By ROHANA R. WASALA
The feature article: ‘False historical perspectives of Wigneswaran’ jointly written by Rienzie and Kusum Wijetilleke (The Island of September 4, 2020) provided the cue for the following comments. The Wijetillekes’ article makes interesting reading, though Wigneswaran’s tribal perspectives are hardly worth talking about, except for the danger of their acquiring a false validity due to halo effect (for, after all, Wigneswaran is a retired Supreme Court judge).
His attempt to falsify the long history of the country of the Sinhalese (the unrecorded part of it is much longer than the recorded part, as being archaeologically established at present) is like trying to chip off a splinter from the Sigiriya rock with his bare head. Be that as it may, the more recent post-independence history of our country is more relevant to the point, I think. The young people today may or may not know that, before our country was made a republic by their heroic parents and grandparents in 1972, our country had been officially regarded as a ‘dominion’ (i.e. ‘a semi-independent state’ under the British Crown) since 1948, the year of independence. So, it was a monarchy until then under the British monarch locally represented by an appointed official called ‘the Governor General’.
In terms of the 1972 Republican Constitution, the last was replaced by a figurehead president. A few years later, the currently operative 1978 Constitution created the post of executive president. But the official naming of the country as ‘Sri Lanka’ in 1972 was a shortsighted, though significant, change introduced as a novelty. The people were heroic; but the leaders were not wise enough to retain the traditional name/s of the island, which were the formal ‘Lanka’ or the informal ‘Lankawa’ (for the Sinhalese majority, and its Tamil version ‘Ilankei’ for the Tamil speaking minorities) and ‘Ceylon’ for foreigners and the English speaking local elite. The important point is that ‘Ceylon’ was a derivation from ‘Sinhale’ (the Land of the Sinhalese), which had been the historic name of the country from time immemorial until 1815. The interior part of the island which had remained independent of the British, known as the Kandyan Kingdom, was still called ‘Sinhale’, while the surrounding littoral part under British imperial occupation was identified as ‘Ceylon’, which means that, actually, the whole island was a single entity known as Sinhale/Ceylon.
In their opening paragraph, the writers express the view that ‘Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s recent comments regarding racial and religious politics were most timely. In a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders, to hear the Archbishop state so unequivocally that religion and language should not be the basis for a political party is ‘at least mildly reassuring’ OK. But why only ‘at least mildly reassuring’? From my point of view, the Archbishop, who abhors divisive politics, is putting his finger on what is ailing the Sri Lankan body politic today: racial and religious politics and we know what the parties are that depend on race and religion issues.
But the writers seem to have mixed up or equated with each other the extremists following racial and religious politics, and whom they call ‘religious leaders seeking to become political leaders’ (by which they probably mean the three monks who are currently engaged in an unseemly struggle over a national list seat in parliament won by a certain political party, or all monks including the three, who have been agitating against a number of longstanding issues affecting the majority community, the Buddhist establishment, and the unitary status of Sri Lanka, which are aspects of a single entity, but whose approach is apolitical.
If the writers mean by ‘a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders’ the handful of vocal Buddhist monks who are raising a voice for rescuing the country from the aforementioned anomalies, and from what the Archbishop himself is denouncing (pretty much the same as the issues that the former are raising), they need to correct their terminology. These monks cannot be identified as ‘religious’ leaders among Buddhists. The Buddhists’ religious leaders are the Nayake and Maha Nayake monks, who are what the Archbishop is among the Christians. The activist monks feel obliged to do what they are doing because the Maha Nayakes are not seen (as clearly as the Archbishop for some reason) to be doing for the Buddhists what the Archbishop is doing for the Catholics. (The Archbishop is trying to ensure that the government fulfills its obligations to the Catholics for whom he is responsible as their ordained leader, without stooping to politics; but we know that his concern is for the welfare of all Sri Lankans without discrimination. Buddhists also felt protected under his moral leadership in the critical aftermath of the April 21 bombings, because he had won their trust as he had already repeatedly stressed the vital importance of preserving the age-old Buddhist religious cultural heritage our country). The monk-politician-centred episode that is being currently staged should be regarded as the last flicker of the culturally embarrassing Buddhist-monks-in-parliament politics novelty introduced in 2004, which hardly survived the few years of its experimental stage.
Talking about racial politics, the enduring nationalism that the first prime minister (of post-colonial, at least nominally independent, Sri Lanka) D. S. Senanayake championed was Ceylonese nationalism. That’s why, asked by the Soulbury Commissioners how many Tamils he wanted to have in his cabinet, he replied without hesitation, as H. A .J. Hulugalla, his biographer recorded, ‘I don’t mind the number if they act as Ceylonese’, a non-racist attitude that is still alive among the vast majority of the majority Sinhalese community; although it is not acknowledged by the few real racists who currently have sway among minority politicians. While D. S. Senanayake and other Sinhalese leaders were committed to non-communal nationalism, the racists among Tamil leaders opposed them. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP to form his own party because he found the trust that his and party’s leader D.S. placed in the treacherous Tamil leaders was not being reciprocated by them. Bandaranaike understood that his boss’s expectation that they’d come round to accept his kind of Ceylonese nationalism was not going to be fulfilled. Because of this fact I see no justification for the writers’ apparent treatment of Sinhalese and Tamil leaders of the time as equally guilty of racist prejudice.
