Saturday, May 12, 2012

The State and Religion in South Asia

The author was the 5th President of Sri Lanka serving from November, 1994 to November, 2005. In light of the recent unrest in Dambulla, she sent this to Groundviews having first delivered it as a speech at the Master of Public Affairs Graduation Day at Sciences Po Paris, France.


The State and Religion in South Asia

29 Apr, 2012 Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga Colombo, Features, Politics and Governance, Religion and faith

Photo by Massimiliano Clausi, courtesy SAJA

Secularism implies the relationship between Religion and Politics, more specifically between Religion and the State.

The concept of secularism has drawn its sources from the philosophy that Humans can order their lives and their societies without recourse to transcendant or supra natural powers, and hence they could also organize and manage the State and its government , without direct connections with the religious establishment. Thus evolved the concept of Secularism and the separation of the Sate from Religion, taking root in Europe and spreading its message across the globe.

In South Asia, the concept was popularized in the 20th century, mainly during the anti-colonial struggles and the consequent formation of new, independent States in the 2nd half of the century.

Until this period, in South Asia, as in the West and other parts of Asia, the State and Religion were closely intertwined. Religion played an important role in legitimizing the State and rulers, the degree of its significance, varying in accordance with different historical contexts.

Institutions, practices, myths were created to effectively weave Religion with the persona of the monarch or ruler and the State.

The relationship between the State and Religion has been mutually supportive, even beneficial. The State employed Religion to legitimize itself and to entrench rulers and their dynasties in power. The Religious establishment in turn, secured for themselves many advantages, such as material endowments, patronage, increased authority over affairs of government and State, from this relationship.

The Western notion of Secularism deeply influenced political leaders from many parts of the world especially South Asian leaders educated in Europe.

I must emphasize at this point, that five out of eight South Asian States, and a substantial portion of the sixth were part of ancient India, then called Bharat ,comprising numerous states and principalities governed by kings, satraps and princes. Bharat was never unified under a single ruler until the British unified the disparate States of India. Only the two island nations – Sri Lanka and the Maldives were independent and separate nations.

In ancient India, the State and Religion were intrinsically allied. The Hindu Religion and briefly Buddhism, were patronized and appropriated by the States, to legitimize the existing order of things and underpin its hierarchical, stratified structure.

The leaders of India’s independence movement realized full well that it was essential to weld together the myriad groups of Indians divided by caste, ethnicity and religion, as well as allegiance to different rulers, into one Nation in which everyone enjoyed equal rights and privileges and the right to free expression of individual and collective identities of each community. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Jawaharlal Nehru were the principal advocates of the secular ideology.

Their task was not an easy one, as for several millennia, India was not governed under the authority of a centralized State. Northern India adopted the concept of a Federal State. The Motilal Nehru Committee Report – 1928 recommended this solution.

Gandhi and Nehru realized that religious, caste, ethnic communalism posed a grave threat to the creation of their vision of transforming the complex, division ridden ancient / colonial Bharat to a modern, dynamic State. “Religion is alright when applied to ethics and morals, but it is not good mixed up with politics”, Nehru once said. He therefore advocated “a national State which includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially secular as a State”. He objected to a society that has “religious sanction and authority”, favouring a State that “protects all religions, but does not favour one at the expense of others and does not adopt any religion as the State Religion”.

Gandhi felt that “a political association based exclusively on adherence to a particular religion was worse than undemocratic”. Thus, the vision of the two great leaders of independent India resulted in a Federal Secular Constitution and the creation of the Republic of India.

The Constitution guaranteed :

·        Freedom of Conscience,

·        Freedom to practice and promote any religion

·        That religious instruction shall not be provided in State educational institutions, but there is freedom to do so in private or semi private schools. Students are accorded the option of choosing to receive religious instruction, without being compelled to do so. In addition to guarantees given to all religions, the Indian Constitution guarantees equality to citizens of all other communities – ethnic and tribal, caste and so on.

Despite various political disturbances, the continuing political stability of modern India for over 60 years owes a great deal to the Federal and Secular nature of its State. She continues to function as a modern democracy, in the face of many challenges and no doubt shortcomings, due to the strength of its Unity in diversity obtained from the effective operation of federalism and its inclusivity flowing from Secularism as well as federalism.

However, during the past few decades, the Secular State has been assailed by the rise of the Hindutva ideology, whose core belief is that the Hindu religion represents the Indian national identity. This implies intrinsically that all “others” are inferior and should subjugate themselves to the authority of the superior majority.

The political party that has embraced this ideology – the BJP, has drawn considerable political benefits from their anti secular stance. As always, religion has been co-opted by politics, in order to provide an advantage to a political group, at the expense of the national interest. In India – this led to widespread communal violence. The destruction of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya and killings of Muslims in Bhagalpur in 1989 and Gujarat in 2002 mark the apogee of communal violence in recent times.

Although the Congress Party – the Party of Gandhi and Nehru, has been at the helm of government for many years now, decisive action has not yet been taken against the perpetrators of communal violence in the incidents I speak of, nor in so many others. Commissions were appointed, investigations done, reports obtained, but their recommendations have not implemented.

