Q: As of late, the frequency and strength of religious beliefs influencing the local political sphere has escalated. What reasons do you think has led to the existing crisis and what should be done to ease the tension?
I think we have to separate law and order issues from religious disputes. One of the biggest concerns are incidents of violence committed against people and religious institutions such as churches or mosques by those claiming to be religious, not being picked up.
Therefore, religious issues should be separated from impunity in the normal judicial process, which I believe is vital in order to ease tensions that have emerged through religious influences in the political and social sphere in the country.
Otherwise, masses at local levels have described – at least in the South of the country that coexistence among locals prevail in everyday life and friendships built and nurtured across religious groups and communities due to practices such as diverse worship sites etc. So there is a lot of mixing and mingling but simultaneously, like people everywhere in the world, certain groups in Sri Lanka too bear prejudices based on religion and other influences and if politicians and other vested parties play on those fears and insecurities, the consequences that follow would be devastating.
Q: In your opinion, what are the barriers that challenge the full meaning of secularism in South Asia?
I personally believe the most significant barrier in the South Asian region is the way in which religion is interpreted and followed by the people. In this part of the world, people who feel religious follow Orthodox lines whereas in the West, those who consider themselves spiritual or religious have replaced the orthodox religious practices with a free-floating spirituality that yearns to be free, becoming increasingly less similar to orthodox institutions or practices.
Meanwhile, the modern day ‘cosmopolitan spirituality’ in multi religious societies have also encouraged the people to acquire multiple identities and religious rituals and the mixing and matching of faiths on an individual basis.
Therefore in this part of the world - particularly in regions such as South Asia, the orthodox religious institutions carry significant power and prestige. Therefore, a mechanism has to be introduced for countries such as Sri Lanka through which conflicts and disagreements between the various religious groups can be resolved in a peaceful manner. This is why I have suggested that a conflict resolution and reconciliation method or a forum that operates at a community level should be established so that if and when disagreements arise they can be overcome through discussions.
Q: Would you say that legislations alone are adequate to maintain religious harmony?
No, I don’t think so. A successful combination that would effectively promote religious harmony would include sectors such as education, media, social networks and community activities collaborating and such an effort I believe would be much more likely to achieve religious harmony than legislations.
Q: Is it a reality for a country to achieve religious harmony through political means?
Religion in politics is a messy business and secularism in some instances has been an answer but unfortunately it is not a practical possibility in South Asia. It is also important to remember that religious majoritarianism, as we have seen in South Asia, if backed by state power can be a terrifying phenomenon. This combination of majority intimidation and coercive state power leaves minority individuals powerless and vulnerable and can quickly escalate into violence as devastative as terrorism.
The one good side of religious majoritarianism however is if the leadership of the state wishing to progressively reform it and is equipped with the political backing to do so. Again, leadership is key in such movements. For example the Indian state under Nehru’s guidance introduced laws to abolish untouchability, to change the personal law systems of the Hindus that enabled women to be treated equally and for animal sacrifices to be stopped.
However, in the case of Sri Lanka the state is still hesitant to intervene and change personal laws of Tamils in the case of Sri Lanka, to grant women equal rights or to stop the animals’ rights in places like Munneswaram.
If achieving religious harmony through political means was to become a reality, the first course of action that should be taken is have the politicians take an oath that they will not raise issues concerning religious views and practices as a divisive course; not as a rights issue but a divisive course. But identity politics will prevail, especially in the South Asian region so the ideal setting would be to try and find a threshold for these identity politics.
Q:You were the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission. It has recently been pointed out by many who lodge their complaints at the SLHRC that its rulings are no longer effective. What reasons do you think have contributed to this situation?
The situation has mainly arisen due to the lack of follow up and the absence of sanctions. But I am aware that the present commissioner is attempting to ensure that the complainants can produce their grievance before the Court of Appeal in order to get the SLHRC ruling enforced. So hopefully the verdicts given by SLHRC will be stronger afterwards.
Q: What is role of women in promoting religious harmony in a country healing from a conflict?
There are a large number of women widowed, particularly in the north and east as well as a large number of female ex-combatants who are living in terrible conditions. I think the primary focus should be on coming together and helping these women rebuild their lives; civil societies and women in general should lend a helping hand to bridge the gaps left by the devastating conflict and promote reconciliation.
Q: As you mentioned earlier some 90,000 war widows and even a larger number of war affected children are living in the North. What areas do you think should be prioritized with concern to the welfare of war affected women and children?
I did pay a visit to the North and there are really significant issues that have emerged specifically with concern to women. The issue of violence against women, which seems to be rapidly increasing in the areas as well as the trend of men, especially the youth turning to alcohol and drugs has put a strain on relationships between men and women within the community and so they should be effectively addressed. Women are a very vulnerable segment of society in the North at present and they should be strengthened through measures such as providing security and I don’t mean military security – Police security as well as local militant security. They should also be provided with skills so that they can be employed and earn a living. Providing social support for the children is also vital.
Q:Do you believe that women in Sri Lanka are adequately protected by the laws, to protect them from domestic violence and other forms of abuse?
The law is in place but I don’t think the police or the judiciary has been sensitized to deal with issues concerning victimized women. I also feel the women themselves put up with a lot – in fact in one country I visited as a special rapporteur on violence against women, 80% of the women felt it was alright to be physically abused by their spouses. So it is important that the women’s attitudes too are changed. There is a lot of work to be done but first the Police and the judiciary must be strengthened to ensure that the women who do come forward are protected.
Q:What would you say religious tensions and the failure to curb it, affect women?
Well, whenever there is violence in society women are often at the receiving end of it. Crimes such as rape and unprecedented amounts of violence and brutality are inflicted on women due to eruption of violence irrelevant of what their origin is. One of many downsides of these religious groups and communities is that they lack internal democracy and often violate the rights of their own members – once again, the most vulnerable groups being women. When such injustices occur, the state in most instances become reluctant to intervene due to the political cost. The victimized women too overlook the violation of rights due to the high emotional and financial costs and eventually, women become modern fugitives in their own communities. So it is important that any possibilities of such dangers are contained.