Mettananda - fighter for Buddhist rights

By Janaka Perera, Asian Tribune, March 19, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- March 19 marks the 114th birth anniversary of Lokusathu Hewa Mettananda – better known as L.H. Mettananda – the indefatigable fighter for Sinhala Buddhist Rights that were suppressed for over 400 years by alien rulers.

Born at Kalawadumulla, Ambalangoda he was the brains behind the Buddhist Commission Report, that accelerated the United National Party's ignominious defeat in the 1956 Parliamentary Elections, reducing the number of party's seats to eight.

The call to appoint such a commission was a reaction to the continuation in the post-independence era of injustices done to Buddhists under three colonial regimes. The undertaking the British gave to maintain the Buddhist religion had been grossly betrayed before the ink was dry in the Kandyan Convention of 1815 signed 193 years ago this month. Buddhism in consequence of the terms of the convention enjoyed the same position as the Anglican Church in England. But even after 1948 not only was this fact ignored but attempts to marginalize Buddhists in the State sector, in the armed forces and elsewhere continued as before.

Mettananda noticed that the Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake's Government was neither prepared to give Government patronage to Buddhism as in the pre-colonial days nor was it keen to give to the Buddhists the same rights the Christians enjoyed in all spheres of society. Had the UNP rulers been far-sighted enough to enforce at least the latter policy this country would have been spared of the many upheavals that followed. UNP election manifestos have focused on neither of these but only on minority rights.

In contrast the India's secular regime, soon after independence, passed special laws to change all discriminatory policies that the British colonialists had implemented.

When a team led by Professor Gunapala Malalasekera proposed to D.S. Senanayake the appointment of a Buddhist Commission the Prime Minister at first agreed to accede to the request but subsequently backed out, saying that it was a violation of the Soulbury Constitution. But it was really the pressure from the Catholic Church – a strong supporter of the then government - that made Senanayake change his mind.

Consequently the Buddhist leadership had no alternative but to appoint a Commission by themselves to probe the prevailing situation. Unlike today, Sri Lanka in the 1950s had a strong lay Buddhist leadership that campaigned relentlessly against the powerful anti-national elements that relegated the island's traditional religious values and Sinhala language virtually to the dustbin.

A Buddhist Committee of Inquiry was set up on April 2, 1954 in accordance with the resolution adopted at the 33rd annual conference of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress held at Kegalle on December 27, 1953.

The `Buddhist Commission' as it came to be popularly known, held its sittings throughout the length and breadth of the country beginning at Ratnapura on June 26, 1954 and concluding at Anuradhapura on May 22, 1955. It heard evidence from organizations and individuals representing all sections of Buddhist society.

In addition to Prof. Malalasekera and L.H. Mettananda, the Committee comprised the Venerable Abanwelle Siddhartha, Ven. Haliyale Sumanatissa, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, Ven. Palonnaruwe Vimaladhamma, Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha, Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha, Prof. G.P. Malalasekera, S. Kularatne, Dr.Tennekoon Wimalananda and D.C. Wijayawardena.

But the chief responsibility of preparing the report lay with Mettananda. It was presented to the Maha Sangha at Ananda College, Colombo on February 4, 1956. That year while Sir John Kotalawala's UNP government was dawdling over the Committee's proposals, the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) comprising the SLFP and several other Opposition parties endorsed the recommendations, thus paving the way for S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's electoral victory that became a watershed in the country's history,

An abridged English version of the report was published under the title, The Betrayal of Buddhism. After recording in detail the injustices done to Buddhists laity and clergy since the Western colonial occupation right through the immediate post independence years, the report noted in its concluding chapter titled `Tolerance' :

``Almost every page of this report bears witness to the extent and duration of Buddhist tolerance (in the colonial era). And yet fully eight years after this country is alleged to have gained independence, when Buddhists ask for some of that justice which has been denied to them for centuries, they are characterized as a truculent majority and asked to show tolerance. By a flagrant disregard of historical fact and contemporary reality, the Buddhists are made to appear in the light of domineering tyrants…''

Amazingly this allegation is repeated even today – over five decades after the report was first published – by those who want to conceal some of the root causes of the crisis facing Sri Lanka.

Giving evidence before the Press Commission appointed by the Sirima Bandaranaike Government, Mettananda vehemently condemned the anti-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist stance of so-called national newspapers. At the same time he expressed his strong opposition to the government takeover of any newspaper company.

Mettananda was the first educationist who proposed to the Official Languages Commission that every Sri Lankan child should be given the opportunity of becoming proficient in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English. His desire was to see that we become a 100 percent English speaking population – in addition to proficiency in our native tongue.

He was also the founder-leader of the Bauddha Jaathika Balawegaya (Buddhist National Force) and the Dharma Samaja Party. However, the failure to build up this party as a national political movement created a vacuum that unfortunately paved the way for the rise of JVP militancy.

L.H. Mettananda passed away in Colombo at the age of 73, on November 1, 1967.

Addressing a ceremony held at Ananda College, in October 2006 to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Buddhist Commission Report Speaker of the House W.J.M. Lokubandara called upon the UNP to have a fresh look at the 50-year-old Buddhist Committee report. There are lessons to be learnt from it - he said - since of the points raised in the report are valid now as then.

But the UNP does not seem to have learnt the lessons yet.