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NewsSituation AnalysisReligion and Politics – The Necessary Divorce – Tisaranee Gunasekara

Religion and Politics – The Necessary Divorce – Tisaranee Gunasekara

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“Muslim people don’t love us… I say don’t go to those shops. Don’t eat or drink from those shops…. It is clear that they are a group who gave poison to our people, who tried to destroy our people… I think that the younger generation who eats (from them) will not have children in the future…. Also everyone knows what a doctor-gentleman did in Matale. Lakhs of our children were destroyed. These traitors should not be allowed to live free. Some upasakammas said they must be stoned to death (gal gahala maranna ona). I don’t say that. But that is what should be done… Laws and regulations won’t work.”

The Most Venerable Maha Nayake of the Asgiriya Chapter (https://youtu.be/P7AVLSm2I_Aset – Translation mine)

Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, evil fundamentalists devised a vile plot to tarnish the pristine image of venerable monks by infecting them with HIV. “I got information that fundamentalists at a meeting in Kurunegala had decided to eliminate Buddhism from this country,” Ellawala Medhananda thero, leader of the JHU claimed. “Part of their plan is to infect the monks with the HIV virus” (The Sunday Times – 19.8.2007).

This was 2007; and the fundamentalist enemy plotting and planning to ‘eliminate Buddhism from this country’ was not Muslim but Christian. Their chosen weapon against Sinhala-Buddhists was conversion, supplemented by vilification and murder. “Fundamentalist groups had made videos showing young men dressed in yellow robes of a Buddhist monk in intimacy with women,” Ellawala Medhananda Thero claimed (The Sunday Times – 19.8. 2007).

When Gangodawila Soma Thero joined the ranks of those felled by the Russian Winter (including the great Napoleon’s army), his death was called murder, and Christians, his murderers. Just days after his demise, the Sasana Sevaka Sangamaya, a lay organization formed by Soma Thero claimed that Christian fundamentalists who killed him are also planning to kill Ellawala Medananda Thero, and have paid US $24,000 to achieve this aim.

As late as in December 2009, Christian fundamentalists were accused of murdering a monk who was endeavouring to stop a wave of Christianisation in Anuradhapura. A video claiming that Ratmalane Seelavansa Thero, the head of Soma Himi Chinthana Padanama (Soma Thero Thinking Foundation), was murdered by the modern day crusaders is still available on the internet. The Videos is tellingly titled, This is how Christian fundamentalists kill Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka.

Gangodawila Soma Thero was the godfather of that wave of anti-Christianity. It reached the zenith of insanity in the months after his death. At his funeral, several monks called for a holy war. Two months later, at a gathering of the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya, Omalpe Sobhita thero identified Tiger terrorism and missionary terrorism as the two main and coeval challenges facing Sri Lanka. He also claimed that the LTTE was a Christian movement. Soon afterwards, Lakshman Kadirgamar felt compelled to issue a public statement denying a rumour that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, a grim warning about the degree to which the germs of religious hysteria and intolerance had permeated the country.

This relentless fear mongering about Christians caused a spike in attacks on churches in late 2003 and early 2004. A report on the fate of an old established Catholic Church in Pannipitiya, a few miles away from Colombo, makes chilling reading. A mob, including two monks, descended on Our Lady of Lourdes Church on December 28th morning. They “broke in through the doors by force and demolished our crosses, the crucifix, lamp shades, roof, organ stand and the pews” (UCA News – 1.2.2004). The mob, which also dismembered statues of the Virgin Mary in the church’s grotto, reportedly assembled at a nearby Buddhist temple earlier that morning. That same modus operandi would be used a decade later against Muslim businesses and religious establishments.

This is not ancient history, but vignettes from the very recent past. Just 12 years ago, Christian fundamentalist doctors were accused of planning to infect monks with HIV. The accusation might seem laughable now, but then it was no laughing matter. The accusation wasn’t backed by even an iota of evidence, but that lack didn’t bother the true believers. They were willing to believe anything about Christians then, just as they are willing to believe anything about the Muslims now.

