In Sri Lankan society, the word democracy is often referred to in a protesting manner against anyform of injustice or inequality. We hear people say this is a “democratic Country” in the presence of perceived injustice or discrimination. This implies that in a democratic system, inequality, discrimination and injustice are abhorred, and the opposite qualities of justice, equality and impartiality are upheld and protected.When the general public reiterate that this a democratic country, they are also referring to the concept of sovereignty or rule by the people. But this concept of sovereignty may also be understood by the common man as majority rule.
Is democracy simply counting of heads? Does an ethno-religious majority have the right and power to make binding decisions that affect the lives of all? The answer to this is found in the following statement of Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States. “All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” In other words, this means that every citizen has the right to take part in the decisions that are impacting him or her, and if the majority will is detrimental to the security and well-being of the minorities, then it is a contradiction to the very concept of democracy.
The fundamental premise of democracy is the concept that all persons are equal and have equal value irrespective of differences such as class, caste, ethnicity, religion, social status and gender. In a system that places paramount importance on equality, if democracy is limited to a majoritarian one, it will result in a tyrannical regime that disregards the well-being and concerns of the minority groups. Post-Easter attacks, we are witnessing a severe marginalization of the Muslim community by certain radical, nationalist sects powered by the radical Sinhala Buddhist monks and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups. These nationalist groups have a considerable support and following from rural and semi urban middle classes. Following the dastardly Easter attacks, one witnessed the gradual building up of anti-Muslim sentiments on social media platforms, where grief and anguish arising from the attacks paved way for more aggressive sentiments such as anger, suspicion and the necessity to retaliate. Hate speech and misinformation ran rampant on social media, and the Sinhala Buddhists were urged to boycott all Muslim shops and enterprises. Victory was celebrated when Muslim ministers and deputy ministers submitted their resignations. While it is paramount that those involved in the Easter attacks should be dealt with in accordance with the law, it is undemocratic and unethical to label an entire community as terrorists and subject them to prejudice and discrimination.
What has contributed drastically to the rise of such anti minority sentiments within the recent past? Historians have understood the emergence of racial consciousness as a development in the recent past. (Gunawardena, 1979) The Buddhist revivalist movement headed by Anagarika Dharmapala in early 20th century may provide the starting point of a gradual ethno religious consciousness; namely, the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness. Not only was Anagarika Dharmapala against the British Colonial administration but he was also critical of other ethnic groups in the country. His sentiments often disregarded the concept of equality among all ethnicities and espoused Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. It is fair to say that the seeds of ethno- religious supremacy and a sense of danger and threat from other communities, was instilled into the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist consciousness with Dharmapala’s words.
“Is democracy simply counting of heads? Does an ethno-religious majority have the right and power to make binding decisions that affect the lives of all?”
By the 1980s, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism had become a strong force in contemporary politics and use of violence if necessary, was not rejected. Buddhist clergy had reacted with violence to the Indo-Lanka Accord, and ‘Violence had taken root at the heart of the Buddhist Establishment.’ (Gombrich and Obeysekara, 1990) Gangodawila Soma Thera’s ideas in the nineties for a pure Sinhala Buddhist culture and tradition, and the necessity to protect Sinhala Buddhism from other religious influences, gained momentum and further shaped the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness. The rise of the JHU, and the creation of extremist Buddhist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena, has also contributed to intensified nationalist sentiments among the semi urban and rural masses. The supremacy of the Sinhala Buddhist majority as the “real” inhabitants of the land, and a necessity to protect the Sinhala Buddhist community from any perceived threat from other ethnic and religious communities, are two main recurrent themes promoted by the above mentioned elements throughout history. These two regressive ideas have been instilled into the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist consciousness, and has resulted in other communities being observed with suspicion and as ‘antagonistic others’ by certain factions of the community. If such ethnocentric and regressive sentiments permeate the Sinhala Buddhist society, it will result in further prejudice, discrimination and inequality, leading to a dysfunctional democracy.
If a functional democracy is to prevail in Sri Lanka, it is important to ensure that nationalist forces do not contravene the main values of democracy, which are equality, liberty and justice. If the society does not uphold democratic values, political democracy alone will not automatically result in a well-functioning democracy.There is a strong need for a democratic society that is tolerant of differences and endorses the right to dissent. Protection of fundamental rights and other human rights should form the back bone of the society, and attitudes of acceptance, assimilation and egalitarianism has to be fostered. The role of nationalism must be redefined in order to prevent the country from heading towards a fascist regime. In the 21st century, obsolete and regressive ideas of ethnocentrism and inequality cannot be tolerated. The only way to ensure that the Sinhala Buddhist Culture is preserved and propagated, is by creating an awareness among the masses of its heritage. The rich Sinhalese Literature and the deep philosophy of Buddhism are two main integral parts of the Sinhala Buddhist Consciousness. Modern Sinhalese Literature, from the early 20th century onwards, consists of outstanding works of legendary authors such as Martin Wickremasinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Siri Gunasinghe to Sugathapala de Silva and Simon Nawagaththegama. Publishing and preserving these great works and popularizing them among the youth is essential in order to preserve the Sinhala identity. The protection and propagation of the Sinhala Buddhist identity is not achieved by denying other minorities their lawful rights and privileges, but by fostering the Sinhalese literature and culture, and spreading the essence of ‘Dhamma’ or philosophy of the great teacher, Gauthama Buddha.
The writer is a Bachelor of Arts Degree holder and holds a postgraduate qualification in Sociology.