‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’- George Orwell’s 1984 repeats itself in 2022 Sri Lanka

By

Gamini Weerakoon

(The writer is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island, and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader.)

George Orwell in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ writes a story of a ‘Non-Party’ man (Winston) being tortured by Party Man (O’Brien) who is trying to make him accept that if all records pertaining to the past are destroyed; his memory is erased permanently and the only source of information about the past is what the Party says, it will control the past (history) and who controls that past will control the future and who controls the present will control the past.
The relevant excerpt reads: O’Brien looking down at him speculatively with the air of a teacher taking pains with a wayward but promising child.

‘There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past. Repeat it,’ he said.

‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’ repeated Winston obediently.
‘Who controls the present controls the past,’ said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. ‘Winston, that past has real existence?’

All this may sound like some kind of Orwellian metaphysics to readers but reflecting on Sri Lanka’s immediate historic past, its present and future, it does seem that the 20 million Sri Lankan populace is in the same quandary as Winston of Nineteen Eighty-Four and are being subjected to similar insufferable torture.
Is Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four being re-enacted in Sri Lanka in 2022?

We Lankans are now told ‘forget the past — what happened just a month ago. We have to look ahead to the future for the greater good. Now, is the time to repair the damaged past and punish those responsible.’ What is not spelt out is: The future will be decided for you by the representatives who dumped you into this awful mess.
To take this stand on forgetting the past is to take leave of your memory and powers of reasoning.

The present President Ranil Wickremesinghe is undeniably a product of the immediate past — the ‘Gota Go Home’ campaign that catalysed a massive islandwide movement and drove out the Rajapaksa brood headed by President Gota. And Gota appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, the President, while in his desperate situation before he fled the country using powers vested in the executive presidency by the Jayewardene Constitution. Thus, Wickremesinghe, a product of the immediate past of the Gota Go Gama, is cracking down on it with the utmost severity and wants to erase it. And it does appear that he will attempt to continue as president ruling the country for the next three years — the present controlling the future in accordance with the Orwellian prediction.

Wickremesinghe swears by the Constitutional process which he stresses is inviolable and essential for democracy. But what is so sacred and sacrosanct about this constitution which every president (including Wickremesinghe though he was not an elected president) has vowed to change during the past three decades?

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga declared it a ‘Bahubootha Constitution’. Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged at all presidential election campaigns that he would do away with the executive powers vested in the presidency and Gota’s constitution is still being drafted by lawyers appointed by him. Wickremesinghe when appointed president a few weeks ago too spoke about changing the executive powers of the presidency but has gone dumb on the subject thereafter.

Certainly, well-balanced constitutions should be protected and respected. Citizens of Western democracies volunteered, went to war and even paid the supreme sacrifice to defend the rights vested in them by their constitutions. But do constitutions, which can be thrashed into shapes as desired by powerful or potty dictators to keep them and their families in power and even enable the baton to be passed to another to safeguard their interests, deserve the same devotion and commitment of citizens to constitutions that have lasted for centuries protecting the rights of the citizenry?

In a democracy, constitutional pundits say, the sovereign power to rule a country is vested in the people. Constitutions are framed in accordance with the wishes of the people not on the desires and idiosyncrasies of those who may be elected by the people but don’t give two hoots for them once elected. What should the people do if the exercise of their sovereignty is thwarted by constitutional deception or as some Lankans say, ‘Constitutional jilmarts’?

History has shown that revolutions or ‘aragalayas’ are the way out.
Call it a revolution or ‘aragalaya’, July 9 was the Day of the Big Bang that ended the sordid rule of the Rajapaksa family for over 12 years. We doubt whether a political event as massive and momentous was ever witnessed in the contemporary history of this country. We witnessed on TV a massive river of humanity beginning beyond Kollupitiya junction moving through Galle Road into Galle Face Centre Road exploding with vituperation, seething emotions and burning anger moving towards the old Parliament (now the Presidential Secretariat) and then the holiest of holies, the President’s House — his office as well in recent times. Guesstimates of the size of this moving mass of humanity ranged from thousands to tens of thousands.

Another gushing river of humanity extending from the Pettah through Chatham Street was meeting the Southern flow, turning right at the clock tower to assail the President’s House, well-guarded by numerous police squadrons, battalions and regiments. The historic moment came when they shook the high iron gates (20 feet tall?) as if it was the neck of hapless chicken and then went over it and was inside the forbidden grounds.

A youth who was apparently among the frontliners to crash the barricades was seen on TV being mercilessly thrashed by several uniformed men in Khaki with long batons; the unarmed boy had only his hands to try to protect himself from the barbarous onslaught. We thought it was kaput for the boy when fortunately for him a uniformed officer ordered a halt to the massacre. Many young men and women would have been such recipients from the guardians of the law in their attempt to win their fundamental rights and save their beloved country but last week they were being hunted down.

A demonstrator who dared to enter the bedroom of the former president and feel the comforts of the presidential bed is to be prosecuted. Is sitting on the bed of a former president a criminal offence? Or was it that he had desecrated the national flag by carrying it to bed? Conspirators, saboteurs, violators of law and order, insurrectionists like those who sat on gas cylinders for days awaiting arrival, motorists, three-wheeler drivers, picking up quarrels with the police when they suspected hanky-panky activities were going on and fuel released surreptitiously are being prosecuted in accordance with the law. The gentleman who sat on the president’s bed is to be prosecuted while an honourable MP who sat on the Speaker’s Chair while his colleagues were hurling paperweights at the Speaker and water bottles laced with chillie powder at the opposition continues to be an honourable member. Sure enough, there is only one law for all the people!

Revolutions have gone off course with counter-revolutions. The French Revolution of 1789 led to the establishment of a Napoleonic empire. But the spirit of those who stormed the Bastille lives on and the French still cry out: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Sri Lankan democracy too will live and blossom out as it did on that historic day, July 9 last month.

Finally, a word of advice from Naom Chomsky, the 21st Century philosopher, to those attempting to safeguard the fundamental rights of the people: If we don’t believe in the freedom of expression of people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.

Courtesy:Sunday Times