of learning a skill that she can use thereafter to generate an additional source of income. However, she is unable to practice her sewing and develop her skill as she cannot afford a sewing machine at home.
At first glance, the little home, with a soft breeze cooling the stifling afternoon heat, seems to be haven of solace. The quietude of this rural village, with baby goats leaping around and little children in the neighbourhood chasing each other, is a deceptively calm façade, concealing the grief and unrest simmering underneath.
The denial of their right to bury their loved one on the grounds of religion, has caused immense hurt and grief to the poor family, for whom their faith is not just a religion, but a source of comfort and strength amongst the tragedies and difficulties life has thrown their way.
Developments post 18 January, 2018
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance Sri Lanka (NCEASL) met with the Assistant Divisional Secretariat (ADS) of Vaharai and attended a meeting organised by the ADS to address this issue. The meeting saw the participation of the Assistant District Secretary, representatives from the District Reconciliation Committee (DRC), religious leaders, relevant Grama Niladhari officers and members of the Rural Development Society (RDS). The Assistant Divisional and District Secretaries took commendable efforts to ensure that the rights of minorities in the Vaharai area are upheld and that a solution for this issue is reached. As a result, it was decided at the conclusion of the meeting that public cemeteries in certain villages in the Vaharai area will be shared by all villagers irrespective of their religion, while Christians in certain other villages in the Vaharai area will be allocated a separate portion of land to be used as a cemetery.
The NCEASL is now supporting the family by:
- providing emergency assistance by way of a monthly allowance for a period of 6 months;
- • providing livelihood support for Ganga to purchase a sewing machine and for Naresh to purchase fishing supplies in order to help the siblings support themselves and their grandmother.
The NCEASL is also involved in litigation and advocacy efforts to ensure that burial rights are not denied to anyone on the grounds of religion and to promote overall freedom of religion.
If you would like to lend a helping hand to such families facing persecution due to their religion or belief, contact us via [email protected]
*Names have been changed in the interest of the family’s safety.