By R.M.B Senanayake –
Yesterday H.E Chandrika Bandaranaike spoke at a meeting of the Wives of War Victims about the present plight of our country. She said while the UN and Developed countries are talking about building an inclusive society we are seeking to build an exclusive society only for the majority. We have sought to, exclude the minorities- first the Tamils now the Muslims and eventually the Christians. Economists talk of inclusive growth so that the benefits of economic development accrue to all the people including the poor and the low income classes. But what about inclusive politics? It is not enough to make minority political parties a part of a coalition government if the government vests all power in the hands of the ruling family with others merely enjoying the lavish perks of office.
H.E CBK stated that the process began in 1956. But its intellectual antecedents began long before. Its creator was Anagarika Dharmapala of the 19th century. SWRD adopted these ideas although as a western educated liberal he perhaps did not believe in them in order to gain political power. Ever since the political parties have accepted this ideology while paying lip service to the democratic ideals of freedom and equality. Dharmapala spoke contemptuously those who were westernized. He used despicable language against the Muslim and Christian minorities. He had praise only for the Sinhalese race and culture and hoped for a revivalist Sinhalese Buddhist ascendancy in the future when the country was freed from colonial rule. There were a few critics who took issue with him. But he managed to win the hearts and minds of the majority Sinhala Buddhist population.
Most developed countries have some sort of ideology which is explicitly or implicitly accepted by the people. If we do have a national ideology it is implicit this Sinhala Buddhist hegemony proclaimed by Anagarika Dharmapala. The minorities were implicitly excluded from the “people”. They were intruders or trespassers who had overstayed the hospitality of the Sinhala Buddhist people. So they do not have rights. They must thankfully accept what is given to them by the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Even General Fonseka expressed this view. Most Sinhala Buddhist politicians take this ideology for granted and assume that the minorities- the Tamil, Muslims and Christians have no place in the State and certainly not entitled to equal rights as the Sinhala Buddhist majority.
One of the early manifestations of this propaganda for Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism was the riots of 1915 against the Muslims. The Anagarika had expressed contempt for the Muslims and had criticized them for accumulating wealth by Shylockian methods much like the Jews. In short, Dharmapala and his associates very much encouraged and contributed to the “ethnocratic state with Sinhala Buddhist hegemony.”He also expressed fear that Buddhism in Sri Lanka was threatened with extinction by Christians and Muslims. He believed and proclaimed that the Sinhalese were Aryan despite the lack of convincing historical proof. But his statements boosted the egoism of the Sinhala Buddhists at a time when they were subject to colonial rule. He said all the evils prevalent among the Sinhalese Buddhists were due to the foreign imperialists. Christianity, Islam and polytheism [i.e. Hinduism] are responsible for the vulgar practice of killing animals. The Sinhalese people were in his view the historical custodians of Buddhism which had been wiped out of India. This ideology is rooted in the hearts and minds of the Sinhala Buddhists although there is no explicit affirmation of it. But it leads to intolerance. It is the antithesis of the Buddha’s teachings but it is the ideology of Sinhala Buddhism even today.
But this ideology cannot produce a tolerant society where the ethnic and religious minorities can enjoy their rights as proclaimed by the United Nations. The UN Charter accepts the equality of all human beings much like Buddhism or any other world religion. Here is what Article 27 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:
“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities should not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language”.
The 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities extended these rights to also include the rights of persons belonging to minorities to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life, as well as in the decision-making process concerning the minority to which they belong; to establish and monitor their own associations; to establish and maintain, without any discrimination, free and peaceful contacts with other members of their group or other citizens of other States to whom they are related by national or ethnic, religious or linguistic ties.The right of people displaced by war to return to their lands is also accepted by the UN and any policy to resettle Sinhalese from the South in such lands will not be workable and only lead to conflict
How can the ideology of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony over the other ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka accommodate these rights? The ideology wants the minorities to be beholden to the majority Sinhala Buddhists because they are not the natives of Sri Lanka. They are visitors to the country who overstayed taking advantage of the hospitality of the Sinhala Buddhists. So they cannot occupy equal status with the Sinhala Buddhists.
But this ideology if it were to prevail in a plural society there cannot be social peace or a common national identity. Countries thinking on similar lines like Russia, the Turkish Empire and the Serbs failed to hold their nations or empires together. These countries tried forcible assimilation of their minorities. The Turks forced the Jews to convert to Islam for example.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism preach, among other things, non-violence (ahimsa) and equality. In fact Buddha was the religious leader who preached and practiced the concept of equality among all human beings, (One becomes a nobleman by his deeds and not by his birth, one becomes an untouchable by his deeds and not by his birth).
There only one simple and one single way to make people to belong to a nation of people, Total freedom. No man wants to rebel where he feels comfortable, secure and free. When a country is fair and free people want to join with the majority. Minorites want to be socially acceptable by the majority. But not at the expense of their identity and culture.
Differences should not be treated as divisions
Let us not confuse differences with divisions. Differences may be based on natural factors as in the case of sex. Women are different from men. But this doesn’t mean there must be male domination. There have been matriarchal societies as well as patriarchal societies. Male domination was the outcome of wars and the desire for power over the female. The difference in sex does not justify discrimination. Similarly most people are born to a race and religion. These are differences brought about by nature. But they do not mean that they are divisions to be discriminated against.
In fact it is the differences in peoples that have led to civilizations as one group of people borrowed ideas and innovations from another group of people. The Europeans owe a lot to the Islamic civilization from which they borrowed. If there were no differences there would be no scope for borrowing ideas and innovations from others. Differences are natural and benign. It is wrong to seek to wipe out differences by discrimination. Let us give respect to differences. It can instill in people new theories and concepts that can be useful in other regions. So let us look at people differently. Let us look at them as product of nature, nurtured by nature and let us accept every one as he is. It is in accepting every individual as a unique gift of nature that we are going to make our country a better place to live, but it the duty of the political leaders to show the way. Instead they capitalize on such differences seeking only the interest of the majority whose votes count most.
They key to achieving social peace is to develop a national ideology and ethos which emphasizes the core aspirations that all religions share, rather than emphasizing a particular group’s manifestation of those aspirations. Rather than seeing other religions as threats, we must act on the love and justice developed within our own community to find and explore those universals in the other communities. The religious ideal of service tends to become corrupted when prophetic visions whether by Christians, Buddhists or Muslims are sought to be made into political reality. This is the evil of the Muslim extremists who think they should act to bring about what has been foretold in their Scriptures. Now this type of vision has taken hold over the Sinhala Buddhists whose role is assumed to be to protect Buddhism which was wiped out from India. Such beliefs about a community’s spiritual destiny may lead to action against perceived enemies and lead to political domination. In political religio-nationalism which is what we have in Sinhala Buddhism, religion becomes associated with politics, and national identity becomes bound up with political power. We should reject political forms of religio-nationalism in favor of spiritual forms that support dialogue and the search for common truths in diverse communities. But we seem to be going the wrong way.