Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church marks 1000 days of jihadist attacks on churches and hotels in 2019, the intensification of a grim tussle between the Church and law enforcement authorities over the discovery of a hand grenade at the All Saints Church in Borella this week is remarkable in more ways than one.
The fight between good and evil
First, the extraordinary symbolism of fierce verbal onslaughts on law enforcement authorities by the Church evidenced recently indicates the complete breakdown of public trust of the Catholic populace in the Government. Mind, this is of no little significence in the current political climate that we find ourselves in. It embodies the truth that had been so long articulated, that the sweeping dramas enacted on Sri Lanka’s political stage since that bloody Easter Sunday two and a half years ago, were part of a grand charade, nothing more and nothing less. This included also the arrests of lawyers, poets and critics deprived of the basic safeguards of criminal justice.
Second, we see the Church more explicitly demarcating the fight of good versus evil as a common struggle of Sri Lanka’s citizenry of all faiths and persuasions, drawing links between the victims of the 2019 bombings with lines of people suffering in queues for domestic gas, milk powder and other essentials. ‘These sufferings by the people who are the wealth of the country are seen by the divine and punishment will follow’ the head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith thundered from the pulpit with awful solemnity and echoes of Bibilical retribution.
These thunderings have the potential to reverberate with enormous force in a nation where the majority of the people are engaged in a deathly struggle to feed themselves and their families even as grotesque wealth fattens the pockets of the politically privileged, their minions and their sycophants in khaki, legal robes or pristine white as the case may be. But over and above all of these, the flinging down of the unmistakable gauntlet by the Church to the Law and Order Minister takes this tussle to another unprecedented level. Essentially, the incensed Cardinal accused authorities of deliberately fabricating the placing of the grenade at the All Saints Church.
Conspiracies galore and righteous anger
In something similar to what can be found in the pages of a Le Carre spy thriller, he alleged that the police had ignored vital aspects of the incident including the entry of a ‘limping’ man who had walked into the church with a plastic bag, kept something behind a statute and then hurriedly walked away. Charging that this was a ‘grenade drama’ essentially cooked up to frighten the Catholic populace into silence over steadily increasing criticism by the Church, he vowed that the struggle of victims to find out those truly responsible for the 2019 attacks will continue.
Refuting these charges and justifying the arrest of the sacristan of the church and a boy who had ‘admitted’ to helping to ‘plant’ the grenade, the police meanwhile also saw a conspiracy behind the incident but of a different kind; this had been done to ‘embarrass’ the Government, it was claimed. These claims were dismissed with peremptory scorn by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. Flanked by his bishops, the Cardinal did not mince his words in calling upon the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the Law and Order Minister to go home if they cannot hold their positions.
On all accounts, this was a fight with gloves off, including the leveling of allegations against a regime in power that was undeniably unprecedented in the history of the Church. The extent to which hostilities had been declared was evidenced in the fact that, as the Cardinal declared with force, the recording of an ‘admission’ of those who had been arrested by the police over the All Saints Church incident, did not mean anything. ‘We know how they get these admissions and confessions’, he said, ‘ that is how they always act,’ he added.
Truths that speak to collective suffering
There is a tale therefore to what is currently unfolding before us. These are of course, truths that were apparent a long time ago. At the time that these attacks occurred, the efficacy with which the police and intelligence services acted in their wake was clearly indicative that there was no intelligence failure as touted. Put bluntly, this atrocity happened because of the treacherous quick sand of lies, prevarication and infamy that has constituted this nation’s political spectrum. The blood of its countless victims for decades cry out for justice as much as the Church cries out now.
So today, the good Cardinal castigates the police and adamantly repeats that he has no faith in them or in the law enforcement process. Yet this has been an ugly reality of the citizenry, countless of whom have been beaten, threatened and even killed in the name of the law, predominantly among the Tamil and Muslim minorities. It is no good either to utter platitudes, calling upon the police to perform at the pain of public ire. That threat has long since ceased to have any force. Sri Lanka’s police as well as politicians know full well that whatever absurdities they commit in the name of law enforcement, they will not be brought to account for their sins.
What is needed now is a new social compact informed by biting anger against Sri Lanka’s political establishment and its octopus-like tentacles that have sucked the vitality out of our independent institutions including the police and the judiciary. The convenient forming of political support groups by citizens of one regime or another, be this ‘yahapalanaya’ or ‘viyathmaga’ must at least now be abandoned. Resting our hopes on a new Constitution per se will not do, however much genuine may be the intention behind that effort. It goes without saying that the 20th Amendment must be repealed.
Redeeming ourselves from greater agonies
But the answer is not, as former President Maithripala Sirisena simplistically pronounced recently, the bringing back of the 19th Amendment with ‘some amendments.’ Even at the best of the ‘yahapalanaya’ times, what existed was political subversion, perhaps of a less macabre kind but having its own impact on the country’s downfall. Clarity in regard to these failures is therefore needed. We must also not forget that those who extol the virtues of independent oversight bodies including an independent judiciary count among the very persons most responsible for its downfall in Sri Lanka.
This disreputable list has, we may stress, several lawyers and judges themselves at the very top. Memories of the people are short, they say. But it is not only due to the acts of politicians that we face the greatest crisis that Sri Lanka has ever known since independence from colonial rule. Thus, the Cardinal’s anger and the fury of the Catholic Church as they plead for justice for the 2019 victims of a cruel attack on supplicants as they were praying in church must become part of a greater people’s struggle.
That is the only way that Sri Lanka can redeem herself from even greater agonies that await the people in this dismal new year.