16th May 1999
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Minister wants equal social status for fisherfolk
By Dilrukshi HandunnettiPoor fisher families have been denied access to public places, admission to schools and jobs in certain work places because of their occupation, an angry Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has charged.
Mr. Rajapakse sees this as a violation of their fundamental rights and has vowed to take the matter to the Supreme Court if necessary.
He said the Fisheries Ministry had launched a special legal aid programme to assist the fisher community who were subjected to various forms of discrimination owing to their poor background.
Mr. Rajapakse said he was shocked to discover during one of his official visits to Negombo that fisher folk found it difficult to educate their children mostly because they were stigmatized.
"It is yet another industry and we cannot understand as to why there should be such blatant discrimination. We are also informing other ministries and departments to give special attention to such people rather than push them further back leading to more illiteracy," he said.
The new legal aid programme seeks to educate fisher families on their rights as citizens, possible action to be taken in the event of deprivation or discrimination and provides free legal assistance.
By S.S.SelvanayagamThe decision to cut the rations to the displaced Muslims now living in camps in the Puttalam district has been revoked on the intervention of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The rations to these displaced northern Muslims will continue on a request made by Minister A.H.M.Fowzie.
The decision to cut the rations had been taken at a meeting of representatives of the World Food Program, Rehabilitation & Reconstruction Authority of the North, Commissioner General of Essential Services, the Rehabilitation & Reconstruction Ministry and the Social Services Department.
Last week Mr. Fowzie met the President to apprise her of the situation arising from a circular issued by the Social Services Department with instructions to cut the rations.
He explained to the President that the displaced Muslims from Jaffna were still languishing in camps and undergoing untold difficulties and pointed out that a cut in the rations would cause them even more hardship.
The President assured Mr. Fowzie that she would issue instructions that the rations to the displaced persons be continued without any cut.
A continuing struggle before world body
By: Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Concluding late last month, the 55th sessions of the Human Rights Commission at the Palais de Nations in Geneva opened no provocative Pandora's box of secrets as far as Sri Lanka was concerned. Nonetheless, for observers flying back to Colombo at the close of the sessions, certain interesting trends were evident in the manner in which the government responded to issues discussed during this crucial six week meeting, considered to be the annual high water mark in international human rights monitoring. The Commission, set up under the UN Charter, is the main international body for political action in the field of human rights.
Predictably, the government baulked at a request to permit the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to visit the country before the end of this year. With the Parliamentary Select Committee process on the Reform of Media Laws in utter disarray and the Government continuing its self-defeating tug of war with the media, extending hospitality to an independent international observer was an obvious non-starter on the agenda. Memories would also have been fresh of previous visits of other rapporteurs to the country. These visits have not been happy experiences, as for example, the strongly critical 1997 report of the Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial and Summary Executions. This report still rankles in the minds of state representatives, compelled as a result to adopt a defensive stand in international fora.
By itself, the making and refusal of such a request to allow a UN observer on concerns affecting freedom of expression to enter the country, is however revealing. As far as current international expectations are concerned, disappointment with the performance of the government since its coming into office in 1994, hinges a great deal on its inability to sustain a constructive media reform process.
What is evident on the other hand, is the continued refusal of the President and the Media Minister to acknowledge that such a reform process does not necessarily mean giving journalists, the much savaged "freedom of the wild ass".
On the contrary, the efforts are aimed at creating a self-critical and self-responsive media, amidst realisation from among the media community itself, that maverick and heavily biased reportage carries with it its own loss of credibility.
Regardless, the government has shown itself, particularly in recent times, to be increasingly cynical vis a vis media concerns. The specific refusal to permit the Special Rapporteur to visit the country is only a further indication of this cynicism.
International pressure regarding commitments made by Sri Lanka with regard to media reform is however bound to increase, given these signs of evident backtracking by the government. Already, reputed international monitoring organisations such as the UK based Article XIX have issued strong condemnatory statements on the stand of the government with regard to specific issues such as censorship and use of legal procedures to inhibit expression of rights of citizens in general and journalists in particular.
Given further backtracking, the tone of such statements can only get harsher with an inevitable domino effect in overall international pressure.
In contrast to issues affecting the media, the Sri Lanka Government reacted in a much more conciliatory fashion with regard to reports of specific human rights abuse in the country. Confirming expectations before the Commission sittings, the government committed itself to a visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances before the end of the year.
By so doing, Sri Lanka acknowledged the gravity of the country being ranked as having the second highest count of disappeared persons (an estimated 12,000) in the world, next to Iraq.
The discovery of mass graves near the Duraiappah Stadium in Jaffna, together with the Chemmani graves, bears grim testimony to this fact.
It is estimated that remains of about 25 bodies, including those of two children, were found when the alleged mass grave was exhumed. Among the items recovered from the suspected mass grave site were a copper bangle and a bangle worn by a small child. One of the skeletons was found intact, with its hands tied in front.
