It would not be far from the truth to say that Sinhala and Tamil New Year evokes the variety of jingoism and inflated national pride that can easily be missed a week after the festival. To a large extent, one can attribute this sudden outburst of patriotic fervour to a sort of automated conformism; the desire to be part of a shared experience that is larger than us. It’s human nature to flock together, even instinctively. The feeling of belonging has primal connotations of safety inherent in each one of us.
Yet, Sinhala and Tamil New Year is not just a great traditional festival. In a nation being divided and dissected on every ground imaginable, an occasion like this comes handy to remind us of our piecemeal oneness. Through all the jingoism, the message of nationalism as perceived in the popular sense isn’t entirely lost on the general Sri Lankan masses.
Today, the reasons which keep the nation united might be superficial, even trivial, but there can be no arguing that without them, we would be heading faster towards a breakdown of national sentiment. Sinhala and Tamil New Year may not be the kind of emotional ritual it once was to us but it still is a day that reminds us of the age when the diversity of the land united to dream the Midnight Dream; a day that reminds us and assures us that the dream is unfulfilled yet attainable. So even though the jingoism will disappear after a few days, a small flicker of nationalism will burn on.
The spirit of nationalism amongst a citizenry is good. It is expected to override all ethnic or religious affiliations of a citizenry. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Sri Lanka as most ethno-religious diversities were based on ethnic or religious identity. The latest is the “conflict” between some segments of Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims on a number of “issues.”
Diversity, per se, is not the problem. Its management, however, presents Sri Lanka with a formidable challenge. A divisive interplay of politics, ethnicity and religion in Sri Lanka has led to rising militancy of various ethnic and religious movements.
In pursuit of the religious and racial harmony, it will not be out of place to commence with a preview of what our Constitution stands for. The guarantees given in the Constitution are very much in conformity with our objectives of achieving a just society where everybody lives in peace and harmony irrespective of religious, ethnic affiliations. Indeed, if all Sri Lankans could have adhered to the basic tenets of our constitution, then we would have been a much better country today where there would have been prosperity, unity and peace.
The constitution has given guarantee to the citizenry, which can be considered as a sacred right of Sri Lankans. Articles 10 and 14 state that 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. Every citizen is entitled to 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 or teaching. These guarantees are good enough.
The phenomenon of the current religious crises is a recent development, which obviously has been fuelled by self-seeking individuals and groups to feather their selfish interests. Thus we are confronted with realities whereby some of the so-called religious crises are indeed not religious in origin but have political undertones. Religion is exploited in this manner because it is the most vulnerable since adherents of the various religions, which are considered divine, can be very easily manipulated to fight for “safeguarding the religion” dogmatically without reservation.
The current crises are products of existing ethnic differences which are given religious colourations in order to win sympathy both from within and outside the domain where the crisis originated in the first instance. Expectedly, as is usual with religious matters, many innocent people are inadvertently dragged into the crisis in order to defend their respective faiths as it were. What happens then is an expansion of the crisis across the country in the quest for retaliatory strikes. All religions we practise in our country preach peace. None of them propagates violence as part of its doctrine. Religion, in its true sense, is a way of life that has nothing to do with hatred and any form of oppression that breeds violence. Essentially, therefore, religion is a spiritual philosophy which if practised faithfully should bring out the goodness in man to the fore. This realisation should make us see religion as a powerful unifying force and a catalyst for the development of man and his society.
The diversity in our religions as in our ethnicity therefore must be a source of strength and unity amongst us. So for true social development to flourish in our society, we need to apply this not only in words but also in our deeds.
We must realise that Sri Lanka is a pluralised democracy and a multi-religious society which needs a lot of understanding among her different peoples. The only way to foster this is through a proper education of the people to eliminate the ignorance that leads to a lot of misconceptions about the other beliefs, culture or traditions.
Due to the diverse nature of our country there is the need to be careful when dealing with any issues that concern the interests of a particular religion or ethnicity. We must always ensure an equitable representation of all the diverse interests at play in the nation without compromising the interest of the whole. Only this will guarantee an even playing ground for all and a meaningful and coordinated development of the country in general. There must be the conscious effort on the part of both leaders and the followers to accept the constitutional rights to ensure true and lasting unity and real integration of its people. Any leader who fails to understand the dynamics of the country does so not only at his own peril but also more importantly, to the detriment of the country as well.
This writer believes that the lack of consensus among relevant stakeholders is a major cause for the religious or ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Until such time, all stakeholders are given the opportunity to participate, without preconditions, in deciding on the fundamental values to be pursued by all Sri Lankans, whatever their religions or races are, and thereafter, institutional arrangements are made for giving effect to these values, these conflicts will remain endemic features of the Sri Lankan social system.