Colombo Telegraph

Secularism In Politics

By R. Sampanthan

We are now in the process of making a new constitution and the claims that the special fore-place, the foremost place, given to Buddhism should continue are very widely heard. I do not know what the new constitution is going to state. But I do think that if a religion is given the foremost place under a constitutional provision stating that all religions are equal and that there shall be no discrimination, it does not seem too meaningful.

Remarks by Leader of the Opposition  R. Samapanthan at the Public function in Jaffna on 20 Jan. 2017 on “an Evening with Shri Navin B. Chawla on Mother Teresa, Now Saint Teresa of Calcutta.”

Preamble: Chairperson’s Introduction by Dr. Dushyanthi Hoole, lately Professor of Chemistry and Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, Michigan State University

Our theme today is secularism. The word Secularism has its origins in the Old French seculer, from Latin saecularis. It is used in Christian Latin to mean ‘the world’ to differentiate The Church from the State.

Prof. Dushyanthi Hoole

Today peoples of different faiths live together. In such a situation, we hold on to our own faiths but hold common secular values when working together in common spaces. The struggle for secularism is an ongoing battle. The term proselytism has taken on a negative connotation. Proselytism means the promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person. It is also not in the spirit of the Gospel. It is good to recall Pope Benedict as quoted by the new Pope: ‘Remember what Benedict XVI said: ‘The Church does not grow by proselytizing; she grows by attracting others.’

Our first speaker this evening is the Hon. Rajavarodhayam Sampanthan. He is the much respected and dearly loved Leader of the Opposition. He was chosen to speak as the only member of a political party to address us today because of his known commitment to secularism. His is the only party in Sri Lanka, and he the only leader of note, who stands resolutely for a secular Sri Lanka. When the Prime Minister claimed that all parties have agreed to giving Buddhism the foremost place in Sri Lanka, Mr. Sampanthan publicly disagreed through the TNA Spokesman the Hon. M.A. Sumanthiran who is also with us today. Indeed, the Hon. Sampanthan has a very special place in Tamil hearts. He has kept the Tamil people in dialog with the state, rather than continuing confrontation. He has kept our hopes up in these extremely difficult times. His task is a difficult one; for Tamils feel that successive governments have cheated us many times by making pledges that were never honoured and will never honor. However, as Mr. Sampanthan himself put it recently, there is no alternative to negotiating and working with the government. He is truly a national leader. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Hon. Rajavarodhayam Sampanthan.

Speech by R. Sampanthan:

I’d like to say a few words on this occasion. I’m happy that the organizer of the event, [Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole], has thought it fit to summon me also to speak at the event. I might comment by saying a few words about Mother Teresa. She perhaps has rendered more humanitarian service in the 20th century to mankind – much more than anyone else – for a very long period of time.

Born in Europe, she had lived in India, and worked in the slums, in Calcutta in particular, looking after the poorest of the poor, rendering service to the more deprived sections of society; persons unable to look after themselves for various reasons – orphans and widows. And the service she has rendered had been of an order which is almost unbelievable. She was awarded several recognitions for her service, both in India and by the world community and eventually she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I believe the institutions she commenced both in India and in other parts of the world are continuing to function even after her demise. We must all be most grateful to this great humanitarian worker who may not have directly had an impact on the lives of many of us but whose service to humanity is something which all of us must acknowledge with the deepest appreciation and be ever grateful for.

R Sampanthan

Mr. Navin Chawla is here today to speak on secularism and I have no doubt he will also make references to Mother Teresa and her service. One significant feature in Mother Teresa’s life was that she was a Roman Catholic but she lived and largely worked with people in India mostly who were I think not Catholic. She was eventually made a Saint – honored with sainthood, canonized, after she died.

I might say a few words on secularism. The lady who introduced me, Prof. Dushyanthi Hoole, referred to my secular credentials. Yes we all believe in secularism. By that we mean that the state and religion must be independent of each other. The state cannot depend on religion and religion cannot depend on the state. In our secular country, every citizen has got the freedom to choose his religion – according to his function, according to his wish. He is entitled to practice that religion; to pursue that religion; and to propagate that religion. He has full freedom to do so. The state will not interfere with him in any way. The state has no right to interfere with him in any way. He is in no way bound to carry out any religious wish or dictate that the state may seek to impose.

In a secular state that can’t happen. That is the most important feature of secularism; that people are free to have the independence to choose their religion, to practice their religion, and to pursue and propagate their religion according to their conscience and wish. And be in no way controlled by the state.

India is a secular country. The Indian constitution in its preamble states that India is a socialist, secular, democratic country. The USA is a secular state, where people practice their religion according to their wish without in any way being dictated by the state. That is their fundamental right that is not denied to them. What is the point of having a postural secular state? [The state must be really secular].

We can have a theocratic state; a theocracy where priests rule us. In Europe at different points of time there have been theocracies, being dependant on religion, dependant on Christianity, where there has been no distinction between state and religion. These have never been found to be satisfactory. These have always been found to be messy with people not knowing whether they owe allegiance to the state or to religion. Secularism has been found to be much superior. Much more advanced, much more acceptable than living in a theocratic state.

One other option has been an atheistic state. Some states have been atheistic in character. The Soviet Union has sometimes had atheistic characteristics; which means you cannot practice any religion. You cannot practice religion at all. You believe there is nothing called God. In secularism, in a secular state, people believe in God. People believe in the existence of some superior being. Under that system, the supreme being is guiding our destinies and they owe loyalty to that superior being. Their belief is, their conviction is, that superior being is a source of guidance to them all through their lives. But in an atheistic state that is not possible. Sometimes even parts of China have been atheistic. That is probably on account of their political philosophy also; that is their belief in communism.

In Sri Lanka we have a rather mixed situation. When we achieved independence in 1947 there was the Soulbury Constitution – which in Section 29 defining the legislative part of government said that no government can enact any legislation which confers a benefit on any community or religion that is not conferred on all others. Similarly no government can enact legislation that deprives any community or religion of any advantage which is not imposed on all others. That was a restriction imposed on the legislative power of the state under the 1947 constitution. That constitution was repealed in 1972. And we had a constitution which stated that Sri Lanka shall give Buddhism the foremost place and it shall be the duty of the state to foster and protect Buddhism. The 1972 constitution was repealed by the 1978 constitution which also states that Sri Lanka shall give the foremost place to Buddhism and that it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha sasana.

We are now in the process of making a new constitution and the claims that the special fore-place, the foremost place, given to Buddhism should continue are very widely heard. I do not know what the new constitution is going to state. But I do think that if a religion is given the foremost place under a constitutional provision stating that all religions are equal and that there shall be no discrimination, it does not seem too meaningful.

True enough these provisions of the 1972 and 1978 constitutions seem to protect the fundamental rights given to all people to practice the religion of their choice. But nevertheless the foremost place given to one religion seems to adversely impact on the principle of secularism  as it is accepted in many civilized parts of the world.

So we are due to hear from Mr. Navin Chawla this evening his views on Saint Teresa and secularism and the various aspects thereof. We would like our country to be a secular country where every citizen is able to feel that he enjoys equality; with no discrimination whatever in regard to the practice of religion, and that he has perfect choice in regard to the religion he should practice; and he must be able to do so with liberty and with freedom in accordance with his functions and his wishes.

Thank you.

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