Colombo Telegraph

Democracy, Secularism & National Reconciliation

By S. Pathmanathan

The fate of the programme of national reconciliation hangs on the capacity of the government to implement the resolution of the U. N. Human Rights Commission, of which Sri Lanka was a sponsor. A Charismatic and strong leadership endowed with maturity of wisdom and enriched with enlightenment is the need of the hour to usher in a new era of hope, co-existence, harmony and unity.

By S. Pathmanathan – Professor Emeritus in History at Peradeniya, Former UGC Vice Chairman, and Chancellor of University of Jaffna

Presented by: Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole at the public meeting on the theme of Secularism titled “An Evening with Shri Navin B. Chawla on Mother Teresa, Now Saint Teresa of Calcutta”

Photo -L to R; Shri Navin Chawla, The Ven. Sam Ponniah, Prof. S.R.H. Hoole, The Rt. Rev. J.B. Gnanapragasam, Dr. Dushyanthi Hoole, Hon. R. Sampanthan, HE A.Natarajan

Madame Chairman, Shri Navin Chawla, My Lord Bishop, The Honourable R. Sampanthan, Your Excellency A. Natarajan, Reverend Sirs, Sisters in Holy Orders, Distinguished Mesdames et Messieurs: Good afternoon.

I am deeply humbled that Prof. Pathmanathan has chosen me to read his talk. I am gratified not least because our thinking is very much aligned, and I am able to endorse everything he says here. Without further ado, let me turn to Professor Pathmanathan’s weighty thoughts of great relevance today as the role of religion in our proposed new constitution is debated.

Democracy and Secularism, as conceived presently in the South Asian context, have their origins in the colonial past, particularly under Pax Britannica. They are so interconnected that one cannot speak about either without reference to the other. The theory and practice of democracy have a long history. They had their origins in the ancient Greek civilization. At least once in a lifetime a free Greek citizen was expected to participate in the process of decision-making in the affairs of government. This was possible in the small Greek republics spread over the Mediterranean world.

Chancellor S. Pathmanathan

The Greek conception of democracy has caught the imagination of political theorists and intellectuals in the medieval ages in Europe. It became the source of inspiration for the struggle against tyranny and despotism. Democracy had the promise of redemption from arbitrary exercise of power and authority and establishing a commonwealth of citizens in the form of a state with equality for all, and where the laws were supreme.

Political theory in relation to democracy was elaborated and refined with intellectual vigour by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Jean Jacqes Rousseau and a host of others. Rousseau made the people supreme and the state an instrument of their will. The Sri Lankan experience has to be examined against this background.

As in India and many other parts of the British empire, Democracy has been a transplant and sometimes without any consideration for the local environment. The scope of British democracy was also limited. They imposed a highly centralized system of administration and passed it over to the parliament of Sri Lanka in 1947. It had a great opportunity to foster and develop the traditions of harmony and co-existence among the principal communities, the Sinhalese and Tamils. However, the developments were in the reverse direction. The deficiency in the constitution and the political opportunism of those who sought to achieve power and retain it were among the combination of factors that led to this development.

The first constitution of independent Sri Lanka, unlike that of India, was not formulated on the basis of the proceedings of a constituent assembly. It was the refined version of a draft of proposals submitted by the Cabinet of Ministers. It was a majoritarian constitution. It had set up a bad precedent and thenceforth there was no attempt to formulate a constitution based on consensus.

The main plank of domestic policy in Sri Lanka since independence was the suppression of the Tamil communities, which had no constitutional or legal safeguards because of the consideration mentioned earlier. In order to safeguard herself from any (imagined) external interference, a defense agreement was signed with Britain, the ex-colonial power.

