Can the jvp withstand Sinhala-Buddhist racism? N.M.’s heritage
by Kumar David
“Fascism is a religion. The 20th century will be known as the Century of Fascism.” – Benito Mussolini
We are predominantly a Buddhist country so let me ask outright; am I be allowed to say in public that I think this or that aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is wrong? I have in mind, for example, concepts associated with rebirth. Some say that it is not an essential part of the philosophy but that’s not the point. The point is this. Will I be permitted to say in public without being dragged off by the police (incited by an intolerant public), beaten and locked up, that, for example, the Buddha’s concept of rebirth is absurd and irrational? Easter is the cardinal event of the Christian faith where Christ defeated death and enthroned the victory of good over evil. Well I don’t think that a man can rise from the dead after three days of entombment. And the Christian belief in Virgin Birth, in the days before in-vitro, is patently a blunder. The relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus and whether the former bred progeny is controversial to some Christians but widely discussed in other jurisdictions. Muslim abhorrence of pork was not originally of religious significance; it’s a hygienic objection. The pig is a faeces-eating scavenger.
The point is that all these are perfectly serious critiques of aspects of religious philosophy, and not to be brushed aside. To be absolutely clear, let me repeat, I am not asking whether these views are right or wrong or whether you agree or not. I only ask, am I allowed to say all this? None of it can be discussed if expressing it entails being dragged off by fascistic policemen, prompted by intolerant mobs. The way things are shaping up it certainly looks like that. Fortunately, the three-million gods of Hinduism don’t care a hoot what you say. Krishna blithely stole the clothes of bathing damsels and Draupadi effortlessly laid five brothers. So, there’s somebody on my side; or is saying this sacrilegious too? Sigh!
Religion, right-wing populism and corruption
Will the proposed (semi-fascist) Sri Lankan legislation protect the right to atheism? Atheists argue that “religion is the opium of the masses” meaning that it is a soporific to lull people into accepting the injustices of this world (instead of rising up) with false promises of greater glory in the next. It’s a façade to safeguard the wealth and privileges of the “churches” of all religious denominations, enhance the powers rulers of the State and protect wealth (in the modern instance owners of capital). This is a valid critique of religion but how can one discuss it if one cannot utter it?
The CID is after stand-up comedian Natasha Edirisooriya for inflaming religious discord in her gig Fool’s Pride (Modabimanaya). She offended by her reference to ‘Suddhodanage podi eka (Suddodana’s little one), a reference to Siddhartha before he became Buddha. I have watched the entirety of the show on YouTube and I think it is not of much artistic merit. Like similar shows in the US it’s a show filled with sexual innuendo. The reference to Siddhartha is fleeting and best ignored; but religious zealots are inflamed. Religious extremism in Lanka is on the rise and has become as intolerant as in the Middle East and other theocracies. Religious fascism is on the march.
Ms Edirisooriya I understand was apprehended in the departure lounge of the Airport. And you know what! The VIP lounge at the airport is a den of thieves that would give the forty bandits who accosted Ali Baba pause. Political racketeers, ruling party sycophants and riff-raff aligned with the Royal Family infest it. No policeman or customs officer will dare confront these misbegotten sons and daughters of political felons. Amnesty International has quite rightly condemned Edirisooriya’s arrest as a flagrant violation of the freedom of speech.
The point is not whether one likes or dislikes her show, nor whether it is classy or stupid. The point for heaven’s sake is whether the woman should be dragged off and locked up when some stupid Minister or State Minister wants to play to the gallery, or the cops enjoy a bout of fascism, or the judiciary is as spineless as a leafy gourd, or President RW’s claims of liberalism turn fake. The point is that the bloody woman has every right to do her thing on stage limited only by the laws of slander PREVIOUSLY enacted by parliament.
The truth is that Sinhala-Buddhist society lives in tutelage to its own clergy. Monks preach racism and religious intolerance as a matter of course. They fear that liberalism is undermining their hold on their followers. I will change my mind on this point when I see the police drag off a monk and haul him up before a judge. (Was a first such arrest made just before Poson?). Unfortunately though in the end I have no choice but to concede that it is the people themselves, the electorate, that is blinkered.
Now a few words about that “Christian” nut Jerome Fernando. Are the things he has uttered offensive to thin-skinned religious diehards? I think yes, but not criminal. For heaven’s sake what’s criminal about saying the Buddha was in search of Enlightenment while Jesus called himself the “The Light of the World” and therefore, in JF’s mindset, the former was in search of the latter? Leaving aside JF’s rank ignorance of historical chronology, I think the fellow is a nut worth only a good laugh.
