As usual I made my regular ‘pilgrimage’ to Colombo for the annual Royal-Thomian cricket encounter. Besides meeting old friends and school mates now domiciled in different parts of the world, it is an opportunity to recount tales of yesteryear and listen to new ones as camaraderie is renewed at the “Mustangs” that holy of holies [...]


Culture commissars and the Talibanisation of society


As usual I made my regular ‘pilgrimage’ to Colombo for the annual Royal-Thomian cricket encounter. Besides meeting old friends and school mates now domiciled in different parts of the world, it is an opportunity to recount tales of yesteryear and listen to new ones as camaraderie is renewed at the “Mustangs” that holy of holies where women are taboo and the “brew that is true” (in the words of comedian Danny Kaye) flows uninterrupted unlike electricity from the national grid.

Now and then strange things happen at the match, as did this year, when unplanned and unexpected interventions occurred at the butt end of day. Unusually Ranil Wickremesinghe made an early appearance at the Mustangs around 10.30 on Saturday morning.

Of course I expected to see him later in the day as usual but certainly not so early. So did he know something that most of us did not – like Royal heading for a thrilling win? Actually it was Michael Tissera, that elegant cricketer and gentleman to his finger tips who drew my attention though I did think Michael was trying to pull my leg. But there he was about to take the aisle seat in the fourth row to the right of us.

It is perhaps strange how some little things stick in your memory. Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to favour a yellow short-sleeved shirt to wear for the match. The colour, I suppose, was meant to indicate where his allegiance lay.

His deputy foreign minister Harsha de Silva, admitted to the Mustangs last year (so he told me ) and I had agreed several months earlier to meet at the Mustangs to swap tales instead of currency which appears to engage his attention these days what with Mahinda Rajapaksa on the war path over foreign borrowings.

But somehow I missed him on Friday. Perhaps he had gone to police Independence Square where the previous week some security guards with time on their hands and nothing in their heads, decided to lay down the law with regard to what they perceived as acceptable public behavior as opposed to legally permissible conduct.’

Minister Harsha de Silva questioned the security guards who shooed away a couple seated by or inside Independence Memorial Hall.Pic Indika Handuwala

This hilarious drama began on the day I landed in Colombo which shows that if you want to laugh to your heart’s content and watch soap operas featuring political comedians and officials with plenty of empty space between their ears, it is well to journey back to a familiar environment where a joke can be a serious thing and a serious thing manifestly jocular. To use that unfortunate phrase it is like killing two birds with one stone metaphorical though it may be.

Not that we are deprived of comedy here both in real life and on television. The antics of US presidential aspirant Donald Trump and Conservative Party leadership contender Boris Johnson’s comic interludes add so much zest to conventional American election campaigns and rather staid British politics.

Admittedly we have our own political entertainers back in Colombo. Not even Donald can trump a fasting Weerawansa for sheer farce or approximate the verbal diarrhea of a Gammanpilla even if the entire health service was dedicated to curing it.
Politicians are prone to make outrageous statements given the nature of our rumbustious and mud-hurling politics. But when officials and their minions enter the fray with inane remarks on subjects that are better left to those more qualified to speak, life is turned into an extended comedy and the country into a laughing stock as in last month’s comedy when security guards took upon themselves to shoo away a couple seated by or inside Independence Memorial Hall.

All this high-handed action because the pair had held hands or one had an arm round the shoulder of the other.
This newspaper later reported the Director of Cultural Affairs Anusha Fernando as saying that Independence Square should be considered a respected heritage site and “not a park for lovers”.

I don’t know who Anusha Fernando is nor do I really care. My concern is over her credentials to make pronouncements which are manifestly ludicrous. She appears to be incapable of distinguishing between heritage sites which are of religious significance and should not be desecrated by conduct that violates their sanctity and other heritage sites which are of historical importance.

The Independence Memorial Hall is not a religious site. It has political significance in that it is a monument to Sri Lanka’s independence from colonial rule. To equate all heritage sites without giving any thought to inherent differences is the kind of bureaucratic rubbish that emanates from officials occupying positions they do not understand or care to appreciate.

Independence Square symbolizes this country’s freedom from colonialism. Yet by bureaucratic edict the people of this country are denied the independence to sit around and even place an arm on a companion’s shoulder which is what a couple of security guards prevented some people from doing.

When this incident that savours so much of cultural puritanism blew up deputy Minister Harsha de Silva, alerted to what was happening, turned up at the scene and questioned the security guards who came up with curious answers. As he wrote in Facebook the guards had “all different weird interpretations of ‘decency’. He said the guards claimed that holding hands, putting a hand on the shoulder etc are indecent acts and won’t be tolerated.

I doubt whether even religious zealots like the Taliban exuding their own brand of cultural puritanism could have produced such manifestations of moral outrage at the holding of hands. The Sunday Times cited Cultural Affairs Minister S.B.Navinna who reportedly said that the Sri Lanka constitution “bans people from misbehaving in public. That was the reason why the security officers could act in an arbitrary fashion when they evicted a couple.”

Have you ever heard such unmitigated rubbish? So now we have security guards armed with the country’s constitution and learned in the subject of constitutional interpretation – which one thought was entirely a matter for our judiciary – going around dictating that holding hands on the steps of the Independence Memorial Hall or inside it is a violation of our constitution.
If that is what the Cultural Affairs Minister seriously thinks then a new constitution is indeed an urgent necessity.

Is one to seriously believe that these security guards belonging to the Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (LRDC) had been tutored in constitutional law before being let loose to maintain public decency and stamp on any violation they deem to have been committed?

Minister Navinna has not said what the constitution says constitutes “misbehaving in public”, if it says anything at all. So has this country reached the stage when constitutional interpretation is left in the hands of security guards who probably do not even know what is in the constitution but were in fact interpreting in their fashion orders passed on to them by some picayune public official “drest in a little brief authority”, as Shakespeare aptly said.

Ms. Anusha Fernando reportedly said that the Cultural Affairs Department “is in the process of issuing guidelines to ensure decent behaviour by people visiting heritage sites.” Are we to conclude then that there were no guidelines hitherto and the process was precipitated by the fiasco at Independence Square? If so then on whose authority did the security guards act as they did?

Ms. Fernando is no doubt extremely proud of that great heritage site in Sigiriya as we all are. It depicts, among other things, the cultural norms of the day. So would it be considered indecent if some women were clad (or rather unclad) as the females depicted in those precious frescoes in Sigiriya? Would it be deemed disturbingly indecent if some women adopted our much appreciated cultural values, after all are we not being exhorted to adhere to our ancient culture?

By the way how is it that the LRDC has been handed over the task of policing the sites to ensure that bureaucratic commandments are faithfully followed? One can understand the LRDC being asked to ensure that no damage is done to the sites. But who has vested it with authority to see there is no damage to our culture?

Mr. Navinna must be aware that his colleagues are touring the world preaching to those who would listen that there is a new freedom in the country since the change of government last year. Yet people are not free to hold hands inside that memorial to freedom from colonialism.

It seems that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has to intervene in everything to get things done and moving or undo some disgraceful fiats of bungling bureaucrats. Now he must act against our cultural Robespierres determined to impose their outdated views on a broadminded society.

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