The government of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) initiated a series of measures against the Tamil communities of which there were two categories; the Tamils of indigenous origin and those of Indian origin concentrated mainly in the plantation districts of the hill country. The latter has a history of 150 years of origin and development. The ancestors of the Sri Lankan Tamils, like those of the Sinhalese, had their origins in the intermixture of the Nagas and the Yakkhas. The Yakkhas had lived in the island from 28,000 years BC. The Nagas who entered the island since 900 B.C from South India introduced the early Iron Age Culture, ending the stone age. Recent studies have revealed that they spoke Tamil. Their archaeological movements which are concentrated for the most part in the Northern and Eastern provinces reveal that Tamil society in those parts of the island had developed before 300 A.D and was politically divided into a number of chiefdoms. The observations made by Hugh Cleghorn in the report he submitted to the British in 1796 are confirmed by archaeological evidence. The Sri Lankan Tamils had then developed as a distinctively identifiable society occupying a contiguous part of the island. The kingdoms and principalities they had established had lingered on until the early European conquest.

One of the first measures of the Sri Lankan government since independence was the enactment of laws regarding citizenship for people of Indian and Pakistani origin. They were so stringent that they could not be met by people of Indian origin who were mostly plantation workers. They lost citizenship and voting rights and became a stateless people. This was an unusual phenomenon and in this respect the policy of the Sri Lankan government was out of step with that of the governments of other states which were earlier included in the British Empire. In the first parliamentary elections held in 1947, the Tamils of Indian Origin were able to secure the election of seven members of their community. In the elections held in 1952 they were not in a position to elect even a single member. The attack on this community is most conspicuous because it amounted to a repudiation of a provision in the constitution. In political terms the measure was illegal and unconstitutional. However, when confronted in a long struggle with Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism, the government had to grant citizenship to those who had remained in the Island after repatriation because of diplomatic reasons.

Photo – Navin Chawla and the Hooles with the Sisters of Charity from Jaffna and Vavuniya

The fate of the Sri Lankan Tamils has a long story that cannot be stated here even in outline but the major landmarks are well known. Over the decades since independence, the Sri Lankan Tamils have been politically suppressed, economically marginalized, educationally disadvantaged and culturally sidelined. There has been a steady progress of ethnic homogenization in the appointments to all grades of services in the public sector.

All this had happened in a state that had the facade of a parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary enactments had provoked a resistance that led to the emergence of nationalism among a people who had earlier reposed their confidence in the Sinhalese parliamentary leadership. The Tamils of Sri Lanka had a much stronger claim to statehood than the Muslims of Pakistan on the dissolution of the British Empire in South Asia. Yet, because of a long tradition of co-existence, harmony and political partnership under the monarchy, they did not imagine that they would be in for bad times in an independent country. History has proved that their confidence and hopes were thoroughly misplaced. Independence to them did not confer any benefits of freedom and prospects of economic prosperity. It had only led to the replacement of the previous colonial rulers, the British, with the representatives of the majority Sinhalese.

Liberty and equality are the principal qualities of a democracy. Sri Lankan experience shows that the government of the majority does not hold on to such a view. Because of inherent weakness in the constitution and ignorance or antipathy to the values of democracy, it was possible to convert the Sri Lankan state into an ethnocentric state. When resisted it displayed a total indifference to human rights as it did in 1971 (during a Sinhalese uprising) and in subsequent times.

Since 1956 the Sri Lankan Tamils were governed under Emergency regulations for long periods until 1977 and they were under military administration during the thirty years war. Military surveillance and control over civil administration continued even after the war and lasted until January 2015.

An independent judiciary is a hallmark of a democratic state. The British created and left behind as a legacy such a system of judicial administration. In crucial matters concerning the rights of the Tamil people, it became increasingly difficult to repose confidence on the judiciary, which succumbed to pressures from the government. Moreover ethnocentrism had permeated the mindset of even the judges of the Supreme Court. The best illustration is the verdict on the de-merger of the North-East Province. It is said that the media reported that His Lordship, the Justice concerned, had confessed that although he knew that he was making a wrong decision, he had made the decision as he was swayed by ethnic sentiments.

