Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As the ‘annus horribilis’ that was 2020 winds its way to a close, waves of racism, chauvinism and fear mongering unleashed on the people by this Government’s tom-tom beaters, including electronic media moghuls fattened by ill gotten gains, continue unabated. That these ugly forces will inevitably go beyond the point of control with catastrophic effects is now a near-certainty.
A misbegotten witchdoctor and his portion
Already the signs of impending catastrophe are manifest. How is it that a witch doctor from Kegalle touting an untested ‘cure’ for covid19 was able to berate the Chief Priest of the Atamasthanaya at the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, one of the most venerated sites for Buddhists in Sri Lanka, when he was not allowed to peddle his tonic at the Bodhi. His ranting, ‘I am Kali and I am your mother’ to the head priest was sheer gripping drama albeit of a spectacularly hideous kind. But the point is that he did this and got away unscathed.
Was all this mere happenstance?
Certainly not as even the most hopefully naive among us would agree. Rather, it is a fine example of how a misbegotten creature is plucked from obscurity by a twist of carefully managed political stagecraft and suddenly catapulted to the national stage in a blaze of publicity. At least a few members of the Buddhist clergy have voiced their extreme perturbation at the sight of a witch doctor shouting at a senior priest of the Atamasthanaya in the name of a Hindu goddess.
Questions are asked as to how the country’s well recognised traditions of Ayurveda can be insulted by an upstart witchdoctor with no credentials to practice traditional medicine and seems to be a madman into the bargain.
But as to how and why this man was tolerated so much to the extent that this country’s Speaker, Minister of Health and assorted Ministers drank his untested portion and he was given an audience in Parliament is a different question. It calls for a deeper inquiry.
For these are beguiling games of smoke and mirrors that we are used to. But this time, there is a dangerous twist to the charade. A covid-stricken populace, terrorised by an unseen virus and even more so, by a Government and state agencies that treat the poor with enormous disdain, has nowhere to turn but to sorcerers promising miracle cures for a deadly virus.
‘Politics of inequality’ is a hell brew
This week, as the people of Moratuwa got onto the streets protesting the loss of their livelihoods and the inability of the Sri Lankan State to give them redress, one woman cried, ‘it is better to die from this virus than live like this.’ Her anger was understandable. Bereft from earning their living as street vendors, their fury arose from not being offered an alternative way in accordance with health guidelines to earn money to feed their children. “Are my children to starve?’ she asked. ‘Was this why we voted for this Government?’ others shouted.
And therein lies the rub. ‘This Government’ came to power on many in its ranks feasting off the spolis of racism and xenophobia to the extent that ordinary Sinhalese, Buddhist, Christain and Catholic as they may be, internalised hate-driven propaganda which they had been fed for decades and turned against their neighbours. To that end, a secure country was promised. Is this the security that was envisaged?
This global pandemic has brought the world to its knees but it is only in countries ruled by unjust men, (including the United States) that gaping inequalities arise between the covid-19 treatment of the rich, the powerful and the politically privileged as opposed to the poor.
And most importantly, the Sinhalese must finally understand that, the politics of inequality is a hell brew, which like portions peddled by witchdoctors, visits the majority as well at some point or another. Lines drawn between the cremation of a Muslim baby, the imprisoning of a Muslim lawyer without charges for more than eight months, the shrugging away of the pain of Tamil mothers who weep for their ‘disappeared’ children and the agony of the Sinhalese poor who scream that they would rather die as covid victims, are artificial. These cries draw from a common base of humanity. The disregarding of that common humanity is what leads to injustice and greater injustice.
We are on a precipitous road, virus or not
Make no mistake that we are on a precipitous course, aggravated by extraordinary inequalities that a global pandemic has brought upon us. We have become a nation where a lawyer’s ordinary right of confidential counsel with his or her client has become a privilege, to be secured only by attorneys trouping to court en masse and pleading for a Muslim suspect, also an attorney-at-law, to be given this benefit.
The position of the Attorney General on this matter, namely that the suspect’s lawyers have indeed been able to ‘consult’ with their client, Hejaaz Hizbullah is no answer. A ‘consultation,’ ‘monitored’ by criminal investigators assidously listening to every word, is no consultation at all, as is surely evident.
Furthermore, the continuing silence of a lily-livered and politically complicit Bar Association of Sri Lanka on this matter is beyond shameful. Regardless, what Sri Lanka is facing is that familiar dilemma between corrupt/inefficient ‘democrats’ and corrupt/largely inefficient/occasionally murderous ‘authoritarians.’
I put both these terms, ‘democrats’ and ‘authoritarians’ in quotation marks for, as 2015-2019 showed, ‘yahapalanaya’ democrats fell far short of what that term meant. That is precisely why lamentations by opposition parliamentarians on emblematic cases of human rights violations, such the 2006 killings of Mutur aid workers and Trinco students now do not have public traction.
So let us ‘reimagine’, (a term much in vogue in academia of the somewhat cookie-cutter kind), that ‘yahapalanaya’ moment in a different way. What if, without this process being driven from Colombo’s corridors of power by politically compromised men and women including former Presidents and Prime Ministers who set up swanky offices on national unity and reconciliation, it had been operationalised among the truly afflicted in the Wanni?
What if, instead of the ‘usual suspects’ leading this effort propelled by ‘political influence’ with no deep roots in communities, Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims for that matter, that effort had been led by community leaders of the North and the South?
A parody of justice and the Rule of Law
What is this elitism that drives us, that demands that everything must be Colombo-centered as if somehow, city denizens are somehow better, wiser and can dictate to the dirty, sweating hordes as to how their lives may be run? It is this combustible combination of arrogance and ignorance that led to a Government brought into power against all odds in 2015, thinking that it can rob the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, not once but twice.
This was, mind you, to the silence of ‘activist voices’ who would have been clamouring for the heads of those responsible if the Rajapaksa regime had engaged in that daylight robbery of the public purse which, in fact, it also did. It is also the same disgraceful combination that led to a President criminally allowing the attacks by home grown Islamists to take place on Easter Sunday 2019 and then, like a modern version of Pontius Pilate, wash his hands of all responsibility.
Now we have the Opposition mocking this Government and asking why it does not bring cases against ‘yahapalanaya’ politicians who abused the law. This is a parody of what the Rajapaksa opposition did when the ‘yahapalanaya’ regime was in power.
And so the circus goes on, while the living cry that they are better off dead.