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 A Hindu worshipper celebrating the festival of Shivaratri in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, on March 8, 2024.  © 2024 Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto via AP Photo

Eight Tamil Hindu worshippers arrested by Sri Lankan police while engaging in festival rituals last week were detained for more than 10 days and allegedly abused. A magistrate released them on March 19. 

In recent years, Sri Lankan government authorities and nationalist Sinhala Buddhist monks have been targeting Hindu as well as Muslim religious sites in the country’s north and east in violation of the right to freedom of religion and belief, among other basic rights.

The eight were arrested at the Veddukkunaari temple near Vavuniya, a Hindu shrine that Buddhist monks, backed by the government’s Department of Archaeology, say is an ancient Buddhist site. It is one of numerous temple sites in northeastern Sri Lanka claimed by nationalist Buddhist monks, frequently with the support of government agencies and the security forces.

The Vavuniya magistrates court had earlier ruled that the rituals for the festival of Shivaratri, the principal festival day of the god Shiva, could go ahead at Veddukkunaari. However, on the evening of March 8, police arrived and assaulted worshippers, including an opposition member of parliament. Rights activists told Human Rights Watch the detainees said they were beaten in custody, for which the court requested a medical report, and their families denied access to them for the first three days. On March 19, the authorities’ allegations were dismissed at their third court appearance.

Hindu worshippers consider the Veddukkunaari site to be an ancient Hindu shrine. The Archaeology Department had claimed that the worshippers damaged antiquities, while the police contended that arrests were made because small ritual fires posed a hazard. Similar Hindu rituals have been conducted at Veddukkunaari for many years.

Buddhist monks, accompanied by soldiers, had gone to the site in February and said that a shivalingam, a typically stone cylindrical symbol worshiped by Hindus as a representation of Shiva, had recently been installed. Hindu symbols and idols there were damaged and destroyed in 2023, while the military and archaeological officials have been attempting to block Hindu worshipers from the site since at least 2018.

The Sri Lankan government should publicly direct the Department of Archaeology to end its discriminatory interference in Hindu sites and order the police and other security forces to uphold the rights of Hindus and other minority communities. 

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