26 September, 2020

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Reviews Of A Few Short Poems & A Slim Book: Poems & Parliaments 

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Basil Fernando is a few years younger than I am and alleges that people like me are to blame for decent Catholics like him ending up inflexible (aratubehabu) Trotskyites who chewed on broken glass and dialectical dynamite for breakfast. I remember Basil only from the early 70s when the slip of a comma or a semi-colon in quoting Results and Prospects or In Defence of Marxism would invoke a challenge of duel to the death. I met a much mellowed and well-mannered version of Basil in Hong Kong in February and enjoyed a long chat (no he hadn’t caught the corona-virus). His mind is sharp and though we didn’t touch on the subject he is perhaps no longer a Marxist.  What was new in this softer version was that I saw the inner poet where previously I had only perceived a gruff warrior. Those of you who do not know this human rights activist and poet need to watch his critique of Church, caste, courts, Buddhism as practiced, the collapse of human rights and the brutality of the “national security state in Lanka and Cambodia”.

The thrust of Basils poems is woven into his field experiences in human rights. This is not rights theory or academic treatise; it is an outpouring of feelings in response to military and police beatings and murder of protesters and suspects after the 1971 Insurrection in Ceylon and in the Pol Pot era in Cambodia. An interesting criterion he proposes is that the distinction between developed and undeveloped (one could say civilised and uncivilised) societies in respect of the rule of law is that the latter resort to torture. Societies where the state uses torture are in his words backward, uncivilised. 

In an Introduction K.G. Sankaran Pillai speaks of Basil “(travelling) to far off places in history and jurisprudence through labyrinths of the past and present and into virtual and real spaces of the human experience . . . but his poetry always returns to Sri Lanka . . neither a return to the past nor a descent to nostalgia . . . not a mythic island in a mysterious prehistory . . . Basil’s element is the present reality of violence, cries and resistance”. Pillai hits the nail on the head when he describes Basil’s verse as Black Poetry; I add, written about a dark-age from which we have yet to escape.

An unexpectedly timely poem, but written before 2016 is:

National Security

Even the stones pee

On hearing the name

Birds forget how to fly

Flowers lose all smiles

Mothers hide their children

As hens hide the young

Sensing the evil eye of the eagle

Grandmothers weep

Gazing at photographs

The first verse of another poem harking back to troubled times goes like this:

So, there was a war

Poems by Basil Fernando (Three slim volumes)

So, there was a war

Borrowing each day,

Borrowing more and more

Youth to die in the lines.

Luring them with smiles,

Luring them with songs,

And whichever way you like

Taking them to die.

Clearly, like all good poetry Basil’s verse is not to be read in silence but to be spoken aloud. You will observe he prefers blank verse and unfortunately finds rhythm and metre an encumbrance. I wish he had not made that choice but at the beginning of his poetic life his counsel and mentor, Mr M.I. Kuruvilla his school English teacher from Kerala, encouraged him to cut inordinately free of all poetic form, norm and tradition.

Basil’s poems have been published as Pride and Pain in Difficult Times, A Tear Talked and Kayana Mitra; these slim volumes are inexpensive and available on Amazon and in local bookshops. 

Parliament – Law, History & Practice by Pasan Jayasinghe, Peter Reid and Asanga Welikala

This 165-page booklet published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives is intended as a primer for tenderfoot members of parliament but will prove useful to ‘everyman’. The volume provides an easy to read and useful overview. Three chapters (Powers & Privileges, Legislative Process and Committee System) are a tutorial for everyone; just an hour’s reading. Thanks to the generosity of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation the book will be published in Sinhala and Tamil translation as well. There is a short foreword by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on the role of parliament in a democratic republic. Two early chapters on Parliament in its Historical and Constitutional Context and the Speaker are useful for politically minded layman and inquisitive newspaper readers.

Parliament – Law, History & Practice by Pasan Jayasinghe, Peter Reid and Asanga Welikala

The book is not a retelling of the blood and gore of the chamber’s wars and scandals; rather it is a crisp account of process and procedure. A 12-page account of the processes by which legislation is enacted are for all who wondered what First, Second and Third Readings mean. Did you know there are 12 committees for Special Purposes (COPE for example), 16 Sectoral Oversight Committees (Energy, Education & Human Resources, etc.) and 37 Ministerial Consultative Committees (Finance, Foreign Affairs and so on). In addition, there are five Select Committees e.g. the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly and a Committee to make Recommendations on Communal and Racial Harmony which seems to have been impotent. The 26-page chapter on the Committee System is as much for laymen as for fledgling parliamentarians. 

The chapter on Parliament’s oversight of the Executive (mistitled Executive Oversight) is perhaps the best in the book. The focus of the chapter is parliamentary control and oversight of public finances, especially the Budget. The budget process is illustrated by a neat flow diagram and the three steps of budget preparation, approval and implementation are described. Parliament does not play any significant role in budget preparation. The three committees of parliament that oversee raising and use of public monies, the Committee on Public Finance (COPF), the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), get about a page each. The obstacles they face in achieving their objectives are noted. The authors lament that a Parliamentary Budget Office ((PBO) has not yet been set up but the powers and facilities envisaged for the PBO are weak. The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has more independence, far-reaching functions and technical backup, and serves as a better model. A Freudian slip gives the show away when the authors call for “promptly establishing a CBO (sic!)”.

A disappointing four and a half pages is chapter 8 on “Parliamentary Oversight of States of Emergency and Counter Terrorism Powers”. Yes, I understand, the book is not intended as a critical review of parliament’s performance but a dry presentation of what is written in laws and regulations. But the subject of this chapter has been the most egregious failure of Lankan democracy, so how the authors held back from a sharp and astringent critique of this fiasco of parliamentary institutions mystifies me. A sanctimonious last paragraph of ifs, buts, shoulds and howevers is not a substitute for frankness. The chapter sets out the constitutional and statutory framework covering states of emergency and anti-terrorism powers and comically declares that it will also deal with “the special role of Parliament in holding the executive to account!”. Then the authors, without a blush, miss the point that neither parliament nor religious orders nor press have done anything to prevent gross abuse, growth of state brutality and state terrorism and the use of emergency and anti-terrorism legislation to aggravate ethnic conflict. Understandably, there is good reason why Lanka finds itself hauled up before the UN Human Rights Commission.   

A second criticism that I have of this otherwise welcome volume is that it displays excessive confidence in the Nineteenth Amendment (19A). Certainly, I too am a 19A fan but I am also aware of its inadequacies. It was born of a union between warring factions of yahapalana. The then presidential coot and his myopic advisors suffered second-term delusions and sought to build a role for him. These contradictions have now provoked a big bad wolf to declare “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow 19A down”. True, life after 19A is better than before (so we must deny the two big bad wolves a two-thirds quota of jackals in Parliament) but the book has no critique of the unstable architecture that 19A crafted. Let us not smoke pot. The US State of Oregon legalised both recreational use of marijuana and homosexual unions at about the same time in 2014. Christians clearly have long misunderstood scripture; Leviticus 20:13 says that if a man lays another man, he must be stoned!

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    I agree with alot you see. However do not expect the Church to tolerate homosexuals, Divorcees. There is personal as well as social sin.

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