Thus, it could be noted how the three branches of government, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, had put into jeopardy the basic principles of democracy because of ethnocentric politics. The constitution on which they are based cannot be overhauled or refined in its present form. The experience of the post independence era underscores the urgent need for a new constitution based on the principles of consensus principally among the major ethnic groups, human rights, accountability and transparency. It has to be consistent with the norms and practices of contemporary free societies. The theory of state sovereignty should not provide the refuge for non-compliance with the basic principles of human rights and natural justice. It was the prospect of such a development that brought the people of all the three communities together in 2015 in electing a new President and government. It has to be admitted that in the first year of its tenure the performance of the government was creditable.

Secularism and its relevance for Sri Lanka

Secularism entered as a major issue in political and academic debate in the early modern era. The concept of a state religion was a legacy of the Roman Empire. After the conversion of the Emperors to Christianity it became the state religion of the Empire. A state religion breeds intolerance and provides the legitimacy for the suppression of dissent in thought and practices. In medieval Europe the church had allied itself with monarchical despotism and because of that reason it became the target of strong attacks. During the French Revolution while proclaiming the Declaration of the “Rights of Man’’, they abolished Christianity as a state religion and established the Worship of reason. Since then there was secularization of politics and a divorce of the church from the state except on occasions of ritualistic demonstration.

The important point that has to be noted here is that intolerance in matters of religion was put at rest since the revolution and the state’s connection with the “National Church’’ became a matter of ritual only.

Ironically, some South Asian academics and politicians had developed a concern for politicizing religion here out of context without consideration for the past or the present. Sri Lanka is the home of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural society. There are adherents of the four major religions of the world here and of course Buddhists are in a large majority. Like all the other religions Buddhism revived in the period of British rule and had held a position of unchallenged supremacy. It also commanded the respect of other religionists.

The Soulbury constitution, which was a majoritarian constitution did not concede to Buddhism a special status. Nor was there a public agitation demanding that a special status should be conferred on Buddhism in the constitution. Even the Buddhist Commission Report had not made such a recommendation. The election manifesto of the United Front in 1970, had not made any such promise.

In the constitution of 1972 the second chapter providing a foremost place to Buddhism was inserted. It is rumoured that it was done on the insistence of J.R. Jayewardene, the leader of the opposition in Parliament at that time. But, the irony of the matter is that the Minister of Constitutional Affairs was the veteran Marxist leader, Colvin R.de Silva. The communist party was also supportive of the move. The constitution of 1972, in effect, transformed the Sri Lankan state into a Unitary Sinhalese Buddhist state. All the assumptions underlying it were anachronistic and out of step with the political and cultural traditions of pre-colonial South and South East Asia.

For the present, two points may be noted here. One is that the constitution of 1972 rejected the principle of equality that is basic to democracy. The second is to have opened up the avenues for reneging into an imagined past. What Europe had cast away in the 17th and 18th centuries through experience, Sri Lanka has taken upon herself in the 20th century to achieve her own political doom.

At this juncture a peep into the Indian constitution is of particular relevance. It is declared in that constitution that the Union of India shall be a secular state. When Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian National Congress, he had declared that free India shall be a union of linguistic states. Events have proved that such a union could be sustained through a policy of secularism. Secularism is the foundation of Indian Unity and Democracy. Mahatma Gandhi suffered martyrdom for the cause of Indian unity, a unity based on the association of diverse societies on their own free will.

In Sri Lankan Tamil politics since the early 20th century and in civil society, religion was not a matter of vital concern. Secularism in politics and public affairs had become well-established. Hindus and Christians worked together and even suffered martyrdom. The most popular and respected Tamil leader was a Christian. Significantly, his nomination papers for parliamentary elections were signed by Thuraisvami Kurukkal, the chief priest of the Maviddapuram temple, who was one of most learned Brahmin priests in the Jaffna Peninsula. In 1972, only the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) had made representation to the Constituent Assembly that the state should be secular.

