By N Sathiya Moorthy
As with other occasions in contemporary Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, busy-bodies are already naming names for the nation’s presidency. The latest name to do the rounds is that of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo the theological leader of the Catholic laity.
The last time a vacancy was to arise, such other busy-bodies floated the name of another religious leader. However, Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, the venerable Buddhist monk, was also the leader of the National Movement for Social Justice, which played more of a political role than anything religious.
Democracy is the best form of worst governments, yes. Democracy also has the wonderful corrective mechanisms, as has been tested over time in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Whenever and wherever identifiable democratic institutions fail the nation and the constitutional scheme, others gear up to safe and protect whatever was possible under the prevailing circumstances.
Much of such self-engineered enthusiasm depends on the character of the person presiding over such other institutions. Yet, many also go by the rule-book, and make sure that they do not jump the constitutional scheme, in their acquired self-importance, lest they should falter and get caught.
It was thus that when the predecessor Rajapaksa regime was seen as not doing the right things by the rightful provisions of the Constitution, then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake sought to step in. Yet, given the personal circumstances in which she intervened, it became easy for the rulers of the day to convince themselves, to have her impeached.
That the Rajapaksas lost out to the people’s larger perception of democracy and Constitution was another matter. In the end, the question still remains – who has had the last laugh between the two, the Rajapaksas who are still politically and electorally relevant, or Justice Bandaranayake, who became a one-day wonder of a Chief Justice, after the successor-government restored her the high office that was due to her – as they too had defended all along.
More recently, when President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took their periodic tiff over the cliff in October last, none expected Parliament and parliamentarians to behave the way they did. That was one way that the Legislature, under Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, showed as to who was the real boss in a democracy.
The Supreme Court re-asserted itself all over again. The unanimous decision of the five-judge Bench also happened to endorse the political decision of Parliament, conferring on it the respectability of the constitutional kind that the political machinations of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe lacked, outright.
Even those that may want a neutral man and man of god, if one could help, to lead the troubled nation through the coming years, and set it on the path of integrity, where it otherwise should belong, have a problem on hand. Politics is troubled waters, and is also a no-no for religious heads of whatever kind and faith, especially in post-Independence Sri Lanka.
They may be Catholics, Christians, Muslims, Hindus…. They may belong to different ethnicities, and still may want a man of religion to lead the nation that they may feel has gone astray. To them all, the flickering hope from the ‘Easter blasts’ is the way the Catholic Church rose above partisanship and lead the recovery process from the front. Cardinal Ranjith for the leading light in and through the process of reconciliation, which none could achieve to the extent through the long years and decades of the ethnic war.
The fact that there were Tamil and Sinhala Catholics among the leaders of what had boiled down to a Sinhala-Tamil ethnic issue should have made some hope at the time that religion could restore reconciliation and peace, whenever it faltered. On the Tamil side, the Catholic Church all across the North and the East were part of the community’s political leadership though they did not want to acknowledge it as such.
Suffice is to point out that the Church, independent of the role played by individual priests of all denominations and all ranks, got identified also with the LTTE to a greater or lesser extent, made them too suspects in the eyes of the Sri Lankan State. This was different from being called names by partisan sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist hard-liner groups.
In a way, their roles, and those of their Hindu counterparts in many cases tantamount to the ‘hate-campaign’ that some want to blame a section of the Islamic clergy in the context of the ‘Easter blasts’. The less said about the hard-liner sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist religious order the better.
In the context of the nation’s Muslim grievances, the recorded role of the BBS and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero are problematic, to put it mildly. It is of course for the police investigators to confirm or rule out the role of ‘local Muslim grievances’ as among the causes for the Easter blasts. If however the finding is in the affirmative, then the nation should remember that it cannot run away from social and societal realities by putting an errant and erratic Buddhist monk in prison for a term and expect a hurt community to feel normal – as if nothing had happened in between.
The Sri Lankan Muslim hurt runs deeper, yes, dating back to the riots involving the majority Sinhala-Buddhists a hundred years ago, in 1915 and thereabouts. It is also the latest, following the ‘unconnected’ Batticalo and Kandy riots of last year. The only link to the two episodes coming one after the other was that the local Muslim community was the victim in both cases, and the majority Sinhala-Buddhists, the perpetrators.
In between, the community had had its troubles with fellow Tamils. Independent of the religious divisions of Hindus and Christians that are very clearly drawn in the Tamil linguistic group as with the majority Sinhalese speakers in the country, the ‘Muslims’ were made to feel as second class citizens. Or, if the ‘SLT’ community felt as a second class people, the Muslims became the ‘third class’, pushing the Upcountry Tamils, permanently placed there, by a rung or two further and farther below.
It is another matter, beginning with the advent of the Executive Presidency, so to say, and even earlier, the role of the Buddhist clergy has been under question. It is not about Buddhism as the ‘majority religion’ getting a pride of place in Sri Lankan State affairs and ceremonies. It has more to do with a mind-set that has been there even possibly under the colonial rule, but which re-invented itself and came out in the open, discriminating against a larger, much-needed ‘Sri Lankan’ or ‘Ceylonese’ identity.
Yet, reservations to a religious head, including and possibly starting with a Catholic high priest, becoming the nation’s elected President would come more from the political class than from within religions. Rather, the former class would seek to undermine holy men and men of robes (of whatever colour) entering politics and acting in unpredictable ways that could make them ‘jobless’, hence ‘worthless’ (!) after a time. Rather, the two could happen within a ‘definite time-period’, coinciding with the elected presidency of such a man of god.
The nation saw for itself what happened to Ven Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero after a time. People used, misused and abused him and his name to deflect the prevailing public discourse of the time away from the ruling Rajapaksa clan. After all, the Rajapaksas, especially war-time Defence Secretary Gota Rajapaksa was seen as more Buddhist than most Buddhist.
So, the man who needed to be named to replace Gota R then or possibly now again, and more so incumbent Mahinda Rat the time, had to be seen as being more Buddhist and more Sinhala than the Rajapaksas. Once the presidential poll discourse of the time began focussing away from the Rajapaksas, then dismounting the Thero became necessary. Thus, you now have Sirisena in the seat – something that the perpetrators of the presidency inflictors had known all along.
All this does not mean that those that may propose the Cardinal’s name or that of any other pious person – not necessary one in his religious robes – is wrong. They are saying it all in their good faith, out of democratic desperation, which finds expression in very many ways, such as these as well. Yet, they should not blind themselves with the hope that they are not theirs alone. There is a professional group of political class that is every ready to convert the innocent man’s high hopes into a god-given opportunity for the self and the class.
They all need to remember only Shakespeare’s immortal lines, said it the last words and testament of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, who at the best of times was also the Lord Chancellor of King Henry VIII:
“O, Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King, he would not have in my age
Have left me naked to mine enemies
Farewell, the hope of Court!
My hopes in Heaven to dwell!”
The temptation is for the Cromwell’s of our time to assume and presume that they are also Knights in Shining Armour capable of putting a troubled nation back to a path of virtue and righteousness, where it should belong…. Only that they are not Cromwells though their individual votes have the same say as the other man’s sword in its time. The comparison should – and would – end there!
The worse part of it could be if their sharp words for the arrival of a born-again Sri Lankan to lead them from the front in this hour of national crisis on every front, ends up doing the exact opposite. The nation needs His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and such other pious souls to lead them from the front, to re-unite, re-connect and re-calibrate itself from the abyss into which it has pushed itself time and again. But in their own god-ordained roles, not in the one imposed by men, as another ‘H.E’, expanding as ‘His Excellency, the President’, however well-meaning, those that now want it to be!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)