By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), according to some, is a terrorist organization. They call for proscription. The word ‘terrorist’ begs comparison with the greatest terrorist the world has know outside those states that have made terrorism an integral part of foreign policy, namely the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As of now, it remains a silly comparison. The BBS, for all its provocative statements and belligerence, has not included assassination, suicide attacks, bomb blasts, landmines etc., etc in its curriculum vitae. Should this warrant treatment with soft hands, though? The answer is an unequivocal ‘No!’ The reason is simple: vigilantism of any kind is a threat to the Rule of Law.
This brings us to the vexed question of a marked reluctance by the law enforcement authority to protect places and persons ‘marked’ by the BBS. Of late, though, action has been taken to investigate incidents involving the BBS, question its leaders and initiate legal proceedings. Noteworthy too is the recent pledge by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to set up a special Police unit to move in quickly if and when religious harmony is threatened. None of this seems to have deflated the BBS. Its leaders continue to be vociferous and adamantly reiterate that if relevant authorities don’t take steps to curb certain activities which the BBS believes violates constitutional provisions, then the BBS will ‘do the needful’.
Now no one has given the BBS some kind of inalienable right to make determinations on legality and constitutionality. The BBS has a right to opinion and can at best make their pleas to the relevant authority be it the police or the courts. Violating one law in order to ensure that another law is protected is indefensible. If on the other hand, the BBS (or anyone else for that matter) believes that existing laws are inadequate or unfair, then it can petition for change. Democratically. If the BBS feels that laws are being violated and the relevant authorities are turning a blind eye, then too the objection has to be formulated and acted out within the democratic framework. The moment the law is taken into their own hands, the BBS cannot take refuge in the indefensible, i.e. one violation crosses out another. If the BBS wants to be selective, it cannot cry foul if the Police or any other entity is selective in return.
But outside the issue of moral relativism and the logic of word play, there are reasons to worry about the BBS. First, there is the fact that the Secretary, Defense Ministry, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa accepting an invitation to open a regional office of the BBS. That was read as more than tacit approval and has been tagged to all comments regarding the BBS including allegations of regime-approval. Sloth and inaction by the police on several occasions when BBS activists and/or supporters went on rampage were naturally read as evidence of these actions having regime-blessing. That one act of indiscretion wittingly or unwittingly committed has made for much inflation. To be fair the BBS has not exactly had the privilege of soft-hand treatment in recent times, but that ‘scar’ remains.
More serious is the vigilante pretensions of the BBS. Now anyone can claim police inaction and use it as a claim to deputize. That’s not part of the social contract though. On the other hand, what gives credence to BBS-type operations is not the alleged inaction of the police on what the BBS claims are illegal or unconstitutional activities of certain groups but the inaction of the police in general. It is not about lack of human resources or skill. There have been countless occasions when the Police Department has covered itself in glory in putting a stop to criminal activity and bringing to book criminals. It is the selectivity of the whole thing that offers more than a window of opportunity to the BBS. Indeed it gives legitimacy, theoretically, to vigilantism of all kinds, not just BBS adventures. ‘We are doing this in the name of security, civic responsibility etc,’ has now become an acceptable excuse for all kinds of errant behavior. A recent example would be the Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando brandishing a gun ‘to protect’ UNP parliamentarians. There’s no fine line any more between exercising civic responsibility and hooliganism, hooliganism and vandalism.
If anarchy is not desired, then the institutional arrangement has to reassert itself. Until such time public confidence in the Police is restored there will be little if any public objection to vigilantism, not because the public approves it but because outfits like the BBS so resemble the Police, in selectivity, belligerence and utter disregard for the Rule of Law.
What is the key flaw here? The key flaw is the problematic relationship between the police officer and the politician. In ‘governance’ terms, it is about the independence of the police or rather the lack thereof. Clearly, the constitutional provisions for that kind of independence are either missing or woefully inadequate to the point where a politician can on occasion act as police officer. When this kind of behavior is repeated, public confidence suffers.
One can and must call out the BBS for what it is: an un-Buddhist outfit that has no regard for Rule of Law and possessing great potential to develop into something that can wreck not just religious harmony but all democratic institutions. The bigger problem, however, is in the institutional arrangement that has, due to insufficient provisions and/or marked disregard in the matter of operationalizing provisions, created conditions for such outfits to prosper. The BBS can and must be brought to heel and made to abide by the law. If, however, ‘the law’ is compromised not only will the BBS not be brought to heel, other versions of the phenomenon, some of them non-Buddhist and some non-religious, will emerge and prosper in much the same way.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com