The liberties of individuals, communities and institutions are inviolable in a democracy, particularly in countries where there is a great diversity in language, religion and social customs. In Sri Lanka, however, there could be major assaults on these liberties. Events since 1965 have highlighted that Hinduism could be under attack by the agencies of the state.

In 1966, Dr. Charles Godakumbure, the Archaeological Commissioner started a frontal attack on Hinduism. This was in an article published in two issues of the Sun where he claimed that there was no temple called Konesvaram in Ancient times. This had sparked a series of writings in a similar vein. Konesvaram, is one of the two most sacred Saiva Temples in Sri Lanka, the hymns on which are included in the sacred literature of Saivism, in Tamil, compiled in the 10th and 11th centuries AD. These hymns, of course, belong to a much earlier period, the seventh and eighth centuries. Godakumbure’s work was politically motivated and he had set aside historical evidence in Tamil and twisted and falsified the information derived from other sources. His views were exploded by archaeological evidence that surfaced in subsequent times. There have been interferences with Hindu Temples on several occasions in later times. It should be noted here that this trend represents a major deviation from the age-long tradition of co-existence and harmony between Hinduism and Buddhism. Nowadays, the anxieties of the Hindus are shared by Muslims and Christians on matters pertaining to religious freedoms.

A secular state maintains a position of neutrality. It does not identify itself with any particular religion. Nor does it allow religion to become a factor in politics and administration. Secularism could be the foundation for promoting peace and harmony. Non-Buddhists in this country may not have objections to or grievances about state support for Buddhism as it happened under the monarchy during a long period of 2000 years. The Mahasangha would be happy to revive such a tradition. The irony is that Sri Lankan politicians have created for themselves and society a problem that ensnared them into a trap of error from which they cannot wriggle out. It may not be possible presently to drop Chapter II of the present constitution. But, the inclusion of provisions to protect the liberties of other religions has become a vital need.

Chapter II of the present constitution could be abused and used by the agencies of the state in an ominous manner and in unanticipated ways. A great deal of vigilance has become necessary to thwart the bureaucratic abuses under the cover of entrenched provisions in the constitution.

From the unpleasant task highlighting the assaults on democracy and secularism in the constitution, we may now pass on to the issues relating to national reconciliation. The events and processes of January 8, 2015 were in many ways unique. Despite the woes and agonies of a 30-year civil war that had caused unprecedented destruction, more than 90% of Sri Lankan Tamils had spontaneously voted along with other communities for a common cause, the restoration of democracy. They have thereby demonstrated their will for national reconciliation through the democratic process. They have also endorsed in an unprecedented manner the election manifesto that declared in no uncertain terms that a solution has to be found in an undivided and United Sri Lanka with provision for power sharing to the maximum possible extent, at a Provincial Council and later the Parliamentary election of 2016. Considered in the light of the incalculable calamities at the end of the war, such a development is a most remarkable one. The implication is that the Tamils have got out of the mindset of the thirty years war. As the LTTE have been eliminated, the venue is clear and open for negotiations and reconciliation.

The process of reconciliation has begun and it is undeniable that some tangible results have been obtained. Yet, progress is slow and sometimes disappointing. It is a complex and complicated process. The confidence reposed by the Tamils on the President of Sri Lanka and his government have not faded out.

The PTA remains a major hurdle against national reconciliation. There is no longer any political justification to retain this most perfidious and antidemocratic instrument of state terror as the war ended 7 years ago.

The fate of the programme of national reconciliation hangs on the capacity of the government to implement the resolution of the U. N. Human Rights Commission, of which Sri Lanka was a sponsor. A Charismatic and strong leadership endowed with maturity of wisdom and enriched with enlightenment is the need of the hour to usher in a new era of hope, co-existence, harmony and unity.

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