Installing of Buddha statues in Sri Lanka’s Katchatheevu raises hackles

Local priests and fishermen have protested the move, but there has been no official reaction from India.

Published : Mar 31, 2023 15:52 IST - 4 MINS READ

A Buddha statue that was installed in Katchatheevu recently.

A Buddha statue that was installed in Katchatheevu recently. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Statues of the Buddha were surreptitiously installed recently at Katchatheevu island, located between India and Sri Lanka, where Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen dry their nets and also pray at the St.Anthony’s Shrine. The 163-acre uninhabited island, over which India gave up claim in 1976, is considered holy by fishermen of both countries who believe that the island was dedicated to St.Anthony and flock to it during the festival season.

The head priest of the shrine and members of the fishermen community have protested against the move and demanded that the statues be removed. The Tamil National Alliance, a political alliance representing Sri Lankan Tamils, also demanded that the statues be removed as soon as possible, but there has been no official reaction yet from the Indian government, despite Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader and Lok Sabha member Thol. Thirumavalavan giving notice for a calling attention motion in Parliament.

Katchatheevu is important because of an annual festival that brings together fishermen of the two countries. It is also significant to Indian fishermen, who are allowed to fish in the vicinity of the island. Indian fishermen often claim that they were fishing near the island when they are either arrested or chased away by the Sri Lankan Navy.

As many as 2,408 Indian believers visited the island on pilgrimage during the last festival held earlier this month. This year, there were complaints of a lack of facilities on the island when the Indian worshippers arrived. The island has no infrastructure, and all required material to create temporary shelters and other facilities have to be brought from the mainland.

Indian and Sri Lankan pilgrims offering prayers at the St.Antony’s Shrine in Katchatheevu on March 11, 2023.

Indian and Sri Lankan pilgrims offering prayers at the St.Antony’s Shrine in Katchatheevu on March 11, 2023. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

A couple of pilgrims said that they did not see any Buddha statue during their visit to the island earlier this month. Because the island is barren, and since nothing much grows on the island, any concerte structure is difficult to miss for anyone who lands on the island.

Familiar pattern

Indian officials believe that the statues were installed after the festival, and after all the pilgrims had left. This followed a pattern seen across North and East Sri Lanka, where existing cultural and religious symbols are either destroyed or replaced with Buddhist symbols.

This correspondent visited Hindu holy sites in Trincomalee in December 2022 and reported on the attempts to convert the Kanniya Hot Springs into a Buddhist site, as well as on the neglect of the Thiru Koneswaram temple.

In what Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen consider is a deliberate move, two Buddha statues were installed and peepal saplings, not native to the island, were planted. The island is controlled by the Sri Lankan Navy, and no such installation or planting is possible without its knowledge or permission. At any given time, about 10 Navy personnel are stationed on the island.

In an explanation reported in Sri Lanka’s Tamil press, the Navy admitted to installing “small Buddha statues” so that the Navy personnel stationed on the island could offer prayers. It noted that the island was not inhabited for most of the year, and that the Sri Lankan Navy personnel maintained the shrine and the surroundings. Since the Navy personnel were Buddhists, and since there was a request to make available a space to offer prayers, the statues were installed. It claimed that there was no attempt to open a Buddhist vihara in the island.

Pattali Makkal Katchi leader S. Ramadoss described the installation of the Buddha statues as a “threat to national security”, as it would be the first step for something more sinister. He wanted the Central government to take steps to remove the statues.

There has been no official response from the Central government, which has been steadily losing space, and importance, in Sri Lanka since President Maithripala Sirisena was replaced by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election.

Although Gotabaya resigned in 2022, the new President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has largely continued on the same policy path—of Sinhala-Buddhist appeasement, being pro-China in action and pro-India in public utterances, and making noises of Tamil-Sinhala reconciliation, unmindful of a grave economic crisis that threatens to overwhelm the nation.

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