KATTANKUDY/COLOMBO: It was past 11 pm when the conference at a community hall in Kattankudy ended. The last three speakers were restricted to two minutes each, much to their discomfiture as some had travelled from as far as Colombo or Matara to be present.

One had even prepared a 40 minute presentation, which had to be whittled down so the conference could end before the witching hour of midnight.

According to the local organisers, it was the first ever inter-religious conference to be held in the Muslim majority town of Kattankudy in the country’s east.

The conference took place in the context of continuing inter-religious and ethnic tensions following the Easter Sunday attacks that claimed the lives of over 250 persons and targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels.

There is renewed concern about the possibility of similar incidents as crucial presidential elections approach. Besides the taking of innocent lives, such attacks can also be made to influence the course of elections. Issues of ethnic and religious nationalism, national security, and the importance of ‘strong’ leadership to deal with terrorism take centre stage.

The Kattankudy conference followed an exchange visit organised by the National Peace Council that involved members of inter-religious committees set up in 22 of the country’s 25 districts, as civil society formations with organic links to the larger community.

The main area of the exchange was the volatile Eastern Province, in which each of the three main communities is almost equally represented, with consequent rivalries and tensions.

The choice of Kattankudy for the conference was especially significant as it was the hometown of Zahran Hashim, the leader of the now-banned National Thowheed Jamaat who led the suicide bombers on Easter Sunday.

As the conference was meant to share experiences, it was scheduled from 6 to 9 pm at the conclusion of the exchange visit, where members of inter-religious committees from the other districts met with local fishing communities, households headed by women, the families of missing persons, among others.

However, two factors delayed the conference which the organisers from Colombo had not foreseen. First, some of the participants needed to take a prayer break shortly after the conference began, for which they went to a nearby mosque. Getting the more than hundred participants back into their seats after the prayer break took up some time.

A further delay arose over the issue of musical accompaniment to the peace songs of Jayatilaka Bandara of Saadu Janaravaya. Some from Kattankudy were apprehensive that the controversy, over whether music should accompany the songs, would derail the harmony of the inter-religious conference.

However, the intervention of Abdullah Alim, a moulavi or cleric from Puttalam, was useful in resolving the problem. He said Saadu Janaravaya was not the music of a rock band, but more akin to the sweetness of a rose accompanied by thorns.

The songs and music of Jayatilaka Bandara thereafter provided a welcome interlude to the many speeches that followed.

The bigger source of delay was the interest of the more than 20 speakers to add a few minutes each to their allocated time, which eventually added up.

Despite the delays, the conference was useful in helping the participants to break down their preconceived notions of one another.

The Muslim participants saw the quality of the Buddhist monks present, who believed in promoting inter-religious harmony. They saw them as so very different to the nationalist monks, whom they have encountered either in media reports or in violent confrontations, and who see Muslims as a threat to Buddhism and to the Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka.

The Buddhist monks who attended spoke in terms of the Buddhism that upholds loving kindness and universal values.

Even as civil society was creating unity in Kattankudy among local communities drawn from different parts of the country, in the capital city of Colombo another group of civil society organisations from the March 12 Movement were engaged in a unique exercise: bringing together 12 presidential candidates on to one common platform before the people.

This was on account of the trust gained by those who led this civil society initiative, most notably Rohana Hettiarachchi of PAFFREL, through long years of independent election observation, which has mobilised tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to uphold the need for free and fair elections.

At present there is a large measure of disillusionment among the people with political parties and politicians in general. The hopes for good governance, reduced corruption and economic development that were raised high during the last presidential and general elections of 2015 have not come to fruition in the manner expected.

Today, those who were once accused of corruption are campaigning as if they are innocent, and those who pledged to bring about anti-corruption measures have themselves been tarnished by it.

Economic growth rates today are lower than during most of the war period.

The situation is so bad that even religious prelates have called for a strongman of the nature of Hitler to redeem the nation.

It is in this unhappy situation that civil society has emerged as an institution with the confidence and credibility to bring together those who are divided, by communal sentiment or by party politics, on to one common platform, at the grassroots and also nationally.

The 12 presidential candidates who appeared on the common platform set up for them by civil society included two of the three main presidential candidates, Sajith Premadasa of the UNP and Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP.

At the debate the candidates were presented with questions prepared in advance by the organisers, after consultations with a wide swathe of civil society.

The answers they gave on the public stage give hope in the future of Sri Lanka.

Where inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations were concerned, both the main presidential candidates present gave answers on similar lines, eschewing narrow nationalism and embracing the plurality of Sri Lankan society.

Several of the first-time candidates, most notably former army commander General Mahesh Senanayake, spoke likewise in terms of addressing the national question.

Faced with the more than 3000-strong multi ethnic, multi religious audience at the Sugathadasa Stadium, the missing presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, might not have wished to disagree.