Ethnicity and religion and their Ideological and political influences - IV

by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Continued from yesterday

This does not mean that that is always the case, and the police must be firm about any efforts to denigrate any religion. It is perfectly possible that there are still some Christians, as there are those of other religions, who believe that celebrating their own religion - which should be perfectly acceptable to anyone - involves insulting other religions, which is something that should not be accepted or encouraged. But in most cases where violence has occurred, there has been no evidence of misconduct on the part of the victims. It is a pity therefore that, in some instances, the police seem to have dealt with situations tension in a manner that suggested bias.

This is a new phenomenon, and has to do with increasing perceptions that government supports the idea that this is a Buddhist country. That may seem self evident, but there is a big difference between the fact that this is a Buddhist majority country - which is what it is claimed is meant by the assertion that it is a Buddhist country - and the assertion that it is a Buddhist country, which is then taken to mean that Buddhism should dominate at the expense of other religions.

I came across a particularly worrying example of this recently, when I found that the Department of Buddhist Affairs justified some illegal instructions it had issued on the grounds that Article 9 of the Constitution declared that Buddhism should be given the foremost place and should be fostered. The official, who was relatively junior, who issued the letter, had ignored the fact that Article 9 had to be read in conjunction with other articles of the Constitution, one of which affirmed the right of other religions to be practiced.

The issue was with regard to the Thiruketheeswaran Sacred Area, where a Buddhist statue had been set up in what was private land. The argument for doing this was that it was an ancient Buddhist site, but this has not been established as it should be in accordance with the law. In fact the law has been violated, because new constructions have been put up before an archaeologican investigation was conducted. It is utterly irresponsible of the archaeological department, if they believe this is a historic site, to have permitted such constructions, but sadly they seem to have abandoned professionalism in order to promote a particular religious agenda, that also has political overtones.

Worryingly, the Archaeological Department, again in the form of a junior official, has got in on the act of trying to pressurize the local authorities to permit the illegal constructions on the site. They wrote to confirm the letter of the Department of Buddhist Affairs, after that letter was issued, whereas the Department was using archaeological claims - not evidence - to issue its instructions.

The irony is that the military has been blamed for this, whereas the military has done its best to ensure action in accordance with the law. It is civil officials who, whether under pressure or because of inadequate understanding of the law and the procedures required for acquisition of private land, have encouraged actions that violate the law.

The same I should say is the case with another example of blatant abuse of archaeology by a monk, which the army has tried helplessly to control. I refer to a Buddhist temple put up near Murunkan, at the side of the Madhu-Mannar Road, in what used to be a Hindu shrine. The claim was that this was a historic Buddhist area but in fact the archaeological site - which seemed to me indubitably old, and which should be safeguarded and explored thoroughly, is a short distance into the interior. But that would be inconvenient to look after, and so the monk in question has settled himself in a much more convenient location.

Unlike in the Thiruketheeswaran case, this individual is seen as violating the rules of his order by almost all the servicemen I spoke to, though one of them noted that he falls out in turn with all the services and then seeks support from one in which senior officials have changed, so they do not understand the actual situation. He also claims to have been responsible for the transfer of a very competent army officer in the area, which may not be correct, but it is a grave mistake for the army, criticized as it is on what I believe to be generally erroneous grounds, to allow such denigration to take place.

What is a potentially inflammable situation is exacerbated by the Deparment of Buddhist Affairs citing the Constitution to support its improper letter. This made me understand for the first time why minorities have resented that clause in the Constitution ever since it was introduced. Previously I had thought that obviously Buddhism would have the foremost place because it was the religion of the majority, and though it was unnecessary to put this down in the Constitution, it was understandable that this had been done because of the sense of deprivation Buddhism had felt during the colonial period. However, this seems to be again an example of a remedy causing further complications, when officials interpret this as meaning that Buddhism should be fostered even at the expense of other religions. The fact that that was not intended, and that the rights of other religions should also be safeguarded by all state officials - in this instance the fact that Thiruketheewaran is a Sacred Area (and in the other case cited that there was a Hindu Temple which is now being usurped) must be stressed, and inculcated in all as entrenched official policy.

