By Lukman Harees –
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again..
Wow! How effectively this nursery rhyme sums up the disaster awaiting this Paradise Isle in the not too distant future. We are living at the most challenging time in recent history, where the forces of extremism such as BBS and Sinhala Ravaya , have unfortunately got the upper hand over the voices of moderation and reason. It is a matter of regret that the Police have virtually delegated or abdicated their law enforcement powers to these vicious elements , extremist forces – BBS, and Sihala Ravaya, supported by the JHU , to do whatever they wish. The idle promises given by the government not to allow any elements to create communal disharmony have become ‘much ado about nothing’. Of course, Sri Lanka hasn’t still become another Myanmar ,but there are clear signs that an irreparable damage has been inflicted on the hopes of millions of Sri Lankans that, after the end of War in 2009, they can live happily thereafter.
What type of Sri Lanka is being shaped by these events in the recent past ,and what type of image of Sri Lanka is being carving out in the international arena? If the messages on posters and social networking sites as well as ‘small talk’ at the grass root levels, are anything to go by, we have allowed racial prejudices and communal divisions to gain a foothold in the psyche of our younger ones, instigated two communities which lived side by side for generations in trust and friendship to start harbouring mutual suspicions and fears while pushing Sri Lanka to be hounded internationally as a country fast transforming itself into a ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ majoritarian state with decreasing space for the ‘other’. Following the strategy of Goebbels, the Hitler’s propaganda Minister, BBS particularly has already carved an almost an irreversible negative image about the Sri Lankan Muslims in the minds of Sinhala Buddhist people –‘aliens subtly increasing their flock and working against their interests, although history of Muslims in this country amply bears witness to their loyalty.
Hitler had an all-powerful ally without whom he could have never succeeded. His ally was the world that chose to remain silent as Germany kept testing the limits of the universal tolerance for its evil actions. Similarly, in Rwanda too, the genocide took place amidst the silence of the international community. Ultimately, when the world took note and decided to act, it was too little and too late, after millions of Jews and others whom Hitler despised died , and after over 800,000 people for no fault of theirs perished in Rwanda . That, man does not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach. It is therefore imperative that we, the society at large learn from the bitter lessons history imparts to us and not allow our country to fall apart like Humpty Dumpty. Let’s give ear to the golden words of Martin Luther King Jr. : ‘we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people’.
An admiring appeal in the face-book page captioned ‘Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’ thankfully reflects the increasing mood of the Sinhala Buddhist brethren to confront these destructive forces led by some rogue members of the Maha Sangha. Let’s hope this trend will catch on . The message runs thus: We ask every Buddhist who follows the legitimate Dhamma based on compassion to reach out to the monks they know, and ask them why they are not doing enough about this situation? Ask them to come walk with us for peace and friendship. Tell them how you really feel about this destruction of the Sasana by these rouge monks. Lay Buddhists must make a forceful appeal to the Sangha to take control, and reign in these monks who are running amok.
It has been rather ironic that the peaceful Sinhala Buddhist people have been taken hostage by various extremist forces acting on the fringes throughout history. A cursory glance of such forces in history will reinforce the fact that they been drawing inspiration from the Mahavamsa and Anagarika Dharmapala and not from the Dharmapada or Tripitaka. . The eminent Sri Lankan historian, K.M. de Silva points out that the Sinhala Buddhist revivalists had no time for such norms such as Multi-culturalism or multi- ethnicity : “In the Sinhala language, the words for nation, race and people are practically synonymous, and a multiethnic or multicommunal nation or state is incomprehensible to the popular mind. The emphasis on Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhala Buddhists carried an emotional popular appeal, compared with which the concept of a multi-ethnic polity was a meaningless abstraction.” . Besides, although Buddhism is a peaceful philosophy, its’ combination with Sinhala nationalism had unfortunately been less than peaceful in the past. Analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda(1996) has argued that “Sinhalese Buddhism has made no significant contribution to the evolution of a non-violent social ideology. On the contrary, the Sinhalese Buddhist historiographical tradition and ideology inherent in it supports ethnic political violence”. Events that transpired in post-independence Sri Lanka when Buddhist leaders and Buddhist monks campaigned for policies that exacerbated ethno-religious violence highlight Uyangoda’s argument. Further many commentators on Post-colonial Sri Lanka curiously had commented on the ‘minority’ complex of the majority Sinhalese , according to Nira Wickramasinghe, another author in history (2006). She says that ‘the three Constitutions of post- independence Sri Lanka, helped demarcate and define a majority from within the citizens pitting them against non- Buddhists and non- Sinhala speaking minority communities…(.placing) minorities in a somewhat dependent and subaltern situation’.
Thus, if the collective conscience of our nation waver and allow the forces of Majoritarianism to rule roost , then the days are not far away when this Paradise Isle will turn into a Banana Republic and be another Somalia. Majoritarianism asserts that a majority (sometimes categorized by religion, language, social class or some other identifying factor) of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society. Within a majoritarian system, after one minority is destroyed, the majority will inevitably turn against another group. If the silent among the majority fail to stand up for the persecuted minorities today, they may very well be the persecuted minority tomorrow, in some form.
The future of our Sri Lankan nation will depend on the subscription of its’ people, irrespective of their race or geographical differences, to a common Sri Lankan identity . Acceptance of the multi- cultural or multi ethnic character of or nation will be a ‘sine quo non’, in moving forward towards prosperity, after facing the dire consequences of a disastrous war for 30 long years.
