06 May 2023

Charles’ coronation and secularists’ blues

Sunil Ariyaratne who wrote Nanda Malini’s celebrated song ‘Nidahas Baila’ got it all wrong when he claimed that no blood was shed in the struggle for independence from British rule. He claimed that no one was beaten, as Nehru and Patel were in British India and that no lives were sacrificed (as Mahatma Gandhi did).

Mahatma Gandhi didn’t really sacrifice his life for India’s independence. True, Indian leaders were assaulted and imprisoned, but so were the leaders of Sri Lanka’s independence struggle. Indians were killed, so were Sri Lankans, from before formal subjugation in 1815 right up to February 4, 1948. Tens of thousands were slaughtered. Fields and libraries were torched. Temples were razed to the ground and churches built in their place. Reservoirs and wells were poisoned. Brutes. That's what the British were. And that’s a soft word.

Sunil Ariyaratne got one thing right though. The ‘sudda' left and yet did not: sudda yanna giyeth nae nogihin hitiyeth nae. British diplomats frequently act as though they are unofficial viceroys. When they are not demanding that we subscribe to their version of our reality, they use sway in multilateral organisations to seek punishment for intransigence. There’s insult, humiliation and caustic condescension.    
I don’t blame them. A nation in circumstances so reduced that they operate in international forums as an adjunct of the USA needs some kind of validation. Having claimed that the sun would never set on the empire, it must be hard to accept sunsets. It must be even harder since they have to live with the fact that their current comforts derive from the brigandry of their ancestors who pillaged, sacked cities, enslaved and murdered people. Thieves have to conjure thievery and condemn theft to look good. They have no moral authority. Others do.

I don’t blame those Sri Lankan who still think, talk and act as though the British haven’t left. After all, President Ranil Wickremesinghe feels compelled to leave the country to attend the coronation right in the middle of Vesak. After all, Sajith Premadasa's father wrangled an additional invite for Charles' wedding when he was Prime Minister (President J R Jayawardene had a legit invite as Head of State) in 1982!

Five hundred years of colonialism could leave traces of servility. Moreover, if you and your ancestors played Uncle Tom for a century, deriving benefits in exchange for agreement to inhabit the version of reality authored by the oppressor and, as was common, conversion to the faith of the oppressor, it is not unnatural to look to the ‘mother country’ and its representatives for succour of one kind or another.

Now here’s the problem. Both parties, i.e. the viceroy wannabes and the empire-salaamists can't get enough of democracy. They can’t get enough of secularism. And now they have to deal with Charles’ coronation which makes a mockery of both.

First of all the viceroy wannabes are representing a monarchy which the empire-salaamists, well, all but salaam. Secondly, the whole circus is handled by the Archbishop of Canterbury who, we are told, will say that the Church of England ‘will seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths may live freely.’  In contrast, Article 9 of Sri Lanka’s constitution (which ensures foremost place for Buddhism and pledges to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana) is effectively negated by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e). Nothing big-brotherly about it.

The monarch, at his coronation on May 6, 2023, will be asked by the archbishop to uphold the Church of England and he will duly pledge to do so while also solemnly stating that he is a faithful Protestant. That faith, by the way, is not adhered to by half the population or more.

Coronation! Medieval!

The jocularity of these individuals and the organisations they represent notwithstanding, there is certainly a case for secularism and democracy. History stands in the way, though. If history counts, that is.

The 1815 Convention included a clear pledge by the British to uphold the foremost place of Buddhism. They ignored this immediately. They not only pillaged temples, they built churches and launched massive proselytisation campaigns complemented by unethical conversion. It makes sense, therefore, for a restoration the moment the British left.

S W R D Bandaranaike’s demagoguery and cunning (to essentially copy-paste the left agenda) aside, the angst that enabled ‘1956’ can be traced to the deliberate, vicious and pernicious crusades against Buddhists orchestrated by the British and by and large consented to by leaders representing or identifying with other faiths or else went along envisaging personal political gain somewhere down the line. Don Baron Jayatilleka was an exception.

Here’s one example. The official list of public and bank holidays, 1910. 

Yes, 1910. Long before ’56. Long before independence. The Christian holidays: Good Friday and the following day, Easter Monday and Tuesday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and three subsequent days. That’s nine. Add the 52 Sundays and you get a whopping 61 days. Muslim holidays: Hadji Festival. Hindu holidays: Thai Pongal Day, Vel Festival and Dipawali (bank holidays). Buddhist holidays: Vesak. Get this: April 13th was a holiday: ‘Hindu New Year’s Festival.’  

Now consider the fact that although there were Tamil and Muslim elites (English educated, wealthy, upper caste and of the Christian faith) involved in the formal independence struggle, those who fought and died in their thousands from 1815 to 1948 were almost exclusively Sinhala Buddhists.  

That’s a lot of angst. ‘1956,’ then, one could argue was inevitable. In hindsight erroneous on certain counts though it is, the sheer numbers and the extent and nature of subjugation were sufficient preconditions, sufficient in terms of legitimacy too. Eminently logical in comparison with today’s realities in the UK a la the coronation.

But what of it? History is not cast in stone. We can throw it all away, someone might argue. Throw it all away and go with today’s reality!

Two problems. Today’s reality may change tomorrow. One can’t really legislate for every changed reality. Hey, the representatives of one community could ethnically cleanse another (as the LTTE ethnically cleansed Muslims from the Jaffna Peninsula) and then demand, ‘look, realities have changed, now re-legislate!’

Secondly, if history goes out of the window, so do any claims of ‘traditional.’ No history, no tradition, simple.

Want to secularise holidays even as you show respect to religious faiths? Sure. Designate religious holidays and permit any citizen to claim three (or four or any specific number) per year as religious holidays (like casual leave, sick leave etc). Others work. Take it to its logical conclusion and we might have to think of a weekend that excludes Sunday and Friday. But no holidays for Friday prayers, no leave on account of becoming a widow or widower or a divorcee. No extra maternity leave privileges for a particular community.

We are not a monarchy, but we have religions. There are percentages (without which we really shouldn’t talk about that kind of thing). We can be a country without any religious community having to feel marginalised, neglected or underprivileged. Informed, meaningful and logical secularism.  

Now that’s something for everyone talking about democracy and secularism to think about. 

Meanwhile, good luck Charles and better luck his subjects, his representative in Sri Lanka included. And Sunil Ariyaratne could write a new song about Sri Lanka.