A Ques­tion of Re­li­gious Free­dom

A group of monks seems to have turned the val­ues of Bud­dhism up­side down by re­sort­ing to mil­i­tancy in the name of reli­gion.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Hus­sain H. Zaidi The writer is a free­lance con­trib­u­tor.

A group of monks has turned the val­ues of Bud­dhism up­side down by re­sort­ing to mil­i­tancy in the name of reli­gion.

The con­tem­po­rary world is char­ac­ter­ized by two con­flict­ing phe­nom­ena. On the one hand is glob­al­iza­tion, which seeks to cre­ate a global cul­ture based on North Amer­i­can-West Euro­pean val­ues, such as lib­eral democ­racy, free mar­ket econ­omy and mul­ti­lat­eral economic in­te­gra­tion, re­gard­less of creed or eth­nic­ity. The other phe­nom­e­non, which, in part, is a re­ac­tion against glob­al­iza­tion, en­tails as­ser­tion of par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties, such as reli­gion, sect, race and lan­guage.

Re­ferred to as iden­tity pol­i­tics, this phe­nom­e­non em­bod­ies a claim to power based on a par­tic­u­lar creed or eth­nic­ity. In its softer forms, iden­tity pol­i­tics stands for safe­guard­ing the rights of a com­mu­nity, usu­ally a mi­nor­ity or a marginal­ized one, by a peace­ful, con­sti­tu­tional strug­gle. At times, how­ever, iden­tity pol­i­tics goes berserk and fa­nat­i­cally seeks power for a com­mu­nity by means fair or foul, peace­ful or san­guinary. And if that com­mu­nity al­ready hap­pens to be in a pre-em­i­nent po­si­tion, it may seek to­tal dom­i­na­tion even if it means an­ni­hi­lat­ing the weaker iden­tity. A case in point is the or­ga­ni­za­tion named Bodu Bala Sena based in Sri Lanka.

Be­fore throw­ing light on the BBS, it seems in or­der to look at the eth­nic and re­li­gious de­mo­graph­ics of the is­land state.

The Demo­cratic So­cial­ist Repub­lic of Sri Lanka is a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety with re­gard to both creed and eth­nic­ity. Bud­dhism is the dom­i­nant reli­gion prac­ticed by nearly two-third of the pop­u­la­tion. It is fol­lowed by Hin­duism (12.6 per­cent), Is­lam (9.7 per­cent), and Chris­tian­ity (7.4 per­cent). Though not a state or of­fi­cial reli­gion, Bud­dhism has been ac­corded a spe­cial place by the Sri Lankan Con­sti­tu­tion.

Ar­ti­cle 9 of the Con­sti­tu­tion reads: "The Repub­lic of Sri Lanka shall give to Bud­dhism the fore­most place and ac­cord­ingly it shall be the duty of the State to pro­tect and fos­ter the Bud­dha Sasana, while as­sur­ing to all re­li­gions the rights granted by Ar­ti­cles 10 and 14(1)(e)."

Ar­ti­cle 10 states: "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." Ar­ti­cle 14(1) (e) sup­ple­ments this pro­vi­sion by adding that 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 and teach­ing."

Thus the Con­sti­tu­tion of Sri

Lanka makes it oblig­a­tory upon the state to give pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to Bud­dhism, while at the same time it is the con­sti­tu­tional duty of the state to en­sure free­dom of con­science and its ex­pres­sion for the fol­low­ers of other re­li­gions. While the state is to pro­tect and pro­mote only Bud­dhism, the same should not be done at the ex­pense of other re­li­gions. For ex­am­ple, the state may set up Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies but it should also see to it that mosques, churches or (Hindu) tem­ples are not de­mol­ished for sec­tar­ian rea­sons.

Eth­ni­cally, the is­land na­tion is di­vided into two main groups: the Sin­halese and the Tamils on the ba­sis of Sin­hala ( an Aryan lan­guage) and Tamil (a Dra­vid­ian one), re­spec­tively. The for­mer make up 75 per­cent while the lat­ter ac­count for 11 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The Sin­halese, the big­gest eth­nic group, and the Bud­dhists, the pre­dom­i­nant creed, are mu­tu­ally in­clu­sive: About 93 per­cent of the Sin­halese pro­fess Bud­dhism and more than 99 per­cent of the Bud­dhists speak Sin­hala. Sin­halese folk­lore en­thrones Bud­dhist her­itage as the very pil­lar of the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal ed­i­fice of Sri Lanka.

Like­wise, a close con­nec­tion ex­ists in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the other two ma­jor re­li­gions, Hin­duism and Is­lam. About 80 per­cent of Tamils are Hin­dus. More than 90 per­cent of Mus­lims speak the Tamil lan­guage.