The Sinhala Buddhist people , like the elder brother in a family, should take the initiative in chartering this course for the entire nation. Allowing BBS or Sinhala Ravaya to spread the ‘majoritarian’ virus or mania will only be suicidal in the middle to long run. This will and aspiration of all citizens should therefore be properly reflected in the Constitution of our country, not only in letter,but also in spirit as well. The Constitution is the touchstone for the legality of all other laws and the basis for reviewing executive and legislative action. There should be constitutional safeguards against any legislation that allows for the state to be hijacked, either by a particular interest group, or even by an unscrupulous government and we need a strong but at the same time sensitive judiciary to ensure the rule of law, which has become ‘kalunika’( a rare product) in today’s context. We are aware how the outgoing British colonial rulers introduced Section 29 into the 1948 Unitary Constitution ,as a safeguard for the minorities , which granted powers to the Parliament to make laws for peace, security and good Government but specifically denied capability to the Parliament to make laws discriminatory to, in favour of or adverse to any one community which were not equally applicable to the other communities.
As Prof G.L. Peiris(1997) said : ‘..It was on the basis of this safeguard that the Tamils acquiesced in the granting of independence in 1948..’. Gaining freedom was the joint effort of all communities, all of whom subscribed to the idea of an independent Ceylon, on the basis of equal rights to all and not on a majoritarian platform. Tamil leaders such as Prof Suntharalingam and Muslim leaders like T.B.Jayah and Sir Mohamed Macan Markar, put up a united front ,holding hands with the Sinhala leaders such as D.S. Senanayake and SWRD Bandaranaike to win back freedom from the British, and to later sort out communal issues. This ‘Section 29’ safeguard was quoted by the then Sinhala leaders to reassure the Minority leaders to vote for independence without a division. This safeguard was unfortunately removed by the drafters of the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions and introduced a regime of fundamental rights . They also gave Buddhism the foremost place as well, while assuring to all religions the rights to practice their religion and culture. Therefore, the Tamils and the Muslims felt betrayed by the action to remove this vital Section, which gave the minorities a sense of protection against the possible incursion into their rights by a majoritarian minded government or groups . However, governments kept on assuring the minorities that despite this omission, their rights are duly secured under the constitution. Judging by what transpired in the current context, the fears of the minority communities appears justified. It will be duty of the government and the majority community to allay the fears of their Tamil and Muslim brethren and assure them regarding their equal status. The government must ‘walk the talk’.
However, those who defended the removal of this Section, argued that despite the protections of minority rights afforded vide Section 29, the discriminatory Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act of 1949 (that discriminated against the Upcountry Tamils) and the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 ( which discriminated against the entire Tamil speaking community) were passed by the Governments of the time. Legal appeals were made, but they were ultimately turned down by the Privy Council, in Britain. They also argue that the rights envisaged in Section 29 were only community rights rather than individual rights. Another important feature of the 1972 and 1978 constitutions was that they also took away another important safe guard against unconstitutional legislative action, namely, post enactment judicial review. Besides, they also did not recognize the supremacy of the Constitution .
Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, in an article on ‘Constitutional Protections since Independence’ also opines that Section 29(2), did not turn out to be efficacious as expected and says that ‘a future Constitution, apart from providing for the sharing of State power by all communities through extensive devolution of power and power sharing at the Centre, should also recognize the supremacy of the Constitution. Recognition of identity is also important’.
Prof Lakshman Marasinghe in an article sees the removal of Section 29(2) from a psychological viewpoint. when he says ; ‘ As for the minorities, they were entitled to feel that they have been left in the hands of a governing autocracy with wide and unfettered powers. The 1972 constitution permitted the establishment of Administrations with an abundance of uncontrolled power to govern. The people in Sri Lanka under the 1972 constitution were denied of any meaningful constitutional protections of their “Fundamental Rights and freedoms” As subsequent history has shown, these provided a fertile breeding ground for political dissent and for agitation and violence.’ He also said in foresight : ‘We have reached such a stage here in Sri Lanka, where it has now become necessary to arrive at a constitutional settlement which would not only provide cast iron constitutional guarantees to all persons equally, which human ingenuity could devise, but also provide the legal institutions that could protect and enforce those guarantees. Unless that is achieved now, this nation would have lost yet another opportunity to solve its ethnic conflict which might in its next phase wrench the country apart’.
Wickramaratne quotes from the proposals made in this regard in the Majority Report :‘The People of Sri Lanka shall be described in the Constitution as being composed of “the constituent peoples of Sri Lanka”. The right of every constituent people to develop its own language, to develop and promote its culture and to preserve its history and the right to its due share of State power including the right to due representation in institutions of government shall be recognized without in any way weakening the common Sri Lankan identity. This shall not in any way be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of the Republic’. He adds , ‘To ensure the supremacy of the Constitution, all action inconsistent with the Constitution must be considered void. Post enactment judicial review is a must. The fundamental rights chapter should be consistent with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations and should also include social, economic, cultural, group, women’s and children’s rights apart from strengthening civil and political rights. Remedies for infringement of fundamental rights should be easily available and be efficacious. These are but some of the essential features of a future Constitution of a united, peaceful and democratic Sri Lanka’.
However, it is imperative to bear in mind that apart from what the Constitution may contain, ultimately, it is left for the people and the government they elect to give meaning to its’ aspirations . Lord Soulbury too, in 1963 admitted this fact thus: ‘As Sir Charles Jeffries has put it… ‘the Soulbury Constitution… had entrenched in it all the protective provisions for minorities that the wit of man could devise’.. Nevertheless, in the light of later happenings, I now think it is a pity the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the Constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights… (However)… the reconciliation … will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.”
True the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote, “Every country has the government it deserves’. But, it is up-to us- the people at the grass roots levels to force the hands of the government it elected to do what it must. – to create a united Sri Lanka where all communities will lay claim to alike and the future generation will be proud to inherit .
Pluralism –the need of the hour ; not majoritarianism