Going by the rhetoric and the text pertaining to constitutional reform currently being debated in Parliament, it is all about two things. 1) Expunging of the clause supposedly privileging Buddhism, and 2) Devolution of power.
Tamil National Alliance MP, M. Sumanthiran, has stated the stand of his party and by and large the group of anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist NGO lobby: “Our stand is that there should be a secular constitution where there is no special identification for a single religion, and instead all religions should be given equal status in the country.”
The bone of contention is Article 9: “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).” These other assurances are as follows:
Article 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.
Article 14 (1) (e) 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. Taken together, Article 9 stands in effect negated.
What is not noted either in constitution or in rhetoric is the fact that certain religions are invasive simply because the relevant doctrines distinguish between adherent and non-adherent in ways that make for interpretations prompting aggression of one kind of another. So the ‘practice’ element in Article 14 (1) (e) can sanction acts that infringe upon freedoms and general co-existence and can be defended in the name of ‘religious freedom’.
The easy answer is ‘Customary Law’. Well, if it is about custom then it is also about culture
There are other things that the secularist lobby deliberately ignores. If secular is the way to go, there cannot be half-way measures. You can’t take away the only ‘privilege’ that Buddhism has (and that too, as pointed out, a mere lip-servicing and nothing more) while being silent on the privileges enjoyed by other religious communities.
Let’s begin with religious holidays. Back in the day, there were 49 ‘Buddhist’ holidays, four poya days every month and an extra holiday on the day following Vesak. That number was slashed to one-fourth plus one, i.e. 13. Christians, on the other hand, have 54: Sundays, Easter and Christmas. Hindus are grossly underrepresented in comparison, having just Pongal and Mahasivarathri. Muslims have three official holidays: Idul Fitr, Idul Adha and Milad-un-Nabi. In addition, consider the following:
Muslims are given two hours of leave from 1 pm every Friday. That’s the equivalent of 13 work days if you want to be mathematically clinical about such things. During the Ramadan period, Muslims have the privilege of obtaining ‘special leave’ to take part in prayers. A Muslim woman is given leave of four months and ten days in the event her husband dies and three months following divorce.
We can also add that school terms were arranged so that Christmas fell during a long holiday. We can note that Christian schools, although required to finance themselves from 1962, were subsequently accorded public grants (since 1978).
There are other ‘special’ laws that are certainly at odds with the secularist vision, which would indicate a single legal system, for example the Thesavalami Law and the Kandyan Marriage Law. More pernicious by way of contradicting constitutionally guaranteed freedoms would be the Muslim Marriage Law.
Thus, if equality is the objective, then all these should be erased off the constitution along with Articles 9, 10 and 14 (1) (e). That is if we need to separate ‘state’ and ‘church’ (or ‘religion’). What is being proposed is to remove ‘Buddhism’ and allow other religions to entrench their already privileged position in the Constitution. That’s progressive? That makes for peaceful co-existence and reconciliation?
The easy answer is ‘Customary Law’. Well, if it is about custom then it is also about culture. If that is a factor important enough to be considered, then one needs to take note of two reailties: 1) no community, religious or otherwise, has had as overpowering an influence on the history, heritage and culture of this country as Buddhists, and 2) what Article 9 does is but a weak correction of a historical injustice done to Buddhists by the British who arbitrarily abrogated the clause in the Kandyan Convention related to the protection of Buddhism.
As things stand, religion-wise, this state is chock-full of religion and it’s mostly non-Buddhist. And for those like Sumanthiran who are upset by a few innocuous words in a single article, they would do good to reflect on the the pervasive privileges enjoyed by Christians (and theists in general given the overwhelming presence of ‘God’ in constitutions) in officially ‘secular’ nations in Europe and of course the status of non-Islamic religions in Quranic states.
A quick note on devolution is necessary. First, the lines (as pointed out by President Sirisena) were the work of British political cartographers and are not drawn from any substantiable historical narrative. Second, there’s no discussion on whether or not grievances stated warrant devolution (decentralization sorts many if not all issues). Third, demography rebels against devolution as mechanism to resolve grievances (even if they are not stripped of the frills of aspiration and myth-mongering); almost half the Tamils live outside the so-called ‘traditional homelands’ which, let us note, are also the regions which the archaeological record indicates is the heartland of Buddhism in this island. Fourth, provincial councils as per the 13th Amendment, are veritable white elephants and do little more than groom thugs, miscreants and thieves for higher office. Throw in enduring Tamil chauvinism a la the mouthing of Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran and devolution is a recipe for abiding conflict.
As things stand, religion-wise, this state is chock-full of religion and it’s mostly non-Buddhist
Here’s the danger. The twin assaults on the majority community could have been deliberate for the simple reason that ‘compromise’ can be reached, dumping one for the other. For example, it could come to a point where one is thrust as a bargaining chip to obtain the other, in the give-and-take spirit.
What must be remembered is that these are two separate issues. Both reccommendations smack of subterfuge. Both are bombs, to use the word in the street. Bombs in Parliament which can precipitate much suffering outside. They need to be defused.
Malinda Senevirtatne is a freelance writer.