Thus, if we com­bine eth­nic­ity and creed, Sin­halese Bud­dhists are eas­ily the dom­i­nant com­mu­nity in Sri Lanka. And it is the Sin­halese Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ism that the BBS (trans­lated as Bud­dhist power) es­pouses. The na­tion­al­ism en­tails sup­port­ing mil­i­tancy against the mi­nori­ties, par­tic­u­larly the Mus­lims, to pre­serve the dom­i­nance of the Bud­dhist-Sin­halese ma­jor­ity. Like the Bud­dhist Arakanese in Myan­mar, the BBS al­leges that the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing at an 'alarm­ingly' high rate thus pos­ing a threat to the Bud­dhists. It also charges the Mus­lims as well as the Christians with con­vert­ing the Bud­dhists to their re­spec­tive creed.

Thus harp­ing on the theme of an 'im­pend­ing' threat to Bud­dhist-Sin­halese dom­i­na­tion, the BBS is whip­ping up anti-mi­nori­ties' (read an­tiMus­lim) sen­ti­ments. In ut­ter dis­re­gard of the coun­try's mul­ti­cul­tural cre­den­tials, the BBS wants to set up a mono­lithic polity. In the words of BBS Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, "This is a gov­ern­ment cre­ated by Sin­hala Bud­dhists and it must re­main Sin­hala Bud­dhist. This is a Sin­hala coun­try, Sin­hala gov­ern­ment. Demo­cratic and plu­ral­is­tic val­ues are killing the Sin­hala race." Few state­ments can be more de­struc­tive for plu­ral­ism as this one.

Ac­cord­ingly, the BBS has sought to re­place the mul­ti­ple le­gal sys­tems be­ing prac­ticed in the coun­try with a sin­gle le­gal sys­tem. It has also cam­paigned, and with a lot of suc­cess, against halal la­bel­ing on food, which it sees as an at­tempt to im­pose Is­lamic cul­tural val­ues on the ma­jor­ity com­mu­nity; it has also de­manded boy­cott of Mus­lim-owned busi­nesses. It has car­ried out at­tacks on mosques and has sup­ported Mus­lim per­se­cu­tion in Myan­mar. As a per­fect in­dex of the BBS mindset, the or­ga­ni­za­tion's Face­book page de­picts a lion, which tra­di­tion­ally sym­bol­izes the Sin­halese, as de­vour­ing a wild boar car­ry­ing a cres­cent and star on its fore­head.

Crit­ics al­lege that the gov­ern­ment has been soft on the BBS, if not in con­nivance with it, so that the rul­ing party may keep in­tact the elec­toral sup­port of the ma­jor­ity Bud­dhist-Sin­halese com­mu­nity. They point out that the BBS' cul­tural and train­ing cen­tre in Galle District was of­fi­cially opened on March 9, 2013 by De­fence Sec­re­tary Gotab­haya Ra­japaksa, who is the brother of Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa. It is also al­leged that Gotab­haya Ra­japaksa is the pa­tron of the BBS.

Aptly branded as an "eth­nore­li­gious fas­cist move­ment from the dark un­der­side of Sin­hala so­ci­ety" by a Sri Lankan diplo­mat, the BBS is un­der­min­ing the very fab­ric of the Sri Lankan so­ci­ety. It's hard to un­der­stand why in a coun­try in which Sin­halese-Bud­dhists are al­ready clearly dom­i­nant both nu­mer­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally, an or­ga­ni­za­tion needs to cham­pion their cause and that too in such a vi­o­lent and fa­nat­i­cal way.

For a mul­ti­eth­nic so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, such as Sri Lanka, few things are as lethal as a 'church' gone mil­i­tant. Re­li­gious fa­nati­cism if not checked can wreak havoc. Sri Lanka it­self was the theater of a three-decade long eth­nic war, which claimed thou­sands of lives be­fore com­ing to an end in 2009. This makes the ac­tiv­i­ties of the BBS a dire threat to the is­land state's long-term sta­bil­ity. Hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions have also warned that the BBS' an­tiMus­lim campaign may stoke 'Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism' in the coun­try.

Like other great re­li­gions of the world, Bud­dhism preaches tol­er­ance and puts its com­plete trust in non­vi­o­lence. In Bud­dhism, the word 'Sila' refers to prin­ci­ples of eth­i­cal be­hav­ior and the first prin­ci­ple or per­cept is to re­frain from tak­ing life. But by re­sort­ing to mil­i­tancy in the name of reli­gion, a bunch of monks seems to have turned the val­ues of Bud­dhism up­side down.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.