When the primordial is in ascendance, reason, decency and even good old common sense perish, unmourned and unremembered.

SWRD and the Weaponization of Religion.

The union between religion and politics is a marriage made in hell. In Sri Lanka this hellish marriage was arranged and officiated over by a man who was erudite enough to know the monumental wrong he was doing.

SWRD Bandaranaike had not the excuse of a Champaka Ranawaka or a Wimal Weerawansa. He was not a man whose knowledge of history was circumscribed by linguistic limitations. Nor was he a nobody using politics to become somebody. Yet he weaponized Sinhala-Buddhism, deliberately, to win an election, and be elected prime minister.

He had parted ways with the UNP in high dudgeon in 1951, when the parent party, in a clear act of nepotism, chose son Dudley to succeed father DS. He had formed the SLFP, but got only eight seats at the 1952 general election. Then came the Hartal of 1953, a struggle led by the left parties, and was bound to benefit not the SLFP but the LSSP and the CP at the next election. In order to win, Mr. Bandaranaike needed to redraw the political battle lines. He did so with ruthless disregard for the country and its future. He brought the triad of rata, jathiya, agama (country, race, religion) into electoral politics through Sinhala Only and Pancha Maha Balavegaya. The first created a linguistic issue and paved the way for the long Eelam War; the second sowed the seeds of religious conflict which we are still reaping, and will continue to reap.

Pancha Maha Balavegaya was not act of empowerment of the downtrodden as its architect claimed. It was a cynical ploy to turn monks into an organised political force and use them as a battering ram to open the doors of power. Political parties had their monk-supporters before that, but these monks did not claim to be the sole-representatives of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. That preposterous development was the work of SWRD Bandaranaike and his Pancha Maha Balavegaya.

Perhaps Mr. Bandaranaike planned to send his army of monks to the temples once he won the electoral battle. Unfortunately, armies are often like genies; they are hard to re-bottle once they’ve been summoned and let loose. The man who weaponized the Sangha soon found himself at odd with the weapon of his own creation. Having won the election as an extremist, he tried to govern as a moderate, and realised the impossibility of it too late.

There was an element of poetic justice in SWRD Bandaranaike’s tragic death. He turned the Sangha into a political weapon. His monk-supporters used a real gun on him. Disappointed in his expectations, the general of SWRD’s monk-army, Mapitigama Buddharakkhita thero, planned murder. The plan was carried out by an acolyte, who in his life-choices embodied three of the five pillars of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya; Thalduwe Somarama was a monk, an Ayurvedic physician and a lecturer at the Borella Ayurveda College: Sanga, Veda, Guru. Having shot the PM repeatedly, he is said to have shouted that he did what he did for rata, jathiya and agama. SWRD Bandaranaike came to power using rata, jathiya, agama; his killer justified the foul murder using rata, jathiya, agama.

SWRD Bandaranaike’s rise and fall was a morality tale, a warning against using religion in politics. Unfortunately the warning would go unheeded. Political parties across the spectrum would try to emulate him in using monks as political appendages. Almost half-a-century later, the JHU would be formed claiming that the country can be saved only if the monks ruled directly. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, the electorate defeated the JHU’s game plan. But the lay and ordained debris of that pernicious experiment, from Champaka Ranawaka and Udaya Gammanpila to Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, Aturaliye Ratana Thero, and Galagoda-atte Gnanasara continue to roil the political waters.

Conspiring to infect monks with HIV, then; conspiring to kill unborn Sinhala-Buddhist babies, now – the tales are eerily similar. They are also timeless and universal, and come from the same fevered mindset that accused Jews of sacrificing Christian babies or saw a witch in any woman who had a passing knowledge of herbs. Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa, who is rapidly becoming Sri Lanka’s Alfred Rosenberg, addressing the media after visiting the Kurunegala Hospital, accused Dr. Shafi of conducting ‘A War of Wombs’ (gharbasha uddaya) targeting Sinhala mothers. Dr. Shafi’s deeds amount to ethnic-extermination he claimed (Lanka C news – 2.6.2019). Last week, a former Muslim minister claimed that Muslim mothers were sterilised in the Lady Ridgeway hospital. Madness doesn’t beget sanity; it begets greater madness.