The sectarian, extremist ideology of Hindutva seems to have penetrated sufficiently deep into the social and emotive fabric of the Indian polity to deter the non-extremist majority and their governments from undertaking positive action and programmes to prevent extremist violence and to strengthen inclusivity and thereby the stability of the Nation.

This trend could prove dangerous, in every way, for the socio-political stability and continued economic growth of India.

I need hardly, emphasize, the crucial importance of unity between all the diverse communities living in this enormous country, covering the expanse of a sub-continent. Such unity, could only be achieved within a State that abides – by law and in practice, by the rules of a Secular State.

The Indian State that was erected by weaving together a large number of Nations of diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious communities, which comprised Ancient India, faces a grave threat to its survival, if the assault on the foundations of its integrity are not met effectively and with conviction.


In this context, a study of the present situation in Pakistan demonstrates that defining a State within the boundaries of a single ethnic, religious or ethno-religious entity can prove to be hugely limiting. The philosophy of excluding the “other”, even at times ,with the use of violence, has become the accepted norm. Governance has been rendered difficult and anarchy reigns.

The Constitution of Pakistan created a Religious State from its inception, except for a brief period, when General Ayub Khan’s government removed the word “Islamic” from the country’s title and sought to liberalize the politico-legal systems. Pakistan has established Islam as a State Religion.

The government of President Zia ul Haque brought amendments to the Constitution to entrench the concept of Islamization. The controversial Hudood Ordinance and Shariat Court legalized various types of discrimination of non-Muslim women and anyone holding views that appear or are interpreted as being contrary to Islam. Even the electoral system was given a bizarre twist – where non-Muslims did not have the right to vote for a Muslim and had to vote for a non-Muslim ! Some have called this “political apartheid”. Although these laws were partially abolished in 1999, the intention of excluding non-Muslims from the body politic has effectively taken root.

The Islamization process has transformed the education system to accord primacy to religious education. The Madraasa schools impart mainly Religious Knowledge and an absolute commitment to Islam . The degree of the loyalty demanded, depends on the personal ideology of the teacher – the Imam, who at times, demands the physical destruction of the other – the non – believer, or even oneself, justified in the name of Islam.

Is it then surprising that a large number of suicide killers have studied at these institutions ?

We now witness a flourishing of Madraasas in other South Asian countries – a potential problem not yet addressed by relevant governments.


Bangladesh gave itself a secular Constitution at its inception. But this was amended, transforming Bangladesh into a Religious State in the 1980’s, bringing Islamization of State and Society. One year ago, the Constitution reversed this situation, paving the way for a secular State. The government is due to take action to implement this.

The independence struggle for the creation of Bangladesh was based on language and to some extent ethnicity rather than Religion, as the conflict occurred between two Muslim groups – Bengali and Pakistan! This could explain the absence of strong religious rhetoric in the process of State formation in Bangladesh. It is of interest to note that Bangladesh has experienced little ethnic / religious conflict, of the sort pertaining in Pakistan , and has built a more stable political super structure.

Adoption of a secular State appears to have spared Bangladesh, the travails undergone by Pakistan.


Nepal too has charted a new course in its turbulent history, abolishing a 250 year old monarchy and declaring Nepal a “secular, federal, democratic Republic”, in May 2010.

It is hoped that power sharing arrangements within federal State, together with equal rights and freedoms for all communities, will lay the foundation for stability, peace and growth in this Nation wracked by conflict, violence, extreme poverty and continuing political instability and mal-governance.

Sri Lanka

From ancient times, for 25 Centuries and more, Lanka has traversed a fairly different path during its State formation. We witness the formal adoption of the Buddhist Religion by the State from around the 2nd Century B.C.

The ideology of the State was centred around a Sinhala – Buddhist identity, where being Buddhist was intrinsically linked with being Sinhala. Ethnicity and Religion formed an integral part of the National identity, with the monarch / ruler considered the protector of Buddhism. The Buddhist establishment reciprocated by creating institutions, practices, myths to weave in religion closely with the monarch and thereby the State. The State and its rulers were consistently legitimised by religion, while the formal adoption of religion and its institutions by the State encouraged the people to adopt and accept the discipline and edicts of the religion and as a consequence the ruler, sanctioned by the religious establishment.

The tendency towards entrenching a Religious State in Lanka was probably established and then enhanced due to the challenges posed by the constant and numerous invasions by South Indian Kingdoms – 52 in about 14 Centuries. (2nd Century B.C. to 14 Century A.D.)
Religion was employed to strengthen the ethnic national identity, as against the invader – the “enemy”, who happened to belong to “other” ethnic and Religious communities.

The Sinhala Buddhist State of Lanka continued until the advent of colonial rule in the 16th Century. Thereafter this identity disintegrated and lost its position of prestige and its dominance in the political and economic spheres,while the religion of the colonial rulers received pride of place from early 16th Century to mid 20th Century for 4½ centuries.