NM’s unexpected relevance
There is however a more serious concern relating to right-wing Sinhala-Buddhist populism that has raised its head. My readers are probably fed up with my bitter criticisms of the NPP-JVP for not publishing its development programme. Recently I have also been critical of its programmatic blindness on the national question (the minority issue). A particularly dangerous trend is when I hear Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) activists say: “If the JVP makes concessions to the Tamils and Muslims such as devolution or land rights it will face a backlash in its own SB backyard vote base.
The base will turn away” (the critics are not specific whether to RW, Sajith or someone else). The argument is credible and the response of the minorities is foreseeable. They will vote for their own communal parties at home, and outside their areas of domicile they will vote for right-wing candidates. Therefore, the bane of this nation, the racial divide between Sinhala Buddhism and Tamils-Muslims, will be aggravated. And this time if it happens, it will be on the watch of the Left, so the NPP-JVP will have nobody but itself to blame.
Ajith Samaranayake in one of his more inspired essays called NM “The best Prime Minister Lanka never had”. Looking back over the last 80 years this is perhaps far truer than Ajith foresaw. Had NM been PM/President (head of state) he would never have stood by and permitted the carnage that JR provoked and encouraged in the 1980s, SWRD invoked in 1959 and Mrs B allowed on the plantations to happen.
“The Role of the Individual in History” is the title of Plekhanov’s famous treatise, and indeed the Role of leaders great and small can be decisive, Gandhi, Lee Kuan Yew, Mandela and Jacinda Arden for example. And rooting out the ethnic cancer would have fundamentally changed the miserable history of this country. If NM had been Head of State, he would not have permitted the malignancy to endure. Lee had the advantage of universally enforced English and eventually a much stronger economy. But the personal character of the head of state is also profoundly important. NM, if he was Head of State in 1958 or 1983, would have firmly dispersed racist mobs, arsonists and rapists.
The legacy of Samasamajism
After its golden age of opposition to the infamous disenfranchisement of plantation Tamil workers and opposition to Sinhala Only, the Samasamaja movement did make blunders. Oh yes that’s true. At the same time there’s no denying that Samasamajists are not racists; racism invokes revulsion in their innermost core. Many are the racists who after a brief sojourn with Samasamajism went their way to terrain more agreeable to their mindset. The challenge today is whether the “revolutionary-socialist and Marxist” JVP measures up to the standards of international socialism? Will it stand against an SB wave or will it capitulate? And if it yields to racism how will it explain itself to international socialism; to the heritage of Marx, Rosa, Mao and Che? If you raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Mao in this list, whatever Mao’s other faults he was not a racist.
Mind you as a scholar NM is no second to Lee who shone during his Cambridge years. NM was Harold Laski’s star portage at LSE, double doctor and constitutional commentator par-excellence in the Ceylon/Lanka Parliament. Who wins the prize? On scholarly merit NM; on national achievement Lee of course. (Singapore’s present Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, was Senior Wrangler in his year in the Cambridge Mathematics Tripos, the University’s most prestigious examination).
There is another point about NM that is relevant to any discourse on Lanka now. He was a quintessential social-democrat in the best traditions of the Enlightenment; but conversely, he was also a Marxist. This is the line that the JVP will have to tread in the domestic and global circumstances of these times. Sans social-democracy and commitment to change of government by democratic elections, millions will turn away. (“Aney bayai; monowa karai da dannne neha”). Furthermore, Anura Kumara, as a hypothetical Head of State, will have to address international forums such as the UN General Assembly, the World Bank and Non-Aligned Summit knowledgeably – speaking in Sinhala of course?
At the same time the nation’s youth expect radical system transforming leadership from the JVP. It’s a tough call. Can the comrades measure up to the twin challenge? I think so; NM could have had he been Head of State. It is no secret that though NM dragged us kicking and screaming into coalition with Sirima in 1964, by 1975 he was disillusioned and wanted to quit the government despite the opposition of the “golden brains” (Hector, Doric, Bernard, Colvin and Leslie). He best saw the coming electoral slaughter of the Left in 1977. He was opposed to the Chapter on Buddhism in the Republican Constitution and even told a closed session of a Party Group in Peradeniya “I don’t know how Colvin works with that woman.”