By P .K. Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, October 19: The question as to whether priests or the clergy of any religion should enter the political arena as contestants for political offices, or as agitators or even as purveyors of political ideas, has come up every time such participation has made an impact on the political scene.
In modern Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have been playing a key political role since 1956. After having helped bring about the ‘Sinhala Only’ revolution which transformed the country overnight, the monks, including from the major nikayas based in Kandy, have been giving directions to political leaders.
And political leaders, in turn, have been encouraging this tendency by making publicized visits to the monasteries to seek from the Mahanayakes, pronouncements favouring their political line. There have been political parties led by monks, with a few even becoming parliamentarians.
While most Sinhala-Buddhists consider the monks’ political role as being legitimate for preserving the Sinhala-Buddhist character of Sri Lanka against onslaughts from the West and the Islamic world, the minority Tamils and Muslims see political monks as vanguards of “Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism” and are resentful.
According to Dr. Palitha Kohona, Ambassador-designate to China, the participation of Buddhist monks in Sri Lankan politics should not raise eyebrows as, historically, monks have played a major role in advising the kings on secular matters and also in the defence of Buddhism and the country against religious and political influences from India and the West. Monks continue to perform this function, thereby enjoying a fair measure of support from the majority community.
The Sri Lankan government also uses monks for the preservation of the country’s Sinhala-Buddhist identity as seen in the composition of the committee on archaeology appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The President has also made it clear that he would not take any step that didn’t have the support of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. And Buddhist monks are the quintessential representatives of that community.
This position is willy-nilly accepted by other countries, which is why foreign envoys make a beeline to the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters of the Maha Sangha in Kandy to seek the blessings of the Mahanayakes and their support for their diplomatic objectives. The Indians have been doing this for long to apparently strengthen Buddhist ties between India and Sri Lanka, and the Americans have followed suit, considering the power of the Maha Sangha.
In the Buddhist countries of South East Asia, monks have led anti-government protests and even committed self-immolation to highlight secular causes. In Buddhist Myanmar, Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, has been in the forefront of a violent anti-Muslim movement. In Thailand, monks are by law forbidden from taking part in politics and could be disrobed for breaking that law. But the State uses its patronage system to get Buddhist monks to preach on the Buddhist values underlying Thai society and thereby prevent radicalism from taking root.
However, a perceived Islamic threat in southern Thailand has given rise to a feeling among the Buddhist majority that monks should enter politics to safeguard Thailand from becoming Islamic or even too Western and secular.
While the Islamic Maulavis in Sri Lanka and India are apolitical, they are highly political in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. While Islamic groups demanding Shariah-rule in Pakistan like the Jamiat-i-Islami do not enjoy electoral support, they do influence law making and implementation of laws in Pakistan. For example no government can abolish the death sentence for blasphemy, or punish a Mullah for forcibly converting a Hindu or a Christian, or change the law to recognize Ahmadis as Muslims.
In Bangladesh, the Islamists led by radical organizations like Hefazat-i-Islami, have been put on the leash but still they have influence. They have forced the secular Sheikh Hasina government to change the content of school text books. Under Islamist influence, Hindu writers were taken off the reading list for school kids.
In India, there is no Hindu clergy as such, but Hindutwa organizations, fully backed by Narendra Modi’s government, play the role of the clergy. Places are given Hindu names, replacing Islamic names. For example, Allahabad is now Prayagraj. All major institutions including universities are being ‘Hindutwized’ by packing them with people who push for Hindutwa. Secularism is now a dirty word and secularists are considered anti-national. Commercial ads like the Tanishq jewelley ad, portraying Hindu-Muslim unity, are considered anti-national and Hindu-Muslim marriages are branded as ‘Love Jihad’. Vigilantes had lynched beef eaters or even those taking cattle to the market for sale.
Legal ban sought
Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, Honorary Professor at the Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy in Sri Lanka, advocates a legal ban on clergy participating in politics. “As in Thailand there should be a legal ban on monks indulging in political activity. In Thailand, such monks are disrobed,” he said.
However, he acknowledges that the clergy could play a constructive role in times of crises as in the aftermath of the April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka staged by Islamic zealots which killed about 260 people mostly Tamil and Sinhalese Christians.
Although most of those killed were Christians, Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith prevented Muslims being subjected to retaliatory attacks by Christians. He stood firmly on his stand that while the persons behind that bomb attacks must be tracked down, innocent Muslims should not be attacked, Dr. Gunaratna said.
“The Cardinal stood for national reconciliation and provided leadership in the absence of the political leadership of the country at that time. He provided visionary leadership to the country when it was lacking in it,” Dr. Gunaratna said.
He pointed out that Cardinal Ranjith is liked by all communities. While the Muslims are grateful to him for protecting their lives, the Sinhalese like him because he considers Buddhism as the foundational culture of Sri Lanka, a proposition which all Sri Lankans must accept. “He is an integrator not a divider,” Dr. Gunaratna said.
Asked if the Bishops are justified in opposing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which is a secular political issue and not a religious issue, Kohona said as citizens of a democratic country, the Catholic clergy have the right to voice their political opinion. “At any rate in Sri Lanka, the Christian clergy have conveyed their views on politics from the pulpit all along. At election time, they do give directions. So does the Muslim clergy,” he pointed out.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is popular with diplomats of Muslim counties for the role he played in protecting the Muslims post April 21, 2019.The Pakistan High Commissioner, Maj.Gen. (Retd) Muhammad SaadKhattak, met him recently as did the Afghan Ambassador, M. Ashraf Haidari. The Palestinian mission feted him during Christmas. At the function, the Cardinal wished that Palestine would be “liberated”.
However, the Cardinal is unlikely to enjoy the goodwill of the Western world whose interference in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs he has condemned, albeit obliquely. He said that he suspected that “human rights” had become the “latest religion” of the West. There would be no need to talk of human rights if people followed religion, the Cardinal added.
(The featured image at the top shows Ven.Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena)