Wimal Weerawansa is a destructive politician. After Anagarika Dharmapala, he is probably the most effective rabble rouser who could manage to send a sizeable portion of the population to an ethnic frenzy through his gifted oratory. His leader for a short while, Rohana Wijeweera was also a provocative orator, however, though he was a closeted bigot, Wijeweera spent most of his speaking prowess to promote a class struggle.
The most eventful individual on the other end of the ethnic divide, Velupillai Prabakaran was a coy trigger-happy mass murderer. He mesmerized a much larger section of Tamils at home and abroad through his resort to untrammeled violence directed against Sinhalese, Muslims and dissidents of his own community.
What all those men had in common was their ability to exploit fault lines in our society and the limits of our state, then and now. Anagarika Darmapala exploited liberal leanings of the Colonial British to espouse his border line racism. He would not have survived had it been the French, the Dutch, Belgian or any other colonizer.
Rohana Wijeweera mobilized two generations of Sri Lankan youth, who were in fact the product of a baby-boom propelled by successive governments’ welfare policies, to wage a war against the very state. He was stopped on both occasions, but it was too late and too costly.
Both Prabhakaran and Wijeweera thrived in the perceived and often hyperbolic grievances of a segment of people and exploited the limits of coercive power of the state to advance their myopic ends. If Sri Lanka- which invested all its fortune to maintain a bloated welfare state, which over time became too big for the limited government revenue to maintain- allocated a fraction of its budget on its internal security, both of them could have been stopped a long way before they unleashed their carnage.
Wimal Weerawansa is one of those individuals who had mastered that macabre art. He has put his skills to use quite sinisterly, feeding into insecurities of Sinhalese people, and sowing fear psychosis. Each time he contested elections, either from the JVP or the UPFA, he had a tremendous success. Since he had hardly delivered as a minister in any of his portfolios in the past , one could assume that his electoral performances were an endorsement of his rabble rousing divisive ethnic politics.
Recently, he had been fasting against a court decision that put him in remand custody over alleged misappropriation of state property to the tune of Rs. 90 million.Last week he called off his hunger strike, according to his goons, acceding to a request by Mahanayakes. In the future, if every fraud, rapist and bond scammer in prison chose to avail himself a bit of ‘Sathyagraha’, the venerable monks would be inundated with requests for intervention.
Our part of the world can make a historical claim for pioneering the strategies of non-violent protest. However, we also have the dubious honour of bastardizing those non-violent means into cheap political gimmicks. Tamil Nadu politicians, including former Chief Minister Karunanidhi who once fasted in between his breakfast and lunch in support of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle, are masters of this form of chicanery.
On other occasions, low level of social and economic progress and weaker state institutions means even the most well intended non-violent mass mobilization could drift into mass violence. Even Mahatma Gandhi could not stop a nation he mobilized through non-violence from descending on each other, hacking half a million to death after independence was granted by the British.
A couple of years ago,Wimal Weerawansa himself fasted against the UN, which was called off when then President Mahinda Rajapaksa fed him king coconut water. This time, Mr Rajapaksa’s absence was conspicuous. Since he could make a visit anytime to the prison hospital or the national hospital, using his privileges as a Member of Parliament, one wonders whether Mr Rajapaksa himself did not want to be taken as a clown in a political drama staged by his acolyte.
Mr. Weerawansa tried, but failed to intimidate the country’s budding independent judiciary into submission. That the judiciary prevailed over was a cause for celebration. This should perhaps set the precedent for the future, when the government has to deal with numerous groups with vested interests, who think the law should be bent to serve their agenda.
However, the problem is that the government does not show the same resolve when it is most needed. Its actions are driven by political calculations and that itself threatens to undermine its own effort to strengthen the rule of law and independence of independent institutions.
Mr. Weerawansa may have one well- founded grievance. He is yet to be found guilty of charges of misappropriation of state vehicles and other resources, much of which had, allegedly been allocated to the party cadres, those long neglected JVPers who defected with him to launch his new party. That is not right, but the Sri Lankan political culture demands such a patronage. He is not accused of parking looted money in offshore accounts or building mansions.
The irony is that those who are accused of such deeds are still at large. So are those accused of running extortion rackets in Colombo, Kelaniya,etc. Those who ruined the Sri Lankan airline through flimsy tenders, and drained the state’s coffers of millions of dollars are now serving as the go betweens between the government and the Joint Opposition.
Viewed against them, Wimal Weerawansa is a small fish. He should be asking himself, ‘why me?’ If his arrest is intended to tame him, it may have a political logic, but such a selective justice will do no good for accountability and rule of law in the long run.
Perhaps, he should ask in the court: ‘why me?’