Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Some weeks ago, a ruling party politician in the Gampaha District was captured on national television becoming incandescent with rage on being asked to produce his identity card by a police officer. Working himself up to a veritable frenzy, that worthy representative of the people blustered and protested.
His fury boiled over as he spluttered to his equally furious supporters in pithy Sinhalese that, he could give his identity card but then, ‘he would not be able to walk among the people with any clothes on.’
A question of identity
There is, of course, more to this story. The fracas had occurred during an event marking the opening of a bridge when loudspeakers were used and the police had come to the scene to question as to whether correct authorization had first been obtained. The politician, whose speech was rudely interrupted in consequence, alleged that the disturbance was at the behest of local Rajapaksa ‘pohottuwa’ supporters. Granted an element of ‘pohottuwa’ provocation, the commonsensical response by the politician and his cohorts should surely have been to produce both the identity and the relevant loudspeaker use permit, neatly turning the tables on their political opponents, so to speak. But such dignified behaviour was far from evidenced.
So why do politicians maintained with tax payers’ money believe that they are exempt from legal requirements imposed on citizens? It was reported this week that the offending policeman had been transferred, reportedly with immediate effect following a complaint filed to the police senior command.
Assuming that this is not an ordinary transfer but a step arising from the incident in question, is such a consequence warranted? Is the National Police Commission, tasked with ‘the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of police officers other than the Inspector-General of Police’, (Article 155G (1) (a)) aware of this fact?
No peculiar privilege attaching to politicians
Indeed the routine punishment of police officers for insisting on the law being followed is a major reason as to why morale cannot be maintained in the police service. In such a context, is not talk of ‘professionalizing’ the police, metaphorical hogwash to state the matter bluntly? From the former Minister of Law and Order calling the IGP to order that a Rajapaksa ‘nilame’ should not be arrested to a run-of-the mill parliamentarian insisting that a lowly Sub-Inspector must ‘recognise’ him is but a small and easy step. Was it not to refrain from such acts that this ‘yahapalanaya’ Government was elected? Citing Rajapaksa transgressions which were undeniably of a worse character does not suffice to answer that question.
Does the law or the Police Departmental Orders (of which there are many, are all excellent in theory but contemptuously disregarded in practice) stipulate that parliamentarians should not be called upon to produce their identity cards? Does the Parliamentary Privileges Act impose such a condition?
So what exactly occasions such fury that is so palpably disproportionate to the Divulapitiya incident? Surely if someone is asked to show his or her identity card, it is a simple matter to comply. Certainly any Sri Lankan citizen has to do that as mandated by law. Lest one mistakes the matter, that is what the Rule of Law is all about. This is not a mere issue of production of an identity card. It is also not a legal question of the equal application of the law as mandated by Sri Lanka’s Constitution (Article 12 (1). Rather, this is an attitudinal and societal complex which deifies politicians, at which the media excels certainly but in regard to which, we are also to blame as citizens for our uncritical responses thereto.
Obeisance paid to politicians, unique to South Asia?
It may be recalled that some years ago, a shadow chancellor of the United Kingdom had to pay a fine for jumping a red light. Other instances of UK politicians caught by the long arm of the law are many, including a then deputy leader of the Labour Party who was, in fact, convicted of driving without due care and attention.’
In contrast, what is our record here? Even when a politician is involved in a ‘hit and run’ which results in fatalities, there is little accountability. In what proportion of cases in Sri Lanka is the ordinary law implemented against politicians? Or to put this question another way, can the Traffic Police enlighten us as to what percentage of politicians on both sides of the political divide has been hauled up for simple traffic offences?
Is this obeisance paid to politicians, uniquely South Asian? Perhaps this comes from the tradition of the ‘ruled’ and the ‘subordinated’, first by kings and then by colonial rulers. Throwing off the yoke of oppression by rulers was the first principle of the democratic contract whereby the king became the servant of the people and those who governed a land became the trustees only, holding power for a finite period with all subject to the Rule of Law.
An unpalatable but hard truth
But such lofty standards taught in the classrooms of law faculties and law colleges are yet to seep into the democratic consciousness in this region. The nauseating sight of schoolchildren worshipping politicians at official events is yet another illustration where practice falls far short of the theory.
Indeed it was reported some months ago that a Zonal Education Director in Colombo had directed principals of Colombo schools ‘to give due respect to Parliamentarians and Provincial Council members.’ A copy of the letter issued indicated that principals had been informed to invite Members of Parliament and provincial councils to special school functions. Where does this nonsense end? Afford respect to politicians when their behaviour invites anything but public respect? The ugly quarrels and horse dealing with money changing hands between newly elected councillors in local government bodies that we see each day establishes the fact that the rot runs deep.
Even so, there is a lot more wrong in this country than its politicians and political assemblies at local, provincial and national level who are more adept at playing petty political games rather than safeguarding the national interest. Perhaps it is opportune to reflect during this Avuruddu season as to how gradually, a degenerative political and media culture has come to reflect this very society and what Sri Lanka has become as a result of ruinous decades of conflict and institutional decay.
This is an unpalatable but hard truth