Politicizing religion | Daily News

Politicizing religion

UNP MP Palitha Range Bandara has quite rightly condemned the practice of politicians visiting temples and other places of worship as a vote getting gimmick. Addressing an event in his native Anamaduwa, the other day, Range Bandara said that politicians should cease from exploiting religion for political advantage. The controversial MP, who became famous overnight for turning down a lucrative offer to crossover to the Rajapaksa camp during the post October 26 political crisis and produced an audio-tape containing details of the transaction, no doubt, is not going to be a favourite of many politicians and members of the clergy.

We say this because politicians do not merely patronize temples (for political reasons) but also shower largesse on these temples. The recent revelation of overseas funding for the Rajapaksa election campaign clearly bears this out. It was reported in a vernacular newspaper that a certain Buddhist monk, who liberally lends his temple premises for political events of the Rajapaksas, was a recipient of several million rupees out of such election booty, no doubt, to wield influence with his followers. Also in the immediate aftermath of LG elections then Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan claimed in Parliament that he had reliable information that the incumbents in most of the rural temples were paid to prevail on the worshipers coming to the temples to vote for the Pohottuwa.

Politicians, no doubt, are aware of the sway the religious dignitaries, particularly in the rural areas have over the denizens and craftily exploit this situation. Mahinda Rajapaksa, certainly, has turned this into a fine art with his regular temple rounds carrying the inevitable tray of flowers and producing the equally inevitable saccharine smile to the assemblage. What, though, is objectionable is turning these hallowed places of worship into a political market place to criticize and vilify opponents and destroy their sanctity.

Of course, religion became inextricably intertwined with politics with the 1956 revolution. One should not forget the formation of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya of which the Sangha formed the preeminent component. From that point onwards the members of the Sangha, or, the vast majority of them, continued to identify themselves with the SLFP. The SLFP also assumed the role of protector and custodian of Sinhala Buddhism and bulwark against Western influence. All SLFP leaders took advantage of this status quo to raise their political stock. The UNPs Western oriented, internationalist outlook and its free market policies were completely alien to this ethos. Hence, its struggle, to this day, to win over the rural voters. True, leader such as Ranasinghe Premadasa broke the mould, somewhat, but by and large the Sinhala Buddhist orientation of the SLFP is still the dominant factor in the SLFP's success with the rural voters.

Paradoxically, Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is a scholar of sorts in Buddhism as is often demonstrated in his quotes, even during his political speeches and is a lay custodian leading temples in the country. His family's connection with the Kelani Rajamaha Viharaya is also all too well known to need elaboration as with its benefactor role towards temples countrywide. It all boils down to the outward ‘show’ and external trappings in which Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ilk excel. Added to this, the ready allegiance of certain members of the Sangha (towards Rajapaksa) and what you have is a potent combination to harvest votes - at what loss to the country no one will know.

Sri Lanka is, perhaps, the only country, other than the theocracies in the Middle East where religion has become inseparable from politics- particularly the Rajapaksa brand. Even in India, known for its Hindu fanaticism, one does not hear of Hinduism being espoused (other than by the lunatic fringe) as a vote getting gimmick, by its politicians. On the contrary, here we have the likes of Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Mahinda Rajapaksa himself spreading fears about a real threat to Buddhism through the proposed new Constitution and also separatism - a thin line here between the advocacy of Sinhala Buddhism and communalism which, of course, go completely against the Doctrine of the Buddha who saw all beings as equal.

It is time that our politicians start playing clean in the game of politics. They should desist from appealing to the baser instincts of the people by rousing communal or religious passions. This country has bled enough due to politicians fanning the flames of communalism and exploiting religious sentiments of the various communities. There are enough issues to thrash out on the political stage without bringing these two incendiary forces to the fore. With major elections round the corner and as the political temperature hots up there, no doubt, will be passionate sentiments expressed by all sides. Hopefully these will not include expressions of supremacy based on religion, nationality or race. We have wasted a good 30 years on a communally inspired war and religion should not become the next point of conflict. The voting public should also see through attempts by certain politicians to use religion as a political tool and reject such elements.

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