SRI LANKA: Part three of the Interim Report of the Parliamentary Committee on NGOs is flawed from the point of view of policy, science and law

Basil Fernando 

(This is the third part of an article which is a comment on the Interim Report of the Select Committee of Parliament for investigation of the Operations of ‘non-governmental’ Organizations and their Impact, which was presented to parliament on December 8, 2008) 

Early Buddhist and Jainist movements as belonging to “non-governmental”

In this part of this article we will discuss origins of ‘the ‘non-governmental’’ organisations in the history of India, particularly in terms of the Buddhist and Jainist movements and in Sri Lanka, particularly in terms of the Anuradhapura period. The beginning of the totalitarian project started in early history when the caste system was entrenched in India. Buddhism and Jainism arose out of the spontaneous movements of protest of the time. In Sri Lanka this Indian development made its influence felt in the early Anuradhapura period but later with the influence of Indian invasions and Brahminical influences two institutions grew up to stifle the natural development of civil society and these two institutions were the assimilation of the caste system and the development of absolute monarchies. 

The Interim Report of the Select Committee treats ‘non-governmental’ organisations as having descended from the charitable and humanitarian work of industrial countries. However, any research into any of the civilisations from the earliest of times would demonstrate the existence of what is now called the presence of the ‘non-governmental’ sector. In fact, more dynamic periods of these civilisations is when the ‘non-governmental’ sector played a significant role through various societal movements. We will take one example from neighbouring India to illustrate this. 

Many thousands of years ago people came from all over the world and settled down in various parts of India. From these many migrations arose various kinds of communities which over a long period of time grew into a homogenous culture. The state has not yet come into being but out of the people’s cooperation grew various forms of economic activities, languages, dances and music and other forms of culture. These manifold activities in today’s language would fall within the ‘non-governmental’. Thus, the very foundation of Indian civilisation happened within the framework of the ‘non-governmental’. 

One strange development was that there also grew from within this setup itself, the type of social control and repression which has the same features as the totalitarianism that is described in George Orwell’s 1984. What Orwell saw would happen in the 20th century happened in India more than 3,000 years ago. This was the growth of the Indian caste system. The Indian caste system is not a mode of social control by the state. It is a mode of social control through social stratification. However, all the features of the worst forms of totalitarianism were manifest within this system. Caste has a tremendous ideological base which was expressed through various notions which were given a religious twist. The Vedas provided justification for the system which segregated a small group of privileged persons from the rest of society who were to do all forms of physical labour. At the top were the Brahmins, the priests, who claimed to have been born from the mouth of God. They were the interpreters of the rules governing society. These rules were enforced through rituals. Brahmins who claimed a monopoly on knowledge also claimed all the privileges. At the bottom was the ‘low caste’ that were without rights and also without humanity. 

In this system also, like in Orwell’s totalitarian universe, nothing mattered except the system. To create that belief it was necessary to deny the existence of the external world. Everything existed only in the mind in the same way as O’Brien, the interpreter of the system in the novel 1984, explained to Winston. The Brahmins explained everything existing in the mind and called all things as illusions. 

The emergence of movements of protest and reforms against caste; Buddhism and Jainism 

It was against this absolutely controlled society that the movements of Buddhism and Jainism arose. The founders of these movements attacked the very foundations of this social control which were the twisted religious notions. They challenged every aspect of Brahminism including the divine origin of caste. Their protest found support from the millions of wretched people in their society. For the time the whole system broke down and for a few centuries Buddhism and Jainism spread throughout India. 

In the early Buddhism we find the growth of movements to educate those who are called low caste, the creation of hospitals for the sick and educational institutions. Art, culture and science flourished during this period and became so powerful that even a powerful emperor such as Ashoka could not ignore the influence of this spontaneous movement of the people. Thus what may today be called ‘non-governmental’ so deeply influenced the state in order to change a brutally war-mongering emperor into one of the greatest examples of a ruler who concerned himself with the welfare of the people. Regarding this, Romila Thapar, wrote: 
Ashokan pillar 

Buddhism of (Emperor Asholka’s ) age was not merely a religion belief; it was in addition a social and intellectual movement at many levels, influencing many aspects of society. Obviously, any statesman worth the name would have to come to terms with it.

(A History of India – Thapar 1990: 85)

The Anuradhapura period 

It was the rebellion that rose against and destroyed, at least for some time, the caste system of India that influenced Sri Lanka in the period which is generally known as the Anuradhapura period. This period also laid the foundation for Sri Lanka, which despite of strong influences against it later, by the introduction of the caste system and the development of absolute monarchy with Brahmins as the political architects, remains some of the most positive aspects of the Sri Lankan society and culture. In this period it was the spontaneous movements of the people cooperating to build their irrigation systems that created some of the engineering feats that even today baffle the observer. Again in this society it was not the state control that drove the people. The people’s spontaneous initiatives and capacity for cooperation laid the foundation, not only for the economy but also for art and culture. 

The above is meant to be brief comments merely to illustrate that the claim that ‘non-governmental’ organisations arose out of industrial countries, as claimed by the interim report does not make any sense. 

Furthermore, understanding of ‘non-governmental’ in the comprehensive sense is necessary in order to grasp the attempt by the promoters of totalitarianism to have absolute social control over everything, over all initiatives by the people. 

In the next part of this article we will discuss the manipulation of language in the Interim Report by such use of words as interference, sensitive matters and sovereignty in order to create confusion and to generate impressions in support of totalitarian social control. 

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-046-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,