Sri Lanka: Maha Sangha Should Be Banned From Politics


Ivor Jennings, who was primarily responsible for drafting our Constitution upon gaining Independence from the British, handed us a secular constitution. Multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural as Ceylon was then and now is, the Jennings Constitution safeguarded certain rights of the country’s minorities in no uncertain fashion. It was commonly known as Soulbury Constitution and consisted of The Ceylon Independence Act, 1947 and The Ceylon (Constitution and Independence) Orders in Council 1947, Sri Lanka was then known as Ceylon. The Soulbury Constitution provided a parliamentary form of Government for Ceylon and for a Judicial Service Commission and a Public Service Commission.

Minority rights were safeguarded by Article 29 (2) of the Constitution which stated thus:

  1. (1)
    Subject to the provisions of this Order, Parliament shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Island.

  2. (2)
    No such law shall –
    (a) prohibit or restrict the free exercise of any religion; or

(b) make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; or

(c) confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions, or

(d) alter the constitution of any religious body except with the consent of the governing authority of that body, so, however, that in any case where a religious body is incorporated by law, no such alteration shall be made except at the request of the governing authority of that body.

However, that marked feature of a modern constitution, reflecting the mind of a sophisticated people, which by virtue of its very Articles and Clauses, provides defenses and safeguards to minorities living among an overwhelming majority of Sinhalese Buddhists, are no more present in our current Constitution. And it is indeed a sad confession of a people whose majority claims religious, no pun intended, adherence to the inspirational and transcended teachings of one of the greatest thinkers history has known, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. What is even more offensive to the teachings is that the order that later organized itself as the custodians and peaceful messengers of the Dharma has resorted to dastardly conducts to disparage of other religions and their followers in the land of ‘the faith’. As per Professor A J Wilson, the trio of ‘the land, the race and the faith’, instead of creating a harmonious ethno-religious equilibrium in the land, is now increasingly engaged in dividing it while defiling the most important of the trio, ‘the faith’.

The immeasurable repercussions of erasing Clause 29 (2) from the Ivor Jennings Constitution are manifestly showing today: a deeply divided people, some members of the Sangha’s displaying an uncouth sense of indiscipline and participation in bizarre caravans of birthday parties and consumption of worldly pleasures. A people polarized along ethno-religious lines are doomed to failure. While Tamils in the North and Muslims in the East and the rest of the country are profoundly clinging on to their own extremities, Sinhalese Buddhists are being led by the their clergy to tearing apart a delicately woven socio-ethnic fabric and the tragic reality is that they seem to be succeeding in that attempt. History shows us that, in man going to war against man, no sentiment is more acute and been consequential than religion. Our neighbor India is a living example to it.

It is only in that context of historical and contemporaneous realities that we need to address the current tensions that the Buddhist clergy has created among us. Clergy’s involvement in politics has not been novel. A two thousand plus year-history of our Monarch-Clergy duo had practiced that without a break. But a blind faith to that history could have grave consequences in the modern world. Its historic reality apart, the Sangha’s entanglement in politics, especially after the ‘transformative’ 1956-election campaign of S W R D Bandaranaike, having brought this segment into the day-to-day dynamics of politicking, is promising to be catastrophic to the furtherance of a harmonious reconciliation among the three ethnic groups, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. The healthy ethnic equilibrium that was so apparent in the early part of twentieth century has evaporated within a matter of a decade, between the fifties and sixties. Although that equilibrium was fragile and delicate, as almost all ethnic balances are, the tenacious movement towards a more solid and promising end might yet have been a dreamer’s dream.
Let’s have a look at all those who were at the helm and how they treated, firstly the matter of religion in affairs of state and secondly the special position or lack thereof Buddhism:

D S Senanayake

D S was a devoted Buddhist who hailed from such a family in Siyané Koralé and never ever engaged the clergy of any religion in running the country. He was totally secular in governance and believed in a distribution of power, at least at the center, among all ethnicities.

Dudley Senanayake

Dudley Senanayake when he was Prime Minister in the ’65 – ’70 period made one of the most unwise governmental decisions. He replaced the Saturday/Sunday weekend with a Pre Poya/Poya Day weekend. By doing this he may have surmised that he would not only pacify the Sangha Sasana but also the greater country at large. He did neither. Sangha left him in the lurch in the following ’70 election debacle and the people at large couldn’t care less.

Sir John Kotelawala

Sir John too was born a Buddhist but his excessive and melodramatic obedience to what was of the British Empire made him a joker of sorts at the time. His callous treatment of members of Buddhist clergy cost the United National Party more than one election. The disadvantageous character the UNP is now associated with is a creation of this symbolic demeanor of Sir John.

S W R D Bandaranaike

SWRD was not only a political byproduct of the Sangha, the strongest pillar that delivered the ’56 elections to him, he eventually paid the ultimate price for his slavish obedience to the Buddhist Clergy. Tearing the infamous BC Pact literally into pieces was done at the instigation of the Buddhist clergy and other so-called Buddhist leaders. Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk as the culmination of a conspiracy headed by the very monk who led the Maha Sangha in the ’56 elections for him. The assassin was Talduwe Somarama and the chief conspirator, Mapitigama Buddharakkhitha. Ironically, both had the ‘Venerable’ at the beginning of their names.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike

Sirimavo has the distinction of including a clause in the new Constitution Sri Lanka in 1972. As per that Constitution, Article 9 says: “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) ”. The most significant element of this Clause is when such special place is accorded to Buddhism, in no way can any future government could take it away without risking a riot led by the saffron robe.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga

In her lackluster tenure, in her own lackluster way, this modern-day liberal made some attempts to keep the Maha Sangha away from politics but did not succeed fully.

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Mahinda is one of the shrewdest politicians in independent Sri Lanka. His shrewdness surpassed even R Premadasa of the UNP. Yet if one politician who would have succeeded in keeping the Maha Sangha at abeyance was Mahinda, for the war-victory in 2009 gave him an unprecedented opportunity in that, if the Maha Sangha could be asked by any political leader to keep away from politics, it was him, for he was speaking from a unique position of strength. Instead, he chose to play politricks with the Sangha. He wasted valuable political capital and more so, time. Avarice took over everything in and around him

R Premadasa

Premadasa was a different kettle of fish. From the day he assumed office as President, he was preparing himself for the next election and consequently began mollycoddling the Maha Sangha. Another leader who spent his political capital at the altar of the clergy, was he.

J R Jayewardene

The only political leader who had the foresight and the ‘spine’ to ask the Maha Sangha not to dabble in politics was J R Jayewardene. He declared well before his ’77 election victory that the Maha Sangha should keep away from politics. And after assuming power he opted to seek the advice of the Sangha only when the appropriate time arrived. In other words. J R did not allow the Buddhist monks nor any other denomination’s clergy to dictate ‘terms of state’ to the government. And it should be so.

Nevertheless, the paradigm has shifted and it seems to have shifted never to revert to the original position. BBS and Gnanasara’s circus have become part and parcel of the country’s political visage. The Mahanayakes are decreeing that there need not be a new constitution. The government’s ready remedies appear to be more to be akin to the thinking of a Monarch/Clergy alliance as in the ancient past. Secularism does not hold any water today. Such thinking is meeting with disdain and scorn. Banning of the Maha Sangha from politics is a logical necessity. But the material conditions in the land would not allow that.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]

Originally published in The Colombo Telegraph 


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