Bandaranaike, who was as much a Ceylonese nationalist as DS, was not wrong to speak in terms of the following in the then prevailing circumstances in mid-1950s, as quoted in the Wijetillekes’ article: “… the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines? … I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside”. Bandaranaike was opposed by those who did not care about the existence of the native Sinhala and Tamil languages or about the serious anomalies that the Sinhalese majority suffered because they were Sinhalese.
Maybe there were only 40-50 million Tamils in India (Tamil Nadu) then. But today, there are over 72 million there, and a several more millions of Tamils scattered across the globe. And some ethnic Tamils, not necessarily of Sri Lankan origin, occupy powerful positions in international bodies that can exert adverse influence on Sri Lanka if they wish, though this is unlikely as they are also originally from a non-violent, peaceful, cultural background. However, if unreasonable viewpoints are promoted among them against the beleaguered global minority that the Sinhalese are, it will be nothing short of something genocidal, because Sri Lankans are engulfed in much more dire circumstances than in the 1950s, being constantly threatened by potential exigencies that could become reality in the boiling geopolitical cauldron that is fast emerging in our region.
It is the sort of nationalism that DS believed in that inspires today’s nationalists. Recently, some bogus critics of the founder of the UNP have started promulgating the misconception that the word ‘national’ in the name ‘United National Party’ was divisive, because it was an erroneous recognition of the alleged presence of a plurality of ‘nations’ (based on race, religion, etc.) in Sri Lanka. Nothing could be further from the truth. This sort of thing is nothing but false propaganda spread by the few separatist racists there are and their opportunistic sympathisers. The UNP has been decimated in terms of parliamentary representation, but that is due to the inefficiency and lack of love for the country on the part of its ageing, narrowly self-seeking leaders. This affords a good chance for a vibrant young leadership to emerge who can bring the divided party together, ousting the current squabbling, leadership qualities lacking leaders, and forge it into a strong oppositional force that can work both with as well as against the SLPP government, to make Sri Lanka the kind of prosperous stable country that the traditional Guardians of the Nation, the Maha Sangha, are determined to help forge, with the cooperation of our other spiritual leaders like the Archbishop. This is an urgent need of the hour. The SLMC leader Hakeem’s justification, at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Attack, of a separate administrative unit for Tamil speaking Muslims in a part of the Eastern province is ominous. Are these purveyors of racial and religious politics seeking cooperation or confrontation with other Tamil speakers (Hindus)?
His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith urged the authorities a few days ago, at an annual religious service held at the Tewatta National Basilica Church at Ragama, to expose and punish, without any further delay or vacillation, the evil extremist forces and their agents who were actually behind the April 21 attacks that left 269 innocent persons killed and over 120 permanently disabled; who provided the perpetrators of those crimes financial and logistical support, he demanded to know. He was unequivocal in condemning religious extremists who believed in killing adherents of other faiths to affirm their faith in their own god. The Cardinal wanted the responsible persons at the highest level under the previous administration, not only the politicians but also the officials, to be dealt with according to the law for failing to prevent, at least in the name of humanity, those heinous crimes, even though they had been previously warned many times by intelligence agencies; and his incidental but no less urgent call for a ban on political parties based on religion and language, still reverberates in our ears.
For so boldly expressing his personal conviction regarding the subject, the Archbishop has already earned the deep respect and gratitude not only of Sri Lankan Catholics but also of ordinary Sri Lankans of other faiths as well, including the majority Buddhists, who are helpless victims of the oppressive trends set in motion by the policies of such parties and the sectarian religious movements behind them.
The Archbishop’s call needs to be heeded by the leaders of the present administration who have been democratically elected by the pan-Sri Lankan electorate, with overwhelming majorities to rescue the country from, among other things, the undue pressures exerted on parliamentary decision-making by parties based on race and religion, which enjoyed their heyday during the Yahapalanaya, taking cover behind bogus reconciliation politics imposed on the country by external interventionist forces. However, this does not mean that the opposition must step aside and look on passively, leaving everything to be accomplished by the government.
The most recent triumph of nationalism that the patriotic people have achieved (in November 2019, and August 2020) under the SLPP transcends, in its reach, promise and potential, all the previous watershed moments arrived at in 1956, 1972, and 2009, which, unfortunately, were reversed by racists. The same reversal should not be allowed to happen this time. It should not be forgotten that, without the selfless exertions of the Buddhist monk activists, the nationalist triumph would never have been possible. The united Maha Sangha will remain the anchor sheet and guarantor of the wholesome unitary state of Sri Lanka. But that historic role of the monks is intrinsically non-political, and eminently compatible with the principles of modern secular democracy. The Maha Sangha have been the Guardians of the Nation without a break (even during periods of foreign invasion) ever since the official establishment of Buddha Sasana in the island by Arhant Mahinda Thera twenty-three centuries ago. Politicizing the Maha Sangha, despite the existence of the Maha Nayakes, is the surest way to undermine its power.