Nov 10, 2017

Before and after the Designer Budget

Preceded by a week of ‘petrol anger’ in a country that queued long hours to buy few litres of petrol each day, Mangala Samaraweera ventured out yesterday with his new project of winning back lost votes with a ‘Designer Budget’ for the year 2018.

End January 2018 is now speculated to have the long delayed LG polls, after over two years of haggling with a Delimitation Report. One day prior to the budget the finance ministry on Wednesday announced tax reductions on essential food items. A Sri Lankan ‘Tweep’ said, ‘Poonac was not in the list’.

 That same day, the Constitutional Assembly debate concluded after debating the Interim Report of the Steering Committee for 07 days. Politically, Mangala’s ‘pro people’ export growth projected 2018 Budget, runs into conflict with his own appeal for unity in a secular, devolved State that may not be Unitary though written so, into the Constitution. The debate on how pro-people the budget is, and what benefits it would deliver to the people with export growth is left for economists and neo liberalists to engage in. I would instead move to the debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee that would bounce back into centre stage once the budget is read and voted on. 

 The interim report debate basically was on two issues that tie up others on the way. The first is about the Unitary State. That brings in other issues like devolution, 13A Plus, federal system of governance and the delicacy of the Sinhala extremism, separatism as well. The second is that of foremost place for Buddhism and the need for a secular State. This ties up with the issue of equality and the status of non-Buddhists in a State that would treat Buddhists preferentially and leave all others as second class.

 The JO harps on both issues and their campaign against Constitution making is not restricted to the Constitutional Assembly. With this government’s arrogant aloofness in engaging people, the JO have successfully mobilised Sinhala extremism led by Buddhist monks. With allegations the government is in a conspiracy to create a Federal Constitution that would destabilise the Unitary State, Buddhist monks led by both the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters now demand the Constitution making process to be abandoned. Leading another collective of Buddhist monks, Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thera said, Buddhism cannot be given the foremost place if other religions are also equally treated when Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) are tagged with Article 09. Theoretically, the learned monk seems right. If all other religions are treated as equal with Articles 10 and 14(1)(e), how can Buddhism be special and foremost is his argument.

Instead of reasoning out and rationalising the necessity to treat all Citizens as equals in a civilised democratic society and therefore the necessity to have the Constitution as secular, the whole debate on the Interim Report revolved around promises and guarantees that Buddhism would have its foremost place in the Constitution as it was since 1972 with the first Republican Constitution. Meekly saying they stand for a Secular Constitution, these promises and guarantees were shamelessly offered even by the TNA spokesperson MP Sumanthiran. He went on to say, “ having said that, that should be the ideal, we have gone on to say,….we have gone on to say,…. but if the Buddhist people wish that a certain status be given to Buddhism, we will not stand in the way. “Sumanthiran with his command of the language and debating skills says, for Buddhists who claim equality, asking for a foremost place for Buddhism is an indefensible position and then says, “We who are non-Buddhists are saying, we don’t mind it being given a foremost place….” He goes further with his guarantee. He says, “But yet if you want it, we have said, we are willing to grant it….”.   

This in plain language is a “bloody betrayal” not only of Tamil people, but all minority communities too. It’s a blatant and an open insult to all Tamil leaders from GG to SJV and from Amirthalingam to even Prabhakaran. From even before independence, they all struggled in their own ways against ‘second class treatment’ and to gain equality of status for the Tamil people. GGs ‘parity of status’ and SJV’s ‘federalism’ was that. From Amirthalingam’s democratic politics to Prabhakaran’s “Eelam” it was that.

I thus wrote in my ‘Blog’, on 03 November, [quote]That in no uncertain terms, on his own argument would leave all Citizens of other faiths including all Tamils, second class citizens under a Unitary State. And the extremist Sinhala Buddhist leaders would say, “we did not force it upon them. They agreed to be second class citizens as all good minorities should be”

This shameless compromise is not how the issue of a Secular Constitution should be approached in making a New Constitution that has to be at least better than the present Constitution, if we are unable to make the best with people’s participation. The approach should be with an alternate articulation that can be accepted by the majority as the most suitable replacement of Article 09 of the present Constitution. Sent to all members of the Steering Committee on 06 November, there is now a proposal at hand that can well replace Article 09. Proposed by a ‘collective’ of public interest activists and professionals, it says, “Chapter II Article 9 to read thus :The State and Government shall at all times foster and uphold Karuna, Meththa, Mudhitha, Upeksha and Ahimsa as the noble precepts of governance, equally across caste, class, religion, ethnicity and gender.” The proposal also introduces a new clause as ‘Article 09.1’ that says, “The fundamental duty of the State and its constitutionally established institutions shall be to provide equal opportunities to enable citizens to fully enjoy their civil, political, socio-economic, cultural, environmental and educational rights in order to establish and maintain a democratic society based on these five noble precepts.”  

As an initiator of this alternate proposal, I was asked by many, how this could be a replacement to the present Article 9 that ensures foremost place to Buddhism and the “duty of the State to protect and foster Buddha Sasana”. The answer is very simple. Article 9 as it is, guarantees everything to Buddhism as a “Religion” and more importantly to its “Clergy”. Yet Buddhism as a religion is not practised by Buddhists, as a “constitutional right”. They don’t go to temple because the Constitution says Buddhism has the foremost place in Sri Lanka. They don’t observe ‘Sil’ on Poya Day because the Constitution says it protects and fosters the Sangha. They practised Buddhism for centuries even before the 1972 Constitution gave it State patronage. They still practise Buddhism in the form they believe in as rituals and traditions. The Constitution has nothing to do with Buddhism that is carried from generation to generation by Buddhists as their “Religion”, as their “faith”.  

This replacement proposed, is not going to dilute, deny or rob the Buddhists of anything they enjoy at present in believing and practising Buddhism as their hereditary Religion. Instead what the proposal wants to ensure is a new society on “Universally accepted Precepts” that Lord Buddha preached as the basis of his “Philosophy”. It stresses on “five noble precepts” that neither Buddhists nor any other religious faith could afford to refuse to accept. And they are not “religious” and cannot be owned by a single religious faith. They are all about “human values” that different UN Charters enshrine as “Human, Labour, Women and Child” Rights. All values a society needs to cultivate and nurture the Buddhists can proudly take the lead in Sri Lanka. They are also “secular values” no ‘Atheist’ or ‘Agnostic’ like me could shun as “religious values”.

 They are all social values that can be taught, cultivated and nurtured through all Daham pasal, in Sunday Schools, in Madrasas and through Hindu classes and texts. They are human values that deny and refute all divisions and demarcations on ethnic, religious, caste, class and gender basis that can and should be introduced into school text books. They are values that can be taught in class rooms without separating children according to their Religion at Birth.  

This therefore is a discussion and a debate that has to be promoted instead of the present ‘for and against’ diatribes on the Constitution. To place the debate on constitution making on a more saner platform, the TNA leadership could leave Sumanthiran’s selfish deal aside for a new and a respected compromise, the Buddhists will have to accept and all other
faiths too.