By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka –
On 25th November 1956 Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as Indian Rail Minister following the Ariyalur train accident in Tamil Nadu which killed more than 140 people.Not that Shastri had been driving the fatal locomotive ! But he took ‘moral responsibility’ as the Minister in charge of the subject and magnanimously resigned. It was a historic noble gesture that made Jawaharlal Nehru describe Shastri as a man of the highest integrity. By contrast following the heartbreak of the horrendous Easter Sunday massacre in Sri Lanka, millions of grieving citizens ( including Christians like me ), have reason to turn bitter and cynical at the pathetic spectacle of the Sri Lankan President who with pompous arrogance stubbornly refuses to resign, notwithstanding the monstrous tragedy occurring under his watch as the subject Minister for ‘Defence’, the ‘Police’ and ‘Law and Order’.
In any constitutional democracy after a monumental calamity of this magnitude it is only natural for there to be strong public demands for those in authority to be held to account for failure to prevent the tragedy. There are inevitable public expectations that ‘heads will roll’ where there has been negligence, and that those guilty of ‘criminal negligence’ will be sent to jail. As to who should be held responsible and which heads should roll would need to be determined on the basis of the plain facts after fair and unprejudiced inquiry.
In the present case amidst much finger pointing the public have been inundated with a plethora of claims and counter claims, stories, accusations explanations, excuses, extenuating circumstances, and clarifications, relating to the complicity of various individuals in failing to prevent the tragedy. They have including high public officials, government ministers and even the prime Minister who for his part has consistently maintained that he has been deliberately and in bad faith kept in the dark on security matters for a long time right up to the morning of the blast. Hopefully such confusion and controversy will be resolved eventually when the true facts come to light enabling society to pin responsibility and demand that all those whether public servants or politicians who have failed the nation should at the very least be forced to resign.
However one thing is clear. In any organization accountability must begin at the top. When the Company crashes the CEO must be the first to take the rap. Accordingly there is a clear and logical basis for resignations to begin with the specific cabinet Ministers who oversee the relevant subject. In the present case President Sirisena is not only the Cabinet Minister responsible for Defense, the Police, and Law and Order, but he is known to have doggedly insisted on arrogating these subjects to himself gratuitously retaining them under his control defying the prime Minister and other cabinet Ministers who sought to place Law and Order under the expert control of Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka. Consequently in grimly hanging on to subjects that he was probably incompetent to administer, Sirisena is doubly morally responsible for the failure of the departments under him to prevent the tragedy. In this regard the wording of Article 51 of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution makes it clear that the President can devolve even the Defence portfolio to a separate qualified cabinet minister should he wish to do so in the national interest. But he did not do so.
Consequently it is clear that Sirisena has a moral duty and is honour bound to resign, for no other reason than that he was the responsible Minister in charge. By the same logic so should John Amaratunge the Minister of Christian Affairs under whose watch more Christians were slaughtered in one day than in the entire history of the country. Nor as a Roman Catholic has he been too sympathetic to the problems of evangelical Christians who have been getting a beating at the hands of Buddhist extremists for many years long before the Easter massacre. That Amaratunge should continue pretending to represent the interests of Christians as a Minister after the tragic events of Easter Sunday is intolerable.
Lal Bahadur Shastri who followed Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister of India was a disciple of Gandhi. It is reported that when Shastri died in 1966 he possessed neither a house nor any land. Apparently he only left behind a government car loan which his wife had to settle with the family pension. Such was his lofty integrity and modesty. That is the standard we must hold up for our leaders. Moreover according to Wikipedia Shastri had graduated with a first class degree in philosophy and ethics from the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith University in 1925. However educational disparity is no excuse for a President failing to follow his example and do the honourable thing. Whether philosopher or proletarian “the laws of God written in the hearts” of our common humanity should stir the conscience into doing what is right, especially when over 250 have been killed and the lives of hundreds ruined.
Moreover the imperative for the President to resign at this time is compounded by the fact that going by the record there are more than enough reasons why he should have resigned many times over already if he possessed a modicum of sensitivity and self respect. There is his abysmal record of political betrayal, starting with the double crossing of his erstwhile comrades in the previous regime in 2014 in which as a senior minister for many years he was collectively responsible for all its misdemeanors. Then in 2018 he betrayed the 6,217,000 good people who voted him in as President, sacked the Prime Minister and like the proverbial ‘dog going back to its vomit’ replaced the cabinet with the very regime he had previously betrayed. Then in December 2018 the supreme court ruled that he had violated the constitution by dissolving parliament – a humiliating verdict that was in and of itself sufficient reason to resign forthwith.
Finally President Sirisena’s recent restless maneuvers to somehow ingratiate himself with a fragmented SLPP/SLFP desperate to secure a presidential nomination in that quarter, is a total reversal of his categorical assurance to the nation in 2015 at his swearing in that he would not seek a 2nd term. This too is a grotesque about turn of a kind that warrants any president being turned out of office. Moreover in continuing as president with pompous gung-ho self confidence Sirisena shows his failure to understand the fact that even his selection as presidential candidate in 2015 by the forces opposed to the previous regime was purely ‘tactical’. In no way did it signify that as an individual he necessarily possessed the personal stature attributes and qualifications required for the job..
From a philosophical perspective the tenacity with which the Sri Lankan president grimly hangs on without resigning in arrogant contempt of public opinion, is just another example of the insatiable craving for rank title and power that has been a characteristic feature of fallen human nature at all levels throughout the ages. In that sense he seems to share something in common with Presidents like Maduro of Venezuela, Bouteflika of Algeria and Mugabe of Zimbabwe, all of whom have disgraced themselves by stubbornly soldiering on long after forfeiting public confidence. They will be remembered for their notoriety. But if the Sri Lankan president has the good sense to even now graciously resign on moral grounds he may avoid being counted amongst those who will be forgotten for their mediocrity.
The final irony is that Sri Lankan Presidents can take comfort in the knowledge that resignation is hardly a sacrifice. On the contrary it could be the gateway to a glorious retirement for the rest of their earthly life !The rest of the population who finally retire after 40 years of hard struggle may have to fall back on their life savings and carefully conserve their resources as they face the manifold hazards challenges and insecurities of old age. Not so Sri Lankan Presidents.
Under the Former President’s Entitlement Act of 1986 former presidents even after one short term in office ( irrespective of whether their record was distinguished or deplorable), will for the rest of their earthly life enjoy a pension equal to the last pay drawn while in office and privileges equivalent to a serving cabinet minister. These would include the order of precedence, an official residence, an office, staff, transport and security. The pension will be in addition to any other pension which they would be entitled to due to prior service. Moreover their spouses are also well looked after.
So there are many compelling reasons why the Sri Lankan President ought to resign forthwith. If nothing else it is hoped he might be persuaded to do so considering the good life that awaits him were he to oblige! Otherwise he may wish to ponder the paraphrased famous words of Oliver Cromwell who in April 1653 exhorted parliament “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of godliness, go!”
Professor A.N.I. Ekanayaka – Emeritus Professor (University of Peradeniya