Meanwhile, following questions raised by Batticaloa District MP Joseph Pararajasingham, there have been inquiries into alleged mass grave sites in the Eastern Province as well.
Mr Pararajasingham has alleged that 148 youth who were taken by the security forces from an Eastern province refugee camp in early September 1990 were massacred and buried at Navalady, 35 kilometres north of Batticaloa, near Valaichchenai which is now an army camp.
It is also alleged that 191 civilians, including 35 children below 10 and several pregnant women, who were arrested by the army from a cluster of villages on the northern outskirts of Batticaloa town were allegedly massacred and buried in the place where another army camp is now situated in Saththurukkondaan.
All these concerns, together with the speeding up of the process of exhumation of the Chemmani graves scheduled for June 16, will undoubtedly be high on the government's priority list, given the expected visit by the Working Group later on in the year.
The Asian Human Rights Commission also maintained a strong presence in Geneva, focusing particularly on the promised but frustratingly bypassed implementation of the recommendations of the Presidential Commissions on Disappearances.
On a more general level, that Sri Lanka was one of the 12 countries to abstain on a resolution passed by the Commission on the question of the death penalty should not go unnoticed.
The resolution, which was approved by 30 states with 11 against and 12 abstaining, urged all states that still maintained the death penalty not to impose it for any but the most serious crimes.
It was further urged that the death penalty not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below 18 years of age or for pregnant women or for persons suffering from any sort of mental disorder.
All state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were requested to consider ratifying the 2nd Optional Protocol to the ICCPR (aimed at the abolition of the death penalty) and to progressively restrict the number of offences for which the death penalty is imposed.
From the South Asian region, only Bhutan joined Sri Lanka in abstaining, along with Indonesia, Congo the Philippines and a number of other North African countries. India and Pakistan decided for the stronger option of voting against the resolution, casting their dissent with the United States, China, Bangladesh, Japan,, Botswana, Cuba, Morocco, Qatar, Korea, Rwanda and Sudan.
Many of the dissenting countries justified their position on the basis that there is yet no consensus on this question in the international community and called for a progressive reaching of such an agreement.
The United States, which has been severely reprimanded by Amnesty International and other human rights watchdog groups for its inhuman use of capital punishment, including many cases of execution of prisoners of extremely limited mental ability, adopted a more hardline stance however, by stating that capital punishment was not against either national or international laws as long as it is carried out by due process.
That Sri Lanka abstained rather than joined the openly dissenting countries on the vote with regard to the Commission resolution is interesting, given the recent announcement that death sentences will no longer be automatically commuted when they come before the President. The announcement led to intense and continuing debate within the country on the merits and demerits of the resumption of executions.
That Sri Lanka abstained on this issue before the Commission, indicating a certain timidity in openly proclaiming a change in its attitude, despite the announcement earlier this year, will surely gladden the hearts of all the fervent anti-death penalty advocates in the country.
The country's highest court rejected an appeal by former movie star Jayaram Jayalalitha, who had challenged the decision of the government of the state of Tamil Nadu to set up special courts to try graft cases in which she denies wrongdoing.
The court also cancelled a federal government notification transferring the cases against the leader of the regional All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party from special courts to lower sessions courts.
"All appeals are dismissed," Judge G.T. Nanavati of a two-judge bench said while presenting the verdict.
Jayalalitha is charged with amassing ill-gotten wealth of more than 660 million rupees ($15.6 million) during her rule as Tamil Nadu's chief minister from 1991 to 1996.
Her party withdrew critical support to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's coalition government last month, forcing its ouster in a parliamentary vote of confidence. Fresh elections are scheduled for September-October.
The Tamil Nadu government headed by Jayalalitha's successor and arch-rival, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, set up special courts to try her in corruption cases linked to her reign but she has argued that the charges are trumped-up and politically motivated.
Jayalalitha challenged the constitutional validity of the special courts in the High Court in Madras, the state capital. That court rejected her case last November and she then appealed to the Supreme Court.
By Asghar Ali EngineerWhat is happening in India today raises many questions about the democratic form of governance. Coalition politics has created instability and big and small parties are forming different combinations to suit their interests. Because of this many people feel that politicians are unscrupulous and, keen on promoting their own interests, do not care for the country. This by and large is true but politicians in a democratic polity have their own compulsions.
The first requirement for the success of democracy is a well- informed public opinion. But even in highly developed countries like the United States, the people are not well informed and vested interests manipulate public opinion through the media. The media, therefore, plays a vital role.
It is controlled by powerful vested interests (with honourable exceptions, of course) and hence its role is far from healthy in ensuring a clean democracy and properly-informed public opinion. The regional press is openly partisan, be it in the Shah Bano movement or the Ramjanmabhoomi movement or in reporting a communal riot, and, if anything, aggravates the situation.
