Mr. K.K.S. Perera’s article headlined “From Dominion Status to Sovereign Sri Lanka” published on May 22 appears to contain an inaccurate statement regarding the provision relating to Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution. I refer in particular to the statement: “In 1972, PM Sirimavo being mindful of Article 5 of the 1815 Kandyan Convention, had directed Dr. Colvin to provide the ‘foremost place’ to Buddhism.” In all the discussions I had with Mrs. Bandaranaike on matters relating to the proposed Constitution, she made no reference whatsoever to the Kandyan Convention. Nor did she do in the Committee of the Constituent Assembly that considered the issue of Buddhism, which included among its members both Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and Dudley Senanayake. The Kandyan Convention was invoked in that committee by the Mahanayake Theras of the Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, the Udarata Vihara Devala Bharakara Sangamaya, the Sasana Sevaka Society Limited, the Sinhala Prajatantravadi Sangamaya, and the Asoka Dharmadutha Sangamaya. Their submissions were rejected by the committee which incidentally was chaired by Mrs. Bandaranaike.
Although the Common Programme and the United Front manifesto had both declared that, “Buddhism, the religion of the majority, will be ensured its rightful place,” the early drafts of the Basic Resolutions prepared in 1970 did not contain any reference to Buddhism. The only reference to religion was the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion enjoyed by every citizen. In December 1970, the Premier drew the attention of the Constitutional Affairs Minister to the summary of representations received by his ministry from the public which indicated that there “appears to be considerable demand in the country for Buddhism as a State religion and for the protection of its institutions and traditional places of worship.” She suggested that “some provision will have to be made in the new Constitution regarding these matters without, at the same time, derogating from the freedom of worship that should be guaranteed to all other religions.” Accordingly, the following Basic Resolution was adopted by the Steering and Subjects Committee of the Constituent Assembly, and was later included in the draft Constitution as a single section Chapter II:
"Although the Common Programme and the United Front manifesto had both declared that, “Buddhism, the religion of the majority, will be ensured its rightful place,” the early drafts of the Basic Resolutions prepared in 1970 did not contain any reference to Buddhism"
“3. In the Republic of Sri Lanka, the religion of the majority of the people, shall be given its rightful place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Basic Resolution
The Committee of the Constituent Assembly that considered the chapter on Buddhism heard several delegations and considered hundreds of memoranda. While several lay organisations such as the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the Sasana Sevaka Society and the Maha Bodhi Society urged that Buddhism be declared the State religion, some of the monks who gave evidence appeared to be more concerned with the establishment of ownership of property required for the performance of rites and rituals. In fact, a senior prelate emphatically opposed the concept of a State religion. The committee rejected the proposal that Buddhism be declared the State religion, but recommended that the word ‘rightful’ be replaced by ‘foremost,’ the latter being the English translation of a Sinhala term that a large number of delegations favoured. This recommendation was accepted by the Constituent Assembly.
The Constitution accordingly provided in a one-section chapter that:
“6. 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 Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights granted by section 18 (1) (d).”
This was an unusual provision in the Constitution of a multi-religious secular State. It was potentially very divisive, and identified those who professed their belief in the great religions such as Hinduism, Christianity and Islam as being ‘the other’ in the Sri Lankan polity. Despite the declaration in Section 18 (1) (d) that every citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to manifest his/her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, it was inevitable that conflicts would occur as the State, and those claiming authority under the State, proceeded to “protect and foster” Buddhism and accord to it “the foremost place,” whatever these terms might mean in respect of what is essentially a philosophy of life.
Legal expert Dr Nihal Jayawickrama was a member of the Committee that drafted the 1972 Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka. He was the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice (1970–1977) in the Srimavo Bandaranaike Government during which period the 1972 Constitution was prepared and implemented. At the age of 32 in 1970 he was appointed as the Attorney General. During his tenure as the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, there were major developments in the Sri Lankan judiciary and these included the establishment of a new court structure and new civil, criminal and appellate procedures. He was a member of the Judicial Service Advisory Board, the Council of Legal Education, the Asian-African Legal Consultative Committee, New Delhi, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. He was a Representative to the United Nations General Assembly, and served as Adviser to the members of the Opposition on the Select Committee that drafted the1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka.