The acquittal of Dr Shafi Shihabdeen, the unquiet return of several Muslim Ministers to the Cabinet, and the leadership tussles in the UNP, SLFP, and SLPP have turned the tables on Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. This is inevitable in a country where the popular consciousness can turn yesterday’s hero into today’s zero. The gradual, yet in one sense rapid downturn of the Cardinal has, however, been missed by the news, since the media continues to project his heroism: if not subtly, then overtly (because after all he’s not just a figure, but in the absence of a veritable popular political hero, a figurehead for the masses). My belief is that the changing layers of popular opinion regarding him, and his public statements, at one level reveal the class divisions that seem to be missed by those who either inflate or downplay what he has done. His halo has begun to slip, but this does not, and should not, mean it was there in the first place to begin with.

Athuraliye Rathana Thera’s fast was the continuation of a long line of similar protests that subverted legal and parliamentary procedures in the hope of (for the lack of a better way of putting it) getting something done quickly. From the protests against adopting Tamil as an official language in 1958, to the opposition against the UNP’s pact with the Federal Party in 1965 (which led to the shooting of a protesting monk, something that would probably never happen today), to the demonstrations against the LTTE and the pro-LTTE lobby, the Buddhist clergy has since independence represented the interests of sections of the petty bourgeoisie. So when Cardinal Ranjith made his appearance at Rathana Thera’s fast, he was doing something unprecedented; he was, in effect, uniting the populist sections of his flock with those of the Thera’s.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Cardinal looks to, and channels the grievances of, a subsection of the Catholic community which happens to make up a very sizeable majority. This was the subsection that gave birth to popular figures like Father Marcelline Jayakody and Father Ernest Poruthota, as well as radicals like Father Tissa Balasuriya; what made the nationalisation of Catholic schools possible (in early 60s the LSSP and the Communist Party rallied support for nationalisation from the Catholic belt from Wattala to Puttalam); and what brought the Catholic and Buddhist clergy together on a common platform against separatism. For obvious reasons, the Westernised upper echelons of Catholic society differ sharply with these segments, because of their social conditioning.

The more affluent sections of the Catholic community, if I may put it as a part-Catholic myself, have become more Protestant than Catholic: they are hostile to leadership figures and they do not believe in the infallibility of clergymen. The poorer sections by contrast still hold on to the Cardinal; that is what led one child, interviewed on TV about the schools closure, to exclaim, “I do what the Cardinal tells me!”

Such gentleness and innocence is lost upon most upper class Catholics, for whom neither Cardinal Ranjith nor the radical segments of the Catholic and Buddhist clergy are befitting of respect, honour, or even the courtesy of an audience. This is the same class who would declare, forthrightly, that it was not the Cardinal but their sense of decency which restrained them from attacking other communities after the April 21 attacks, refusing to acknowledge the role played by a man who some argued was worthy even of a Nobel Prize. That they would rather listen to, and defend, ministers who lash out against Buddhists and even a man who did what he could to bring the country together tells us a lot about their preferences.

To be sure, Malcolm Ranjith has a past. H. L. D. Mahindapala may call him “the benign star of Sri Lanka” who deserves being defended against detractors like Shyamon Jayasinghe (who argues that the Cardinal has consistently breached protocol with statements issued after April 21), but defending him while ignoring that past is as fallacious as claiming that he’s using the Easter Sunday attacks to bolster his image. According to Wikileaks, to begin with, he was at the forefront of the campaign to lobby the US government to drop charges of war crimes and not press the accountability button; a few years later, there were allegations that he supported the Rajapaksas, especially when his niece was posted to Paris months before the Pope’s visit; most discernibly though, there was and is his stance on censorship, secularism, human rights, and the death penalty, which provoked a backlash from nearly everyone and anyone.

In all fairness, I should add that there is a lot I disagree with His Eminence. His stance on the death penalty, abortion, and drugs is by no stretch of the imagination in tune with what the secular world outside has embraced. But then historically, the church has never changed its position on such issues radically, even if a few prominent militants among the clergy have. In any case, I am not aware of nor am I rooted in Catholic theology to go through each and every opinion of his with a fine comb; I leave that to his detractors (who, incidentally, spoke not a word against Catholic priests openly espousing separatism in the war years).

But then none of this can deny the importance of a milieu which has lent him support. The Catholic lower middle class, consisting of lower level professionals, merchants, and artisans, are not unlike their Buddhist counterparts. Temperamentally, they are both conservative and militant; they continue to project an ethnic along with a religious identity, which is how they formed a part of the Sihala Urumaya after Father Oscar Abeyratne, who founded the Kithu Dana Pubuduwa, gave support to the party in the Catholic belt from Negombo to Puttalam; and they form the crest of the non-Buddhist milieu that affirms nationalism, though we may never know for sure (their political preferences are more ambivalent).

The same can be said of the Catholic peasantry in coastal areas beyond Moratuwa, whose exposure to Buddhism has led to a sort of syncretism between their tenets and those of a faith which, historically, has diverged from it on cultural and political grounds. Indeed, if one is to look for interethnic and interfaith dialogue, Negombo and Chilaw might be a good place to start — if it weren’t for the supposedly more liberal affluent wing of the community opposing the idea of such a syncretism on the grounds of, of all things, religious autonomy. (When a photo of Catholic students worshipping priests at a school ceremony went viral on social media, and found favour with those for greater cultural cooperation between the two communities, certain Catholics themselves publicly criticised it on Facebook, implying that it was an act of cultural compromise — when in reality it was one of cultural fusion.)

