Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera’s private bill in the parliament to remove altogether the MMDA, apparently to save under-aged Muslim girls from being married forcibly, and to modernise Muslim marriage and divorce, though looks progressive to the uninitiated, yet, should be viewed in the wider context of a sinister agenda by Buddhist supremacists to homogenise Sri Lanka’s rich cultural and religious heterogeneity.
There is no argument against reforming and modernising the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), which has colonial footprints. Justice Saleem Marsoof’s Committee, after ten long years of painstaking investigation, produced a report with some progressive recommendations, (thanks to the role played by Muslim women in his committee) which should have been welcomed and adopted without prevarication and procrastination. Had Muslim leaders in the yahapalana regime read correctly the direction in which the political wind was blowing at that time, realised the need to redress the grievances of Muslim women, and understood the dangers of a gathering supremacist storm to hit Muslims, they would have supported JMS report, got it implemented with little changes, and postponed further improvements or amendments, if desirable, to a later date. As the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. However, it was not to be. These leaders neither had the will nor intention to modernise MMDA. Instead, they politicised JMS report and played into the hands of the indomitable ultraconservative ACJU. Today, the ground situation in Sri Lanka’s politics has changed so dramatically, and militant monks like Rathana Thera are so determined to “mould” the Muslims, as his obstreperous cleric colleague Gnanasara wished to do after his public rally in Kandy on 7 June 2019, that JSM report is destined to dust in the national archive for ever. In the meantime, the JHU representative and Buddhist supremacist Rathana Thera, has taken the legislative cudgel to hit Muslims harder for their own incompetence and nonchalance. How can the Thera be blamed for using an opportunity provided by Muslim leaders themselves? He now wants to get rid of MMDA altogether and ostensibly, to save Muslim women.
The Thera’s proposal should be seen as part of a sinister agenda by him and his radical cohorts to homogenise the country’s historic heritage of a cultural kitcheree. In the name of checking the spread of Islamic fundamentalism measures are being taken to homogenise the diverse cultural traditions of a plural society. Reform does not mean total destruction of the entity to be modernised and improved. What the JSM report aimed was to clean MMDA of its outdated philosophy and is domineering male bias, and accommodate measures to reflect the advances achieved by Muslim women. As expected, ACJU could not digest this approach and reality, and preferred to continue with the status quo. In the meantime, the militant Thera has gone to the other extreme and wants to abolish the Act completely.
Rathana Thera’s slogan, “one country, one law”, in course of time, may include even one race, one religion and one language. Isn’t the latest hoo-ha about singing the national anthem only in Sinhala a manifestation of this wicked thought? One could only hope that scholar monks within the Sangha, who have been obviously silenced by rabble rousing monks, would speak out in the open, halt this destructive path, and save the historic reputation of this country as one of limitless compassion and tolerance of diversity, born of true Buddhism. In this context, one should take note of another worrying development that is irking the Muslims community. It refers to the incident at Nelundeniya in Kegalle District, where a Buddha statue suddenly appeared in the dead of night in front of a 125 years old mosque. When Muslims of that area complained to a viharadhipathy, that Thera apparently had told them, ‘let the statue be there, you do your prayers, and if you agitate more for its removal you will have to bear the consequences’. It may be that this priest wants Muslims to pay respect to the Buddha first before entering their mosque to pray. This is supremacy in its militant outfit and part of the homogenising project.
At last, it seems that the country has a president whose thoughts for developing this nation are set in the right direction. He started his presidential rule on a high moral ground rooted in Buddhism. One should wish him well. However, for his grand vision to realise fruition peace and tranquillity at the domestic front is absolutely necessary. His plan for a polity and economy to achieve order and opulence has to be constructed on the edifice of national unity, territorial integrity and above all, social tranquillity. The president should not depend entirely on security forces to achieve those goals. Sri Lanka is blessed and not cursed with a plural society and that pluralism is its strength and not weakness. Even without the arsenal of modern weapons and security apparatus, how magnificently and magnanimously our ancient monarchs managed this pluralism is a lesson that every student should be taught in schools. Buddhism, diversity, compassion and tolerance, all go together and inseparable.
In his reply to the President’s address to parliament, Mr. Sambanthan concluded his speech with the following words, which I am quoting from the transcript published in Colombo Telegraph on 10 January 2019, but with my insertions bracketed to include Muslims. Why Mr. Sambanathan continues to exclude the Muslim minority is puzzling, to say the least. “Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled seven million votes of the country. Eighty five per cent of the Tamil people, on our call, (slightly less for Muslims) voted against him. He could not capture their vote. You cannot capture their vote with henchmen; you cannot capture their vote with stooges. You will only capture their vote with the support of people who understand the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil (and Muslim) people, their civilization, their traditions, their language, their culture, their dignity and their self-respect. Those are fundamentals.” The supremacist agenda undermines these aspirations and the President must take note of the danger it presents to jeopardise his vision for a prosperous and peaceful Sri Lanka.
It is in this wider context that one should study the real motive behind Rev. Rathana Thera’s private bill to abolish MMDA. Any progressive measure benefiting Muslim women, whether it comes from a Buddhist Thera or Christian Padre or Hindu Swamy must be welcomed, provided it is sincere in intention. Unfortunately, Rathana Thera and his JHU, and Ven. Gnanasara’s BBS, had been in the forefront of a vicious anti-Muslim campaign before the Presidential Election, and they have not ceased that mission even after winning that election for their candidate. Rathana Thera’s relentless anti-Muslim propaganda, and his fast-unto-death drama to pressure the government to remove and punish Muslim ministers, Muslim Governors and a Muslim gynaecologist, on allegations of corruption, misuse of power and public trust, which are yet to be proved in a court of law, has tarnished his standing as a true disciple of the compassionate Buddha. (This is not to exonerate any of those men from those allegations, but to point out how those allegations were manipulated by the Thera to fuel anti-Muslim flame, which was rekindled by BBS secretary Gnanasara in 2014 at Alutgama). This is why there is some legitimacy in questioning the intention behind Rathana Thera’s move to abolish MMDA. Is the devil reading the scripture?