Unfortunately, because of the emotions that arose because of the conflict, these principles are sometimes forgotten. The situation has also been exacerbated by the fact that the majority is largely a Sinhala Buddhist army, a phenomenon that began in the sixties when there was an attempted coup which was led, not by the minorities, but by Sinhalese, of whom the most influential were not Buddhists. The Civil Servant who was the chief instigator of the coup was in fact Buddhist, and a close associate of J R Jayewardene, certainly during the time of the government elected in 1977 if not before. But that was not considered salient, and the practice began of encouraging domination of the forces by Sinhala Buddhists - which economic considerations also meant that the vast majority of rural recruits were Buddhists, since the Catholic areas were relatively prosperous.

The tragedy though is that the vast majority of army officials in decision making positions are not at all negative about other religions. But, especially following the shock the government received by virtue of the Presidential candidature of Sarath Fonseka, and the feeling that it needed therefore to consolidate its Sinhala Buddhist base, political considerations have taken over in some instances, and the more practical and inclusive approach of the majority of the army has given way to what seem selective interventions.

I should note here also the failure to understand the need to publicize other interventions. I suppose the reason for this is that talking about what the forces do for Buddhism is encouraging support for the government in general as well as the forces by its main source of electoral strength, but government should also realize that stress on the good work it does in other areas, such as refurbishing of kovils and churches, and I hope mosques (though of these I know no specific instances) - including controlling excessive incursions by individual monks into areas which are the traditional preserve of other religions - would help with winning hearts and minds, which is such an urgency now.

It would also help with getting rid of the notion that government and all its agencies are promoting an exclusivist Buddhist agenda. This is obviously not the case, but showcasing what has been done would also help to make the general public, and also government officials who now think that they have to take up sectarian positions to please government, aware that government believes in encouraging and supporting all religious activity.

This is the more important, because we live in a society which is divided across ethnic and religious lines, and therefore there must be proactive efforts on the part of government to encourage knowledge and understanding of others. Earlier in this talk I noted that the sheer incapacity of our Ministry of Education to think outside the box will ultimately destroy this country both politically and economically, and its failure to develop mechanisms by which young people can learn together is a major part of the problem.

Fortunately now it has realized its mistake, and the latest proposals for educational reform note the need for schools in all areas where people of different backgrounds can study together - instead of being isolated in Sinhala and Tamil and Muslim schools. But predictably the reforms, having been discussed for three years, now seem to have been forgotten, and there is no sense of urgency about promoting the many good ideas they include. Conversely, the University Grants Commission now seems to have decided that ethnic mixing is not a priority, at least as far as I can make out from what has happened at Sabaragamuwa University where we used to get many Tamil students into the Arts Faculty, but where, just before I stopped teaching there, admission seemed to be confined to people from nearby areas.

The mindset of educationists in decision making positions seems clear from the manner in which they destroyed the concept of Amity Schools, which was the initial name for schools where, in 2001, we reintroduced the option of English medium. The concept paper, which I prepared, noted the need to develop schools in which students of different backgrounds could study together, which would also have helped with teacher shortages, since one English medium school in each Division for instance could have catered to children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Certainly this should have been started several years ago with regard to Advanced Level classes, but instead of planning sensibly, the Ministry allowed things to drift, so that often those who do well in the English medium at Ordinary Level have no school to go to for their Advanced Levels where they can continue to study in the English medium.

Indeed, separatism is entrenched where possible, as for instance in the school in Matugama I was told about, where the Sinhala medium and the Tamil medium occupy the same set of school buildings, but in what are treated as two separate schools. The appalling situation of education in the hill country could also be remedied by allowing children to study together, but this is inconceivable to the Ministry officials who make decisions.

A couple of years back I was told that my name had been considered for the position of Minister of Education, but it was thought that I was not a popular figure, and so someone supposedly much more popular, as the Secretary to the President put it, had been selected. This did not cause me any grief, because in any case, as I had said at the time of the Parliamentary Election, if the President wished to use my services, what I was best at was Reconciliation. Now that I am no longer in a position to be considered for Ministerial Office, I can say freely, without it being alleged that I am seeking such, that it is a pity the Reconciliation agenda was not included more actively in educational policies as well as elsewhere.

The need to build up a national identity, so that ethnicity and religion will not exercise destructive ideological and political influences, can be best achieved by a more enlightened educational system than we now have. People must not only be encouraged to understand that their similarities are more important than differences, they must also feel this, and that can best be achieved by working together and playing together. Such a process must begin in school, and unless it happens soon, we can easily fall prey again to those who want to emphasize differences rather than the common heritage all those in this country share.


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