Losing Their Religion:
Sri Lanka’s Hindu Children Forced To Take Classes In Buddhism, Islam
Classes in religion are standard in Sri Lankan schools. But some Tamil and Hindu children in the south are forced to learn about other religions, not their own.
Religious studies are compulsory in Sri Lanka. And every Sri Lankan child is supposed to be able to receive an education in the religion of their parents. Unfortunately this is not true for all local children with some pupils learning the religion favoured by the school, rather than the ones their families would like them to.
Many examples of this problem can be found in Sri Lanka’s southern tea-producing sector. K. Keshani is an eight-year-old girl attending Grade 3 at a Sinhala school in Deniyaya Rajapaksha. Keshani was born into a Hindu family but because of the school she attends, she is only able to study Buddhism.
Our son knows the Hindu religion very well. But when we worship as a family, our daughter is able to recite Buddhist prayers.
“And we have no other way of teaching our religion,” says her mother, S. Wasantha Kumara, who lives on a tea growing estate in Deniyaya.
The only son in the family goes to a different school and there he is able to study Hinduism. “Our son knows the Hindu religion very well,” Kumara explains. “But when we worship as a family, our daughter is able to recite Buddhist prayers.”
Another example is provided by Subramanium Baal, aged 14. He studies Buddhism at school even though his family is Hindu; he is in Grade 9. The other four children in his family also attend this school and their mother says they really had no choice as there were no Tamil schools nearby.
There are four schools in Deniyaya’s tea estate sector that teach in Tamil, as well as one bi-lingual school teaching in both Sinhala and Tamil. But there are some areas that are not catered for at all and where teachers do not hold any classes in Tamil. For example at one school in Kotapola around two thirds of the pupils are Tamil but they don’t get to learn in Tamil and their right to religious instruction that aligns with their parents’ Hindu beliefs has been denied.
About 300 Tamil children living in Kotapola are studying at Sinhala schools, says K. Satheshkumara, a coordinator with CoDeSeP, the Community Development Service for Plantations, of the diocese of Galle. “Because there are no Tamil schools in some areas, the children go to Sinhala schools,” Satheshkumara says. “They won’t have a chance to learn in Tamil or about Hinduism.”
The only other way for these children to study their own religion is with their parents, says Sinna Raaman, 58, an estate worker who is dissatisfied with religious instruction his three children are getting. The Hindu temples don’t organize external religious studies classes either, he notes.
Because of a lack of schools, many Tamil children also have to go to Muslim schools. Again they are unable to learn about their own religion there.
“Tamil Hindu children here have to go to Muslim schools,” says schoolteacher Kasun Pathirana, 35. “They don’t have any way to learn about their own culture or how the Hindu religion expects them to behave. This is a major injustice.”
Changes wrought upon Sri Lankan society by the civil war have also had an impact on how children in these areas are educated. Many Hindus in these southern areas hid their sectarian identities and tried to hide the fact they were Tamil and not affiliated with the militant organisation, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
“Tamil parents had a tendency to teach their children in Sinhala,” says Siyon De Alwis, another community coordinator with the CoDeSeP. “They even gave their children Sinhala names. But the time has come to change this. The religion and culture of these children is fading away because many parents believe if their children learn Sinhala they will have a better place in society. All parents must send their children to school so they don’t have any choice. But the truth is, that many want their children taught in Sinhala anyway.”
“Wealthier families prefer to send their children to Buddhist or Muslim schools,” one local teacher explained. “They believe that to get ahead in Sri Lankan society, children should be educated in Sinhala. Often those children completely forget their Hindu religion.”
Even if the parents did want their children taught about Hinduism, many of the Sinhala schools say that a big part of the problem is a lack of teachers to hold the classes in Hinduism. As one teacher told The Catamaran, if even one Tamil teacher could hold classes in different schools, then children’s’ schedules could be adapted to accommodate that.
The principal of the Hulandawa Tamil School has even suggested that graduates who have completed their advanced studies in Hindu religious studies, could perhaps be recruited to come back and teach younger pupils.
It is a serious violation of human rights to deny the freedom to the learn about one’s own religion, argues Prathiba Mahanamahewa, a senior lecturer at Colombo University’s law faculty. He believes it is the Sri Lankan government’s responsibility to solve this problem, by recruiting more suitable teachers.
The country’s Minister of Education, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, has said that the government is taking steps to resolve this problem and that within two to three years, teacher vacancies in this area should be filled.