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Secularism For Sri Lanka ‒ Will It Work?

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Pabodha Hettige

Pabodha Hettige

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Sri Lanka is in the process of adopting a new constitution and the Government called for citizens to submit their suggestions for potential amendments earlier this year. Among the more popular proposals are the abolition of executive presidency and the change of electoral system. However, there is another proposal currently occupying the limelight: should Sri Lanka adopt a secular constitution?

Having a constitution that bestows preeminence to Buddhism, this proposal may not be the easiest to adopt. Nevertheless, a group of Sri Lankan Catholics has called for a secular Sri Lanka, where the constitution will not recognise a Buddhist hegemony, but uphold the rights of individuals on equal terms. Despite the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s stance that “We need to give the due place to Buddhism,” the proposal put forward by the group of Catholics places emphasis on the fact that a secular Sri Lanka will promote religious harmony and help people to be more religious.

What Is A Secular State?

The separation of religion and state is the foundation of secularism. A secular state is where a state claims to be officially neutral in matters of religion. Such a state purports to treat its citizens equally and does not recognise a state religion or equivalent. True to its word, a secular state should consistently maintain national governance without the influence or interference of religious factions.

Secular democracy champions human rights above religious demands and a secular constitution plays a crucial role in establishing such a society.

The Present Constitution (1978)

The second republican constitution of Sri Lanka, under Chapter II, awards status of prominence to Buddhism over the other religions recognised and practiced in Sri Lanka. It reads as follows.

Article 9: “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 Case For A Secular State

Those campaigning for a secular state argue that this would not only safeguard human rights, but also promote a sense of religious harmony. Image courtesy goplaces.lk

Those campaigning for a secular state argue that this would not only safeguard human rights, but also promote a sense of religious harmony. Image courtesy goplaces.lk

At a point in time when considering secularism is enough to generate controversy, Roar spoke to prominent civil rights activist, Rev. Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda, to shed some light on the issue.

According to Fr. Iddamalgoda, paving the way for a secular state is the only way to have equal freedom and mutual respect for all cultural and religious identities of Sri Lanka. “(A) secular state is a very positive one. History tells us that no religion or culture will automatically be protected merely by having state sponsorship. The best example would be Catholicism itself. As revealed by history, the decadence of the Catholic Church in Europe began with State sponsorship,” he said.

Although Buddhism enjoys a privileged position guaranteed by the constitution, it is debated whether the practice of it has been qualitatively enriched due to such patronage. “Whether we are ready to acknowledge it or not, all religious institutions in Sri Lanka have become secular. The leaders are more interested in power, wealth, and material privileges,” he said. Regrettably, Iddamalgoda noted, religious domination has been used both as a means of oppression and a political tool for securing votes in the recent past.

The US has recently urged Sri Lanka to arrest and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against religious minorities and to protect religious freedom of all citizens. The International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 highlights that the government had not yet prosecuted hard-line Buddhist monks involved in attacks in 2014 against Muslims and Christians.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented a total of 87 cases of attacks on churches, while The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM) recorded 82 incidents of hate speech, and acts of discrimination.

If Sri Lanka is to create an inclusive society that does not allow for such crimes against minorities, advocating secularism would seem like a good plan. For this, a duty should be assumed by the government, religious leaders, and academics, to educate the general public, enlighten and free them from restrictive ideologies.

My belief in a secular state is for true freedom for all to live a spiritual lifestyle, enjoy true liberty without creating divisions based on religion. An unbiased state that doesn’t entertain hidden agendas is vital in the task.” Fr. Iddamalgoda said.

As a response to Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s statement that “We will never endorse the ideology of secularising Sri Lanka,” Fr. Iddamalgoda said that such cannot be assumed as the official position of the church, but a mere personal view.

In one of the official documents of the Sri Lankan Church, published in 2013, it reads that “Sri Lanka should shed all the clauses or conditions in its constitution that could be interpreted or read to justify different forms of discrimination against its people”. This should be considered the official position of the Church, he said.

The Public Representation Committee on constitutional reforms has received two proposals from the Catholic Church. Bishop Valance Mendis on behalf of the Catholic Bishops Conference and Fr. S. V. B. Mangalaraja from the Jaffna diocese have handed over these proposals, which are being considered by the parliament.

What Do The People Think?

At this point in time, a constitution that establishes a secular state may appeal to many. But how feasible will it be for Sri Lanka, and what do people actually feel about this proposal? We spoke to a few members of the public to hear their views.

Opinions are contested and whether or not a secular constitution will be considered lies in the hands of the state. The wishes of the majority would inevitably take centre stage, but as a country having a multi-religious presence, state action ought to  be fair and just, without having any discriminatory effect whatsoever.

Featured image credit: stocksy.com/Hugh Sitton

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