By S.Sivathasan –
Nineteen centuries back, Silappathikaaram a Tamil epic cited the inevitability of retributive justice as a warning for misgovernance. Perennially true the learned would affirm. The discomfiture of a national political formation which sought to usurp power and failed would reaffirm. In Jaffna the party that tried through means that were devious, remains consigned to continued oblivion. Thirty two years are now past and the party in power which lacerated the electoral process is out of power for seventeen years. The Library Fire in Jaffna preceded the rigging that failed. The Reichtag Fire in Germany preceded the election for usurpation. Inexplicable are the ways in which the hand of destiny moves to relegate the guilty to the dustbin of history. But are lessons learnt?
It may be good to recall the forms that the exercise in Jaffna took. In times past, in Sri Lanka as in other countries, societies were divided, some with faith in elections and others having only a cynical disdain for it. Perceptions and judgment have changed over time with opinion moving heavily in favor of the vote as an expression of political sentiment. With abiding faith, Sri Lanka refined the electoral process assiduously. In three decades following independence it had become a model, much to the credit of the late Felix Dias Abeysinghe who made a distinguished contribution as Election Commissioner. At such a juncture, it received a jolt from the Government of Sri Lanka. The place was Jaffna, year was 1981 and the occasion the DC election. As a witness to the destruction of a well streamlined process, I wish to give an account of my ringside view.
As per the election law, polling starts at 7 AM on the stipulated date and closes at 4PM. Preparatory work which includes training of staff is spread over two months. Preliminaries antecedent to polling commence twenty six hours prior, for the issue of ballot boxes, ballot papers and the whole gamut of essentials. The respective senior presiding officers (SPO) take over the materials. Jaffna district with 11 electorates ( Kilinochchi was a part of JD) had 11 issue officers located in the secretariat and the old kachcheri just across. The offices were competently manned with procedures perfectly streamlined.
The writer being the Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) in charge of issues was on duty from 6 AM on the said day. Delft as an island with access only by launch for a distance 12 miles, was selected for the first issue. The operation flowed smoothly as on prior occasions with the Police providing escort. Next in line was Kilinochchi covering an area larger than Jaffna District and with polling booths 30 to 50 miles away from the Kachcheri. The issues and movement along with police escort were proceeding seamlessly. There was a glaring lacuna however since the Government Agent was away. The GA as the Returning Officer is the central figure for an election in a district. He was not available at the Kachcheri in the morning since he had been summoned to Colombo the previous day.
At 10 am the GA arrived at the Kachcheri and immediately summoned four of us, senior officers of the Kachcheri who were Assistant Returning Officers. A decision taken in Colombo about change of personnel to man election booths was placed before us. All four of us raised our hands in horror. But even before we could finish our first sentence, in walked a senior Minister accompanied by his additional secretary. Soon to follow was a Brigadier detailed in Jaffna. Within a short while the GA’s room was packed with Ministers, Deputy Ministers, District Minister and senior officials from Colombo. The four of us got back to our rooms and awaited instructions. The time was 10.30.
The first decision taken with none of us participating was to suspend all issues. The reason being that the Police personnel were ‘refusing’ to provide escort because they were ‘afraid’. Till the Colombo high ups so decided they made bold to go. With issues stopped, the whole Kachcheri was in a state of suspended animation. Facile description, but the chaos and the agony had to be experienced to know of the frustration. All this was soon after the burning of the library and several acts of arson. Life in the city was greatly immobilized. Kachcheri had no water and all utilities were dysfunctional. All officers had reported for duty but since nobody moved out, several hundreds just walked about in the kachcheri premises. All were without food or water. Their stamina stood out. To add to the congestion were a few hundreds of minor employees brought down from Kurunegala.
At 5.30 pm there was some movement. Spewing out from the GA’s room were replacement lists. For very many booths officers holding responsible positions and trained for their respective assignments were unceremoniously dropped. They were replaced by minor employees who knew neither Tamil nor English and least of all election work. Habituated more to physical than to mental routine, they were overnight elevated to their level of incompetence. With confidence deriving from ignorance and perhaps trusting to assistance from the Tamil staff they left for their destinations with remarkable nonchalance.
Buses started leaving Old Park by 6.30 pm. The Police afraid to travel by day were now bold enough to travel by night. Movement out however ceased after a few hours. It was resumed early in the morning. By then a further few hundreds sourced from Kurunegala alighted at the Kachcheri. They looked vacant and clueless not knowing what to do or where to go. They only wanted the inner man looked after. The election staff of the District assembled at the Kachcheri, not losing its temper even in the midst of man made chaos was a tribute to their discipline and culture.
On election day the last bus left the Kachcheri at 7.30 am. The statutory commencement time for voting was 7.00 am. Several polling booths commenced operations after 7 am and some as late as 10.30 am. A replacement employee inquired from an inspecting ARO where he could get palmyra toddy! The attempt at dislocation made the people turn out in overwhelming numbers and to vote with a vengeance. Even though a few booths closed early in the afternoon the people had their way at other places.
Polling officially closed at 4 pm and the counting staff waited in the large conference hall, the single counting venue, for the arrival of ballot boxes. They came at a pace slower than at earlier times since the operation was tardy at some booths. A total of 17 boxes with ballot papers did not come. Talking to some of the officers we got an idea of the meddling. As we walked around supervising the counting, we found the hoof marks of the meddlers in clear light. One whole ballot paper book with no paper detached from the counterfoil but voted for the ruling party was found. A few others with a major portion intact but voted for were also found. Evidence of tampering in the clumsiest manner was ample.
When counting concluded past midnight, it was seen that voters gave an overwhelming victory to the TULF. Yet with missing ballot boxes, results could not be declared. A later date was fixed for it with the idea of searching for the missing ones. The search was futile and as per the results all 10 seats in the Development Council went to the TULF. Mr. S. Nadarajah a former Senator was elected Chairman.
The Department of Elections was the product of a long line of administrators who were committed to doing a job beyond their call of duty. The office of Election Commissioner was adorned by capable civil servants. The king pin in the conduct of elections was the Government Agent. The civil servants were ably supported by a competent administrative service. An election well conducted to the acceptance of all was the recompense for their labour.
The conduct of elections was taken to a level of perfection particularly after 1956. To the initiatives of the Election Commissioner the government of SWRD Bandaranaike extended both legislative and administrative support. It was such a tradition built and protected for long, that was attempted to be smashed at one stroke. That both initiative and complicity came from those in governance was known to all. The sinister effort ended in a fiasco. The structure stood and foiled the onslaught. Jaffna’s reputation for defiance in the face of insolent might remained. The Council as a supposed instrument of devolution with little power and no finance assumed office. An upright Chairman gave it a chance for two years and frustrated with its impotence threw it away in July 1983.