Enter the Religious Police: Mutaween Style

Not for the first time the Police Department has taken upon itself the mantle of protecting Buddhism and detained an Indian girl touring Sri Lanka allegedly for wearing a t- shirt with a supposed image of Lord Buddha. Don’t brand me as being cynical, but isn’t this the very Department that has won the dubious title of being the most corrupt of all state institutions? Yet, I presume, a bad reputation doesn’t prevent one from doing the occasional pious deed, eh?

Cynicism aside, were the cops who insisted that the girl be detained, statement recorded and apology obtained, aware of what law the girl was supposed to have broken?

Krishantha Weliamuna, the renowned legal practitioner and civil rights activist, affirmed on media that there was no provision in criminal law banning blasphemy. I also had a cursory glance, at the Penal Code to double check ,but nothing of the sort!(Not that even if there was, merely having an image of a person who resembles a sixth century BC sage, on your t-shirt would constitute the penal element associated with the offence)

The priority afforded to Buddhism by the Constitution seems to be a right that is always claimed as an adverse right viz. a viz. other minority religions, but hardly followed in the abstract.
We do have provisions in the Penal Code criminalizing Offences relating to Religion in Chapter XV enumerated in Articles 290 to 292 such as insulting a religion, wounding religious feelings of any class, outraging religious feelings of others etc. But blasphemy Saudi Arabian style is a definite no-no vide criminal law of Sri Lanka. A tweeter on social media, apparently unaware of the absence of any legal provision, quizzed as to how the police were going to prove that it was Lord Buddha himself and nobody else, as no living person has seen him and no photographs taken. The same applies to Jesus Christ, Nabi Mohamed, Mahaveer, Confucius and all other religious leaders.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilake is spot on that we are neither a theocracy nor a secular state. May I venture that we don’t have the salutary ingredients of either in our mode of governance and life in general? The priority afforded to Buddhism by the Constitution seems to be a right that is always claimed as an adverse right viz. a viz. other minority religions, but hardly followed in the abstract. Anybody hardly seems to be a beneficiary of the sublime and exalted teachings of the Buddha. Yet this lukewarmth to Buddhist principles undergoes an instant and dramatic transfiguration the moment another and in their mind, competing religion appears on the scene. A defensive mechanism is triggered and thus the umpteen number of protectors of Buddhism on the loose.

Religion turns rogue, the moment it’s stringed with state or political power; be it the medieval Catholic church, the modern day Islamic Caliphate or Buddhist nationalism vying for supremacy in Sri Lanka. The religious hierarchy becomes an alternative yet surefire means of wielding political power and controlling wealth. Is it surprising that wherever institutionalized religions contending for supremacy, it is always stringed with competition for resources for education, employment, land, property etc. ? In countries with no or less fierce competition for resources, religion hardly seem to be contentious. People seem to be more interested in the esoteric as opposed to the exoteric aspect of religion. Belonging to one or the other religion doen’t determine your share of national resources. But here, it surely does and those who have privileges, at least nominally, hold on to what it ensues for dear life.

Returning to the present topic, the tweeter is dead right! A person who wears a t-shirt with the figure of a bearded man in robes with his arms outstretched or on a cross could hardly be accused let alone convicted of blasphemy against Jesus Christ. Mind you, is it not almost obvious that all male Jews of Jesus’s time would have looked like that? So with the Buddha. The sages or the sanyasis in his era in Bharatha wouldn’t have looked any different from the popularly acknowledged image of Buddha. As superficial and highly rhetoric as it may sound, has any one seen Buddha or Jesus, for that matter? Even if the law existed how does one prove the image belongs to Buddha or Jesus.?

A tweeter on social media, apparently unaware of the absence of any legal provision, quizzed as to how the police were going to prove that it was Lord Buddha himself and nobody else, as no living person has seen him and no photographs taken. 
At a time of intense debate as to whether the proposed new constitution should promote secularism or retain the privileges given to the religion of the majority, incidents of this nature are stark reminders of the retrogressive impact preferential treatment to one religion, ideology, or belief could spawn. Does the most sublime and tolerant teachings of the Buddha, need the crutches of constitutional provisions for its protection? Is that not an insult that it needs protection from the law book for its eternal and exalted teaching on impermanence to survive. Oh my bad! Nothing is permanent and survives forever, according to the very Buddhism some are trying to protect, isn’t it? How ironic that the gist of Buddhism says that nothing is permanent and all things are transient. Political ideologies, power structures, religious thought as well as their impact on governance too are transient and impermanent. 
To insist that Buddhism be placed above other religions and special privileges be ensured by virtue of the fact that it is the majority religion reflects a thought process retrogressive in nature and a clear insult to the liberating, unrestrictive and tolerant teachings of Lord Buddha. It also is a dead giveaway of the superficial manner in which most have grasped the deep and profound teachings of Buddhism. 
Luckily the girl or her folks didn’t create a furore over the incident sparing us a diplomatic embarrassment. Yet the conduct of the Police bereft of any valid criminal provisions smack more of a Mutaween style religious police rather than a secular law enforcement agency.

This incident is reminiscent of the case of a British female tourist who was rounded up at the Air Port by police on the tip off of a trishaw driver, another breed that of recent has taken the mantle of Protector of Buddhism. What these vigilantes are oblivious of is that our constitution safeguards freedom of expression as well as of conscience. Having a religious thought of ones liking as well as expressing oneself through words, rituals, arts, signs etc. is constitutional. When a Michael Jackson fan wears a t- shirt featuring the mega star, we know that is in adoration of the figure and not to defame him. It is incomprehensible how a person who denounces Lord Buddha would give publicity to the Great sage by wearing his image , if one come to the final conclusion that the image is of Siddhartha Gauthama himself and no body else, on their person.

When a Michael Jackson fan wears a t- shirt featuring the mega star, we know that is in adoration of the figure and not to defame him.
Although we have criminal provisions for defaming or insulting a religion as well as acting in a manner that provokes others on such lines, we do have the good fortune of having no blasphemy laws criminalizing anything to do with religious symbols. It is without knowing the liberal nature of our statutory criminal provisions that the police undertake these crusades Mutaween style!

On second thoughts , since the new IGP has introduced meditation to Police Officers , who knows ,if they have not attained new faculties , that enable them to see beyond all others including penal provisions which are invisible to us lesser mortals?

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