On 22 May I was privileged to chair a Jaffna Managers’ Forum meeting where Lal Wijenayake, Chairman of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms, came to consult the public. It was an immense success. Assisted by Yuresha Fernando and Winston Pathirajah, he won applause. Charged words should be avoided he said. For example, there is plenty of support for “power sharing” but instead if federalism or unitary is used, the changes will not pass.
The only opposition was to retaining §9 of the present constitution: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).”
Wijenayake then read §10: “Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice;” and then §14(1) (e): “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
His interpretation that §10 and §14(1)(e) safeguard everyone from §9 was roundly rejected since having “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” does not mean equality when the government takes funds from the common pool to foster Buddhism.
Wijenayake then tried another explanation: it is like UNESCO spending common funds to foster cultures under threat. But then, Buddhism is not a culture under threat and indeed is threatening other religions in destroying Hindu temples and churches.
He tried again: Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had said there is no harm. But even Tamil Roman Catholics did not accept his leadership, especially after he showed himself willing to go along with the Rajapakses on their questionable projects such as the removal of the Chief Justice.
M.K. Sivajilingam had the last word saying this new constitution might be old toddy in a new pila (a serving dish made of the palmyra leaf).
President Over-stepping Boundaries
On Good Friday, a day of fasting for Christians, I received an sms from President Sirisena:
“May this Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawn upon all Sri Lankans an era of sustainability and prosperity.”
Sustain what? The corruption we voted to break free of is sustained even by the President’s and PM’s admission. We certainly do not want their sustenance of corruption to be sustained.
And “Tamil New Year”? It is a Hindu astrological event. Our religious festivals are for us to define – not for the majority to tell us. A similar imposition is claiming Thai Pongal – a Hindu Vellala Harvest Festival for the Sun God – as uniquely Tamil. I felt euphoria over the 2015 elections. However, my hopes have dimmed since the President announced that
“The government will not go ahead with any task opposed by [the] Mahasangha which provided correct guidance and advice for better governance throughout our proud history of thousands of years.” (PMD News, 21.01.2016).
We voted directly for Sirisena as President, not as the Vicar of the Mahasangha. If the Mahasangha wants to rule us then they should stand for elections. Recall that it was the Sangha that consoled Duttagemenu when he was depressed after killing many Tamils. Advised the Sangha, Tamils are “not to be more esteemed than beasts”! (Mahavamsa, Chapter. 25: 98, 103, 107-112). Was it on this ancient Sangha advice that the President promised that
“military commanders who led a successful campaign to crush separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009 should not be humiliated by bringing them to courts”? (Economy Next, 12.10.2016).
I doubt Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims want to be ruled by the Mahasangha, considering that since Duttagemunu’s time, they have been at the forefront of communalism. The President ended a speech, wishing us the “Blessings of the Triple Gem” meaning the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Most minorities in Sri Lanka do not take refuge in the teachings of the Sangha and would dissociate themselves from Dharma, which means caste-duty.
Equally unsettling is the President’s speech on
“the importance of making Sri Lanka a centre to spread the message of Theravada Buddhism to the world” (PMD News, 08.08.2016).
Cultural imperialism is not just the President’s. While Tamils stingingly decry Sinhalese cultural expansion, we are silent on expansion within the community; like the imposition of the Tamil New Year and Thai Pongal, despite their calendric and astrological undertones antithetical to Christianity and Islam. To Hindus, faith in Jesus claiming
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (St. John 14:6),
is not contradictory to simultaneous faith in Siva or Sai Baba or any other claimant to godhead. They therefore welcome anyone who accepts all gods, and are hostile to someone insisting on only his God. For example, in Jaffna most events begin with the lighting of the lamp, topped with Murugan’s cockerel, and adorning holy ash, blessed by an Iyer – for Christians and Muslims to take part is considered sacrilegious. To not participate is seen as an insult to Hindus, making life difficult for the holdouts who are invariably in minority. Religion must be kept out of public spaces.
Secularism and Religion
The human condition is to like to be like others. So when the majority impose their religion, it is awkward to be different. Even bishops feel the pressure to succumb. At a Bishop’s consecration and enthronement in the Jaffna Cathedral, the retiring diocesan bishop and the incoming bishop had a red pottu (Siva’s third eye) with a yellow pottu on top. At a confirmation service at the Church of Our Lady of Refuge a little later, the celebrants had a pottu and alathi to ward off evil spirits, and bharathanatyam (the Fifth Veda for Sudras not permitted to hear the principal four) in the sanctuary. After all that Hindu ritual, when we went up to receive, the priest saw something different and asked “Are you a Hindu?” Upon being truthfully told no, he gave us the sacrament. (I have permission, based on Pope Benedict’s dispensation to dissatisfied Anglicans, to receive at the Roman Catholic Church.)
Last week, I went to the funeral of my old Hindu master. The St. Johns principal/priest in cassock was conducting some of the ceremonies and just before igniting the pyre, placed rice in my teacher’s mouth for his journey through the netherworld. From a theological standpoint, he cannot believe in the body needing food for its journey, and simultaneously what the Church teaches, that after death there is only resurrection and judgement. A third possibility, likely the case, is that he does not believe either and wants to be nice to everyone – a valid perspective if he had not already dedicated his life to the faith of the church, “indelibly marked as Christ’s own.”
When the state is religious, minorities disappear and society becomes homogeneous but oppressive. Christianity in Jaffna is near dead. Multiculturalism is not working. It is majoritarianism in disguise. Just as in the South Buddhist monks at public events have everyone (even Marxists) bowing to them, in the North we are offered holy ash and pottus at functions. It is awkward to refuse. In the mornings, cinema-songs blare from temples as early as 4 AM. In every street corner, state land is illegally acquired to build temples. People are afraid to complain. Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran has gone so far as to play the religious card by calling Jesus Christ a criminal sentenced to death.
The idea is widespread that if the South is Buddhist, then the North must be Hindu. The UGC Chairman endorsed this idea in writing to Chandrika Kumaratunga, writing that being Christian and rejecting the Hindu leader Navalar as a hero are legitimate disqualifications for positions at Jaffna University. This has affected the university badly. In the ongoing VC contest, all three finalists are Hindus. Annesley Ratnasingam of the Foreigners Council in Kassel Germany is here at the invitation of VS Radhakrishnan (State Minister, Education) and happened to run into discussions on who should be VC. He says that one candidate insisted it be a Hindu, although all three are Hindus. Implied was that the candidate from the oppressed caste does not count as Hindu. This bhaktimaan paid for a van to carry Hindu leaders to Colombo to pressure the president.
Buying Votes: Alternative to Booze
This is where we are going on our jingoist path; a path set by the President and PM who insist Buddhism be given foremost place in the new constitution, fostered by the state. My worry is buying votes through religion, which Karl Marx said is the opiate of the masses. Are the PM and President buying votes giving the Buddhist masses their opium? This opium is far more harmful than booze because it comes at the expense of minorities.
We need to be secular – leave religion out of state affairs – but free to practice our faith in private. Secularism promotes democracy, safeguards the rights of minorities, and ensures choice in religion.