By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
A man in a suit defending the imposition of a saree-only regimen on women – it would have been amusing, had the scene been part of a teledrama. But this was the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration arguing with the members of the Parliamentary Select Committee about the suitability of a Sinhala-Buddhist dress-code for women in the public service. The senior bureaucrat went head to head with the politicians, refusing to see the injustice, the unsuitability, the sheer ridiculousness of a circular mandating that every woman who works or visits a public institution be clad in some kind of a saree.
Had this initiative come from a politician, it wouldn’t have been surprising. Politicians have a habit of embracing things the rest of us wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. But the authors and the defenders of this racist dress code are the country’s senior bureaucrats. The President and the PM have ordered that the circular be suspended, but the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, JJ Ratnasiri, has refused to do so. He has agreed to amend it, nothing more. The saga will probably end with the black-suited gentleman getting a well deserved rap across the knuckles from the judiciary. But already he is a hero to his kind, the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists. Both the initiative and the obduracy with Mr. Ratnasiri defended the indefensible would have stemmed from the knowledge he is flowing with the prevailing current towards a Sinhala-Buddhist paradise.
Take this bureaucrats’ baby together with the new battle cry of Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa – ‘A War of Wombs’ (gharbasha uddaya). The diminutive political arsonist, who shows signs of becoming Sri Lanka’s Alfred Rosenberg, visited the Kurunegala Hispital, the Ground Zero of the ‘sterilisation wars’. From there, he addressed the media, accusing Dr. Shafi of committing ‘ethnic-extermination’ by waging a war on the wombs of Sinhala mothers (Lanka C news – 2.6.2019).
The senior bureaucrat and the incendiary politician are both generals in the battle to change Sri Lanka from a (deeply flawed) pluralist democracy into a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist autocracy.
Extremism begets extremism. The Easter Sunday Massacre by a group of Islamic terrorists has given Sinhala-Buddhist extremism a new lease of virulent life. The majoritarian supremacists are on the march, feeling vindicated, legitimised and empowered by the carnage of April 21st. A new phase in the weaponisation of Sinhala-Buddhism has begun, and with it, a new vicious cycle that will strengthen fanatics of every religion. .A former Muslim deputy minister claimed that Muslim mothers were sterilised in the Lady Ridgeway hospital. Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara should thank Zahran Hashim for his presidential pardon.
In his ‘A Brief History of Time’, Stephen Hawking talks about how his interest in the origin and fate of the universe was rekindled. In 1981, he had attended a Jesuit-organised conference on Cosmology in the Vatican. After the conference, Pope John Paul II met with the participants and informed them “that it was all right to study the evolution of universe after the big bang but we should not inquire into the big bang itself that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.” The moment reminded Prof. Hawking of Galileo, forced to abjure his ideas about a heliocentric system to avoid the fate of Giodarno Bruno. That story is a reminder to the world of the need for barriers between religious and secular.
The burqa is a relic of nomadic existences in sandstorm-prone deserts; it should have no place in modern life. But allowing governments to dictate what citizens should or should not wear is a dangerous business which will end up by undermining both democracy and individualism in the name of some nebulous collective good. The connection between the burqa ban and the saree-only circular is clear. If this trend is allowed to continue, Sri Lanka will become a mini-Saudi Arabia or Iran with monks, politicians and culturally recidivist bureaucrats taking it upon themselves to interfere in the personal lives of the rest of us. If non-Muslims think that the problem is limited to Muslims, they should cogitate on the fate of Shakthika Sathkumara. The Sinhala-Buddhist novelist was arrested due to a complaint by a monk. Accused of insulting the monkhood, he has been behind bars for the last two and a half months.
Welcome to Sinhala-Buddhistan. .
The changing enemy, from Tamils to Muslims, via Christians
First the Tamils tried to take Sri Lanka from her rightful owners, the Sinhala-Buddhists. Now the Muslims are trying to do the same.
But after Tamils, and before Muslims, the role of the enemy was accorded to Christians, including Sinhala-Christians. The ongoing sterilisation drama had its predecessor in the HIV-AIDS drama, when Christians were accused of conspiring to infect monks with HIV. “I got information that fundamentalists at a meeting in Kurunegala had decided to eliminate Buddhism from this country,” Ellawala Medhananda, monk, parliamentarian and leader of the JHU claimed. “Part of their plan is to infect the monks with the HIV virus.” They’ve already “made videos showing young men dressed in yellow robes of a Buddhist monk in intimacy with women,” he added (The Sunday Times – 19.8.2007). “A fundamentalist group of doctors (are) planning to infect monks using HIV infected blood,” he further explained (BBC – 20.7.2007).
The anti-Christian hysteria reached its zenith in the 2002-2004 period. At Soma thero’s funeral, several monks called for a holy war. Two months later, at a gathering of the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya, Omalpe Sobhita thero identified Tiger terrorism and missionary terrorism as the two main and coeval challenges facing Sri Lanka. He also claimed that the LTTE was a Christian movement. Soon after, Lakshman Kadirgamar felt compelled to issue a public statement denying a rumour that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, a grim warning about the degree to which the germs of religious hysteria and intolerance had permeated the country.
