The initial shock at the response of a high ranking minister to comments made by a citizen on a recent talk show, soon shifted to the realisation of its seriousness.
During the show Lakshan Dias, an attorney at law, presented some data on violence against some Christians and their places of worship. He named the source that had documented these incidents; many of which were on record at police stations where complaints had been made.
Sensible governance-expected and prevented
One would have expected persons in authority, on hearing these remarks, to have demonstrated indignation and contrition that these incidents had taken place under their watch. Further information should have been sought from the IGP, and if found to be substantial, duly investigated with appropriate action taken, to protect those harassed and deal with the perpetrators. This is what good and sensible governance is all about; doing the right thing now, before too many wrong things pile up tomorrow.
If, on the other hand, the remarks were proven to be unfounded, Mr Dias should have been responded to in accordance with the law.
Sadly none of this happened. To the contrary Mr Dias was subject to a public and arbitrary threat without an opportunity to explain or defend himself and is said to have fled the country out of fear. All this from one who heads a ministry, responsible for upholding the rule of law. Even a child senses, that intimidation is unacceptable, and that we are innocent till proved guilty. In a moment the message was clear; Mr Dias had no business to talk about violence against a minority religion. The question is why?
It is impossible to believe that the information on religious violence was news to those in authority. Representative governance, media briefings, advisors, cabinet meetings and Parliamentary debates are all about having an ear to the ground; an absolute requirement of those holding public office. The number of incidents quoted though high, is not the main issue. In matters of religious intolerance and harassment ten are as bad as a hundred and one as bad as ten. If ten or one are heard this should be enough to raise a legislators’ eye brow and stir conscientious governance.
Bias and denial-failed governance
The bias in the Dias affair is therefore not ignorance, but denial. Religious extremism in today’s world of freedom and rights is a political embarrassment. If it cannot be contained it has to be denied. If there is no official recognition that minority religions are being harassed, then they are not being harassed. When now-and –again the system is activated, it moves and does not. When now-and-again officials act, they do and do not. When now-and –again the law is implemented victims are protected and they are not; perpetrators restrained and they are not.
This explains the reaction to the talk show remarks. The words of one at a given time convey the attitude of the many all the time. And this is why there will be no peer group reprimand, no explanations or resignations, no questions by those in the Opposition. None will consider it their responsibility to put things right; to ensure Mr Dias of his safety on returning home and restore the confidence of the people in responsible, representative governance. This includes those who whisper that they stay on to influence change. Their hands are also stained for waiting, waiting and waiting.
The irony of this episode is that those endowed with authority by the people to care for the people, have chosen to look away from those very people who need their understanding and protection the most. Those harassed are not far away fictitious fantasies. These are real living citizens of this country, children, women, and men, with the right to organise themselves for religious purposes. Most belong to scattered and vulnerable Christian groups, and many meet in houses or make shift halls. With little socio-political influence, they fear going public on their plight, and depend on others to voice their grievances. These are the ones subject to bias and denied the governance of compassion, without which there can be no good governance in countries like ours steeped in cultures of caring hospitality.
Denial prevails because our governments either fear extremists and the layers of dormant sentiments that they arouse, or count among their own ranks those who surreptitiously champion the cause of extremists. This explains the collective bias shaped by a shared fear and prejudice that lies behind the lines that divide our political parties. Indeed the worrying signs of impunity and complicity of the past regime have not been buried. They remain the unfailing baton change that regime change never changes.
Inter-religious reconciliation-the work of the people
The picture is consequently becoming clearer that reconciliation and healthy co-existence among the religions cannot be left primarily to our governments. It is increasingly a task for sensitive and sensible people of all religions, open to introspection and mutual learning and growth alike.
When people like this come together to talk with each other they inevitably discern that life together in plural religious societies, calls for an abundance of generosity. Generosity of space; for the religious other to live by her convictions, and generosity in judgement, that respects the choices for life made by the religious other. From here self-realisation follows in three phases as so many in this country have experienced;
- that it is both possible and necessary to cultivate life-giving friendships with the religious other, and be faithful to our own tradition at the same time,
- that we all have an understanding of truth and that the highest quality of life in inter-religious societies is in absorbing aspects of each-others understanding of truth, so that we can all grow in our respective traditions,
- and that when the first two phases fall into place the other can never be suppressed or eliminated since, “I become because the other is”.
Of course there will still be tensions in our communities from time to time. But when this happens our response will be different; we will spontaneously seek reconciliation. Wise friends representing the different religions from within the community will step in to listen, clarify the different positions, restore trust and make life together possible again. Here too the numerous examples of such reconciliatory interventions are both an encouragement and challenge to us all.
When these methods fail on the other hand, and some will, the last resort is to seek a legal remedy. But a closely knit society of religions will ensure that under no circumstances will this process accommodate, tolerate or condone with bias, threat or violence.
Where these trends in reconciliation become part of our life together our society will be better placed to stand together to demand our common rights and freedom, and defend each other when these fundamental provisions are threatened by incompetent or inactive governments. In this dual dynamic of advocacy and resistance there will then be no place for the weapons of hatred, hostility and self-pity, specially when provoked or under pressure, as a friend will always be around to caution and restrain us from these life-denying reactions.
With Peace and Blessings to all
Bishop Duleep de Chickera