During the independence struggle and after independence, movements for the reassertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity were born.
These were all essentially exclusivist, marginalizing the groups that did not belong to the dominant, majority of Sinhala Buddhists.

Although the Constitution is Secular, giving guarantees to minorities and does not contain clauses discriminating against other ethnic or religious communities, the practice of most governments has been calculated to exclude and marginalize “the other” in various ways – mainly in the fields of education employment and by the use of the official language.
This has resulted in fomenting frustration and anger among minority groups, leading to violence and the use of terrorism.

Governments have employed extremist Sinhala Buddhist discourse, from time to time – in the 50’s to reestablish national identity after many centuries of colonial subjugation. It was thought that the assertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity would strengthen the new State, rather than building a Nation in which the unity of all communities was forged through power sharing, by means of giving equal rights to all in the political,social nd economic spheres and ensuring their effective implementation.

In the past few years,the end of the civil war and the victory of the State over the separatists has been immersed in Sinhala Buddhist discourse. Anti terrorist emotions have been successfully linked with anti-Tamil and now anti-foreigner and anti-everybody else concept, by means of a massive State-led publicity campaign. The Sinhala Buddhist identity is projected as supreme and the exclusively legitimate one comprising the right to dominance over the State and body politic of Lanka. The present leaders seem to dig deep into the Sinhala Buddhist psyche, searching out the fears and concerns of the populace of a small, weak country to turn them against various types of “enemies”.

At the moment of Independence, Sri Lanka experienced much less internecine conflicts than India, for instance. We were also economically stronger, experiencing much less poverty.

It is then pertinent to consider how India comprised of ethnic groups, speaking languages, practicing religions, with a population which is 60 times bigger than Lanka, has successfully erected a modern democratic State, that is progressing firmly towards economic prosperity and reducing its massive numbers of poor, without being devastated by serious conflicts. India, no doubt, has and still does experience numerous ethnic and religious conflicts. But they have all been managed temporarily or resolved, without seriously impairing the country’s political and economic stability.

Why has Sri Lanka, though much smaller and with less potential cause for conflict experienced 25 years of one of the most bloody and destructive conflicts the world has seen in the last century?

I daresay that the establishment of a secular and federal State may be the magic potion that has made the difference between the two countries.

Efforts by a few governments and leaders to build a united, federal and secular State has been thwarted, by opposition from extremist groups or the interplay of political strategies employed to gain narrow advantage for one political group over another.

At this point, I would like to describe my personal experience as Head of State. I was personally committed to the concept that Federalism and inclusivity were the solutions to Sri Lanka’s minorities’ question. I had also ascertained that the majority of adherents to the exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist concept of the State belong to a small minority of the elite ruling class- politicians and clergy closely linked to them, professionals and business men. The masses, in their vast majority were not committed to extremist political views of any type.

Hence we adopted a strategy of honest, public discourse to inform the people that the only viable solution was to choose the part of dialogue, negotiations and peace achieved by means of a federal constitution and by building a cohesive nation and an inclusivist State. We won 3 major elections within 18 months, with an increased majority vote at each one.

A Gallup poll we conducted at the time my government came to power in 1994 showed that only 23 per cent of the Sinhala people opted for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. We undertook programs to take the message of peace to the entire country. We held seminars, workshops, street theaters, and we used the media widely. At the end of 2 years another survey showed that the number of people opting not only for peace, but this time also for devolution of power had increased to 68 per cent.

The vision and actions of leaders of government have been instrumental in defining the choices made by the Sri Lankan people. The present government has determinedly followed a policy of Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism, making no difference between Tamil civilians and the terrorists LTTE. This particular vision of the ethnic conflict has given the government the space to justify the horrendous violations of HR during the conduct of the war and the subsequent refusal to offer an acceptable and durable solution to the Tamil question. The Sinhala Buddhist ideology is extensively employed today to justify and support the use of religion and the Buddhist clergy to continue the policy of exclusivism practiced by the Government.

The State that believes it could seek legitimacy by incorporating Religion into the State structures, does not realize that the very legitimacy it seeks may be destroyed by the frustrations and anger caused among those excluded from the privilege of belonging to the State religion. The authority of such a State is placed in jeopardy by the very existence of a religious State.

I would maintain that secularism, as well as pluralism are essential prerequisites for stability and peace in multi –ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and multi-cultural States. They form the cement that binds together peoples of diverse communities as equal citizens of one Nation, living in unity within diversity. The appreciation of the richness of diversity, rather than the refusal of difference in the “other”, is the foundation on which is constructed the federal state and a pluralist society.

The root causes of most conflicts in South Asia have proved to be poverty and exclusion. We do not know of solutions other than those we find in Federalism, Pluralism and Inclusive development to forge a socially cohesive, stable and prosperous State.


The author was the 5th President of Sri Lanka serving from November, 1994 to November, 2005. In light of the recent unrest in Dambulla, she sent this to Groundviews having first delivered it as a speech at the Master of Public Affairs Graduation Day at Sciences Po Paris, France.


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