As the election season draws near, more and more politicians will be tempted to empower their futures by using religion as fuel. Maithripala Sirisena giving a presidential pardon to Galagoda-atte Gnanasara is the clearest possible indication that he intends to use religion to gain a second term. The government’s weak-kneed response to Aturaliye Ratana Thero’s blackmailing-fast demonstrates that Ranil Wickremesinghe has no intention of standing up to extremism of any stripe. Sajith Premadasa’s pledge to build 40 new chaithyas in each district signals that religion will play a major role in his effort to win the UNP candidacy. The SLPP candidate is bound to present himself as the saviour of Sinhala-Buddhism, a modern day Dutugemunu. The weaponisation of religion will reach dangerous new lows in the coming months.

Profaning Buddhism in Election Season

In the Buddha’s teaching, there’s no room for violence, even in self-defence. Together with Jainism, it is the most non-violent teaching ever. The first precept includes every living being, including those seen as enemies or traitors. No follower of the Buddha can, directly or indirectly, approve of death-by-stoning. The hate-filled, hate-inducing words from the most venerable chief priest of the Asgiriya Chapter demonstrates the immeasurable harm the weaponisation of religion had caused to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The venerable chief prelate’s words debase the great teaching of the Gautama Buddha to the lows of the most virulent forms of Salafism. These toxic and false words are an invitation to violent anarchy, another Black July, another vicious cycle of endless violence and counter-violence.

In nowhere in today’s world, except perhaps in Saudi Arabia, would a religious leader be able to make such remarks with impunity. Unfortunately, the most venerable chief prelate of Asgiriya is unlikely to be held accountable for uttering words which are in gross violation of both the Buddha’s teachings and the country’s laws. The ICCPR will not be applied to him, and, political leaders, apart from a maverick like Mangala Samaraweera, would forbear to utter a word of condemnation.

It is significant that the venerable chief priest begins his remarks by expressing his joy at the thought of a Chamal Rajapaksa presidency and ends up by asking Buddhists to forget party affiliations at the next presidential election (and presumably vote for the oldest Rajapaksa sibling). The venerable chief prelate also advises Mayantha Dissanayake to join Chamal Rajapaksa. The venerable chief prelate’s incendiary speech is a political intervention, and more of the same can be expected in the coming months. By the time the election is over, Sri Lanka will be a more ethnically and religiously divided place than ever.

There is still time and space to avert that disaster. Perhaps the supposedly national political parties can come to an agreement not to weaponize race, and religion during election season. The SLPP is unlikely to consent to such an agreement. But perhaps the UNP, the SLFP and the JVP will be willing to act responsibly even in this late hour, if not in national interest, at least in enlightened self-interest. At the upcoming elections, race/religion card will help only one party, the SLPP. For the other parties, especially the UNP, touting race and religion will not be a vote-getter but a vote-loser. Perhaps it is time for the UNP to recall the following remarks by President Ranasinghe Premadasa: “Part of our cultural heritage is a pluralist society. Sri Lanka has always had many ethnic groups, many religions, and many social traditions. Our country, and its integrity as a country, does not depend on uniformity. The history, and the future of Sri Lanka does not belong to any group. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays and Burghers have equal places in our society. Buddhism,, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are all religions of Sri Lanka. Any government that is committed to a free and united Sri Lanka must be committed to these concepts.” (Speech on 12.11.1990 – The Premadasa Philosophy).

Islamic fundamentalism enabled the Easter Sunday massacre. After a brief moment of sanity, Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism has become the dominant response to that carnage. Political leaders have ceded control to the lunatic fringe, both in terms of counter-narrative and counteraction. The symbiosis between politics and religion threatens to undermine our future just as it destroyed our past. This is not the time to flirt with religious extremism, either to gain votes or to take away one’s opponents votes. This is not the time to reinforce the marriage between religion and politics. This is the time for divorce.

Above image courtesy of Indian Express.

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