By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
I watched the video today (6/1/23) of the brouhaha in parliament over Sepal Amasinghe’s reference to the Sacred Dalada tooth relic as “labba”. This man Sepal, the man with the white beard, says all sorts of things via Youtube. His style is to shock and get attention for anything he states. The simple reason is that Sepal hasn’t been saying much of value but is crying for attention. There is a lack of consistency derived from a deficiency of vision and purpose in Sepal’s various Youtube presentations.
On the other hand, I observe many youngsters (Eg Abisheka Fernando, now missing) doing brilliantly in news analysis on Youtube. Hence, the arrest of Sepal Amarasinghe seems pointless except to satisfy the mass Buddhists that the MPs would die to save Buddhism. A collective hypocritic act by both government and opposition MPs. I am glad that the Prez wasn’t there. I am also happy that AKD deftly got out of the personal attack. Even Sajith Premadasa kept silent letting Kiriella do the dirty work.
Sepal once referred crudely to the act of masturbation, which was in bad taste. He isn’t too good in political literacy either. If he was, he would not have downrated a harmless belief of millions in Sri Lanka about the Sacred Tooth Relic. This is the crowning icon of the Sinhala civilisation.
But this time the bearded man is in trouble. He has been arrested for an alleged offence of ‘insulting religion,’ under the Penal Code. Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe said in parliament that an offender can be imprisoned up to ten years! The minister should have been embarrassed to announce that as it does sound a travesty of justice according to commonsense perception. While Sepal is in the eye of a storm of his own creation, the primary issue of the formulation of the relevant clause in the Penal Code is called into question. It is bad law.
Defining An Insult
Insulting anyone is no good. It is considered rude and it is unproductive. On the other hand, the legal definition of “insult’ and its identification on ground is seriously problematic. An insult is not an objective phenomenon but an entirely perceptual and subjective experience. If I am called a dog, as Shylock had been called, I wouldn’t shake an eyelid. In another person’s case, the latter might cry and wail until psychiatric intervention. It is hard to tell whether an insult is significant or not as it is hard to identify and hard to measure an allegation of insult.
It is often said that many religious priests and monks have been guilty of serious misbehaviour that amounts to insulting the religion concerned. Just a few years ago, Australian media was full about a cardinal who was jailed for paedophile activity. Buddhist monks have also been found to be guilty of sexually predatory behaviour. Aren’t these insults? Recently, Sri Lanka had the case of a monk who accused a Muslim doctor of attempting to sterilize young women and this came out later as a lie. Hasn’t that monk “insulted” both the Sanga and the Dhamma?
So much like that is happening around us across all religions. Persons in charge of religious institutions wield power over faithfuls and many of them have fallen before our eyes.
Privileging of Religion
Normal academic criticisms of any religion should be permissible in any society. Religion, as far as it challenges the claims of professional scientific investigation, cannot be protected from criticism and even condemnation. Claims about reality belong to the domain of science since the modus operandi of scientific investigation is the only path to searching truth about reality. One cannot have two magisteria of reality overlapping each other – one of science and one of religion. Truth claims by religious persons or holy books with regard to reality issues must necessarily compete along with others in the open competitive market for ideas. They cannot enjoy special protection. On the other hand, they must be subjected to the rigor of scientific evidence-testing. This fact justifies criticism in religious discourse, which should, therefore not be treated as “insulting.”
It is on the basis of such knowledge that the world has progressed after the Renaissance in every material field of endeavour: illness diagnosis, antibiotics, medical imaging, bio-engineering, surgery, air travel, architectural construction, environmental control and so on.
Hence, it is obvious that a religious interpretation regarding an aspect of reality-creation versus the scientific fact of evolution by natural selection, miracles etc will have to face the ruthless scan of science. If a Christian or Islamic priest says that miracles occur or if a monk says something similar about an alleged relic of the Buddha – these beliefs do unavoidably get into public discourse. The more thinking people ask questions. Can it be?
Before the rise of science after the Renaissance, religions have been conning people about our lives and the universe. The Book of Genesis states that humans and the rest of the universe had been created by God in seven days. Charles Darwin exploded that con by explaining through scientific findings that all living organisms including man are the products of biological evolution driven by natural selection.
Charles Darwin would not have fared well according to our Penal Code
Hinduism and Ambedkar
The famous Dr BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) led an attack against the Hindu caste system. Thousands of copies of The Manusmriti (sacred Hindu Laws of Manu) were burnt in public. Ambedkar also led thousands of ‘untouchables’ to dip int to the water of a Hindu Holy river. Hindus rioted and had a ‘cleansing ceremony.’
Now, Ambedka was ‘insulting’ Hinduism. His righteousness was so demonstratively powerful and so was his learnedness that Ambedkar became free India’s first Law minister. Before he died, he was conferred India’s highest honour-‘Bharat Ratne.”
Aren’t insults often societally cleansing? Meaning, they have a positive role as well?
Decline in Religious Belief
Slowly but surely, religions are receding in public acceptability. Are those who withdraw from religion in this way “insulting” their former religion? Or are they not exercising their right to freedom of thought?
Once upon a time, Australia had about 80 per cent of the population self-defining itself as “belonging to a religion.” In the latest census of 2021, less than half the population had declared themselves as not belonging any religion.
Where Does Our Penal Code Stand?
So where does our Penal Code stand? It is foundationally in error. It is practically nonsense. In terms of consequence it represents a violation of human rights to freedom of thought and expression.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org