Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, I suppose, must count himself incredibly fortunate that a foreign visitor to Sri Lanka’s shores was not passing by when, as an opposition parliamentarian, he was ferociously blowing on a trumpet during the famous ‘JanaGosha’ protest (1993). Making local and international law a mockery If so, he may also have been [...]


On the honking of horns in protest and absurdities of a state gone berserk


Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, I suppose, must count himself incredibly fortunate that a foreign visitor to Sri Lanka’s shores was not passing by when, as an opposition parliamentarian, he was ferociously blowing on a trumpet during the famous ‘JanaGosha’ protest (1993).

Making local and international law a mockery

If so, he may also have been arrested, like that hapless youth from Battaramulla who was charged this week for ‘obstructing’ the duties of police officers by honking car horns when a convoy carrying the visiting Chinese Defence Minister swept by a Colombo roundabout holding up local traffic. But this goes far beyond one spontaneous protest. Firstly, this incident, captured on individual cameraphones and circulated among amused Sri Lankans, did not, in any way, either ‘obstruct’ the police or the passing convoy, let us be clear.

Second, the police spokesperson has, for reasons best known to himself, dragged in the Vienna Convention to justify the arrest. This is piling absurdity upon stupidity. Not content with making the Sri Lankan law a mockery by proposing that Parliament set aside convictions entered into by competent courts of law as pointed to with justifiable wrath in last week’s column spaces, must local potentates of law enforcement perforce make international law a laughing stock as well? This Convention (1969) is essentially a codification of existing customary law, applicable strictly within the confines of written treaties between states, governing how their clauses are applied, interpreted, operated and amended.

By no stretch of the most fertile imagination can the Vienna Convention be used to justify acting against a few citizens entertaining themselves in a harmless protest at being momentarily held up for the benefit of a high profile visitor. The very notion is scandalous, much like quoting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to justify arrests of critics under a local law that subverts the meaning of that renowned international instrument. Indeed, how many of our local politicians have thoroughly embarrassed visiting dignitaries including from the United Nations far more seriously than merely honking horns? All of these characters should have been arrested on that police logic or absence thereof.

Stalin and the ‘featherless’ chicken

Where the instant incident is concerned, the matter does not end there. The hapless ‘protestor’ ‘apologised’ and said that he was ‘very sorry’ for the inconvenience caused to the police. This indicates the extent to which the very notion of citizenship has been degraded. It reminds me of that probably apocryphal (or maybe not) story of Soviet leader Josef Stalin who used to terrify his compatriots by plucking feathers off a live chicken and then tossing some food to his feet so that the creature crawled, barely alive, to eat. This example has been famously used to show how a dictator is enabled by the very people whom he terrorises, so long as they believe that their survival can only be through him.

This is peculiarly apt for us. True, it is important to critique the extent to which the political establishment is responsible for the tragedy that Sri Lanka has become today. But it is perhaps more important to ask what part have we played as citizens (or as chickens with our feathers ripped off) in the abysmal deterioration of our public service, our judiciary and our education systems thus enabling our own destruction? This goes to a far more searching inquiry than merely blaming politicians. As Peradeniya don and contemporary literary theorist Liyanage Amarakeerthi asks in a recent public comment on last week’s column, (‘An Extraordinary Resolution in Parliament that scoffs at Sri Lanka’s Courts’ (Sunday Times, April 25th 2021), where have we failed as a nation, as the products of free education?

Amarakeerthi’s trenchant critique of individual responsibility  is interesting in the deviation from politically strategised commentary that usually passes for public narrative. Arundathi Roy asks that same question in her most recent scorchingly critical essay on ‘Modi the magician’ who took a bow for saving 1.3 billion of Indian humanity by ‘containing’ covid when it turned out that it was not contained at all, (‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’, The Guardian, April 28th 2021). As she writes,  ‘the system has not collapsed…the “system” barely existed as the government – this one, as well as the Congress government that preceded it – deliberately dismantled what little medical infrastructure there was in India.’

The Government must be held responsible

But where were the critics who should have held all Governments responsible rather than affording selective treatment depending on whether favorites were in power or not? That failure to critically question without bias allows the State to treat citizens like featherless chickens. And directly impacts upon lives as we see in India, the risks of which Sri Lanka is also courting. It is a commonly accepted fact that this so-called strain causing the third covid wave was known to have proliferated here from the start of last month. Yet, no restraints were imposed on Avurudu celebrations, allowing the virus to run rampant. Now, the police spokesman solemnly warns against breaching quarantine laws and hundreds of people are arrested.

Yet for several weeks, the Government held several public events sans health protocols and politicians with their crowds paraded hither and thither without face masks. So it is the Government which should, if only the criminal law ever permitted such a wonderful thing, be collectively put behind bars. That said, how does the law operate? Trustees of a Jaffna kovil are arrested for violating the quarantine laws, but municipal authorities of Nuwara Eliya who permitted Avurudu festivals without safety protocols, are only ‘inquired into.’ At some point or another, these inequities will come back to haunt us. In the South,  numbers of covid afflicted persons unable to be transferred to hospitals due to delays are increasing.

Stories have begun to emerge of loved ones dying in their homes after developing breathing difficulties and before overburdened hospital staff could get to them. Heaven and earth had to be moved, their relatives say, before the bodies could be taken for the administering of the traditional Buddhist rites. Yet what about all those scores of Muslim bodies who were cremated in heedless acts of cruelty before that policy was reversed? Is the rationale that all Muslims have to pay for the sins of jihadists on Easter Sunday (2019) and all Tamils have to atone for what liberation fighters did in the name of Tamil Eelam during past decades? If so, we may console ourselves that the collective agony which the Sinhalese are going through now is retribution for all the atrocities committed by our political leaders. And for the wrongs that we ourselves have committed as citizens by looking away from injustice.

Catastrophic consequences of stifling dissent

For it is not that the Government is not aware that what they do, from locking up a honking protestor to privileging their business cronies to earn obscene profits from poisoning citizens, are contrary to law. It is simply that it does not care. Neither does it care for national sovereignty despite preaching that intoxicating mantra to come into power. Each time it acts, that is obvious whether it is in regard to the proposed Port City which creates a layer of the ultra-privileged with the Chinese or travel bubbles with covid stricken India, which operates only to the benefit of Indian tourists fleeing that nightmare.

Finally however as the Supreme Court has cautioned on more than one occasion, stifling of dissent today will have catastrophicconsequences tomorrow. The Court upheld the right of Prime Minister Rajapaksa to protest in 1993 precisely on that basis. Across the Palk Straits, a generally compliant Supreme Court of India has at last bestirred itself to warn the Indian Government against any move to stifle protests on social media.

We hope, for all our sakes, that our Governments will listen to these warnings.

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