Equality before the law, both monastics and lay people

The Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), Sept 8, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The long arm of the law stretching itself sternly to deal with wrongdoing irrespective of the positions of the persons involved has created a furore in Sri Lanka today.

First, Ven. Pannala Pagngnaloka Thera of the Welikadawatte temple in Rajagiriya who had failed to respond to the Supreme Court direction on noise pollution was arrested by the police and later remanded by court. In another incident a Magistrate’s Court remanded a Buddhist monk and two other suspects for allegedly causing damage to a Hindu Kovil at Grandpass.

These events were followed by an unprecedented event in the Supreme Court on Friday. The Buddhist monks who visited the court to witness the proceedings in the case against Pagngnaloka Thera failed to follow the traditional custom of rising from their seats in honour of the court when judges walked into the court. The request made by Chief Justice Sarath Silva to the monks through their lawyer to leave the court and come back later had also been rejected before the court rejected the application for bail submitted on behalf of the Ven. Thera.

These incidents bring to the fore the fundamental rights and freedoms mentioned in the country’s supreme law. Article 12 (1) of the Constitution provides, “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.” Only the executive president enjoys a certain degree of power that places him beyond the pale of the law. The importance of this provision is such that a large number of aggrieved persons sought and received relief and remedy under this Article for discriminatory treatment.

The religious fervour of our people is such that they treat leaders of all religions with utmost respect. Bhikkshus being the teachers of the religion professed by the vast majority in the country are held in special honour and they are also respected as guardians of the country’s culture, customs and traditions. And in pursuance of the constitutional provision that accords the foremost position to Buddhism, bhikkshus generally are given pride of place at all state functions. Yet, there are no provisions in the law to offer them a place above the law. Such provisions, if they are considered necessary, have to be framed in the future.

It is believed that the common law is largely based on the fundamental principles and precepts of all religions. Some religions hold that the ultimate aim of the law is to make it unnecessary, which means that when religious precepts are adhered to by people, the need for law disappears. It is, therefore, obvious that the aims of religion and the law are coterminous particularly as far as people’s life in society is concerned. The law encompasses maithriya, neighbourly love and brotherhood which are the concepts that run through all religions like a golden thread. As such respect for law is akin to respecting religion.

Mahanayake Theras of both Malwaththa and Asgiriya Chapters commenting on the Supreme Court incident have stressed the need for all citizens, irrespective of their positions, to respect the law and the courts which are generally considered the temples of justice. Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter Ven. Udagama Shri Buddharakkhitha Thera has said that Buddhist monks also are obliged to respect the judiciary as all other citizens are expected to do.

However, attempts are now being made by some political parties and other groups for deriving political mileage out of the present situation. In their eagerness they have found many targets for attack. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government are acused of discrediting the bhikkshus thus bringing unpardonable disgrace to Buddhism. They accuse the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) of sponsoring a law against noise pollution which, according to them, has obstructed the practice of Buddhist rituals and observances. The JHU which vowed to set up a Dhamma Rajya has thus gone back on their policies, they charge.

President Rajapaksa responding to the accusations has stated that it was as a consequence of judicial decisions that the monks had been remanded adding that his policy is to respect the judiciary without interfering in its decisions. His critics, however, pose the question why he fails to ensure the enforcement of the law on those who blatantly flout the law and indulge in political misconduct. It is also relevant to mention here the respect in which Chief Justice Sarath Silva who made the present decisions, holds Buddhism and the venerable monks. Moreover, his knowledge about Buddhism is widely acknowledged as profound.

The matter in dispute namely noise pollution has undoubtedly been a menace and most people welcome the relief that the old, the infirm and those who need a quiet atmosphere for work such as students and mental workers received as a result of the reduction in sound pollution that the Supreme Court action has brought about. Among those who oppose this effort are religious zealots who believe that sound evokes religious piety.