Politics of religion

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Unveiling a memorial at the Borella Cemetery for the martyred victims on the second anniversary of the Easter serial-blasts, Colombo Archbishop, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, was quoted as saying that the brutal act was a ‘result of political extremism, not religious extremism’.  The 2019 attacks were unleashed by a group, which tried to consolidate their political power by using religious extremism as a tool.
Until the good Cardinal explained later that he was referring only to international Islamic extremism, without any relation whatsoever to the nation’s contemporary politics, his original statement was prone to misinterpretation and mis-representation. Considering that the Cardinal has been vocal and vociferous in wanting to bring to book all the culprits behind the heinous act, and justifiably so, and multiple political names have been making media headlines in this regard, some over-active social media minds were already speculating and naming names in this regard.
In a way, the speculation was inevitable as the Cardinal’s post-blasts public posturing have been akin to that of a partisan politician. That His Eminence has been called upon to protect the interests of the Catholic Church in the country and also these parts of the world, and that of the laity, is an arduous responsibility that he has carried on creditably well.
This alone has restored the confidence, and the conventional catholic calm of the laity, which was battered and shattered as never before. Neither the two JVP insurgencies, nor the long years of LTTE war, violence and terrorism touch the nation’s Christians.
There were distinctive differences between the Catholic Church in the Tamil areas in the North and the East. They were conducting themselves as if they were not accountable to the Cardinal in Colombo. If anything, the Bishops of Jaffna and Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, all identified openly with the larger Tamil cause, as also those of the LTTE, including the terror outfit’s motives and methods, it would seem.
The Colombo Church may have, if at all, brought it all to the notice of the Holy See, but did not say anything, or do anything, one way or the other. It was clear from the very beginning that the State and the majority Sinhala polity should not – and did not – confuse the two.
Vote-banks, all
This time round, the Cardinal’s messaging through the two years since the blasts  has left no one in any doubt how serious the Church views it all. The same argument could then be extended with retrospective effect to the pleadings and posturing of the Catholic Bishops in the Tamil areas, some of whom did more than preaching, praying and healing in the ethnic cause.
Almost since the commencement of the ethnic war in the eighties, or even before it, the Tamil Church, if it could be dubbed as such for purposes of clarity and nothing more, had converted the laity into a vote-bank of their own. But the same vote-bank worked and lived together with the larger Tamil polity, mostly Hindus, with the leadership lent by the elite Jaffna Vellalar community. Even the hierarchy-superior Brahmins, who were numerically too small, came only down the line, in terms of political clout.
Now, after the Easter blasts, the Sinhala Christians too have become an electoral identity of its own. They constitute nearly six per cent of the nation’s population, and loosely translate as six per cent of the nation’s electorate. It had begun with the Weliweriya episode, when mis-alerted army soldiers reportedly ransacked a local church and targeted protestors seeking clean water, charging a new industry with polluting the water sources. Needless to say, local Christians happened to form a majority of the protestors.
Earlier, the attacks by the Sinhala-Buddhist supra-nationalist BBS on local Muslims across the Sinhala South, particularly Aluthugama, had rendered the nation’s Muslims shocked and suppressed. This happened when the community in the Tamil areas were recovering from the loss of life to the LTTE in the East, and all their life’s earnings of generations and future livelihood in the North.
If in 2015, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his re-election, it owed to the votes of the Sinhala Christians and all Muslims across the country. The latter comprised those who spoke Tamil or Sinhala, but then, the Aluthugama incident and the like ensured that the previously anti-LTTE Muslims also turned anti-Rajapaksas, without effort.
Today, post-blasts, the Sinhala Christians have become a more identifiable political constituency. They voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa after the Easter blasts, but seems unsure about the future course, if for instance, the Provincial Council polls were to be held now. Does it mean the Church also controls the Christian votes in the South, as has been the case in the North and the East? A million-dollar question, still.
P2P protest and after
But there is a newer development. Beginning with the P2P protest march (Pothuvil to Polikandy) of the Tamils ahead of the UNHRC vote, a new religious name has hit newspaper headlines, at least in the North and the East. Velan Swamigal is a Hindu religious leader, unlike the priestly class that was playing second fiddle to the established political leadership, be it the TNA or the LTTE in their time.
Velan Swamigal is branded as the epi-centre of a new Tamil civil society, which claims wanting to be a pressure group within the community. Swamigal has since declared time and again, over the past weeks, yes, that he had no political ambitions or interest. Anyone associated with the P2P NGO who wants to join a political party or contest elections otherwise would have to quit the organisation, he has reiterated further.
True as it may, this is the first time that a religious leader has taken the lead in the political affairs of the Tamil community. It is a reflection on the lack of credible political leadership, especially after the ubiquitous TNA lost six of the 16 MPs it had in the previous Parliament. Those that won those additional seats, namely, the estranged parent SLFP constituent of the ruling SLPP, and the omnipresent EPDP, the mainline Tamil polity does not want to accept as one of them.
Before Velan Swamigal and after the end of the ethnic war, the late former Bishop of Mannar, Rev Rayyappu Joseph, played the public face of the Tamil civil society, which also wanted to hold the community’s political leadership accountable, without wanting to take any responsibility for their present and future.
The Bishop-led self-styled civil society, which also had representatives from other communities, did contribute to the collapse of the post-war TNA talks with the Rajapaksa Government, aimed at a political solution. Today, when the P2P NGO identified with Velan Swamigal takes the same line, the Tamil polity and community needs to decide if they would not play spoil-sport or would not enforce on the ground, the will of external forces, especially of the Tamil Diaspora kind.
Dividing line
Yet, there is a difference. Hinduism is not an organised and institutionalised religion as Christianity and Islam, whose forerunner Buddhism is. It is a way of life. Religion and religious heads have a role to play in an average Hindu’s life, but they do not control it.
The Hindu goes to a religious preceptor for guidance in matters religion. He brings in the Brahmin or non-Brahmin priest for matters ritual. He does not confuse religion with social life and more certainly politics. They are two separate silos in an average Hindu’s life even today.
During the all-assuming and all-consuming LTTE era, religion took the line of the political leadership. It was so earlier, too. It may have cooperated with the latter and even collaborated with the former in select cases. But it never ever thought to overtaking the scoio-political leadership, and dictate political terms.
This is unlike other religions, where the prelates of individual denominations, by whatever name called, play a more active role in the daily affairs of their own faithful. This is something that the Hindus are unable to understand and then accept.
The nation’s Buddhists adopt a top-down approach in the matter. In Islam, it is a community-centric affair, at the local-level, or at best a bottom-up approach.
Christianity is the most organised of religions with a clear structure going all the way up to the Holy See and the reigning Pope. They run and support the laity even in their personal matters, but at least in Sri Lanka, and more so among the non-Tamil sections, Religion has thus far stayed away from electoral politics, more so directly.
That dividing line got thinner overnight with the Easter blasts. Now with every passing day, it seems heading towards extinction, that is the dividing line between the Church and Politics. Amen!
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Colombo Gazette’s point-of-view

1 COMMENT

  1. Let the good Lord forgive. But let it become the goal of every other denomination to facilitate every muslims fervent desire to meet Allah as soon as possible.

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