The recently held presidential election, like all major elections, was a hard fought affair. In terms of who supported whom, historical antipathy, who wanted to remain in power and who wanted to assume power, there were differences. Well, the candidates themselves, outside of their political homes, were also different in the way they conducted themselves and of course their track records. Apart from all these rather trivial differences actually, Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaka had more things in common than has been acknowledged by either or their supporters, especially when it comes to policy issues.
Both promised goodies. Sure, Sajith went a bit overboard with such things, as he did with almost everything, but still, ‘welfarism’ was a key part of both manifestos. Both candidates said that if elected they would review all bilateral agreements. The point of reference was the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC Compact). They both believe, sadly, in growth-led development. Both, happily (the way I see things), spoke in one voice about the legal system in the country. Apart from promising the independence of the judiciary, due process, rule of law etc., they both assured the electorate that the future, in terms of legal matters, would be framed by the following: ONE COUNTRY, ONE LAW!
A total of 6.9 million voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa while Sajith Premadasa obtained 5.7 million votes. That’s 12.6 million. There were altogether 35 candidates. They either echoed this vision in their manifestos and rhetoric or were silent. In other words, at least 12.6 million people or 94.24% of the total number who cast valid votes (52.25% for Gotabaya and 41.99% for Sajith), voted for candidates who believed that Sri Lanka is a SINGLE COUNTRY and therefore should have ONE LAW for all.
What does it mean, though?
Before answering that question, let’s flag some slogans frequently tossed around by the class-less, identity-less, religion-less saints who are fond of blaming all ills on the majority community: ‘There should not be a special place for Buddhism,’ ‘This is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country,’ ‘Article 9 should be repealed,’ ‘religion should be separated from the state,’ ‘Sri Lanka should be a secular state.’
First of all, is there any county with a population at least as large as Sri Lanka’s that is mono-ethnic, mono-religious and monolithic in terms of political beliefs? No. We are multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Should the fact be enshrined in a constitution? Should we also say ‘Sri Lanka is an island?’ No. Should we say ‘In Sri Lanka there are men and women?’ No. More importantly, if you are really fixated with this multi-religious, multi-ethnic wording, the you have to insert the numbers as well, for clarity if not for anything else. Otherwise, the impression given is that the population is equally divided into ethnic groups and religious communities, much like how the use of the words ‘North’ and ‘South’ during Sri Lanka’s long struggle against terrorism gave the mischievous impression that Sinhalese and Tamils were equal in numerical strength and that the relevant ‘homelands’ could be demarcated by drawing a horizontal line perpendicular to the half way point in a line connecting Devundara and Point Pedro.
What Gotabaya and Sajith (and other candidates) promised is that there would be a single corpus of laws. In other words, what applies to a Sinhalese would apply to a Tamil, what applies to a Hindu would apply to a Muslim, etc. In other words, the fundamental concept of ‘Equality’ should be applied across the board.
The next question is ‘what IS this “One Law”?’ C.V. Wigneswaran delivering the Kanthaiah Sivanantham Memorial lecture about a decade ago vociferously defended the Thesawalamai Law. He maintained that it would protect even non-Tamils who purchase property in areas that come under this law. Well, it is arguable that there could be laws that help strengthen community integrity. If that’s the case, such laws could cover the entire country. The same would go for, say, Sharia Law or the Kandyan Marriage Law. We don’t have to throw away the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Ordinance. We could expand its ambit to cover all religious communities and atheists too!
Alternatively, and this seems to be the most logical course of action, all such regional, ethnicity or religion based laws should be repealed. What applies in the general should not be trumped by the specific.
But then again, horror of horrors (some might whine), wouldn’t that hurt customs, religious practices and culture of some communities? Well, there’s give and take. There’s having the cake and trying to eat it too. You want ‘secular’? Fine. You want ‘secular’ for some but not for others? No. The truth is that there is celebration of specificity and there’s also abuse of specificity.
What is held sacrosanct by each religious community should not be brushed aside. Agreed. However, it is humbuggery of the highest order to demand sensitivity (and secularism) in the name of reconciliation and co-existence and then use sensitivity as a cover to chop off other people’s noses so you can have more room to flex your muscles ‘freely’.
There’s something wrong, for example, in saying ‘equal rights for all communities, but not when it comes to gender,’ using these ‘sensitive’ religious ‘edicts’.
These are not easily resolved, of course. All the more reason for these issues to be widely debated and taken seriously, instead of taking the easy path of, say, repealing Article 9 (but leaving Thesavalamai, MMDC and the Kandyan Marriage Laws untouched, [Aha!].’
Religious freedom is non-negotiable. The parameters of ‘religion’ need to be fixed, though. You cannot have a set of laws that has any reasonable degree of integrity if there are ‘religious’ caveats through which certain people can creep through but others cannot. Religious communities in a ‘multi-religious’ (that term!) nation cannot have it all for this would mean, theoretically, that in the name of religion certain groups can enjoy privileges that are denied other religious groups, or that women of a particular faith are subjugated in specific ways in which others are not.
Religious holidays tell the story best. There are 13 Buddhist holidays, three for Hindus, 54 for Christians and three for Muslims. Hold on, there’s more. Muslims are given two hours of leave from 1 pm every Friday. That’s the equivalent of 13 work days if you want to be mathematically clinical about such things. During the Ramadan period, Muslims have the privilege of obtaining ‘special leave’ to take part in prayers. A Muslim woman is given leave of four months and ten days in the event her husband dies and three months following divorce.
If you want ‘One country, one law,’ and if you want Sri Lanka to be ‘secular,’ then this religion-fixation should be dissolved. If you are a devout adherent to a religious faith, it’s fine. Just do it on your time. Take leave to observe sil. Take leave on Good Friday and Christmas. Take short-leave to go to the mosque. Take leave for Ramadan. Take leave and grieve if your husband passes away. Take leave if you find it hard to deal with divorce.
The best would be to apportion a certain number of days under ‘Religious Leave’ (which could be broken down to hours if needed) for everyone, just like Annual Leave, Sick Leave and Short-Leave.
If you want to leave such things as they are and at the same time beat your chest and stamp your foot for secularism, you are indulging in the worst kind of buffoonery. As things stand, it’s all about having the cake and eating it. It boils down to removing Article 9 (which, in any case, is negated by Articles 10 and 14), whacking Buddhists and allowing other religious communities to entrench the privileged positions already enshrined in the Constitution.
Well, the people have spoken, haven’t they? We are talking of 12.6 million (or 94.24% of those who voted). They subscribe to the ONE COUNTRY, ONE VOTE notion. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the mandate. And the United National Party (UNP) is honor-bound to support implementation.
This article was first published in the ‘SUNDAY MORNING’ [December 22, 2019]