Democracies are said to be thriving in the Asian region but most of them lack a strong secular foundation. This begs the question: Could they be identified as democracies in the truest sense?
Opinion makers in Sri Lanka have tended to ignore this issue or have glossed over it. This has been the case since 1948, the year of ‘independence’. The time is ripe to face this question squarely as Sri Lanka ‘celebrates’ another anniversary of ‘independence’.
This exercise is bound to trigger much contention and strife, since secularism is seen as a veritable ‘no go zone’ for tradition-bound and ‘religiously-oriented’ societies and many in Sri Lanka see their country as one of these. However, the truth is that secularism is a much misunderstood concept and is in no way antithetical to religion or spirituality. Secularism and religion could co-exist peacefully and many are the countries outside the global South, for instance, that could testify to this fact.
Simply expressed, secularism denotes a firm separation between religion and politics. In the most vibrant of liberal democracies, religion and politics are not made to mix. That is, religious issues do not usually figure in political debates and discussion. Religion is considered in these societies as a subject that must be strictly confined to a citizen’s private life. It is, by and large, a personal matter.
In addition, in genuine democracies, the clergy of any religion are not consulted by politicians, in keeping with this time-honoured tradition of keeping religion and politics in separate compartments. However, in Sri Lanka many politicians consider it a duty to consult the clergy and avail of their advice. This amounts to a severe dilution of the spirit of democracy.
To cap it all, the Sri Lankan Constitution has provisions that make it incumbent on governments to protect and foster a specific religion. These stipulations are not found in true democracies. In the latter, religious freedom is fully permitted but governments are not obliged to perpetuate this or that religion. Nor are they duty-bound to obtain the advice of the clergy in running their countries.
Accordingly, a huge question mark hovers over Sri Lanka’s true political identity. Is she a democracy or a theocracy? This is the Question.
Given this backdrop, an ‘independence’ anniversary message sent by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on behalf of the US government, to the Sri Lankan government ought to prove thought-provoking. Stating that the US hopes build on its ‘partnership’ with Sri Lanka, the message goes on to add that the US is committed to ‘advance shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region based on our common democratic values. Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions and constitutional processes have ensured your country’s continued advancement.’
Considering that Sri Lanka is neither fish, flesh nor fowl in terms Constitutional identity, the impartial observer is obliged to dismiss the US statement as a mere rhetorical endorsement of the US’ strategic closeness to Sri Lanka in South Asia.
Since the advent of the Trump administration in the US, the latter’s democratic credentials could be said to have weakened somewhat, but even if this were not the case, how could Sri Lanka be described as having substantial ‘democratic values’ and ‘institutions’ in view of the strong doubts that could be cast on the status of secularism in Sri Lanka? This is timely food for thought.
These are matters of the first importance for Sri Lanka and many other states of the global South in particular, which are claiming to have firm democratic credentials. The marked rise of religious intolerance and violence the world over imparts to discussions and debates on secularism an unprecedented importance that cannot be overlooked. Ideally, the enduring importance of secularism should be discussed internationally. Over to you, the UN.
Meanwhile, it is no secret that religious intolerance and violence and the persecution of religionists of various persuasions are widespread phenomena in the Asian region. Almost all the countries of South Asia are suffering from this blight, including India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. A few days back bombs were exploded at two churches in the Philippines, claiming the lives of a few persons, while wounding several.
In many of these instances of religious friction and violence state agencies are not usually directly involved but many of them could be accused of turning a blind eye on the distressing happenings, which is as bad as triggering them.
One cogent reason for the persistence of violence of this nature in the South in particular is the failure on the part of the states concerned to make secularism, or the firm separation between religion and politics, a cornerstone of their purported democracies. India has fared better than most Southern states in this respect because India is unambiguously committed to the principle of the state maintaining an equidistance between it and the country’s religions. However, even in the case of India, much remains to be achieved on this score.
The issue afflicting most Southern ‘democracies’ in this connection is their tendency to placate or curry favour with the authorities of this or that religion. As a result, the concept of secularism and its implications for nation-building hardly comes to be discussed in public to the desired degree.
But secularism, practised effectively, is one of the best guarantees of domestic peace because genuine secularism counters the tendency of chauvinistic and power-hungry politicians to mobilize social groups on the basis of their religious affiliations and identities. Such mobilization usually involves the pitting of one religious community against the other. Hence, the religious strife and bloodshed.
Secularism could no longer be considered a ‘hush-hush’ subject by Southern states. It should be discussed widely in Southern polities and measures taken by them to stamp out the scourge of religion-based violence. For example, political mobilization on the basis of religion ought to be banned along with the use of religion-based hate speech. Most importantly, partiality towards religions ought not to be manifested in Constitutions. Besides, states should make it clear that there is absolutely no need for polities to react with horror to the concept of secularism which is one of the mainstays of flourishing democracies.