One does not have to be an anthropologist or a sociologist to dissect the similarities between the liberal and affluent sections of the Sinhala Catholic community and the liberal and affluent sections of the Sinhala Buddhist community. Those similarities bring them closer together just as they have served to distance them from, and bring about a unification (of sorts) between, the less privileged sections of their communities. The response of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, for instance, was in marked contrast to the reactions of more grassroots groups and militant monks who were quite vociferous in identifying the perpetrators.

The YMBA Board of Governors (made up, despite the “youth” tag, of middle aged or near retirement CEOs and mid level professionals, though this is not to deny the immensely valuable contribution it has made to the country) vented out their opposition to the very idea of politics in Sri Lanka by publicly condemning both government and opposition (the YMBA, an apolitical body historically composed of conservative middle class elites, does not usually take sides between the two parties) and advising young voters to elect those who look out for the aspirations of their community (a vaguely defined criterion that seems, at best, a tame call for all Buddhists to come together as one); one of their talking points was the setting up of a body of non political professionals tasked with reporting to the president and prime minister on the latest developments in national security — no different to what most professionals from other communities have been mooting in light of the failures of the defence establishment.

In both instances, what was envisaged and idealised was the transfer of power from the State to organisations which, ostensibly representative of all racial and religious groups, were in reality composed of those from a narrow economic and social milieu. It goes without saying that the aspirations of the lower middle class, along with those below them, from both communities are more different: if the sentiments of most of them, as displayed on the 7 o’clock news voice cuts and sound bites, are anything to go by, most of them don’t want any transfer of power from the State: instead they want a shift to a more powerful State, led by representatives who will look out for the same interests the YMBA and other similar associations claim very vaguely to be looking out for.

Not surprisingly, the apathy of the liberal and affluent wing of the Catholic community has, given these contradictions between what they claim and what they stand for, brought it into conflict with the Cardinal, even if after the attacks, the mirage of consensus within that community seemed to bring all Catholics together before him. This apathy has, more often than not, blinded the anti-clerical Catholics to the real implications of what he has done, what he has said, and what he has chosen not to do or say.

To give just one example, one of the more persistently made accusations against him is that he provoked if not stoked Islamophobia by demanding that Catholic schools be shut down for weeks. The delay in opening those schools may (not) have provoked such resentment — who can say for sure? — but surely, even if this were the case, how was it that these critics were unaware of the fact that his decision served, at one level, to benefit poorer students who tend to come to school by public transport and thereby open themselves to a bigger risk of a terrorist attack? Those who resort to private transport risk next to nothing in comparison; by making blunt assessments of the Cardinal’s supposed hysteria, they were only making their ignorance of the plight of their less privileged brethren starkly, nakedly evident.

Added to that, of course, is the allegation that in the aftermath of the April 21 attacks his appeals to the Christian community were limited to the Catholics (though he visited other churches). I’d go even further, though I see nothing wrong in what he is said to have done there: those appeals, lost on those for whom the clergy has become a diminishing influence, were for the most heard and listened to by those from the lower classes.

A careful perusal of the victims and their backgrounds will serve to enlighten everyone as to who, in class terms, suffered the most from the attacks. The horror stories are still coming in: the deaths of children, siblings, spouses, parents, and, more tragically than that perhaps, the sole breadwinners of the family. When relatives of the deceased lambast Catholic parliamentarians, many of them are actually venting out the frustrations of their (under)class at the government and opposition. This does not mean they mean they want to dismantle the State apparatus as the middle classes do; they merely want a stronger figurehead, from either party. (As things stand, this means Sajith Premadasa from the UNP and Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the SLFP/SLPP.)

To ascribe to them feelings of insecurity and, with it, racialism is hence insensitive; to argue that there were no grounds for them to be attacked by another ethnic minority when their traditional enemy were Sinhala Buddhists, to imply that Buddhists shouldn’t get together with them, is to ignore what is otherwise a complex array of interrelationships between communities bonded together on the basis of class and race, and separated only on the basis of religion. Both sides of the debate, but especially the critics of the Cardinal, are missing out on the class factor, since the evidence suggests that the reactions to Muslims, far from excusable, were grounded in class terms as much as they were in racial and religious terms.

There’s more I can write, but unfortunately, spatial constraints restrain me.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, in the final assessment, stands out neither as a hero nor as a villain. As Nietzsche would have said, he is human, all too human. Nietzsche also said that there was only one Christian, and he died on the Cross; without extrapolating this to present circumstances, let us concede that there’s no one, clergyman or layman, Buddhist or Catholic, who can claim a moral upper hand here, now. Those who provoke Islamophobia are hence as much to blame as those who provoke resentment among racists; the so-called lower orders are hence as much to blame as the supposedly more refined upper classes; the stokers of hatred towards the majority are hence as much to blame as the stokers of hatred towards the minorities. Those who try to differentiate between the two are engaging in an exercise in futility. Reality, they should realise, is not so stark.

Once we account for the fact that no one is perfect, that we are as Christian or Buddhist as the man, woman, and child next to us, perhaps we will be able to appreciate what the Cardinal has managed to, inadvertently, bring about: a rallying of popular forces from his community along with those from a community which has historically found more reason to diverge from, than converge with, those he represents. In this, he is a radical, despite the many anti-radical positions he has taken, is taking, and probably will continue to take.

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.