By Dayan Jayatilleka –
If Azad Salley is a terrorist in the making, a terrorist who has to be pre-empted by recourse to detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or a promoter of fanatical, fundamentalist ethno-religious hatred, he comes with the strangest of profiles.
Far from being born into and raised in anything like a backward, fundamentalist, religiously fanatical background, his father was a Communist (as comrade DEW Gunasekara could confirm) who later became a Maoist (or ‘Marxist-Leninist’). ‘Communist Salley’ as he was known, didn’t seem to have an ethno-religious bone in his body.
Azad’s father wasn’t only a communist, he was a journalist; and he wasn’t a journalist for a Saudi fundamentalist Wahhabi newssheet. He was a long time employee of Reuters. I was introduced to the slim, be-spectacled ‘Communist Salley’ by Mervyn de Silva, my father, at the tele-printer at the Reuters office.
My father had also introduced me to George Rajapaksa, his classmate and Cabinet Minister of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration, at the latter’s house down Flower Road. George Rajapaksa was of course the uncle of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers.
It is a tale so redolent of Sri Lanka’s ironic, often absurdist trajectory and travails, that the son of one of those (leftwing) personalities introduced to me by my father, has been detained under the administration of the nephew of another albeit better known (progressive) personality, doubtless by yet another nephew of that personality.
When Azad and I ran into each other, it was at former Mayor Sirisena Cooray’s house. Azad was a vibrant, jocular, spirited young UNP politician who attended every Premadasa commemoration that I was at (the last being 1999). We lost track of each other since, but I was not surprised that he had joined Mahinda Rajapaksa. I was even less surprised to hear that he had debated the BBS spokesperson on television in Sinhala, and from what I gathered, got the better of the polemical exchange.
Of course Azad is something of a firebrand, just as Mahinda Rajapaksa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena and Mavai Senadirajah were at the same age (and stage of their politics). His rhetoric was certainly no more militant than that of Cabinet Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka.
Azad did punch back rhetorically when Islamophobia was recently unleashed in our public domain. He was a spirited young man and may have felt compelled to speak out by the conspicuous silence and pusillanimity of more established Muslim politicians. Never has the absence of Ashraff been felt more acutely. Salley may also have spotted a political opening. Since when is that a crime?
If Azad had to be arrested for incitement, what of the far more explicitly hostile, antagonistic and hateful speech at public rallies and street agitations by allegedly Buddhist organisations, all of which have gone global on YouTube? Who is investigating the leaflets bearing violent , threatening graphics of swords and leaping swordsmen, and which advertise events explicitly as ‘rebellions’ or ‘uprisings’?
Surely, even-handedness requires a crackdown on fundamentalist incitement of a majoritarian variety, just as on those emanating from minority sources? In the absence of such balance, even-handedness and natural justice, what does the arrest of Azad Salley and the conditions of his detention make this government and more importantly the Sri Lankan state look like in the eyes of the world?
Was Azad arrested because he dared to talk back, to debate? Is it that he was an uppity nigger who needed to be taught a lesson; an articulate and upfront young Muslim who had to be locked up as an example to the minorities and as a sacrifice at the altar of Sinhala supremacism; a sop to a Sinhala Cerberus?
If I were a human rights activist or diplomat campaigning in Geneva on Sri Lanka, the arrest of Azad Salley would make my day. Conversely, if I were still the Sri Lankan Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, I would face an acute diplomatic and moral-ethical difficulty.
Of the 13 member states that voted for us in Geneva this year, 7 were from the OIC. It was the Muslim (maybe I should say ‘halal’) Bala Sena that saved Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and the Sinhalese Buddhists from a humiliating defeat in Geneva this time. We would have been down to 6 votes without that support; fewer than the votes obtained by Syria at the UNHRC, and even Libya before the intervention. While it voted in our favour, the OIC has also made a demarche in Jeddah about anti-Muslim coercion and threats in Sri Lanka, while the OIC Ambassadors based in Colombo have met the President. How will the OIC vote go in March 2014?
So, here, in the meanwhile, is Salley, a mainstream politician, a former Deputy Mayor of Colombo, a man whose photograph with President Rajapaksa shows great mutual cordiality and warmth, who has been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, without a single weapon or bullet found anywhere near him or a solitary act of violence being associated with him.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act is meant precisely for what it says: the prevention precisely of terrorism. Was Azad Salley a founder, leader, member, supporter or sympathizer of an armed terrorist group? There are no unarmed terrorist groups, it must be said. If they are unarmed, they are not or not yet, terrorist. Was he verifiably planning to organize one? If so which, when and where?
Has any act of violence resulted from anything that Azad Salley has said or done? If so which, what, when and where?
If any offense has been committed by Salley, why has it not been placed in the public domain? Why is it shrouded in secrecy? Why has Salley not been charged under the normal laws of the land? Why has he not been granted unfettered access to counsel, family and visitors?
If this is the treatment meted out in peacetime to an unarmed electoral politician, what might have happened in Welikada? What must have happened in wartime to countless others? What might be happening now, outside of Colombo, in the former conflict zones, to Tamils?
These are the questions that would logically occur to anyone and could be legitimately raised in Geneva and elsewhere.
Let us assume that Azad Salley made some imprudent, even intemperate remarks to a publication and even an audience of activists, in Chennai. The periodical in question, Junior Vikatan, it must be noted, is edited by Cho Ramaswamy, a courageous lonely crusader against the Tigers since the 1980s. Neither he nor the journal can be remotely characterised as subversive or secessionist. Something can be lost in translation though.
No matter. Whatever Azad may have said, it could have been countered by accurate revelation in the mass media, and subsequent critique and open debate. An idea, however erroneous or indefensible, must and can only be countered by another idea, not by arrest and detention for 90 days. That is if you are committed to normal democratic values and practices though.
If however, a government or a state chooses to use the strongest legislation in its armoury to punish the expression or exchange of ideas, however erroneous, that government or state runs the risk of revealing itself or having itself depicted by critics, as undemocratic and authoritarian. Thus it is the repressive action of the regime rather than anything that Azad Salley may have said that brings discredit to Sri Lanka and provides ammunition to those who seek international investigation.
Does the detention of Azad Salley help prevent terrorism or does it contribute to the opposite outcome of radicalisation?
The answer to that question lies in our experience as a society. In 1972, a few dozen young Tamils were detained because they had hoisted black flags in protest against the promulgation of the Republication Constitution, ignoring the written entreaties of the Tamil parliamentary political leadership headed by SJV Chelvanayakam. These young men had not engaged in any violent activities. They were held in detention for five years.
At the time of their arrest there was no armed movement in Jaffna. By the time of their release in 1977, the Tigers had commenced armed operations, while the EROS/GUES had been formed in London and obtained weapons training in Lebanon. Those in doubt may check with Karuna, KP, Suresh, Siddarthan and Douglas.
It was obviously not those in detention who initiated this armed movement, because they couldn’t while behind bars. However, their very presence behind bars for non-violent activism mightily strengthened the argument of those shadowy figures like the teenaged Velupillai Prabhakaran, that there was no space for and no point in anything but armed actions.
Thus, the detention by the state of unarmed political activists in no way acted as a deterrent to armed violence and terrorism, but actually radicalized the tactics and later the strategy itself of the politics of the Tamil minority.
What is the signal that Azad’s treatment sends out to the disaffected youth and the shadowy groups that may exist in the Eastern province? As with Tamils, so also perhaps with Muslims, but is that the insidious intent?