The Christian enemy did not vanish until February 2013. As late as in December 2009, Christian fundamentalists were accused of murdering a monk who was endeavouring to stop a wave of Christianisation in Anuradhapura. A video claiming that Ratmalane Seelavansa Thero, the head of Soma Himi Chinthana Padanama (Soma Thero Thinking Foundation), was murdered by the modern day crusaders is still available on the internet. The Videos is titled, This is how Christian fundamentalists kill Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka.
This is not ancient history, but vignettes from the very recent past. Just 12 years ago, Christian fundamentalist doctors were accused of planning to infect monks with HIV. Christians were accused of murdering monks just a decade ago. These accusations might seem laughable now, but then it was no laughing matter. The accusations weren’t backed by even an iota of evidence, but that lack didn’t bother the true believers. They were willing to believe anything about Christians then, just as they are willing to believe anything about the Muslims now. When the primordial is in ascendance, reason, logic and even good old common sense perish, unmourned and unremembered.
The marriage between religion and politics is a union made in hell. The IS would not have come into being had George W Bush not committed the cardinal error of invading Iraq. One of the factors that pushed him into that most disastrous of wars was the Land Letter – a letter written on October 3rd, 2002 by a group of American Evangelical pastors giving seven reasons why an invasion of Iraq would be a ‘Just War’. When Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) asked President Bush if he consulted his (far more intelligent) father before invading Iraq, the younger Bush replied, “He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice… There is a higher father I appeal to”. Had Mr. Bush ignored religious advice and consulted his biological father, the world and the Middle East would have been spared of so much horror, including the IS.
SWRD Bandaranaike’s rise and fall was another morality tale warning against using religion in politics. Mr. Bandaranaike weaponized Sinhala-Buddhism, deliberately, systematically, to win an election, to be elected prime minister. Pancha Maha Balavegaya was not act of empowerment of the downtrodden as its author claimed. It was a cynical ploy to turn monks into an organised political force and use them as a battering ram to open the doors of power. Political parties had their monk-supporters before that, but these monks did not claim to be the sole-representatives of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.
Perhaps Mr. Bandaranaike planned to send his army of monks to the temples once he won the electoral battle. Unfortunately, armies are often like genies; they are hard to re-bottle once they’ve been summoned and let loose. The man who weaponized the Sangha soon found himself at odd with the weapon of his own creation. Having won the election as an extremist, he tried to govern as a moderate, and realised the impossibility of it too late. That lesson is more apposite today than ever before.
Ever backward to a Sinhala-Buddhist country
Antonio Gramsci defined commonsense as “traditional popular conception of the world”. Until 1987 our common sense permitted, excused and justified naked, unbridled Sinhala chauvinism at every level of society including the official. Indian intervention caused a seismic shock to the Sinhala psyche and paved the way for a tectonic shift of this common sense. Racism became less and less comme il faut and the notion of Sri Lanka, as a pluralist rather than a Sinhala Buddhist country, began to gain ground. By mid-1990’s both the UNP and the SLFP had accepted the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka.
In 1996, a key progenitor of modern political Buddhism, Walpola Rahula Thero made a revealing remark. “I got angry with Mr. Premadasa (the former Sri Lankan president) because he chose to call Sri Lanka a multi-national, multi-religious state. No. It is a Sinhala-Buddhist state.” (The Sunday Times – 5.9.1996). Walpola Rahula Thero was the initiator of the Vidyalankara declaration of Feb. 1946, which was a response to the statement made by Prime Minister DS Senanayake that monks shouldn’t interfere in politics. Unlike the Gnanasaras and the Ratanas, he was a true Sinhala-Buddhist colossus, Still he couldn’t bend either the UNP or the SLFP to his will.
Unfortunately both parties have forgotten that past. Maithripala Sirisena giving a presidential pardon to Galagoda-atte Gnanasara is the clearest possible indication that he intends to use religion to gain a second term. The government’s weak-kneed response to Aturaliye Ratana Thero’s blackmailing-fast demonstrates that Ranil Wickremesinghe has no intention of standing up to extremism of any stripe. Sajith Premadasa’s pledge to build 40 new chaithyas in each district signals that religion will play a major role in his effort to win the UNP candidacy.
Perhaps it is time for the UNP to recall the following remarks by President Ranasinghe Premadasa: “Part of our cultural heritage is a pluralist society. Sri Lanka has always had many ethnic groups, many religions, and many social traditions. Our country, and its integrity as a country, does not depend on uniformity. The history, and the future of Sri Lanka does not belong to any group. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays and Burghers have equal places in our society. Buddhism,, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are all religions of Sri Lanka. Any government that is committed to a free and united Sri Lanka must be committed to these concepts.” (Speech on 12.11.1990 – The Premadasa Philosophy).
The SLPP’s presidential candidate is bound to present himself as the saviour of Sinhala-Buddhism, a modern day Dutugemunu. Still the UNP, the SLFP and the JVP can act responsibly even in this late hour, if not in national interest, at least in enlightened self-interest. At the upcoming elections, race/religion card will help only one party, the SLPP. For the other parties, especially the UNP, touting race and religion will not be a vote-getter but a vote-loser.
If the non-SLPP parties make a conscious decision to avoid wallowing in the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist mire, Sri Lanka’s descent into madness can be slowed down, perhaps even halted for now. But if all major parties try to outdo each other, pandering to monks and other religious extremists, by the time the election season is over, this long-suffering island would be smothered, again, by the blanket of the dark (the phrase is from the Macbeth; it is also the title of a historical novel by John Buchan).