Today the coalition drama at the Centre brings to the fore another important aspect of democracy. The Congress could rule at the Centre as well as in the States for a few years after independence as it strode like a colossus because of the prestige it acquired during the freedom struggle and also because of the leadership of giants like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. During the freedom struggle, the regional parties did not emerge for many complex reasons.
In 1967, the Congress lost power in some States including Uttar Pradesh and the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (a coalition of parties) won the election.
It was, in fact, the beginning of coalition politics. Also, it was the first expression of anti-Congressism which assumed greater momentum over a period. By the late Sixties democracy had taken root and regional aspirations begun to acquire greater dynamism. It was during this period (1967) that a Tamil party under the leadership of C. N. Annadurai captured power in Tamil Nadu, which had till then been ruled by the Congress.
Similarly, during the early Eighties, when a Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh was summarily dismissed by the Congress high command, the regional pride was deeply hurt and N. T. Rama Rao established the Telugu Desam which soon swept the elections in the State. In Assam, the problem of Bangladeshi infiltration acquired serious proportions in the late Seventies and the All- Assam Students Union began to agitate. The movement acquired prestige and took the shape of a political party (AGP), which ultimately captured power.
In U.P. and Bihar, the deepening of democracy led to politics based more and more on caste as the castes, particularly lower castes, became conscious of their rights and their leaders began to demand a greater share in power and jobs. Mr. Kanshi Ram, who used to conduct training camps for Dalit officers, felt that this measure was insufficient and jumped into politics forming his own outfit, Bahujan Samaj Party. Backward castes exerted an even greater pressure for a just share in power and jobs and Mr. V. P. Singh became their Messiah, who implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations in August 1990. This led to the formation of the Samajwadi Party in U.P. representing the interests of backward class Hindus like Yadavs, on the one hand, and, of minorities, particularly Muslims, on the other.
Thus the bewildering diversity of Indian society led to a bewildering number of parties. In a mature democracy, the real social situation is bound to be reflected in its political structure too.
But what adds to the woes is the split in regional parties on the basis of ego clashes. Thus the Tamil party split into two and the Congress in Tamil Nadu also split. The Janata Dal, which represented the backward class Hindu interests, broke into several groups. Splits within splits are the real bane of Indian democracy. Such splits lead to a multiplicity of parties and, far from reflecting the real social situation, harm the political health. The crisis at the Centre should be seen in this perspective.
The parties should reflect the aspirations of the people they represent. It is the very logic of democracy. But splits on the basis of the personal aspirations of the leaders themselves should be prevented.
The BJP talks of Hindu interests whereas it represents only the interests of upper caste Hindus and that too in the Hindi heartland. The upper castes have aspirations and political perceptions very different from that of the BJP. No wonder, the BJP could not penetrate in the south.
Regional factors override the caste factor. But caste interests have their own dynamics in the southern regions and caste-based parties have come into existence, particularly in Tamil Nadu. Thus there is a clash between regionalism and casteism and this adds to the multiplicity of parties in one region.
Another important problem is tokenism of the parties towards religious minorities and their interests suffer the most. The Congress claimed to have represented the interests of Muslims and Christians, but its leadership never did anything substantial for them. For example, in independent India, Muslims and Christians never got proper representation in either State Assemblies or Parliament. The Muslim population is 13-14 per cent In the last census, it was 12.12 per cent but its representation never exceeded 7-8 per cent in any Lok Sabha. The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes would have been even more underrepresented had there been no reservation for them.
Backward Class Hindus found a greater representation in Assemblies and Parliament, only after political parties representing their interests had been formed. However, the parties representing weaker sections split more often than those representing the upper caste and upper class interests.
The Congress and the BJP have not split as often as did, say the Janata Dal, which primarily came into existence as a coalition of weaker sections. The upper caste and upper class interests are stabler and more calculating and much less emotional. The weaker sections, on the other hand, including religious minorities, are more emotional and lack strong and stable interests. Thus splits in such parties are easier and they are subject to manipulations by the upper class interests.
From this, it also becomes clear that a coalition is more representative of the interests of different sections than their a government formed by a single party or two major parties. Governments by major national parties will be more representative of the upper class interests. But in a nation consisting of different classes, different regions, different linguistic, cultural and religious groups, a coalition will be much more representative of the entire country. It should also be noted that stability tends to benefit the upper classes more than the weaker sections. A coalition, on the other hand, keeps the BJP and the Congress(I) dependent on smaller parties representing the weaker sections. Though stability is highly desirable for good governance, it should not be at the cost of the interests of the weaker sections. A balance thus has to be found between stability and the interests of the weaker sections. This can be ensured by a properly-constituted coalition, not based on opportunism but on the interests of different sections. Such governments will be stable and also ensure justice to the weaker sections including religious minorities.